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When Australian video artist Sam Smith forensically dismantled his camera, the results were unexpected. A new survey of his unique brand of geographical cinema captures the fallout. By Susan Skelly.

Video artist Sam Smith

Australian filmmaker and video artist Sam Smith.
Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Sam Smith thinks sculpturally about the moving image – deftly employing text and delicate sounds, collage, voiceovers, software and samples, pops of satellite imagery and cult movie references, while never letting you forget the camera eye at its centre.

But a growing awareness of ecological disaster and the sins of extraction prompted the filmmaker and video artist to take a closer look at the tools of trade he has been using for two decades.

That involved a brave dissection. Armed with tools to extract tamper-proof screws – a mini-saw normally used with jewellery and a diamond-tipped drill bit – an engineer friend, Stephen Cornford, took apart the camera while it was still running as Smith – using a series of mirrors – captured its living death on video.

“A strong desire came upon me to understand what the politics of using that object are, what it means to make video, specifically digital, what are the mineral, elemental components of this thing I’ve been handling for many years,” says Smith. Complicit in the dissection in due course would be Dr Christopher Marjo, the head of the Solid State and Elemental Analysis Unit of the University of New South Wales Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre, whose team played a crucial role in an analysis that is something of an art form itself.

“It’s eye-opening the amount of information they’ve been able to glean,” says Smith, speaking from Britain, where he was putting the finishing touches on the resultant Capture, an exhibition that opened last week at UNSW Galleries.

“What was quite staggering to me was how much of the periodic table is in this one object,” he says. “Two-thirds of elements on this planet are here. I expected to find certain elements – rare earth elements like lithium or gold and things like silicon and aluminium – but I didn’t expect it to be such a complete picture of the elemental make-up of the earth. Do some creep in under cover, are traces of one attached to another?”

On a spring day last year, a cardboard box about 60 centimetres x 30 centimetres arrived at Marjo’s lab from the mediaeval town of Bradford-on-Avon in Britain, where Smith lives and works. Inside, neatly packed, labelled and photographed, were three dozen components of Smith’s 2.5K Blackmagic Cinema Camera, prepped for a forensic autopsy.

“The technology behind objects we use every day is very opaque,” says Smith. “While the dial is shifting, there isn’t a level of transparency around what’s inside them.”

The inventory of the camera, documented by Marjo on a spreadsheet, included circuit boards, sensors, ribbons of polyimide, lithium battery, screws and washers, chunks of aluminium, speaker parts, light detectors, plastic mounts and rubber casings, glass and a record button.

Five analytical chemists worked with Marjo to establish which minerals had been used to make the camera. Processes employed for the task included tungsten carbide ring mills to grind parts to a powder; acid baths and microwaves to extract the elements; macro and micro X-ray fluorescence and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), both of which analyse mineral content; and combustion analysis.

Marjo understands the intrigue. “Raw minerals dug out of the ground, refined to a pure form, using vast amounts of energy, lots of greenhouse gases produced, and then recombined to produce a device of functional materials … it takes a huge concentration of energy, technology and expertise to produce something like a mobile phone that we throw away after five years.”

His team was able to analyse the camera for 74 periodic table elements. They range from the obvious, such as aluminium and iron from the case components and silicon in the circuit boards, to the surprising, including tiny traces of uranium, toxic cadmium and mercury.

What really resonates with Smith is the idea that everything is connected in one ecological cycle. “We’re part of the system, and objects we make are part of a system. There is an interconnectedness and a level of porousness; the boundaries are solid, everything is seeping and leaking and flowing from one to the other.”

If, in the beginning, Smith had in mind a dive into the politics of extraction and labour that enables video camera manufacturing, together with the environmental impact of the technology, he quickly recognised that this project could only be a starting point for ongoing investigation.

It didn’t seem right, he figured, to create an artwork that would make a finite, concrete statement. Opening up the questions is, in the end, more fruitful than answering them.

He decided that the more immediate consideration is a conversation around reuse – our desire for the newest / best / next version of things, to constantly accelerate production of these objects. “Why do we always have to take the next step up, why is that inherently better than what we’re using now?”

Like much of Smith’s work, Capture is geological cinema. Pigments, ochres and oxides are mixed and thousands of frames handpainted like old-fashioned cel animation. Then the work is digitised, photographed and sequenced to achieve beautiful flickering colour field sequences.

The text is written by writer and artist Himali Singh Soin and the soundtrack incorporates the unique hum of the lab: the aggressiveness of recalcitrant screws, the fizz of metal dissolving in acid, and even the distant subterranean rumble of a quarry that Smith recorded a couple of years ago.

“I wanted the film to bounce back and forwards on this binary between the analytical and the poetic, because I feel that’s where we sit as humans; that’s our relationship to the world, to ecology, nature and the environment. It’s not purely analytic or poetic, it sits somewhere in the middle.”

Capture is both the title of this new work and of the first comprehensive survey of Smith’s work. Alongside Capture are four other moving image projects from the past decade that are discrete viewing experiences: The Horizontal Window (2016), Form Variations Monochrome (2014/21); Reflex Compositions (2013); and reworked performance excerpts from E.1027 (2016-19, Interface (2016), Slow Fragmentation [Performance] (2015-16) and Notes (2013-16).

Capture curator José Da Silva, director of UNSW Galleries, sees Smith as part of a talented generation of Australian filmmakers and video artists. “His practice is contemplative and elegant in its approach and its tone,” says Da Silva. “He thinks about both the history of cinema and the future possibilities of cinema.

“His work deals with science, data and history but has a poetic and visual language. But what’s really interesting to me is the way it creates this relationship between the moving image and sculpture, and the way editing is used to construct an image.”

Smith, now 40, was “super interested” in film, cinema and video from a young age, although normally, he says, his interest lies more in pulling apart the language of cinema than its apparatus. Born in Sydney’s Paddington in 1980, a stone’s throw from his current exhibition, Smith grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, before moving to Sydney’s north shore.

In 2003 he completed his undergraduate degree in the sculpture department at what was then the College of Fine Arts (COFA, now UNSW Art and Design). He won the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship in 2007, which took him to New York and Berlin. He later undertook a master of fine arts degree at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Since then, Smith’s films, video installations and live desktop performances have been presented at many international art institutions, state galleries and film festivals. A regular recipient of scholarships, grants, and prizes, he is co-director, with Nella Aarne, of Obsidian Coast in Bradford-on-Avon, a gallery and artists’ residence as well as his home and office.

In some ways, 2018’s Lithic Choreographies was a precursor to Capture. During two artist residencies on the Swedish island of Gotland, he came under the spell of geology. “Part of that work was looking into the mining history of the island, specifically limestone mining for cement,” says Smith. “You could walk the island and see the geology and the human interface with the geology, from the open quarries to Viking runestones, and their carvings. The different markers of human time across geological time was a story that spoke strongly to me.”

Allison Holland, a former curator at the Australian Centre for Photography, where Smith’s work was shown in 2019, says the artist has developed an innovative cinematic language.

“Sam has this really inquisitive mind,” she says. “He is into a lot of theory and discussion about deep time and object-orientated ontology theory [a school of thought that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of non-human objects]. Where we might articulate everything about the world from our own human perspective, Sam will flip that and say, ‘If I were a stone or if I were a building, how would I see the world? What would be my voice?’

“He has a literati approach to knowledge, picking up whatever presents itself and stimulates his curiosity. He is interested in so many things: geology, architecture, film and the camera. His works are speculative, imaginative – to encourage a shift in the way an audience might see the world.”

For Smith, the joy of creation lies in the editing. “Editing is where the work is made, absolutely. I don’t work in the way of having an idea that gets executed,” he says. “Editing is the sculpting, basically, when you look at what you’ve collected – the video, stills, audio, text – and decide what sculpture you are going to make.

“What I find really exciting is listening and looking at the material, making the work that the material is telling me to make, not making the work that I think should be made. What I have [with Capture] is complex. It goes back to the analytic/poetic binary. I feel that what has come out is something a lot more affective than I imagined it would be. That there is an affective, emotional side that comes from my personal investment in this medium, this way of making work, makes me happy.”

Thanks to Covid-19, Smith won’t be in Sydney to attend his own show. Which makes him sad because he loves the installation process almost as much as editing. He says that work is for the physical space, not just the screen, especially with a multichannel film such as this.

However, the process of filmmaking during the Covid-19 year was surprisingly positive. “I think the level of international collaboration has exploded,” says Smith. “When it’s a given that you can’t travel, people become more creative about the way they work together.”

Which played nicely into the hands of José Da Silva. Part of his strategy since taking over as director of the galleries three years ago has been to introduce mid-career artists to academics in areas of speciality that might enrich their work. “The university art museum is in a really unique position in that it draws together both the facilities to present and interpret art and design but also has the backing of research and scholarship,” Da Silva says.

Christopher Marjo, whose office in the chemical sciences building boasts two works of art – a big version of the periodic table and a small version of the periodic table – is looking forward to seeing how Smith has deployed his team’s findings. “If you can use measurement to explore the world more deeply through somebody else’s ideas, that’s exciting,” he says. “I am really interested to see how Sam engages people with a dry set of numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s cool. It’s fascinating. I’m expecting to be surprised.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Elemental as anything".

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Susan Skelly is a Sydney-based journalist who writes about art, travel and science.