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The Surveillance Sublime

My animation begins with a cut out image of the German painter Casper David Friedrich’s “On the Sailing Boat” overlaid on top of English painter William Turner’s “Snow Storm”. Both of these 19th century painters had a take on the sublime that was extremely powerful at the time. Friedrich consistently portraying a lone male figure, often the back of the figure, looking out on to an endless natural landscape. His ideas of being overwhelmed by nature and feeling a great fear and excitement at the possibilities of the unknown all contribute immensely to the 19th century definition of the sublime. Turner, who most often opted to leave the figure out of the landscape, preferred creating landscape scenes of great drama abstracting them to a point of placelessness allowing viewers access inside of the work evoking emotional sensations from the painterly scenes. The next scene animates Turner’s Snow Storm show a sail boat rocking along through the storm pausing briefly to allow the viewer to recognize the reference to the work. The subject of the boat is extremely obvious as to allow the view to stay focused on the narrative rather than attempt to use the same dramatic techniques as Turner.

While I am able to appreciate and admire “On the Sailing Boat” and “Snow Storm” I cannot say that viewing either of these works evoke feelings of the sublime. It is likely that I have become desensitized to images of great natural disasters as a consumer of constant news media and movies that rely heavily on special effects for drama. I wanted to take this historic notion of the sublime and transform it into a contemporary example of what I consider sublime.

For me what evokes a great and overwhelming fear it is the idea of surveillance and false realities. Both of these themes are omnipresent and omniscient in my day to day life and I do not have a grasp on the extent to their magnitude, power and control. This is extraordinarily frightening yet at the same time fascinating. I felt that a way I could describe this in the context of the animation was by using a famous scene from the movie the Truman Show. The Truman Show is a 1998 movie about a man named Truman who grew up living an ordinary life that – without his knowledge – takes place on a large set populated by actors for a television show about his life. When Truman finally becomes suspicious after about 35 years already living an established life on this set, he decides to escape on a sail boat. After sailing a few hours on the water the sail boat ultimately crashes into the cloud painted wall of the gigantic dome that houses the set of the television show. In this moment Truman discovers fully that his entire universe and reality was a lie and that there is an entire world of possibility outside of the movie set. This to me is contemporary enlightenment.

To transition into the Truman show homage scenes the Turner snow storm clears and our main Friedrich sailor continues on the journey. During this scene the boat encounters its own shadow cast on the sky painted wall. A staircase and open doorway are also depicted in this scene showing the way out. The boat then hastily crashes into the wall. The next scene incorporates an iconic still from the actual movie with the head of the boat rammed into the wall. Our main figure transitions into the Thomas Cole figure from Ashur Brown Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits.” I wanted to reference this work in this scene because while Durand had a deep reverence for the romantic sublime of Cole (enough to collage Cole’s main themes into the work) he also had his own take on romantic sublime redefining it to be slightly more on the side of the beautiful and offering his own interpretation. For the animation I wanted similarly to show reverence to Turner and Friedrich by collaging their work in, in order to offer my own conclusions on the sublime. In the final scene you see an architectural scale model of a town beside the water covered by a large glass dome with boats sailing across the water inside of the dome. Computer/ technological noises play in the background to instill the feeling of surveillance, lack of privacy and constructed/ computed reality.

This is my version of a contemporary sublime and I believe that this is heavily influenced by the recent extreme prevalence of fake news, election tampering, conspiracy theories, breaching of security, internet hacking, phone tracking, constant surveillance, lack of privacy, personalized internet advertisements, and intense technology reliance. It is challenging to remove the idea of the sublime from our present moment in history and politics as well as challenging to remove it from my personal experiences and biases. It is an interesting exercise of self-psychoanalysis to attempt to depict the sublime.