Joyce Campbell

The Reef

20 September - 20 October 2018

Joyce Campbell’s latest cinematic project, The Reef, explores an analogy between two dying forms: the redundancy of analogue film and the threatened status of climate stressed environments. The exhibition’s name derives from a moving image work shot at dusk that reframes 16mm film footage of waves breaking on an endangered coral reef in Fiji.

Campbell has repurposed an optical printer to scratch the surface of the film with grit and sand as it is scanned to high-resolution digital video file. As the image is captured over time the film deteriorates to the point where it breaks down. The Reef is a kind of eulogy of film on film, as well as a call to protect the natural environment.

The Fijian reef the artist documents may be beautiful, but it is far from pristine. Devastated by a cyclone several years ago, its fragile, declining state is being further impacted by climate change, pollution and ocean acidification. This exhibition also features three accompanying photographs that have been extracted as stills from a second film the artist shot underwater while snorkelling the same reef. These stills are reminiscent of the idealisations of postcards common to representations of this region. Yet the reef is also visibly covered in algae, echoed in the layers of dirt, detritus and scratches embedded in the film’s surface.

The Reef’s representation of disrupted ecologies is shared with a recent 16mm film Campbell produced for EAST 20181. Campbell’s film, Ghost Scrub, traces a path through a kanuka forest near Wairoa where she grew up, recently poisoned and burned for farmland: everything which appears alive is in fact dead. Shot in black and white using a hand held Bolex camera, the film’s first person perspective is imbued with an eerie presence as the artist wanders through a desolate landscape, complemented by a haunting soundtrack of birdsong. In his discussion of the work in the accompanying exhibition text, Philips cites theorist Donna J. Haraway:

The edge of extinction is not just a metaphor; system collapse is not a thriller…we are living in times of The Dithering…a state of indecisive agitation…The Dithering will be written into earth’s rocky strata, indeed already is written into earth’s mineralised layers. 2

Reflecting on Haraway’s ideas, in the face of human-made climate change Philips describes our age as one of baffling inaction: that instead of taking the urgent action required we are instead hastening these very forces. 3 Philips discusses the ways in which Campbell’s work reflects:

Haraway’s argument while at the same time consider[s] the complications that hinder our ability to make decisive changes or to propose ways that we might proactively rebuild our relationship to the earth. 4

The soundtrack to The Reef could be perceived as an attempt to reconnect the viewer to an awareness of their relationship to the wider ecologies they inhabit. The sound of vocal “hushing” is intermingled with a field recording of waves breaking on a reef. The overlapping sounds and their shifting volume push and pull the listener’s attention around the exhibition space, adding a degree of both intimacy and indeterminacy to what might otherwise appear as a kind of contemporary structural film. In its quieter moments Campbell can be seen to create calm in the realm of the unsettled: that in the context of the overwhelming implications of climate change she evokes a quiet space within.

1 EAST 2018 is a group exhibition curated by Bruce E. Philips featuring contemporary artists with links to the east coast of the North Island.
2 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press Books, 2016). Cited in Bruce E. Philips, The Dithering, EAST 2018 exhibition text (New Zealand: Hastings City Art Gallery, 2018).
3 Philips, The Dithering.
4 Ibid.