CEAM artist-in-residence brings passion for cinema into multi-sensory exhibit on Florida’s changing coastal environments
Mar 31, 2023
by Anna Boone
As an artist, one of Sasha Wortzel’s central passions is cinematography. But over the past few years, this passion has led to experimentation in expanded cinema.
This term defined as “an immersive environment that pushes the boundaries of cinema and rejects the traditional one-way relationship between the audience and the screen,” perfectly describes Wortzel’s current exhibition in Flagler’s Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, “Dreams of Unkown Islands: St. Augustine.”
Wortzel’s exhibit in CEAM is the third iteration of this series. It’s a gallery environment designed to immerse guests in a multi-sensory experience and evoke certain feelings, senses of place, and times of day related to the simultaneous beauty, regeneration, and threatened state of Florida’s invaluable coastal environments.
The exhibit consists of five distinct projected film components, multi-colored lighting installation, and four sculpture “islands” paired with 3D-printed conch shells. These islands are wired to play seven different channels of sound, creating what Wortzel calls a “soundscape” with micro sound environments that guests experience as they move throughout the space. They are also equipped with subwoofers to “very intentionally make those sounds felt in the body.”
This experimentation is rooted in 2017, when Wortzel started work on her ongoing feature-length documentary project about the Florida Everglades and American journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Throughout the 21st century, Douglas was an avid defender of the Everglades against efforts to drain it and claim it for development.
As a Florida native, Wortzel shares this commitment to the State’s coastal conservation. They said information on Florida’s ecology was built into their early education and they had a “very direct” connection to the natural landscape.
“Now, as an adult, I've seen so many of those wild spaces and wetlands be developed, changed, and actually just disappear, so many of them,” Wortzel said. “So, I think some of this work is coming out of concern, a real concern for the future of this place, and our ability to continue to live here, and have a water source.”
Three years into this documentary project, Wortzel was inspired to expand the reach of the archival and in-the-field content she was gathering to test the boundaries of what cinema can do in a non-traditional format.
“I'm often thinking about how to take the tools of cinema and storytelling, and then reconfigure those for a more site-specific gallery experience,” Wortzel said.
They recalled a specific day in 2020, collecting hydrophone recordings from Florida’s Gulf Coast with a collaborator, that was the catalyst for their ongoing exhibit series: “Dreams of Unknown Islands.”
“The project brings together a collection of field recordings that I've been making,” Wortzel said. “Everything from putting a hydrophone along the shoreline of Florida's coast, to recording the sound of 500 manatees gathering in Blue Springs. And then, for this iteration, we're also bringing in sounds of dolphins in Matanzas Bay.”
These sounds of Florida’s coastal environments are mixed with the sound of voices reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for passed loved ones. Wortzel said this auditory choice was an effort to convey a framework for processing the loss of certain natural resources and elements of these threatened environments while also celebrating the “healing, beauty, and regeneration” captured in her work.
“It made sense, being of Jewish descent, growing up Jewish, to think about: What are the frameworks [of mourning] that I've already inherited from my ancestors?” she said, “How could I apply those to larger forms of trauma, harm, or loss in the world?”
Worzel's captured film works in tandem with this carefully crafted soundscape to evoke an intersection of feelings about the environments examined. Some clips include the sun’s movement in the sky and across water throughout the day, and a sea turtle emerging on a beach to nest and lay eggs.
Wortzel said their feature documentary film “River of Grass,” which is comprised of clips featured throughout the exhibition iterations, will be released in 2024. But she said this trajectory won’t mark the end of her gallery work.
“It’s possible that there could be future installations of this work that maybe even change or become part of the release of this film,” Wortzel said.
Dreams of Unknown Islands: St. Augustine, was organized for the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum by Julie Dickover, Director, and curated by Stephanie Snyder and Kristan Kennedy in 2022, for the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College. The original exhibition was curated by Kristan Kennedy, for Oolite Arts, in 2021. Kristan Kennedy is the Visual Art Curator at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Stephanie Snyder is the director and curator of the Cooley Gallery, Reed College. Special thanks to Denise Faxas, Sound Engineer; Emile Milgram, Sound Designer, and Jessica Bennett, Cinematography and Lighting Design.
This program was made possible through the generous support of the Cooley Gallery, Reed College. The exhibition is supported, in part, by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a grant from the Dr. JoAnn Crisp-Ellert Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. In-Kind sponsorship is provided by Milliken.