Art grounds us in an experience that achieves the imprimatur of truth by combining appearances with layers of artifice. Nowhere is this more evident in an art form such as film that relies heavily upon the senses. Graciela Cassel’s films explore the phenomenological dimensions of urban space: the labyrinth of structures both physical and ephemeral. A city presents itself as a massive and endless procession of edifices either near or far, of streets either pristine or decrepit, and of an endless train of strangers who may, in any given circumstance, emerge from anonymity into intimacy with us. Every distance and every dimension of city life offers up myriad possibilities for future experience. This is why they are easy to romanticize, and why they also contribute to a mythology of creative means. Each of her films begins with a central motif, either a real object or place, or some sensory experience that she is attempting to replicate or synthesize. The situation of spectatorship begins to alter the nature of the motif or event itself, so that our experience is likewise transformed.
Cassel presents the city as a vast array of non-sequential aesthetic events that rely on our ability to receive the real as unreal. Any common spot, cinematically portrayed, has the potential to accrue layers of meaning that only the artist-as-auteur can provide. In one work we begin looking up at the elevated subway platform of Queensboro Plaza, where trains cross the East River between Manhattan and Long Island City in their way to points distant in Astoria, Sunnyside, and beyond. The transit system in New York is immense, over a century old, and Byzantine in its operations. It can come to embody a community of its own, a system of streets not unlike those on the ground, that constantly move people around from one place to another. One can spend hours getting from one place to another. But most people have a routine that takes them to or from home, work, shopping, restaurants, bars, movies, gyms, etc. Time spent in transit can be either spent in introspection or denial, enjoying the mass of persons around us or focusing on our own problems. The transit system is a symbol of the city life it aids, enabling its citizens to interact or ignore what stands as the communal culture itself. A city can be defined equally by its uses, by the spaces that allow us to move within it, and Cassel projects the metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of these spaces. The extension of vision through projective media exemplifies the possibilities of understanding how perception changes the object, place, or event actively perceived. Repetitive vision does not merely reinforce logical constructs, since we are concerned with both existence and essence. Water towers, subways, and elevated train tracks contain the phenomenological complexities that Walt Whitman once called “multitudes” because they reflected the forces within his own self; having been such a product of the city, he saw no difference between his body and the body—the organic life, the pulsing centrifuge of humanity in extremis. Cassel likewise shows us how the exterior life of the city can attain mythical levels of association.
Every sequence in Cassel’s films offers up a different example of how the everyday interfaces with the ephemeral, and how the function of the film is to project the viewer into a world of labyrinthine proportions instead of translating that world into normal terms. The viewer actively participates with the fabric of the depicted reality, learning to breathe new air. Three of Cassel’s recent films present the best models for the exemplary exposure to such aesthetic forces: City Life (2012) is primarily a detournement of the subconscious as reflective of the images of elevated subway platforms entering and leaving Manhattan through Queensboro Plaza, where the straight and stacked main track presents a dense layering of alternating presence, and departing outwards or arriving inwards, mostly at night, the various trains are transformed from practical conveyances into lines of light like a slowly moving comet across the sky or an electric moving through dark water. Accelerate (2013) is a play on motion, though the concept of velocity its title suggests remains only suggestive. The images are all culled from the subways of the city, its tunnels, lights, and the architecture of the trains themselves playing off a spectral view in which the trains themselves seem to merge with their surroundings, creating a cavernous and brooding presence. The film ends with a scene of and endless train of cars shooting on and off the Triboro Bridge on the Astoria side at night, each form like a drop of quicksilver.
In The Sky (2015) is a romp in the upper reaches of the city, its roofs, where a secret world is revealed, an elliptical metropolis, punctuated in a most idiosyncratic way by those sentinels of the historical past, water towers, whose use is still prevalent but hearkens to an era, or a century, when the non-united city was so disconnected that not only were there five boroughs but each neighborhood was a county unto itself, and water was guarded building by building. The precincts or wards of the past have all but disappeared and the endless column of buildings creates a frame on the lower level equaled only above by the limit to which our imagination cannot follow. Water towers become animated, floating, or leaping in sections from the solid ground up to an airy firmament, and the birds sing to accompany their flight. Without human agents in view, but only the subjects of their sensory experiences, filled to a degree of overload, Cassel’s films are evidence of an experience we can cumulatively share. Each one depicts not a single scene but myriad points of view merged and morphed into an event that defies simple description. Cassel has said that he work is about portals and labyrinths. They are about an experience that transcends utility, becoming a metaphor for transformation. Cassel alternates between recognizable surroundings and the deeper or less discernible characteristics of a world in which everyone and everything is constantly in motion; the spaces defined by seemingly eternal structures: elevated train trestles, interboro bridges, water towers lining an endless ridge of roofs; and vast subterranean spaces. She drawn us to the tangent between space and idea, where a map unfurls that matches the exact universe we know without being the same environment but instead its doppelganger. The entire fabric of the known has been altered, we have in fact moved into new territory, a maze of discovery that never ends. We are blissfully lost and thank her for it.