Water World

Peter Bo Rappmund, Psychohydrography, 2010, stills from a color video, 63 minutes.

PETER BO RAPPMUND’S PSYCHOHYDROGRAPHY is exactly what its title portends: a psychological portrait of water. Following the Los Angeles Aqueduct from its source in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the city (more than two hundred miles), and then from the Los Angeles River to its endpoint at the Pacific Ocean, the hour-long HDR digital video recombines visual and aural elements—both natural and industrial—to graph the massive technological harnessing of water, turning it into a pulsing, strobing kaleidoscope of the mind’s eye.

Rappmund’s main tool is time-lapse photography, usually the hallmark of glorified DP reels such as the Discovery Channel–esque Baraka (1992). Such supercompression of time provides a sense of temporal enormity, a bit of an obvious effect. But Rappmund—working with a camera that can process a single image with different timescales—emphasizes to a far greater degree time-lapse’s visual possibilities, using it to distort the texture, shape, and reflective properties of tranquil and flowing water to achieve an otherworldly aesthetic. Waterfalls and streams become surreal, glassy apparitions amid vast deserts; mirroring pools of streetlights and stars take on the appearance of frenzied wavelengths in urban canals. Psychohydrography makes us marvel not at the quantity of its subject but at how resplendent and constantly in flux it is.

The hulking, slowly crumbling technological apparatuses that reshape nature define the topography of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. Psychohydrography features the drills and pipelines of the Aqueduct as well as the frescoed and graffitied concrete channel guiding the river (the latter memorably spectacularized in Repo Man [1984] and Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991]); both are equally important characters in the drama of environmental engineering. Rappmund relies on an aural tapestry as much as an imagistic one, creating a nocturnal symphony of clangs, hisses, whooshes, and hums that accompanies shots of the channel’s neighboring power lines and train yards, increasingly overwhelming the sounds of frogs, birds, and humans. (It comes as no surprise that Rappmund studied with both James Benning and Thom Andersen at CalArts.) When Psychohydrography ends—with a glorious ten-minute, reverse-motion shot of the Pacific darkening against a psychedelic horizon of red and orange (evidently the result of the 2009 Station wildfire)—we realize we’ve experienced the journey of an artist who wishes to show the inherent conflicts of our man-made universe while remaking it himself.

Psychohydrography plays Friday, July 22–Sunday, July 24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.