White Light Cinema Presents



Filmmaker David Gatten in Person!



This is updated information:

Sunday, March 8 – 7:30pm

At Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.)


"What the Water Said"


White Light Cinema is extremely pleased to welcome filmmaker David Gatten for a special salon-style screening.

Experimental filmmaker David Gatten has been making work that is both rigorous and intensely beautiful for more than a decade. His films, which feel like the products of old-world craftsmen or Renaissance artisans, combine his diverse and eclectic interests (arcane aspects of history, literature, printing, science, and more) with formal elements that are delicate, mesmerizing, labor-intensive, and, almost, obsessive. He creates a sensuous fusion of image and text that speaks to both the soul and the mind.

He is best known for his on-going Byrd family series (including The Secret History of the Dividing Line and The Great Art of Knowing), which chronicles members of the 18th century Virginia family and William Byrd’s legendary library. In these films and others, Gatten foregrounds writing, text, words, and printing—both in his abiding interest in books and literature and in a broader interest in the construction of meaning and ideas. His work investigates writing as concrete referents and also as symbols, markings, and etchings.

Tonight’s program focuses on this later strain in Gatten’s work—the more abstract explorations of inscription, both real and imagined, and what even those non-decipherable marks and codes, tracings and remnants, have to say to us.

Featured are four completed works and a work-in-progress: What the Water Said, Nos. 1-3 (1997-98); Fragrant Portals, Bright Particulars and the Edge of Space (2003); What the Water Said, Nos. 4-6 (2007); Film for Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter [Diminished by 1,794] (2008); and a work-in-progress (tentatively titled The Much-Mottled Motion of Blank Time (2009)).

In addition to the films, Gatten will be playing selections of poet Wallace Stevens reciting his own work and will be reading from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species to complement some of the thematic aspects of the films.


What the Water Said, Nos. 1-3
(1997-98, 16 mins., 16mm, sound, color and black & white)
“These films are the result of a series of camera-less collaborations between the filmmaker, the Atlantic Ocean and its underwater inhabitants. For three days in January and three days in October of 1997, and again, for a day, in August of 1998, lengths of unexposed, undeveloped film were soaked in a crab trap on a South Carolina beach. Both the sound and image in WHAT THE WATER SAID are the result of the ensuing oceanic inscriptions written directly into the emulsion of the film as it was buffeted by the salt water, sand and rocks; as it was chewed and eaten by the crabs, fish and underwater creatures.” (DG)

“Bypassing half of the usual mechanical needs of filmmaking, Gatten instead uses nature as his recording device. The film is, indeed, about process, but also about nature as both subject and author . . . the process yields a stunning range of results: at times quiet and lyrical, at others the scratching is so dense that it leaves a nearly white screen and a loud roar, evoking the waves crashing on shore with their characteristic sound and the white of the foam. The fascinating second section of the film has an orange cast to it, tinged with a rust or burnt sienna color which is strikingly different from the black and white of the other sections. With this color as background, the scratching has a unique field in which to operate . . . here the markings are highly varied: straight, curved, and layered in complex patterns. The overall feel is amazingly organic and seems to defy the random action of the ocean’s weathering – it seems structured, following a predetermined pattern: one almost senses an underwater intelligence in its formation.” (Patrick Friel)


What the Water Said, Nos. 4–6
(2007, 17 mins., 16mm, color, sound)
“Strips of previously unexposed film went into the ocean and these fragments are what returned. In this final installment of a nine year project documenting the underwater world off the coast of South Carolina, both the sounds and images are the result of the oceanic inscriptions written directly into the emulsion of the film as it was buffeted by the salt water, sand and rocks; as it was chewed by the crabs, fish and underwater creatures. The initial parts of the project, complied as WHAT THE WATER SAID, NOS. 1-3 were completed in 1998. After an absence of many years I returned to the island in late December of 2005. To mark this return - and the beginning of a new phase of my life - the project was resumed. The material in No. 4 was submerged in January of 2006 and the film strips in No. 5 were flung into the ocean in August. On December 29th, 30th and 31st, a final series of offerings were made.” (DG)


Fragrant Portals, Bright Particulars and the Edge of Space
(2003, 12 mins., 16mm, black & white, silent) “A companion of sorts to WHAT THE WATER SAID. An attempt to assess the potentials, possibilities and pitfalls of finding meaning in – or assigning human meaning to – the natural world; by way of Wallace Stevens. ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ and ‘Of Mere Being’ translated into Ogham (the 5th-century ‘tree alphabet’ derived from a notational
system used by shepherds to record notes on their wooden staffs), and carved a letter at a time into a piece of semi-transparent flexible
wood (black leader).” (DG)

"Fragrant Portals..."


Film for Invisible Ink, Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter [Diminished by 1,794]
(2008, 13 mins., 16mm, black & white, sound)
“A single piece of paper, a second stab at suture, a story three times over, a frame for every mile. With words by Charles Darwin.
A long-distance dedication for a far-away friend half-way up the mountain.” (DG)


David Gatten Biography:
David Gatten – filmmaker, Henry James fan, recent Guggenheim fellow and aspiring audio book producer – makes bookish films about letters and libraries and lovers and ghosts that are filled with words, some of which you can read.

He lives and works by the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn and on Seabrook Island, South Carolina and teaches 16mm filmmaking/Wallace Stevens appreciation at The Cooper Union in New York City.

Gatten’s work has been exhibited at museums, galleries and cinémathèques including “The American Century” at the Whitney Museum, Pacific Film Archive, First Person Cinema, San Francisco Cinémathèque, Art Gallery of Ontario, Cinémathèque Française, BFI, P.S. 1, Anthology Film Archives, Cinema Project, Swiss Institute, Helsinki Film Co-Op, Museum of Contemporary Cinema in Lisbon, Image Forum in Japan, Art Institute of Chicago, Proteus Gowanus, Issue Project Room, NBK Gallery, Exit Art, Permanent Gallery, Ballroom Marfa, DC Arts Center, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Millennium Film Workshop, Chicago Filmmakers, Double Negative and the Yokohama Museum of Art.

The films have been screened at many festivals as well, including Rotterdam, New York, London, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Onion City, Ottawa, Athens, Lisbon, Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Impakt, Media City, TIE, Cinematexas, THAW, Chicago Underground, Kill Your Timid Notion, PDX, Images, FLEX, and Black Maria.

Gatten was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971. Shortly thereafter his family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he lived for 20 years, slowly learning the meaning of the word “y’all” though never himself attempting to deploy it. Gatten received a BA from the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 1995 and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998. He is a former Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema & Photography at Ithaca College. Gatten currently continues his teaching in the School of Art at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art in the East Village of New York City.

See David Gatten's website here.


David Gatten’s visit to Chicago is made possible by the Department of Film, Video, and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and by the University of Chicago Arts Council.

Gatten will be presenting two different programs at the Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center (March 5) and at the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago (March 6).

Admission: $7.00-10.00 sliding scale