What an artist learned filming Detroit weather for a year 

Head in the clouds

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Courtesy photo

Susan Goethel Campbell is a Huntington Woods-based multidisciplinary artist. In 2011, she completed a video project that documented a year of weather in Detroit. The work caught the eye of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which recently acquired the video as part of its permanent collection. We caught up with Campbell by phone to learn more about the project.

Metro Times: Are you primarily a video artist?

Susan Goethel Campbell: No, not at all. I'm trained as a printmaker, but my practice has expanded into all sorts of different media like video and installation. I work a lot with a ephemera. Being a printmaker, I'm interested in this idea of multiple views of the same thing, same place. I've documented and recorded all sorts of change either through drawing, photographs, or prints. So that's not really new to my practice.

MT: When did you switch over to photography?

Campbell: From 2005-2010, I have been pretty much focused on looking at time-based media — largely webcams that were set up in the national parks. So I would start to archive still images from these webcams with the intention of observing change in the same place over a period of time. In 2009 I had been researching this and thinking it would be really great to set up my own camera. I was one of 18 artists who were the recipient of the inaugural Kresge fellowship, which allowed me to push my practice in new directions. I used some of the funds to set up my own webcam aimed at the city of Detroit, hoping to capture some of the industrial plumes in Southwest Detroit. Through the generosity of Jack Butler, owner of Butler Graphics located on the 22nd floor of the Fisher Building, I was able to install my camera inside their offices. This location gave me a 180-degree view of the city.

I spent a lot of time on the 22nd floor at Butler Graphics. There's a parapet there where you can crawl out of a window and be right outside looking primarily at Southwest Detroit. I got dive bombed by some peregrine falcons. They live on the building. It's an art deco building, and it imitates cliffs so it's perfect for their habitat.

MT: Did the project change as you were creating it?

Campbell: It started out that I was only going to work with still images, and Butler Graphics allowed me to archive my images on their server. Once I saw how stunning the photos were, I knew they should get compressed into little movies. So once I saw the potential, I decided to do a very bracketed piece of work that started with the winter solstice on December 21, 2009. The camera took a picture every minute, 24 hours a day for a year. I would go into Butler Graphics every two to three weeks and clean the images off of their server, because it's a lot of information and it would really slow it down.

I showed the piece first at MOCAD for Art X. I had the video projected on two opposing walls, and because the video is running at 22 frames per second, it takes three hours to see the whole year of weather. I decided it would be more interesting to have a two-channel video and split the year of weather in half at the solstice. One half runs from winter to summer and the other half is summer to winter.

MT: Did you edit the video?

Campbell: It's pure documentation. I didn't edit out. I moved the camera to three different locations within their offices. So it's not scientific — it changes views and there are times where there is a little bit of information missing. Sometimes because it was so dark, the camera just wouldn't record, so some of the night portions are a little bit shorter. But there is a lot of interesting stuff in there that I really like. For example, there is a lot of camera flares when there is glare on the window. Sometimes at night when someone came to clean the office the company would turn the light on and you see a reflection of a computer monitor. Or you see an interior space. I like all that. That's part of the project.

MT: What kind of art is this? Is it scientific documentation?

Campbell: For me, it is taking the concept of time and quantifying it through weather, weather patterns, and ground activity. It's unlike a weather report in that you can look at some of the views, especially Southwest Detroit, and see stacks from the Ford Rouge Plant and Zug Island pumping out emissions and intersecting with weather patterns that are coming in from the west. It's not to point the finger at anybody but just to see how the urban environment interacts with weather patterns, and how weather patterns coming, in turn, work with the emissions.

One thing that was happening on really hot summer days is that when some of those stacks were really emitting a lot, the stack would hold cumulous clouds overhead. That's a phenomena that is really part of the built environment. I was doing some research at the White Lake weather station just outside the Detroit metro area. I was showing passages of the video to meteorologists out there and they explained the phenomena that was happening. They were quite interested, because they don't usually see that.

Within the video are all sorts of treasures. What's happening on the ground plane is also pretty interesting. For example you'll look at parking lot and all of a sudden you can tell it's a weekend because the parking lot starts filling up really fast.

MT: We have to imagine working on such a long-term project takes a lot of patience — and you don't know exactly how it's going to turn out.

Campbell: Exactly. But a lot of my work is of that nature. I'm very interested in recording natural phenomena and working with ephemeral materials and studying them just for their inherent qualities of what they can or can't do. So I don't always have an intended outcome, but I explore a lot.

"Detroit Weather: 365 Days" is on view until April 24, 2016, at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org.

More by Lee DeVito

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