REVIEW: Slow Motion: Geologic Processes and the University in Andreas Bunte’s Erosion

Oscar Alfonso Lira Sanchez | November 4, 2016

The demolition of Louis Riel House at SFU, 2016. Photo: Oscar Alfonso.

I first came to SFU thirteen years ago during the summer months as part of the crowds of children that populate the university’s summer camps. As I have grown in the intervening years, so too has the school. From the West Gym, Saywell and Blusson Halls to expanded student residences, there have been numerous additions to the university that have accumulated over the last decade.

Alongside this growth, many spaces and services have also moved around. Parking services, the library’s map room and the Arts and Social Sciences office are amongst the many things to have found new homes. Others, like bathrooms and study areas, have been renovated, with layers removed and resurfaced. Some spaces have simply disappeared. The climbing wall on the facade of the centre gym and the old portables for the School for the Contemporary Arts are no more. Louis Riel House, being demolished right now, will soon join them.

This has been a slow moving but constant process that can easily go unnoticed on a larger scale. These kind of gradual processes of simultaneous contraction and growth are at the core of Andreas Bunte’s new film work and exhibition, Erosion. Shot on campus in January 2016, Erosion explores the university’s iconic architecture in relation to geology. By focusing on geologic processes, the 17-minute film loop subverts the perception of monumental architecture as one of permanence punctuated by the occasional moment of change. It draws attention to architecture’s constant state of change which can only be seen if one takes a step back and focuses on the smaller shifting details.

Andreas Bunte, Erosion, 2016. Installation view at SFU Gallery, 2016. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

Erosion opens with the sound of water pouring over a rock formation on Burnaby Mountain. Sound carries throughout the film as silent shots give way to the relentless hum of building machinery and the gentle but seemingly unending din of rain and running water: the strongest erosive force on the planet. The opening shots in the woods of Burnaby Mountain focus on the stratigraphy of dirt, rock and sediment which ground the film in a consideration of natural layering processes. Erosion is dominated by this meeting point between architecture and nature. In this, the University’s inhabitants are only occasionally glimpsed walking amongst the concrete.

The static framing shots used in Erosion and its shortage of human subjects is characteristic of Bunte’s work; many of his films draw attention to the spatial relationships of his chosen environments. Erosion isn’t focused on film’s indexical ability to record and represent the past, but rather explores film’s ability to consider the present through the slow motion of water and its ever present interaction with architecture. This motion is subtly visible in the ebb and flow of people across convocation mall and the never ending envelope of fog that covers the campus. This motion also results in two of the film’s most mesmerizing shots: water flowing over a constructed sandy riverbed in SFU’s River Dynamics Laboratory and the slow expansion of water over a dry concrete surface. Both of these scenes are compressed experiences that can be easily overlooked in the natural world. 

The architecture slowly comes apart under this gentle but relentless action. Exposed steel, crumbling concrete and growing mineral deposits come into being in Erosion. Paired with shots of SFU’s Fluvial Research Lab, and lots of SFU fog, Bunte suggests that this is a part of the architecture’s natural process as a geologic entity. The interaction between architecture and natural forces is endless.

The same slow erosive motion that Bunte draws attention to is part of a larger conversation around the university’s self-reflexivity and (in)stability as nature slowly takes the university apart. The university’s erosion shared an uncomfortable coexistence with the Student Society’s attempt to place its own addition in the landscape in the development of the new Student Union Building. Students were caught between rising fees, environmental awareness and the slow physical decay of the university’s architecture which sparked a strong moment of reflection about university space and what it means to study here. These moments come and go as campus involvement and self-reflection ebbs and flows. Though the purported shortage of verbal discourse, community and activism has long been a point of conversation and complaint, there is another aspect of this self-engagement and reflectivity that should be considered.

The construction of the Student Union Building at SFU, 2016. Photo: Oscar Alfonso.

Since its opening year in 1965, the university has been an environment supporting critical thinking and engagement in the arts. Present in student projects, faculty programs and the SFU Gallery, there is a substantial tradition on which to reflect. For example, the SFU Galleries exhibition, Through a Window: Visual Art and SFU 1965-2015, drew together diverse perspectives by looking at the production of art by artists affiliated with SFU as students, faculty and collaborators. Despite this work, Erosion joins a comparatively small number of artworks that directly consider SFU’s context. Much like the purported shortage of student engagement, this shortage of artistic reflection leaves something to be desired. It is perhaps partially a result of the emotional and physical distance that exists between the Burnaby Campus and the School for the Contemporary Arts downtown. Here too, the university is subject to the same natural processes of erosion and maintenance required to keep that relationship alive.

The slow nature of erosion can be easily overlooked until it is well underway. It doesn’t only manifest itself in growing mineral deposits, or a shortage critical self-reflexivity, but also in the shrinking privacy of our digital spaces and the polarization of our democratic discourse. Everywhere around us, the world is slowly but inexorably subject to the forces of erosion. However, erosion needn’t be perceived solely as a negative as it also carries the potential for new things to form, to be deposited and grow from what is carried away.

For more information on Andreas Bunte: Erosion click here.

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