Reeling in Utah: The Travel Log Trilogy

by Dick Hebdige
Date Published: January 8, 2011

California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) co-published Afterall from 2002-2009. This essay was originally published in Afterall 8, Autumn/Winter 2003, and is reprinted with permission from the author. All original formatting has been preserved.

James Benning, still from <em>13 Lakes</em>, 2004. 35mm film, 135 min.

James Benning, still from 13 Lakes, 2004. 35mm film, 135 min.

One is always crossing the horizon yet it always remains distant. In this line where sky meets earth, objects cease to exist… Since the car was at all times on some left-over horizon, one might say that the car was imprisoned in a line, a line that is in no way linear… The distance seemed to put restrictions on all forward movement, thus bringing the car to a countless series of standstills.

Robert Smithson

Some people like to believe in a lot of nonsense. A road is a road…
– Springrock, NM resident, Verona Watts, responding in the Salt Lake Tribune (07/30/03) to the news that, thanks to negative PR generated by the Book of Revelations, Hwy 666 linking Gallup, NM to Monticello, UT is about to be renamed Hwy 491
 … is a road…


While I was an actor in the five-day road-trip piece documented below I played no part either in choosing the destinations, planning the route or operating the vehicle. The road-trip piece was composed, choreographed and directed by JB as a ‘film-with-no-film’ commissioned by Afterall for the purposes of this documentation (with gas, motel and restaurant receipts retained for reimbursement). The intent was for JB to structure an experience framed by an itinerary linking sites that feature in a number of his works. The piece would be orchestrated in such a way as to expose, through mimesis, JB’s working methods, focal concerns and the ‘driven’ quality of his attachment both to place and to independent 16mm filmmaking. Reeling in Utah thus reverses the road-loop-to-film-spool sequence established in North on Evers (1991). Whereas the latter work consists of a retracing onto film a cross-country round trip JB made in 1989 with a hand-written account of the original journey scrolling right to left at the bottom of the frame, the present work is a written account by DH of a journey designed by JB to encompass a circuit of (25) sites that appear in a number of the ‘landscape’ or ‘place portrait’ films JB has been making since the early 1990s. (Specifically North on Evers (1991), Deseret (1995), Four Corners (1997), Utopia (1998), Sogobi (2001), and 13 Lakes (forthcoming). Sites visited are listed (a) through (z) in the coda appended to the itinerary which forms Part One of the Travel Log Trilogy).

There was also a possibility that, if the atmospheric conditions were right, JB would do a (10min) re-shoot at Great Salt Lake for 13 Lakes, the film he is currently making. Always keen to proselytise on behalf of the generative power of the constrictive rule, JB suggested at one point in the planning stage that I opt for a fly-on-the-wall approach and volunteer to remain confined for the duration of the piece to the rear of the vehicle, bound by a vow of silence, thus assuming the position and duplicating the role of the rear-mounted camera trained on the windscreen over the shoulders of the protagonists in The United States of America (JB, Betty Gordon, 1975). After some discussion this idea was dropped on logistical grounds and we opted instead for the cinematically more demotic ‘buddy’ format evidenced below.


This is a map that will take you somewhere but when you get there you won’t really know where you are. In a sense the non-site is the centre of the system and the site itself is the fringe or the edge…
– Robert Smithson

DAY ONE: Saturday 07/26/03
7:30am I drive 30mi S down the 101 then 35mi E on the 126 from Carpinteria to Val Verde, transfer my bag to the trunk of JB’s car and we take off (JB at the wheel from this point on) 3mi on back roads to the 5 S (10mi) to the 14 E (43mi) (a) to the 138 (b) to Victorville (58mi) where we join the 15 heading NE to Baker (110mi) then N through Vegas (90mi) (gas stop #1) 70 m NE to Mesquite on the Nevada/Arizona border (gas stop #2) where, with the prospect of 4 nights in Utah, I buy 2 bottles of red wine in a liquor store before we head 50mi N on the 70, crossing into Utah W of St George before veering E 5mi N of Central where we stop at the Mountain Meadows massacre site (c) at Dan Sill Hill (6000ft above sea level) on the Old Spanish Trail (massacre date: 09/11/1857; number of dead Arkansas emigrants murdered by Iron County Latter Day Saints militiamen 115—123; path to plaques from road approx 100yds: sign advising ‘moderate hike’) before retracing the route back to the 70 13mi N to the 56 at Beryl Jct then turning W 35mi to Cedar City where we rejoin the 15 N for 35mi before heading E 22mi to the 89 and turning S 12.5mi to Panguitch (burial site of John D Lee of Harmony, UT, sole perpetrator tried, convicted and executed 03/23/1877 by Mormon firing squad for his part in Mtn Meadows Massacre).1At Panguitch we watch goat tying (d) (5 attempts, 3 successful), steer roping (6 attempts, 3 successful), barrel racing (6) and bull riding (6 attempts, 2 qualifying) at a Pioneer Day rodeo at Panguitch fairgrounds.

Distance: 500.5mi
Dinner: fish, chips (1), spaghetti, meatballs (1) + beers
Motel: $44.00 per room

DAY TWO: Sunday 07/27/03

7:15am Leave Panguitch heading SE 33mi on the 12 through Bryce Canyon National Park (e) to Henrieville then 75mi NE on same road through Escalante (gas stop, slow pump: fill rate approx 1 gallon per minute; after 9 mins JB discovers gas spill under car due to absence of functioning cut-ov mechanism on pump); then on through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (f) Box Hollow Wilderness (g) and Anasazi Indian Village State Park to Torrey where we turn E onto the 24 and head 52.5mi (h, i, j) through Hanksville (flag outside post office at 0.5-mast; buy gas + 2 baseball caps and 4qt bottles of water at Hole-in-the-Rock gas station/ convenience store) then E 25mi on the Flat Tops road to Horseshoe Cyn (k, l) (Indian pictograph site: 3.5mi hike, temp 98.F, no hike advisory but sign-in book at head of trail and warning to carry at least 1 gallon of water per person — hike duration: 3.75 hrs) then back to Flat Top road and 40mi N on dirt road to Green River (m).

Distance: 229mi

Dinner: cheeseburger, fries (1), pork chops, potato (1) + beers

Motel: $24.99 per room


DAY THREE: Monday 07/28/03

7:10am Leave Green River and head E 26mi on the 70 to Thompson Springs, then 2mi N on dirt road to Sego Canyon petroglyphs (n) then turn back to Green River (28mi; gas stop #5) before heading 117.5mi NW on the 191/6to join the 15 S of Provo heading N 35mi before we turn W N of Riverton 15mi to Kennecott Corp-owned Bingham Canyon open-pit Copper Mine (o) (‘1 of 2 man-made structures.. visible from outer space… the world’s largest man-made excavation with 6 billion tons of material removed in the past 100 years over 1900 acres producing a pit more than 0.75mi in depth and 2.5mi in diameter at the top’) then back 32mi via Copperton to the 15 N (36mi) through Layton then W 14.5mi through Syracuse (gas stop #6), thence, via the lake causeway, to Antelope Island (p) where we stand on the shore and look towards Fremont Island 7.5mi N and JB declines to take an alternate shot for the shot he took in early June because the lake surface is choppy due to a slight northerly breeze that is barely discernible on the mainland, before returning to the car and taking a 6mi side-trip to preserved Mormon sheep farm then back to the causeway heading W 14.5mi to the 15 N 30mi to Brigham City (q, r).

Distance: 356.5mi
Dinner: liver, bacon, fries (1), fish, potato (1), coffee (1), soda (1)

Motel: $31.92 per room


The development of Kennecott’s symbol, the ankh began about 5000 BC when the Egyptians utilised a loop with a cross beneath it to signify enduring life..  the first alchemists.. us(ed) the sign for Venus.. as a symbol for copper. From the very beginning in 1903, the original Utah Copper Company used as its logo the Venus symbol. When Kennecott purchased the Utah Copper Company in 1936, the “K” was inserted in the Venus sign…

An interesting fact: A modern adaptation of the symbol for the planet Mercury was issued by the 7 original astronauts: Cooper, Shepard, Carpenter, Schirra, Glenn, Slayton and Grissom. The design, which substitutes a ‘7’ for a ‘K’ in the Kennecott ankh, signifies the Project Mercury.

DAY FOUR: Tuesday 07/29/03
7:20am Get gas, leave Brigham City and head N 5mi on the 15 then W 29mi throughCorrinne past Golden Spike National Historic Site (s) then 15.5mi S on dirt roads to Spiral Jetty (t, u) before retracing the route to Brigham City (49.5mi), where we turn onto the 15 heading 295mi S via pie, gas and restroom stop in Beaver, then turning S to avoid approaching storm and driving 20mi on the 17 to Hurricane.

Distance: 414mi

Dinner: take-out pizza (2), 1 bottle Mesquite Liquor Store wine

Motel: $39.33 per room



• No facilities or potable water

• Licensed 4-wheel drive vehicles recommended

Questions: contact Dia Center at

Directions (in brief): 1. Turn W off Hwy 83 at Lampo Junction and then drive W, another 7.7mi up E side of Promontory Pass to the GSNHS (nb. The Lampo Jctn Sign has recently disappeared, so look for sign directing visitors to GSNHS);  2. From Visitor Center drive 5.6mi W on gravel road; 3. Take S (left) fork on Box County Class D road; 4. Cross cattle guard #1; 5. Drive 1.3mi S; 6. Turn right onto SW fork; 7. Go 1.7mi to cattle guard #2; 8. Continue SW 1.2mi to cattle guard #3; 9. Drive 0.5mi to fence; 10. Continue 2.3mi SSW to a combination fence, cattle guard #4; iron-pipe fence with RAFTER S. RANCH and NO TRESPASSING signs. 11. At this gate the Class D road designation ends. If  you choose to continue S for another 2.3mi, and around the E side of Rozel Point, you should see the Lake and a jetty (not the Spiral Jetty) left by oil drilling exploration in the 1920s through the 1980s. As you approach the Lake you should see an abandoned pink-and-white trailer (mostly white), an old amphibious landing craft, an old Dodge truck.. and other assorted trash.

From this location, the trailer is the key to finding the road to the Spiral Jetty. As you drive slowly past the trailer, turn immediately from the SW to the W (right), passing on the S side of the Dodge, and onto a two-track trail that contours above the oil-drilling debris below. This is not much of a road! Only high-clearance vehicles should advance beyond the trailer. Go slow! The road is narrow; brush might scratch your vehicle, and the rocks, if not properly negotiated, could high-centre your vehicle. Don’t hesitate to park and walk. The Jetty is just around the corner…

DAY FIVE: Wednesday 07/30/03

7:30am Leave Hurricane head 25mi SE on the 59 to Colorado City (formerly Short Creek) (v) for breakfast then 127.5mi on a loop S into Arizona on the 389 via the Kaibab Reservation before turning N into Utah on the 89 (gas/restroom stop at Kanab), then on through Zion National Park (w), with a detour S on dirt roads outside Rockville to Grafton ghost town (x) then back onto the 89 once more through Hurricane to the 15 S through Las Vegas (105mi; gas stop #10) and Barstow (140mi) where we turn W on the 58 to Mojave (y) (60mi) via the airplane storage facility at Four Corners then S onto the 14 (61mi) (z) to the 5, heading 8mi N to the McBean Pkwy exit where we stop off at CalArts to deposit camera, tripod and unused film stock in JB’s office before walking down 2 flights of stairs to the basement where JB projects a print of the shot taken earlier in the summer from Antelope Island across Salt Lake, the cramped airless room suddenly filling with the whirr of the projector as a small (3ft x 2ft) brilliant rectangle of blues, grays, whites and blacks suddenly opens up like a window in the wall in front of where I’m sitting, the water in the lower half of the rectangle swelling and rolling beneath a sleek, unbroken surface that both mirrors and refracts the clouds, the birds that glide out first to the left then to the right from a point that seems to correspond to the dead centre of Fremont Island, hence the centre of the frame, and the low-curved outline of the Island itself suspended in the unjudgeable distance like a saucer or a sphere resting squarely on the level horizon line that precisely bisects the frame, the contours of the Island slightly blurred in a thin steam of mist; the lake comporting itself for the camera, hence for us in a singular composition in response to conditions utterly unlike those we encountered on 07/29/03; then heading back to the car park and driving N 2mi on the 5 to the 126 W before turning N after 1.5mi to JB’s place in Val Verde (2mi) where I transfer my bag to the trunk of my car and drive the 2mi back to the 126, head W 25mi to the 101 then NW 30mi to Carpinteria.

Distance: 589 mi

Dinner: chips, nuts, beef jerky, candy + sodas (1),


Total distance: 2089mi + 20mi approx. missed turnings, looking for motels, etc.

+ 2mi desultory walking, etc = 2111mi

Time ‘on road’:                                 4 x 24 + 1 x 14           = 110hrs –

Time sleeping:                                  8 x 4                           = 32hrs +

Time site-seeing:                              4 x 5                           = 20hrs +

Time eating/drinking:                        3 x 5                           = 15hrs +

Time watching TV in motel, etc.:      1 x 4                           = 4hrs +

Time at gas stations, etc.:                10 x 8mins                  = 1hr 20min +

Beaver Pi-stop:                                                                   = 0hr 40min +

TOTAL:                                                                                = 73hrs

Total time spent in motion:              110 — 73                    = 37hrs

Avg rate of travel = 2111mi / 37hrs = 57.054054054 mph


(a) Sogobi, shot 33 (2001): Hwy 14 with San Andreas Fault exposed;

(b) Utopia (1998) (ruins of Llano, socialist community, Pear Blossom
Hwy 138);

(c) Deseret (1995) (tree adjacent to Mountain Meadows Monument);

(d) El Valley Centro, shot 14 (1999): not a location but Nora Hunt
is shown tying three goats at a rodeo in Coalinga;
(e) Deseret (mountains, Bryce Canyon);
(f) Deseret (‘aeriel’ shot of canyons from road, Escalante
National Monument);
(g) Deseret (aspen forest, Box Hollow Wilderness);

(h) Deseret (Capitol Dome, Capitol Reef National Park);

(i) Deseret (dirt hillocks, Hwy 24);
(j) Deseret (Factory Butte, Hwy 24);
(k) Four Corners, Part 3 (1997), (Indian pictographs (colour));
(l) Deseret (Indian pictographs (b&w));
(m) Deseret (Crystal Geyser, nr Greenriver);
(n) Deseret (petroglyphs, Sego Cyn);
(o) Deseret (earth-moving equipment, Bingham Cyn Copper mine);

(p) 13 Lakes (forthcoming; view of Fremont Island from Antelope Island,
Salt Lake);

(q) Deseret (Brigham City neon sign, Brigham City);

(r) Deseret (ShopCo supermarket, Brigham City);

(s) North on Evers (1991; actually Commercial Jetty 1/4mi S Spiral Jetty);

(t) Deseret (red Salt Lake water adjacent to Spiral Jetty, Rozel Pt);

(u) Deseret (Golden Spike Monument, Promontory Pass);
(v) Deseret (polygamists’ family homes, Colorado City);

(w) Deseret (mountains, Zion National Park);
(x) Deseret (abandoned church and house, Grafton);

(y) Sogobi, shot 13: billboard ‘AVAILABLE’, Outdoor Systems, Inc.;

(z) Sogobi, shot 33: Hwy 14 with San Andreas Fault exposed.

(recorded in-car conversation)

Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, or whether what we are saying is true.
– Bertrand Russell

DAY ONE: Saturday 07/26/03
JB: I went out to 29 Palms a couple of years back to see the Douglas Gordonpiece. He’d built a screen out in the desert and he was projecting The Searchers at a speed that would have taken 7 years to run right through. The projection started at dusk. The nice thing about it is the film plays day and night and, of course, you can’t see it during the day, because it’s too bright and then, as the sun sets, the image kind of fades in like a Polaroid and there’s a marvellous point where the blue in the sky starts to blend in with the top of the film frame so there’s this moment where the top of the screen disappears into the landscape and as it gets darker, of course, the image asserts itself and the colours get brighter and the image gets more distinct and recognisable. Each frame is on the screen for 7 1/2 minutes, and because it’s been digitised you don’t even see any movement from one frame to the next – it just clicks ahead to the next image and the movement is so slight that one doesn’t even register the change. So it started with a close-up of John Wayne’s face and Wayne was talking so I watched it for the first 2 hours which gives you only a half a second of the film and during that time his mouth moves very slightly. And after a while everybody else went off to see The Searchers projected at normal speed at the local drive-in theatre, which was part of the event. But I stayed around becauseI thought it was more interesting to see this and I was out there for a couple more hours and eventually it got completely dark and it was about 10 at night and I was sitting there on my own and a boy of about 11 or 12 came by and he stood around for a minute, looking up at the screen then across at me and then he asked me: ‘How long have you been watching?’ And I said: ‘Oh, about 4 hours.’ And he said: ‘Aren’tcha bored?’ And I said: ‘No, no. Sit down and look at the screen. See that piece of dust up there in the top left-hand corner? In exactly, er, 3 minutes and 15 seconds that dust is gonna disappear.’ So he sat down and he looked at the screen and as 3 minutes came I said: ‘OK. Get ready’, and 15 seconds later the next frame came up and the dust disappeared. And he goes: ‘Oh man! That’s so cool!’ And he started to watch intently and he asked me: ‘What’s gonna happen next?’ And I said: ‘Well, they’re up for 7 and 1/2 minutes so what do you think is gonna change inside the frame?’ And we watched a frame or two and saw how John Wayne’s lips curled out a little bit more because he’s talking. So after a while he started to tell me about his life and how he was into skateboarding and what he thought of school and then he got up and he did some shadow play with the piece. He got in front of the projector and put his shadow on the screen and did stuff like he began picking John Wayne’s nose and after doing that for a while he came back and sat down and we watched some more and all of a sudden he’d been there a coupla hours and I said to him: ‘Aren’tcha bored?’ and he said: ‘No way! This is great!’. So the next day I saw Douglas Gordon and we were talking and I told him this story and he said, ‘So that’s your role in life – to go around making structuralists out of people’.

DAY TWO: Sunday 07/27/03DH: So why do you go on working in 16mm when everybody else is going digital?

JB: Well the things I don’t like about digital are that it doesn’t project well, you never get to handle the material. And I’ve been using 16mm for so long it’s become integral to the way I work. Digital doesn’t have the same kind of built-in limitations I’m used to that help me to create structure. When you’re editing on digital you can hop around and grab footage very fast from here and there, whereas if you’re working with analog and you want to get at something that’s 20 feet in you have to watch or listen to that twenty feet first to get to that point so you get to know your footage so much better. You have to be clear about what you’re doing with 16mm — if you’re indecisive with the edit you can end up with twenty splices in a row which makes it hard to watch. I don’t have that problem so much these days because I use longer takes…

DH: Was that why you developed a preference for long takes?

JB: Not really. I like the idea of focusing attention for a longer period on what’s happening inside the frame. Even if there’s nothing happening, say, you can’t show nothing happening by looking at something for 5 seconds. It’s more convincing (with regard to nothing happening) to see that the wind doesn’t blow for 10 minutes than that it doesn’t blow for 3 seconds..

DH: Since the mid-1990s you keep coming back to Utah in your films. What is it that’s so compelling for you about Utah?

JB: I came through here first in 1989 on the motorcycle trip I revisited for North on Evers but I really became fascinated with Utah when I began researching the history of the Mormons for Deseret which is the original Mormon name for the State — the original working title for the film by the way was Angry White Men — and then when I started coming up here and I left the 15 behind and began driving the back roads I was just amazed at how beautiful and varied the landscape is.

DH: How did you go about structuring the material for Deseret?

JB: Deseret is organised around 93 stories about Utah that appeared in The New York Times over a 150-year period from 1852 to 1992. They’re read on to the soundtrack over shots I made during 9 trips to Utah over an 18-month period from 1992–94. … I didn’t want to establish a one-on-one text-image relationship, cutting the text to the scene. I’d jump from spring in the mountains to winter in the desert, but I had this rule that I had to include one shot that’s linked directly to each story that coincides with that story as it’s narrated on the soundtrack. … So, for instance, yesterday the still I took of the tree in the field next to the Mountain Meadows Monument is one of a series of different shots that appears on the screen when you hear the report of the massacre in the film. It’s the only direct visual link to the massacre site… Another structuring rule was that the length of each shot is determined by the length of each sentence on the soundtrack. So with the earlier texts from the 1800s when the sentences are very elaborate with clauses that go on and on, the shots are longer and the pace is slower. As we come up towards the present and the language gets shorter and shorter the pace of the shots accelerates.. So in this case, the device functions to speed up the film.. I also had one extra shot to mark the end of each paragraph of text and I shrink that in-between shot by 3 frames each paragraph so whereas the first shot between paragraphs is 30 seconds long, after 90-some shots the transitional shot lasts only about 10 seconds. It became clear as I was working on Deseret that the film is as much about journalism and language as it is about Utah and the landscape. It’s concerned with the distance between The New York Times and the Mormon settlers, and how that relationship changes over time. So though the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place inSeptember
(09/11/1857) it doesn’t even get mentioned as news in The Times till November. And of course the gap closes as communication technologies develop. In the 1850s and early 60s, when the federal government was preparing to declare war on Utah, many of the stories were written by people who weren’t living here, just passing through. They’re based on anti-Mormon prejudice. There’s a story from The Times I use for instance, about the Mormons holding slaves which is false. Today the physical distance is still there, of course, but it doesn’t have the same effects or the same meanings… Utah today is totally integrated into America, at least economically. In many ways it’s the model corporate capitalist state: its conservative… patriarchal… very orderly. It’s prospered from mining, the chemical industry… finance… weapons development… and in the last 10 years or so, from nature tourism. It’s got suburban sprawl all down the 15 corridor… Deseret‘s structure was composed to deal with all those historical issues and, I think, it works…

DH: I only saw Deseret once and I thought I was paying attention but I wasn’t conscious of the shot-to-sentence ratio. Does that matter?

JB: When I use a strict structure it takes people a long time to get things that seem kind of obvious to me, not just because I was the one who made the film and so pretty much know it inside out, but because they’re not used to thinking in those terms when they’re watching a film. The main purpose in setting up rules for me is it helps me form a structure.

James Benning, still from <em>Four Corners</em>, 1997. 16mm film, 80 min.

James Benning, still from Four Corners, 1997. 16mm film, 80 min.

DAY THREE: Monday 07/28/03
DH: When you first see [the pictographs at Horseshoe Cyn] from the trail they look like a crowd of shadow-people lined up in front of the canyon wall.. At first it appeared to me like they’d all been drawn around the same time, from a single point of view.. It’s only when you get closer that you see they’vebeen drawn in completely different styles to completely different scales… [inaudible] …at intervals across thousands of years… So instead of being a more-or-less flat continuous surface the canyon wall suddenly sort of opens up… becomes almost animate… [inaudible] …a giant teeming palimpsest… You’re aware of this vast continuity over time in terms of the sacred status of the place itself… a line of people stretching back through the millennia… dressed differently, maybe even different heights… from vastly different times, and cultures… with quite separate and distinct cosmologies… all of them drawn to this wall and to this act of making marks on the face of the rock… and you can trace all these modulations and sudden breaks from one epoch to the next…You’re struck by the presence of all that density and depth in time projectedon a two-dimensional surface..JB: That’s what drew me to the petroglyphs and pictographs for Deseret. The New York Times prints all these accounts about what’s happening in Utah but there are all these other forms of writing on the land itself… abandoned industrial landscapes… early Mormon ruins… thegiant earthwork of the (Bingham Cyn) copper mine… All these other historiesthat are littering the landscape and telling you things about the past. Andthey’re speaking as clearly as the wall paintings and the petroglyphs do. They’re not as old, of course, but they talk directly about the work, the process of adapting to this land the same way the petroglyphs and pictographs talk about hunting or trading, inventories, accounts. When I first saw these paintings it was like catching arrested movement with the camera – 8,000 years of human history all concentrated in one place in one frame… So, they have a kind of presence that speaks directly to me and to the art practice I’m into today: trying to discover (uncover?) things in my own life and I think that’s what they’re doing when they’re painting stuff – trying to define their own lives spiritually.

DH: So does the term ‘witness’ fit more closely with what you’re trying to do in this work than a term like, say, ‘observe’ or ‘document’ or ‘create’ or ‘experiment’?

JB: I think I’m constantly a witness. I think that’s what distinguishes good art from mediocre art – a good artist is someone who has the discipline to look and listen and that’s why last year at CalArts I decided that rather than try to design an environment in which students get to make their art, I’d try to teach them how to be artists and I thought the way to do that was to start at this really basic level – teaching them how to look and listen so they can develop the discipline to experience time differently, so they really take time to look at things.

DH: How did you go about doing that?

JB: Well it was a lot like our trip. I took them to places I knew and most of those places are places I’ve filmed in so we went to a large oil field in the Central Valley, the top of a mountain in the Sierras, a homeless encampment in downtown LA, the docks at San Pedro, Trona, the chemical town in the Mojave desert. They rode local buses for a day. They rode the Metro to downtown LA. I told them they couldn’t bring tape recorders or cameras so that they wouldn’t be thinking about how to translate what they were seeing and hearing into some other medium. So there were no assignments for them to make work. They were simply asked to be aware of what they were seeing and hearing so that they could have something to say about the experience to the group every month and at the end of the semester we talked about how the course had affected the way they looked and listened…

DH: Was it successful?

JB: …In the past I’ve had students who liked what I do but I’ve never had them moved by the experience because before they were always being moved by their own experience — they’d be working out of their own concerns. But this was redefining the whole concept of place and how they could relate to it as individuals and as artists… [As we drive through a bend in the road] this is the town of Helper… it’s where the railroad goes up a gradient so they had to provide extra engines to help pull the freight up through the valley…

DAY FOUR: Tuesday 07/29/03
DH: So here’s the passage where Smithson describes how he came across the site (reading aloud):

An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediments were countless bits of wreckage … this site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes … About one mile north of the oil seeps I selected my site … Under shallow pinkish water is a network of mud cracks supporting the jigsaw puzzle that composes the salt flats. As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape seem to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and non-site whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still. The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. No sense wondering about classification and categories, there were none…2

And here’s you in North on Evers retracing the trip you made to Spiral Jetty
in 1989 (reading out loud):

The next day I decided to look for the Spiral Jetty, built in 1970 by Robert Smithson. I remembered that it was somewhere off Rozel Point in Great Salt Lake. Smithson described the salt flats in his writings. Caught in their sediments were countless bits of wreckage. He said that the site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes. I went down small gravel roads trying to find Rozel Point, but they either turned the wrong way or disappeared into wheat fields. After four hours I finally found a series of private roads that led towards the lake. The last road was chained off. I parked and walked the last three miles. The Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot coil, 15 feet wide. I couldn’t see it anywhere. Then I found it two feet under water. The lake had risen since it was built. I walked the spiral to its end. I stood there in the salt water. There was no one in any direction. Salt crystals cut at my feet. I suppose, in a way, my trip ended there at the end of the spiral. I stared into space. A kind of dizziness overtook my body. I was hot and dehydrated. I had no water. I thought about the secrets of survival that were shared by the desert life around me. For a brief moment I thought this to be the end, that I would quietly succumb to my desolation. I walked slowly back under a scorching sun…3

JB: Yeah. And when I got back to where I’d left my bike the starter motor was acting up and I knew I’d never be able to get up enough speed for a running start in all that sand. I thought I was going to die…

DH: Like us the other day in Horseshoe Canyon when we lost the trail for a while and were almost out of water…

JB: Yeah… except that time I didn’t bring any water. I was so excited at finally getting to see the Jetty it wasn’t till I got there I could suddenly see how hot it was. And it was under water so it took me a long time to find the outline of the structure… and when I came back to film North on Evers it was still under water, not exposed like it was today… When I came back I realised straightaway it wasn’t even the Spiral Jetty I’d walked along the first time but the commercial jetty… you saw how it goes way, way out into the lake and then kind of curves a little at the end.

DH: So you keep getting drawn back into the spiral.

JB: …[inaudible]… The Spiral Jetty turns up three times in Deseret. When it gets noted in 1970 in the New York Times, instead of the Jetty you see the reddish water at Rozel Point but I’ve already included a shot of the jetty earlier in the film as a kind of foreshadowing… the second part of Deseret, which is in colour, folds back on the first (b&w) half. It sort of spirals in on itself. And that exposes the structure of the film: the way it speeds up as the language gets shorter like the spirals of the jetty getting shorter and shorter as they curl in towards the centre…

DH: So is the Spiral Jetty a key to that film or is it the key to all your

JB: Especially that film, but maybe it’s the key to all of them… Of course the Spiral Smithson made isn’t the Golden Spiral which is what you find in nature – in salt crystals and sea shells – because you can’t even draw that, let alone build it as a jetty 15-feet wide because a line – any line – is too thick which is why in physics and math a line doesn’t have any thickness – you have to think of a line as a series of points that are dimensionless. The Golden Spiral fits into the Golden Rectangle because it’s a series of quarter circles with the radius of each quarter getting smaller and smaller. So the spiral is actually a quarter circle that fits into a quadrant of the Rectangle.. then you fit another circle under that, but with a smaller radius, and another under that one, and so on, and so on to infinity, and the radius decreases by the same percentage every time and that percentage is part of the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean is 1.618033988749894 dot dot dot, and the radius of the spiral reduces by point 6180339 dot dot dot, that’s approximately a 62% reduction each time as the radius gets smaller and smaller and… [end of tape].

DAY FIVE: Wednesday 07/30/03

JB: […] I think that montage cutting came out of a need to manipulate time, to condense time yet also to extend it… but in the end what I’d like to think is it really came from a fear of boredom. At this stage in my work, I’m more interested in conveying what happens in a frame in a place over a particular period of time. The shot of the tree in the fog in Sogobi (shot 16, blue oak, Temblor Range, Los Padres National Forest), where there’s no movement whatsoever, goes very fast for me. I used to think the way you perceive time is a function of how much movement there is in the shot but maybe it’s really a function of pleasure… It’s a question of scale — a scale of time — like when we were coming back through Horseshoe Canyon and we got so dehydrated and it was taking so long, we couldn’t judge how far away the canyon wall was, or how far it was back to the car.

DH: I couldn’t see… the sun block was stinging my eyes so much I could barely see my hand held out in front of me… I come all this way to see these pictographs and I’m reeling… stumbling around like a blind man with a stick squinting sideways through one eye up the cliff face… and then [when] I saw them……………………………………………………………………………………
JB: Distance is a function of time… d=rt (distance = rate x time)…………………………………………….
(PERSONAL STUFF)……………………………………………………………………………………………………….
………………………………………….(SILENCE)…………………………………..(OTHER STUFF: see below)

Other Topics Discussed in Car: childhood memories… trauma… sex… (death)…
drugs… (death)… love… Bob Dylan… Lucinda Williams… Julie Christie…
Mose Tolliver… Bill Traylor… Michael Snow… Willem Dafoe… Nancy
Holt… Goshogaoka… the Cuban revolution… (death)… diaries…

puzzles… proofs… the number 13… prime numbers… asymmetery… guilt…
desire… (death)… promiscuity… monogamy… polygamy… celibacy…
prison… possum hunting… the Beaver Trilogy… Antonioni… Polanski…
(death)… Ed Gein… Medgar Evers… Laurie Bembenek… Arthur Bremer…
architecture… early TV… ‘adult’ vs. ‘senior’ as categories e.g. ‘adult
book store’ vs. ‘senior-gated community’… solipsism… solitude… housing…


This is the town of Helper where the railroad goes up a gradient so they had to provide extra engines to help pull the freight up through the valley. Joe Louis had a training camp in the 30s in the mountains up there above the town. … I photographed the old brick buildings… they were originally the homes of hard rock miners…
– James Benning

DAY AFTER: Thursday 07/31/03

watch: vt About 1200 wacchen developed from O.E waeccan keep watch, be awake-n Before 1200 waecce a watching, vigil from waeccan to watch. The meaning of small timepiece (1588) is related to that of a clock to wake up sleepers (1448). (Oxford Dictionary of Etymology)

In November 2002 a three-man camera crew headed by Reinhard Wulf (camera: Jurgen Behrens; sound: Gunter Kunze) followed JB on a road trip from Val Verde to Utah shooting footage for an 83min 56sec documentary on his work entitled Circling the Image. The documentary aired in January of this year on Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR TV) in Germany (estimated number of households reached: 100, 000). I put the video JB handed to me as I was about to leave his place last night into the VHS machine and watch.

I watch as JB opens the door of the 68 Nova (not the vehicle I’ve just spent 30-some hours in) and sets off once more along many of the same roads we’ve just been on (Hwys 12, 14, 24, 58, 138). Having travelled this route in the first person (singular and plural) I now get to do it all over again, one day later, this time in the third, although the filmic syntax unfolds without the ‘series of standstills’ (Robert Smithson) – Mountain Meadows, Horseshoe Cyn, Bingham Cyn, Copper Mine, Antelope Island, Spiral Jetty – that punctuated (structured) the sequence traced out on our trip in Parts I and II. Then, just S of Hanksville, the two itineraries diverge: the camera crew heads S down the 95 in the direction of Lake Powell.

JB is about to make a shot for 13 Lakes (13 X 10 = 130min; forthcoming).

On the video I watch JB looking down through railings sunk into a concrete bulwark adjacent to a busy highway at an expanse of water as, via voice-over, he explains that Lake Powell (with a shoreline longer than the California coast) sits in a canyon filled with water diverted for irrigation and electricity-generating purposes from the Colorado River. I watch him setting up the camera on its tripod which is balanced precariously on a low spur of rock jutting out into the lake – light dancing on its agitated surface, mountains in the distance. JB looks through the viewfinder then strides off as soon as the camera starts to roll to crouch on a rock about 10 feet away.
Framed in medium-long shot, he appears completely preoccupied yet utterly present and focused on the scene, turned in upon himself with that disconcerting inwardness blind people evince when the sighted encounter them unexpectedly on a busy sidewalk and, mortified at the prospect of collision with something so monstrous, step smartly aside – horrified, ashamed, apologetic – as the blind crash forward ineluctably in a straight line through the invisible light slashing the air in an arc left and right with a stick. JB cups his ears in a gesture I have seen many times in the past five days, his signature gesture every time he undertakes an audit of a site – only this time his hands are cupped over headphones attached to the Nagra reel-to-reel he’s used on every film-shoot since 1971.

We see the finished shot. We see how, almost immediately as JB steps awayfrom the camera, a large white tour boat, its presence masked till now by a dark rock outcropping on the right, suddenly powers across the shot from right to left. The remainder of the shot documents the trauma following this white incision along the horizon-line, as the light crashes in at all angles past the scudding clouds, colliding with a heaving wake that appears to be converging directly on the camera. The lapping on the soundtrack approaches hurricane-tossed-sea proportions. We pull back to the German crew’s camera position again as JB hops from rock to rock, at times almost ankle deep in water, as he methodically sets about averting one small disaster after the next, orchestrating order out of chaos – lifting the boom just in time out of the path of an impending wave with one hand, steadying the tripod with the other. He somehow contrives to remain implausibly, implacably composed throughout, as if he had expected this to happen… like an actor deadpanning through some slapstick Armageddon in a silent comedy… as if Buster Keaton were suddenly to burst out of the gate on the back of a bull at the Panguitch rodeo and, against all odds and every law of physics, stay upright and aloft for a full 10 minutes:

JB (voice over): I find the frame and I turn the camera on and I hope the light is going to change within the shot… at (the optimum) rate… and that I’ll be able to capture that. I’m never quite sure what the timing will be. And I’m not sure if a boat’s going to come or if something’s going to occur or a plane’s going to fly over. When you study things and really work hard and keep working and putting your camera in certain places, eventually those things happen. It’s because of hard work not because of the fortuitous nature of it… I think you set up situations to capture the fortuitous.4

The paradox of framing in advance by dint of labour, the unforeseen event lies at the heart of what is at once most rigorous and, in a quite literal sense, most magical about JB’s practice (as if magic were not itself the very fruit and episteme of the rigorously trained focus). I cannot, for instance, explain how it came to pass that precisely half way through Reeling In Utah in the late morning of our third day on the road, just as JB was explaining how cathexis onto place can lead to a refinement of the Self (i.e. to ego loss), as he concluded his description of a class he’d taught the previous semester at CalArts devoted to facilitating the development of mindfulness in students, we should, at that very moment, be driving past a town that just happens to be named Helper.

No doubt a single word – ‘uncanny’ – will square away all loose ends for those who, like myself, seem constitutionally incapable of following even the simplest demonstration of probability theory just as citations from the medical literature on the effects of dehydration and sunstroke could probably explain away to the satisfaction of most readers the weird synchronicities and sensory distortions that played back and forth between JB and me as we walked across the sand that afternoon threading our way between the creosote bushes and the sagebrush in the long defunct arroyo at the base of Horseshoe Canyon the preceding day. At one point I lay on a boulder in the shadow of a vast cathedral-like concave hollow in the rock that JB, on an earlier visit, had, in deference to its resonant qualities, dubbed ‘the Ear’, holding a conversation without raising my voice with JB who sat on a rock 100 yards farther down the trail. And later, as I saw the painted figures moving through the cliff face and the rock ‘support’ itself appeared to come to life, I felt a sudden gust of hot moist air upon my face and remarked to JB on the return hike that I kept thinking I could smell in the air around me human breath (he said to him it smelled more like the breath of a cat) as we walked slowly in the blistering stillness back up towards the mouth of the canyon.

But these fortuities hardly came from nowhere. They proceeded like the mining/railroad town of Helper itself and the pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, as JB puts it, from particular histories, as the products of the concentrated application, sustained over time, of human energy and labour, including most immediately and most poignantly with regard to the fortuitous effects just cited, JB’s own prodigious investment in the production through hard labour and strictly rule-bound play of intense and troubling Truth (from OE treowth: faithful, constant), his unrelenting dedication to his project.

The uncanniness that infuses so much of JB’s work is nothing more (though also nothing less) than the materialised by-product (the ‘pay-off’ one might say) of a logically derived, meticulously crafted system operating at optimum efficiency and to maximum effect on a thoroughly researched field, precisely marked-out in advance. (JB: ‘I don’t think of the camera as an extension of my eye. I don’t have that kind of romance with the camera. I use it as a precise tool.’) the puzzles, keys, numerical convenors and other organising devices secreted in plain view bind shot to shot and embed the diagesis in the individual frame while securing the viewer’s collaboration in the work of composition (finding the whole within each part) through a hermeneutics that brings divination (the associative leap) and reverse engineering (counting/timing shots) into a complex but harmonious alignment. (JB: ‘I want the audience to be proactive, to participate in the making of meaning.’) And JB’s spiritual materialism brings him into a similarly ordered alignment with that esoteric tradition within mathematics and structuralism that pulls figures as dissimilar as Pythagoras and Robert Smithson (and e.g. Godel, Escher,Bach,C.S. Peirce, Saussure [the Saussure, at least, of the acrostics and the anagrams]) into the ‘gyrating space’ (Smithson) where formal logic’s logic fails to hold: the primes, the ‘irrational’ numbers, incompletion, what Smithson calls the ‘surd’, the entropic principle toward which so much of Smithson’s work, and most spectacularly Spiral Jetty, was ostensibly directed.

Truth capitalised a second time, unmarked, hence less contentious when positioned at the opening of a sentence (an iteration that underscores the primacy of syntax in the ordering of things; the arranging in a sequence, the assumption of command) circles back upon itself in the figure of the Ouroboros5; the snake devouring its own tail, another variation on the Golden Spiral spinning ever outwards like the rapacious, neatly terraced abyss of the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine that turns also at the same time in the opposite direction back and down and inwards to the source), the letter K for ‘Kennecott’, the astral number 7 (the marks of ownership inserted by the self-appointed Lords of Earth and Outer Space – the copper mining corporation… the ‘original’ team of US astronauts) in the circle at the centre of the ankh, for instance.

The empty spool picks up the leader as the mechanism snaps into position and the film snakes backwards through the gate.

JB: I chose 2 1/2 minutes as the shot length for the California Trilogy  because that’s the duration of 100ft of 16mm film so the material dictated the length of the shots. A roll is actually 2mins and 47secs and that allowed me to slide the shots. I could either cut the tail or head, and adjust the timingslightly. 35 shots X 2 1/2 = 87 1/2 mins. And that leaves 2 1/2mins exactly for the credits. I was interested in seeing what activities take place in that 2 1/2mins time period… It’s the time it takes a rodeo champion to tie up 3 goats, a cotton-picker to traverse half a field and an empty goods train to pass straight through the shot.6

8 1/2 X 11, 11 X 14, 13 X 10, 35 X 2 1/2: […] the running of the numbers as they pass beneath the gate, the murmur of the measure that runs back against the this-then-this-then-this of forward-facing narrative declensions is the unifying factor in all of JB’s work. It is the signature that binds together the early narrative experiments (e.g. 8 1/2 X 11 (1974), 11 X 14 (1976)) to the non-fiction noirs (e.g. Landscape Suicide (1986), Used Innocence (1988)) to the masculine confessionals and auto-bio essays (e.g. American Dreams  (1984), North On Evers (1991)) to the lengthy cycle of landscape/place portrait films (Deseret, Four Corners, Utopia, California Trilogy, 13 Lakes).

Like a journeyman carpenter, a skilled craftsman in an age of prefabricated furniture, JB is at home when working on the road, carrying his own tools to the site (camera, tripod, audio recorder, reading glasses, watch), building each project ‘on the plank’ (as they used to say in the London furniture trade) out of raw local timber (the travel logs): the meticulous research squared away out of sight (the frame around the frame) in the quiet execution of the piece.

But this analogy, of course, like all analogies, is productive only to a point: a film, after all, is not a piece of furniture, its utility is less immediately apparent… and the journeyman carpenter, unlike the migrant field worker, is today a rare, archaic specimen, a residual trace left over from another epoch. Throughout the process of production, number functions in JB’s obsessive and ceaselessly inventive time-based calculations as the medium for a mind idling in neutral when the rest of the world is compelled at every turn to get in gear and get straight back to work.

In the hunt for origins and early influences bearing down on JB’s oeuvre, critics and reviewers through the years have cited inter alia North American experimental filmmakers (Brakhage, Warhol, Snow), non-US art-house filmmakers (Antonioni, Ozu) and painters (Edward Hopper, Mondrian, Johns). One neglected candidate for the title of Prime Mover in this regard is the drill press, the machine JB operated when he worked for 9 months in a factory in Milwaukee in 1963 before graduating with a BSc in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin a few years later. As with many of JB’s films, I have never seen Time and a Half (1971), but by JB’s own account it is a conventional narrative short (17 mins long) with a single actor recapitulating JB’s role in the same factory 8 years later:

What I remember of working as a drill-press operator is that it was boring and the speed of the machine regulated you. You’d get bored and try to daydream but the lengths of the daydreams were dictated by the machine. It’s dangerous – if you stick your hand in at the wrong time you put a drill through it. So you have to have short thoughts and get back to work. I put that in the film.7

‘[S]hort thoughts’, like 60 X 60 second shots (the structure of One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), JB’s more famous Milwaukee smokestack film). The length of the shots in JB’s work increases exponentially in direct ratio to his distance from the drill-press bench. (JB: Maybe my next film will be one 24-hour shot). ‘Time-and-a-half’ is of course, the designation of an overtime rate: a brutal reminder of the calculated value of a human life (with an additional 0.5 [‘double time’] available in some cases for those prepared to work public holidays):

My pay was $1.66666… per hour with time-and-a-half for anything over 40 hours. Since I worked 55 hours a week, that is 10 hours a day Monday through Friday and five hours on Saturday, in the winter months I only saw the sun on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

My pay was:

        40 hours @ $1.6666…      = $66.66666666….

        15 hours @ $2.50             = $37. 50

        TOTAL                             = $104.1666666….

Which, rounded off to $104.67 gross pay with 20% withheld for taxes, leaves my take-home pay for 55 hours at $83.33.8

Time-and-a-half = a reminder, too, that in the factory, as in the prison (see Fifty Years To Life – 8 scripts by James Benning, Two Pants Press, 1998; and, especially, Used Innocence), the (wandering) Mind can prove a dangerous liability, can put a drill bit through a hand, that you are here to ‘do’ your time (not ‘spend’ it), that every day counts (against you).

… I just drifted. Running from a storm or toward some desire. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to outdistance my anxiety or to deny the murmur of advancing age.9


I spend the evening jotting down recollected scenes from/for Reeling in Utah:


Arrive at SJ around 8:45 am. Jetty now fully exposed – pure-white salt-like snow spiral in Alaska. 2 guys + 1 girl in SUV right behind us. While JB gets camera, tripod, etc., I watch as the 2 guys strip naked & walk to end of Jetty. Girl photographs. Tells me 1 guy is her brother & is studying Art in NYC. They leave. JB and I take photos of each other as RS walking on Jetty though have to switch from southern edge of outer loop to northern due to position of sun + wind on water. Take more photos using disposable panoramic. 1hr later 2 more visitors + cameras. JB says he’s always been alone at SJ before. Dia effect? At current rate roads to SJ will be backed up to Hwy 15 in 1yr.


No bars in town & no restaurant open so eat pizza + bottle of Mesquite wine in motel rm. Watch bad TV doc on Cuba. Discuss collab. project + JB: Cuba 59 – 59 X 59sec shots of Cuba. JB says shot lgth shd. be at least 3 mins.


C City on Utah/Arizona border: polygamyville. Big unfinished houses + piles of kids’ bikes in yards. Boys in shop bought clothes. Girls in homemade Victorian dresses. Sml sad zoo + biblical animals (camels etc.). Go to breakfast place. Women 1 side, men the other. X Files episode. Beautiful woman + no makeup, 19, foor-lgth dress serves

JB: ‘How many ml is it to Kanab [next town]?’ Woman: ‘I really wouldn’t know.’ JB: ‘Any idea how long it wd take to drive?’ Woman: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have much call to go there.’


Gas stop in Kanab. Blackboard + chalk in men’s restroom. I draw the SJ on right hand side. Doesn’t look badthough am struck by resemblance to Figure 2. Sit in car. JB emerges from restroom. Says my spiral reminded him of a #2 and so wrote the proof of the square root of 2 which leads to an irrational # on left-hand side of blackboard. (‘A number 2?’ I say, ‘So you think my drawing’s shit?’). Regret now not going back in to take photo.

Next I review notes, aphorisms, etc. I’ve scribbled in the margins of old newspapers and on the white spaces in ads torn from tourist bumph in four Utah motel rooms on four successive nights in the 5min aperture between TV and ZZ. E.g.:

‘(Bracket all reduction): nothing worth saying can be stated directly…’

‘Restricted access = JB’s ethos – hard-to-get-to places, hard-to-access work; hard to see (distribution); hard to screen (16mm!); hard to watch (demanding).’

‘Rozel Pt = a lake + a spiral in it’

‘Bingham Cyn Copper Mine = a spiral + a lake in it (sump pond at base),

‘(illegible) drawing/being drawn.. taking a line for a drive as well as a walk (though not a line of flight – it’s vital to stay grounded especially (illegible)…’

They have all the doughy brilliance of those adolescent apercus jotted down at midnight in the wake of one’s first joint. It’s like trying to decipher the machine language inside your own laptop…

A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.
– Carl Andre

I crumple up the papers in a ball and throw them in the trash.


Directed by                        James Benning

Written by                          Dick Hebdige

Produced by                      Afterall Journal

Choreographed by            James Benning

Location finder                  James Benning

Stills                                  James Benning

Dick Hebdige


James Benning                   JB

Dick Hebdige                      DH

Dick Hebdige has published extensively on popular culture, media and critical theory and contemporary art, music and design. He is the author of three seminal books on art and popular culture: Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Methuen, 1979); Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (Methuen, 1987); and Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things (Routledge, Methuen, 1988). Hebdige is a professor in the Art and Film & Media Studies Departments at UCSanta Barbara and is the Director of the University of California institute for Research in the Arts Desert Studies Project, an arts-based research and teaching program centered on California’s Mojave and Sonoran deserts.