The Sensory Generosity of an Alum-Made Film

Harlow Figa ’16 and Sarah Moses ’16 explore the legacy of Pennsylvania artist Harry Bertoia in their latest cinematic project.

While the new VCAM building, which has been described as a “24/7 creative hub for the… community,” made its debut at the start of the semester, it played host to another premiere earlier this month when Bertoia, the feature debut of Class of 2016 members Harlow Figa and Sarah Moses, showed in its screening room.

Bertoia, as the title suggests, focuses on the late 20th-century visual artist, modern furniture designer, and sound sculptor Harry Bertoia’s work—specifically, one of his most famous projects, the Sonambient sculpture series. Designed for interaction with the public, the sculptures in the series are subjected to daily barrages of physicality: people tap them with their fingernails, pound them with their fists, rain blows upon them with mallets—all for the simple, resonant joy of coaxing a new sound into the world.

Throughout Bertoia, lingering shots of the sculptures themselves—thin metallic rods, enormous gongs—are intercut with scenes that document the visceral reaction viewers have to them: a reverential expression falls over one man’s face as he presses his body against the vibrating surface of a sculpture, another man takes an almost childlike delight in the sounds created by the interaction between the sculptures and his own body. Indeed, Bertoia’s daughter, Celia Bertoia, describes the barn concerts Bertoia would hold as “sacred experiences” that transported the listeners to “another state,” forcing them to be “present in the moment.”

Much as Orpheus’s music did, it seems, Bertoia’s sound sculptures linger on in the minds of those who have heard them played. Even filmmakers Figa and Moses, who came to the rural Pennsylvanian barn where the sculptures were housed for purposes other than art appreciation, weren’t immune to their spell. According to Moses: “The barn was a truly unique space and the deep, full-body, transformative experience of being in there cannot be captured by words alone.”

While Bertoia’s Sonambient series itself may be familiar to the public, the stories and ideas behind it are not—and those stories are what this alum-made film brings to light, expanding the murky mythology of the sculptures with insightful anecdotes from everyone from museum curators to members of Bertoia’s own family.

“What sets Bertoia’s work apart,” one person interviewed in the film says, “is that it is accessible, interactive.” Bill Valerio, the president and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum, puts it more poetically: Bertoia’s is work that is “designed to be touched, designed to be heard, designed to be felt, designed to be familiar.” Perhaps, then, this is the major attraction Bertoia’s work holds: while so much art is alienated from the public by the museum credo of “Look, don’t touch,” Bertoia’s encourages physical interaction— in fact, it is made silent, impotent, without it.

“Everyone has a heartbeat, so everyone understands rhythm,” says Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, a music artist who incorporates Sonambient sculptures into his performances. Even those without sight can relate to these sound sculptures because their visual reality is not their central feature; those without hearing can be similarly moved, because the sculptures’ sound registers in vibrations as well as sonic waves.

“Bertoia doesn’t privilege any one sense,” says Figa. “His work is sonic, visual, and tactile by nature, which opens up so many important conversations surrounding ability, access, democratization of space, and artistic hierarchy.”

That is why, after a good 20 minutes of witnessing firsthand the achingly raw emotion the Sonambient sculptures evoke in visitors, there is an almost palpable sense of loss when viewers discover that the barn was dismantled in 2016. We watch the sculptures endure the packing process: being knotted with twine, packed away in plywood boxes, and left draped in dust-covers in a garage far from the human hands or the gusts of wind that would have drawn sound from them. We watch the sculptures, in other words, being silenced.

Indeed, Figa and Moses were the very last filmmakers to capture footage of the barn before the sculptures were loaded up into trucks and carted away. This knowledge of their role in the last days of the series as a united collection informed their approach to the film in many ways. While the idea for the film was not itself an intuitive “Eureka!” moment—in Moses’s words, it “landed in our lap a little bit”—Figa says that once they visited the barn, “we felt an obligation to do something [relevant] with the footage, and our experiences of the barn since it was clear that we were going to be the last ones to shoot in there.”

Both Figa and Moses have a long history of involvement in film projects at Haverford. As students, they were both part of the inaugural class of Tuttle Summer Arts Lab Fellows and did intensive work on a documentary about a YMCA pool-fitness class with Visual Media Scholar Vicky Funari in their senior year. The summer after they graduated, the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities (HCAH) funded their attendance at Colgate University’s annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. And as HCAH’s first Emerging Artists in Residence last year, they proved an invaluable part of the Haverford filmmaking community, helping to program the seventh year of the STRANGE TRUTH film series and co-directing the 2017 Tri-Co Film Festival.

“Without Haverford, this film would not have happened at all,” said Figa. “I was an anthro major, but I got interested in the [filmmaking] form and editing process through Vicky Funari.”

Figa also cites a first-year writing seminar, “Portraits of Disability and Difference,” as a class that informed the approach and process of making this film. “In part because of my experience in [that] class, we have been working to amplify the ‘accessibility’ angle of the film—an exploration of how Bertoia’s Sonambients can be experienced by a person of varying (dis)abilities through the work’s inherent sensory generosity.”

Moses, herself a film and media studies major at Swarthmore, also mentions Funari as a major influence.

“Harlow and Sarah are exactly the kind of students you want to support and nurture with programs like the IDMF, the Tuttle Summer Arts Lab, and the trip to the Flaherty Seminar, because they are passionate about film as an art form, and they are self-motivated and determined to develop their skills as filmmakers and programmers,” says Funari. “I’m very impressed with what they’ve done with the Bertoia project and I look forward to seeing the final film.”

While the current cut of the film is beautifully done, Figa and Moses still have a long way to go. So far they have primarily used a crowdfunding campaign hosted on the online platform Seed & Spark—co-founded by fellow Ford Emily Best ’02—to raise the money necessary for any large-scale production, but they plan to explore other financial avenues as the film inches towards completion.

“Our next steps for the film are completing a few last shoots and interviews, applying for grants and securing funds to sustain post-production—editing, visual effects, color correction, sound design—[then] completing post-production tasks, and distributing the film,” says Figa.

It’s a to-do list that might daunt some, but to talk to Figa and Moses is to get the sense that the purpose of Bertoia is one that is in fact larger than the film itself: to publicize the beauty of Bertoia’s work.

“The project started as an initiative to capture and archivally preserve the Sonambient Barn as it was for many decades, before it was taken apart in summer 2016,” says Moses, “[but] once our own narrative developed, centered on an exploration of Bertoia’s continuing legacy, filming as an act of preservation became a bigger task. I feel a responsibility to present his work in a way that is both preservational… and presentational.”

Photo by Cole Sansom ’19