Nancy Holt
16mm film, color, sound
Duration: 6 minutes

Swamp is a collaborative artwork by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, shot in the swamplands of New Jersey. Both artists grew up in New Jersey and throughout their work they return to the New Jersey swamps and the Pine Barrens.

This 16mm film explores the mechanics of seeing through site, core concerns of both Holt and Smithson. Looking through the viewfinder of a Bolex camera focused in tight close-up, Holt attempts to walk through the landscape—her field of vision through the camera too narrow for steady progress. The view through the camera is overwhelmed by detail of cattails and grasses. A visceral, chaotic journey unfolds as the artists confront a dense maze of plant life, struggling with the limitations of their own perception, and for the failure of technology to stand in for vision. The visual element shows exactly what Holt sees: a mass of vegetation.

The audio comprises the sounds of the couple moving through reeds, the wind blowing, the camera clicking, and Smithson giving verbal directions as he tries to see for Holt. Throughout his writings and artworks, Smithson critiqued reliance on vision for objective knowledge, pointing to blind spots and distortions.  “Just walk in a straight line” Smithson advises. “Straight into that clump. It’s OK, Nan. You’re on fairly solid ground. Straight in. Just go right in. Go straight in over that way. Turn to your right. Your right. In, into, that clump right there. Directly in. It’s okay. Go ahead.” Holt’s vision is partial and distorted as she responds to Smithson’s advice: “so much of this is out of focus.”

In an interview with the painter and writer Gregoire Muller in 1971, Smithson described Swamp as being concerned with “deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness.”  Reflecting on Swamp some twenty years later, Holt noted that the film “deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed. As the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”


Film Transcription

Smithson: Just walk in a straight line.

Holt: I think, I think, I am. [inaudible]

Smithson: Straight in . . . to that clump. It’s OK, Nan. You’re on fairly solid . . . ground.

Straight in.

Just go right in.

Go straight in over that way.

Turn to your right. Your right.

In . . . , Into that clump right there. Directly in.

It’s OK.

Go ahead.

Holt: So much of this is out of focus.

Smithson: Well, just keep going in.

Don’t worry about the focus. Just keep mov . . . just keep advancing in, as much as you can.

How’s the film holding up?

Here, head over that way. . . . There seems to be something.

You are heading toward stickers I think.

Over that way.

Holt: Which way?

Smithson: Towards that puddle over there.

Holt: I can’t see anything.

Smithson: Well, move to your right, to your right. Straight ahead.

Watch out for the stickers.

Holt: Oh! I'm getting it . . . [inaudible]

Smithson: That's OK. Here-- get over here. It is better in here . . .

Holt: My legs are stuck in there.

Smithson: That's OK.

Holt: I think that there is too much . . .

Smithson: Just pull, just pull out of there.

Holt: . . . movement. I really . . . 

Smithson: OK, hold it for a while then.

Try to pick up that--- uh, that body of water back there.

Holt: Where is it?

Smithson: Uh, it's directly in front of you.

Holt: Oh.

Smithson: Go slow, if you want. 

Watch it!

OK. Make an about face.

Holt: An about face?

Smithson: Yeah. Go back the way you came.

Holt: This way?

Smithson: Yeah.

OK. Watch the stickers.

Holt: Well, you have to get them . . . [inaudible]

Smithson: Shoot into the density of it, too.

Holt: Yeah, I am . . . just shooting straight ahead. OK.

Smithson: Let's see how much . . .


Holt: I'm stuck.

Smithson: Right . . .

Watch out. The reeds . . . can cut a little.

The clearing - head out into the clearing.

Let's see . . . seventy feet.

Holt: I scratched up my leg on a . . . reed.

Smithson: Yeah. 

Just sort of go out into the clearing . . . just move to that clump on the other side.

It's a little watery here. OK? 

I've got the stickers.

Just keep it low.

Holt: Keep it low?

Smithson: Yeah. Don't want too much sky.

Holt: No. Well, I'm trying to get the tops of them.

How many feet left on the reel?

Smithson: Uh . . . hundred.

Holt: Hundred?!

Smithson: Well, it says a hundred on there.

Holt: I think it's just the squint.

Smithson: Yeah?

Holt: What . . . what does it say?

Smithson: Nothing.

Scholarly Text

Swampy Ecologies

Bridget Crone

You are in the middle of an expanse of tall thick dry grass, head height. As you look and move through this, a world unfurls that you become immersed in feeling, hearing, seeing, and experiencing fully in each moment. Expansive. The experience feels vivid and rich despite the difficulties of movement across uneven ground and against a fierce wind. Immersive. You cannot see beyond your immediate surroundings. There is no horizon. The world that emerges—step by step—feels intensely connected around you, almost thick, and you dissolve into it, into the grasses, into the terrain, into the wind that moves the grasses against your body. Sensory. Now imagine you have a camera, which you hold to your eye, this curtails your vision and concentrates it, because you can see only through the viewfinder. Perceptual. This has the strange effect of expansion and contraction at once.

Scholarly Text

Voice and Vision in "Swamp"

Lori Zippay

The film opens with a disembodied male voice and a landscape in motion. “Just walk in a straight line,” the man directs, as the camera advances tentatively towards an expanse of tall grasses. “I think, I think I am,” replies an unseen woman, the camera inching forward into the reeds. “Straight in…to that clump,” the man continues. “It’s OK, Nan, you’re on fairly solid ground. Straight in. Just go right in.…”

See Also

Mono Lake
Robert Smithson
Mono Lake, California, USA