The deformation field, material flow, and mechanics of chip separation in cutting of metals with superimposed low-frequency modulation (<1000 Hz) are characterized at the mesoscale using high-speed imaging and particle image velocimetry (PIV). The two-dimensional (2D) system studied involves a sharp-wedge sliding against the workpiece to remove material, also reminiscent of asperity contacts in sliding. A unique feature of the study is in situ mapping of material flow at high resolution using strain fields and streaklines and simultaneous measurements of tool motions and forces, such that instantaneous forces and kinematics can be overlaid onto the chip formation process. The significant reductions in specific energy obtained when cutting with modulation are shown to be a consequence of discrete chip formation with reduced strain levels. This strain reduction is established by direct measurements of deformation fields. The results have implications for enhancing sustainability of machining processes and understanding surface deformation and material removal in wear processes.