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For Fava TV Fourfold: A Thematic Curatorial, Dr. Kristen Hutchinson will be mining the archives of FAVA TV to create four collections and curatorial essays based on specific themes. The first collection of ten media artworks is an exploration of place. Three more thematic collections will follow summer 2020.

This project was funded in part by The Alberta Media Artists Alliance Society of Alberta (AMAAS).

Connecting with Nature

By Dr. Kristen Hutchinson

In 1969 the Canadian artist collective N.E. Thing Company created a series of installations called Quarter Mile Landscape. Along a quarter mile stretch of highway that traversed landscapes of no particular interest they placed three road signs that read “Start Viewing”, “You are now in the middle” and then “Stop Viewing.” Seeing the signs, a motorist and their passengers would look at this stretch of land with fresh eyes and wonder, “Just what is it am I supposed to be looking at?” With this humorous piece the N.E. Thing Company were questioning how we commodify nature and relate to the natural world through tourism. Many of our interactions with nature are mediated through human intervention. Think of all the lookout spots in Banff and Jasper National Parks. This is a direct curation of our experience of nature. Someone decided that one vista is more impressive than another and we all follow suit. During the pandemic we are also being called to look at and think about nature from a different lens.

The media art pieces I have selected for this third instalment of FAVA Fourfold: A Thematic Curation make us view nature differently, encouraging us to stop and ponder the nature world around us in greatly detail and with more appreciation. It is perhaps in reconnecting more deeply with nature that we can become more aware of what is being destroyed and work harder to stop the increasingly rapid destruction of the natural world and the multitude of species that live within it.

The 53-minute experimental film Shining and Nameless by L.A. Trofimova begins with images of flickering fire light. The crackle of the fire transports me back to memories of sitting in a campsite, mesmerized by the shifting light and glowing embers. Typical of many experimental films we as viewers are being asked to slow down and really look, much as we would at an actual campfire. The next scene is of rushing water, at first blurry and then coming into focus. The dappled sunlight dances across the surface. A man and dog explore the river’s edge. The sound of the river is soothing and, much like the fire light, I become engrossed in the movement of the river. Next up is a waterfall, a view of shifting clouds through the trees, a black and white cat in the grass, blurred roads and trees seen from a moving car, a fluffy white dog barking, a line up for a ferry, the ferry itself, the ocean and mountains seen from the ferry, and lastly a group of Canadian geese on the shore. The scenes lull the viewer into a state of calm, punctuated by a jostling camera that makes everything blurry again. Much like Quarter Mile Landscape, the film made me think about how I experience landscape differently when I travel, the things I notice that I wouldn’t normally.

Eva Colmer’s Autumn is about the memories and nostalgia we amass through our interactions with nature. Colmer’s describes the film: “A man enters his old-fashioned editing suite carrying a dusty film can under his arm. He works on his last editing job. As he edits footage of autumn changes, memories of his own childhood flash back. Pictures of the past collide with the present and meld into a new timeless fabric of imagery.” We see a young boy joyfully running through the forest, collecting bright yellow leaves and red berries into a small pail. Flocks of Canadian geese fly across the sky as the boy points up at them. He watches insects, squirrels, deer, and owls in the changing autumnal landscape. the leaves fall quickly from the trees as the wind gusts. The film reminds us to approach nature as we did as children, with wonder and awe.

Summertime in Alberta by Vadim Bulitko depicts grasslands, leaves, and flowers during summer. A monarch butterfly flaps its wings atop a honeysuckle flower. Even though this video is only a minute long, it really captures the sensations of a warm and bright summer day. It is almost as if you can feel the breeze across your face as it moves the grasses in the field. Bulitko pays particular attention to the small details of the natural world and the specificity of the Albertan landscape by immersing the viewer in an experience of a summer day.

Jessica Jalbert’s music video Paris Green begins with a shot of clouds in the Albertan sky which seems fitting given that Alberta is often described as Big Sky Country. The camera then focuses on the bright yellow leaves of fall, dappled with light. The band plays in a variety of  beautiful landscapes around Edmonton: in the middle of a grove of birch trees; against cliffs of clay rich soil; beside a small stream; on a trail in the Edmonton River Valley; on the banks of the Saskatchewan river underneath the now dismantled Walterdale Bridge; atop a pile of large, bare branches; and on an old railway bridge. The description for the video by Mike Robertson reads: “Inspired by classical paintings, where there is a focus on the landscapes instead of the people. The band plays in some beautiful Alberta locations, intermingling with the backgrounds so that there is a balance between performers, background and the music.” The band seems perfectly at ease playing their instruments and singing in these natural settings while Edmonton’s parks and river valley becomes another member of the band.

Microcosm: Backyard, part of this year’s Gotta Minute Film Festival (GMFF), explores a backyard through close up shots that make blades of grass look like a jungle. Piles of grains of sand resemble a large quarry. Rocks become boulders in a desert and form an entryway into a large cave. Mushrooms appear to be the size of trees. Tom Robinson’s one-minute film makes us feel as if we have an entered a magical Alice in Wonderland or A Wrinkle in Time landscape. In the last few seconds, the camera pans out to reveal toys in a sand box and a young girl swinging on a swing set. As the description notes, “When you can’t go out, you search for nature where you can.”

In the music video for The Little’s Wear Me Down, a woman wearing a felted fox mask explores the woods. We first see a pile of bleached animal bones, slowing being taken over by moss. Her bare feet squelch in the mud. The summer sun shines through the trees. She gingerly crosses a wobbly wooden bridge, walks along paths of trees, examining the moss, insects, and mushrooms she finds along her way. She emerges into a field, removes her mask and walks away from the camera. Created by Dylan Rhys Howard, the action is described as “a frightened animal finds her courage and escapes the valley.” The music video evokes a somewhat surreal view of the forest, as a space where magic can happen. I see the video as encouraging another close-up exploration the natural world, a call to not take the wonders of nature for granted.

Carlo Ghioni’s From W to VV, also from this year’s GMFF, begins with underwater shots of coral, barnacles, and seaweed dancing in the current. A lone jellyfish swims through a canal that reflects the Venetian buildings above. The camera rises to reveal a large school of small fish in the beautiful green water. The canal is empty of the usual hustle and bustle of gondolas and tourists. Flocks of birds circle the water as two dogs, with no owner in sight, run along the sidewalk. The film makes me think of the fake animal viral videos of dolphins returning to the canals of Venice but what is shown by Ghioni feels equally miraculous. How are animals and nature recovering a sense of ease and tranquility in our cities while we stay at home in quarantine?

Water by John Osborne, with music by Greg Goa, transforms two years of live footage of moving water into an animation of abstracted and coloured rippling, gushing, and shifting lines. A voice over talks about water as defying borders and how “water flows on until it reaches its goal. It does not shrink from any dangerous spot, not from any plunge and nothing can make it lose its essential nature. Water is our source. It gives life. It takes life. It makes no judgement. If our water is in crisis then we are in crisis.” Watching moving water can be much like watching a campfire, entrancing and immersive. If you are fortunate to live near a body of water, take some time to watch it flow and don’t take it for granted.

Fish by Saman Hosseinpour also contains an environmental message by depicting the importance of water for survival. An older woman drops the water jug that contains her only goldfish. She goes to the tap but no water comes out. She searches in the fridge and finds nothing useful. She watches helplessly as the fish writhes and flounders in her cupped hands. Thankfully she thinks to put the fish in a glass of water that contains her partner’s dentures. This short film makes me think about how we have must become stewards of nature rather than the agents of its destruction. As Canadians, we take an abundance of water for granted. But like the bees and trees, we need to treat water with greater respect and protection.

Timber by Paul Freeman demonstrates how easily nature can be destroyed. This one-minute film shows a tree as it falls in slow motion between two houses. Given that the film is silent, it reminds me of the often-pondered question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?” My answer to that question has always been “Well obviously yes” because sounds happen even if we humans don’t hear them. Yet the question raises a consideration of what we as humans deem to be important and worthy of notice. If a forest is clear cut behind a sheltering line of trees, do we notice it? If a river is poisoning without it being reported in the press, do we care? Watching the tree intentionally be cut down in the eerie yellow light in Timber makes me wonder if its destruction was really necessary. I assume that the roots were disrupting the foundations of the house, or some such. The houses that flank it were deemed more important than the large, and likely old, tree. Watching the tree slowly fall and scatter leaves in its wake is both oddly beautiful and profoundly disturbing.

In this pandemic it can feel like nature has turned against us but it is important to remember that it is we, the humans, who have turned against nature. We have tried to separate ourselves from and control nature, to become its overlord, but this approach is not going to end well. It is interesting to see how many people have returned to gardening and houseplants during the pandemic. Perhaps these acts of caring can reconnect us with the beauty and importance of nature.

Since almost 82% of Canadians live in cities, we likely rely on urban parks and travel to allow us to connect with nature. As we likely aren’t traveling as much and are social isolating due to COVID 19, we might not have been able to connect with nature as much as we would have liked during the summer. I hope these works can give you a moment of respite and provide a virtual connection to, and appreciation of, the natural world. Let these moments of connection also serve as an environmentalist call to action. Hopefully reconnecting with nature in our daily lives, in whatever form you can find it, will remind us that the natural world is worth saving and not just because our very lives depend upon it.

Dr. Kristen Hutchinson is an art historian, visual artist, curator, writer, editor, and art consultant. She received her PhD in the History of Art from University College London in 2007. In addition to teaching as a contract lecturer in the departments of Art and Design, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Alberta, Kristen offers independent seminars about art, television, film, feminism, and popular culture in her living room and online. She is the editor-in-chief of Luma Quarterly, an online, open access journal about film and media art, with a focus of Western Canada.

Kristen is also the author of Prairie Tales: A History, populated with interviews from Alberta’s media arts communities, the book tells the seventeen-year story of sharing short films and videos made by Albertan artists. She is currently writing a creative non-fiction book about supernatural creatures in contemporary art, film, and television. Visit her website for more information.

To find out more about media art in Alberta, read Prairie Tales: A History.