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).
Wibbly, Wobbly, Timey, Wimey: Reflections on Time
by Dr. Kristen Hutchinson
The passage of time has been extra weird lately. Have you felt that too? As Doctor Who would say, it has been “wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey.”[i] You only need to look to the proliferation of memes about our changed perceptions of time during COVID-19 to see people making jokes about it, trying to find a little humour in our current state. I have been reflecting on how time has felt different during these past few months, sometimes slowing down while the days meld into each other, and then speeding up faster than usual. It has come to the point where I ask myself, “Was that only last week? Was it yesterday?”
As a time based medium, media art has a long history with considerations of time. The early video art pioneers in the late 1960s and early 1970s loved playing with viewers’ attention spans, simultaneous recording and playback, and news forms of active viewership. In this last installment of the FAVA Fourfold series, I have chosen works that focus on time, either directly or tangentially. I want to start with five works from 2020, created for the Gotta Minute Film Festival, hosted by FAVA.[ii] Every film in the festival is only a minute long, hence the name, and all are silent. It amazes me how much of a story, concept, and/or experimental impulse can be conveyed in a minute as seen in the examples in this essay. Then I will jump back to 2015 and 2012 respectively to construct three little time capsules of media art from three different years.
In Jody Wood’s Prologue, a very large, approximately 6 feet by 6 feet, black die floats in a small body of water, surrounded by trees. Dice are usually white with black dots to signify the numbers but here the colour scheme is reversed. This reversal of the colours is apt for our current topsy turvy times. A person swims up to the die, dwarfed by the size of the large cube. We never directly see their face. They push up the die along the water and dive under it. We see that it isn’t solid but is constructed out of swathes of textile on a cube shaped frame. The die slowly tips over and starts to sink. The description states, “A prologue sets the stage for events that will follow. I wished to capture the uncertainty of this moment through a simple metaphoric narrative.”[iii]
The sinking die is in fact a perfect metaphor for time right now. We throw the dice, not knowing where it will land and where time will take us. Hoping for a six, we might only come up with a one. Or maybe what we really wanted was a three and we rejoice when the three is revealed. We, hopefully, put on our masks and take our chances.
The first shot in The Wait by Nolt Vutthisak is of an open microwave door. A man throws what looks like a burrito into it, closes the door, and starts the timer. He sits at the table, looking bored, and twirling a drumstick in his hand. The camera focuses on the clock on the wall. The second hand of the clock is stuck so that the minute hand remains frozen between 5:32 and 5:33. The man exasperatedly closes his eyes. He then begins to drum on the tabletop, using two drumsticks to beat out a rhythm that we can’t hear since this film is also silent. His demeanour changes and joy returns to his expression and body. He imagines himself playing a full drumkit under theatre lights. He jumps up, throws his arm in the air in a gesture of receiving praise, and immediately stops when the microwave bings.
The description reads: “The Wait tells the story of a lonely drummer (Kritthee Visitkitjakarn) during the self-distancing period in 2020, who has grown frustrated with the absence of his band. Killing time, the self-taught drummer must do something by his own imagination.”[iv] While the microwave clocks marks time accurately, the clock on the wall reflects how time seems endless for the drummer. The pandemic has been particularly hard for performers, who are waiting to be able to one day play to adoring crowds again, to feel the buzz of that live connection between performer and audience. Like the drummer, we are all waiting, anxiously waiting for this to be over, and hoping that things might be better on the other side.
Anthony Goertz’s CUP traces the journey of a white paper cup from a felled tree to a cut log to pulp, to being formed into a coffee cup in a factory, and then packaged into a box with a bunch of other cups. The cup is filled with coffee and immediately thrown out into a trash can after being used. It gets picked up by a truck, moved around at a garbage facility, and sorted through another machine. It travels to another facility where it gets crushed with other pieces of paper and plastic. We don’t get to see what happens to the cup after this. Perhaps it will be reshaped into something else? However, in the last frame we see of the cup, its lip is amusingly crushed beside an image of a woman’s lips from a glossy magazine. This one-minute film chronicles “the lifespan of a piece of trash.”[v]
CUP allows us to experience time in a different way, drawing attention to our consumer culture and how easily we throw things away without thinking about what will become of them after they are no longer of use to us. Through a time-lapse technique, we get see the cup’s journey. This film contains an environmental message to think about how long and how many resources it takes to build the objects I use. CUP also reminds me that it is worthwhile to take the time to carry a reusable cup to the coffee shop.
Birthdaycake by Faizel Janmohamed starts with a pair of hands addressing invites to a party, for my friends written with a happy face on the envelopes. We see a number of people walking with the invites in their hands, individually or in pairs, birthday hats perched jauntily on their heads. Images of a large, floating soap bubble is interspersed with these shots. The rainbowed coloured bubble mimics the rainbow coloured unicorn invitation cards. A happy, smiling woman walks with a birthday cake in her hand. The candles are not yet lit. The woman carrying the cake joins her friends who have gathered in a circle, joyously dancing.
I was surprised to discover that they are in a graveyard. One of the party goers is blowing bubbles and the large bubble we have been following pops when it hits the cement ground. The film is described simply as “a gathering of old friends.”[vi]
Birthday cakes, in and of themselves, are a means for demarcating time, of celebrating the day we came to be into the world and the process of making it through another year. We blow out the candles to make a wish for the upcoming year. Here time relates to mortality and the sad realization that, despite the jubilation of the celebrants, whoever has died won’t be celebrating another birthday. And yet they gather to celebrate the life of their loved one, bringing the party to the gravesite to say that they still remember and appreciate them.
Jean-Marie Villeneuve’s Autumn considers mortality, loss, and remembrance from the vantage point of a young girl. She looks very forlorn as she stands beside her father’s grave which is demarcated with a framed text that reads, “A mon papa.”[vii] Coloured, autumn leaves litter the surface of grave. She makes a scarecrow-like effigy of him with, what I imagine are, his clothes, glasses, and hat. His eyes and nose are made of wooden buttons and his mouth is a drawn as a squiggly line. She needs to step up onto a box to create him. The film ends with her hugging the sculpture. The description reads: “A little girl is thinking about her dad.”[viii]
The girl is trying to recapture the time when her father was still alive, hoping that hugging a three-dimensional version of him might provide some solace. Autumn reminds us of how the passing of time can bring sadness and death. The leaves that fall during the autumn season, helping trees sleep to survive the winter, are echoed in the effigy of the girl’s father. As we hope the leaves and spring will return after a long winter, the girl is engaged in a magical act to bring her dad back at least for a moment. She tries to recapture being able to hug him, a time that is now past.
Now let’s take our media art Tardis time machine back for a brief glimpse of 2015.
Vadim Bulitko’s Particle Drift is another one-minute film from the Gotta Minute Film Festival. It is described as: “Particles randomly drift in space and meet to form a coral-like fractal.”[ix] A red and black multifaceted object slowly grows against a black background. Its growth is rapid, beautiful, and mesmerizing. When it has reached its full size, we enter into the structure, like an astronaut exploring the depths of space. This piece makes me think about how time is required for growth: natural, personal, and societal. Like the growing fractal, transformation can be a difficult and time-consuming practice, but it is often a worthwhile endeavour, especially if there is beauty and wonder to be found on the other side.
Scott Portingale’s Photosynthesis “is a short stop-motion animated film about a camera and a vacuum that save a plant from death by dehydration.”[x] A camera with a telephoto lens moves around an apartment on a tripod, exploring, and taking photos of its surroundings. It sees, and becomes concerned, that plant on the kitchen table is wilted. It seeks the help of the vacuum to solve the problem. The vacuum sucks up water from the kettle on the stove and pour it onto the plant. Using time lapse photography, we see the plant revive. The camera and vacuum go back to their regular spots in the apartment when the human occupants return. The stop-motion technique is all about the laborious harnessing of time: moving objects in small increments in real space and taking photos to make the individual frames create a sense of movement through time.
And last, but certainly not least, let’s get back in our Tardis and check in on 2012 to see what that year had to offer for reflections on time.
In The Man that Got Away, Trevor Anderson tells the tale of his great uncle through as a series of musical vignettes where the actors move downwards along the spiral of a car park. Anderson says, “My family almost forgot to tell me about my great uncle Jimmy. True story. Or so I’m told.”[xi] As a young child, Jimmy sings about the difficulties of growing up as a performative kid in a small town on the Prairies, singing one of my favourite lines in the film: “Hell, this place is so gay. And not in the good way.”[xii] Fast forward to Jimmy joining the Merchant Marines and discovering his sexuality as a gay man. After WWII, he moves New York City “to become a dancer on Broadway.”[xiii] He becomes addicted to substances and goes into rehab where he meets Judy Garland, of all people. “Judy signed a note to Jimmy and sealed it with a kiss. He carried it in his wallet for the rest of his life.”[xiv]
The movement down the car park spiral throughout the film enacts the passage of a life that spiralled downwards due to addiction. Jimmy moved back to Canada after rehab, eventually ending up homeless and sadly dying on the street. Anderson recounts, “Somebody goes through his wallet…You find a note. A note from Judy Garland. You don’t throw that away. You keep it or you sell it. Where’s that note today?”[xv]
The Man that Got Away reveals a story that might have been lost to the annuls of time if Anderson’s family hadn’t mentioned it to him in passing. It makes me think about all the people whose histories have been forgotten and also about who gets to document the past. What familial stories are we never told? How do, and can, we access past eras through story telling?
Geraldine Carr explores the potential positives of being late in her autobiographical film Maud Mary & the Titanic. She narrates, “When things get really hairy, I just slow down and allow myself to take my time. I remind myself that it’s okay to be late, that if I trust my own timing, my own process, I’ll be okay.”[xvi] She conveys the story of her great grandmother who lived in Liverpool, England. As a widow, Maude Mary Price wanted a new start. She bought tickets for herself and her three children to travel “on the maiden voyage of the most unsinkable ship of all time, the R.M.S Titanic.”[xvii] Thankfully they missed the boat due to a broken wheel on their horse and carriage.
Mary Maude took the next boat and arrived safely in Quebec in May of 1912. Using photographs combined with recreations, Carr delves into her family’s past to bring this historic lucky moment to light. This film considers time from a historical, familial, and personal vantage point. She reveals how the ripples of individual moments in time can change a whole family’s lineage.
aAron munson takes an experimental approach to time and the materials of film in his just over three-minute film Something Strangely Familiar. The film is described as: “An apocalypse in ink, soap, and 35mm film, shot in high definition video.”[xviii] It starts with a quote by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.”[xix] The quote refers to the premise of Something Strangely Familiar: the potential demise of 35mm film due to being replaced by digital video. We see an interaction between these two forms of media art. The music, written and performed by Clayton Alpha, lulled me into a state of meditation as I watched soap bubbles and water move across the surface of a strip of film, like an abstract painting in motion.
Using sepia tones and black and white, it recalls the processes of an earlier film era. A number of questions came to mind as I watched. What do we consider important enough to remember and preserve from past media eras? What is lost when one technology takes over another? This film also made me think of the crucial need for preservation of earlier media art technologies, like analog video, that can deteriorate and become easily lost over time.
This is the last installation of FAVA Fourfold and I want to thank FAVA so much for inviting me to create this curatorial series. I hope that you have enjoyed this curatorial project as much I have enjoyed creating it. Please take some time to check out my previous three essays and compilations about place, joy, and nature from the FAVA TV media art online vaults. Take care of yourselves and each other and stay safe.
[i] https://tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Wibbly_wobbly,_timey_wimey. Accessed Nov. 25, 2020.
[vii] For my father.
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.