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).
Explorations of Place
By Dr. Kristen Hutchinson
After pursuing the collection, I was drawn to the theme of place for the first installment of my online curatorial project for FAVA TV. Place can be something we easily take for granted. If we walk or drive the same way to work everyday, what we see around us becomes almost invisible. Yet place (where we live, where we travel, where we are from, where we call home, where we might long to escape from or escape to) is an essential component in how we define ourselves and live our daily lives.
The ten media artists I have chosen explore the theme of place through experimental and narrative short videos and films, and music videos. Given that FAVA is located in Edmonton, Alberta, I was particularly drawn to media art in the collection that represents the particularities of living in the largest Northern-most metropolis in North America. However, that is not all that the media art I have chosen about place has to offer. Scrolling through these videos will also take you to the streets of Los Angeles, Nunavut’s Frobisher Bay, the underpasses and railway lines of Montreal, the sites of Niagara Falls, and a tranquil cabin somewhere in rural Alberta.
In Ben Garcia’s one-minute, silent film Heart is Full an unidentified individual (you only see the top of their forehead and tuque in the rear view window) drives down a snowy driveway up to a small cabin in a wooded area. The next cut focuses on the cabin with a string of glowing coloured lights in the evening. The camera pans up past the rooftop to reveal a beautiful night sky. The stars move across the sky as flickers of a fire appear at the bottom of the screen. The film, originally shown at the 2019 Gotta Minute Film Festival , is described as “a reflection of the anxieties of modern life.” It is the perfect meditation on that moment of reaching cottage country, where all the stresses melt away. As night comes you get to watch the shifting stars in a way that is impossible in the city. Garcia eloquently and simply captures this place of respite and rest, a space where one can get back in tune with nature and oneself.
The narrative film Gooses by Shawn Sullivan & Joe Peeler follows a young woman on a visit to her sister in Los Angeles. In the beginning of the film, she dances in an alleyway as her voice over recounts, “I want to live and be alive. And what I mean is that I don’t want vacations to feel educational or whatever. The first day I spent by myself.” We see her happily walking, taking photos, eating cake, and visiting places with her sister. We see LA through the sparkling eyes of a tourist, one who is particular lucky to have her sister to show her around. The main protagonist, who is never named, says, “California was awesome. It seemed like paradise. I felt wonderful. I felt dreamy.” The film shows how we experience place differently when on vacation. We notice the spaces around us with particular detail. Being away from the typical places we inhabit can also allow us to contemplate our relationships, in this instance sisterhood, from a new vantage point and to open ourselves up to making new and exciting fleeting relationships too. Los Angeles, the place where dreams are made and stories are told, acts as the backdrop for the protagonist’s musings.
Dylan Rhys Howard’s short documentary Lifetimes of Snow explores how place makes us who we are, especially when it comes to creativity. Howard gives us “a portrait of musician Jom Comyn and, by proxy, the city he calls home: Edmonton, Alberta.” The first shots are in black and white during the winter: snow falling, oil refineries, highways, and storefronts for lease. There is a shift to colour as Comyn starts discussing his life and music. He talks about going to see a concert at a local bar: “I knew all the bands that were playing, and you also know 80% of people in the audience…It is an extension of family. I want to see how everybody is…That is what community is to me and that’s to me the best that Edmonton has to offer. If you want to make a community there you can do it.” Comyn and the film itself delve into the particularities of living in a city with a small town vibe and how place is where we build community.
The music video for Kool Music’s Running Back to Everyone, directed by Evan Prosofsky, features an Elvis Presley impersonator riding his motorcycle throughout the town and environs of Niagara Falls. We see him taking in the sites of this tourist town including filling up a red heart shaped bathtub. The colour of the tub is perfectly echoed in his cape. Rather than a happy tourist romp, this video shows the downsides of actually living and working in a tourist town. As the Elvis impersonator demonstrates, place can also related to being a state of being stuck in a dead end job that you don’t enjoy. As people flock to Niagara Falls, you get the impression that this Elvis does not want to be there anymore. Unlike Comyn, in the previous film, Niagara Falls is not a place of community but rather one of isolation and disconnection for this musician.
Kyle Armstrong’s short documentary Classic Camera takes us into the world of a camera store in Edmonton run by 89-year-old Wally Franiel. The film scans the shelves of the store, packed mainly with analogue cameras, a film photographer’s paradise. This is a place full of possibilities. The shop owner talks about his personal history to photography: “I was nineteen when I knew we were coming to Canada. We were still in Germany [in a] refugee camp and my brother wanted to get a camera. We pooled our money…and he got a camera…I got stuck to it and I don’t think he took any pictures with it…in the end I went into photography.” Armstrong gives a view into the store that demonstrates how much Franiel loves photography and the cameras he sells. His store is also shown as a place of learning, where he teaches customers how to load film and work with analogue cameras and lens.
Tide, created by Erica Chemko, is a silent, one-minute poetic documentary about the snow, ice, and glaciers of Frobisher Bay in Nunavut. Described as “an intimate look at how the extreme tides in Frobisher Bay create new relationships between the land, ice and water”, the film captures the beautiful blue glow of the glaciers as they become fragmented. I couldn’t help but think of climate change and how the splendour of this place might become lost to us forever. At numerous points, the camera focuses upon a large patch of ice and snow and then you realize that the ground is moving, constantly in flux. Chemko’s focus on a specific place creates a space for the contemplation of the wonders of nature and also makes us reflect on the loss of these habitats. The film was part of the 2014 Gotta Minute Film Festival.
The short film/documentary The High Level Bridge, directed and narrated by Trevor Anderson, also provides a reflection on loss and place. Anderson focuses on the large bridge that connects Edmonton’s downtown and the south side and its connection to suicide: “This is the High Level Bridge. It’s where people who live in Edmonton go when we are finally ready to kill ourselves.” The drum beat soundtrack and winter footage feels ominous as Anderson talks about the people has known who have committed suicide. There is also a dramatic ending that I won’t spoil for you here. The film makes people see this Edmonton landmark differently. If you live in Edmonton, you have probably walked across it at least once. Before the city erected safety barriers you may not have known its sad history. Whenever I teach this film in my classes some of my students are at first reluctant to believe the link between suicide and the bridge. Here place serves as the backdrop for unheard, tragic stories to be told.
The Vale by Connor McNally shows a happier side of living in Edmonton by exploring the River Valley, the largest urban park in Canada with 160 kilometres of paths and 20 parks. Whenever you hear someone complaint about Edmonton, a local is likely to say, “But there is the River Valley!” The calming voice of narrator Anne McGrath recites “a poem about how nature inspires both the mind and feet to wander” as we watch beautiful images of the river valley in the summer. The narrator reads: “Do you recall those times in August when you float through air?” The camera moves through the lush vegetation, moving from colour to black and white, and back again. As we are shown a woman reading, her back up against a tree, the narrator continues, “Why do you continue to visit? Is it so you can submerse yourself in me, and get lost in thought?…To bathe in the atmosphere of the forest.” The Vale is a love letter to the best place in Edmonton. For those of us who live here, every year we eagerly await the summer to reappear so we can spend more time there. In the depths of winter, when that longing becomes particularly strong, I have turned to this film and said to myself, “Spring and summer will come again and it will be glorious.”
Cheyenne Kean Lemery’s one-minute, silent film Homesick centres on a woman as she gets out of bed to got about her daily life. As she drinks her coffee, she thinks about the ocean. As she looks out her window unto another snowy Edmonton day in what looks like the suburbs, she thinks about a dazzling glacier floating in that ocean. Here place is about longing. The film ends with tears welling up in her eyes, about to fall down her cheeks. The film’s tagline reads: “This is a kind place. It soothes homesickness with prosperity and confuses my sorrow with gratitude.” The film makes me think about what home means and how home is so often irrevocably tied to place. Is home where we grew up, where we live now, a place that we lived before that we had a particular affinity with, or a place we haven’t found yet? The film’s description offers a glimmer of hope, a coming to terms with the land locked nature of Edmonton, and a realization that there are trade-offs about this place that make her homesickness worthwhile. Homesick was also part of the 2014 Gotta Minute Film Festival.
Bernard Gaspe by Lindsay McIntyre is set in Montreal during a typically hot summer rainstorm. This experimental film truly captures the weight and haziness of the Montreal summer heat and that glorious moment when the skies open up and provide relief with a quick, dramatic, and thunderous downpour. I first saw this piece when I was on a jury for Prairie Tales and it made me so homesick for Montreal. The superimposed images perfectly capture the feeling of the Mile End and Park Extension areas of the city: its derelict spaces, highway underpasses, and railway lines. Watching it brings back such strong memories for me of this place that I will always think of as home.
As the films I have chosen show, the time based mediums of film and video are particularly adept at exploring place since places are something we typically experience by moving through them. These films testify to the many sides of place: as a location, a container for memories, a concept, a feeling, a space for longing and loss, a community, and a home. They make us think more deeply about how place affects us in so many ways that we don’t often consider.
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.