A View from Nowhen

October 2014, curatorial text in catalogue for exhibition Amanda Dawn Christie: Land LostGalerie d’art Louise et Reuben Cohen, Moncton, NB. Edited by Mireille Bourgeois, other writers: Pip Chodorov and Scott Birdwise. Copyright Mireille Bourgeois.

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Lost Lands are prehistoric islands, geographical masses, and regions that have been lost to, or hidden from, civilization. Some of these lands are subterranean cities such as Derinkuyu in Cappadocia, Turkey, the largest underground city discovered to date,[1] which was built for protection from war and later used against religious persecution. Other lost lands are mythologized through hearsay and tell fictitious stories of great battles set against the victory of reaching the proverbial utopia. Spiritual journeys are undertaken based on some of these myths, the most famous being Atlantis and also Shambala, which is described as a “kingdom whose reality is visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic.”[2] Much faith is placed on these discoveries and myths in hopes that new findings will enlighten our world about the past that built our present and perhaps give us warnings for our future if we heed the danger in repeated histories.

At the heart of our civilization’s fascination with lost lands, which has been explored at length, especially in the Hollywood and science fiction film genre, is the allegory of the personal quest for truth. The quest is only accomplished by seemingly adventurous yet vulnerable souls who have the street knowledge to adapt to various geographical locations and personalities, manipulating random objects — electronic, mechanical or static — depending on their spontaneous need.[3] In the victorious stage of the quest, a legendary object[4] is usually presented, which metaphorically represents the opportunity of penultimate fulfillment and is then used as a key to unlock the great mysteries of life. Inherent to the fictitious world is the state of being nowhen: a state where we try to recall or describe reality from no particular known perspective, and we find that we are neither here nor there, with no concept of or need for time and place.[5] Enter here the artwork of Amanda Dawn Christie.

The artist presents her detailed studies on the loss of technology by creating a thinking space as if suspended in a fictional world, or nowhen, and interacts with the audience by engaging them in her particular do-it-yourself style of art making. Christie has gained notoriety for her alternative processes and approaches to celluloid and has brought to life a unique fusion of performance art with technology, all while remaining somewhat bound to electronics from our so-called past. It is only recently that the artist has begun her foray into the installation space. Amanda Dawn Christie: Land Lost is a multi-media solo exhibition exploring the Moncton-based artist’s career between the years 2004 and 2014. The exhibit presents the connective lines between her film, video projection, sound work, and photography, which relate to the underlying presence of the landscape in the artist’s films, her meta-physical performances, and her use of dead or dying technology in a personal, sometimes self-deprecating, world of do-it-yourself culture. Here, lost land means to negotiate between one’s own physiological or site-specific state (being in, or in tune with the landscape of technology) and the non-narrative space of memory, as it often relates to fiction.

Having had relationships with film co-operatives through her travels in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States, Christie has endured a long-standing practice in filmmaking, embracing manipulation of traditional cinematic practices and now also experimenting with other mediums such as sound, performance, and installation in similar ways. Often described as an engineer, she handles, constructs, alters and, in many cases, performs her media using the body through physical interaction with mechanical and electrical objects. I don’t believe Christie personifies the technology or the objects she uses but instead links their representation in the history of personal use to the societal dependence on technology. Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 Massey lecture The Real World of Technology, said that “[t]echnology involves ideas and practices, myth and various models of reality, and like democracy, technology changes the causal relationship between us, and forces us to redefine notions of power and responsibility.”[6] Though Christie has worked tirelessly as an arts advocate and administrator through her involvement in artist-run-centres and advocacy groups for the status of the arts in Canada, her films rarely take a political stance. The artist instead offsets the responsibility of lost technology with her own relationship and memories of it.

There is a wide spectrum of technology used in Amanda Dawn Christie: Land Lost. In this exhibit, technology is defined as that which allows humans and animals the “ability to control their natural environments.” These technologies could be electromagnetic, electrical, mechanical, or research involving all of these. I idolizes and dismantles iconographies of our technological surroundings such as trains, radio towers, and the ephemeral lost land of the analogue radio signal. The relationship between Christie, technology, and loss comes through in all of the artworks in this exhibition such as Last Days of Snow (2011-2014), where we can see the last breath of analogue television transmissions and in the falling radio tower soldiers from Spectre of Shortwaves: Sine Waves and Snow Falls (2014). The latter is a new triptych video version with hexaphonic sound and is based on footage from the body of work Spectre of Shortwaves, which includes a feature length film and multiple audio and video installations documenting the fall of the Radio Canada International shortwave towers in Sackville, NB. For the film, Christie waited for hours in freezing conditions on the windy marsh for the towers to fall and, at one point, also climbed two of the towers while recording images and audio. Her performative and often dangerous devotion to her work enters the realm of fiction, where she creates a mission (capturing the moment of the fall of 24,000 pounds of metal), a place of wonder (the mythical field of towers, explored extensively in at least three major works), and exhausts herself trying to be a witness to it in its dying hour.[7]

Christie can seem to be distancing herself from her own experiences and memories by bringing technology into the realm of mythical experience or personae, through repurposing her original materials in performance, dance, and installations. This explains why many of her works are series or are sectioned into parts. An example is the series Last Days of Snow, which has five distinct elements of which Last Days of Snow: Final Transmissions is one. Transmissions is based on footage sent to Christie by colleagues of Canadian analogue television broadcasts (which have been completely phased out in lieu of digital TV signals) cutting out in residential homes across Canada. In essence, this art piece wavers between documentation and experimental and is one of Christie’s rawest videos. It is unprocessed, shot by others, and intermittently cut as an extension of her own performance Last Days of Snow: Waiting for the End (2011), where she sits in various locations such as a bar, a diner, next to a train bridge with a portable analogue television waiting for the signal to cut out. In the end, the viewer is treated like a friend and brought into a group bar scene where the signal inevitably extinguishes.

The apocalyptic end is often suggested in the artist’s work. “Technological Determinism” is a term coined by Thorstein Veblen and furthered by other theorists and philosophers, the most noteworthy being Karl Marx. This theory has many interpretations but most agree that Technological Determinism means technology “…follows a predictable, traceable path largely beyond cultural or political influence…”[8] and that our cultural and social landscape is structured in such a way as to encourage the advancement of technology, so much so that it has built a landscape around it and makes our society somewhat powerless against changing its path. Marx believed this state to be quite dangerous, and that we could experience a complete societal collapse were technology to collapse itself. As apocalyptic as this ought to be, it seems the death of mature technology is not at its utmost breaking point from a global standpoint and falters all around us without much thought from the general public. Christie creates spectacle around newly extinct technology by showing what it may look and feel like, dramatizing a rather simple transition between its life and its death, to mark an otherwise fairly unnoticed end. As in her other artwork, she steeps her viewer in a possible state of fiction, occasionally bridges reality, then changes the perspective through dark humor. Instead of letting us fall in the depths of death, like the signal does in the solitary videos of Transmissions, we experience a bittersweet celebration.

The moving landscapes in Land Lost at times reference the imprint of memory onto site and of the self onto “mythical” objects. The 2006 black and white 16mm film Mechanical Memory started as a Super 8 film from the 1970s that grew fungus while being stored in a basement. To amplify the crystals of the fungus, the footage was optically printed up to 16mm film and slowed down, which allows the defect to be seen and be conceptually framed by the idea of echoic memory. The artist speaks of her father working on the rails over the sound of a composition written by Christie called “The Smell of Train Grease” and we see vintage footage of two dogs playing, fighting, wrestling in snow — a recurring element in many of Christie’s work. The gentle voice like a fleeting memory, Christie seems to be grieving a moment where the smell of train track grease reminds her of dinnertime. Also speaking of the manifestation of memories is the ongoing Marshland Radio Plumbing Project, a performance and research project where Christie plays a scientist, conducting a series of tests to prove the “Rusty Bolt Effect”[9]: an occurrence where radio signals are transmitted through copper piping found in sinks, bathtubs, and toasters, giving the haunting impression of other-worldly voices. Never too far from reality, Christie’s alter ego built a radio sink with copper plumbing and set it up in fields, community gardens, and other sites on the Tantramar Marshes in Sackville (NB), places known for having experienced this phenomenon, to try and recreate the occurrence but to no avail. In the exhibit, maps, transmission schedules, slews, azimuths, and field notes are tacked up on the gallery wall as though the artist were in mid-study. They are shown with photographs of the sink located on the selected test sites, and can be read as specimens displayed in a museum. There is a prophetic correlation between the falling towers in Sine Waves and Snow Falls that we see in the horizon line of the Marshland test photographs. While one attempts to connect, the other proves it is too late.

The artist also surveys the landscape in an earlier work, Turning (2004), a 16mm film projected in this exhibition as video. A portrait of the artist: Christie walks through a forest barefoot and slow, experiencing the ruggedness of the trees and snow-covered ground while looking around and seemingly searching the land. In one scene the artist fills a tub with water, in another she cuts her hair; the acts all set in a forest. This bodily cleansing and coming back to the earth is a rebirth of sorts, formalizing a division between dream state and reality. Using physical gestures to bring the viewer back to the moment, Christie will often startle her audience with body-to-object contact reminiscent of her dance history, a dogged movement, or with a quick cut of an edit. Turning ends with Christie walking into a body of water and cuts to her emerging from the tub before blurring into darkness on an open body of water. The silent film is more of a beginning than an ending as she moves from nature to plumbing, from fiction to reality, and perhaps suggests hope in the midst of death.

In one work she is showing us television’s afterlife with electronic snow, while in another work, Off Route 2 (2011), she is laying in it, cold and white as though experiencing a trauma rather than snow’s playful and sweet childhood reminiscence. Off Route 2 is a solemn film of a snowy landscape, where deer and wolves occasionally appear on the screen in a prey-or-play mode of interaction with their forest. The camera eventually lands on an overturned, white Pontiac Grand Am, with Christie hanging upside down, strapped in the driver’s seat, arm lying out in the snow with almost pretty splatters of blood. There is no hint as to how the overturned car got to be in the middle of a snowy forest with large fir trees hanging ominously above; she is nowhen. The film is projected in the gallery space by a 35mm projector and is accompanied by artifacts – a car bumper displayed on floor, a sweater, antlers from a deer in the film, and a mitten hang on the wall of the gallery space. Christie includes herself in most of her work and performance is important to consider as a catalyst in her transition from reality into fiction. The objects placed in the gallery act as interventions in the fiction that is the white cube. The end of Off Route 2 unravels with the artist being rescued from the vehicle by firefighters and pressed into technical discussion with her crew, who enter the scene in full gear. Christie eventually yells, “Cut!” She brings us into a world of fiction where we witness a real near-death, but she then breaks the fourth wall of cinema, much like in Last Days of Snow: Final Transmissions.

Christie’s early experimentation involved getting physical with film: concocting various chemical and non-chemical baths, soaks, and rigorously affecting her film by scratching and altering its surface. This carried through from her dance experience where the idea of “contact” seems critical: contact with film, contact with technology by Frankensteining its uses, and contact with her space in public performances with technology as a dance partner.

“My films began looking at my own body and situating it in the world. When viewed in chronological order, it becomes apparent that each successive film draws further and further away from my body and from representation. I gradually began filming more inanimate objects and manipulating them beyond recognition. I was distancing myself further and further from the physical world. There is a sense of loss and isolation in this return to stasis. Instead of a moving image frozen in a static photograph, I began filming static objects as moving images.”[10]

Her body, however, never acts as a prop; it is involved and working through the landscape in all her projects. From Sine Waves and Snow Falls to her two distinct Last Days series and Turning, Christie experiments with a view from nowhere, lost to herself and trying to reclaim a perspective of time in the fictitious representation of site. Christie’s use of technology can appear very personal, such as in her photo documentation of the Tuschinsky Theatre in Amsterdam, Last Days of Cinema (2008), where rich, behind-the-scenes photographs of a historical theatre’s projection booths, intimate views of empty hallways, or a close-up of a cherished 35mm projector represent an ode of sorts. The artist creates spaces for thinking on a technology-rich environment but is caught in the thought of re-imagining her relationship to it. The legendary filmmaker Maya Deren, a great influence on Christie, wrote:

“The universe was once conceived as the passive stage upon which the dramatic conflict of human wills was enacted and resolved. Today man has discovered that that which seemed simple and stable is, instead, complex and volatile; his own inventions have put into motion new forces, toward which he has yet to invent a new relationship.”[11]

Despite her study of technology in combination with performance, Christie does not allow anthropomorphism to conflate her artwork; instead she brings the question of technological landscape to the foreground so that we may think about the body as a throughway — the junction between site and technology. This solo exhibition follows the landscape in Christie’s practice and walks the line between being lost at land (as in fiction) and being landlocked (as in reality). If nowhen is a fictitious state where time and space are not based on previously acquired knowledge of our environment, then reality is not a state — it is a site Christie occasionally visits in her work while she looks for herself. The artist may anticipate different outcomes for her work now, as it begins to dismantle not only the physical state of technological objects while they fall out of sight, such as she did film, but the perception of ourselves through a dependency on technology, and the natural environment that is a witness to it all.

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[1] http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe-asia-americas/underground-cities-and-networks-around-world-discoveries-part-2,            last modified on 23 September 2014.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shambhala

[3] See Indiana Jones, MacGyver, Nancy Drew, The Hobbit, etc.

[4] See Holy Grail, Arc of the Covenant, Rings, etc

[5] « that the flow of time vanishes if we try to describe reality without any point of view (a description that would amount to what has been called “a view from nowhen”).” Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, Huw Price, Oxford University Press, http://popups.ulg.ac.be/1782-2041/index.php?id=690

[6] Ursula M. Franklin, The Real World of Technology, published by House of Anansi, 1989, lecture recording:

http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/1989/11/07/1989-massey-lectures-the-real-world-of-technology/

[7] In a conversation with the curator (Oct. 2014), Amanda Dawn Christie spoke about touching one of the towers after its fall, and the profound sadness she felt while touching the still-warm and buzzing tower body.

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_determinism, last modified on 11 September 2014

[9] “The rusty bolt effect is radio interference due to interactions with dirty connections or corroded parts.” Lui, P.L., Passive intermodulation interference in communication systems, IEEE Electronics & Communication Engineering Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp.109-118, Jun 1990.

[10] Dividing Roadmaps by Timezones: 10 years of moving pictures
(text written for screening at the Canadian Film Institute)
published on their website and in the printed program for the screening, 2009

[11] Scott MacDonald and Jack Stauffacher in Art in Cinema: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society, Philadelphia: Temple University, 2006, p. 129

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