writings

Every act of speech and every image carries traces of its previous use…it’s the same with images and words: whatever has been previously written or said is present in every word.[1]

I see Mr. Edison’s Ear as a continuation of the work I have done previously, work that has searched for traces of what is lost. My focus on the artifact is linked to my own early childhood and my family’s exile from Chile after the military coup in1973. I came to Canada as a refugee but have very few memories of that time. Thus, I am interested in the elusive nature of memories and the loss of memory. I am concerned with lost time, lost ways of life, the loss of childhood innocence, the loss of language and meaning.

The first film that I made, Cuentos de mi niñez (Tales from my childhood,) was a reconstruction of my childhood experience of exile. BOY, made several years later, examined place. The film refers to the cities I have lived, but particularly Vancouver and the relationship between that city and the birth of my son Jacob and the first two years of his life. BOY related memory of place and memory of event. I wanted to capture the sense of time I felt caring for a very young child vis a vis an aesthetic that I associate with Vancouver. Both films share the following similarities: they use a reflective personal narrator as a story guide for interpreting the optically printed, disintegrated images. They are both created out of  (reconstituted) footage, images of images. These two films were influenced by Canadian, experimental, personal, process-oriented filmmaking practices—the early work of Midi Onodera, Anne Marie Fleming, Philip Hoffman and Barbara Sternberg in particular. These artists explore memory (and everyday moments) within a poetic framework that reveals the material presence of the film medium.

When I started the MFA program at York, I directed my attention to transmigrating the work I had been doing on Super-8 and16mm film to digital video. In 2003, I made Lala, a video that documents the transformation of a single image. This video represents an intermediary step to the approach I adopted with Mr. Edison’s Ear. Lala explores the interiority of an image, a family artifact. I scanned the image, divided it into sections, created zoomed-in (10-12) images from each section, then layered each file in a digital editing program. When my mother and her siblings put my grandmother (who has vascular dementia) into a home, my mother took on the task of archiving the photos and documents that were in my grandmother’s possession. I sifted through these and came across a photo, taken in 1910, of my great-great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, a baby (my great uncle) and the maid or nanny. It is a curious tableau. My great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather are looking away from the camera, at each other perhaps. The maid’s gaze is directed at us. My great-grandmother wears a fabulous plumed hat. They are outside. In the distance is an out-of-focus figure, perhaps a policeman or a soldier. It is unclear whether the scene behind them is a backdrop or not. The video is titled Lala because my grandmother’s current caregiver is named Lala, and coincidentally, so was my grandmother’s wet nurse. In the video, this connection is recounted using text.

My mother can identify every person represented in the photograph except the woman who meets our gaze. I was already intrigued with this photograph because it is faded, and old—visual qualities that I associate with feelings of melancholy, loss and longing. The missing identification provoked by the photograph, however, represented a material consolidation of my interest in archival objects with my interest in lost, irretrievable things—things that nonetheless remain very desirable to retrieve. Because my grandmother has dementia, and none of her siblings are alive, or well enough to remember, I did not have a way of finding out who this woman is. I assume she was a maid or nanny because she is wearing an apron and because she is mestiza, of mixed race. These are the obvious implications of class and race in Chilean society today and historically, and this is partly what Lala explores.

When I started work on Mr. Edison’s Ear, I wanted to bring ideas about memory and the mimetic object out of the personal realm and direct the inquiry toward another subject. I wanted to deal with history more directly. I thought that I could continue to do work on the problem of memory, but that I would rely on the memories of people not directly connected to me. I would rely on recorded memory, and began to consider how to approach this problem in digital video format.

In Raul Ruiz’ essay, “Images of Images,” he states, “in the act of copying, there are two separate and divergent things. One is specialization, the other is involuntary invention.”[2] Ruiz’s essay meanders playfully through literary references and anecdotes as he contemplates what copying existing artwork and images by hand (i.e. paintings of paintings), mechanically (photocopies) and theatrically (i.e. Tableau Vivants) achieves. I see this essay as a written version of a found footage film. The process Ruiz describes reminds me of how animator, Jeffrey Scher, works with found footage, rotoscoping it to produce new meaning. Scher is particularly adept at copying and recopying by tracing, then rendering, then filming all the while preserving the reference. It is pleasurable to identify the last shot in Rear Window—Jimmy Stewart closing the blind—now also the closing of Milk of Amnesia. Milk of Amnesia is a film whose narrative flow is associative in that it is constructed from matching Hollywood film clips and television commercials through similarities in colour, composition and movement within each frame. The Ruiz essay, and the examination of other found-footage media arts projects played a large role in shaping my formal and conceptual approach to Mr. Edison’s Ear. This approach included decisions like allowing the story emerge through a lengthy process of gathering and working with each image and sound clip. These units were rearranged until the lyrical narrative structure of the final video evolved into a story told by the placement of the material elements, not by a guiding narrator.

Thinking about the various ways images can be copied led me to contemplate the qualities of a recorded piece of sound. If a photograph, for instance, signifies loss in that it always refers to the past, what does a piece of sound do? Sound is fleeting. Unlike a photo you can stare at again and again, sound has to be rewound and played back before it can be heard and re-scrutinized. That physicality emphasizes sound’s elusiveness, and the mechanics of this activity are very present in the act of rewinding. Sound has a linear engagement to the listener—it has to be listened to in a directional manner through time and recording methods are also directional. Every sound recording, like every image, is also about its preservation, which is what can make it an artifact. The value of the artifact, its authenticity and durability, is in its preservation. The perception of contemporary digital technologies and storage methods is one of reproduction without loss. I wanted to connect sound as an analogue to digital progression and thus the bulk of the video consists of digital formats. Copying an original creates a permanent record, but also reveals medium-specific traces—dust left on the surface of the film, film grain, pixels, changes to image and sound quality. So even though a reproduction ensures the preserved life of an object, it also transforms it, and in its transformation an irretrievable, sometimes unidentifiable loss occurs. I chose to distress the images and/or embrace their raw form in order to suggest that one cannot retrieve what has been lost, merely transform it, like memory. The condition created by this loss is a new condition, a kind of entropy, which is perhaps the space of meaning.

Endnotes
1. Volker Pantenberg, “Between Image and Text,” Gaensheimer , Susanne and Schafenhausen, Nicolaus ed., Harun Farocki, Imprint, Writings, trans. Faasch-Ibrahim, Laurent. New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2001, p.24.
2. Raul Ruiz, “Images of Images,” The Poetics of Cinema, trans. Brian Holmes, Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1995, p. 44