[28 July 2005]
We live in a postmodern world, a world where art can be found in the most banal of contexts, and where the context of our lives is itself merely a blank canvas for the ambitious ironist. The ethos of hip-hop and electronic music, with their embrace of sound as a plastic medium ripe for manipulation and reconceptualization, has spilled over into all walks of life, with the act of cultural synthesis having assumed a primal and unprecedented importance in the modern imagination.
The -40 compilation is a unique collaboration between three groups dedicated (at least in part) to the elaboration of these plastic ideas throughout the public sphere. C0C0S0L1DC1T1 describes itself as “a sound, video and Internet art organization with a mandate to produce digital audiovisual artworks”. terminus1525 is a “collaborative workspace brought to life online and on the street… fuelled by the imagination of a new wave of Canadian creators”. While C0C0S0L1DC1T1 is an international organization with offices in England, France and Canada, both groups receive funding from the Canada Council for the Arts (terminus1525 is also affiliated with the Department of Canadian Heritage). In conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, these organizations have crafted a thought-provoking and—to my knowledge—unprecedented remix project, reaching into the recesses of the Canadian national archives in order to compile this collection of unique reimaginings of decades-old propaganda films. In other words, the raw materials assembled herein are not merely songs, vocal snippets and video clips, but the very national heritage of Canada itself, spliced and reworked to create new meaning in a new era.
This is an ambitious thesis, and it is to the credit of the compilers that it works as often as it does. That the remixers overreach and occasionally stumble is to be expected. A project with such a broad and ambiguous scope can be expected to inspire leaps of inspiration both fruitful and futile.
The compilation is divided into three parts. The first component is purely audio, featuring ten remixes composed of spare parts pulled from selected films. The second and third components feature both audio and visual elements: the remixes from the first audio disc set over the unmolested original video, in addition to visual reworkings of a different set of films by a group of video “remixers”. These three sections add up to an interesting, if radically uneven experiment.
The first section suffers from the same malady that has afflicted remix projects since time immemorial: not all remixes are created equal. The quality of the mixes depends to a large degree on the amount which the source samples influenced the form of the remixes. For example, Knifehandchop’s “Divide and Fragment Remix” of the 1941 Battle of Brains featurette essentially takes the vocal samples from the descriptions of war and puts them into a jittery drill & bass blender. It’s really little different from the way dance producers have been utilizing weird, spooky or unusual vocal snippets since the dawn of sampling. Secret Mommy’s “You Choo-Choo-Choose Me?”, built from fragments of the Trans-Canada Express film, succeeds in conjuring a breezy, cheery facsimile of demented children’s music. When, during the second part, the audio parts are added to the original video, the difference in approaches becomes obvious: Knifehandchop’s generic breakbeats add nothing to the images of war, whereas Secret Mommy’s slightly more considered selection creates an interesting effect when combined with images of large-scale industry—achieving the exact kind of ironic commentary for which the project was conceived.
Meek’s “Definitely Not Internment Camps” mix of the Of Japanese Descent film puts vaguely Asian atmospherics to the service of a Squarepusher-esque IDM workout. It’s a slightly creepy sound that adds to the surreal, deeply unpleasant tone of the film itself. Akufen’s “Dynamism des ondes” mix (from the film of the same name) is very much of a whole with Akufen’s work to date, an enjoyable bit of glitch house buoyed by its use of choppy samples to create interesting rhythms out of recurring melody. But as an actual commentary of / reaction to the film from which it was culled, it falls short.
DJ Dopey’s “Children From Overseas” (again, from the film of the same name) is a scratch-and-paste track that effectively conjures the ominous foreboding of the film, which illustrates the practice of sending British children to Canada for safekeeping in anticipation of a possible German land invasion. Deadbeat’s “Trees That Reach the Sky” is perhaps the best track on either the audio or audio/visual discs, as it successfully invokes a sense of transcendental beauty associated with scenes of Canada’s natural resources and the necessary exploitation of same. It works both on its own merits and in conjunction with the film of the same name, creating an almost-hypnotic sense of grandeur through the use of repeated synth motifs and gradually building breakbeats. The final track is Venetian Snare’s mix of “The Guinea Pig Club”, a disturbing evisceration of New Faces Come Back, a featurette on the subject of disfigured war veterans returning from their stays in the reconstructive ward. The combination of mangled flesh and spooky, distorted sound makes for a haunting experience.
The final portion, featuring the new visual reworkings of selected films, is similarly uneven. Dave Lemiux’s “Amen” (from Terre de nos aïeux) uses strange motion-capture techniques to outline and accentuate the garbled action. (I don’t speak French, and as many of these films utilized a French soundtrack I had no idea what they were about.) Josh Raskin’s “Inside the Atom” was a clever animated exploration of anachronistic ideas of the technological potential of atomic power.
Some of the filmmakers take chances that fall flat. Both Nadia Duguay and Wayne Yung insert themselves into their videos, Duguay through means of superimposing herself interacting with the naval battles of Les héros de l’Atlantique, and Yung by juxtaposing images of World War taken from Hitler’s Plan for Empire with his own ambiguously gay romantic narrative. The insertions are clever but ultimately facile. Chantal Durand strangely builds “Lunaparc, Lupanar”, built on the Métropole short, around bouncing images of 1940s-era beauty queens, for a baffling collage of mid-century burlesque.
But then we have Cinétik’s “Engrenages”, produced from the wreckage of L’Abitibi. Almost totally abstract, the visual collage offsets French narration against pulsating static, random imagery and flashing light. It is a dark and strangely compelling piece of filmmaking, even if I can’t understand a word being said on the audio track.
As a citizen of the United States, I find myself quite in awe of the scope of this project. That multiple government agencies would collaborate on a project of such impish design is inconceivable for those of us who live south of the border. These propaganda films are sometimes portentous, sometimes silly and often (as in the case of those films dealing with Japanese internment and atomic power) sadly anachronistic, but in America you couldn’t get away with a project of this scope without conservative pundits across the nation decrying the sacrilegious desecration of our national heritage.
But as much as I may applaud the ideas behind -40, the actual results are only intermittently interesting. Those artists who succeed in creating something interesting with these odd templates pave the way towards a more considered rapprochement with our history and cultural heritage. Those who fail or only partially succeed are still to be commended, because inevitably their failure builds the foundation for future breakthroughs.