A Conversation With Christine Lucy Latimer
by Leslie Supnet
Christine Lucy Latimer is an avant-garde filmmaker and photographer based in Toronto whose interdisciplinary practice spans over a decade, with over 250 screenings at film festivals and galleries worldwide. In 2015, Latimer received an Honourable Mention in BlackFlash’s Optic Nerve Annual Image Contest for Physics and Metaphysics in Modern Photography, 2014, the first time a film work placed in their annual image contest since moving image works were included in the photo contest. Latimer’s media-hybrid works collapse and interrogate the essence of film and video technologies, often with a ghostly and nostalgic feel that simultaneously mourns the loss of obsolete practices while keeping them alive.
What comes with obsolete technologies are obsolete media—found footage, lost and discarded tapes, imagery, and other detritus that Latimer integrates into her work. While she ‘saves’ this media out of the unofficial archives of our discarded past, she often passes it through multiple rigorous processes, film and video transfers, and various analog and digital signals that heavily degrade them up to the point of destruction. While coming close to that edge of loss, Latimer brings them back from the abyss in a new form to show us their new life.
Leslie Supnet: Can you discuss the role media hybridity plays in your work?
Christine Lucy Latimer: My work manifests from a fascination with moving-image tools and their evolution through various zeitgeists. Using the detritus from these histories (broken gear, found/abandoned videotapes and small-gauge home movies) as art-making material, I strive to comment on issues of authorship, relevance and obsolescence in lens-based media. I am curious to explore the particularities within a given imaging technology, and what happens when it is deemed no longer commercially relevant.
Therefore, my practice often employs the combining of multiple media formats into one hybrid image. I enter into diverse states-of-play with different processes, including multi-generational video transfers, lens/projection interruption and the daisy-chaining of several live technologies. Through modes of salvage and reconstitution, the unique artifacts of these historic mediums squish together to create image-scapes of indeterminate time/place origin.
How has time and place influenced your art practice?
My artist mother, avid film-and-television-watching father, and generally westernized, middle-class suburban upbringing (just on the outskirts of Toronto) were all quite important to the evolution of my art practice.
Toronto in the late 1990s was also a huge source of influence. At the time (as a double-majoring Photography and Integrated Media student at the Ontario College of Art and Design), a tacit fluency with digital imaging technologies had not yet emerged in the postsecondary institution. Training in lens-based crafts that preceded the digital were much more on the forefront of my education. I was taught archival film and paper processes in my photography classes, learned celluloid-based filmmaking, and worked with analog video using broadcast-quality Beta SP cameras.
The medium-specific leanings at OCAD were quite pointed when I was a student there. Many of my instructors were moving-image artists that became active in Toronto in the 1970s and ’80s, and they either identified strictly as experimental filmmakers OR video artists. At the time, experimental film and video art (in Toronto at least), largely existed as separate camps that prioritized very different things. There was a clear divide, with divergent infrastructures towards making, distribution, representation and exhibition.
The ways in which time-based making was differentiated in the arts institution were baffling to me, and this confusion increased with my expanding exposure to experimental film and video art. I grew up as any suburban, westernized middle-class kid did in the 1990s—going to the cinema and watching VHS tapes—with one foot planted squarely on either side of the film/video fence. The similarities among these forms were magical, because to me, they symbolized an obvious space of evolution and democratization. Film and video spooled backwards and forwards, transporting through time in the same way. They also were both made out of metal (silver emulsion and oxide).
I realized quite early on in my arts education that I was drawn to mediums that were uniquely bound to the industrial and electronic revolutions of the 20th century. I became curious as to how I could unify the mediums artists used to make moving images in a gesture of revolt towards the strange divisions I encountered. I began making work that hybridized film and video on one image plane, employing various transfer processes between mediums to try and eliminate the visual signifiers that would detail where film ends and video begins. Obviously, the nature of this sort of hybridity is quite era-specific, as definitions of ‘filmmaking’ were poised to change soon after, with the wide consumer emergence of digital lens-based technologies.
Your multi-media installation for Viewfinders at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in 2014 is exemplary of your aesthetic investigations into lens-based technologies with the works Physics and Metaphysics in Modern Photography (16mm/ digital video hybrid, 6.5 minutes, colour, silent, 2014) and Stereovision Tanks Disguised as Aquariums (shelf-mounted stereoscopic exposures of computer screensavers). Confronted with the ghosts of technology, the viewer questions the nature of the images they see. Can you discuss how your formal juxtapositions engage the viewer in your installation work?
I love installation work because it makes explicit physical juxtaposition possible. I also enjoy using presentation forms and technologies outside of their intended purpose to encourage the viewer to make certain considerations. In previous projects, this has included suspending 16mm film projectors from the ceiling as illuminary sources, projecting images onto unlikely surfaces (such as cooked white rice), and using curved mirrors and stereoscopy to force images into strange new contexts.
With the works in the Viewfinders exhibition, the desire was to use physical, technological juxtapositions to involve the viewer in a collapsing of photographic histories. Physics and Metaphysics in Modern Photography used mobile phone footage of pages from The 1957 Photographer’s Almanac. 1957 was the first year that a digital image was ever generated, and I wanted to use a catalogue from that year, depicting a massive array of consumer lens-based tools, to describe the trajectory of the moving image from that point in history to present day. I transferred the mobile phone footage of various advertisements from this almanac to 16mm film, and installed the work as a 16mm film loop, playing on a projector within the gallery space.
Stereovision Tanks Disguised as Aquariums deals with a similar conflation of old and new media. The title is a quote from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and is the first known depiction of the screen saver. For this installation, I used a 1950’s stereoscopic 35mm camera to shoot long exposures of contemporary computer screen savers on B&W film. I then hand-processed and solarized the film in a wet darkroom (using home-brewed coffee-based chemistry) to create ethereal, chemically present transparencies that evoked sepia-toned antiquity. Both the screen saver and the long exposure were used as examples of the passage of time, representing tools left momentarily un-touched that generate and/or reflect a change.
The installation conflated 19th-century stereoscopy, durational photography, the analog darkroom, and durational computer use, and each element was fully, simultaneously, accessible to the viewer.
Artifacts, both digital and analog, create otherworldly environments in your works, such as in Mosaic, 2002. Was this your first piece? How did it come about?
Mosaic is my first official film, in that it’s the first project I made after finishing my schooling and striking out on my own as an artist. It’s also one of the first projects I made that incorporated digital image elements.
In my final years of school, broadcast television experienced a change with the arrival of digital cable. The infrastructure of over-air broadcast was so vast, while digital broadcast was much more a novelty—something that consumers weren’t yet convinced of the value of.
In 2001, I was offered 3 free months of digital cable, and the promise of hundreds of ‘specialty channels’ which were, at the time, more like half-baked nether-channels struggling for content to fill a programming day. I have always been an avid television-watcher, and this new form of television, replete with hundreds of totally crazy “geared to lifestyle” channels, sent me into a vortex of sleepless nights and blank staring. It wasn’t simply the burgeoning, desperate clangings of a new medium in its emergence; it was also the delivery system, the digital image itself that was being broadcast.
At this stage, digital broadcast was highly unstable and prone to failure. It would vacillate endlessly between moments of representation and abstraction—a chunky coloured square array could become an episode of “Extreme Fishing,” while a late-night “Turner Classic” movie could became an achromatic vibrating houndstooth pattern. These distortions of signal were not the snowy screens of broadcast television that I grew up with, but something else that represented that struggle of the new—an image trying to wrestle against its own technological limitations in order to emerge.
I began to record hours of these distorted signals onto VHS tape. I was quite preoccupied, because it was all so beautiful, and it was constantly changing. One particular day, there was a Muai Thai fight on one of these channels that was producing some terrific visual distortion, but was also simultaneously distorting the ways in which I understood the fight. The distortion removed any concept of winning or losing, prioritizing simply the placement of engaged bodies, wrestling to find their next position. I loved the unlikeliness of this footage, and that I could capture these fledgling digital distortions on a tape media that the digital revolution itself would soon render obsolete. I wanted to collapse further history into this image, to describe the newness and preciousness of that moment in time with a traditionally more precious moving image medium. So, I got a local film processing lab to transfer my VHS footage of a digitally scrambled cable TV boxing match onto B&W 16mm film.
How do chance and improvisation inform your moving image practice?
Whatever I am working on is usually guided by the images or technologies I have most recently found to play with. I am constantly on the hunt for abandoned media and gear, some of which I have to either fix or teach myself to use, which allows for several elements of chance in my process.
My ideas are always about generating unpredictable, unexpected results from the unlikely marriage of formats or processes. I tend to work in bursts, finishing projects very quickly.
Each project is highly mysterious, prone to failure, and inconceivably impossible to picture until it’s actually finished.
The found footage in your work is put through rigorous processing, passing through various technologies. The Pool, 2011, for instance, takes 16mm found footage of swimmers diving into a pool, that is captured by one analog and one digital video camera then run through a Vidiffektor (a hand-crafted signal attenuator made by Montreal artist James Schidlowsky). While this process creates a lossy, degraded image, it simultaneously gives the image a new life. Can you describe this process, and how you choose the different technologies the images pass through?
The Pool started with a roll of brittle B&W 16mm film that I found at an antique market. I’m pretty sure I talked the seller down to 50 cents for the film can, as it was coated in rust, and the film inside was already in pieces.
After getting the film home and doing serious splicing surgery on it, I ran it through my projector at a reduced speed, fearful that it could catch and burn at any moment. The image slapped itself across the screen in fits and bursts. The content was absolutely incredible, featuring a group of bucolic, overjoyed men swimming and diving in synchronicity. I knew that the film was too close to the end of its life, too devastated for anything more than perhaps one more tenuous pass through the projector. So, I daisy-chained several technologies together in an effort to try and bolster the image. I wanted to fill in the blank spaces and missing areas in the film with video artifacts, building textures that would elevate these swimmers and canonize them in something more stable than the brittle, forgotten surface they were found on. I aimed my 16mm film projector into a ground glass, mirrored film transfer unit, mounted with a mini DV video camera. I passed the video signal through this camera into a VHS video camera, passed that video signal through the Vidiffektor, and then recorded the entire thing on a VHS tape deck. The film was played again, passing through this live strand of connections, for the last time.
Completely unforeseen byproducts were created through this process. Some were favorable, such as a brilliant yellow image tonality, but others were also quite difficult to manage. The flicker of the badly damaged 16mm film was emphasized to an extreme degree, so I had to work on the final video frame-by-frame, removing frames until it resolved. Somewhere towards the end of this process, I felt as though the content was working, and I had effectively salvaged the original footage. The process worked as a completely backwards, over-complicated form of preservation.
You use found images in Still Feeling Blue About Colour Separation, 2015, in which you re-photograph over 200 internet- sourced images of Macbeth Cards onto Super-8mm cyanotype emulsion. Lines Postfixal, 2013, is a marriage of two found companion 16mm film prints salvaged from the NFB’s garbage bin in Toronto, reworked using analog video technologies. Can you discuss how appropriated imagery functions in your work?
I am something of a media hoarder. I try to save discarded films, videotapes, photographs and slides as much as I possibly can. There are so many pieces of abandoned media left in the wake of obsolete technologies, as the process of transcoding into newer, dematerialized formats often means a complete discarding and forgetting of the physical object. This is highly disturbing for me, and so I become a bit of an adoptive mother for those physical images that no one else wants to hold on to. I would much rather adopt old films or photographs and use them for art-making than shoot new footage. The unwantedness of the old images is, I suppose, what make them so precious to me. The gesture of embracing that which has been abandoned is a pervasive theme that runs throughout my work. It’s both an act of love and a political statement to repurpose what already exists.
You create stunning pieces that can be described as visual music that, more often than not, do not have soundtracks. Is there a reason most of these works are silent?
My unfulfilled relationship with childhood music lessons factors in here somewhere.
Mostly though, the works I make are quite visually dense, and a visual pulse or rhythm emerges within them (frequently as a byproduct of the manipulated technologies I am using). I find the organic or spontaneous nature of the rhythms created in these images to be almost noisy enough. I feel that soundtracks would be superfluous, and would detract too heavily from the excavatory and spontaneous nature of the image creation process.
Leslie Supnet is a moving image artist using animation and found media to create psychological narratives and abstracted visions of a desired future. Her work has screened at international film festivals, galleries and micro-cinemas.
This interview was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 34.1.