In their words: Conversations with Writing Topography artists—#11: Amanda Dawn Christie

Beaverbrook Art GalleryNovember 23, 20150 Comments

Over the next several weeks, we will be posting interviews with artists currently featured in the Gallery’s Writing Topography exhibition. These interviews were conducted by Rebecca Goodine, a university student participating in an internship at the Gallery. These interviews present artists talking about themselves and their work in their own words. Interviews were conducted with the artists by email, and have been lightly edited for grammar and flow (occasionally, questions and responses have been removed). At the end of interviews, we’ve included some links to provide a bit more information about a topic or theme from the interview; these links have been chosen by us, and were not provided by the artists.

Amanda Dawn Christie

Photo: Roger Smith

 

So often themes of landscape and regional representation are treated on a very superficial level in art history. Landscape and territory is a very complex issue and deserves complex treatment and examination. It’s too easy to take landscape for granted without questioning.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic practice.

I'm originally from Moncton, NB, but I’ve moved around a lot: from the East Coast, to the West Coast, to Europe and back full circle. As a kid I was always interested in science and as such, various elements of science always find their way into my art projects; be it building radios out copper plumbing, or processing motion picture film in coffee.

I started making experimental films in 1999, and since then, my films have screened around the world and are distributed out of Paris, Toronto, and Amsterdam. Meanwhile, performance art work, contemporary dance, and photography have also always played a major roll in my art practice. More recently my art practice has evolved to include audio work and interactive electronic circuits. While I work across various disciplines, what ties them all together is an interest in the relationship between the human body and analogue technology in a digital age.

Since 1997, I've been working with non-profit arts organizations, teaching workshops, publishing articles, and serving on juries. I completed my Master of Fine Arts degree at the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver, BC, before moving to Amsterdam. Upon my return to Canada I worked at the Faucet Media Arts Centre & Struts Gallery where I taught audio and video workshops and helped members with their projects, while teaching part time at Mount Allison University. I later worked as the director of the Galerie Sans Nom and the RE:FLUX festival of sound art and experimental music in Moncton.

I recently left my job at the GSN to work full time as an artist with the support of a new media creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts -- to create a new project called Requiem for Radio. I'm also currently finishing up a 90 minute experimental documentary film called Spectres of Shortwave, about the recently dismantled RCI shortwave radio site.

How would you describe your work in the exhibition?

Radio Towers Like Windchimes” is a part of a larger body or work called “Spectres of Shortwave” which includes a 90 minute documentary film, a radio documentary, and two different art gallery installations.

This particular installation, Spectres of Shortwave: Radio Towers Like Windchimes, involves six 200lb radio towers hanging from the ceiling along with hexaphonic sound* played through six custom built handmade speakers. The sounds that you hear playing from the speakers are drones that I recorded by placing my handmade contact microphones on the RCI radio towers. Several of those towers were over 400 feet tall, and the high winds on the marsh would cause them to vibrate imperceptibly. By placing contact microphones on them, I was able to capture those vibrations and turn them into sound. Each tower had it’s own sound, or it’s own voice filled with complex mixtures of harmonics and subharmonics*. Because I recorded these sounds using microphones I had built myself, it only seemed appropriate to build the speakers that would play the sounds as well.

The “radio towers” hanging from the ceiling are actual artifacts from the RCI shortwave radio site* that once stood on the Tantramar marsh near Sackville, NB. These “towers” hanging in the Beaverbrook Gallery ceiling, were not actually radio towers, but rather they were originally called “spreaders” and they hung hundreds of feet in the air, horizontally spreading the wires and the antennae apart. These spreaders each weigh 200 lbs and are 10 feet long. Hanging them vertically in the gallery and letting them pose as radio towers is a way of reanimating them and giving them a very different life than the one they actually held during their industrial use. The actual RCI radio towers would have been far too large to even get into the gallery, let alone hang from the ceiling, so hanging these spreaders and stand-ins or stunt-doubles for the actual towers is a way of conjuring their memory or their essence.

The Spectres of Shortwave film is a feature length experimental documentary film that was born out of the Marshland Radio Plumbing Project (a project in which I built a radio using copper plumbing and sink instead of electrical wire). This film is a durational landscape film of the radio towers over 4 seasons, and concludes with footage of the demolition of this important site in 2014. There are also two gallery installations that compliment the film. Spectres of Shortwave: Radio Towers Like Windchimes, involves 6 pieces of the radio towers hanging from the ceiling like windchimes, along with hexaphonic sound and artifacts. Spectres of Shortwave: Sine Waves and Snow Falls, presents video loops of radio towers falling in the snow on 3 flatscreens with hexaphonic sound.

Can you tell us about the process of creating the work in the exhibition?

This work was born out of a very long period of research, creation, and hard work. It began with researching the RCI radio towers, their history, the science of how they function, and their role in the community.

Then there was a long period of building up relationships and trust with the people who worked on the site, as well as the government officials in charge of CBC transmissions, and later on with the demolition crew and company that was hired to dismantle the site. Getting permits and permission to be present on the site to shoot film when the site was still an operational high voltage radio transmission site was very difficult, but not nearly as difficult as getting permission to be on site filming during the demolition. This involved a lot of relationship building, as well as very costly insurance.

Once I had the permissions to be on the site, then there was the whole creative and physical labour part of filming and sound recording. I filmed on 35mm motion picture film, and my camera alone weighed over 48 lbs (that’s not including lenses, tripods, or other accessories). Out of 46 days of filming, I had a very small crew of 4 people for 6 of those days; for the rest, I worked alone with a rental van filled with heavy equipment in extreme weather conditions. Over the course of two years, I would go to the RCI site and film the towers in various weather conditions – heavy rain, blizzards, ice storms, lightening storms, sunny days, foggy days, daytime, nighttime, etc. I captured imagery of the site in all four seasons. Then, for a period of several months, I focused on sound recording, and I would hike out to the towers, and clamp my contact microphones onto them in order to capture the sounds of their vibrations. I managed to gather dozens of hours of audio recordings, which included the sound of each tower, its base, its beams, its ladder, and the accompanying halyard wires.

During one of my audio recording expeditions, I asked if I could have these six spreaders (the “radio towers” you now see hanging from the ceiling). Normally the answer would have been “no” as the entire site was slated to be sold for scrap metal. However, thanks to four years worth of building relationships with the staff and with government officials, I was able to take these 6 artifacts. At that same time I got permission to climb two of the towers, once I passed a climbing certification exam and bought even more insurance.

During the demolition of the site, as the towers fell, the red beacon lights that once lit up the sky at night, came crashing to the ground, and when the demolition crew took their lunch breaks, I would scamper out in the field to the recently fallen towers and collect as much of the broken red glass as I could.

A major part of this installation is about reanimating these unique historic artifacts, to give a sense of life and reverence to the history of that site. The other component of this installation is the science of sound, and how contact microphones can make imperceptible sounds audible. I also faced the challenge of handmade speaker construction and learning the science and mathematics of volume calculation and cylindrical boxed speaker construction for Q. The final challenge was situating the speakers appropriately for the unique acoustics of that gallery space. Fine tuning in the placement and volume adjustments for each speaker had to do with finding the exact positioning and volume levels so that when you are in the centre of the space, all six speaker sounds blend to form one single sound, but when you stand under or next to each speaker its sound is isolated and stands out from the rest. This was a difficult challenge given the cavernous acoustics of the space, but after much work and fine tuning, it was achieved.

What was the inspiration for this work?

I have been developing various projects related to the RCI shortwave towers over the past 7 years, that are driven by an interest in our personal relationship to invisible landscapes. Instead of focusing on the transmitted messages, I am interested in the idea of our bodies as unintentional witnesses. I am also exploring the politics of communication infrastructures and how the destruction of so-called obsolete technologies is placing us in more vulnerable situations in terms of access to information, government censorship, and dependence on digital technologies.

What is it you hope for the viewer to discover or consider through this work?

I try not to place expectations on the viewer’s interpretation of my work. As an artist, I do a lot of research and work on the project, and therefore I have a very close and specific interpretation of the work, but even so, my interpretation of my own artwork is still only one interpretation. I fully expect that other people will have different interpretations and experiences of my work than I do, and those are equally as valid as my own. I do not seek to impose a “message” or “intended reading” on the viewer.

My only hope is that each viewer comes to the work with an open mind, ready to experience the work, and to bring their own particular and personal experiences and understandings to their reading of the work. My hope is simply that they will spend enough time with it, to form a reaction or relationship to it.

What do you find most compelling or enjoyable about this particular work?

I don’t know that art work is necessarily supposed to be “enjoyable.” I think it can be enjoyable, but it can also be more than that. Making something “enjoyable” is not my goal as an artist.

What I find most compelling about this work is the contrast between the delicate beauty of the hanging windchimes, and the sense of imminent industrial danger. The hanging towers and their shadows are beautiful and they appear to be weightless, as if they are spectres rising from their graves. And yet, in spite of being perfectly safe, there is an air of danger when one sees such heavy industrial objects hanging from a single piece of aircraft cable. What I like is the sense of uncertainty and unease that this creates. Unease is an appropriate feeling to have in relation to the RCI site, because in demolishing this site, many people in remote areas with no access to digital technology lost access to information. So while the towers were once beautiful landmarks on the marsh, they were also an extremely important industrial site for high voltage short wave radio transmissions – they played a very important role in international communications, and now they are gone, and this is a very real loss for certain communities around the world.

How does your work connect with broader themes?

My work about the RCI towers engages directly with broader themes of international communications but also with themes of landscape and regional identity. The towers were an important local landmark for people living in the NB region, but they also played an important role in international communication technology.

This work also connects with the broader theme of analogue technology in a digital age and the fiction of obsolete technologies. We live in a digital age, where the idea is that “newer is better” and we are always upgrading everything, from computers to operating systems, to cell phones, and beyond. There is a misconception that older technologies are not as good as the newer ones. Yet ironically, many older technologies that we now consider as obsolete, are actually much more reliable and future proof than current technologies. Take for example film cameras that are made of metal and completely mechanical – they don’t need system upgrades and they are much more sturdy. Think of all the places where you can’t access WiFi or get cell phone reception – shortwave radio can always get through to those places, and a short wave radio site is much less vulnerable to interference or destruction than a satellite in orbit.

This work also engages with broader themes of the human body and wireless technology. We live in an age where the invisible architectures of radio waves are passing through our bodies all the time. WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phone signals all travel on radio waves (this is why analogue television broadcasts were stopped in 2011, to add more radio wave bandwidth for cell phones). This information on these radio waves is passing through our bodies all the time. Right now, someone is having a cell phone conversation passing through your body, and someone is doing their online banking through your body. We can’t see these things, but they are there, and they are passing through us all the time.

What are your larger thoughts on the themes of the Writing Topography exhibit, and how it relates to your piece?

I’m very excited to see the themes of Writing Topography being explored at an institution like the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. So often themes of landscape and regional representation are treated on a very superficial level in art history. Landscape and territory is a very complex issue and deserves complex treatment and examination. It’s too easy to take landscape for granted without questioning.

My work engages heavily with ideas of landscape, regional identity, the body and communications. It looks at the invisible architectures of radio waves that travel through the landscape and through our bodies, as well as the visible architecture of international communication infrastructure in the landscape. I work with the manifestation of technology as architecture in the landscape, and how it relates to both the individuals living in the region, as well as the people living in other countries around the world who once listened to the broadcasts from this site.

Can you further discuss some of your work and interest in radio and radio towers?

Much of my work since 2008 has revolved around radio waves. I wouldn’t say that it is about radio towers so much as about radio waves. In the case of the RCI site, those towers were just support for the antennas. The antennas were the wires that were strung horizontally between the towers, not the towers themselves. The towers are the striking landmark, but they were merely the supports for the antennas that transmitted the radio waves.

My works exploring these themes include the Marshland Radio Plumbing Project, where I built a radio using copper plumbing instead of electronics, in an attempt to recreate the rusty bolt effect through which some Sackville residents heard the radio in their household appliances. I also have a photography series called “Industrial Domestic #2: Laundry Line Antenna” in which I documented a laundry line near the RCI radio towers for a year in reference to stories of families who heard the radio on their clothesline in that area. I also created an expanded cinema performance for dual 16mm film projectors and radio called “Transmissions” which is a more poetic look at the general phenomenon of our bodies as sites and unintentional witnesses of these electromagnetic topographies. Finally, there is the Spectres of Shortwave film and suite of installations, as well as Requiem for Radio which is a new body of work that I am developing in which I will be building 13 Theremins, one for each of the RCI radio towers, that will trigger audio and image recordings of the towers in order to conjure the ghosts of the radio towers with radio waves.

What is it about this technology that interests you?

As far as radio waves are concerned, I am interested in the complex network of invisible activity passing through us and around us all the time, carrying information. Not just traditional AM and FM radio waves, but also Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite, and cell phone signals all travel on radio waves.

How does this piece relate to your other work in film?

This piece was actually born out of the production of my most recent film, “Spectres of Shortwave”, which is a 90 minute experimental documentary about the RCI radio towers. The process of making that film is what enabled me access to the RCI site to gather the audio recordings as well as the physical artifacts of the towers, the vertical stays, and broken red glass. The Radio Towers Like Windchimes installation, as well as the Sine Waves Like Snow Falls installation, are both intended to be compliments to the Spectres of Shortwave film, offering different points of entry, exploration, and ways in to the subject and the history of this site. My approach to filmmaking, like my approach to art making, is an open approach where I do not seek to tell people what to think, but rather to present them with images, audio, and artifacts for their consideration. I prefer to place film viewers and gallery goers, not in the seat of the student, but rather, in the seat of the witness or the observer.

What does ‘creativity’ mean to you?

Creativity can be born out of destruction. Sometimes it helps to break things apart into their basic component pieces before building them back up again, in order to look at them in a new way. Doing so, not only helps us to understand the nature of our subject and our materials, but also the nature of destruction and creation itself, two powerful forces present in the everyday world around us.

What kinds of things do you find helpful as sources of inspiration?

A lot of my inspiration comes from being present in the world. Taking walks, looking around me, reading the news, reading books, and interacting with people. Just the act of living and being present is a source of inspiration.

What advice do you have to give to new and aspiring artists?

Don’t rely on inspiration. Muse is a myth. Art work is work. Art work is hard work. Often times, you have to keep working even if you don’t feel inspired or motivated. If you are onto a good idea that means something to you, and that you think means something to society or the world beyond you, if you’re on to something that you believe in and that you care about, keep working at it. Keep pushing at the edges from different sides. Look at it from different angles. Break it apart. Build it back up again. Repeat. Don’t just do one little exploration and move on to something else. The world needs more depth, and depth takes time and hard work. Be prepared to keep working even when you don’t feel like it, and trust that your energy and your motivation will eventually return, because it will. Just don’t give up. You also need to know when to step away, and go take a walk and look at something else for a while.

Learn more about...

Pickup (Wikipedia)
Subharmonic (Wikipedia)
RCI Ends Shortwave Broadcast (CBC.ca)

Artist bio

Amanda Dawn Christie’s experimental films have screened nationally and internationally at numerous festivals and cinematheques. Her solo screening, Dividing Roadmaps by Timezones: 10 years of moving pictures 1999–2009 has screened at the Canadian Film Institute (Ottawa), the Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque, the Vogue Cinema (Sackville), and the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival. Christie completed her MFA at Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts in Vancouver. She worked as production supervisor at the Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre in Sackville, New Brunswick, and then as the director of the Galerie Sans Nom in Moncton, New Brunswick, and as the director of the re:flux Festival of experimental music and sound art in Moncton. She is also a founding member of the IRiSs Laboratories research and performance collective.

About the Exhibition

Writing Topography runs September 26, 2015 through January 10, 2016. The exhibition is organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and made possible with the generous support of the McCain Family, the Harrison McCain Foundation, and the McCain Foundation. Admission is FREE for Beaverbrook Art Gallery members and for children age six and under. More information on memberships and benefits can be found on our website at http://beaverbrookartgallery.org/en/support/membership. Featured artists include: Robert Bean, Gerald Beaulieu, Jennifer Bélanger, Rémi Belliveau, Jordan Bennett, Kay Burns, Amanda Dawn Christie, Richard Davis, Leah Garnett, Pam Hall, Mark Igloliorte, Navarana Igloliorte, Ursula Johnson, Philippa Jones, Stephen Kelly, Eleanor King, Fenn Martin, Michael McCormack, Kim Morgan, Nigel Roe, Sara Roth, Anna Torma, Gerald Vaandering, and Kim Vose Jones.

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