VA: -40

There's no exaggeration in calling -40 a remarkable multi-media project; its luxuriously packaged case includes a detailed booklet (featuring texts and descriptive detail) and two discs, each about fifty-four minutes long: a CD featuring the work of ten electronic artists (well-known figures Akufen, Deadbeat, Lowfish, and Venetian Snares joined by relative newcomers like Prhizzm and Knifehandchop) and a DVD that not only couples their tracks with sections of individually selected films, specifically school propaganda films produced by The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) during the 1940s, but follows them with a second set of works by ten video artists (thus the first set amounts to “original films with reworked audio,” the second “original audio with reworked video”). A curatorial statement clarifies that artists were required to work “exclusively in either the audio or visual medium. The curators' intent was to create a condition where the artist was referred back to the original aim and meaning of their chosen film and confronted with the challenge of integrating their creation with an unchanged element of the film.” Predictably, the contributors have no difficulty adhering to the guideline, given their fluency in the language of remix culture.

While it's the music that impresses strongly on disc one, it's also fascinating to witness the diverse ways the ten contributors merge their sounds with the film content. At the start of “Divide and Fragment Remix,” Lorne Greene's booming voiceover is presented intact but, once Knifehandchop's frenetic jungle beats appear, Greene's voice is chopped in unison with them. Though there's little connection here between the music and the war footage (Hitler by The Eiffel Tower, tanks, et cetera), there's a stronger concord between Secret Mommy's Autechre stylings (asymmetric throbs, pinballing beats, steely clatter) and the film imagery (propulsive pounding beats paired with a train moving through the mountainous countryside, and industrial clockwork beats accompanying workers building trains). In “Definitely Not Internment Camps,” Meek incorporates subtle fragments of exotic melody into his track, a natural complement to the colour film footage of imprisoned Japanese-Canadians shown throughout the segment. Phrizzm's cold, surgical sounds complement footage of stark, frozen Northern Canada while Venetian Snares aligns jarring clusters of piano tonalities with disturbing images of facially disfigured WWII veterans. Deadbeat's “Trees That Touch the Sky” is the disc's musical peak, a beautiful and slowly building piece of atmospheric dub shadowed by a wavering two-tone theme, and the tree-cutting footage it accompanies is equally captivating. In addition, DJ Dopey adds a hip-hop dimension with his track's scratching and plodding beats while Lowfish's acidy synth bump is less Suction-styled 'robot music' and more The Chemical Brothers.

Video manipulation is the focus on disc two; orchestral elements are relegated to the background, ceding prominence to the voiceovers. The artists typically treat the archival footage boldly, sometimes colourizing it (Creatrix's “Oil + Water”), sometimes posterizing and overlapping it (Wayne Yung's “Postcard to an Unknown Soldier”). In an unusual move, Martin Lalonde occasionally juxtaposes old and new footage in “Bonjour Voisin,” while Nadia Duguay includes herself as a separate figure from the archival footage (sometimes outside of the older footage, sometimes on top of it) in “Volontaire.” The most extreme treatment of the original film material emerges in Cinétik's “Engrenages” where rapidly mutating abstractions are smothered by dust and static in a visual analogue to an Autechre composition.

Beyond its aesthetic impact, the project possesses a strong socio-political resonance, given the ongoing relevance of issues like nationalism, lethal weaponry, propaganda, and so on. In his booklet essay, Marc Glassman astutely notes that, while Hitler and Goebbels were recognized as masterful manipulators who used media to further their evil goals, the NFB's films were equally though less blatantly manipulative under the direction of founder John Grierson, who used the NFB as a weapon to help combat Fascism. With the onset of WWII, films produced by young filmmakers hand-picked by Grierson increasingly resembled didactic propaganda that promoted the Allies' cause. But the films included on these discs aren't wholly fixated on war; there's beautiful footage of trains moving through the Canadian landscape and skiers zig-zagging down expansive snow-draped mountainsides, too. Consequently, the project casts an invaluable spotlight on a country's evolving identity. As a footnote, Canadians of a certain age who remember Lorne Greene for his iconic role as the Cartwright patriarch in the television series Bonanza (and Ponderosa) may be surprised to discover how often his booming voice was used for the narration of the NFB's films.

June 2005