My good friend Bettina Forget spent a good chunk of 2011 documenting her life – I only figured it would be fair to view her documentation. As a consequence, I think I am part of a small and select group of people who have seen all six hours, plus of it.
Allow me to back up slightly, I believe that as one of her 2010 Christmas gifts, she got a flip camera. [Edit: Actually, she bought herself a Sanyo Exacti earlier in 2010] One of those tiny and incredibly easy to use video cameras that are almost the size of a cigarette lighter. Maybe not as a consequence, but as a result of having the video camera she decided to film one minute of every day for the entire year. Unfortunately, at the end of November, it broke. But fortunately she had an iPhone so she was able to still film stuff, until she got a new camera in the middle of December.
Now there are scads and scads of people who film, or otherwise document themselves or their world on a daily basis (click here for a selection or here for more) but what set Bettina’s apart from the others – or at least made it different to me – was that she was doing this in order to find if there was some sort of narrative thread in her life.
I think that the end of 2010 might have been rough for Bettina. She never told me explicitly, but I’m always trying to connect the dots and from my perspective, asking if there is, and then looking for a narrative thread is indicative of some basic questions on why and what is happening in one’s life. Either that, or she got some kind of book deal to fictionalize her life, or possibly needed some reason to learn how to use iMovie or some other video editing software.
As the year progressed she made short videos of each month. Which kind of gave an advance preview of what the finished project would look like (see below for all of them). I was (and am still) on her mailing list, so there were a bunch of times when I realized that it was a new month and as well as remembering that I had to pay rent, I also wondered what Bettina had been up to and what that month’s video would look like. More specifically, how many places would I recognize.
Beyond the folks who look to document stuff daily, there is also a subsection of the arts that invests itself in endurance film projects. For the most part, I try and avoid them. If I am going to do some sort of endurance art, I’m much more likely to choose something aural . But I don’t know if there has been that much cross-over between the daily documentalists and the extreme film folk. Or actually, the type of crossover that would result in One Random Year. Because the documentalists try to make their videos kind of short, you know condense 20 years into 5 minutes.
Condensing one year into six hours kind of strikes me as being neither fish nor fowl. Anyhows, this just serves as a long winded way to give up some background before we get down to the nitty-gritty of trying to find that narrative thread.
For those of you that aren’t quite certain (the non-English literature majors, the folk whose second (or third) language is English, etc) a narrative is “an account, report, or story, as of events, experiences, etc.” Then a narrative thread would be a sequence of narratives. So no matter how hard she tried there is no way that her life doesn’t have a narrative. If only as a series of sentences, first I did this, then I did this, then I did this, etc.
But the harder thing is to try to make that narrative thread, that sequence of “events, experiences, etc” into some cohesive whole that not only makes sense but can also resonate with other people. Make it larger, more important and significant than just a series of one minute videos strung together. This is where I had an inside advantage. Since I am about as far from a complete stranger to Bettina as you can get, I think there were only something like four days where I was not able to recognize something, someone or alternatively understand what was happening in the whole video. Heck I was actually involved in something like nine of them, either as a subject or being there while she filmed.
While I was watching, I was scrawling all sorts of notes about where the shot was filmed, whether it was static or the camera moved, who was in it, if I has seen a similar shot and all sorts of other things like that. But what I ultimately found most interesting was how when someone sat down to watch it with me, how it was almost de rigeur to have a conversation. Not necessarily about what was on the screen and being shown. But sometimes on a tangential topic. Also, Bettina had set up the gallery as a close approximation of her living room, and I found that because of the video I ended up concentrating a lot more on the paintings on the wall than I would have otherwise.
I‘m certain there are scads of people with multiple PhD.s who have come up with some multisyllabic words to describe the effect. But since I don’t read that kind of trash, it’s obvious I’m going to have to try to reinvent the wheel, and I’d call it something like the Muzak effect.
Back when I was a child there were a bunch of companies that I hated to my core. One of them being the Muzak Corp. The idea of something being made to occupy just a part of your brain with background music while you did other more important things was infuriating to me. I thought (and still do think) that when I listen to music it should kind of be front and center in my consciousness.
Well, thanks to Muzak, there actually is now a style of music called Ambient. Having some useless melody noodling around in the background has now become mandatory in North America. Despite my dislike, it appears that they won.
Anyhows, it appears that there is the same effect in film. For the most part One Random Year is a series of static shots (by my count there were only 17 times when the camera moved). Ambient film, as with ambient music, almost demands that it be talked over. While I can recognize the effect, I’m not entirely certain that I appreciate it. I much prefer to concentrate on what I am looking at, and for that matter hearing, tasting, smelling or touching, as well.
That all being said, I seem to be in the minority. During the six-plus hours I was watching the video, 16 other people came in, wandered around and left. They all seemed quite content to let it fade into the background. For the most part they hung around for about a minute or two (although there were two separate couples, that hung around long enough to experience more than a week of Bettina’s life). All of them were talking or chatting, and when Bettina came and watched a bit with me (or her friend Anne-Marie) the need to talk seemed ever present.
As I was taking notes (all good art critics always take notes, right?) it quickly became similar to a game of concentration. Not only did I want to try to recognize as much of Bettina’s life as possible, but make note when she redid something a second time or more.
I think that might have come from this incessant need to identify the narrative thread. After all, if you do something a bunch of times, it’s got to mean something, right? Well, by my count (yes, I know, sketchy at best) there were 21 times when she filmed herself making art in 2011. There were 18 vernissages, 12 restaurants, 11 days doing something astronomical, eight times at CKUT, five times working on her laptop at home, four views of her apartment window (although there were a lot of different shots of her apartment and some of other windows in her apartment as well), four of the Parc avenue bus, three of her washing dishes, and two of the same tree.
I‘ll leave it up to you to decide if that means that Bettina spent about a quarter of her year doing the same sort of things (those repetitions add up to 88 days or about 24% of the year) or if it means that Bettina likes making art about the stars while eating out at CKUT, or something else. Also an awful lot of it is filmed (as you would expect) in and around the Belgo building, where she has her studio and Parc and Laurier, where she lives.
But this is where the documentalism kind of breaks down. Because she didn’t film the same thing everyday, it’s very easy to place more significance on what was filmed than what wasn’t. But just because a particular part of her day was filmed does not mean that that part was the most significant part of her day. In fact I would venture a guess that for the most part, the things that were filmed were rather mundane.
However, there were two days, June 8 and June 15 which stick out like sore thumbs. One those two days, she did not document something that she had done that day, but instead decided to create something specifically for One Random Year. On June 8, she is holding a game of Boggle and shaking the cubes that starts out spelling L-O-V-E and then with successive shakes disintegrates into a series of Es and Os.
This in and of itself wouldn’t stick out so much, as it is only about one minute in a more than six hour film, if it hadn’t been for the video the following week. On June 15, we see the word “LOVE” painted on something white. Then slowly and very deliberately, Bettina uses a large brush with white paint to obliterate the word and make it disappear. The combination of the two of them, so close to each other was kind of like a flashing light with a loud siren on top of a firetruck to me. Absolutely every other segment in the film is documentary in nature. Recording something that she did. These are the only two days where she filmed (I think) she thought. When I asked her if June 15 had been her anniversary, she said “no.”
I should also make mention of how the gallery was set up. There was a couch some plants, a second chair (I think) the TV, some of Bettina’s paintings on the wall behind the TV and along the two walls perpendicular to the TV were six, individual month long calendars, each with a still frame from that day’s video. I’m not sure if the calendars added anything to the show, other than making it appear to be more installation-like.
Overall, One Random Year was a great experience, and highly worthwhile. It makes it as obvious as the nose on my face that it is impossible to have an abstract structure to one’s life (or at least that would be what I would consider the opposite of the narrative thread to a life), but the next time around it would be interesting to see the results in a non-chronological order. Maybe stringing them together by color, content, character or something else. There are an infinite number of ways to tell a story. While I’m a big fan engaging the artist, I’m an even bigger fan of engaging the viewer. But I’m not certain that, despite having a video camera, I’m going to start filming a minute of my day, each and every day for the next 365 days.