Rachael Rakes on Jacqueline Goss’s video art and new film The Observers.
Wind is the worst kind of weather, a quotidian reminder of the environment’s dominance: when the sun is hot, we beg for wind; in winter, we struggle against columns of air. Turning over sandcastles and upending the picnic, it’s a barrier to our attempts at some sense of connection with nature.
For the past dozen years, Jacqueline Goss has made video inquiries into social problems and the measures taken to alleviate them. Her short works often focus on the personal repercussions of broadly applied social fixes. Goss’s new, near-feature length film, The Observers, ruminates on rough weather and the treacherous isolation of tracking it. The film is a document of a weather station at the summit of Mount Washington, NH, (whose website boasts that it has the World’s Worst Weather). It’s a place of record-breaking winds (hundreds of miles per hour) and sub-zero temperatures, where staff take hourly readings of the temperature, wind speed, and barometric pressure. The scientists, the air, and the landscape are the subjects of the fictionalized study.
The film—shot on 16mm, as even the newest RED cameras are unable to operate in the frozen air atop the summit—is an aesthetic departure from Goss’s previous work. Quiet, eerie, and contemplative, it reads like another type of project altogether from her voiced-over, text heavy, animation-driven shorts. Structuralist-inspired shots of the terrain make the experience looser, not as demanding of close attention as her other work is. The pace is relaxed, often moving at the speed (or close to the speed) of the landscape. Some of the same doubt and curiosity that imbues her other work is here, but the approach to achieve the expression has changed.
While completing an MFA at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the mid-90s, Goss trained on the early forms of coding and digital animation. Her use of a variety of new media techniques in the nascent stages of the form makes each of her videos interesting time-objects of digital animation development: they tinker with the moving image medium at the same time that they explore the questions at-hand. There’s a novelty to the design elements of many of the pieces—the excitement of discovering and exploring another way to approach, create, tell a story.
An early short, So to Speak (2000) merges the stories of the communication development and socialization of Helen Keller and Genie “The Wild Child.” With (kind of insane) dramatic recreation and voiceover, and employing an arsenal of graphic design tools and fascinating sound experimentation, the narrative speaks from the girls’ point of view, seemingly in an attempt to demonstrate the inner struggle to break free from their disjuncture with the world. In an essay about aesthetics and assistive technologies Goss later wrote: “I felt that Keller’s bouts with Braille, tablets and styluses, American Sign Language, lip reading, and vocalizing were an analog for my own struggles with email shell accounts, on-line editing systems, programming languages, samplers, and synthesizers.” That combination of experimenting with ideas and medium simultaneously—using subject to explore method and vice versa—is a trademark of much of her body of work.
Similarly, in The 100th Undone (2001), a work of ambivalent reflection on the human genome, Goss employs a catalogue of both analog and digital technologies. More so than in So to Speak, the use of these techniques suggest a time capsule of antiquated technologies. Silent, the video uses text cards to offer factoids about DNA replication as well anxious observations on the meaning of the individual in a potential new world of copies. Oscillating from universal observations to personal ones, the second-person voice of the cards alternates its point of view dependent on the experience of the viewer. When the inner monologue of the viewer and the undisclosed second-person narrator collide, the result is paradoxically cathartic: a shared sense of alienation.
The interstitial second-person text continues to appear through Goss’s later works, though never quite as prominently as in The 100th Undone. In There There Square (2002), a brilliantly simple-looking Flash exercise about borders, map-making, and US history, that text alternates between a memoir of received ideas about geography and cartography and the disturbing and strange history of US border formation. The abstracted simplicity of the design allows the brain to take time on the text, the Flash animation bouncing from one single focal point to the next (the type of movement that power-point presentation creators would later go nuts with).
Her two next videos, How to Fix the World (2005) and Stranger Comes to Town (2007), move away from abstraction and toward live action (though Goss has written about her appreciation of Lev Manovich’s refiguring of live acting as subspecies of animation). They both use animation as a screen through which to present her subjects. Both are based on the testimony of outsiders—How to Fix the World, for example uses transcripts from conversations between teachers and Central Asian farmers who were being taught how to read and write under the new Socialist program of the 1930s. Goss appropriates portraits taken by the Soviet photographer Max Person, who recorded everyday life in Uzbekistan between 1925 and 1945, to stand in for images of the farmers, redrawing and animating them in mono-color schemes. The farmers’ common-sense clashes with intellectual learning are filtered through these comic strip-like images, motionless except for animated mouths and eyes.
The characters in How to Fix the World are somewhat flattened by this process, presumably intentionally (socialist realism likes nothing better than a stock character), but in Stranger Comes to Town, animation renders the subjects vividly lifelike. The video uses anonymous interviews with foreigners who have had to pass through post-9/11 US customs, and activates them via images from the Internet videogame World of Warcraft. Each of the interviewees designed a World of Warcraft avatar who tells their story by proxy inside the game’s landscape. The testimonies betray the humiliation and questioning of self that results from the process of examination used to establish identity at the border. In an interview for Incite Journal of Experimental Media, Goss explained the purpose of the avatar: “When you hear voices without the accompanying images, you hear all this stuff in these voices that you might miss otherwise. You can hear class, you can hear age, you can hear race and sexual preference . . . ” Keeping certain details back can assist in getting to a more realistic documentary picture. A journey through the landscapes in the game soon turns into overhead visualizations from Google Earth. In the end, both terrains begin look like views of a war game.
This kind of abstraction is abandoned in The Observers. The film uses almost no animation. Divided into a winter and summer season, with a different actress for each, the film’s focus is on the quiet and isolated existence of the climatologists. The visual surfaces feel real—close to the skin, majestic peaks, and smooth sky. The sounds are ambient—wind, the humming of HVAC, steps in snow. But there are still screens—this does not look like documentation; the mask of animation is replaced by the mask of the present and awkward camera-eye. The diaristic text of previous works is now replaced with visual digressions. During production, Goss kept a diary, which she published online. In it, she talks about cinematographer Jesse Cain, who shot the film: “One of the reasons I want to work with Jesse is that I think his films have a really strange camera personality that I like—a kind of autistic camera that looks away from people to gaze at things.” The camera gets bored; its distracted attention provides another point of view. Even as it takes in an astonishingly beautiful horizon, the camera is impatient with its task of being asked to meet viewers’ expectations of transcendence and tranquility. The sun is rising; snow crystals are sparkling in the air. Mild panic.
There is no dialogue in The Observers save for occasional radio reports. The quiet of the interior spaces amplifies the wind-torn solitude of the surroundings. Goss has remarked that the film explores isolation, and it’s true that, when summer arrives and tourists begin to populate the summit, it seems like a home-invasion for the lone climatologist. Though based on real work in a real place, there’s something intangible to The Observers—the social world that grounded her previous work has eroded away. There’s no fix to the wind, only the meticulous documenting of its constantly shifting speed and temperature. Even though the film can seem loosely constructed at times, its glances, bodies, and sounds offer up an environment, an alien world which the viewer inhabits for the duration of its 68 minutes. In sharp contrast to her previous work, The Observers engages the surface of a world, a system of sorts, and inhabits it, without an impulse to alter.
Jacqueline Goss’s The Observers opens Thursday, May 10 at Anthology Film Archives. The filmmaker will be present at the premier and at selected screenings.
Rachael Rakes is the Assistant Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Film co-editor for the Brooklyn Rail. She is also a programming advisor for UnionDocs.