On April 18, 2013, the day of the manhunt for the second perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombings, Edmonton-born video artist Christina Battle watched CNN news coverage of the tensely uneventful search for 16 hours straight. “They reported live the entire day, with absolutely nothing to report,” Battle explained to BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada, describing how newscasters sustained and developed the story over such a long duration without acquiring or imparting any factual information. “I’d never encountered news presented in that way. They really had no idea if [the perpetrator] was still alive or in Boston, so they were coming up with fabricated scenarios and then using conjecture within those scenarios to talk about what might be going on.” Five months later, Battle invokes the same portentous atmospherics in a series of four one-minute videos titled “we’re not exactly sure what just happened” (2013) showcasing at the Toronto Urban Film Festival (September 6–16).
TUFF serves as a uniquely appropriate venue for investigating the presentation of the news. The festival, founded in 2007 by video artist Sharon Switzer, employs more than 300 screens on Toronto’s subway system to present one-minute silent shorts from 20 different countries. Of the 390 submissions Switzer received, 82 were accepted to the juried festival (cult filmmaker Bruce McDonald acted as guest judge this year), each gaining more than a million potential viewers daily. The numbers may appeal superficially, but what’s gained in quantity of attendance is lost in quality of attention. “It’s the opposite of a traditional festival, where you’re sitting in a black box and there’s this giant film with no distractions,” explains Switzer. “[TUFF] has small films on small screens with tons of distractions.” Despite the compromises, commuter film festivals have also found traction in Berlin, Barcelona, and New York, demonstrating a wider trend toward very short filmmaking (what Switzer ascribes to the prevalence of watching films on smartphones).
Of course, the commuter screens normally display news and advertising; by dint of location and content, the medium is intrinsically invasive and attention-seeking, though since silent, strangely subdued. “Every year some people make work that directly responds to the advertising context or the context of the subway,” says Switzer, though most focus on working effectively within the one-minute constraint. Every year Switzer commissions an established artist to create a series rather than a single work. “My goal with these commissioned pieces is to give an artist a chance to work a little more deeply in that medium,” she says. As a former Toronto-based artist (now working in Denver) and someone “who would take the project seriously and consider all aspects,” this year Switzer chose Battle.
Battle, whose works often deal with ecological and political disasters, uses material from her research on the Boston Marathon news coverage to evoke the faintly gleeful mood of impending disaster. In the days following the hunt and eventual capture of the second bomber, Battle discovered transcripts from the day’s reporting on CNN’s website — a strange and ironic piece of transparency, in her view, given “the awareness they must have had that these transcripts are useless.” Battle spent time on the subway in Toronto reflecting on the context of the screens where her videos would be displayed: “I was interested in the subway itself as a platform for disseminating the news,” she says, remarking on how the hurried atmosphere of commuter transit contributes to the potential for news reporting to convey a highly emotional but fundamentally content-less message. In the minute or so before the train reaches the station, the news becomes an impressionistic phenomenon, reduced to quick digestibles passively obtained.
Battle’s videos mimic the scrolling news text at the bottom of subway screens, interspersing images of objects undergoing reactive transformations with detached sentences from the Boston Marathon news transcripts. The quotations focus on the caution of the newscasters to show live footage, in case “something happens that we shouldn’t show on worldwide television.” Given that public screens in North America primarily display news, Battle questions the parameters for what’s appropriate or inappropriate and who decides. Her second video shows images of the Hindenburg airship prior to its explosion in 1937, which to Battle represents “one of those early moments where something disastrous was captured on film and the decision was made to disseminate it as news.”
Nowhere in the series does Battle reveal the origin her texts, a decision she intends to reflect the indistinct mood of pending calamity so often cultivated by popular news outlets. She explains the action of the videos as a “strange hovering between being about something and not being about something.” Speaking of CNN, Battle observes, “They’re in the business now of constructing and fabricating fear.” The reference to the news in Battle’s videos may not be immediately obvious, but the “strange hovering” is easily recognized. Subway riders will know it well.
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