Alex Monteith

Machine Visions

Alex Monteith’s work combines the formal and the relational, engaging with communities of practice and creating events engineered for the camera. Ranging from sheep-dog trialing, to motorbike racing to surfing, Monteith is video artist as participant-observer.  Immigrating to New Zealand from Northern Ireland as a nine-year old, a number of her works have explored the divisions of her place of origin. The feature-length experimental documentary, Chapter and Verse (2005), shot largely in 16mm, allusively explored the history of the Troubles, combining interviews with known figures such as Ian Paisley with more poetic examination of sites of longstanding violent conflict in locations such as Derry and County Tyrone. The mapping project Traditional Route (2004) used still photography and video to trace the overlapping fields of view of the surveillance cameras of (the then) Royal Ulster Constabulary Stations in inner Belfast.

The artist’s immigrant eye gives her an acute sense for local conditions, the communities they shape, and are in turn shaped by.  Monteith’s continuing interest in the politics of location and the displacements and violence of colonisation are evident in works documenting events such as a Maori sovereignty protest, 1020 meters in 26 minutes Waitangi Day Auckland Harbour Bridge Protest (2008) or the two-screen Re-enactment of the Return of the Maori Battalion C. Company Nga Tama Toa (2008).  These works document participation in, add to a record of, but also abstract the named events. Part of the re-enactment of the 1946 return to Gisborne of the renowned battalion, after years of fierce fighting and the loss of many soldiers, the parade recorded by Monteith’s cameras was an orchestrated spectacle of historical memory, of joy and loss, sorrow and remembrance. 2000 people, many bearing photographs of the dead and the returned, followed the soldiers’ original route from Gisborne Train Station to Te Poho o Rawiri Marae; a physical gesture connecting present and past.

The work, shot with two high-definition cameras mounted front and rear on one of the army vehicles in the parade, displays the strange folding of Monteith’s twin-screen works – objects and people approach on one side of the screen, slide into the gap between the two fields of view, re-emerging from a slightly different perspective on the adjacent screen.  Incidental, passing details caught within the camera’s frame – someone turning to take a photograph, a street sign, a policeman’s shuffle – take on as much weight as the formation of kilted bagpipers and the parade of vehicles.  The mobile, yet fixed cameras record the town sliding by, the twin images hinging what is still to come to what lies behind, like the historical folding of the re-enactment itself.

Monteith’s works hold different significance for different communities: within an art context, her work may be read formally, in terms of editing choices and framing decisions, offering a glimpse of remote or specialised worlds such as farming or motorcycle racing that might be outside the usual ambit of the art aficionado. Within the communities it records, her work has a memorial and social function.  For instance, the Gisborne footage was presented to the surviving Battalion veterans, who missed the re-enactment due to their ceremonial duties welcoming the parade to the Marae.  This footage is far from the finished artwork, but represents the artist’s responsibilities to those she documents. In the case of riders and surfers her feedback allows them to review their actions and to modify their future performance.

Looping manoevre with four motorcyclists for four-channel video installation (2008) is one of a series of works using bullet cameras on bikes. The small, vibration-resistant cameras are often used in documenting sports, mounted on helmets or vehicles. The recording format is an adaptation of techniques used in professional coverage of Moto Grand Prix racing, which often uses multiple cameras on each bike.

The four motorcycles with front-mounted cameras ride in formation on a Taupo track day. The work is cartoonish, with hyper-saturated blue sky and digitally sharpened edges that make the image seem synthetic. The four panes of video offer a sequential, vertiginous tipping of the horizon as each cyclist corners, following each other round the track.  The riders remain in sequence for most of the work’s eighteen minute duration, but ultimately couldn’t resist the desire to pass one another, scrambling the lineup of images, but revealing the riders behaving normally, as they would were they not collaborating in the work. During sound recording for a related work, the artist witnessed a fatal crash. While risk is one part of the attraction of racing, the crash prompted the artist to end her motorbike series, as she became increasingly concerned about the possibility of her rig compromising the safety of riders.

There is a tension between works documenting existing situations (a protest, a re-enactment) and the choreographies of her large multi-screen works, which set up situations entirely for the camera.  Nonetheless, however pre-planned and highly structured these works are, they retain a strong respect for the nature, gestures and sociability of the activity she records.  Monteith is a participant in almost all of the activities she documents, drawing on experience as an international representative surfer, as a farm hand, as a motorcycle enthusiast.  Her bike works, for instance, gain significance within the racing fraternity through collaboration with known riders, such as two-times Isle of Man TT winner, New Zealand racer Shaun Harris (the Isle of Man race has an artworld currency too, informing Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4). Using noted riders and desirable machines is an important part of locating the work within the community it depicts, as well as within an art context. Her work has been reviewed in motorcycle magazines, as well as art publications. The artist’s petrol-headed enthusiasms gain her access to conversations, while her works sustain long-term, continuing relationships, evidenced by invitations such as being invited to film at the recent opening of the new Hampton Downs racetrack between Auckland and Hamilton.

In a work informed by her experiences as a farm worker, Composition for farmer, three dogs and 120 sheep for four-channel video installation (2006), Lloyd Bishop, a champion dog triallist, expertly choreographs dogs and sheep across the viewfinders of four simultaneously recording video cameras. Composition for farmer… displays the rural craft of mustering as it is transformed into the highly formalised sport of dog trialing; where farmers and their dogs compete to flawlessly usher a mob of sheep through a course and into a pen in a given time. Once-primetime viewing in New Zealand, the dog trial becomes in Monteith’s installation a pattern of animal and human bodies on a grassy hillside. Formally, the work draws a relationship between the rigid framing of the camera lens and the four pegged arenas the sheep move between.  A one-shot, 18 minute, real-time document of the land and those who inhabit it, the work’s green panorama references both the televised sport of dog trialing and nationalist, multi-screen hymns like This is New Zealand, a celebration of culture and landscape that screened at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka; this cinema spectacular was framed, as many multi-screen, expanded cinema type projects have been, by the generous governmental budgets and promotional image-making of large international exhibitions.

When shown in New Zealand, Composition for Farmer… riffs on all the touristic visions of a sheep-dominated agrarian nation, as well as nostalgia for a time when dog trialing seemed a natural programming choice for a weekend dinnertime. Shown at the Substation in Singapore in 2006, the work revealed how situated the practice it employs is, becoming utterly exotic – unfamiliar animals in an unknown pastoral landscape moving according to a logic obscure to most viewers.

Red Session (2009-10), currently on show as part of the Auckland Triennial, is a four-camera work made at Taranaki’s famous Stent Road surf break.  Red Session differs from both the scenic, narrative approach of the surf movie genre and the comparative close-ups and replays of televised surfing competitions. Grey surf fills a long shot of the break for the duration of the work’s 50-minute loop. The wide panorama offered by the four projections and the rhythm of the waves makes the scene seem tranquil, a tranquility belied by the efforts of the surfers waiting for waves, by the excitement felt out on the water. Gradually the surfers put on the red rash vests the artist and her helpers distribute at the break, and the black figures dotting the water turn red.

This work in particular relies on, and is read differently by, those with inside knowledge, who will more clearly perceive the big waves at dawn developing into more spaced out sets. The artist’s negotiations with local surfers revealed her understanding of the territoriality of surfing, a culture with a possibly contradictory fetish for freedom and a strict pecking order. The progress of the shoot was hard to predict, shaped by a community forming on the day, at the whims of the weather. The quality of the surf determined which of the three days’ takes was used, but rather than nicely composed shots of impressive action, it is the specific sociability of free surfing, the shifting dynamic over the duration of the work and the scale of performance that is important to Monteith. Though the branded rash vest is displaced from the surf school or competition context, it was important to retaining the spirit of the culture she was documenting that people were able to opt out of the work.

The self-determination of the surfers in Red Session is in contrast to another recent work made with the New Zealand Airforce acrobatic team, Composition for Royal New Zealand Air Force Red Checkers for five-channel video installation (2010).  For Monteith this was a step beyond the intimate participatory knowledge involved in her previous projects.  In contrast to the voluntaristic, favour, friendship and prestige-based operations of free surfing or motorcycle culture, this work involved negotiating the Airforce’s chain-of-command in order to be able to reach the point of collaboration with the acrobatic pilots. Working with the pilots involved developing an understanding of the practical and aesthetic considerations of acrobatics in relation to the artist’s concern with the interaction between camera positions in recording and the editing decisions formatting the projections in installation.

In the Red Checkers work, five rear-facing video cameras were mounted in the planes’ cockpits, the rear flaps and tail of the planes giving an additional framing beyond that of the camera’s lens.  The shiny yellow skins of the planes, the five tails centred in each shot are a point of reference offering a stability against the wheeling horizon as the planes roll, circle and interweave, leaving smoky trails.

The Red Checkers performed combinations from their repertoire (including evocatively-named Double-loops, Spaghetti Break, Ripple Rolls and Quarter Clovers) as well as a new variation on the Mirror manoevre devised for the filming. The display was grouped into line astern  (where the planes are in an offset line nose to tail) and vic. (V-shaped) formations.  The positional shift of the lead plane between these two sets of manoevres (from the front in line astern to the centre in the v formation) creates a moment when the relation between the location of the final projected image and the formation of the planes shifts.

Unlike Red Session or Composition for Farmer… that present a continuous panorama, the acrobatic work, with plane-mounted, rather than static cameras, involves interweaving, mobile points of view, related to the shifting horizons of the motorcycle works. These works offer exhilaration and disorientation rather than immersion. Some two-camera shoots bring the frame’s edges into the centre, offering the front and back of the same vehicle, or the twin perspectives of two lane-splitting bikes. The technical parameters of Composition with RNZAF Red Checkers for five-channel video installation is set by the number of flyers in formation and their standard flying time. With works with multiple points of view, rather than the sense of a scene wrapping around the viewer’s peripheral vision, there is too much to look at and take in simultaneously. It is just these multiplied perspectives that reveal new details to the performer participants, offering views obscured by the abstraction of speed.

In some ways, Monteith’s fixed (though often mobile) camera and lingering action shots reference very early moving image technology, which proffered visions of modern mechanical marvels, or short looping sequences of acrobats performing, reveling in the possibilities of capturing speed and motion. Her electro-mechanical devices recall this pre-electronic world of ratchets, springs and cogs. The performance AV scenario with Toyota Corolla (2006) is a setup devised to replicate the spoke-backwards effect generated during movie car chases, when the rotation of the wheel and the frame rate of the camera co-incide to make the wheels appear to reverse direction.  The performance involves an elaborate jack, tripod, camera and lighting rig, all required to replicate this incidental effect connecting filmic and vehicular motion.

In other ways her work evokes the contemporary embeddedness of video in everyday objects, in computers, vehicles, in rural and urban space, the compound eyes of a million CCTV cameras watching unblinkingly, generating more hours of footage than can ever be viewed. Monteith’s titling draws attention to the technical parameters of the work, her cameras granting access to bodies and machines in motion.  While her human participants are entirely occupied by the activity being recorded, the point of view of her locked-off camera is that of the vehicle. This notion of embeddedness is extended by the way Monteith employs the video culture native to the activity, using technology already existing in a site and with an awareness of the activity’s culture of viewing itself – especially through specialist video, but also in broadcast. Surf or ski videos produced for enthusiasts, for example, offer encyclopedic lists of shots, run after run, break after break, in a visual index of performance.

In terms of technical parameters, duration is more important to Monteith than resolution, one of the reasons she uses video rather than film, which allows only a strictly limited take length. Duration connects all her multi-screen works – the commonality between the artwork’s viewer and the participant is the real time taken for the performance. Editing as a technique to enhance a sense of excitement introduces an artificial time to the experience. Monteith lavishes effort on framing, grading, often spending days and weeks manipulating her images into seamlessness, but she does not alter the elapsed time of her chosen events. She is interested in real time versus experiential time, in the difference between the mechanical perception of the camera and the perceptions of space and time of the performer, deeply engaged in what they are doing.  In terms of audience, the work’s structure and pace allow the viewer can come in at any point and take something central about the activity away.

While her works are experienced at large scale, giving the imagery physical intensity, Monteith insists she is not trying to make some sub-Imax virtual experience. While there is spectacle, with video that engages all of the viewer’s peripheral vision, with the roar of bike engines, planes rolling in the blue sky, the crash of surf, her lingering single shots have a smoothness and a kind of slowness that counterposes this exhilaration. The real-time, highly produced panoramas and multi-screens of remain true to the logic and context of the activity depicted. Monteith’s work offers a knowing tension between immersive verisimilitude and the temporal and pictorial abstractions of video.

First published in Eyeline 72, 2010