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[The following is the transcript of Robin Bergart‘s audio interview with the video artist Jenn E. Norton.]

Robin: Can you describe your exhibit, Dredging a Wake?

Jenn: I’ll talk about it the way a viewer would see it if they were to walk through it. The first large room is a piece called Precipice. It’s a very large space and there is a cylindrical shape in the centre of the room that is being projected upon. The image is kind of watery and there are oceanic sounds and the viewer, if they choose to walk around it, can see that it’s a seamless projection, stepping outside the rectangular format. As an aside, that was done with a program called MadMapper where you can project onto objects using multiple projections and sew them together. The wall surrounding this cylindrical projection are images of a submerged archive and it’s ambiguous as to whether it’s been abandoned or if it’s still functioning on some level. There are flickering lights as though this space is falling apart. There’s debris floating through the water. Everything’s got a black, slick surface, so it’s very dark in the space. A swimmer is traversing the four projections and it’s unclear whether they’re navigating the pace or is reeling within the space. There are old items not used much anymore for archiving media, like CDs, floppy disks, and audiocassette tapes twirling in an eddy.

The viewer is able to walk up to the cylindrical structure and there’s an entrance. When they enter, there’s a chair that’s illuminated by a single light. When the viewer sits down on the chair, it activates the video. The platform turns to guide you to see another swimmer. This swimmer is dressed in what you would imagine an archivist in a 1970s BBC production would be wearing. As they swim, more debris gets swept up in their wake. The debris swirls around the swimmer obscuring the swimmer completely until they disappear in the documents. The chair rotates the viewer so you’re following the movement of the swimmer. This room, for me–and I created it–gives me a vertiginous and disorienting feeling.

Robin: Why did you call this piece “Precipice”?

Jenn: Right now we’re on a precipice in terms of losing or keeping information. We’re always on a precipice as media formats keep changing, but it feels imminent at this moment. When things are being digitized, we’re having to make decisions about what is important and what will become dust in its physical format. The precipice is a metaphor of losing balance and becoming ungrounded. Perhaps the documents will be lost into the recesses of history.

I was also thinking about how every archive is a kind of a portrait, whether it’s portrait of an institution or of an individual. The archive is what we choose to hang onto—which documents and which images and information that we want to represent ourselves, our institutions and our society.

Robin: What got you thinking about these questions?

Jenn: We’ve all become caretakers of our own archives to a certain extent, even things that we don’t think about as archive, such as using our debit card, or which links we choose to click on, our storage of cookies and caches.

Robin: So information is not just at risk of being lost forever, but of never being lost.

Jenn: Yes. There’s so much one could never consume it all or find it useful, or access, categorize or index it. In my work I don’t want to have a didactic approach and say “it’s too much” or “it’s too little.” I want to ask questions more than answer questions. Who can access the information? Who is the information for? Who is the reader? What can be done with this information?

Robin: Why do you choose to communicate these questions and ideas in art instead of in words?

Jenn: You’re right, I could write all of this down, but it’s something I can’t completely explain in words because it’s so vast. There’s a sense of wonder and mystery in it. A lot of my work is about creating an experience that came from a curiosity itch that I had or an inkling I got stuck on. I think I’m trying to re-create in my work that inkling or curiosity or itch that I felt initially.

I’ve used the ideas of sinkholes or black holes and other things that evoke the sublime. I use these overwhelming phenomena of nature to communicate the technological phenomena that we’re equally overwhelmed by. I know my work looks dark and it’s kind of ominous, but I’m also playing with these ideas too. I almost find it kind of comical how enormous this has all blown up to be in such a short amount of time.

Robin: So far I’m having trouble seeing the comical side to all of this.

Jenn: For the archivist to be lost in all the shuffle of papers is kind of a magician’s trick. The playfulness I think comes out in the second installation.

Robin: Tell me about that installation.

Jenn: If we’re still imagining this as a walk through the exhibit, the next room has an installation I call Doline (sinkhole). This installation shows old technological containers of information (floppy disk players, Betamax, audiocassette players) twirling in an eddy.

Robin: It’s a dimly lit room, and it’s quite creepy to see old videocassette machines and other obsolete technologies and towers of archival boxes doing pirouettes. And the sounds of the motors whirring is also creepy. And to top it off you’ve got an audio installation of people recounting their dreams of falling.

Jenn: My four-year old daughter is terrified of this room! The idea is these archival boxes are twirling forever, not sinking, and not floating and the floor is concrete. What is presented betrays the materiality of the room itself. Archives are unwieldy things. They represent hours of information. To imagine going through an entire archive represents a dedicated time of your life you have to spend with it. It’s a huge weight. It’s intimidating. You almost don’t want to start going through the archive. On the other hand, to see the archive as the accumulation of all of those hours is an amazing sight. It takes you to another time, and it represents time.

Robin: Could you tell me more about the audio portion of this installation?

Jenn: This is part of a recording where Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange (from a BBC radio archive Inventions for Radio No. 1: The Dreams, 1964) describe dreams of falling. There’s a moment in that tape that says, “I was falling. There were all these things around me: tables, and chairs…” And in that I had this vision of the archive as a portrait of people and things and events that happened, preserved for posterity. The archives represent people’s lives, so to lose the archives by not choosing to take that disintegrating Betamax tape and move it into a hard drive somewhere, it made me think of people falling through space, lost to oblivion.

When people dream they are falling, they wake up before they land. We don’t really know what’s after the fall because we’re disrupted from the dream and it brings me back to thinking about the sinkhole. I’ve seen them in Guatemala and China, and it’s terrifying to think you could just be walking down the street and suddenly you’re swallowed up by a sinkhole and you’re never found again. Same for black holes. Once something passes through a black hole, we don’t know what happens. It’s gone! And that’s the same for information. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Robin: I’ve always seen library and archival work as keeping us from this abyss. We’re propping up information, containing it, organizing it, categorizing it, and controlling it. You seem to be exploring the futility of this endeavor.

Jenn: It’s not all dark. There’s the critique that history is written by the victors. Women, people of colour, and people of marginalized social classes were written out of a lot of histories. Today I think we can be custodians of our own archives and people are making their own histories in a way that is unprecedented, and I think that’s optimistic and hopeful. That optimism is in my work too—though maybe not in the two pieces we just spoke of. Shall we walk over to the last installation, the 3D Room?

Robin: Yes, let’s go there.

Jenn: This is Doldrums. The room is physically apart from the other two. There are two projections on opposing walls. It’s a video loop of a moon floating over an ocean and the waves are gentle and calm.

If you keep watching the moon, eventually the surface of the moon slips off revealing a red candy-coated sphere underneath. It slips off again and it’s blue, and again, and it’s green. As it’s coming apart, the fabric of the moon is torn into bits of confetti. Red, green and blue are the colours of video, and that’s also how we see things on computer screens.

As all of these surfaces fall away, the moon reveals a lightbulb. It’s the electric lightbulb McLuhan talked about. This bulb comes towards the viewer and we can see the filaments inside. Then it gets even more abstract and we go through a tunnel of light. I wanted to point to McLuhan’s use of the electric bulb to explain what he means by “the medium is the message.” The invention of the lightbulb allowed us to inhabit spaces and see them in ways we never could before. It changed what we could do when the sun goes down. Information now travels by light. We share our stories through the medium of light carried by fibre optic cables under the ocean.

Robin: I’m still not sure why this piece is called “Doldrums.”

Jenn: I think a lot of thoughts come up when we’re stuck in the doldrums. We’re forced pause to stop, take a breath, and contemplate. The image of the moon floating over the sea is meditative for me.

Robin: So is this last installation a different take on information and archives? Is it responding to the other two pieces?

Jenn: I think of it as information being shared, freed of those old boxes. I’m not saying this is totally the way we should go, because those fiber optics can be cut and it’s hubris to believe that information is safe once it’s been digitized, even if it’s networked and shared. If the electricity goes, it’s all gone. History is gone.

Robin: How have libraries helped support or inhibit your art and your imagination?

Jenn: I’ve spent so many hours in libraries watching other artists’ videos. I love books as objects, especially art books. The book as an object influenced my thesis at the University of Guelph. Andre Gide’s self-reflexive books were a mark for me, a point of departure in my practice. It made me think about the materiality of things more.

And I certainly spend a lot of time in public libraries with my daughter. We’ve been going since she was born. I love the idea of a library. It’s such a beautiful thing I hope we don’t lose.

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