Corinna Ghaznavi on the video works by Thomas Kneubuhler
Essay for the exhibition «NatureCultures», Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film, Durham ON, 2013
Canada is a vast land known for its changing and spectacular landscape, from ‘the rock’ in the East, through bush lands, the Canadian Shield, the Rocky Mountains, and the coasts on the East and West. We mainly inhabit the southern edge and understand the north to be remote, difficult to inhabit, and hard to access. Thomas Kneubuhler’s works focus on the myth of untouched lands and the exploitation of their expanses and resources. While we know that Native settlements and rich ecosystems are threatened by oil drilling, we less often consider how other human encroachment on traditional ways of life and animal habitats have marked the land we think of as unscathed and whole. By meticulously framing three different sites, Kneubuhler brings into focus the dense juxtaposition of nature and technology, highlighting how the needs of a consumption driven culture dominate the Canadian landscape. Kneubuhler’s strategy is both direct and subtle: Switch begins with a camera mounted in such a way that we initially think we are looking at a still image. Small dots of light twinkle at the bottom of a ski hill that is decorated with wide swathes of bright white and blue-tinged electric bands. Steve Bates’s audio is like a vibration that mounts as we continue to look at the image that we see to be animated, after all, through tiny moving points of light. The mountain is beautiful, crowned in its rich ribbons of electricity. Suddenly the right side falls into darkness. After several seconds the entire mountain is blacked out. The off switch has been pushed. The mountain is gone. The only bits we see are those small points in the town below. The same dramatic effect between light and darkness is achieved very differently in Kneubuhler’s most recent video work, Days In Night. Narrated by a woman addressing the experience of living in the High Arctic, where there is no direct sunlight for six months of the year, we initially see nothing at all. As the video progresses we slowly begin to make out contours of the landscape, dimly at first, and then less faintly, until our eyes adjust to the dusky environment. Kneubuhler’s skillful technique allows us to experience the sensation that the audio narrates. We feel the strangeness of this darkness and are struck by the remoteness of that place which, however, is a military and research station. A station that hence signals that this place has been explored, mapped, and inhabited, in however small a way. And however empty, it seems there is no place unmarked by human presence.
Currents moves between these two other works, focusing on the hydro electrical installations in northern Quebec. Kneubuhler writes of ruptures in this work and formally the video plays on this idea: with some rapidity we are presented with a series of changing images from idyllic landscape to an empty road traversed by truck to new settlements and temporary housing. The persistent image of hydro lines and the insistent hum of electricity drives home the fact that roads are cut and landscapes split open to create power stations that provide a constant flow of power to the south. The work speaks of multiple displacements and reversals; Native inhabitants, traditionally Cree and Inuit, are resettled into subdivisions, workers are nomadic, the landscape is ravaged and the migratory paths of caribou destroyed. In what we think of as remote a truck chases down animals, humans settle, move and resettle, and always a line of hydro poles is visible in some background. Where there was nothing there are now vast power stations standing in stark contrast to the landscape we think of as remote. All three works highlight that which we use so ubiquitously – power – yet rarely consider or even see. Being ‘out in nature’ on the ski hill is to be surrounded by technological and cultural mechanisms, like light, maintenance vehicles, ski lifts and sometimes even fake snow. The mountain becomes a luxuriously crafted culture that mimics what we understood once as ‘nature.’ The daunting darkness of the Arctic, something that we cannot control or light, is nonetheless under the ownership of civilization and studied intricately, and perhaps even ominously, by the military. And the high demand for power, in its physical and conceptual manifestations, radically alters landscapes and human and animal cultures.
Kneubuhler’s works read both poetically and like documentaries. His carefully crafted works present, in a direct and apparently objective manner, the intricately intertwined technological and natural landscape. We come to consider the resources that we cull from the earth and the wide cuts we make into it in order to gain what we want. We come to consider too the displaced, the ravaged, the recreated and the wondrous. For technology can be marvelous, enabling one, for instance, to film, develop, edit, and project. It can recreate and simulate, it can offer new experiences and enable travel, aid vision, and create zones of safety. It can also shut out that darkness beyond, push out that which was formerly there, alter and eradicate, move and destroy. Together Switch, Currents, and Days In Night bring a critical eye to that which we have created, we take for granted, and we rarely see, or see consciously. The marked success of innovation seeps through just as a warning voice does too: lest we take care the switch might be turned off forever.