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northern lights

one can see only..


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Dreams from the far edge of the atmosphere

The ephemerality and momentariness of any live performance together with the visibility of its contemporary forms may distract the common knowledge from the fact that even before the contemporary VJ-performances using digital moving image there has been an experimental tradition of "expanded cinema" in analogue film - the first field of "live cinema" as film performance. Arvid van der Rijt's and Britt Kootstra's film performance Northern Lights (2014) is an impressive addition to this body of works. The visual and aural landscape of the almost otherworldly lights moving in high places is created by the equipment of 16mm film and other deceivingly simple elements and tools used in the film performance. The projected images move slowly along the walls of the cinema theatre affecting and moving the imaginative mind of the spectator, showing the transformative power of the ephemeral images on the film while keeping the physical event of performing and screening in the actual space also in consciousness. It is not just ephemerality but also the materiality which makes some film performances so unforgettable. In the following short text I try to describe why Northern Lights is one of them.

Van der Rijt's and Britt Kootstra's film performance includes the use of five film projectors and several hand-processed and handmade film loops running simultaneously. The presence of the artists themselves, the movement of the projections on the walls of the theatre and the manipulation of the materials by hand creates an experience for all senses, intensifying the short moment shared together with the audience. The optical-haptical -relation is examined by the manipulation of the filmstrip and other objects put in the projection light and the eerie aural landscape of the piece is created partly using atmospheric electronic sound and partly so called optical sound, meaning the scratched or carved sound on the filmstrip itself. The tradition of "visual music" has an important place in the history of experimental film practices, expanding also to the area of sound and light art. Van der Rijt and Kootstra write about the use of the optical sound in the work: "...the sounds are generated directly by the images that we are seeing. In that way, the senses are linked, because we hear the images and see the sounds."

"Northern Lights" is the well-known name of the light phenomenon visible in both arctic and antarctic skies creating beautiful colourful shapes in movement, caused by the solar wind colliding with the magnetospheric charged particles. In it the regular nuances of light and darkness transform into wondrous and mesmerising scenes high above in the far end of the atmosphere. Van der Rijt and Kootstra compare the phenomenon to the wonder of the light and darkness turning into movement and colour when the film strip goes past the light in the projector. "From the pulsating filmloops, colours start to emerge out of the black and white images", write the artists. The auroral colours (red, green, yellow, pink and blue) seem also to be appearing and changing in my perception when I follow the sequences of the performance.

The aerial movement of the phenomenon in the skies is reflected in the film performance by the movement of the wings, which becomes one of the central gestural figures in the work. It is associated with the figure of the bird. Even though in the work the birds "show themselves barely recognisable in the dusk", as the artists write, the strong rotating movement of the wings reminds me also of the mythic figure of Hermes, the messenger-god between the earth and the skies. Following the etymology of the latin term of Northern Lights Aurora Borealis, I imagine Hermes running with his winged feet in the skies bringing a message to Aurora (greek Eos – the goddess of the Dawn and the sister of the Sun and the Moon) and Boreas (the god of the north wind). In Finnish folk tales we can also find different stories, telling i.e. about the magical fox, whose tail sweeps across the snow, creating the "Fox Fires" ("Revontulet") in the sky. In the old Lapp or Saami tales the Northern Lights were believed to be the visible sign about the energies of the souls of the dead people, asking for respect and bringing in wisdom, calmness and peace into the human conflicts.

The film performance leads me from the dusk to the dawn and back. I make connections with the images that I see and the sounds that I hear, creating new constellations of perceptions in every moment. Van der Rijt and Kootstra join in the artist-filmmakers' task to free the film from its conventional projection forms and rooms. I'm thinking here especially the expanded cinema movement of the 1970s. In Britain one of the pioneers was a structuralist filmmaker and film performer Guy Sherwin, whose practice van der Rijt and Kootstra mention being as one of their important influences. There are other artists that could be mentioned too, i.e. Malcolm Le Grice, whose four screen version of the work Threshold (1972) includes the projections moved by the artist, traveling slowly in the presentational space questioning the borders and the usual habits used in a film screening event and in a place where it happens. In Threshold the moving film images seem to touch and explore gently the architecture in a similar way to van der Rijt's and Kootstra's work. While it is possible to find this kind of 'relatives', the work definitely has its own 'wings'. It is a beautiful and haunting work, sharing light and giving hope also to the future practice in film.

I had the pleasure to witness van der Rijt's and Kootstra's Northern Lights in AAVE Alternative AudioVisual Event in April 2014. As one of the organisers and artistic director responsible of the festival program celebrating both film and electronic audiovisual arts, I couldn't have hoped for a better ending session in the festival. It worked as the best reminder of the importance of showing the works by contemporary artists still using the film-based material as part of their artistic practice. Van der Rijt's and Kootstra-s film performance is a delightful piece of work that refreshes our memory about the experimental practice in film, so often buried in the cultural memory under the more conventional ways of screening and distribution.

Kari Yli-Annala