The New Anxiety
The 300+ year technologies built to capture, understand and connect the world - from maps through geostationary satellites to contemporary algorithms and big data collection - have been exposed as weapons-grade systems that pluralise reality and destabilise the present. How does living in this new anxious world feel, and how deep do these systems take root?
The Earth is flat. It needs re-inflating.
The films of Quebec-based "cameraman without a camera" Dominic Gagnon entirely appropriated from other peoples' YouTube uploads have touched on absurd internet behaviours and ugly truths. Whilst his early work felt snuff-like in its portrayal of a broken America - flagged online content and right-wing conspiracist hate-speech aplenty - recent work has evolved with the usage of the internet to become more all-encompassing: hilarious, alienating, emotionally resonant, bewildering and hypnotic at once.
As part of our first fortnightly theme 'The New Anxiety' we featured Dominic Gagnon's feature-length film Going South where the filmmaker "throws himself into a journey from the polar centre of the disc-shaped Earth towards the Tropics, the cold waters strewn with glaciers, and beyond to space" (Céline Guenot). Following our online screening of Going South to launch our SS21 series was a post-screening Q&A where Dominic Gagnon spoke with artistic director Michael Brailey and took questions from the audience. He spoke about YouTube politics, how the Earth is flat, the loneliness of space travel and traveling the world from the comfort of his own home.
Trailer for feature film 'Going South' by Dominic Gagnon, featured as part of the fortnightly theme 'The New Anxiety' in VIRTUALLYREALITY SS21: The Long Triumph.
The following is an edited transcript of the live online Q&A which is archived on YouTube here.
"During the lockdowns, all the anxiety of people not knowing what to do or when lockdown was going to end felt, to me, like you are in your capsule navigating the stars alone."
- Dominic Gagnon
[MB] I wanted to start in the most obvious place which is the medium we're streaming through right now: YouTube. YouTube seems like a very important place for you in general, and I wondered how you go about navigating this site to find the footage for your films?
[DG] When YouTube started in 2005 I was a trained filmmaker making work for about 10 years before moving to YouTube. I thought that dealing with others people visuals would be meaningful, so I became a strict observer of whatever happened on the internet.
In 2008/9 I was researching terrorist conspiracy theories in the United States, things like the fear of having a totalitarian or fascist government. I navigated to find the newest videos, so I was right at the gate to videos with zero views. I would save a bunch of them for observation in case they would disappear: I noticed that a lot of videos were disappearing from the internet due to censorship. By saving them, I would have access to really precious things that would be rejected by this beautiful democratic platform for sharing videos, ideas and meeting people.
Over the years, things have changed with more content being made, and self-censorship. Now I work more with a list of keywords and having an assistant to help me filter through all that stuff.
[MB] It seems like a lot of your work takes aim at the United States. What is significant to you about that country or continent?
[DG] When I started in 2005/6 mostly Americans were online, so I ended up having a lot of American users in my films. Right now I’m making a science fiction movie and one of my main keywords is ‘lockdown’. As there was no lockdown at all in the States, I’m ending up working with a lot of UK characters.
[MB] Can you tell us anything else about that new film?
[DG] After making films about the four cardinal points of the globe, I thought it was time to go somewhere else and space was the place. During the lockdowns, all the anxiety of people not knowing what to do or when lockdown was going to end felt, to me, like you are in your capsule navigating the stars alone. I think if we end up colonising space then all we will have will be internet, and we will be stuck in small vehicles, small houses, small base-stations that won’t allow for a lot of human contact. People will feel alone, so I had the idea to take people’s speeches from their lockdown experiences and put them in the stars.
It was important to go somewhere else because I needed to take all this anxiety I was experiencing myself and have fun, build things in space and move things away from Earth and our problems. I’d like to make a horror movie too, a comedy or drama as well, but for now I stick with sci-fi as these last years have been such a big trauma for people.
Still from feature film 'Going South' by Dominic Gagnon, featured as part of the fortnightly theme 'The New Anxiety' in VIRTUALLYREALITY SS21: The Long Triumph.
"There's no more distance, no more shadow, everything is bright and instantaneous and geography does not exist. We’ve finally achieved the impossible of making the Earth flat."
- Dominic Gagnon
[MB] One thing that strikes me when you mention genres like ‘horror’ and ‘comedy’ is that they are often at play simultaneously during your films, stemming a lot of the time from the characters that you involve. These characters are often chaotic or troubled, maybe hermits from society, yet display such candidness and honesty to the camera. Could you explain more about what draws you to these people?
[DG] One reason I’m moving to making fiction is that I don’t believe so much in people's credibility anymore. In the beginning it was so sincere online, but now it’s being professionalised - people are using makeup, lighting, becoming like a small TV station. There used to be some documentary-style truth in these characters, more honesty.
‘Going South’ took almost two years of editing so I really have to like the people in order to spend so much time with them. I listen to all their stories, their worries… it’s sometimes overwhelming but it’s more bearable if they’re a little funny.
[MB] Flat earth theory seems important in ‘Going South’ both as a conspiracy theory but also how it pertains to flatness or digital flatness. How do you feel those forms of flatness relate to one another?
[DG] When I started doing research on the cardinal points of the internet, I realised it made no sense except for the North because the North leads us all to the same point - the Arctic Circle. But if I believe the Earth is flat, where is my south? The thought was going to the border, the crust. Also, the collective imagination of the South is the beach, palm trees, the tropics…
I was also inspired by a book called ‘The World Is Flat’ by Thomas Friedman. He had this theory that the internet, the satellite technologies and the wiring through the whole planet had destroyed geography. Now we look at ourselves flat-on on Zoom. It's a bit like a disco ball that you make flat, where everybody can see everybody at the same time. There's no more distance, no more shadow, everything is bright and instantaneous and geography does not exist. We’ve finally achieved the impossible of making the Earth flat.
[MB] The first film I saw of yours was HOAX_CANULAR. That particular film focuses a lot on the apocalypse circa 2012 with the end of the Mayan calendar and YouTubers’ responses to that, but it seems like the theme of the apocalypse has developed throughout your work.
[DG] I have survived many ‘end of the worlds’ already, so my view is that it’s like Halloween. Halloween is really big here in North America with kids dressing up and scaring themselves. It's a way to train yourself to not be scared of ghosts or serial killers or whatever. I think the times that we are moving in are going to be really scary for many different reasons like climate change, wars, Donald Trump coming back, and I think that's why we like our movies that exacerbate this idea of an ‘end’.
If you make a film about the end of the world, who's going to be your audience? You have to believe that there will be an audience in order to make that film. It’s a shame that last year people weren’t achieving so many things because they were so fucking scared. Of course there will be a future - a new way of life, maybe - but it shouldn't stop us from making things. The idea of the end of the world just makes me happy. It's not that I’m a doomer or anything but I like to make fun of that subject.
Collage of stills from feature film 'Going South' by Dominic Gagnon, featured as part of the fortnightly theme 'The New Anxiety' in VIRTUALLYREALITY SS21: The Long Triumph.
[MB] Trump said recently that he wants to start his own media outlet. YouTube has been this centralized thing but now as the internet becomes territorialized, gatekeeped in some way, do you see it affecting your workflow into the future? How might you combat those issues?
[DG] Now we have the concept of fake news or alternative facts, it's really hard to be on the internet and believe anyone. I see editing as a solution. Either mashing things together to see the lies, or isolating some videos or discourse and analyzing it in a laboratory. We desperately need to understand what's going on now, and I feel that with my video editing software I can slow things down and re-watch them, try to find other ways of seeing to eventually understand. If not, we're just lost in all that big data and then it's really hard to find a voice in this torrent of information. I feel really privileged to be in my home and travel the world through cables to make films.
[question from the audience] What is the ‘truth’, narrative reality or situation you try to convey whilst trying to expose the post-truth era?
[DG] I like to identify some abstraction that will trigger things in me. Whilst making ‘Going South’, figuring out the meaning of what it means to ‘go south’, I thought that it was time to try to stop making sense of things and instead let things fly. Any viewers of this film can have a different experience.
I like to watch my films in the future to see what I was able to archive because sometimes when I make it, the process is so alienating - watching all those things, listening to all those people. I like to think of images that like each other and find each other in my editing room. It can be a colour, a line, a texture, a word that will make images connect together, and I will just keep on going until I have small sequences forming which find other sequences and so on. It's really long process of trial and error.
[question from the audience] I would be curious about questions of ownership or consent in relation to the original people who published the clips. Was the material gathered with their knowing about how it is used in the film?
[DG] I like this question because it's the main ‘bone’, let's say. Firstly, my belief is that those people want to be seen. If not, they would not post on YouTube. I don’t believe it's a problem for them as they are accumulating thousands of views with their videos while I’m just an experimental filmmaker gathering far less views. I don't feel like I make a big competition with their own channel. I’m just making a little bit of publicity for them as I cite all the videos in the end credits.
The problem is that if I show them the film once it's made, maybe they will not be comfortable sharing the space with other YouTubers. It’s the risk I take of composing a film with all these different views and images. If someone really has a problem being in one of my films I would totally consider removing or changing the film, but it has to be a serious claim, not just something like ‘I don’t like my makeup’ or ‘I don’t like to share the film space with this other character’.
In regards to ownership, my films are not for sale and I don't claim to be the owner of my own films. I only take responsibility for the editing. I like to call them ‘wild films’, they are just ‘out there’. They might create problems or tension, they might create controversy but it's the risk I’m willing to take as an artist to try to make sense out of all this. People have tried to shut me down in the past but they never succeed because it's just wild images in nature.
[MB] As we are more interconnected than ever - not only on a technological level but on a viral level - we have a new global empathy as we hear about the inequality of how COVID is affecting different communities and different healthcare systems all around the world. How do you see these two parallel viralities, the technological and the biological, coexisting?
[DG] I think the situation is very much going to continue to stay the same. As the internet has made its way further into our lives because of the pandemic, we have realised how much money we can save, how much safer sex can be online, things like that. With the richer countries in the Northern Hemisphere, I think we are going to see a lot of differences between poorer nations and richer nations, and I dream of a post-digital world where we could just leave those things behind and re-inflate the planet with some positivity, some sense of ‘being human’. There's not much accidents happening online I and miss that; I know my day is always gonna start and end the same. I miss the chaotic part of life. I want to find the air pump and re-pump-up the world, re-inflate things and make things wild and dangerous again.
Dominic Gagnon. Photo courtesy the artist.
Dominic Gagnon in conversation with VIRTUALLYREALITY's artistic director Michael Brailey.
The feature film 'Going South' by Dominic Gagnon features as part of our fortnightly theme 'The New Anxiety'.