If it hadn’t been for Dawson City’s winters, Jeffrey Langille’s art practice might look different than it does today.
One of the six artists shortlisted for the Yukon Prize for Visual Arts, worth $20,000, Langille moved to Dawson to work at the School of Visual Art in 2015.
That first winter, he was transfixed by the ice fog rising from the Yukon River. A filmmaker with a master of fine arts from Simon Fraser University, he shot endless footage of the plumes coming off the water — on Super-8, 16-millimetre and high-definition video. He was struck by the visuals, but also by the sound and the lack thereof.
In the most silent moments, a raven would caw, or Langille would notice the sound of ice moving in the water. It would break the actual stillness, while simultaneously contributing to it. To him, that interplay only further amplified the immense sense of space he was already getting from the landscape.
In putting together his finished film, a 22-minute piece titled Elegy, some of his shots were seven minutes long. In them, the only thing that happened was that fog moved across the screen. Langille saw that he was pushing audiences to watch the kind of slow cinema he wanted to see. Lately, he’s realized this kind of work allows him to explore the concept of attention — how we direct it and the ways in which we give it to something.
How is it that there is always something new? is a 2013 film of his that also nods to this idea. The five-minute video focuses on a pile of rocks as snow falls on them. Watching, it kind of feels like a conversation you’re having with someone who’s simply stopped talking. You wait for the other person to pick up the thread of what you were discussing. The longer you wait, the more charged your expectations become. You start to pay maybe more — and closer — attention, than if they were speaking. You listen to the wind. The shot never changes.
That interest in attention continues to come through in Langille’s more recent work. In the last couple years, he’s gotten into the sound component of his video work in a way that’s led him back to music, a hobby he gave up years ago when he decided he didn’t have enough time to pursue both it and film.
Again though, long Dawson winters led Langille to buy a guitar, which led to effects pedals, which led to synthesizers. That led to Langille discovering a community on Instagram of people who create tape loops.
Tape loops are played on cassette recorders that have been broken and reassembled so they play infinitely. The cassettes are deconstructed and Frankensteined back together as well. Langille creates or collects sounds, then physically cuts up the magnetic tape they’re recorded onto, sometimes splicing at random. He puts them back together in new configurations, usually of only a few seconds long, to be played on a loop.
He likens the process to dumping a toy box on to the floor and playing with whatever falls out, but it’s a labour-intensive approach. For a while, before he realized you could buy pre-cut tape for analog editing, Langille was hand-measuring and cutting tiny scraps of scotch tape to meet the dimensions of magnetic tape.
“I like the directness of it,” he says. “I could probably do what I’m doing with digital as well, but I guess there’s kind of a bit of a bias around the feeling of purity with analog.”
Analog allows him to physically apply changes to the tape in a way that has an immediate effect on the tone heard by listeners. Tape is impacted by the world around it, including temperature, in a way digital isn’t. It lets Langille shape the sound differently than if he was creating with ones and zeros, he says.
The finished product isn’t the kind of music you hear on the radio. There might be choppy carnival sounds, snippets of conversation between people, or ominous Medieval hymns. May we speak is a longer loop comprised of two different books on tape, edited together to sound like two people chatting. The words of the readers are nonsensical when volleyed back and forth. But the cadence and tone of their exchange follow recognizable patterns of conversation. You feel like you should be able to make sense of it, so you focus on it.
That’s what Langille wants — for you to try to find the pattern.
“I really get off on that kind of thing,” he says. “The idea of something that is going to repeat, almost like a mantra. And I lose myself […] I’m hoping that a person listening or watching will become aware of their processes of attention.”
The Yukon Prize for Visual Arts will be announced Sept. 16.
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org