A Broken Contract
When watching a film it’s usually safe to say that there will be an event or something will happen. This expectation is part of a wider set of expectations we unconsciously bring with us when watching films. In a sense, there is a “contract” between the audience and the filmmaker. The rule that something will happen in the film is one of the most basic, unstated rules of this contract. Video art is not excluded from this contract; regardless of its status as art and not as a Hollywood blockbuster, the understanding and expectations inevitably carry over.
For example, when I watched Pipilotti Rist’s Ever is Over All for the first time, I wasn’t surprised that the video wasn’t straightforward, that it was slowed down slightly, or that it was projected as a split screen with two separate stories being told. All of the basic film rules were still intact; in effect I watched a video and something happened. That something might have been beautiful, unoriginal, contrived or wonderful but that does not change the fact that the basic rules of viewing a video have not been changed in this viewing.
It is this very unspoken and unconscious rule that Euan MacDonald’s video House (everythinghappensatonce) challenges. The single view shot is of a body of water and a dilapidated boathouse that seems to teeter on the edge of falling into the water. The eventual demise of the house seems to be the impending narrative that will be told throughout the piece. This however is not the case. Instead, initially the viewer might actually suspect that what they’re seeing is a still-life, a photograph or some other non-time-based-art. This is because for much of the thirty-minute piece, absolutely nothing happens.
After a good amount of time watching the virtual still life, without warning, a boat speeds across the screen. This occurs so quickly and without preamble or conclusion that it almost seems to be a technical glitch. And while this does constitute as something happening in the video, the fact that so much of the piece focuses on nothing happening calls into question the entire contract of the viewer and the video. MacDonald seems to be pointing back at the viewer’s inherent assumptions. He begs the question, why does anything have to happen at all?
Not only is MacDonald challenging what we expect to see in videos, he’s challenging our relationship to how time is shown in videos. Traditionally we have come to expect time to be condensed in video form (think Rocky montage), but this piece seems almost to elongate and slow down time just by being shot and remaining in real time. By “slowing” this time down and challenging our assumptions of something happening, MacDonald challenges our relationship to video. This challenging stance changes everything about the critique of this video. MacDonald is playing with our expectations as viewers, our unknown contracts we have with video and our relationship to time in video.