SPECTRES OF SHORTWAVE / OMBRES DES ONDES COURTES
Spectres of Shortwave / Ombres des ondes courtes
(Amanda Dawn Christie, 2016, Canada, 113 min, Digital)
Amanda Dawn Christie in attendance!
Spectres of Shortwave / Ombres des ondes courtes is the first feature-length documentary by veteran Canadian artist and filmmaker Amanda Dawn Christie. Shot over seven years, the film follows the gradual dismantling of Radio Canada International’s 113-metre tall shortwave towers in Sackville, New Brunswick.
While built to relay broadcasts around the world, over their seven decades of operation the towers became notorious locally after repeated instances of ghostly voices emanating from unconventional household objects. Such stories form part of the film’s rich soundscape, also constructed using contact mics on the towers.
Produced as both a single-channel film as well as a radio documentary, Spectres of Shortwave / Ombres des ondes courtes will be presented simultaneously in the Toronto cinema space at the same time it is broadcast over the airwaves of an international shortwave station.
Wednesday 24 April 2019
Doors: 6:30 PM | Screening: 6:55 PM
*NOTE: SPECIAL START TIME*
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
Amanda Dawn Christie is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, video, performance, photography, and electroacoustic sound design. She has exhibited and performed in art galleries across Canada, and her films have screened internationally from Cannes to Korea to San Fransisco and beyond. She was the 2014 Atlantic finalist for the National Media Art prize, and recently had a 10 year retrospective exhibition of her work curated by Mireille Bourgeois, at the Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben Cohen, and was also included in the Marion McCain Biennale of Atlantic Contemporary Art, curated by Corinna Ghaznavi. Her experimental films have screened internationally including the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival (Czech Republic), the ExIs Experimental Film Festival (Seoul, South Korea), the Madcat International Women's Film Festival (San Fransisco), the International Film Festival Rotterdam (Netherlands), Starting from Scratch Film Festival (Amsterdam), Cine El Pocho (Oaxaca, Mexico), Antimatter Underground Film Festival (Victoria), Stem Cell Festival (Edmonton), $100 Film Festival (Calgary), the Oberhausen Short Film Festival (Germany), and the Leeds International Film Festival (UK), among several other festivals, and cinematheques. Her films are distributed by the CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre) in Canada, the Dutchfilmbank in Amsterdam, and Light Cone in Paris.
Dan Browne is a filmmaker and multimedia artist living in Toronto. He has published writings in Found Footage Magazine, Millennium Film Journal, Incite Journal of Experimental Media, Hors Champ, San Francisco Cinematheque, Desistfilm, Edge of Frame, and Otherzine, in addition to several forthcoming chapters in edited volumes on Canadian cinema. He is a part of the curatorial group Vertical Features with Jesse Cumming and Olivia Wong. Visit his website here.
Landscapes of Connectivity: Notes on Amanda Dawn Christie’s Spectres of Shortwave
By Dan Browne
In 1861, the Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell first published his four equations that established the theory of electromagnetism in a paper entitled “On Physical Lines of Force”. The theory predicted the existence of invisible electromagnetic fields that had the ability to travel through space as waves, providing a model that established the foundation of the contemporary world as we know it. Through his equations, Maxwell described the behaviour of charges, currents, fields, and forms of electromagnetic radiation, and would go on to suggest that light itself was composed of such waves. The implications of Maxwell’s theory are profound: not only do his equations assert that all phenomena are composed of a single unified spectrum of vibrational forces, but that these forces are of a fundamentally dynamic and interpenetrating character.
It is no coincidence that Alfred North Whitehead, the key philosopher of process of the twentieth century, wrote his 1884 dissertation on Maxwell. Whitehead understood that the cosmo-conception inherent in the theory of electromagnetism provided an antidote for the atomistic materialism of the Newtonian universe. Using Maxwell’s insights, Whitehead describes reality as “a field of force” in which “the fundamental concepts are activity and process.” The new paradigm of electromagnetism meant that the Newtonian worldview – in which reality is composed of discrete objects made up of matter existing only at a single spatio-temporal location, rather than dynamic forces that resonate through multiple fields simultaneously – was no longer sufficient, and would be overcome by a new set of relations in which interdependence and flow of energy replaced static objects as basic fundamental properties. Whitehead’s philosophy of process is an expression of this new paradigm: it proposes a universe not composed of isolated bits of matter, but of interpenetrating fields of fluctuating energy, meaning that, “in a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times.” This concept has still proven too radical for widespread acceptance – the “fallacy of simple location,” as Whitehead termed it, remains an idea we are stuck with nearly a century later, even though this notion has become increasingly undermined by the applications we have found for electromagnetic waves in transmitting streams of information.
Between 1886 and 1889, the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz conducted a series of experiments that conclusively proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, leading to their frequency cycle being named in his honour. Incredibly, Hertz did not realize the significance of his experiments that would result in his name becoming a standard unit of measurement – he is reported to have explained the phenomena as follows: “It’s of no use whatsoever […] this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right – we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there.” When asked about the implications of his findings, Hertz replied, “Nothing, I guess.”  Hertz’s demonstrations led to an array of further experiments within the nascent medium, at first called “Hertzian waves” until surpassed by the term “radio waves” around 1910. Within a decade of Hertz’s first experiments, other researchers used radio waves to enact the first wireless communication systems, with Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun conducting tests in the 1890s that led to a shared Nobel Prize in 1909 for their contributions to the field. While Marconi was the first to develop an apparatus for long distance radio communication, it was a Canadian-born inventor, Reginald A. Fessenden, who became the first to send an audio signal by means of “wireless telephony” in 1900, as well as the first to make a public radio broadcast in 1906. By the late 1920s, over half of all intercontinental communications had switched from transoceanic cables to longwave frequencies, a change that resulted in large monetary losses for cable companies, and eventually led the British government to intervene by merging all overseas wireless resources into a single company in 1929. By this time, many amateurs were successfully generating transatlantic broadcasts in the 200 meter mediumwave frequency range (near 1,500 kHz in the AM broadcast band), as well as increasingly experimenting shortwave frequencies. While shortwave broadcasts were prohibited at first in North America, the territory was difficult to regulate, and several bands were eventually made available for public use shortly after the first successful transmissions with New Zealand in 1924. The culture of shortwave radio was born.
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Amanda Dawn Christie’s first feature, Spectres of Shortwave / Ombres des ondes courtes (2016), is a document of the final days of the Radio Canada International (RCI) shortwave radio towers in the town of Sackville, New Brunswick. The only installation of its kind in Canada, the thirteen RCI towers stood over 400 feet tall on an otherwise flat landscape (one that sits below sea level), providing an imposing and impressive sight for anyone in the region. The towers broadcast in 75 languages, their signals extending around the entire planet. Having lived near the towers, their history is enmeshed with Christie’s own personal history, with the film a labour of love produced over seven years. While Spectres of Shortwave represents a shift in direction for Christie – whose body of work has heretofore been composed of shorts, installations, and performances, many of which are based in concerns of embodiment relating to her training as a dancer – the terrain of invisible transmission and questions of space, landscape, and nostalgia are common themes for her, particularly within the analog video distortions of HiFi Normal (2014), the shortwave-meets-16mm expanded cinema performance Transmissions (2009), and Marshland Radio Plumbing Project (2009), a radio receiver sculpture built entirely from copper plumbing. In tandem with Spectres of Shortwave, Christie has developed a new dimension to her practice as a sound artist via a series of interactive performances entitled Requiem for Radio, and the film retains an expanded performative element: each screening is accompanied by a simulcast radio transmission of its soundtrack in another part of the world.
Spectres of Shortwave is global in its scope, but remains at its heart a fundamentally a Canadian film – arguably one of the most Canadian films ever made. Not only is it presented bilingually in English and French (as per the population of its subject geography), it extends a central obsession of the Canadian imagination: the interplay of communications across territories of language, landscape, culture, and empire. Relations between technology and nature, technology and empire, the compression of space and time, and the shifting consequences of media for identity and agency are signal Canadian themes that find expressions in Christie’s work. In her book The Wacousta Syndrome, scholar Gaile McGregor coined the term “langscape” to describe how the Canadian landscape is constituted by language. Drawing on Northrop Frye’s notion of the “garrison mentality,” McGregor observes a fear of space in the representations of early colonial Canadian painting: human activity is foregrounded but dwarfed by the surrounding environment; compositional breaks and obstructions between foreground and background sever the spatial plane, suggesting “a denial of meaningful relation”; backgrounds are left indistinct to limit their unmanageable distances. The vast space of the country was troubling to early settlers, who saw its coldness and harshness as a threat, and would invent a fiction of an empty landscape to forget the histories of the people who lived there before their arrival. Spectres of Shortwave presents these imagined empty spaces as filled with energy, positing a holistic vision in which human culture and artifacts are part and parcel with the natural world.
Christie treats the towers and broadcasts as both an invisible architecture, given the extent of planning and construction that goes into their systems and function, and an invisible landscape, given that their waves are extensions of natural phenomena and are impacted by geographical and environmental forces (bodies of water, mineral deposits, weather conditions, shifts in solar radiation impacting the Earth’s ionosphere). Visually, the towers oscillate in their appearance in the film, sometimes symbolizing a spatial division like a fence, sometimes echoing the union of a suspension bridge, and sometimes suggesting a monument or site of worship. Painterly compositions with low horizons are occasionally interrupted by domestic still lifes, and as the film progresses we begin to see the towers in more dynamic compositions that link their forms to energy flows in the landscape: from the vantage point of a car on the nearby highway, via aerial images that highlight their relation to surrounding waterways, in nocturnal time lapses shot with long exposures. Just as Harold A. Innis noted the impact of Canadian geography on the fur trade, which developed along canoe routes connected to specific tributaries (and how these same routes defined the placement of not only outposts and towns, but the border of the Dominion itself), so too does Christie carefully recognize the uniqueness of the surrounding Acadian landscape and the positioning of the towers within a global frame.
As Innis and Marshall McLuhan both asserted, and as Spectres of Shortwave makes clear, all technology is really geotechnology and biotechnology: we hear accounts of how frequencies are bounced off the plains into the ionosphere; the towers’ relations to surrounding livestock and wildlife; spiders that used the cables to ground their own webs; a bird whose feet were burned on a live transmission line. As Spectres of Shortwave unfolds, the landscape transformed by the towers is increasingly understood as a cultural one, with broadcasts grounded in the local community. The film’s oral histories by Sackville residents offer significant contributions towards a broader history of Maritime labour, as the decline of the towers can be considered alongside similar losses in fishing and other industries amidst a rising technological tide, ushered in by the diffuse phantasm of globalization. In the same way that the towers’ physical presence mostly consists of support elements for their relatively tiny antennae, their greatest impacts are described in forms of radiation that cannot be seen – the ways in which they impact local mythologies, going as far to even permeate the dreams of the inhabitants of the area. We hear the tale of someone who received a foreign language broadcast from a nearby transformer station during a hypnagogic state, while various other stories recount the quotidian life of a community that bathed and ate in radio, with broadcasts mysteriously beaming out of faucets and refrigerator doors.
And yet, during the course of the film we see almost no people, with the exception of two workers who appear as tiny insects climbing the towers. Following the cue of the medium in focus here, Christie gives us voices in isolation, unmediated by any super-structure imposed by the film, a rhizomatic array of transmissions in which the artist is merely one node among many perspectives. The consequent division between sound and image in Spectres of Shortwave can sometimes produce a bifurcated experience, as if one is driving through a solitary landscape listening to the radio: the disconnect between the aural narratives and passing landscapes makes it possible to forget where exactly a speaker’s story began or ended, or how long an image has been present, because some detail from the other sense has captivated one’s attention. Yet there are moments where the two speak together in unison like a chorus – the passage of clouds or a particular field seeming to embody a particular voice, as if the land itself was telling the tale.
The voices are silent only over the towers’ eventual fall, which concludes the film and reveals what has preceded it as a sort of funeral dirge. This sequence is presented more or less in real time, and seems to act as answer to Innis’s “plea for time” – a lament against the hegemony of media forms that prioritize space, forcing us towards a focus on present-mindedness to the exclusion of any greater sense of our position in the world (cough cough smartphones cough). In these final moments, Christie has done something extraordinary: while shortwave radio was once a technology of space – able to travel extensive distances and available only in the immediate moment – it becomes recontextualized in this finale as a technology of time. Now that the RCI broadcasts are bounded historically, our perspective can be reversed, and its historic significance can be assessed: we are given space to meditate on media.
Innis viewed empire as constituted by technologies of communications. His concept of history gives us a model for how tools influence consciousness, produce space, and create dynamic tensions in power between the center and the margin. While he understood history as a series of developments in which centers of power were overcome by marginal destabilizations, he also noted with increasing pessimism that technologies can generate monopolies of power, and that in the current era these monopolies were becoming more firmly ingrained through their colonization of the common vernacular. The fall of the RCI towers might be an impending sign of the fall of empire, or it might be an event closer to the extinction of a species or a language – a way of perceiving the world. Without openly saying so, Christie aligns her work with the latter erasures, positing shortwave as a marginal utopian technology through its very nature as an energetic field that cannot be blocked, that no border wall or firewall can keep out, with the power to resist centralization through its affordability and access. Despite the irony of the towers stemming from a government facility, multiple interviewees note how their broadcasts had the ability to overcome the censorship of any regime and get through where other forms – be they AM, FM, broadsheets, or broadband – could not. As one voice reflects upon the experience of tuning into CBC Radio while living in Kuala Lumpur, “I’ve got my arms around this world.”
Today, it can seem as though we have our hands around the world a little too tightly – so tightly that we are beginning to squeeze the life out of it. In the same way that it took an extended period of time for the significance of Maxwell’s discovery to be recognized, so too are we beginning to recognize today that our lives are further constituted by unseen connective webs in our environment that are necessary for survival. As the biologist E.O. Wilson has noted, we are discovering more species than ever at the exact same moment as we are rendering that same biodiversity extinct with shocking velocity – we have catalogued less than two million species, but there are likely more than ten million on Earth, to say nothing of the millions of fungi, algae and other invertebrates that he calls “the foundations of the biosphere.” Meanwhile, indigenous languages are following a similar rate of decline, with the anthropologist Wade Davis noting that, on average, one language is lost every two weeks – each an event that extinguishes an entire worldview. The same pattern is occurring in the realm of media, as monopolies of power swallow other monopolies, leaving only a few actors to control not only the tools we use, but the content they deliver. The radiosphere generated by human shortwave transmissions has been travelling outwards from our planet for little more than a century, but there is a risk that it may turn out to be an empty shell, rather than an object with sustained volume. Today, the towers are in our pockets – hopefully we won’t forget their original purpose was to connect us to the world, not to isolate ourselves from it.
 This story is reported in multiple sources; thanks to R. Bruce Elder for sharing the anecdote in Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect (2018).