As two independent Alberta-based arts writers, Anthea Black and I have challenged each other to a writing faceoff. Still within the first arch of our respective careers, we’ve decided to exploit the guidelines of freelance writing by setting a strict deadline, an even stricter word count and, to make things interesting, we’ve both agreed to write on the exact same show. What began as an excuse for a road trip to the mountains has turned into a full-on writing challenge with stakes set and egos on the line. With a deadline of midnight on Friday, May 22, each of our respective 1000 word essays on UK filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen’s Once Upon a Time (Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff) will simultaneously be posted and cross-posted on PrairieArtsters.com and ShotgunReview.ca. Part marketing scheme, part formal exercise, I am at this present moment filled with dread at the prospect of having to follow through.
We approached this writing challenge to prove a point; to see how under controlled circumstances, where both writers entered the exhibition at the exact same time and stayed for the exact same duration and discussed it freely between each other, that writers will inevitably provide and form their own opinions—and that this difference in opinion is the foundation for more dialogue.
That said, we couldn’t have chosen a more difficult exhibition to prove our point.
Once Upon a Time is McQueen’s 70-minute video work based on Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, a 12” gold-plated copper disc that holds sounds and images of human civilization for the potential of alien communication aboard 1977’s Voyager 1 and 2. Serving as a time capsule, the Golden Record, which remains onboard the furthest human-made object from Earth, contains 115 images selected by a committee headed by Sagan, along with a soundtrack of natural sounds and greetings in 55 languages. As a form of an intergalactic message in a bottle, Sagan’s Golden Record attempts to tell the story of human life through an evolution of image storytelling, numbers, measurements and other human-centric codes.
“Epic” is one word that comes to mind; “problematic” is another. McQueen retains the original imagery, much akin to the tranquilizing pace of a slideshow, but replaces the original soundtrack of human voices and natural sounds with a series of different voices all speaking in tongues. Known as glossalalia, a form of speech invoked during states of trance, often during religious fervour, the all-consuming experience of Once Upon a Time is hypnotic, frustrating, and densely impenetrable.
The prospect of having to now face-off on such a subjective representation of universality is seriously daunting. Working through McQueen’s layering of Sagan is already enough, but having the pressure of another writer working on the same issue is proving to be a far more complicated mind game.
On one level, there is something poetic about approaching this exhibition as a writing challenge, where two individuals are asked to face off on this epic representation and (re)presentation of human civilization. In theory, Black and I acknowledge and respect each other as writers working within the same discipline and province, and know that even if we use the same amount of words, even if we use the same set of words, each writer will execute their version in a manner entirely their own.
On another level, this challenge is testing the waters of an unspoken and probably internalized fear of intellectual property that makes most people keep their ideas inside, but stifled ideas often just fester and rot without some form of light and nourishment. There is also a self-doubt that lingers when opinions are at stake, but there is no right or wrong, just a flow of ideas that continually shape, form, and inform each other.
*First published in Vue Weekly, June 14 - 20, 2009
- A.F. Edmonton