Flying in the face of convention

2010 Walters Prize nominee Alex Monteith talks about how growing up in Ireland, politics and surfing inform her adrenaline-charged video installations.

When I first saw—actually ‘experienced’ is a better word—Alex Monteith’s work Composition for Roval New Zealand Air Force Red Checkers for five-channel video installation (2009) my response was to sit cross-legged on the floor of the gallery at Te Tuhi, transfixed by the footage of five planes performing their dizzying choreographed manoeuvres. I felt almost breathless with excitement.

I also instantly wished my 87-year-old father, who has not the slightest interest in contemporary art, could see this multi-channel video work because I knew it would bridge the impassable divide—for him—between art and life in a way not many artworks are capable of. Why? He’s a ‘flight simulator’ addict and, when he was young, learnt to fly in a Tiger Moth.

Monteith’s Red Checkers video installation is possibly one of the most kinesthetic and adrenaline-charged works I’ve ever seen—the way it relates to the viewer’s body and captures the gravity-defying manoeuvres of these legendary aerobatic planes—to say nothing of the way it explores the potential of video and its modes of display in the gallery—is nothing short of astounding. In this work, single, fixed cameras are mounted in the cockpit of each of the five planes, looking back so each shot has the tail of the plane in its centre, and the viewer can also see the following planes performing their tightly synchronised manoeuvres. The work—a collaboration between Monteith, the Royal New Zealand Air Force Red Checkers aerobatic display team and Television New Zealand’s New Artlands programme—consists of five continuous takes projected on five large screens in the gallery and the sound of the planes flying.

“Interestingly, the pilots have quite a culture of videoing their flying, which is partly how we made the work,” says Monteith. “We looked at the range of stuff RNZAF Squadron Leader, Scott McKenzie, had been doing. He had lots of footage but none of us knew what it would look like when we took that technique and fixed it across the five planes. We did run tests, using handy-cams on model planes… Basically it’s incredible flying and that’s what pleases the crowds. Because of their spectacular flying, the Red Checkers are a powerful force in attracting people into the Air Force.”

Alex Monteith, Passing Manoeuvre with two motorcycles and 584 vehicles for two-channel video installation (video still, both channels), timecode:

Monteith was born in Northern Ireland, moved to New Zealand when she was nine and regularly returns to her country of birth. She has a Doctorate in Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts where she teaches, juggling this job with her increasingly successful art practice and her love of surfing. She’s a competitive surfer who has surfed in New Zealand at a national level and represented Ireland in 2002 at the ISA World Surfing Championships in Durban, South Africa.

Recently, at The 4th Auckland Triennial, I saw her work Red Session (2009-10), a similarly large-scale four-camera video installation, which consists of a 50-minute unedited loop made from footage shot at Taranaki’s famous Stent Road surf break. Red Session is a more tranquil and meditative work than Red Checkers, although the culture and politics of the sport Monteith seeks to explore are as charged as the long, grey lines of surf unfurling across the four enormous screens in Shed 6 where the work is installed.

In Red Session Monteith draws our attention to the fierce sense of competition and the invisible hierarchy surfers negotiate while they’re in the water, lining up for the best position to ride the next wave. With this in mind—not to mention the sense of secrecy and ownership local or ‘free’ surfers feel about their breaks and their reluctance to share them with strangers and surf competitions—Monteith offered locals the chance to ‘opt in’ to the work by donning the red vests, which she and other surfers participating in the project handed out. She saw this as a way of drawing attention to the local politics of this activity and how issues surrounding ‘site’—not just in activities like surfing but in a wider context—can become fraught. 

The sense of physical risk and adventure associated with ‘extreme sports seems to be very much part of her work and also, I’m guessing, part of her personality.

“I’m looking for spaces to observe human activity—or cultures of activity actually,” she says. “I’m interested in looking at things where there’s a community at work doing something. Then sometimes I’ll create a community of views’ in that space. I’m particularly interested in activities with a sense of movement, or an unusual or interesting way of exploring geography. And the more interesting those activities are, the more risky they tend to be. Because I’ve participated in a small number of adrenaline sports and taken that activity to quite a decent level, I find them really interesting. I’m tracking activities in New Zealand’s adrenaline culture, but in a way there are two bodies of work happening and one of them is around New Zealand’s leisure culture, which is an increasingly large commercial area. It seems interesting that we’re maybe not that sedate as a nation.”

On a formal level, Red Session defies commercial filmic conventions, such as those used in surf movies, which are ruthlessly edited and include extreme close-ups to create narrative excitement. Instead Red Session, and many of her other video installation works, comprises continuous unedited footage shot simultaneously by several cameras—either on board fast-moving racing bikes, cars and planes, or from fixed vantage points. Thus because these projects are so logistically and technically complex, the ‘failure’ rate is high. Each project necessitates protracted negotiations with different communities and extensive camera tests. 

When I spoke to her in Auckland, she was researching a project with the New Zealand Arm’s helicopter squadron, aiming to explore its pilot training routines, especially multiple craft manoevres. Later this year Monteith will exhibit at the Govett-Brewster, bringing together some of her large multi-channel works, and a new publication about her practice is also due.

“I’m interested in specific things in the New Zealand defence—particularly the politics of New Zealand’s Air Force and Army, which because this is a small country, have certain definitions, shapes and forms that aren’t the same as in other places—and aren’t the same as my experience, say, of the military structure in Northern Ireland where I’m from. In New Zealand it’s a very intimate situation—there’s some scope for conversations and observations of that culture happening, but actually this conversation couldn’t happen in other places.”

Does your interest in working with the military forces here stem from the fact you’re from Northern Ireland?

“In Ireland the military display was one of the most prominent parts of the culture that you saw in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. In places like Derry and Belfast there were big observation towers and a constant helicopter presence. During my time in Ireland as an adult there were an enormous number of border patrols. In New Zealand though there’s almost an interesting reverse of that—there’s not that visual presence. I think it’s really interesting to watch the changing roles of the defence forces here.”

Alex Monteith, Composition for RNZAF Red Checkers for five-channel video installation, 26-min, five-channel looping cycle, five-channel audio. Installation view, Modern Physics at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland, 2009

Has growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles politicised you?

“Maybe so. I’m definitely not scared to look into a political arena and I feel comfortable that, say, looking at and becoming absorbed in New Zealand’s political thought and new legislation or land rights—I’m certainly not expecting any experiences in that process to be fine or to be tension-free. I think that makes it a little easier to work with people and find things out.”

How did you start working with video?

“I came to video first of all through understanding image-making in photography, but the thing that finally catalysed the shift from thinking photographically was I actually wanted to look at actions or activities in time, and I was most interested in a performance art space. But I was really interested in the problem of performance as well, which is what do you end up doing if the performance can’t be in front of the viewer?” 

Your commitment to real-time footage is interesting and very different from commercial videos, which are cut and edited to create highly subjective narratives. How do you see your work in relation to the documentary tradition?

“I have a really strong interest in thinking and rethinking what a document is—basically an art document or a video document—and analysing Is subjectivity over time. In terms of looking at the Irish situation and the North of Ireland as well (it’s even political to name Ireland in a certain way!) I took the most heart, in terms of culturally produced material, from those in the contemporary literature and art scene who were preoccupied with Troubles materials.”

“I think it’s so important to have people who’re looking at the framework of the mode of delivery of the commentary on a social or cultural situation, because by the time I was growing up in Ireland things had gone so far into being binary and intractable. Meaning and identity had become quite rigid and at that time there didn’t seem to be an enormous amount of space for variations. There didn’t seem to be space politically for an individual approach—but the artists did make some space and did analyse the media delivery frameworks. And the important artists in that regard were Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright.”

Many of Monteith’s installations present simultaneous views shot from different machines—aircraft performing synchronised flight routines for instance. Our eyes are drawn to the edges of each screen, attempting to link the different channels together, but there’s a jarring sense of discontinuity where the frames meet, which suggests Monteith is examining ‘how’ we see, and showing us how differently it’s possible to interpret the same scene.

“My argument is that if you vary or multiply the views in a tiny way and there is that much variation just there—by implication you can keep splitting and re-splitting how you perceive the space—and then eventually the context of that space. It’s an amplified number of so many variables, but we often end up, through lots of different political and commercial patterns, repeating certain structures. A good role for art is to try to find or extend out of those patterns.”

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