Some Say Love: Kim Sheppard’s Films – Lauren Howes

For the Lucky

This showcase of Kim Sheppard’s work is sponsored by, CFMDC, the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

You could say Kim Sheppard’s oeuvre as a filmmaker is anonymous. She mines the vast constituency of online users, those cloaked in the anonymity of their usernames, and finds the mother lode of images and representations posted and performed by no less than “the lucky and the strong.” In her recycling of Internet culture, she seizes upon threads of an Internet meme, and uses it to reframe the common desires of an anonymous populace. Her artistic practice is provocative in the manner by which she reveals the lives of an unnamed collective and their postings, from the solitude and single angle of their home webcams to an online public platform.

Sheppard’s Here We Are was produced in 2007 from sounds and images found solely on YouTube. It can be viewed as a searching for and piecing together of moments, intimacies and online ephemera, beginning with the fleeting image of a young girl in her room, dancing before her webcam. The piece uses images of young and old people, past and present, in celebration, at leisure, on holiday; random family photos and personal documents.

On split screens, Sheppard offers the viewer glances of a variety of low-res clips reconstituted to offer a cultural critique, and in doing so, creates an aura of something unsettling. The soundtrack is ominous, out of the aural drone, the first audible words emerge from a male voice: “I had this problem, it’s an online stalker…somehow find me online, and Googled me.” The words are a disruption with the visual of young children swimming in a pool on one side of the split screen, and a creepy shirtless guy on the other in a repetitive motion. Over the duration of the piece, within the myriad of footage, it repeatedly returns to glimpses of the young girl dancing in her bedroom. Through this montage, Sheppard introduces us to, and makes us complicit as viewers. It is the extended version of the online voyeur, in that we are barely removed from the activity of the online stalker.

“Here we are, where we at here?”
The practice of documentation, recording the everyday and the mundane, and the subsequent mining of the archive, has a tradition in filmmaking dating back to its very inception. With contemporary technological and political shifts, we are culturally more documented than ever before. In the public sphere, we are subjected to mass surveillance as a form of social control. Captured on camera both anonymously and intentionally, our images are generated and recorded countless times in any given day with or without our consent. In the private sphere, technology has bred a new generation of users whose relationship or understanding of privacy has been completely mediated through access to the camera, the computer and recording devices. Mass exposure through online social interactions, questions surrounding what kind of social contract is enacted in this realm, and whether or not consensual agreements are fully realized in the online cult of the anonymous are all brought to bear in Sheppard’s films.

I was recently at a live film performance in Toronto by the seminal dyke filmmaker, Barbara Hammer. She reenacted a show from the 1970’s called, “Available Space.” Hammer moved a film projector rapidly around an open dark space crammed with people. The film was projected wildly around the room: off the ceiling, high upon the walls, and culminated in her ripping through a paper screen. As she moved about the room, multiple audience members documented her performance with cameras and cell phones, as she recited a monologue about “experiential cinema.” The recordings were not with her consent, nor were they part of her performance, but were born from a section of the populace that believes they should and can record everything. It is the evolution of a belief system that to have a recording is somehow more valuable than to have an experience that commands full attention and memory of the event, without the document. In describing her performance in the 1970s, Hammer said this:

My strategy with Available Space was to make the audience move their bodies while watching film while at the same time presenting the idea that film could be more than a rectangle of projected light on a screen. The concept was that audience activity leads to political activity. By viewing outside the box, we might begin to see outside the box, to see other possibilities and try something new ourselves. (www.experimentalcongress.org/barbara-hammer-book-launch)

Is this an uncanny foreshadowing of how technology can or will transform our relationship to the screen, to film and being filmed as political activity?

In contemporary popular and political culture, the full democratization of technology and the access to the tools necessary for virtual engagement are now fully available. Rather than seizing on the political, Sheppard harnesses the depths of the personal made public. Everybody wants to be a star, and the Internet is a feeding frenzy for the ambition and desire of young dreamers, and an orgy of accessible images for the consumption of the viewer. Her films expose a complex series of motivations both on the part of the people posting, performing and generating the images, and ultimately to the status of the viewer, those of us who like to watch.

What culminates in Here We Are is a foreshadowing of what was to follow with Kim Sheppard’s next film produced in 2009, For the Lucky and the Strong. In this piece, Sheppard hones her artistic search engine on the performative inclinations of young women sharing their musical skills (or lack thereof) with the anonymous viewer. Sheppard’s trolling of the vast depths of online fodder finds a generational wave in a sea of ego-driven drivel. She purposefully uses the common inclinations in her subject’s striving for fame (or perhaps infamy), that seem by the very nature of such a massive movement by sheer numbers, contributing to or at least in equal balance with the pursuit of obscurity.

For the Lucky and the Strong is startlingly eerie. As a viewer, Sheppard once again immediately implicates her audience in the voyeurism necessary for the performance. That it is the most insipid of romantic ballads is only appropriate to the nubile, pubescent young women earnestly singing that their “heart’s afraid of breaking.” What is more disquieting is their willingness to reveal their vulnerability and fearlessness of such exposure, and by our watching, our participation in the phenomenon creates such vulnerability.

Sheppard expertly structures the piece in three parts to match the verses of the song. The first centres on one young woman. Technically, her face is well lit, her webcam produces a crisp image, and she is in black on a black background. She stages herself well. Her solo opening verse captures the irony behind the anonymous, and presents the viewer with the idea that what compels her must be the hopes and dreams of being discovered, found amongst those endless searchers. By whom and for what is the unnerving question.

Clearly, “It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance.” As we shift to the second verse, the solo performer is joined by a chorus of eight others in a Brady Brunch style grid. (I digress with a reference to a generational pop culture divide). All the little Jans and Marshas pouring their hearts out in unison, the story of nine very lovely girls, each of the women in this film all born well after the Brady’s departed the television scene, along with the vernacular of “groovy.” Together, this chorus of nine singing girls seems more like America’s next top model/idol/biggest loser/or desperate teen life.

“When the night has been too lonely…”
The third verse of the song and section of the film focuses on each of the young women, one at a time. Sheppard stretches the moment focusing on each one when they are not singing. She captures that pause before or after the performance, alone in their rooms, conjuring a mood. Perhaps it is the bad lighting, the use of low-res cameras, but mostly it is their solitude that creates these moments of uncertainty. This is where Sheppard’s work is most complex. Evoking a stalker-like quality by design, she makes the viewer complicit as voyeurs, along with the masses who fixate on vulnerable young girls. They stare into their webcams, some self-consciously, but cannot hold the direct gaze and look away. It is both teen angst and performative bravery, along with an insight into what young women do in the privacy of their bedrooms, amidst an anonymous culture of voyeurism.

Sheppard’s films capture a cultural movement and a segment of society so at ease with turning the camera upon themselves and sending their personal images forth into the ether. Her composition reveals those desperate to be found, whether it be in pursuit of inadvertent celebrity or “an endless aching need” to be seen. Kim Sheppard has harnessed the vast wealth of images available through online culture to create a contemporary sociological survey of the actions and behaviours of the cult of the anonymous.

Here We Are, 2007



 

For the Lucky and the Strong, 2009



Lauren Howes is the Executive Director of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre. CFMDC plays a critical role as an advocate for the accessibility of independently produced film, contributes to the creation of a culture receptive to artist-made films, and remits royalties to artists for the exhibition of their work.

Kim Sheppard, born 1982 Woodville, Nova Scotia, graduated in 2006 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, BFA Interdisciplinary Studies. Her work has been shown both nationally and internationally, most recently as part of the ArtCity Festival in Calgary and at the Hamburg International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Germany. She now lives in Toronto.

Submitted by Kate Barry (not verified) on Mon, 05/24/2010 – 22:49.

“Some Say Love” is brilliant. It reminds me of being a teenage girl, the vulnerability and the feelings of invincibility. Thanks Madame Howes for the insightful article, there is lots of food for thought.

Submitted by xx (not verified) on Mon, 05/03/2010 – 19:15.

awesome.