By Andrew Mazurak
Joel Penner is a local photographer and videographer who has submitted his concept video to Sigur Rós’ Valtari Mystery Film Experiment; a TalentHouse.com contest that lets fans create music videos as inspired by their new album Valtari. Voting ends on September 18th so make sure you spread the word! Perhaps this will grow big enough to get all the members of Sigur Rós to finally tour here one of these years.
Stylus: Sigur Rós videos always seem to be consciously boundary defying and gorgeous works. How did you come up with the concept for your mystery submission??
Joel Penner: The ideas for my videos usually come to me pretty naturally. I’ll listen to a piece over and over as ideas pop into my mind and become clearer with each listen. After I’ve begun brainstorming I start experimenting to see if those ideas make sense visually. The music thus provides some of the core ideas in terms of its rhythm and emotionality, aspects which I then try to transpose with my expansive palette of floral textures, colours and dying contortions that have been captured across hundreds of flowers. I didn’t do it for this video, but I also like focusing on making sequences that represent larger ideas that govern the lives of the flowers themselves. For instance in my video to Nosaj Thing’s “Fog”, I make sequences based off of Fibonacci spirals, as the Fibonacci sequence determines phenomena like the arrangement of seeds on a sunflower head and the placement of leaves on some plant stalks amongst other phenomena.
One of the main ideas I had for my Sigur Rós piece was that I wanted to keep it simpler than some of my previous videos, which have often featured fast cuts and movements. Friends told me that they liked the simplicity of my first videos that I did in the Fall of 2011, as they allowed you to focus more on the main spectacle, the flowers themselves. So I tried to focus on my pure fascination with the intricacies in the diversity of shape and form that I started out with, only now filtered through the experience and insight I’ve gained since those first videos. Because I didn’t rely on fast cuts or making slight adjustments in the speed of the clips for getting the video to move with the music, I lightened or darkened certain flowers in time with Jónsi’s piercing vocals. I came up with that idea after watching a “Rap News” video from The Juice Media, which is a hilarious current-affairs show on YouTube. I noticed that the white background Hugo Farrant was rapping against would sometimes momentarily brighten to the beat. I then interpreted that technique for this video.
Stylus: And which techniques of film, photography and digital media do you use in Momentary Vitality and your other videos??
JP: I first picked up a camera for creative purposes in 2004, and got into film at around that time too. With “traditional” photography I’ve mostly tried to make my depictions of reality more vibrant, but nothing more abstract than that. I think that realist approach informs what I do for Momentary Vitality. I want the subjects to do most of the speaking, with me only being in charge of relaying the message between the flowers and the viewer in the most potent way possible. The forms that I encounter in my floral explorations are so fascinating that I hardly need to stray from that approach! With a large flower like that from a zucchini which might be 27,000 pixels wide, I can zoom into different parts to create other-worldly scenes that you probably wouldn’t associate at all with the salad you might be eating while watching it.
This approach has a greater goal too, which is to help people open their eyes to the mind-numbingly beautiful universe around us and to explore it from as many different perspectives as possible. That said, I’ve experimented with mosaics and different effects too. For my Sigur Rós video I used a time-lapse sequence I made of the Queen Protea flower, which is large and furry. By zooming into the different areas of the flower and adjusting the levels in accordance with the song’s rhythm I was able to bring out very abstract, fire-like colours. The main thing is that I don’t want any effects I apply or mosaics I create to distract the viewer from the natural beauty of the subjects at hand.
Minimalism is something I’ve been experimenting with and against. In some of my earlier videos I tried constructing large sequences with multiple flowers that sometimes move around. Sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it ends up looking contrived. In the I think it’s about a balance between simple scenes which plainly show a flower in part or as a whole, and scenes featuring many flowers that collectively create a greater experience.
Stylus: Tell us more about your actors and actresses. I noticed that momentaryvitality.ca has a section where you list 500+ scanned flowers from locations all around the world. Where did your fascinaiton with flowers begin and how does education fit into your project??
JP: I’ve grown plants for most of my life, and have developed an intense fascination for them over the years. I don’t really know how it all started. When I was primarily into growing, I would always be excited to add new plants to my collection. Now that this project is my biggest botanical focus, I can’t get enough of the incredible biodiversity that I am continually discovering! Through that I’ve found out how educational a fascination like this can be. The construction of the family tree of flowering plants in my mind seems almost palpable as I’m repeatedly exposed to the names and the respective families and orders of the flowers while processing the images, making videos, or doing research.
I hope that seeing the videos inspires others to want to know more about plants, or to engage the world around us with more curiosity. At the very least I hope that people, whatever their interest in plants is will leave a video with a bit more awareness of the stunning amount of biodiversity in the plant world, which I think is inevitable. Unless someone has studied botany, toured the rainforests of the Congo, or visited the U of W’s greenhouse, I doubt they have seen the marvellous yellow to red gradient and exquisite form of the Impatiens niamniamensis flower. And even though we live in the prairies, I doubt most Manitobans are aware of our breathtaking native flora we have like the aptly named plant Prairie Fire. That’s one of its names because it looks like pink and green fire once the flowers have gone to seed. These seemingly obscure plants are relevant to our everyday lives, as they’ve come about through the same evolutionary processes that have passively formed us. And even though our global civilization might not impart it onto an alien onlooker, human beings are but one part of a complex ecological matrix. So studying a flower’s unique form can give us insight into why we are the way we are today!
The ultimate social and political purpose of this all is pressing. As a global civilization it looks like we’re heading towards multiple environmental breaking points. I believe that if more people had a deeper respect for the global ecological fabric and our place in it we might be acting more responsibly. The fact that friends have told me that my videos have led them to become more aware of plants around them in their everyday lives is very exciting. My educational intent is both abstract in terms of presenting a visual study of flowers from around the world, but also hopefully something that gets people to realize the plight that much life is facing right now, and the havoc our actions are wreaking across our planet.
Stylus: Duality is clearly portrayed in the video as you intertwine the progressions of the song with the shortened lifespan of these flowers. Could you expand upon this relationship for us??
JP: Traditional floral time-lapses might show a much more elaborate progression of a bud emerging and then blooming, but filming a flower as it dries out makes for shorter clips. I think what it forces me to do is to have to situate them within greater narratives, whether that is purely aesthetic or whether it has a greater narrative purpose. For instance, I might select 20 flowers for their common colour, form, or taxonomic classifications. They then work together as a collective while also standing alone. What I want to do eventually is explore deeper narratives. For instance, I’ve thought of making a sequence that shows a few dozen flowers roughly in the order they evolved in to tell tell the story of evolutionary history. I’ve also thought of making sequences based on plants from within a certain region, or based on other more abstract groupings like showing flowers of plants that we’ve used for a specific purpose such as for food, construction or medicine. I have already done a bit with taxonomy, in terms of showing flowers that are related to each other in sequence. I see each flower as being part of many much larger scientific and social narratives just waiting to be drawn out via film.
Metaphysically the short lifespan of each flower shown in sequence communicates the transience of life paradoxically juxtaposed with its sheer magnificence! Life’s fleeting nature is inescapably shown in a lot of my videos. As a society we often avoid death, and don’t see it as a necessary part of the cycle of life. If you realize that your life will end in a relatively short amount of time, its importance is drawn out, and a lot of our misbegotten strivings are shown for what they are. So I want the flowers to bring more awareness to people of what is truly valuable in life. Focusing on phenomena as supposedly mundane as a dandelion opens one’s eyes to the world around us. I should say though that I haven’t experienced the death of someone very close to me, so things like this are pretty easy to talk about in abstraction.
Stylus: This reminds me of the Mike Mills video for Blonde Redhead’s “The Dress” but with a few more flowers. Have you seen the video? You should go watch it in a passive mood late one night. I think both evict a deep sense of painful emotion. What made you decide to film death as a theme in Momentary Vitality?
JP: I see what you’re getting at. I didn’t seek out to film death per say but rather I try to show it as one part in the continual dialectic of life. On one level it’s just a consequence of the unique technique I discovered. On another level it’s much deeper than that. It’s interesting to see some people respond by saying a video made them feel sad, whereas others are simply enlivened by the different textures and colours. I respond with excitement, but with content so abstract it makes sense that different people would respond in opposite ways.
Stylus: You also mention the cosmos in a description of your video. I love that pollen depicts an illusion of stars in many sequences while you alter and play with the timing of these shots. Tell me more about the cosmic nature of your concept.
JP: Technically the dust is simply a mistake as I can’t completely get rid of it. But this “mistake” is rife with symbolism. In some sequences it complements the surreal floral portraits with star-like accents that sometimes twinkle as time goes on. The cosmic idea is also integral to the project as a whole. I want to communicate the idea of cosmic unity, in that we all share a common origin in the most fundamental of ways. The deceased American scientist and whimsical science-popularizer Carl Sagan captured it when he said, “… the cosmos is within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The atoms that we’re made of were originally transmuted in the nuclear furnaces of stars long ago, and the same is true for the flowers. So focusing on the cosmic paradigm doesn’t only make sense in terms of the visual similarities between dust and the black backdrop and a starry night sky, but it also makes sense in terms of understanding the individual flowers and ourselves as aspects of the saga of the universe. Therefore when we look up at the stars we shouldn’t feel small while seeing distant suns and planets, as in truth we see a singular totality of which we are as much a part of as anything else!