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Katyusha

About this film

“Катюша (Katyusha)” is a three channel video piece based on material collected at Pyramida, a mining community established by the Soviet Union in the Svalbard territory in the high Arctic. At its peak Pyramida was home to more than 1000 miners and their families. It was evacuated in two days in 1998 leaving a ghost town. “Катюша (Katyusha)” presents three fictional characters who personify different aspects of Pyramida. The Guide takes the form of a gray sea bird, the Northern Fulmar. As the piece progresses we discover clues to the identity of two Lovers, a ballet dancer and a basketball player. The elaborately painted floor of the basketball court in Pyramida is a central motif, as is the abandoned ballet studio in the northern most corner of the town – once the most northerly ballet studio on earth. Time becomes unreliable as the viewer jumps back and forth uncontrollably between two time periods. In the 1980s the lovers meet as adolescent young pioneers in the idyllic summer forests of the Ukraine. After the evacuation a mysterious love token is left behind on the tundra amongst the empty shells of Pyramida. The third unspoken time period is only hinted at – always skipped over, never shown – the time that the lovers spent living happily in a town built of dreams at the end of the world. The lonely voice of a Soviet “numbers station” recites the names of the missing.

Stephen Hilyard

Interview with the Director
Stephen, your film Katyusha has originally been conceived as an installation piece. First of all, I would like to ask you in what ways you think installation pieces and films for the cinema differ? What do you consider an advantage of using or creating for the “white cube”?

I refer to Katyusha as an installation for want of a better term really, because it is a 3 channel piece designed to be presented on three synchronised screens, which is not a traditional cinema format. In the art world, the world of the white cube as you call it, the term installation usually refers to an art work which the viewer enters in some way – an experience of architectural space is important. Strictly speaking, video installation works usually consist of multiple screens arranged in a space in a particular way, often in such a way that the viewer can never see all the screens at the same time. The installation may also include other sculptural or architectural elements. Katyusha isn’t an installation in this sense, rather it sits half way between traditional single screen cinema and the tradition of gallery based video installation. Katyusha flows back and forth between 3 discrete (but related) screens and a single super-wide composition.

Katyusha is the first piece of mine that I would say has a cinematic quality. My previous video works have been much shorter and simpler; I think of them as moving image digital artworks. Digital simulation and illusion is an important part of the conceptual foundation of all my current video and image work. So I think of myself as coming from the video art world, Katyusha being my first foray into the world of film making and cinema (although as I said it’s a bit of a hybrid). One advantage of creating work for the “white cube” is that one is free of cinematic expectations, like narrative for instance. This makes it easier to make poetic experiences and have them accepted. That’s not to say that film makers who place themselves (or have been placed) in the world of cinema haven’t taken this approach, I just think it’s easier for open ended, non-linear, non-narrative moving image work to be accepted in the art world than in the world of film festivals etc. Of course video art has its own history and discourse, and comes with its own set of expectations derived from that history. As far as that is concerned I think that my video art work is once again a hybrid. I hope it fits into an emerging school of artwork created at the convergence of video art and digital media. Which brings us to digital media art, but that’s another conversation.

Katyusha is a ghostly film. It might be filmed in the present, but it tells the story of what has been. Can you tell us more about where the film is set?

Katyusha is set in Pyramida, a Soviet era ghost town in the high Arctic. Pyramida was created in 1928 as a show-case community in the Svalbard International Territory, outside the Soviet Union. At its peak Pyramida was home to more than 1000 coal miners and their families. It was evacuated in two days in 1998. There was no practical reason for Pyramida to exist, the coal mine it was built around only ever produced enough coal to fuel the town itself. Pyramida existed as a reification of the ideals of the Soviet social and political system. By creating a vigorous town at odds with one of the most hostile environments on earth it was intended to prove the superiority of the Soviet system over its Western rivals. It was the most northerly settlement on the planet and boasted a long list of “most northerly” claims, including the most northerly: grand piano, basketball court, swimming pool, cinema, ballet studio and statue of Lenin. The project was both idealistic and coercive; life was harsh in many ways, but idyllic in others. In its heyday Pyramida was a highly desirable posting which provided coal miners and their families with a higher standard of living than other parts of the Soviet Union. Amenities included a square mile of top-soil imported from the Ukraine and planted with a special strain of Arctic grass. Inhabitants enjoyed communal meals in an elaborately decorated dining facility which doubled as a dance hall. On the other hand, the entire community was under constant surveillance by KGB officials. During my second expedition to Pyramida I discovered a system of sinister underground bunkers in which the miners were tested for the rigours of the mine by heat and gas. As a relic of a failed ideal Pyramida is all the more poignant because real people were used as markers in a contest of ideologies. Katyusha evokes the idealism of such a hopeless gesture as well as the tragedy of a living community cut short by the failure of an idea.

Katyusha presents three fictional characters who personify different aspects of Pyramida. The Guide takes the form of a gray sea bird, the Northern Fulmar. As the piece progresses we discover clues to the identity of two Lovers, a ballet dancer and a basketball player. The elaborately painted floor of the basketball court in Pyramida is a central motif, as is the abandoned ballet studio in the northern most corner of the town andd once the most northerly ballet studio on earth. Time becomes unreliable as the viewer jumps back and forth uncontrollably between two time periods. In the 1980s the lovers meet as adolescent young pioneers in the idyllic summer forests of the Ukraine. After the evacuation a mysterious love token is left behind on the tundra amongst the empty shells of Pyramida. The third unspoken time period is only hinted at and always skipped over, never shown and the time that the lovers spent living happily in Pyramida.

During this project I set out to learn as much as I could about Russian and Soviet history and culture. There are clues and codes hidden throughout the piece, many of which require a knowledge of the Russian language or Russian history. The title of the piece is heavily double-coded, with connotations both romantic and murderous. The mysterious codes of Soviet era “numbers stations” became an important motif.

What I like about your film is not only that it takes its time for observations, for actually taking the time to see something instead of just looking at it, which was so important to Chantal Akerman. In doing so, it also allows the viewer to go on his/her own journey through the landscape and create a story. How important was it to you to create an open film, a project which does not take the viewer by the hand and direct him where you want him/her to go?

For me that quality of openness that you refer to is the most important quality of a successful work of art. I think of an artwork not as a statement that is trying to communicate something to me, but as an armature upon which the viewer builds their own structure of meaning. So in that way an art work is poetic, it sits at the poetic end of a spectrum with journalism at the other end. Most story telling traditions sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, which is not to say that they are lesser forms, just that they have different priorities. As you can imagine I’m very happy that you found this quality of open-ness in Katyusha, it was entirely my intention.

How did you approach the project? Is Katyusha the result of a free-form approach in which you were led more by intuition than by a script?

The development of Katyusha was very free-form and intuitive. I first discovered Pyramida in 2012 when I visited for a few hours on the last day of a 2-1/2 week expedition to Svalbard with a group of other artists. During that visit I immediately discovered the gymnasium floor, the light bulb switched on in my brain and I spent the rest of the time trying to shoot that floor. With the time and equipment available I wasn’t able to get anything useful, but I vowed to return. In 2014 I organised my own expedition to return to Pyramida for a week, travelling with one other artist friend. My only plan was to shoot the gymnasium floor, to create a single shot video piece of the floor painting, nothing else, much like the video art pieces I had already completed. However, on my first day in Svalbard I stumbled across a small stone wrapped in a pink ribbon in the middle of the tundra. That was when the project began to expand. As I explored Pyramida over the course of the next week a much more ambitious project began to come into focus, and before I knew it I was involved in a multiyear shoot with actors, costumes and locations etc., the whole movie thing.

I can imagine that the post-production was important. Can you give us a little insight into the editing process for Katyusha?

Yes, post production has been very important, in fact I wouldn’t really call it “post”, the process of creating Katyusha has been much more akin to collage than the production of a pre-planned script/storyboard. Much of Katyusha is actually animation, even when it might appear to be what I call “real world video”. I was able to plan on spreading video across two out of three screens, or all three, because I knew that some of it would be animated from very large still images, or 3D CGI. Some of the video was shot at 4K which allowed me to spread it across two screens. The final workflow was pretty complex. I wanted to spread a single video frame across multiples screens, and have it all line up from one screen to another. I wanted to be able to set up the spacing between the video frames to exactly match the spacing of the monitors (which was set by the width of the bezel on the monitors). All of this lead me to assemble the final version in After Effects, using a complex set of nested compositions. However this proved to be way too cumbersome for intuitive editing, so the timing was created first in Premiere Pro using proxies. The audio was created in Audition, based on the timing from Premiere Pro. The individual shots and sequences were assembled in After Effects using the soundtrack file as a timing guide. Then the shot projects were all brought together in a single big assembly project for final color grading and rendering. A very complex pipeline, one of the biggest challenges being version control across the multiple programs being used.

Your film is traveling to several festivals at the moment. What is next for you? Are you already working on a new project?

Yes, I am already working on a number of new projects. I have plans for a series of photo pieces based on large format photographs I made in Svalbard. These will be companion pieces to Katyusha. They will deal with the Norwegian presence there. Norway has been Russia’s main competitor in the contest of ideas that has played out in Svalbard over the last century (Norway maintains its own show-case community there).

I am also currently working on a project called “Empire Described” which will take the form of large format 3D viewable image pairs of Bonsai trees in CGI landscapes. I have already made large format photographs of Bonsai at the Huntington Library for this project. I am currently designing and building my own custom viewing devices. My goal is to create an immersive 3D experience which will retaining the high resolution found in fine art photography.

Further down the line, I am starting to develop my next moving image project entitled “Rousseau’s Daughter”. This will deal with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s contribution to our contemporary world view. In particular, it will focus on the tragic story of Penelope Boothby (1786 - 1791), the daughter of one of Rousseau’s disciples. A central motif will be the life-like marble monument which her father had made after his daughter died at the age of six. At the time it was the most famous monument to a dead child in England. As planned this project will use a similar format to Katyusha, but as we have seen these projects tend to grow organically as they progress, so we shall see.