By simultaneously combining images of beehives, Keanu Reeves, 3D rendered creatures, Guardian articles and Tweets, artist, filmmaker and PhD candidate Xanthe Dobbie's characteristically chaotic style and practice is laden with humour and iconography. The Long Now, a new experimental video-collage work, which premiered online in ACMI’s Gallery 5, is a densely layered and complex intertwining of multiple contemporary and historic narratives, combining queer theory, art history, techno-capitalism and internet culture to address ideas of immortality and neoliberalism. This expanded desktop performance lends itself to multiple viewings, and even after repeated watching, new reference points emerge.
Watch the teaser
When speaking with Dobbie about The Long Now, our conversation slipped in and out of talking directly to the work and exploring their broader practice – very much a part of Dobbie’s nuanced creative process. On my third viewing of their work, prior to our chat, I decided to record most of what I saw and heard; pop-up windows, roaming cultural references, images of the galaxy, notes written across various text apps, descriptions of gifs. These sporadic notes now sit in a Word document on my desktop, mirroring what appears on the screen in The Long Now.
“I don’t think of my own works as overwhelming when I’m making them, but I know that to be the way that people experience them,” explains Dobbie when asked about what they are seeking to achieve when they make such rich and densely layered works and how they consider that impact and/or desired effect on their audience. “Honestly, it is just the way that my mind is processing the information, that is what storytelling looks like inside my mind.”
There are moments during The Long Now where it is as though the screen might burst open. Providing a glimpse into their visual imagination, Dobbie confessed, "it actually makes me anxious to think of a single image on a screen," which explains why, before seeing the work, the viewer must close several popups in order to press play; mimicking the effect of a virtual virus taking hold.
“One of the things that I love about collage and desktop performance is the idea of being able to present, literally, multiple streams of story and information simultaneously, which I think has something to do with my own attention span and my own ADHD,” Dobbie explains.
In The Long Now, Dobbie often includes a historical or mythological counterpoint, suggesting that we are re-living similar or the same journeys of selfhood. The story of Gilgamesh acts as a through line for this work and has been paired with Jeff Bezos’s large-scale project of building a giant ‘millennial’ clock that sits inside a mountain in the Sierra Diablo Ranges. To Dobbie, Bezos’s clock represents a futile search for immortality and so by pairing the story of Gilgamesh they hope to reimagine The Epic of Gilgamesh as a contemporary story. As the myth has a limited history of visual representation there was great freedom and scope for visually reimagining and re-interpretation. While researching, Dobbie found parallels with The Matrix (1999) and expressed how elating and stimulating it is when such connections occur in their process.
Across the duration of this work, we pivot from first hearing an auto-generated – and slightly disconcerting – voice of Alan Rickman reading to us, then to the sound of ticking clocks, to a Fatboy Slim sample and then to moments of languid synth drone before returning to Rickman. Dobbie worked collaboratively with Jorde Heys on the score. Heys is a classical composer who has worked with Dobbie on various projects, after meeting while both studying at AFTRS. As a part of their combined process, Dobbie provides a mood or inspiration board to Heys who then returns a set of atmospheric sounds; Dobbie then uses these samples while live mixing and layering, describing the collaboration as “a deeply unruly process”.
As a viewer of their live recorded desktop performance, we slip in and out of awareness of Dobbie as ‘author’ or ‘performer’ switching between tabs, scrolling, controlling what we see, when and how long for. There are moments where it is brought more strongly to our attention and other moments where the work washes over us in a familiar filmic way. When developing this work and deciding upon the references that ended up in the final cut, Dobbie undertook substantial periods of research. The breadth of references span everything from Mariah Carey to John Steinbeck to T.S. Eliot to found footage of erotic wrestling to Jonathan Van Ness.
“I always use pop culture references because I believe they are very succinct,” Dobbie explains when asked how they arrived at each of the cultural, theoretical and historical references that they incorporate, and how these high and low reference points converge and interrelate. “Everyone has a point of reference for them already and if you are trying to deal with big ideas such as neoliberalism and climate grief, these reference points can hold the audience and invite them in through multiple access points.”
The Long Now also responds to concepts such as planned obsolescence, economics post-currency, the power and influence of hedge fund billionaires and survival of the richest. The work draws upon traditional storytelling ideas – a three-act structure and prologue – while being compositionally inspired by 14th and 15th century religious and still life painting. Thematically, they engage with concurrent moments of chaos in the world – politically, socio-economically and environmentally – and how these themes are reflected back to us on the internet and how in turn these reflections impact our neural pathways.
I asked Dobbie about the contemporary practitioners who have inspired their practice or those who they admire. Artists and collectives such as Soda Jerk, VNS Matrix, Candice Breitz and Sidney McMahon were at the top of their list, many of whom are current peers and who share a conceptual premise or stylistically overlap with Dobbie’s own practice. “I think that an artist such as Candice Breitz uses the politics of space incredibly well in heightening the way she installs her works,” Dobbie observes.
The overlapping ideas and imagery in The Long Now do not only require extensive research, but computer capacity. The computer essentially fails to hold and run each of the windows or programs that are running on the screen. Dobbie noted that this threshold pushing was an integral part of their making, and they rationalised what it means to work with a methodology that happily embraces error and glitch and how these become subsumed as a self-reflexive part of the work itself. “Because it is a performance, I think that it does create a sense of liveness when you see something starting to deteriorate, and in this work, you are allowed to see that.”
– Isabella Hone-Saunders, Assistant Curator.
You can watch The Long Now screening until October in ACMI’s Gallery 5.