Interview with director Kyle Armstrong – Magnetic Reconnection

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Filmed on the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba, Magnetic Reconnection makes breathtaking viewing. A narrator (musician and actor Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy) and the atmospheric music of Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth) take us on a poetic reflection about the power of nature and the illusion of progress. Superimposing sublime images of the aurora borealis on industrial carcasses scattered on the tundra, Magnetic Reconnection takes a paradoxical look at our relationship with nature and technology. While decomposing film underscores our own illusion of progress, it is a cutting-edge experimental camera that captures the ephemeral beauty of the luminous sky. The RIDM asked a few questions to Kyle Armstrong about his latest movie.

RIDM: Magnetic Reconnection is a multilayered work, superposing formats, ambiances, and subject matters. Was the project conceived from the start as being an exploration of both the aurora borealis and the industrial carcasses surrounding Churchill?

Kyle Armstrong: Thank you for the kind words. The project was original conceived more as a comparison between scientific study which can be a bit cold and the real human experience of the natural world, raw and harsh and beautiful; further down the hole I started exploring the way science is an attempt to quantify and, in a sense, conquer the natural world which cannot be defeated. There’s so much evidence of this in a space as remote as Churchill. In more populated areas we bury our technological mistakes and failings, but the glory of the north is things are all left out in the open to erode and decay, a process of nature. And it makes for some pretty pictures.

RIDM: Was Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light an inspiration or a point of departure for you?

More point of departure. I had conceived of a project along these lines well before I had heard of Mettler’s gorgeous film, thanks to my friendship with Dr Trond Trondsen, the auroral scientist and film fanatic who accompanied me on the 10 day stint in Churchill. I had been scheming to get my hands on some footage of the aurora to explore artistically years ago during conversations with Trond. When I came across Mettler’s film I nearly abandoned the idea, but eventually was encouraged by people I trust that enough time had passed, the photographic technology had changed enough, that my concepts were that much different from Mettler that it wasn’t forbidden territory to tread within. I think anyone who has seen both films would agree that they are two distinct pieces. I had a drink with Mettler earlier this year and he did agree the aurora footage in Magnetic Reconnection is probably the best he’s seen.

RIDM: The film seems to be very dialectical (power of nature vs. illusion of progress). However, the chosen subjects and formats complicate this basic opposition by using the latest technology to record an ephemeral natural phenomenon. Do you see your discourse on nature and technology as necessarily paradoxical?

 KA: No. Technology is an extension of scientific understanding which in it’s purest form is a highly creative process. Nature and technology aren’t required to be opposed to each other, they only end up that way because of flaws in humanity; our greed, our desire for excess, our desire to conquer and to open boxes we don’t have the power or will to close. We would call this human nature. And I don’t know if it is ironic or it isn’t…

RIDM: As a music fan, one cannot forget to notice you have two major collaborators with Jim O’Rourke and Will Oldham. How did those collaborations happen to come into being?

KA: Trond had been in touch with both Jim and Will over the years for film reasons. I admire both tremendously as artists and people, doubly more so having worked with them. Both have such significant roles in the film, Will’s voice reflects the frailty and wisdom I hoped to convey, and there’s no human alive I’d rather have score my film than Jim O’Rourke whose original score is beyond words. I lucked out all over the place with this project, I often felt like a kid who got to sit at the front of the train engine and got credited as the conductor, but don’t tell anyone.