Introduced by Orit Gat
HD video, sound, 30'
Depicting various domestic spheres of a suburban north American context, Hudson Valley Ruins is a machinima video that relies on The Sims 3 computer graphics engine to depict the absurd, alienated, and often uncanny lives of several characters, focusing on two young girls and their visions, experiences, and fantasies.
Orit Gat: Let’s start with the title: Hudson Valley Ruins. The Hudson Valley is a suburban/rural area north of New York City, which is where you grew up. The video hints at some of the area’s tropes like autumn foliage, though it mainly takes place in interior environments like a suburban home and a school. Can you explain the name? What is in ruins here?
Jacky Connolly: The film’s title is taken from a website of the same name, http://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org/, a project by Tom Rinaldi and Rob Yasinsac that catalogs the Hudson Valley region’s forgotten architectural landmarks. The website has a demolition alert, as these landmarks are rapidly disappearing. My film environments’ depict structures that are built on top of the region’s past layers—sterile, prefabricated suburban homes that contain ruined families. I am attracted to horror tales such as The Shining and Poltergeist, where hotels or suburban homes “shine” their past lives and the violence that has occurred on the land underneath. A similar history is what designated the Hudson Valley as a hotspot for ghost stories, the Headless Horseman, and UFO sightings. The film combines genre elements of gothic horror (the haunted house, the ruined building, the secret passage) with a domestic melodrama.
OG: You designed this series of environments in the computer game The Sims 3. You’ve made a number of videos using this technique. What led you to it in the first place? And what do you think it allows you?
JC: Besides my own personal history with playing the game as a preteen, I began this technique out of necessity, to create computer-generated animations beyond my technical abilities. Using a pre-existing graphics engine, I am able to build quickly and amass large amounts of footage in a short time. Even still, using The Sims technique is quite labor intensive and has required thousands of hours of gaming and filming. What I enjoy the most about this method is how it is more akin to an actual film production than an animator’s studio. I am the set designer, but also the director, and I am able to film scenes more intuitively than if everything was storyboarded and created from scratch.
OG: The video has a strong narrative feel. What was your script like?
JC: The film’s narrative structure was inspired by works of Hollywood hyperlink cinema such as Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014). The virtual animated characters are seen in a series of parallel vignettes that depict their loneliness, alienation, and eventual flight into fantasy, culminating in a natural disaster. The characters do not speak, and the significant moments of action are highlighted through pantomime, gesture, and the ever-present weather sounds of the world in which they reside. The iterative and algorithmic processes of the game that are captured (such as idle breathing loops, swaying trees, the cycle from sunrise to sunset, and weather patterns) are as significant to the film's meaning as the mysterious story that unfolds. I wanted to blend moments of familiar narrative with more fragmented, uncanny instances. The final narrative was largely dictated by a metonymical use of sound (dogs baying, a cockatiel screaming, wind and thunder).
OG: The two main characters are a suburban teenage girl and a younger girl. They enact familiar feminine traits, for example, the adolescent wears a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt and the younger a set of pink pajamas, but they also witnesses or experience aggressive sex and seem lost in their surroundings. How do you think about gender in this work?
JC: I wanted to depict the nightmares of both middle childhood and adolescence, so it was important to have two main characters who encounter distinct but parallel traumatic instances. The younger girl witnesses her father’s affair, and the teenager girl has her own run-in with a sexually aggressive classmate. These events all happen at night, in tucked away areas of the house. Nighttime is the time of suburban terror and childhood anxiety, and the child’s frightening nighttime exposures to her father’s affair were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman story (1816). At the film’s climax, the teenager’s sexual encounter is juxtaposed with the young girl's parallel storyline, the traumatic discovery of her father's illicit affair. In the same way that I wanted to show both the nightmares of childhood and adolescence, I wanted to depict archetypal male villains of both ages as well: the “Anal Father” and the tyrannical brother.
OG: It feels very natural to watch Hudson Valley Ruins—a video created in a computer game—on a laptop. But it’s also a very cinematic work: What do you think is the video’s relationship to the screen and to interactivity?
JC: There is something immersive about watching avatars, I find that even in a crowded gallery, people watch them for longer than they’d typically do with most video-based artworks. The video has a strange relationship to interactivity in that it captures an interactive place and flattens it into an image. I essentially want to leverage virtual realities—not toward VR headsets and other applications currently in vogue, but toward new cinematic vocabularies and literary modes of world-making, reenactment, and storytelling that can be utilized from the desktop.
Produced by Jacky Connolly
Courtesy the artist and Kimberly-Klark, New York