Elizaveta Gushchinskaya created this video essay at the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology within the workshop on video essays under the supervision of Leigh Singer. First published in Notes on Videographic Criticism on December 28, 2020.
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
The workshop with Leigh Singer was organised during the lockdown and was conducted online. In a week's time we created projects focused on the idea of ‘Them and Us’ within the topic of pandemic. It’s of course the vivid experience of the present-time that shaped my work which can be read as the recording of the experience, as a memento of feelings, challenges and concerns one might have experienced during these troubled times. When the “real world” has come to a halt most of us found ourselves being glued to the monitors in our spaces. New Normal is the depiction and my own interpretation of the many issues related to the lockdown. By recognising the ways in which the experience affected us as well as created our new realities and how we delivered something new from these realities — I ended up with a videographic work that covers up a wide range of topics.
How did creating a video about, as your title says, the "New Normal" impact your own experience with the new normal? In other words, what was it like to make a video about quarantine and coronavirus as you were living in that very moment?
I think that each and every one of us has a very individual experience of the lockdown and a unique story about navigating the new pandemic-dominated life scenario. I remember how at the very beginning of March 2020 I started receiving multiple emails from the academy about the cancellation of classes — in Warsaw, the winter semester just started then. In the first couple weeks of March, no one really understood how bad the situation would get and how long we would be in quarantine. When things started to get serious I managed to get a flight back home directly from Warsaw to Minsk. I was based in my hometown during the period of quarantine, Belarus hadn’t imposed any lockdown measures or social distancing rules during the pandemic and everything continued to function as normal. The situation differed a lot from the rest of the world. In a sense, my own experience was mostly concerned with a sudden switch to the remote format of studies. So I could sort of observe from a distance how new realities were shaped for others and always had a chance to interact a little bit with these new born realms without being particularly engaged within them. The position of an observer allowed me to better notice and realise an overall impact of the overwhelming situation. It was and still is really interesting to see people’s reaction and adaptation to the disruption of familiar realms in which we lived for a long time. I try to think positively because things will definitely go back to normal, but afterwards the change will still be present in our newly shaped world.
Your video asks many questions of the audience. Why did you choose to structure the essay in that way? How have people who have seen your video essay responded to it? In other words, have they provided answers to the questions you pose?
The genre of a video essay is very flexible. It allows an experimental approach to it, so I had a chance to improvise. I wanted to leave space in my work for the viewer to engage. I decided to do this very thing by simply asking questions. The point was to explore the ways in which we express and connect through our screens as well as to reflect on the many challenges we have experienced. I didn’t want the viewers to say what they think they should say — but to communicate, to deliver honest unvarnished answers, at least to themselves. Questioning things was also a great way to acknowledge our confusion. Responses I got suggested that people related to the issues I raised. Some of the questions my video asks can also be taken as statements of the lockdown paradoxes.
How did you go about choosing and assembling clips? You use a wide range of films and I'd be curious to learn more about why you selected the ones you did.
The introductory part of my video essay is based on the idea of how in real life you never see yourself but only those around you. I figured that I could visualise this extraordinary state by creating a sequence of clips in which cinematic characters confront their own reflections. In other words, it was not so much about the type of movies that I selected but about the act of confronting your real self in the mirror. But of course, each clip in the sequence evokes different associations and feelings such as embarrassment, anxiety, vulnerability – in short, the full range of emotions that we might have experienced during the lockdown. The real challenge was to find the right rhythm and meaning that would connect selected film clips into one whole. It took several revisions to achieve that goal and Leigh’s help in the process was invaluable.
The second part of my video essay is built around the contrast of ‘before’ and ‘after’ the lockdown and introduces various crowded scenes as a reference to the pre-pandemic world. Here, I tried to also utilise the evocative functions of music and sound. The track I use is Biosphere's Phantasm. It creates the atmosphere of a dream – through both the lyrics and the score – and connects clips to one another. ”We had a dream last night. We had the same dream” - was just something that echoed inside of me when I created this project, as all of us sort of experienced the same dream that in a blink of an eye became our reality.
Drawing on the contrast between fantasy and reality, I start the second part of my video with a clip of a young couple getting married on Zoom intercut with comic scenes from wedding movies such as Bride Wars etc. In my mind, weddings are an important, emotional social gathering that is not only about the physical presence of the most loved ones but also about a very specific way of dressing up and human interactions including dancing, drinking, and talking. The pandemic made those gatherings as we know it impossible. Yet, people were able to find an alternative, virtual way to perform them, which can be taken as an attempt to ignore current reality.
One of the cinematic examples depicting big social gatherings and the elusiveness of reality can be found in The Great Gatsby, as the film oscillates between dream and reality leaving the viewer uncertain about what is real and what is not.
Leigh also suggested to include to my video essay an absolutely incredible cinematic work – Ingmar Bergman’s Persona made in 1966. The opening scene of the film depicts a boy waking up from a dream, trying to touch the surface that can be perceived as both a movie screen and a mirror.
Both films take up the themes of the dream and make a visual statement about the elusiveness of the reality behind the screen which one might experience at a certain point.
The references to Netflix series American Crime Story and Unorthodox intercut with live performances and an online photoshoot introduce the idea of cultural consumption. We are all addicted to the amusement that capitalism has created to keep us comfortable and engaged. Being stuck at homes is an opportunity to engage with culture in new and maybe even more meaningful ways. For me, it’s really interesting to see what emerges from the current uncertain times.
New Normal culminates with a comical video of people having parties on Zoom. Here, I highlight the optimistic side of the realities that we create, because at the end they are the ones most worth exploring.