The Art of Fugue: In Conversation with Emilie Crewe

Questions by Adi Berardini

Emilie Crewe’s The Art of Fugue is a multi-channel video installation featuring five women working in trade industries. The Art of Fugue is edited using the traditional musical structure of a fugue, which is a compositional technique using multiple voices built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning. Each screen acts as a singular voice, interweaving together and contributing to the artwork as a whole. Highlighting women in trades is both an aesthetic decision and a symbolic choice. The piece captures the strength and resilience found in a performer whose work is in a typically male-dominated field.

Emilie Crewe is an interdisciplinary artist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Her artwork often takes the form of video installation, single-channel video, multi-channel video, and sketch-work (drawings, collections & archives). She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. Her work is exhibited internationally in galleries, museums, artist-run centres, experimental film/video festivals, and as public art.

In the Art of Fugue, you combine the actions of women working in trades that are viewed as male-dominated and masculine to the musical composition of a fugue. How did you first arrive at the idea of featuring women in trades and paralleling the film to ideas of music and composition?

The concept began with research that I was doing at the time, which was centered on the neuroscience of music.  I wanted to make an artwork that embodied musical properties and structure but did not incorporate literal music.  My intentions were for viewers to sense rhythm, cadence, and tone within their bodies.

The subject matter [focusing on] women in trades came after the decision to create a video using fugue structure (For reference, The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a fugue is, a polyphonic composition in which a short melodic theme, the subject, is introduced by one part or voice, and successively taken up by the others and developed by their interweaving).

Trade industries and labour jobs have always been of interest to me as an artist since I relate to the act of using your hands to create something. There is a direct connection between the brain and the hands that has always fascinated me. I appreciate the process, investigative aspects and problem-solving within these specific jobs, and find that there is a distinct creative component to trade-work that I admire. There is beauty in functionality and repetition. I chose to work with women working in trade industries because of an [inclination] I have to feature characters that are somewhat “unseen”.

Emilie Crewe. The Art of Fugue: A Polyphonic Instrumental Video Featuring Five Women in Trades still. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Can you explain more about your process organizing the sounds, footage, and editing?

I went into this project knowing that the editing would be a challenge.  I had never worked with five channels of video before, and I don’t think I really understood how complicated it would be until I began to sort through the footage.  After the shoots, I had over forty hours of footage to catalogue.  I narrowed the content down to about twenty hours of usable footage and then spent several days sitting at my desk feeling confused as to where to start.

At this point, I knew that I had to step away from the computer, and begin editing “by hand.” Using a system of colour-coded sticky notes, I began making connections between the different trades and the physical movements of the five performers.  For example, I would write down a note that would say, “Meg looks up,” and would pair this with another note that said, “Kate looks up,” After arranging these notes on the wall, I transferred the components that I liked into a notebook to work with at my desk.

The artwork was edited in Adobe Premiere Pro in one timeline that was divided into five channels, each colour-coded to represent a different performer in the video.  All of the editing was done using a metronome set to four beats per measure and eighty beats per minute.  This is a very typical time signature used in musical compositions, and it helped me to keep time and work using a structured rhythm.  The sound was the last component that I worked on, utilizing a mixture of live audio from the shoots, as well as my own Foley sounds that I recorded at home using audio equipment from VIVO Media Arts Centre in Vancouver.

Editing Notebook
Emilie Crewe. Artist’s process book. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

In researching this project and filming in the women’s workspaces, what were some of the things you discovered about women working in trades? Did they share their struggles and/or successes in their careers?

I think a lot of people are fairly open-minded these days, especially here on the West Coast, but I do have an understanding that entering into a typically male-dominated job force as a woman comes with some stigma and possible [hesitation] from prospective employers.

With the nature of the work that I was creating, I talked with each performer about barriers that they had come across, from customers making inappropriate comments to contending for jobs amongst male competitors.  It was interesting hearing about the experiences of the performers that I was working with, and I learned a great deal about what it’s like to work in their respective industries.

The machinist, for example, was working in a large factory in Delta, of which she was the only female employee.  There was great sociability between her coworkers that she was very much a part of, so that was nice to see.

Three of the five of the women that I worked with are small business owners.  The plumber, Mary-Anne, employs an all-women crew, which is great for women seeking apprenticeships in the industry.  The most notable takeaway I think has been the realization of having to prove your worth simply because of your gender.  These things come up in a lot of different industries, including the art world, but within the trades, it seems important to show physical assertiveness.

If there are any readers that are interested in these types of barriers within trade work, I highly recommend the book, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, by Kate Braid. It’s a fascinating look at the experience of a Canadian woman working as a carpenter.  She mentions several situations where contractors would look her up and down, and then basically say, “no way,” all based on the simple fact that she was a woman.

Emilie Crewe. The Art of Fugue: A Polyphonic Instrumental Video Featuring Five Women in Trades still. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Has your view transformed as to how gender comes into play for women and the workplace after creating this film?

I’m not sure if my view has transformed or changed, rather it has been expanded.  With many scenarios, the more information that we take in, the better our understanding is.  Being a woman myself, I have always had an awareness of how gender comes into play in the workplace.  Creating The Art of Fugue has certainly broadened my perspective.  Documenting these women at work served as a great inspiration as well, and I often came away from shoots feeling a sense of encouragement, optimism, and admiration.

Who are some artists/filmmakers that influence you as an artist?

Two meaningful influences for me have been Pipilotti Rist and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, both video installation artists [who are women].  [I have also been influenced] by the sound and video work of Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller.  Artists that work in ways that envelop viewers, especially in terms of creating an immersive installation, always spark that creative drive in me.

When it comes to filmmakers, I love the work of Jesper Just, 
György Pálfi
 and Roy Andersson; all people working with moving images in strange, visceral ways.  Really, I’m drawn to work that makes my senses stir, literally and metaphorically.

Editing Timeline
Emilie Crewe. Artist’s editing process. 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Do you have any other projects planned in the future that you would like to share?

Currently, I’m working out the logistics for a new multi-channel video featuring a female musician. I’ve secured some grant funding from the Canada Council to head to Winnipeg and shoot with Julia McIntyre, a prominent Canadian bass trombonist.  I will be working with the theme of a musical toccata, which is a quick, virtuosic musical interlude that shows off a performer’s “touch.”

This will be the first time that I have experimented with using a musician as a performer in my work, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this project.  A lot of my creative process happens in post-production.  I go into a video shoot quite intuitively, usually ending up with a wealth of footage to sort through, as I did with The Art of Fugue.  So, I can’t really say how this will turn out, although I have some images in my head that I’m playing with.

I’ve always wondered how a classical composer can write a symphony with so many components and instruments and know how it is going to sound.  I guess the answer is that you really can’t know until you have an orchestra in front of you to play the music.   You can test the melodies and harmonies out all you want on a piano, but it will only exist as an imaginary sound in your mind until you have people to play it for you.  Video is in some ways like this.  I can imagine an artwork, but until I am actually shooting with a subject and then “composing” the timeline in the editing phase, I really have no idea what I’m going to come away with.

You can find out more about Emilie Crewe’s The Art of Fugue on the project website and on her Instagram @emiliecrewe.

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