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Reviews/Film/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Exploring alienation in suburbia

4 March 2020

Jenny Scott says watching the strange ‘machinima’ film, Hudson Valley Ruins is compelling at times, and unsettling at others.

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Review: Jacky Connolly, Hudson Valley Ruins ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 22 February 2020 ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Presented in association with Perth Festival, Jacky Connolly’s Hudson Valley Ruins is a short “machinima” film – an animation generated entirely by manipulating video game graphics. The video game in question is a “life simulation” game, The Sims 3, in which players create characters and then control their actions.

The film is projected on to the back wall of the PICA Screen Space. Peaceful shots of unpopulated natural landscapes, buildings, and inside rooms are cut with scenes from the lives of various characters. Some moments are ordinary, others disquieting – a woman runs on a treadmill until she falls over, gets up and starts again. Five people sit staring around the tables of a cafeteria, a dog licks his leg in a dining room, a young child dances wildly in silence before accidentally walking in on her father’s affair.

While they are intended to form a narrative, the scenes appear entirely disjointed at first. Perhaps it takes a while to adjust to the uncanny algorithmic Sims aesthetic, in which the characters’ blank eyes don’t quite blink enough, and exaggerated shoulder movements are meant to mimic breathing.

The film’s overall effect is a profound sense of alienation – of the viewer to the digital characters, and of the characters to each other. This may stem from the lack of dialogue. Sims characters usually speak in “simlish”, which sounds familiar but is gibberish. In this film, however, the characters occasionally mouth silent words to each other, if they talk at all.

At the same time, the sparse soundtrack highlights the sounds of falling rain and constantly whistling wind, even when scenes are set indoors. This enhances the disquiet, encouraging the feeling that the wider world is wholly indifferent to the silent domestic dramas of the characters.

Both the buildings and the characters are hyper-individualised through beautiful (and often strange) decoration, from band shirts and facial piercings to indoor ladders and pretzel-shaped furniture. Perhaps this film is commenting on the destructive nature of materialism, on those who prioritise the aesthetics of their lifestyles over the “ruins” of their relationships. This could also be seen as a function built into The Sims 3 itself, as a solo player game in which the user (or artist) can spend countless labour-intensive hours designing digital landscapes alone and manipulating the occupants, often in cruel ways.

Sometimes strangely compelling, and other times demanding endurance from the viewer, Hudson Valley Ruins is an unsettling and mysterious digital work evoking alienation in suburbia.

Hudson Valley Ruins continues until 19 April 2020.

Pictured top: Disquietingly quiet – ‘Hudson Valley Ruins’ is one of the summer exhibitions at PICA. Photo: Bo Wong

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Author —
Jenny Scott

Jenny Scott received a Bachelor of Fine Arts (First Class Honours) from the University of Western Australia, and has spent the past ten years working and volunteering in the arts sector on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. She has fond memories of the dangerous thrill of the playground roundabout.

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