John Armstrong
Paul Collins

Four Sisters (2008)
Quatre Soeurs (2008)
digital video projection
projection vidéo digitale

John Armstrong and Paul Collins’s Four Sisters (2008) is as old as cinema itself. As cameras were initially placed on fixed tripods, the very first camera movements were the result of mounting a camera on a moving vehicle. Walter Benjamin makes the correlation between the parallel invention of cinema and motorized travel. And be it from the point of view of the objective or the subjective camera shot, locomotion was the primary subject of cinema. Four Sisters is also the very film that we all imagined making while still children, when the boredom of a car trip would be punctuated by the rhythms and patterns created by the passing poles, wires, advertisements and trees.

Four Sisters is a silent, 77-minute video sequence shot on Toronto's waterfront Gardiner Expressway during a late afternoon rush-hour commute from east to west and back again (and then back again). The video looks inland, towards the city centre before turning to look out, towards and across the lake. A band of text runs through the video, recounting 23 anecdotes in English or French.

These incidental narratives look at life in Toronto and Paris, public signage, travel, coincidence and minor revelatory moments in the lives of both artists. These texts have been interpreted as being the sorts of anecdotes that one might tell on a car trip, such as the one we are viewing. The stories recount remembered moments from childhood or the workplace; the illness and subsequent death of a parent, or of a pet; humorous travel tales and wry social commentary.

— By early winter, once the leaves fell off the lilac bush in front of the kitchen window, I was able to see the coal-fired Lakeview Generating Station’s four towering stacks. While having my breakfast, I could observe the smoke from the stacks and get a sense of the day’s weather. On a particularly cold day, the smoke from the stacks would stream straight upwards to a great height. On most days, the smoke would billow off to the east at various angles and speeds. We lived a couple of miles north of Lakeview at the junction of two corridors of high-tension electrical towers that originated at the station. Even when we couldn’t see Lakeview’s stacks, affectionately known as the Four Sisters, we could always hear the hum of power lines.

The video presents viewers with the decision either to read the slowly unfolding crawl of stories or to follow a road-trip sequence of changing urban landscape. There is a measure of tension between the two streams of content: the text flows to the left while the landscape travels to the right.

Four Sisters is a silent picture and is intended to be viewed in that way, the internal narrative voice, though the act of reading, supplying imagined sound. However, in the tradition of silent cinema, the artists have on occasion performed a live musical accompaniment to the video.

Four Sisters was commissioned by Toronto Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2008 by curator Gordon Hatt. The master tape is in 1080i/59.94 HDCAM format.  

Four Sisters est une vidéo muette d’une prise: un travelling d’est en ouest sur les rives du lac Ontario à Toronto à l’heure de pointe sur la rocade surélevée, le Gardiner Expressway. La vidéo est un document d’architectures de la ville, une pléthore de pubs ainsi que le boom de construction actuel sur le terrain qui servait jadis aux lignes ferroviaires. Vers la fin de la vidéo, le Gardiner redescend sur terre où nous découvrons un jardin de topiaires formant  une série de logos commerciaux divers. Une bande de textes accompagne notre voyage, relatant 23 courtes anecdotes en anglais ou français. Souvent humoristiques, ces histoires parlent de peintres d’enseignes, de « naming », « branding » et autres manifestations du langage commercial.