At 26-years-old, filmmaker Jacky Connolly has become an expert puppet-master of the Sims 3 computer graphics by creating absurd domestic scenes with troubling narratives. Like many teens growing up in the early 2000s, she frequently played the alternate reality game that allows players to create their own characters and experiences. As an adult, Connolly began using the Sims 3 game to create compelling short art films. The pre-existing graphics engine allow her to be set designer, director and producer all at once. In an interview with Rhizome, Connolly discussed the transition from playing the game to utilizing the game to create films:
I am no longer enacting an imagined future, but reenacting the traumas of earlier life stages. In my scenes, the nightmares of childhood and the traumas of adolescence serve as an anteroom to hell. Anxious and foreboding nights spent in a suburban bedroom have shifted from being the context in which I was playing (as a preteen) to the subject of my film scenes.
There is certainly something nightmare-ish about her latest work, Hudson Valley Ruins, which showed at Atlanta Contemporary from Dec. 20 to Jan. 8 of this year. The video was hidden in a gallery space behind a large translucent curtain. A single bench sat in front of a large wall, empty except for the projected video. As secluded as the area was, it was hard to ignore the intermittent chiming and dinging of JD Walsh’s Triangular Motif just beyond the curtain in a separate exhibit—though it should be noted that at times, the tones of the clinking triangles actually seemed to weirdly fit in with Hudson Valley Ruins. Connolly’s film, at 30 minutes long, occasionally skips and lags slightly, and it was difficult to discern if this was intentional or not— truthfully, it could go either way. Despite these distractions, it was difficult to look away.
Two of the most successful elements of the piece are the use of sound and color. With Sims 3, Connolly was especially drawn to how, “toxic purple sunsets, rhythmically swaying branches and falling orange leaves introduce a more haunting, evanescent ambiance.” It is also distinctly suburban. Curator Daniel Fuller told Paste, “I think a lot of people connect to this suburban malaise. Being so close to the city, so close to action, yet being incredibly removed. For those of us that are restless, it’s a fairly timeless story.” As those familiar with The Sims games know, there is no dialogue, but an array of in-game sounds such as wind rustling through trees, a keyboard typing, a rusty swing-set or the clanking of playing a game of foosball—all uncomfortably amplified by the lack of dialogue. When playing The Sims, it’s easy to tune out these sounds, but in the context of Hudson Valley Ruins, they are unsettling, especially as the story takes a sinister turn.
While the film’s title draws from a website chronicling the disappearing historical architecture of the area, Connolly has said that it really refers to ruined people, not places. Through a series of disjointed domestic scenes, Hudson Valley Ruins primarily follows the story of two girls, one a rebellious teenager and the other on the cusp of becoming one. We see the younger girl witness her father’s extramarital affair, and the teenager neglected by her alcoholic mother. Later, the teenager, dressed in a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt, experiences a rough sexual encounter with a classmate, after which her mother takes her to a clinic with a large “Safe Sex” poster to talk with a therapist. The teenager’s traumatic experience is paralleled with the young girls exposure to her father’s sexual exploits.
Throughout the film, other characters who resemble the two girls’ doppelgängers flit in and out of scenes. The teenager girl’s binate is a tired, single-mother caretaker living in poverty—perhaps foreshadowing what’s to come. The film reaches its inevitable climax when, one night during an intense thunderstorm, the younger girl leaves the confines of her suburban home and runs through a landscape resembling the Hudson River Valley, disappearing in a roar of sound and darkness. The teenager also removes herself from the narrative by swimming out into dark water during the storm, and is shown again in the final shots of the film, lying on a river bank at dawn, presumably dead.
There’s something terribly disconcerting about seeing your favorite childhood game used to play out such disturbing stories. Perhaps for this reason, Hudson Valley Ruins makes you feel as if the character’s loss of innocence is your own. You leave the film feeling unsettled and a little sick—but also curious to see what’s next. If Connolly can make you feel that freaked out in a brief 30 minutes, what else can she do?
You can catch Hudson Valley Ruins at The Whitney Museum of American Art on Sunday Jan. 15 at 3 p.m. as part of “Dreams and Nightmares,” a series of five short animations from contemporary artists. Tickets are $12 for adults, students and seniors, and free for members at other times.
Editor’s Note: Paste supports The Whitney’s decision to maintain regular hours this week, and reminds readers that admission on Friday, January 20th is pay-what-you-wish.