During the COVID-19 pandemic there’s been a surge in the use of platforms like Netflix and Hulu, plus TikTok exploding in popularity as if to bridge the gap between streaming video and social media. It can even seem like different stages of the pandemic are marked by the television shows and memes of the given moment—from Tiger King (2020) in the early days to The Queen’s Gambit (2020) around Halloween and Bernie sitting as we begin the new year. Amid this unending media overload, the Incontinence Project breaks up the monotony by offering something truly different to watch.
“I would love for people to sit down and watch it intently, but I also think it’s like something that can get thrown on while hanging out, like putting on music on YouTube,” said Tyler Hallett, who edits and performs the project’s video pieces alongside Frankie Symonds, during a Zoom interview. “It’s kind of visuals in the background. Everything is kind of dreamlike, where you don’t necessarily need to see the beginning to know the middle.”
With two completed videos under their belt, the duo will perform on a Boston Hassle livestream on Feb 10. Their project is as much a band as it is a video series pieced together like a collage. But why incontinence (which, for the uninitiated, means “lacking voluntary control over urinating or defecating”)? Hallett says the theme manifests in the sense of being overwhelmed by information.
“We’re constantly overinformed and distracted,” he explained. “And a lot of the reasons I use appropriated footage is to release small bits of information together [in] an overwhelming sense, much like scrolling through a feed or flicking through television channels. [It’s] incontinent in the sense of just like a strong release of a lot of information.”
Opening a portal to different psychological or emotional states, the Incontinence Project can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. One reading is that it’s working to reimagine TV standards: Rather than follow a narrative, the artists present a media collage made from both pop culture clips and original footage. “I think of human consciousness as a collage,” Symonds said. “If in a period of a day you go out and take the train and then you go home and watch a TV show and talk to your roommate and cook dinner, all that’s on this timeline of experience that if you could remix it would be very montage-y.”
Hallett and Symonds come from different filmmaking backgrounds: Symonds focuses on nonnarrative poetic films and experimental features, while Hallett got his start by making music videos for his friends’ bands. And so they share common formal interests—video art, VJing, and incorporating appropriated imagery and found footage—that meld together in their new work.
“All of the pieces will be meant to put whoever’s watching them in a psychological space as opposed to asking them to follow a narrative,” Symonds said. “The goal is not to convey any real information, but to give an experience that you can just kind of let yourself go into if you want.”
Hallett said the project was influenced by wanting to start a band and show videos while they play. But with the COVID-19 pandemic derailing any chance for shows, they had to improvise: Hallett recalls saying, What if we stick to what we know and make the band a video project?
“I guess we just started talking about a way we could bring all of those separate interests together into one project that can be cinematic music videos [and] don’t necessarily have to adhere to a typical pop music form,” Symonds continued. “So we can kind of just do, you know, we can kind of go in the directions we feel we need to go while remaining informed by all the things that we’re interested in and that influence us.”
Reflecting on the name, Symonds said they included footage of advertisements for incontinence projects like Attends and Depend underwear. “There’s a lot of bodily stuff going on, and discomfort with the body,” Symonds said. “Incontinence is one extreme of the difficult ways we interact with our bodies. … I think it’s a very common human theme … to always be thinking about their body.”
Each video can stand alone as its own piece, and they range in form from a two-minute music video to a 20-minute short film. And so far they’ve been taking turns making cuts. Hallett made the first video, which is essentially a 10-minute deconstructed rendition of “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid (1989) interspersed with footage of artists talking about themselves and their substance use.
“I tried to stick to themes of both vanity and self-hatred and how they play. They’re always both present,” said Hallett, who also incorporated footage from a Townes Van Zandt documentary, Ways of Seeing (1972), Gertrud (1964), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Mario Bava movies, old silent films, and Symonds singing to their reflection into his edit (mirror imagery is heavily used throughout).
Symonds made the second cut, a gripping video about identity crises that uses footage from Out of the Blue (1980), In a Year with 13 Moons (1978), Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Scooby-Doo and The Huckleberry Hound Show, advertisements for incontinence products, and Paula Deen’s bizarre and teary-eyed apology for using racist slurs. The movie Out of the Blue stands out in particular for its exploration of the main character’s subversiveness and the dysphoria she experiences. “It’s about domestic strife, abuse, and just lots of horrible human behavior behind closed doors in a family,” Symonds said.
Analog to the core, The Incontinence Project brings these countless artifacts together under a very specific aesthetic. It strays away from glossy, high-definition videos and embraces an old-school VHS look—the duo have even discussed releasing their work on tapes and cassettes in the future.
To achieve this aesthetic, Hallett and Symonds use different techniques. Hallett, for instance, often rerecords clips as they run through TVs to achieve different effects, then uses editing programs Adobe Premiere and Isadora, which is essentially a VJing program. They also have a unique approach in creating the distorted audio for the first video, incorporating sounds from a theremin Symonds played and a loop Hallett made on his synth.
“If I’m watching something super high-definition, it rings in my brain that it’s a TV show or a movie and I’m supposed to be following it and paying strict attention,” Hallett said. “[There’s] that kind of inherent nostalgia from seeing the lines of a VHS tape. … It’s a little easier—at least for me—to let go and kind of just observe it as it is, much like you would a music video.”
“It’s like that kind of green-screen-type layering, but it’s not clean. You can see the pixels and it’s glitchy looking. … I try to put them all together, let it flow, and then after the fact, cut out anything that doesn’t flow and see how organically things can happen,” Symonds said.
Even with all the different parts compiled in the videos, the Incontinence Project flows seamlessly, beckoning viewers to experience media in new ways.
Olivia Deng is an arts and culture writer who also covers politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in DigBoston, WBUR, Boston Magazine, The Atlantic, Boston Art Review and more. She is also an illustrator and painter.