| Renée Baert
Video in Canada: In Search of Authority
FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA:
Artist-initiated activity in Canada, 1939-1987
edited by AA Bronson with René Blouin, Peggy Gale and Glenn Lewis
The Power Plant, Toronto — June 26 - August 19, 1987
[ 5,426 words ]
Video is a medium in search of its own authority. Its form is confounded by its myriad functions. Its language is a hybrid of derivations. Its identity shifts uncomfortably between its status as art and its ambitions as television. And, after more than a decade of history, its virtual exclusion from established venues of presentation requires the constant cultivation of a context in which it can exist.
In Canada, the context in which the work has been primarily exhibited is consequently the context in which it has been produced. The system of artist-run centres that spans the country is the predominant source for the production, distribution and exhibition of video. The existence of these centres — which have grown substantially in size, number and function since the inception of their earliest models — has given Canadian artists generous latitude to shape the discourse of their work. But this network operates, both in practice and in metaphor, within a closed-circuit environment, one that has not succeeded in allowing a body of work critically engaged with social, political and aesthetic issues a convincing participation in a wider cultural milieu.
In the period immediately following the introduction of small-format television technology in the late 1960s, artists participated in an enthusiastic gambol with the medium's dazzling potential. Video's unique properties, as well as its ambiguous relationship to the dominant cultural presence of television, have made it a versatile instrument for the pursuit of a complexity of issues within the continuum of art practice and the context of social / political intervention. In keeping with the prevailing idealism of that era, video was ascribed a function as the vehicle for a veritable revolution of consciousness!
The pioneering period was characterized by a runaway plunder of the medium's every potential. Its formal properties were isolated and declared, often in configurations related to sculpture or performance. The considerable technical deficiencies of the first generation equipment were transformed to advantage. Video's quality of immediacy was raised to aesthetic status. Its adaptability as an instrument of documentation led to myriad recordings of social, personal and art events. This led to an often ungraceful framing of ephemeral events, or the random compilation of documents of limited interest or application, but it also led to accomplished articulations. Cumulatively, this early generation of video offered a telling record of the dramatic shifts in the grounding of a culture that the 60s and early 70s represented.
These early investigations were not confined to an elaboration of form and subject matter, but extended to include the potential uses of the medium. Closed-circuit playback systems allowed producers access to specific and diverse audience groups. Artist-run galleries and events succeeded in bypassing the restraints of conservative cultural institutions, while community groups employed video systems to advantage for political and informational objectives. Parallel to this closed-circuit activity, Canadian producers also obtained an alternative presence within the spectrum of broadcast through the use of the community-access channels of local cable television stations. While these alternative venues within closed-circuit and broadcast systems have rewarded producers neither in remuneration nor in public impact, they have succeeded in liberating the medium of domestic television from its conventional usages.
The patterns in which Canadian video has developed were established in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the four major urban centres, each striking a particular emphasis while responding to cultural influences common to all. Intermedia was the genesis for the generously-spirited approach to video in Vancouver, manifest in tapes of a gregarious personability. In Montréal, Vidéographe provided a sophisticated model for the use of video as a tool of political intervention and social development. In Halifax, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) fostered an analytical approach to video corresponding to vanguard conceptual art movements current in New York and Europe. Toronto artists preferred performance-based work which employed the self and the immediate environment as the site of more complex investigations. The regional variations in approach and sensibility have been more fully elaborated within these larger cities, which benefit from a broader interactive community of artists and more generous levels of financial subsidy. These characteristics do not confine a Canadian video practice, but represent a process of integration common to centres throughout the country.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The Intermedia collective was a dynamic force in Vancouver during the late 1960s, animating events, happenings and whimsies throughout the city. It operated in collaborative cross-over with other groupings of artists such as Image Bank, New Era Social Club and the [Granville] Grange project. Video was introduced into this flourishing environment in 1969, initially as a documentation tool. It was, however, readily incorporated into more adventurous pursuits by poets Roy Kiyooka and Gerry Gilbert, musician Don Druick and multimedia artists including Glenn Lewis, Michael Morris and Michael de Courcy. The work of Al Razutis employed a combination of film-optical printing and video synthetic image-making processes. Three annual series of Intermedia exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery from 1968 to 1970 brought this eclectic work to an enthusiastic public.
An influential video installation within these programmes was a work entitled Media
Wall (1969) by Dave Rimmer, Bill Fix and Tom Shandel. In this work, an entire wall of the gallery was occupied by monitors which displayed flickering, burned-out, live, pre-recorded and progressively degenerating images.
The resources of the centre became increasingly over-extended and, in 1971, Intermedia ceased operations, its members regrouping around new organizations and activities. Michael Goldberg published the first International Video Exchange Directory in 1971, listing 124 producers in North America and Europe, and in 1973, together with Tricia Hardman, organized Matrix, an international video festival that attracted 140 delegates from throughout North America. Metro-Media was one of the pioneer community producers, active in community cable programming and, until its closing in 1983, a media watchdog. Intermedia members were involved in the establishment in 1973 of the Video Inn, a videotape archive, and the Western Front, an artists' centre that subsequently established an important video production studio. Byron Black was among the first artists to initiate programming by artists on the community cable system. Images From Infinity (1973-74) featured 'Baron Infinity' as resident mystic and affable host to assorted friends and guests, work and ruminations.
Vidéographe was the dynamic centre of video in Québec, with a streetfront building in the hubbub of the St. Denis quarter of Montréal. Established in 1971 as part of a short-lived experimental programme within the National Film Board, Vidéographe began with a well-funded mandate for the production, exhibition and distribution of video programmes of broad social range. The centre's video theatre was in active use, its programme schedules often coordinated with local social groups and agencies. In addition, tapes from Vidéographe were screened through community-based closed-circuit systems and cable television. The centre operated around the clock, with portable equipment and three editing bays allowing for continuous production. Under the guiding influence of early Director, Robert Forget, an energetic effort to demystify the broadcast medium and authorize the individual and collective voice predominated. The heavy demands for services, however, stimulated increasingly stringent production requirements and several generations of internal turmoil, reflected in cyclical changeovers of administration. When the Québec government redirected its funding support from production groups to community cable television systems in the mid-70s, the collapse of an important funding base led to the centre's near closure, and further turmoil. The centre rallied by means of a federal arts council funding, production contracts and gradual implementation of a diversified funding base.
The video produced through Vidéographe was a reflection of the intense movement toward political and cultural self-determination in Québec. Yves Chaput's Quest ce qu'ona fait au bon Dieu? (1971) is an indictment of the traumatic October Crisis of 1970, in which over 400 prominent labour leaders, cultural activists and indepéndantistes were arrested without charges under the War Measures Act. Many Vidéographe productions involved a hard-edged appraisal of the political process, often directed to specific issues — feminism, labour, the environment, etc. Also working in Montréal at this time were Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin, who established Pea Soup Films in 1972. Between 1972 and 1977, they collected forty-four hours of tapes which were edited down to the ninety-four-minute Pea Soup, a masterful, kaleidoscopic portrait of aspiration, alienation and colonization in Québec. Although video in Montréal was overwhelmingly directed at this time toward political issues, Gilles Chartier and Jean-Pierre Boyer achieved distinction for their early work in synaesthetic video. Video art began to establish a presence in the programming of Véhicule Art Gallery, an artist-run centre which opened in 1972. It was two years, however, before the centre obtained its first portapak and introduced an early generation of video artists already accomplished in other fields — Suzy Lake, Françoise Sullivan, Bill Vazan, and Allan Bealy.
A Space Gallery, established in 1970, was the premier artist-run centre in Canada, a vivacious centre with a lively programme of poetry readings, performance art, theatre workshops, electronic music, video and sound works. A programme of video workshops was introduced in 1971. Nearby, in the basement of Holy Trinity Church, Trinity Square was operating a community-access video facility which would subsequently develop into one of the pre-eminent facilities in the country. In 1973, Visus Foundation opened a studio for experimentation in video by dancers, a mandate soon extended to include interdisciplinary artists. Visus had a particular commitment to cable programming by artists, and produced several magazine-format series featuring the work of local poets, dancers and artists. In 1984, its trajectory of evolution culminated in the opening of the Arts Television Centre, a fully-equipped television studio for independent productions by performing and visual artists.
The performance-based emphasis established by video pioneers Robert Bowers, Stephen Cruise and John McEwen was extended by such artists as Lisa Steele, Tom Sherman, Colin Campbell, Marien Lewis and General Idea into the structural narratives and preoccupations with the landscape of culture and media that have been predominant in Toronto work. Steele's tapes were often rapt externalizations of the environment of the intimate: A Very Personal Story (1974) is an account of her thoughts and feelings as an adolescent on the day she returned from school to find her mother dead, in The Ballad of Dan Peoples (1976), she assumes the voice of her grandfather to tell his story. Campbell's early works were performances that turned on questions of reality and identity: True / False (1972), Real Split (1972), This Is The Way I Really Am (1973).
General Idea's early Light On (1970-74) tapes, employing large mirrors to direct reflected light onto objects, were a flirtation with landscape 'painting' soon displaced by a more consistent emphasis on the conventions of the mass media format as a vehicle to a directed view of the artist's role within the museum format. The star-making processes of spectacle, glamour and illusion were manipulated in devices such as 'rehearsing the audience' for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant.
Further east in the Maritime provinces, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was the venue for an exciting range of experimentation moving away from painting and sculpture to a less materially-based and more intellectual and conceptually-oriented art. Video in this milieu was employed as one of many recording devices, but it obtained prominent use in installations, performance-based work and single-channel format. Video was exhibited regularly in the artist-run Fourth Floor Gallery (1971-72) and in the two galleries of the NSCAD-associated Anna Leonowens Gallery. A visiting artists programme tilted towards New York influences provided a constant stimulus, in which the influences of Dennis Oppenheim, Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner and David Askevold predominated. Many of this first generation of works were compiled and presented in the cable series Changing Channels (1976), produced locally by Ian Murray and Cyne Cobb. As with many early cable programmes, the collection was subsequently erased, as tapes provided by the cable company were recycled for other programming.
Though the heady period of activity in Halifax had declined by the early 1970s, a number of accomplished tapes were produced in this era. In Shuffle (1971), by Doug Waterman, the camera frames both the performer and its own recording mechanism; the performer creates static electricity by shuffling his feet on a carpet, then reaches over and touches the tape as it passes the recording head, repeating this action until the tape runs out; on replay the demagnetized portions of tape are viewed as screen interference before he has begun the action. In Fill (1971), by David Askevold, a piece of aluminum foil is crushed around a microphone head, creating a loud, harsh sound; successive applications of the foil gradually occupy the entire screen while the volume diminishes; the process is reversed, accompanied by progressively amplified noise, until the bare microphone is again exposed. Ian Murray's Keeping On Top of The Song (1973) originated as an audio piece recording the first ten seconds of the 'top ten' tunes of the previous ten years; in the video piece, a drummer is challenged to accompany this tape which is playing, unheard by the viewing audience, through his headphones.
By the mid-1970s, the base for further development was well-established. Several prominent public exhibitions signalled the accomplishments of this first generation of video artists. Among these were Videoscape (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1973), the first major international exhibition of video in Canada and Video Bag (1974) for which the Burnaby Art Gallery (Burnaby, B.C.) commissioned videotapes and installations from fourteen Canadian artists and groups. The Vancouver Art Gallery was actively programming video in such exhibitions as New Directions (1971), 50/60 Cycles (1972) and Pacific Vibrations (1973) and was the first public gallery to establish a video viewing space. Internationally, Canada: Trajectories 73 (Paris) was an important showcase of Canadian work, in which the public imagination was particularly captivated by the mini-Vidéographe, a workshop model of the Vidéographe method which invited Parisiens to use the available equipment to produce local works as part of the exhibition. On the whole, however, public galleries neglected work in this non-traditional and technically problematic medium. The outreach to a wider public has therefore been more consistently generated from within the video milieu.
This outreach has taken many forms. The Video Exchange Directory, now in its ninth printing, spawned Video Guide in 1978, a tabloid focusing on video productions, events, issues and artists. FUSE magazine (established as Centerfold [by Clive Robertson in Calgary] in 1977), is a bi-monthly periodical directed toward cultural and political issues, in which independent productions and video events are given serious review. National artist-run festivals have included the Canadian Video Open (1977-78), a video competition; the Fifth Network Video Conference (1978); the documentary festival TheMedium Is The Message (1980); Video / Video, a video programme within Toronto's annual (film) Festival of Festivals (1982-83) and the nationally-touring Ottawa International Video Festival of screenings and workshops (1983-84). In addition, local and regional expositions, programming on cable television systems and regular screenings within artist-run galleries have given steady exposure to this work.
Art Metropole, a Toronto organization involved in collecting and publishing information on artists working in non-traditional art media, inaugurated the first video art distribution system in 1975 and, under the curatorial guidance of Peggy Gale, applied a critical set of standards specific to a visual arts context for its selections. The process of culling from a distended range of material represented a shift from the egalitarianism prevalent within the video milieu, a move toward specialization further reflected with the publication by Art Metropole of Video by Artists (1976), a collection of essays by artists and critics. While Art Metropole remains the pre-eminent video art distribution outlet in Canada, it has stimulated and complemented the establishment of other distribution centres with a different emphasis in their portfolio of tapes. (1)
The gradual evolution of a network of artist-run centres engaged in the production, distribution, exhibition and publication of work in video has established the context of video in Canada. It is the nature of the work itself, however, that has given Canadian video its character and aesthetic.
In Vancouver, an artist-in-residence programme at the Western Front offers invited artists the opportunity to produce tapes in a well-equipped studio, aided by the back-up support of able assistants. The impressive work produced in this unique situation includes the tapes of the Western Front directors. Video coordinator Kate Craig produces reflective works with a quality of intimacy and outwardness. In Delicate Issue (1979), an extreme close-up lens passes over a naked body; the sound track carries breathing, a heart beat and a voice posing a series of questions: 'What is the dividing line between public and private?' 'At what distance does the subject read?' 'How close do I want you to be?' 'How close do you want to be?' Other productions by Western Front members include Glenn Lewis's benevolent visions of paradise and the everyday ( We All Sing the SameSong, 1978), Eric Metcalfe's gleeful delight in the excesses of cartoon corruptions ( Steeland Flesh, 1980; Sax Island, 1983) (2) and the work of collaborators Hank Bull and Patrick Ready, who have transposed the extroverted panache of their inventive radio programme The HP Show to video format.
The Video Inn was established as a videotape library, its core collection gathered from donations by delegates to the Matrix conference. This archive has been progressively supplemented to form a collection of over 1,000 titles in categories ranging from social science to video art. The collective also publishes Video Guide and the InternationalVideo Exchange Directory, sponsors workshops, in-house and out-of-house screenings; and offers special-event programming. In addition, it provides a post-production facility and operates a separate distribution wing through Video Out. Among the several producers within the collective, Paul Wong has achieved particular recognition for works informed by street culture, mass media and an erratic aplomb. His preoccupation in the mid-70s with video as an autobiographical medium (The Mainstreet Tapes, 1976) has shifted to a more objective evocation of media culture as it dotes on lifestyle, narcissism and glamour, such as Prime Cuts (1981), in which Wong's fashionable characters live out an endless series of perfect moments as they embody the fashion tear sheet come to vacuous life.
The short-lived presence of Pumps gallery (1975-78) provided a focus for a younger generation of Vancouver artists. The triad of pumps, Video Inn and Western Front was known locally as the Bermuda Triangle, and collaboratively sponsored numerous events. The principal video activity to originate from Pumps was The Gina Show (1977-81), a cable programme produced by John Anderson. The show ran in several series numbering a total of ninety-three half-hour programmes. The Gina Show borrowed from the breezy home-movie legacy of Images From Infinity, and indeed regularly featured the work of 'Baron Infinity'. The programme was a casual appropriation of talk-show formats and 'personality' profiles. It included interviews with various guests, excerpts from tapes and films produced locally and elsewhere, music video and a variety of regular features, including Elizabeth Vander Zaag's Digit series of synthesized images, The HP Show and John Mitchell's eccentricities of humour and extravagant metaphor. Among Pumps's producers, Kim Tomczak's tapes (100 Years of Aggression, 1979; Vancouver Canada Or They Chant Fed Up, 1980; Paradise Lost, 1981) were distinguished by a stringent observation of the political forces acting within everyday conventions.
Vancouver has also figured importantly as a centre for feminist work. Women In Focus, established in 1974, distributes feminist film and video, houses a gallery space and has sponsored the production of several issue-oriented documentaries. Another collective, Amelia Productions, employed local cable facilities to produce extensive behind-the-scenes coverage of current news events in which the interests of women were foregrounded. One Hundred Aboriginal Women (1981), a documentation of the occupation by native women of the federal Department of Indian Affairs offices, is an outstanding example of these 'on the run' videotapes. A series of formal testimonials provide a passionate account of a desperate situation; this central portion of the tape is framed by an introductory prologue and an epilogue that follows events after the forcible removal of the women, while the overall production maintains the rhythm and integrity established by the speakers. Amelia Productions disbanded in 1982 and regrouped in 1984 as Women Speak Out Productions.
In the mid-Western Prairie provinces, the Off Centre Centre in Calgary, Alberta and Video Pool Inc. in Winnipeg, Manitoba, provide open-access production facilities for local artists. The Off Centre Centre situates its video programme within the activities of a gallery, while Video Pool supplements its production base with an active distribution programme emphasizing regional work by a new generation of video artists such as Vern Hume (Calgary), Gerry Kisil (Winnipeg) and Nida Home Doherty (Regina, Saskatchewan). While both centres lack the history of development and evolution of video spaces established in the 1970s, they form a continuum from an early generation of activity established by Artons (Calgary) and the artist-run Plug-In Gallery (Winnipeg). Artons (1975-78) held particular importance as a centre for vanguard activity. In addition to its gallery space and visiting artists programme, the centre's publication arm produced and distributed video and audio tapes, initiated Centerfold magazine (3) and sponsored the first artist-run competition of videotapes, The Canadian Video Open. Clive Robertson, co-Director with artist Marcella Bienvenue of Artons, was also an active producer and a guiding force behind We Ourselves Roughly Know Something (1971-73). In 1973, W.O.R.K.S. produced one of the most ambitious of the early cable programmes by artists: A Conceptographic Reading of Our World Thermometer featured six one-hour programmes of work in video, film and performance, contributed by fifty-six artists from seventeen countries.
The formalist and critically-demanding influences of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design have continued to dominate the work of its students. Most NSCAD graduates do not, however, remain in Halifax, and hence the profile of video art in this milieu tends toward the transient. A renewed commitment toward video at the college has recently stimulated a resurgence of video production. Community-based productions originating from Studio East and the long-established Video Theatre, together with the work of video artists, has created a renewed intensity of production activity. Among the several influencing examples by a faculty of artist / instructors are the work of Jan Peacock, with its poised clarity and trenchant political observations, and the rigorously conceptual work of Eric Cameron. Cameron played a prominent role within the video milieu in the mid-70s, not only as an artist but in his writings for Studio International and other publications and in his teaching activities in Guelph, Ontario, which led to the establishment of Ed Video. Cameron and his former Guelph student, Noel Harding, were the first artists working in video to be singled out by the National Gallery of Canada in a 1978 exhibition entitled Two Audio-Video Constructs. The exhibition featured Cameron's video installation Keeping Marlene Out of The Picture — And Lawn and Harding's multimedia installation Once Upon the Idea of Two.
The Centre for Art Tapes was established in Halifax in 1978 as a venue for video screenings and audio installation works. While video installations have figured importantly in the work of artists, they are a realm of exhibition often overlooked in a Canadian milieu more adapted to single-channel work. In its programming, the Centre benefits from an indirect association with NSCAD's visiting artist programme, but notable work is also produced by local artists. Among these are Ed Slopek's theoretical constructions concerning the conditions of tele-visual perception. An early such piece, Nightmare (Three Essays for Edward O. Wilson), 1978, is a deconstruction and reconstruction of a psychological suspense drama organized into distinctive points of view representing crime (victimization), punishment and redemption. Elsewhere in the Maritime provinces, video has not gained a strong foothold, with the notable exception of the work of Prince Edward Island-based Norman Cohn. In a series of works focusing on children in hospitals, the aged residents in senior citizen homes as well as on numerous individuals, he produces intense and unrelentingly intimate portraits that telescope the existential through the medium of an unyielding gaze.
The influence of Vidéographe has declined as its accessibility has diminished and the formats of its sponsored productions become more standardized, but it has maintained a criterion of well researched and professionally executed productions. In addition to the centre's continuing relevance as a production base, its distribution facility has a long outreach into many parts of the province. A documentary tradition modelled on film has predominated in French-language production. This is reflected at its most accomplished in work which concedes to video its own particularities, as in the work of Pea Soup Films (Falardeau / Poulin), Video Femmes (Québec City) and independent producers such as Jean-Pierre Boyer, whose Mémoire d'octobre (1979), a reflection on the political amnesia toward the events of the October Crisis of 1970, is a dramatic shift from his earlier work in synaesthetic video.
La Co-op Vidéo de Montréal has produced compelling work which bridges conventional documentary and formal / narrative experimentation. Among producers within this independent collective, collaborators Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour have developed a form of video verity drama which glides along an edge of reality that surrenders intermittently to its own surreal slipstream. Le Groupe d'Intervention Vidéo, a feminist collective, distributes a selectively-culled portfolio of tapes from Vidéographe, the Co-op
and Vidéo Femmes as well as sponsored productions by its members, such as the scrupulous productions of Diane Poitras. Important feminist work has been produced over a period of several years by Vidéo Femmes. A model of their working method is Chaperons Rouges (1979) by Helen Doyle and Hélène Bourgault, a tape which employs elements of personal narrative, collaboration, fictional re-enactment and rigorous research to produce an empowering analysis of, and rebuttal to, the ways in which women are socialized toward defenselessness.
Productions Réalisations Indépendantes de Montréal (PRIM) is the resource centre for more experimental work, an open-access equipment centre which was initially established through the Vidéo Véhicule programme of the now-defunct Véhicule Art Gallery. The vivid registrations of marshalore; the composed, insightful eye of Barbara Steinman; and the aggressive calculations of Daniel Dion / Philippe Poloni all form part of a body of work situated within an active performance art milieu. Anne Ramsden's vignettes, patterned on soap operas, elaborate the conventions and distentions of romance. Artists such as Marc Paradis, Bernar Hébert and François Girard are among a promising new generation of producers of sharp, energetic vision.
Toronto, capital in Canada of the English-language communications industry, defines Canadian culture and exports its definition to the rest of the country through radio, television and publications. The vitality of this urban centre is attested to by the draw it exerts on artists from across the country.
In Toronto, the attitude is ambitious, the work is bracing and the equipment access centres are more highly structured and subject to expansionist transformations. The production centres of Trinity Square Video and the Arts Television Centre, and the editing centre of Charles St. Video, service a large, active and varied community of producers. While Toronto is the dominant centre of video activity in Ontario — and indeed, in Canada — other urban centres are also active in video production. These include SAW Gallery in Ottawa, the Kingston Artists' Association and Ed Video in Guelph. In the latter, long-established centre, the work of Nora Hutchinson and Charlie Fox predominate.
A distinguishing feature of Toronto work has been the evolution of a serialized form of narrative, in which a narrative line is developed through a sequence of related productions which layer and compound the fictions. Colin Campbell and Lisa Steele have worked extensively in this mode, both in collaboration (The Scientist Tapes, 1977-78) and individually (Campbell's The Woman from Malibu series, 1976-77; Bad Girls, 1979; Steele's Waiting for Lancelot, 1976-77; Gloria, 1979-80). Campbell's more recent works are narratives of innocence and jadedness within the moving surface of identity, while Steele produces dramatizations of individuals entrapped within social forces. Vera Frankel's series of tapes on The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden, A Remarkable Story, 1979-80, as with her previous and subsequent works, employ mystery, fable, soap opera and other formats of the storyteller's art to metaphorically render unsettling displacements and startling discoveries within a shifting base of truths. General Idea quote their own established devices — such as the Miss General Idea Pageant and the 1984 General Idea Pavilion — to create a continuity and evolution of an invented and predicted history, vamping the clichés of media to illuminate an art practice. Jane Wright's The Mississippi Tapes (1983) employ the landscape of a traveller's journey as the metaphor for a parallel interior voyage.
Video Cabaret is an interdisciplinary company that presents contemporary issues through the vernacular of popular music and television. This unique video-performance company functions as a collaborative laboratory, producing original works and adaptations that incorporate pre-recorded video into a live theatrical context. The Hummer Sisters of Video Cabaret ran for election in 1982 against incumbent Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton under the slogan 'Art vs Art'. This blend of street savvy, feminist perspective and media satire has earned this company an audience that extends well beyond the usual — and in the mayoralty race, garnered them 12,000 votes.
Video by such artists as Tom Sherman, Susan Britton, Ian Murray and John Watt track discordances between cultural prescriptions and individual recognition, displaying in the work a keen awareness of the power of media to direct perceptions of reality. This emphasis was reflected in the important Television by Artists series, produced in 1980 by John Watt and A Space; the series of commissioned tapes, which included programmes by Sherman, Murray, Watt and performance / video pioneers Randy and Berenicci, directed a trenchant critique of television to a home viewing audience through the community cable channel. Rodney Werden's tapes, produced over a ten year period, are primarily inquiries into the obsessive quirks located in the dynamic between power and sexuality. Video in Toronto remains dominated by this earlier generation of artists, who established video as a presence and who continue as active producers. Nevertheless, a new generation of artists — Christa Schadt, Derek Graham, Jorgé Lozano, Ed Mowbray, Dimitrije Martinovic, Paulette Phillips, Geoffrey Shea — demonstrate an awareness informed by social consciousness and a close reading of mass media.
Video in Canada has progressively shifted from a tremendous diversification within the field of investigation to a pre-eminent emphasis on narrative, in which the critique of culture and mass media figures prominently. New generations of equipment have widened technical options for producers, and narrowed the gap between television and video technology. The embryonic bases have stabilized and expanded, while the highspirited momentum that animated their inception has become one of established commitment and diminished expectation. A stable but marginal support system (4) has offered this network a level of funding adequate to sustain operations but inadequate for effectual development. The ethos has gradually shifted from that of a 'counter' culture — with its politic of engagement and challenge — to one of a 'parallel' culture — with its accommodation to self-containment and marginality.
Current work in video owes as much to the legacy of mass media as to the heritage of video art. Differentiations from television are expressed less through oppositions than through appropriations and considered elaborations of television format, style, content. A mongrel 'television art' has evolved to form a stylistic hybrid of video art and mainstream media. This development suggests a more comfortable adjustment to the contradictions inherent within appropriation, wherein differentiation and autonomy are more ambiguous issues. This television 'slang' has created work more readily accessible to a general audience than earlier generations of video, but the commercial imperatives which govern Canadian broadcasting, and the confines and compromises inherent in existing closed-circuit systems, keep that audience out of reach. Video art in Canada is no longer an obscure art form by virtue of the vanguard nature of its concerns. Rather, video remains an underground phenomenon through the circumstance of closed access to mainstream venues. As video by Canadian artists continues its trajectory of evolution and accomplishment, it butts increasingly against the limitations of a context which is self-sufficient — but insufficient.
Reprinted from Vidéo Montréal: Artextes, 1986, René Payant, ed., with the kind permission of Renée Baert and Andrée Duchaine.
from the catalogue FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA:
Artist-initiated activity in Canada, 1939-1987
Text: © Renée Baert. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.