The Canadian Art Database

Russell Keziere and Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker

In Conversation with Paul Wong

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979
[ 2,647 words ]

On December 2, 1978, Paul Wong, a 23-year-old video artist from Vancouver, performed a work entitled in ten sity in the Videospace of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Within the Videospace Wong had constructed an 8'-square cubicle, padded on the inside and accessible by a rope ladder. Attached to this cubicle were four banks of cameras to record the activity within the performance area, and five sets of monitors to relay this visual information to thee outside. On the night of th performance Wong climbed into the cubicle and, to the accompaniment of punk rock music ('Holiday in the Sun' and 'Anarchy in the UK' by the now defunct Sex Pistols; 'We are the One' and 'I Believe in You' by The Avengers; and 'Rock N Roll Nigger' and 'Priveledge (Set Me Free)' by the Patti Smith Band) threw himself about for 20 minutes.

During the last five minutes of the performance a small group, some of whom had worked with Wong on the installation, clambered into the cubicle and joined him in the performance. All of this information was later re-edited to create five separate channels played back over eight monitors installed on the outside of the cubicle.

Wong has produced over twenty-four videotapes, is a co-founder and director of Video Inn, and has exhibited throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Yugoslavia and Japan, in ten sity was his most elaborate and involved installation to date. On Tuesday, December 19, 1978 Russell Keziere met with Paul Wong to discuss this work; also present at the interview was Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, curator / collaborator of in ten sity.

Paul Wong Did you or did you not like the piece?

Russell Keziere I didn't like the piece. I did enjoy the documentation...

PW Which is part of the piece.

RK Fine, then we have to talk about what makes the piece what it is. If it is the photographs, which I found in some sense stimulating and often poignant, then it could have been staged entirely differently, and at much less expense. The edited tapes also had some value. But they were being screened on monitors that were installed around the box with the ladder left hanging on the inside but visible from the outside attesting to the momento notion that something had happened in this place. It seemed from the way you had structured the layers of meaning in the piece that the original event was of first importance. If this is incorrect, then the final installation did not need the box. Why not just have a bank of video monitors?

PW I saw the project in two parts. The first being the performance and the other being the construction or installation. Each part worked as a separate entity. The monitors had to face away from one another; I did not want a line of monitors in the final installation. Rather than see each of the five channels at one glance, I wanted to create the tension of opposing walls and different angles. The viewer should be able to watch from a corner, a straight-on angle, all angles, or move around. I didn't want people to see the whole thing.

RK That's a very good point and it was effective that way, however, why not have the monitors face away from one another without referencing so directly to the box, the place where it happened. That it, I must say, predominates the viewing space.

PW Certain things failed in the installation. It was intended to retain the original cameras; unfortunately the Gallery could not obtain the cameras for a month, so they had to be removed.

RK You would have liked the actual video cameras to remain installed? As it is now we can look into the box through the camera holes and see that no one is in there. If you wanted to leave the possibility that the monitors were revealing real-time open for consideration, why leave the holes open?

PW I thought of plugging the holes. A lot of people said that the holes were nice open and I didn't really give it a lot of thought.

RK Those holes are really important. I've watched people go in there and the first thing they do is check out the holes to see if anyone is inside. It sets up a dichotomy between real-time and video-time.

PW That is a concept which I have used in a lot of previous tapes: delayed-time, synctime, out-of-sync-time, real-time, edited-time. I wanted all of those elements to be happening. I didn't want to direct people; I wanted that dichotomy to exist and to permit a loose way of approaching the piece.

RK Your movements in the performance were unlike the acting out of a psychotic and obviously lacked the aggressive rage of manic behaviour. They were more dance movements than anything else. You moved with rhythm and calculation even in the undulating pelvic thrusts. While you wrote in the notes on the wall that 'all movements / actions are improvised and spontaneous, including the injection of foreign objects by the audience and additional people jumping into the 8' x 8' performance area,' my observation is that they were utterly predictable and even the entrance of uninvited participants could have been seen a mile away. You knew that it was building to that; I think the majority of people there sensed that the energy in the room was just logically going to end up with that type of climax. My point is that there was more predictability than spontaneity to the movements.

PW The movements themselves were dictated by the square, the cube, and by the size of the room. They were predetermined by energy level. The concept of the piece, moreover, came out of my interest in postmodern dance. It actually came about one night when I was really drunk and picked myself up and rolled down this huge flight of stairs, got up, ran across the street and threw myself against a brick wall. I have seen that movement in dance, and have enjoyed looking at it. I had originally intended for that piece to include machine gun fire, because I loved playing the part of someone up against the wall and gunned down by a machine gun. There was real dance quality to the piece, and it comes out of a dance interest. Also, I have been going to discotheques for six or seven years now.

RK You were pogoing in there.

PW I have a real sense of rhythm; I go dancing all the time, I see dance as a legitimate form of urban exercise.

RK I am not saying that the dance was not effective, but rather that it was stylized and in contradiction to what seemed to be the intentions of the piece.

PW I was much more loose the night we went through the run-through. It was the first time that I had heard the bridges in the music that Al Mattes [of The Music Gallery] put together. I was a hell of a lot more aggressive and a lot more out of control during the run-through. My original intention was to become very drugged and drunk and to rage right up to performance time with friends; something changed just prior to the performance and I isolated myself. I did not want to be surrounded by a lot of people, or to become totally drunk.

RK Why did you want a crowd in the first place?

PW Because they would make it more real. There is a different kind of energy when you know what you are doing is being relayed to a live audience. You've got your 20 minutes and you can't do it over again. That is why I didn't edit anything out of the tapes. I left them just the way they were. That's the element of performance you can't control. To me that was really exciting.

RK But there is always the possibility of slipping into exhibitionism. The video monitors in that box acted almost like a Jacuzzi for the ego. Honestly Paul, how much of that was operative in your desire to do the performance in an audience situation?

PW I wanted to do it in front of a large group but I don't really separate that from doing it in private or in a smaller group. That was why I wanted a certain separation between myself and the real audience; the audience should be able to see me, via the monitors, but I shouldn't be able to see the audience. I don't know if you noticed my psyche just prior to coming into that room; when we were ready I just ran right into that room and up into the box without acknowledging the audience.

RK Miles Davis does the same thing. Spurning the audience is a wonderfully effective and self-conscious way of attracting attention.

PW The performance was intended to be a self-conscious and self-indulgent act. That was one of the reasons for doing it live; I wanted to experience the audience effect, which in some ways was very predictable. But I was on my own in that room. I had to maintain a certain energy level. It wasn't easy to pick myself up off the floor and whack myself against those walls, it hurt, and it hurt like hell. But I just kept doing it, I would lay low, pogo, systematically go around the room and then I would pick myself up again and throw myself back into the walls. There were several factors though, the music, for example, was not nearly as loud as I had wanted it. The music was supposed to wipe out the audience sounds, but the room was so crowded that people stood in front of the speakers and their sheer bulk absorbed the sound. I heard the audience very clearly and I ended up responding to the audience by being more subdued than aggressive. When I watch the tapes now I understand what I was doing. I had expected it to be a lot more aggressive.

RK Did you feel that the audience wanted more aggression? I definitely felt an, ugly sense of spectatorship and sensationalism.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker I think you have to divide the audience into two groups. There was the support system that also constituted an audience, and the Gallery audience which did not know quite what to expect. The support audience who had expected more aggression, also demanded it.

PW They were demanding it.

RK Really demanding it. They were screaming and running around like bacchantes.

PW I heard my friend Jeanette screaming for me to bruise myself. She has seen me out on the town being a hell of a lot more aggressive and brutal. My whole support audience helped me build that piece over a ten-day, eighteen hours a day, period. But on the night of the performance there was a difference between my space and that of the support audience.

JBD Certainly, the support group made demands and attempted to change the nature of the performance, especially when they actually jumped into the cubicle.

PW I made provisions the day before the performance that someone would ensure that the music played on to the end and that my understudy would come into the space if I demolished myself, broke any bones or whatever, and couldn't perform anymore.

JBD But that was different from what actually happened.

PW Yes. In actual fact I did not demolish myself, I didn't hurt myself badly.

RK What I felt was that a sector of the audience was dissatisfied with the lack of aggression and was bent on doing something about it, and the only direct way to do that was to throw in a beer bottle, perhaps to provoke lacerations, and also to jump in.

PW That's exactly what happened. That didn't bother me so much; what really bothered me was when someone threw in a china cup because that's porcelain. But the final result was to make me much more subdued.

RK Was in ten sity in fact a eulogy for Ken Fletcher?

PW The piece was not a eulogy; it was dedicated to Ken Fletcher. It was conceived months prior to Ken Fletcher's demise. Just before his death we listened to all the music in this piece. We had talked about it and about how he was going to assist me in its complete production.

RK Had negotiations begun with the Vancouver Art Gallery before Ken Fletcher's death?

PW Yes. Well before.

RK What about the political elements in this work. The lyrics of the music are posted on the wall, heard through the speakers and they were very much a part of your performance. The lyrics seemed integral to the piece.

PW They were very integral.

RK If they were so integral and so overtly asocial and anarchistic, why do the piece at the Vancouver Art Gallery, a public institution?

PW I have always been very involved in social, political, community and cultural change, both in my life and in my art.

RK But the politics of the music and of the piece implies that present social conditions are impediments and barriers that must be dealt with anarchically. In fact, the real political concerns are less operative in your work than might at first be thought.

PW in ten sity involves a politics of the individual. The title comes from many sources. I lead a very intense life, with constant work and financial problems. I was in twenty aircrafts this past year and in ten cities. There is a certain momentum to this sort of life, you can manipulate it and you choose to be a part of it, but at the same time, should you choose it, you get completely swept away by it. That was the political edge: to be in a personally insecure and pensive state. I felt the punk music was effective. You may not like the sound of it, or not stand its rhythm or noise, but — listen to it — that's all I was trying to say in the piece. I was not throwing myself around those walls for nothing.

RK But that music is incredibly popular. Do you know what the record sales of Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols are? They're phenomenal. People listen to that music while they sip double martinis. This music doesn't really have that associative impact. I felt that it was old and tired.

PW It was old and tired. The whole thing was a period piece, I recreated a specific time which is still a part of me. It was distant enough that I could take it and put it in there. I was aware that I would be criticized, that it was too soon to be trendy and old enough to be cliché.

RK Right. People have been putting themselves in boxes, having rages, committing acts of self-abuse and documenting it for years. Why do it now?

PW For the documentation aspect of it. I wasn't out to do something original. I wasn't out to do something that hadn't been done before — I don't believe in that whole process. The original motivation was to respond to my present state of being, with all its complexities, regardless of art historical precendents.

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #1, February 1979.

Text: © Russell Keziere and Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.