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About Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak
Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak have been active in the media arts since the 1970s, profoundly influencing video and related media in Canada since beginning their collaboration as artists, administrators, teachers, writers, curators, and originators of events and projects in 1983.
Rather than simple forward progression, lateral shifts mark their work: knight's moves that revise and renew the central themes. The earliest pieces are confrontational and demonstrative, engaged immediately with social politics. With Legal Memory (1992), the productions darken, become deeper and more poetic, probing family histories and repressed memories while maintaining an underlying call to action. The use of text and narrative, the layered transitions, and flow of time through consciousness and the body, are seductive. Despite their topicality, the works transcend the moment; the specific addresses a larger reality with visual elegance and technical sophistication. Steele + Tomczak, as they are known, are inventing a new visual language in their video projects: time itself embodied.
Before coming together in 1983, Steele and Tomczak had each established artistic identities. Lisa Steele worked with photography and was involved with artist-run centre A Space in Toronto when she made Juggling in 1972, her first video. Her Birthday Suit-with scars and defects (1974) has entered the master canon as both body art and statement of identity. A litany of visible injury, it remains fresh and revelatory after more than thirty years. A Very Personal Story, also 1974, records Steele's poignant teenage experience of finding her mother dead at home a decade before. These luminous black-and-white recordings seem simple, yet their visual elegance and use of understated narrative established issues of self and the body as central to the medium at that time. Later, The Gloria Tapes of 1980 moved outwards to a social milieu, introducing Steele as Mrs. Pauly, a rattled welfare mother caught in the snarls of a "helping" bureaucracy. Steele has a striking presence on camera.
Kim Tomczak, photographer and part of the artist-run centre Pumps (1975-1980) in Vancouver, came to Toronto in 1982, where he became co-founder of Vtape with Steele, now Canada's premier distributor of independently produced video. He remains executive director. He is also an expert in restoring and conserving early tape formats for artists and museums, including the National Gallery of Canada. Through Vtape he has overseen projects that were part of festivals and exhibitions in Japan, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere and, with Steele, originated the ongoing international media biennale Tranz<>Tech in Toronto, among many other projects.
The first collaboration of Steele + Tomczak was In the Dark (1983), a performance questioning the conventional morality of sex as private and hidden away: censored, in effect. With Working the Double Shift (1984), the politics of the household-the daily routine-are brought into view, intercut with wry humour.
In Legal Memory (1992), a story unfolds around homosexuality and homophobia in genteel Victoria, with historical data indicting the Canadian government and Canadian Armed Forces for a decision that led to British Columbia's last death by hanging in 1959. The Blood Records, written and annotated (1997), excerpted on this Website, is an eloquent study of tuberculosis treatment at Fort San in Saskatchewan during the mid-1940s. The Blood Records toured Canada from 1999 to 2003 accompanied with a two-volume artist's book.
Their recent work is understated and direct. We're Getting Younger All the Time (2000) is a twenty-minute double portrait of Steele and Tomczak, bare-shouldered, gazing levelly at the camera, its jittery image quality a result of greatly speeded recording (from intervals totaling four hours, reduced by editing then played in reverse). Minute changes-eyes blinking, muscles twitching-become fascinating. In Make Love, Not War (2003), so succinct, we see the classic phrase of the title as crawling script over close-ups of glorious tulips or feeding ants. New longer projects are in development.
Lisa Steele was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1947 and studied at the University of Missouri before coming to Toronto in 1971. Kim Tomczak, born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1952 and graduated from the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design). Steele and Tomczak both currently teach in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto.
They have exhibited extensively in Canada and abroad including at Documenta 8 (Kassel, Germany, 1987), and Heart of Europe, Infermental 9 (Vienna, Austria, 1989). In addition, Steele's solo works represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and were included in OKanada (Berlin, 1982) while Tomczak's works were presented at Biennale des jeunes and at the Canadian Cultural Centre (Paris, 1980).
In 1989, curator Philip Monk mounted Four Hours and Thirty-Eight Minutes at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), a retrospective of Steele + Tomczak's video work. The retrospective toured nationally in 1990/1991. In 1993, Steele and Tomczak were awarded the Bell Canada Award for Video Art, as well as the Peter Herrndorf Media Arts Award, a Toronto Arts Award. They have been recipients of numerous production grants from the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and other funders, and Before I Wake..., a major exhibition of their video and photographic work with accompanying catalogue, was mounted at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris in 2003. In 2005, Steele + Tomczak received the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.