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Lesson Plan 3: Machine Language

Educators are encouraged to use the Video Art in Canada lesson plans to facilitate students’ critical engagement with the issues raised by the video works and texts featured on this site. Key term definitions and discussion questions are provided to facilitate student responses to the suggested written or visual assignments. We welcome educators to use the Video Art in Canada forum to share experiences of using the lesson plans or send feedback to Video Art in Canada directly.

This lesson plan is a companion to the exhibition theme text Machine Language.


Machine Language explores the ways in which technology, science, industry, and politics, all have an effect on personal and cultural experience.

Video works in this section reflect the relationship between the consumer and mass media. They respond to the central role that machines play in our lives today, emphasizing the computer-driven “information environment” that constructs and schedules our time. The expectations and desires generated by the mass media can have political reverberations and have become central concerns for some artists. Technology and the mass media may give us access to information and to our past, but their emphasis on isolation and feverish acquisition can lead to a debilitating alienation from history.

Artists’ works featured in this lesson plan:

Sara Diamond, Fit To Be Tied
Diamond traces cultural history through her study of the effects of the Great Depression in Canada. While relying on personal stories, the message is deeply political.

Vera Frenkel, This Is Your Messiah Speaking
Frenkel poetically links messiahnism–a desire for salvation–with consumerism as a public drug.

General Idea, Shut the Fuck Up
General Idea use irony to play on the styles and formats of broadcast television in the unlikely context of an “artist’s video.” In Shut the Fuck Up, they speak directly to the camera, condemning advertisers and their glib media marketing.

Tom Sherman, Envisioner
Sherman has written extensively of “machine love” in his identification with camera and monitor, his consciousness of virtual connection with the world. Envisioner, Sherman’s words are emphasized by teletext and punctuated by glimpses of his piercing gaze.

Steele + Tomczak, Working the Double Shift
Steele + Tomczak question the effects of mass media on how we conduct our lives, contrasting the “happy” ads with everyday realities in the home.

Key Term Definitions:

Consumerism suggests that the buying public take advertisers’ advice to heart: Buy more. Your “needs” will seem to grow as your collection of goods accumulates.

Information is knowledge acquired or derived: facts and data. In communication theory, information is that property of a signal or message whereby it conveys something unpredictable but meaningful to the recipient, usually measured in bits.

Mass media include the various means of disseminating information to a very wide public audience, via newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and all their more recent extensions via electronic media and the World Wide Web.

Politics is the term employed to encompass the science or art of the government and management of public or state affairs. The activities of those engaged in controlling or seeking to control a government or its offices and departments are also called politics, as are the acts or practices of those who seek a position of power, authority, or advantage. Political sentiments or opinions are also “politics.”

Discussion questions:

How are the personal and the political related in the works of these artists?

How have limitations in production or recording tools affected artists’ approaches to constructing their works? What changes would you anticipate or predict in the works, with access to more elaborate technology and larger budgets?


Using household objects and found text (such as, from newspapers, television, or downloaded from the Net) construct a work three minutes or less, that addresses the media environment or a current political issue.

Construct a news item through scripts or storyboards. Indicate how the piece might be accomplished without the use of a camera (perhaps via cell phone, photographs or appropriated Web imagery).

Key texts:

Diamond, Sara, “Daring Documents: The Practical Aesthetics of Early Vancouver Video.” Ed. Stan Douglas. Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1991: 101–120

Druckrey, Timothy, “Revisioning Technology.” Ed. Timothy Druckrey. Iterations: The New Image. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993: 17–38

Sherman, Tom. Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment. Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2002.

Sherman, Tom. “Three Texts on Video.” Canadian Art, Spring 2005, Vol. 22, No.1: 56-62.

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