The Stories Within Us

stories video still

Emblematic video works by Canadian artists explore narrative and storytelling in their many guises. Examples immediately spring to mind, such as Inuit artist Zacharias Kunuk and his collaborator Norman Cohn, who recount stories from largely native communities in Canada's High Arctic, and Montreal artists Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour, whose stories blur the difference between fiction and documentary in order to bring both into question. Toronto became an early centre for narrative video as eloquent visual portrait; works from this time include Hindsight (1975) by Colin Campbell and A Very Personal Story (1974) and Facing South (1975) by Lisa Steele. Just as landscape is central to a Canadian identity in painting or literature, the spoken-word narrative permeated early Canadian video.

One may see narrative as the art of storytelling, with language as the defining aspect of the human condition: recounting, recollection, personal revelation, history, fantasy, biography. It is a means of communication with others, and of communion with oneself. Alternatively, one may consider the more impersonal aspects of narrative construction, such as formal and structural devices, equally compelling. Both levels of meaning are important.

In the earliest days of artists' video, the limits of the equipment meant that editing was virtually impossible. Usually, the artist was both camera operator and viewed subject-a solo operation-and the recording was done most often alone at home or in the studio. Telling secrets was irresistible in this private context, all the more so in the prevailing climate of public confrontation in performance art, a pervasive anti-museum sensibility, and desire for revision of art-world standards, particularly among younger artists. The individual's voice carried the message.

At the same time, this unedited real-time approach so suitable to early video's capabilities foregrounded the medium's natural linear quality. Before the days of digital recording, a single point-of-light in constant movement traced out the image raster onscreen from an undifferentiated grey ribbon of magnetic tape. As such, the visual result was one-thing-after-another, mirroring the beginning, middle and end of narrative. (Not all narratives, of course, would follow the classic form: there might well be a narrative that was all middle, a glimpse or extended fragment.)

Video recalls television with its sending-out of information, its presentation of stories and the news, its seeming direct communication. The spoken word, the sharing of secrets, the telling of stories, the shaping and presentation of information, have characterized video in Canada since it began in the early 1970s.

In 1970s Quebec, the discourse in video art was political, a quest into national character and such social concerns as workplace health hazards, the changing role of the Catholic Church, or feminist concerns and demands. In Ontario the stories were informed primarily by emotional content and personal memory, while west-coast video works combined an interest in performance with documentary recordings and forms of community activism, especially those produced at The Western Front artist run centre. Those were the early days. Now that video may also appear as multi-channel or sculptural installation works, or as hybrids with film and computer-driven elements-now that the medium is older, more varied, and has a substantial history-narrative too has diversified its forms.

Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, and the other partners of Igloolik Isuma Productions, became highly visible with the tremendous acclaim accorded their feature-length Atanarjuat-The Fast Runner (2001), which was shot (as are all their productions) in the Inuktitut language with actors from the local Igloolik community. Previously, Isuma had made thirteen half-hour programs called Nunavut (Our Land) in 1994/1995, using the programs as a means of preserving traditional Inuit skills and stories by re-enacting them for the camera. What appear to be documentaries of everyday life are in fact fictions built from the memories and stories of elders in the community. As Kunuk points out, "You can just talk about the old days, but you can also show the old days. Actually seeing it, you get more pleasure out of it." (Phillips, Nunatsiaq News)

Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour use a similar blend of fiction and documentary in their work. One of their most striking productions, La Réception (1979), recreates the Ten Little Indians whodunit by mystery writer Agatha Christie-with a difference. In this case the performers in "real life" are ex-convicts: a circumstance leading to several tense, even dangerous, moments, some of which we see onscreen.

Serge Murphy and Charles Guilbert make dialogue central to their productions. Throughout both Sois sage, O ma Douleur (Be Good, O My Sorrow), 1990, and Au verso du monde (Outside Looking In), 1994, for example, their characters probe ideas and stories from daily life, and the ways they intersect with artistic practice. Luc Bourdon, another Montreal-based artist, uses narrative in its more visual aspects. In Touei (1985), a quiet drama is suggested through a sequence of linked images, leaving words out altogether. In The Story of Feniks and Abdullah (1988) [link to: Dufour/Morin clips page], we follow a lover's attempts to make contact through a series of one-sided telephone messages and onscreen texts.

When actors are "playing themselves," it may be difficult to separate truth from fiction. Truth, in any case, is often dubious or open to question. Colin Campbell, for example, in True/False (1972), faces the camera to make fifteen unequivocal statements. After each he says, "True." Then he adds, "False." Are they all true? Or all false? Most likely, the statements are both true and false, a confession taking several points of view. In a related manner, Vera Frenkel plays the lead role in The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden (1979/1980), where Lumsden is described as an expatriate Canadian novelist, an "exemplary exile" in Paris between the World Wars, who disappeared mysteriously after publishing The Alleged Grace of Fat People. So clever is Frenkel's characterization, so detailed her clues, that one becomes convinced that Lumsden was a real person and The Secret Life a faithful recreation of fact.

Quite different is Cornucopia (1982) by General Idea, a "television special" on recent archeological findings. Ancient ruins and artifacts from "the room of the unknown function" are discussed in a mellow voice-over commentary, as we see drawings of poodles leaving leopard-spot footprints and a partially destroyed wall frieze made of copyright signs. This is another form of narrative: a story presented within the "found format" of a TV program, playing the part of another kind of narrative. Two for the price of one.

More recently, Jan Peacock in Halifax created the eloquent memorial Wallace & Teresa (1985) and Reader By The Window [link to: Jan Peacock clips page] (1993), their lush prose playing against landscape flourishes and voice-over texts. These too are narratives, thoughtful and evocative.

In many of these works, playful ingenuity is at work, wit combined with mischief. The desire to engage an audience is also there and to connect on more intimate levels. Video may be poetic or personal, didactic or expository, a musing on ideas or sketching of experience. As Tom Sherman wrote in the essay "Explicit Text" (Sherman 336), "We were once expected to approach texts for information. We would forage until we found something of interest, become still and read. Then television and video captured our stationary, contemplative time, and pushed us back into ourselves. As our bodies were transfixed into our reading postures, television and video and alphanumeric text was poured into us. First we were moving to and through the information. Then the information was moving through us."

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