Written by the Body

written video still

Before video appeared as a consumer product in the late 1960s, there were "home movies" made with 16 mm film or later, with 8 mm or Super 8 mm film. These were more fun than using a snapshot camera because people could be captured in movement, sound could be added, little stories could be put together. But like photographs, film must be developed before it can be viewed; the raw stock must be sent to a lab or, at least, taken into a darkroom. Time would pass. It was easy to forget what was most interesting about that day you took the picture or made the film.

Video opened up something very new: it could be viewed on a monitor at the same time the camera was recording. There was no need to wait. In fact, there was no need to make a recording; just watching someone or something taking place "in real time" on a monitor-a TV set-might be best of all. And if you did make a recording and didn't like the result, you could just record over it, reusing the tape.

In the earliest days of artists' video, that's what many people did. Video recordings were little snippets-or long ones-like a diary or visual notes and were often recorded over and over, without much thought to what was being lost. In those days it was supposed that videotape wouldn't last anyway. Ten years max before it would physically degrade. One of those raw tapes cost about ten dollars.

Things haven't continued in the way they began. Video has lasted, and people often do want to keep their works as part of an ongoing history of life and production. But that early sensibility permitted-even encouraged-an attitude to the camera-monitor link that brought forward a remarkable intimacy with time itself, as well as with identity, self-reflection, revelation, and confession. The production was so simple in the early days, everything could be done alone, at home, and, if desired, with no one else seeing it at all. Video encouraged private acts. It was a mirror that could be delayed, repeated, reviewed, re-enacted. What would you do given this capacity?

There were many responses to this question, and many innovations and extrapolations, over the years. An exploration of sexuality was an obvious starting point for this private medium, and its complex iterations involving gender, identity, family relations, personal and cultural memories. The body is a place of intimacy and of knowledge but also a zone of ambiguity. The family can be a place of comfort but also a place of friction and difficult interaction.

Among other things, video's history includes an investigation of personal identity, from questions of gender to those of cultural heritage, presented through images of and ideas about the body. Included in this exhibition is Richard Fung, originally from Trinidad, who explores a history of family illness as a way of reflecting on personal identity. Paul Wong, born in British Columbia, examines intersecting social contexts and Chinese communities and in later work seeks out his family's roots in China itself. His feature-length Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shades (1988) is a poignant record musing on deep cultural values as seen through the dispersed family. More recently his quest has broadened to include issues of racism juxtaposed with an individual affirmation of self, as in So Are You (1995) and the series of brief TV spots, Refugee Class of 2000 (2000).

Nelson Henricks has broached identity in many of his works. A native of Alberta, he has lived in Montreal since 1991 negotiating the positions of a linguistic minority-an anglophone in primarily French-speaking Quebec. Legend (1988) was an early questioning of identity on levels both personal and regional/national. In Emission (1994), Henricks deals with sex and romance, which he describes as a "regression of the individual to his most primitive instincts, especially when faced with difficulties of language and communication with others." (Vidéographe online catalogue).

Robert Morin has dealt with linguistic identity as well but differently. In Yes Sir, Madame (1994), he plays the part of Earl Tremblay, the son of a francophone father and anglophone mother, in the throes of an identity crisis. The character/artist examines his past, present and future through the camera lens, unwittingly revealing a disastrous double personality. This work, many years in the making, reveals some of Morin's own sense of cultural challenge. Also in Montreal, Luc Bourdon commemorates a private moment in Touei (1985), the gentle images evoking an unspoken internal (private) knowledge. Serge Murphy and Charles Guilbert portray community and shared sensibilities in their assembly of vignettes, presented as if they were an extended sequence of self-portraits and reflections.

"Who am I?"-the question of identity-has many answers. The question can be posed about physical and sexual identity, as in the early work of Colin Campbell. In Janus (1973), Campbell's silent camera records him confronting a life-size photographic self-portrait in profile, as he moves through the extended single shot to caress the image, finally kissing it full on the mouth. Identity here is visual as well as physical and, a formal study in volumetric black and white. A decade later, Richard Fung examines the ambiguous relationship between gay Asian men and white gay porn in Chinese Characters (1986), playing with staged interviews and humorous re-enactments of classic film scenes. Shot in full colour, the effect for the viewer is entirely different than in Campbell's piece, yet the issues at hand are no less complex or contentious.

Other works have posed broader questions about personal health and comfort, in terms that impact on both body and self-image. In The Blood Records, written and annotated (1996), Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak use layering and digital effects to evoke the visions and interior monologue of Marie, a young girl confined to a tuberculosis sanatorium in rural Saskatchewan in the summer of 1944. We witness medical realities and confusions of the day, as well as Marie's dreams within the desperate situation of her endangered life. Since members of the immediate family of both Steele and Tomczak had suffered from tuberculosis some years before, the research into and construction of The Blood Records undoubtedly had a heightened personal significance for the artists (and therefore for the viewer).

Intimate realities and private anguish inform many of the titles mentioned here, but the resulting video works offer a brilliant spectrum of possibilities and results. Identity is both permanent and in flux, knowable and mysterious, adamant and in doubt. Surely it is something that concerns us all, and video since its earliest days has shown its curiosity, its humour, its invention. Video, after all, excels in the entrapment and evocation of memory. Identity and memory, written in, and by, the body.

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