By Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak
Scattered across four provinces, a constellation of artists emanate an intimate glow using antiquated equipment and nimble hands. Some exemplary flashes: The electro-tart Peaches, costumed by shards of colored light, instantly transforms from a “virgin” with rosy blush dots to a “man” with sweeping unibrow and moustache, through quick flicks of a marker and the flip of an overhead transparency. Looped 16mm footage of the British monarch is seized by hand and jammed in a projector gate, its blistering and burning magnified for all to see. Candy-colored illustrations of pimply youth engage in lonely and sordid sexual encounters, abetted by manual animation, optical illusions, and a live monologue about the pursuit of love and artistic success. An erratic history of human management, recalled through salvaged medical and business training films from the 1950s, shudders through twin analytic projectors, superimposed, hand-masked and filtered by gels.
The above clips illustrate recent performances by Toronto-based Shary Boyle, Montrealer Karl Lemieux, Winnipeg’s Daniel Barrow (now living in Montreal), and Vancouver’s Alex MacKenzie, respectively. These artists, working at the forefront of contemporary cinematic performance across Canada, represent two tendencies of a multivalent, transnational, projector-based screen practice. Both Boyle and Barrow orchestrate overhead projectors, hand-drawn and live animation, and their own shadows to realize fantastical vignettes and comic book narratives. Alternatively, Lemieux and MacKenzie manipulate hand-processed, self-shot, and found footage film in their formalist projector performances that entertain the potential for technical failure. Conspicuous, hand-modified, and old school analogue instruments trump the illusion of seamless, unseen technology in the performance work of these four artists, who range in age from late-20s to early-40s. Curiously, they are producing a Canadian pre-cinema that never existed; itinerant projectionists illuminating rooms throughout North America and beyond with their repertoire of updated magic lanterns and optical toys.
Despite a rich and varied tradition, the history of Canadian live cinema has gone largely undocumented. Early pioneers include the interdisciplinary artist Joyce Wieland, who designed a mixed media event in 1967 for Cinethon, a 45-hour festival of underground film in Toronto. Bill’s Hat, commissioned by the host venue Cinecity, “stretched one’s perceptions to just below the pain threshold” with its “writhing welter of sound,” stroboscopic lights, four slide shows, and a 50 minute movie.1 That same year, the government-sponsored, multi screen Labyrinth (Roman Kroitor, Hugh O’Connor, and Colin Low) was presented at Expo 67 in a custom-built, five-story pavilion. Wieland’s rowdy sound and light collage and the epic-scaled innovations that were developed for Montreal’s hugely successful World’s Fair thus initiated a homegrown expanded cinema in the late 1960s.
Favoring a more personal scale, John Porter has playfully performed with hand-held Super 8 projectors since the early 1970s. Porter describes his live pieces as “surround Super 8,” which he projects in galleries, cinemas, film cooperatives, and onto “passing people and vehicles while ‘film-busking’ at night.”2 One example is the Wild West themed “camera dance,” Shootout with Rebecca (1981). A play on words and a brilliant marriage of content and form, Porter enacts a carefully timed duel with a pre-filmed gunslinger, matching projected pistol against present projector. During the 1980s, Pierre Hébert created live animation with 16mm projection, a unique film engraving process, improvised music, and, occasionally, dance. Hébert would scratch directly on developed black leader seconds before it was drawn into the projector. Almost immediately, the viewer would bear witness to his ideographic interventions on the celluloid loop.3 A long time National Film Board of Canada animator, Hébert has recently gained international recognition for Between Science and Garbage (2001-), a series of collaborative performances with the American composer Bob Ostertag.
Since the 1960s, Canadian artists have incorporated live performance as one aspect of a wider interdisciplinary practice. For many, performance also provides a reason, or an opportunity, to team up with interesting, experimental, and often more well-known musicians. From Wieland’s multimedia happenings, to Hébert and Ostertag’s “living cinema,” to Shary Boyle’s visual-aural concerts with Peaches, Christine Fellows, and Doug Paisley (recently as an opening act for the U.S. balladeer Will Oldham), to Karl Lemieux’s ensemble projects with Jerusalem in My Heart and Just’Au Crane, Canadians have been sharing and crossbreeding film, art and music audiences for several decades.
Daniel Barrow’s uplifting stories and moral tales of abjection, romance, and loneliness are underpinned by a penchant for the tragicomical. His narcissistic and immensely empathetic loser-heroes are charmingly portrayed with insightful acuity on lined yellow paper. Since 1993, Barrow has used an overhead projector to layer, manipulate, and transmit drawings on mylar transparencies, a technique he variously describes as live illustration, manual animation, and graphic performance. And, as a performer, Barrow is a magisterial storyteller. By means of eloquent writing, comic timing, distinctive imagery, composed music, and a dulcet voice, he transports his audience to a spellbinding world contained in the screen.
Among Barrow’s projects, The Face of Everything (2002) is a carefully controlled, melancholic flight of fancy. Throughout its 45-minute duration, transparencies of hand-drawn and colored vignettes traipse atop an overhead projector, lavishly recounting the real and imagined life experiences of Liberace’s most notorious boyfriend. A soundtrack created by Matthew Adam Hart of the Russian Futurists, provides counterpoint and clock to Barrow’s gruesome yet sweet images of plastic surgery and Vegas glitter.A Miracle (2003), a single channel music video for The Hidden Cameras, narrates a tender and confusing encounter between a boy and the feathered creature he’s conjured by projecting shadow puppets on his bedroom wall. Furtive misadventures in Winnipeg’s gay cruising park unravel in Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors (2000). Catalog of the Original (2005), inspired by popular TV biography programs, exists as both a deck of trading cards and a slide show with live monologue. Profiles of the 1960s “big-eyed” painter Margaret Keane, doll of destitution Little Miss No-Name, a chiffon clad and Vogue magazine totting WWII soldier, and other neglected personalities and B-list celebrities enumerate an alternative pantheon of creative genius.
Winnipeg Babysitter (2007), curated, written, and presented by Barrow, offers a selective, idiosyncratic history of his city’s golden age of public access television. The annotated cable clip show revisits (and archives) outrageous work made in the late 1970s and 80s by teenagers, senior citizens, radical queers, then-unknown artists such as the Royal Art Lodge, Greg Klymkiw, and Guy Maddin, and other town weirdoes that subsequently became urban legends when Winnipeg’s public access paradigm was axed in the 1990s. These eccentric emissions from cable purgatory are augmented by a running commentary in the form of projected overhead notations. As Barrow describes it, “This program provides a critical framework for work that has been often misunderstood by the general public and overlooked by the art world.Winnipeg Babysitter addresses histories of open airwaves, grass-roots and D.I.Y. culture, 1980s queer politics, and the Winnipeg ‘prairie gothic’ sensibility.”4
Barrow’s newest installation is written to be performed karaoke-style by individual gallery viewers. By following instructions on a hanging monitor, the visitor performs simple gestures on the overhead projector and gives voice to an elderly woman's interior monologue as she creates a doll out of a bag of onions. The overhead projection screen is registered within the black hole of a larger video projection. This audience-participatory installation exhibited with work by Anthony Goicolea and many others at the Art Gallery of Alberta in early 2008.
Boyle likewise uses overhead projectors to illuminate her live drawings. But diverging from Barrow’s hermetic world of suspended disbelief (that exists in the square of light at the front of the room), Boyle’s Vaudevillian performances continuously underscore the performer’s role in the creation of a momentary artifice made for the audience’s enjoyment. At times Boyle is conspicuously clad in fairy tale costumes, which have included ribbon horns, mirrored suits, and painted faces. Her hand gestures loom large, casting shadows over the screen and revealing the mechanisms of her process. In concert with her ink drawings, Boyle employs special effects and techniques like sand animation, shadow puppetry, and puzzle making. Watercolors swirl and blend, and the projector is rapidly switched on and off to approximate lightning.
The online review Artfag notes that in Boyle’s work, “inner worlds of make-believe and surreptitious mythology” clash with the “cruel pragmatics of society.”5 Her durational drawings of mystical worlds populated by woodland creatures, bony witches, harried humans, and ragtag armies generate focal points and ornate frames for her collaborators: A swooping swan haloes Feist, Doug Paisley burns as the flame of a kerosene lamp, and Christine Fellows serves as the mast for a tall ship, while Peaches’ costume changes are as quick as Boyle’s paint brush. The symbiotic relationship between Boyle and her musical conspirators counterbalances the usually dominant music and lyrics with equally evocative imagery.
Boyle has been performing live projections with soundtracks, narration, and musicians since 1999. Kramer’s Ergot Night (2006), presented in conjunction with an exhibition on American comics, featured a collection of Boyle’s self-sufficient, hand-animated set pieces with pre-recorded music. Several of the phantasmagoric scenes diverged from the projector-to-screen axis, splintering the beam of light that traditionally goes untouched: Mirrors toss birds around the room, prisms refract rainbows kaleidoscopically, and inexplicable images cavort with a dancing Boyle.
Her most recent performance is Dark Hand and Lamplight (2007). “In the true spirit of improvisation, Dark Hand [Boyle] creates artwork that Lamplight [Paisley] then uses as the basis for his own musical improvisations,” the promotional text reads. “Choreographed to the lyrics and music, Dark Hand projects her artwork onto a screen, the wall, Lamplight, and other available surfaces... Boyle’s work is raw with human vulnerability and dysfunction.”6 The Toronto-based Boyle was recently invited to perform for a second time at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, in conjunction with a 2008 Kara Walker exhibition.
As the founding director of the famed (but now defunct) Edison Electric Gallery of Moving Images and Blinding Light!! Cinema in Vancouver, Alex MacKenzie has been a key figure in the presentation of experimental media for over a decade. Since taking a break from the microcinema cause, MacKenzie has shifted focus to his own variable duration performance s that delineate film’s idiosyncratic aesthetics, apparatuses, and early history. The defining attributes of his medium-specific, meta-cinematic projects consist of a vast assortment of image manipulation techniques, such as solarizing, tinting, bi-packing, re-photography and hand-processing; alterations of frame rate and image clarity; and hand-crafted emulsions and moving picture devices.
MacKenzie's Parallax (2004) is a stereoscopic projection of found black and white film re-purposed and manipulated through multi-generational contact printing. Combining technical dexterity and improvised image interference with turntable precision and timing, MacKenzie coaxes two analytic projectors through a gamut of optical whimsy, including variable speeds, superimposition, colored gels, hand-masking, flicker, and single framing. Foregrounding the projectionist (played by himself) as a visible actor (eschewing the enclosed, sound-proof booth), the film-event has a uniquely performative gesture, sustaining antique machines on the edge of failure. The outcome: A highwire trek through the cinematic unconscious and an elegy to 16mm's passing future, set against an ominous electronic score. Amid the increasingly commodified and rhythmically challenged digital age of projected images, MacKenzie exhibits genuine commitment to film's arcane architecture , material fragility, and musical cadence. Parallax is cinema to be played (with); it requires a different kind of engagement, one in which the viewer becomes actively aware of celluloid's fleeting magic.
MacKenzie’s more recent projects reveal his interest in proto-cinematic and early film technologies such as the thaumotrope, magic lantern, cinematograph, camera obscura and other relics from past centuries. Both Goldenleaf (2006) and Loom (2006) are performed with regular 8mm analytic projectors, presenting unsplit film in its 16mm screen width and ratio reminiscent of 35mm Cinemascope. Goldenleaf juxtaposes two frames of tinted, yellowish branches and foliage partially effaced by their chemical treatment. The greater ambiguity between the stereo images in Loom adds a layer of narrative intrig ue that is largely absent in Goldenleaf. For the installation/performanceThe Wooden Lightbox (2007), subtitled “A Secret Art of Seeing,” MacKenzie created his own 16mm film emulsion and hand-cranked projector. The scratched, high contrast imagery and strobe-like editing creates after-image effects (persistence of vision), organized in chapters titled with witty aphorisms, many of which refer to cinema’s mystique. A minimum of photo-realist imagery gives way to the specialized codes that go unseen to the common moviegoer: focus guides, lab markings, timing sheets, punch holes, and so on.
Deeply influenced by Pierre Hébert’s interdisciplinary film practice and mirroring his artistic trajectory, Karl Lemieux worked in experimental animation before embracing the more performative possibilities of expanded cinema. Foreshadowing his projector performances with live musicians, Lemieux’s greyscale Mouvement de Lumière (Motion of Light) (2004) features a driving electronic soundtrack by Olivier Borzeix. The 8-minute hand-painted 16mm film recalls the all-over movement of certain Abstract Expressionists and Automatistes, evoking both misty, swirling landscapes and celebratory sparklers. At points, the soundtrack seems to direct the film’s natural visual rhythms (in a similar manner to Oskar Fischinger’s optical poetry, which was often synchronized to classical music), but Lemieux’s gestures are too swift and assured to be overwhelmed by supplementary audio.
In 2006, Lemieux began an ongoing series of performances with the musician Radwan Moumneh that brought Lemieux’s cameraless filmmaking techniques into the live arena. Orchestrating an assortment of hand-processed 16mm film loops through a suite of aged Eikis, Lemieux bleaches and paints filmstrips seconds before they hit the gate. Visually manifesting the intensity of Moumneh’s dense, chamber-style guitar, the violently handled and ruined film loops come close to the point of cathartic self-destruction. When opening for the UK film artist Guy Sherwin, the potent Lemieux-Moumneh duet ended with the bang of burning film. In their second performance together, sharing a bill with the legendary London, Ontario noise troupe Nihilist Spasm Band, Lemieux’s Arabic themed performance set to the drones of Moumneh’s Jerusalem in My Heart, incorporated found footage scenes from the Middle East, hand-written script, and text from the Koran physically transferred from the printed page to celluloid via adhesive tape.
Lemieux has also collaborated with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion, Shalabi Effect, Arcade Fire, and Set Fire to Flames, the spoken word artist and poet Alexis O’Hara, and the artist-musicians Alexandre St. Onge and Jonathan Parant. In preparation for one event, St. Onge, Parant and Lemieux shared a retreat in the Quebec countryside. Lemieux documented St. Onge and Parant’s bodily performances and the surrounding landscape in Super 8, which was later blown up to 16mm. During the performance, Lemieux’s projected film loops overlap and slowly disintegrate, creating a fusion of the artists and their photographed natural setting. Fields and woods, screened in negative and high contrast, appear as floating amoebic shapes, accompanied by transcendental soaring tones and distorted voices that St. Onge and Parant (a.k.a. Just’Au Crane) produce spontaneously. Moving closer towards a reciprocal relationship between sound and image, Lemieux recently developed a new integrated cinema event with five musicians he selected for a European tour.
Elsewhere Above the 49th Parallel
This round up of media-based performers is not intended as a comprehensive survey of the national scene, but we would like to point out a selection of other artists working in the vanguard of Canadian live cinema. Hamilton, Ontario professor Liss Platt revisits her childhood by riding a bicycle that powers a 16mm projector (designed by Petra Chevrier and Cinecycle founder Martin Heath) in the laborious performance, You Can’t Get There From Here (2005). The Montreal-based plurimedia laptop duo Skoltz-Kolgen (Dominique Skoltz and Herman Kolgen) utilize a MAX/MSP interface to trade sound and image motifs in their geo-architectural diptych, FLÜUX:/TERMINAL(2006). In Video Paint 3.0, Toronto’s Jeremy Bailey demonstrates his eponymous computer-based video application, which translates body movements into digital brushstrokes. Bailey was also designing an instrument for the videomaker and electronic composer Tasman Richardson’s live video mixes at the time of this writing. Pulse (2007), an audio-video performance by the intercontinental dyad of Quebec’s Alain Thibault and the American Matthew Biederman, constructs an improvisational structure for layering and manipulating electronic frequencies. Like many of the aforementioned projects, “The objective sought in Pulse will not be to present a composed work, with a pre-established scenario, via a traditional arc, but to produce a series of psychological states through which the witness will be able to build his own narrative.”7
In addition to the work of the above individuals and pairs, artist collaboratives such as The League, Loop Collective, and Double Negative have intermittently presented live work throughout the 2000s. The League, comprised of Christina Battle, Sara MacLean, Juliana Saragosa, and Michèle Stanley, was active within Toronto’s experimental film scene from 2000-2003, until Saragosa moved to Vancouver and Stanley went to Ottawa. By rejecting formal screening rooms, they strove to broaden their audience by presenting films in non-conventional venues and in open and supportive environments. Their fun and energetic multi-projection film loop performances and “living installations” included collaborations with sister collectives Pretty, Porky and Pissed-Off, The Iris Group, and Freeshow Seymour, and the artist-supportive Niagara Custom Lab.
Loop Collective, a group of Toronto-based “independent media artists that strives to develop a public platform integrating experimental film and video with other art forms,” has organized a number of expanded cinema exhibitions and events since 2002. Its key members include, or has included,Vicky Chainey Gagnon, Colin Clark, Kelly Egan, Angela Joosse, Erika Loic, Shana McDonald and Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof. Many of these hybrid filmmaker-academics studied avant-garde cinema and are currently pursuing graduate and post-graduate degrees in the joint Culture and Communications program at Ryerson and York Universities.
Founded in 2004, Double Negative is a Montreal collective with a belief in cinema’s transformative potential. Active members include Christopher Becks, Amber Goodwyn, Karl Lemieux, Lindsay McIntyre, Eduardo Menz, Mike Rollo, Daichi Saito, Ithamar Silver, and Malena Szlam, most of who studied film production at Concordia University. Double Negative’s rising community presence has helped to solidify a ground for experimental film work in Montreal’s independent music venues. As they conclude in their manifesto, “We provide no prescription for what film ought to be, but elucidate what it is: impossible pasts and futures in a trajectory of unravelling present, images pausing and passing from somewhere up there, in the back of the head.”8 In 2006 they presented their first gallery event, a chaotic, one-night exhibition of Super 8 and 16mm loops. Multiple projectors, moviolas, spools, rewinds, filmstrips, and wires were precariously strung around and across the overheated room, projecting onto windows, walls, the ceiling, and a family photograph.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of Canada’s socialist leanings, or a result of our harsh climate, that so many of the artists highlighted here thrive in a collaborative environment. Bands, duos, collectives: they draw together for encouragement and inspiration. The artists treated in detail, including Daniel Barrow, Shary Boyle, Karl Lemieux, and Alex MacKenzie, successfully work in a variety of media, from artist books, writing, porcelain figurines, print multiples, single-channel film and videomaking, and installation, yet the stagecraft and precarious nature of live performance is central to their artistic identities. Although practicing in a prosumer video age, their work invests in archaic equipment, stretching the possibilities for today’s “post-film” proto-cinema. Taking their shows on the road, these Canadians are gaining international status in a field dominated by American and British artists.
This text was originally written in January 2008 for the here-to-fore unfinished Cinematograph 7: Live Cinema, edited by Thomas Beard.
1. Marilyn Beker, “Expanded Cinema Rocks Gallery,” The Globe and Mail (November 30, 1967): 13. Beker is referring to Wieland’s second presentation of Bill’s Hat, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
2. See John Porter’s personal website, Super 8 Porter http://www.super8porter.ca
3. One recognizes Hébert’s influence in the work of many younger film artists, especially Karl Lemieux’s. The admiration goes both ways, too. Lemieux was recently invited to open for one of Hébert’s performances in Montreal.
4. Daniel Barrow, press release for Winnipeg Babysitter, March 27, 2007, The Museum of Science and Technology, Syracuse, NY.
5. “Arcane and impossible magic tricks,” Artfag 13 (May 2006). The quotations refer to an entire exhibition of work by Boyle, Barrow, and the video-art duo of Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby” titled Fantasia, April 1-29, 2006, Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto.
6. Pleasure Dome calendar description, “Live Projections: Performances by Shary Boyle with Doug Paisley and Liss Platt,” November 24, 2007, Latvian House, Toronto, http://pdome.org/2007/live-projections/
7. Matthew Biederman, description for Pulse, http://www.mbiederman.com
8. Double Negative Collective, "Manifesto," INCITE Journal of Experimental Media, http://www.incite-online.net/doublenegative.html