The poignance of an exhibition is often measured by its ability to distil a historical moment, letting it hang in the air like luminous vapour. Amongst the media art exhibitions of the last year, perhaps none were more poignant than the eight-part artist video series, fractured horizon — a view from the body, which circulated during the weeks of protest that followed the killing of George Floyd. Curated by Toronto-based curator and editor Yaniya Lee as the culmination of her research residency at Vtape, Canada’s largest video art distributor, an impressive range of works by BIPOC women artists from Canada and the United States were sent out to Vtape subscribers’ inboxes like supplements; weekly injections of perspective and affirmation for all those in the arts community already feeling disheartened amidst the first wave of a global pandemic, and one now imbued with the urgent politics of fighting anti-Black racism and revealing white privilege. Like a shot in the arm, every Friday between June 5th and July 24th, 2020, a new piece would go up on Vtape.org, sometimes elegiac in tone, sometimes documentarian, but all of them anchored in their conjuring of the body politic. Pieces by Buseje Bailey, Richelle Bear Hat, Hannah Black, Deanna Bowen, Thirza Cuthand, Cheryl Dunye, Donna James and ariella tai each, in their own way, worked to reaffirm the vital connection between the social and material factors that constitute a “body” in the contemporary moment and, more specifically, to interrogate the strategies of representation that keep existing power structures in place.
I step slowly into a long corridor of vertically aligned PVC pipes in two straight lines, the synthetic material contrasting with the forest surrounding it. With the view around me obscured by the structure, which grows incrementally taller as I walk through it, I direct my gaze up toward the sky and become attuned to the sounds of twigs breaking beneath my feet and wind whirring through leaves. The path leads to a larger clearing of space – although walls of PVC pipes still surround it – and I join others who had taken the same meditative stroll moments before me. I linger, beholding the canopy of trees above and letting the soundscape of nature envelope me. I exit and find myself back in the forest, but with a different sensibility. Calm and at ease, I take pleasure in having encountered nature through an innovative sensory lens.
The year 2020 was, for many, characterized by forcing our collective attention toward myriad social issues, emphasizing not only their interdependence on each other, but on exploitation and class differences as well. It became clear very quickly that ‘essential’ jobs are the ones that cannot be done from home; they are also the ones with the lowest pay and little to no health benefits or sick days. Large numbers of people already in precarious positions lost their jobs, their income, and for many, their homes. Demands for rent cancellation and mortgage relief, particularly for those in large Canadian cities, underscored the cycle of working people living month-to-month who pay large portions of their paychecks to landlords, most of whom use tenants’ rents as their only income, and who in turn give that money to the bank for their mortgage. But who did the government ultimately bail out? Amidst subsidies for banks, there was never rent cancellation or legislated relief for tenants, just calls from government officials for landlords to “do the right thing.”
Let’s pretend that we’re at a show. It’s sometime before last March, any night of the week. Early evening, but this is winter, and the sun has been set for hours already. We shrug our coats off into the all-black pile. I’ll retrieve mine later to wear it loose over my shoulders, following the smokers outside to revel in the cold between sweaty sets, after which I’ll fix my wandering eyeliner in my front-facing camera, since the available bathroom is the one with no mirror. You grab a water, maybe a beer, from the bar or your bag, depending on where we are. The night is full and warm and easy, and we maneuver through friends and strangers, angling for the right spot from which to watch other friends on stage. Then it’s your turn to go up, and the roles reverse.
There is no fresher horror to the modern-day luddite than the social media Live Video function. In the Live Video, the subject is tripled: there is the subject filming, the subject being viewed, and the subject auto-saved for posterity by the filming interface. Live Video has a forebearer in performance art, such as Joan Jonas’ incorporation of live video into her “actions” during the 1970’s. In describing Jonas’ performance Vertical Role (1972), curator Barbara London writes that by using live video, Jonas invokes the “unedited present” as a means of dislocating space and elongating time. (1) In contrast, the practice of “going live” on social media renders the unedited present as digital content to be viewed and shared on a for-profit platform. The medium of video art in the contemporary context is uniquely positioned to ask: Where is a better vantage point from which to view the present than Live?
Plenty of Fish opens with James Knott’s shadow dramatically shaving off body hair behind a dimly lit partition to an assemblage of sounds. The West Side Story tune “I Feel Pretty” harmonizes with the clamouring of an electric razor, sheep shearing, and the buzz of a lawn mower. Meanwhile, the famously cinematic score from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror-thriller film Psycho resounds. The figure behind the divider seductively unravels a pair of stockings as Nina Simone’s The Other Woman melancholically lingers quietly in the background. Knott eventually emerges from behind the partition scantily dressed in vintage lingerie and dramatically falls down onto a duvet, while the dimly lit lamps conjure a lonely night time scene. The audience is in the bedroom now, and we find Knott waiting like a lonesome queen.
Since the early 1990s, the Internet has served as a medium, as well as a site of connection and presentation for artists situated across the globe. Art made specifically for online contexts is inherently ephemeral and infinitely reproducible, qualities which have historically hindered Internet Art from being readily taken up in mainstream art circles. Now, in our COVID-19 stricken world, they are the very characteristics that are enabling the form to thrive. This is a moment that net artists didn’t know they were preparing for. Amid this global pandemic their digital savvy and techno-agility has suddenly proven to be prescient.
At the center of the frame, a white-frosted cake sits like a full moon on a dark wood table. Suzanne Kite drops her palms to either side of the orb, her red fingernails glinting up to the camera. “This performance is about death,” Kite warns her viewers before she commences a live-stream performance from her home in California.
In her 1976 essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,”Rosalind Krauss attempts to pinpoint the singular essence of video-based artwork, speculating on the possibility of the claim that the “medium of video is narcissism”. (1) For Krauss, the linchpin of this perspective was the (now taken for granted) instantaneity of video, which produces perpetual feedback that captures the subject in a closed circuit of “self-encapsulation”. (2) There is an implied intimacy in this simultaneity—while Krauss perhaps over-essentialized the quality of video, she shrewdly identified the implicit correlation between video and the psyche.