The Centre for Media and Culture in Education (CMCE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto presented Terms of Address: A Symposium on the Pedagogy and Politics of Film and Video Programming and Curating, March 7 and 8, 2003 at the University of Toronto.
On Edge was represented by Paul Wong who provided the conference with an overview of our programming in the context of the questions asked by the panels. Participants addressed what is socially and culturally at stake within the specifics of the curation and programming of film and video; that is, what aesthetic, educative, political, and ethical issues are engaged by various practices of presentation? What dominant strategies are used, and pedagogical considerations made when juxtaposing film and video for public presentation? How does the curatorial process re-make individual works into a new audio-visual text?
Presented at the 92nd Annual Conference of the College Art Association
Seattle, Wash. - Feb. 20, 2004.
The reason why I curate and program media art is straight forward. My curatorial projects are a parallel activity to my own artistic practises. I have primarily curated media art: video, photobased, live art and site specific projects. These are also the forms that I explore in my own art making. I understand the mediums. I work best with what I know in form and content. I have developed alongside the evolution of independent video production as an alternative to mass media, commercial culture and traditional concepts of art objectification. I make art to communicate to other people. Programming is developing audiences for new work. The idea of being part of a larger community of like-minded people was important, and creating audiences for those works was part of building a community.
I have no idea how many curatorial projects and public programs I have been involved in organising. I do not think of myself as being a professional curator even though I have produced hundreds of events, hosted local and international artists, and curated screenings and mini-series. I have done festival coordination, arranged small, large, regional, national and international touring exhibitions, performances, radio and TV broadcasting, billboards, store windows, street interventions, moderating talks, given workshops, shaped symposiums, worked in writing, publishing and commissioned new works.
In 1971, I picked up my first video camera in grade 11. From that moment on, I have had a symbiotic relationship with the allure of the electronic medium. The now classic Sony 3400 Rover portapak was truly revolutionary. It was the first consumer accessible TV format that had the power of the medium to reach audiences, the ability to be able to instantaneously record sync sound pictures on reusable magnetic tape, was affordable, portable and had creative potential that was love at first sound bite. What you see is what you get. Its crude and basic functions suited my sensibilities. I have been exploring the multimedia elements of video for three decades. It continues to be a framing device for looking at and recording the world around me. It is still the magic mirror.
In the summers between Grade 11 and 12, I was hired as the coordinator of an OFY Grant (Opportunities For Youth) that employed youth to be involved with the Stadium Gallery. For two years the Vancouver Art Gallery transformed an old baseball park into an experimental education centre. The Stadium presented multidisciplinary programs to the citizens of Vancouver. Ambitious in scope, this was the early 1970’s when federal grant monies flowed freely to placate the hundreds of thousands of restless baby boomers coming of age. With a sizable budget, a contingent of freaks and artists were employed to dream up free public programs. The Stadium offered endless events and workshops to the masses, from folk dancing, to synthesizer concerts, community darkrooms to making candles. The programs were designed to have a broad appeal blurring the distinction between high art and crafts. The Stadium embraced the new counter culture anti-establishment ideology and aesthetics of that time. It was the playground for the city’s avant garde artists, radical educators, new age social thinkers and hip urban planners. It was a wild and an extraordinary place for young minds.
It was here that I would meet my most influential mentor, video pioneer Michael Goldberg. He would show up with his portapak that would soon become our portapak. For the next couple of years, I became his shadow. This included travels to Montreal, Toronto and New York City where I experienced amazing art, politics and people. Vancouver artists were working across disciplines and with new technologies, organising themselves into groups and collectives. They were charging ahead, taking control over their own means of production and exhibition. No longer willing to wait for established institutional support or validation, two very important societies were formed in 1973. The Western Front and the Satellite Video Exchange (Video Inn Library) marked the beginnings of artist-run culture in Vancouver and across the country.
For several years before this, Goldberg had been publishing “The International Video Exchange Directory” - an annual listing of leading video pioneers, media activists and artists. In early 1973, Goldberg hosted MATRIX, one of the first major video festivals and conferences. It was a gathering from the directory, 200 participants came to Vancouver from across Canada, the USA, Europe and Japan. The registration fee was the deposit of a videotape. These 100 tapes would become the backbone for establishing the Video Inn Library. A physical place was now needed to house, exhibit and distribute this collection. The Video Inn became the information gathering and dissemination point for this new social and creative medium. Putting Vancouver on the map, the Video In was a mecca attracting many visitors, fostering interest in the medium and becoming a repository for a growing collection. Now at over 5000 titles, the initial ten years of collected tapes is the early history of the birth of a medium. Sadly this collection has been terribly neglected with each passing year, the plastic oxide tapes deteriorate.
Unfortunately videotape was never made to last. They were made to be used, erased and used again. In three decades we have gone from 2” open reel to 1”, 1/2”, 1/2” high density,1/4”, to 3/4” Umatic, 3/4” SP, to Betamax, VHS, Super VHS, Betacam, Betacam SP, Digital Beta, 8mm, hi 8mm, DV, mini-dv, micro DV, DVD. Old formats become obsolete, equipment gets replaced not repaired.
Satellite Video Exchange was established to generate interest in alternative video practises through international exchange of tapes. We would get locally made tapes seen elsewhere and imported works shown here. A place was needed to house the collection and to make the tapes accessible. The original location was a 2500 sq ft. storefront in the skids, the downtown eastside. Located below, and surrounded by rooming houses, flops, welfare hotels and inns, we called ourselves VIDEO INN. An ‘n’ was dropped when the centre moved to a more upscale area in 1987.
Video In Studio is a production, educational and presentation centre for furthering non-commercial media culture. From inception to the present, the ongoing work of the society is to provide a space and visibility for alternative media representation and media literacy. It programs social issue documentaries, community productions, and experimental art. The centre has played a pioneering role in helping to develop appreciation for the video language.
Two tracks of programming developed. Firstly, the in-house reference library invited the public in to view tapes, and more importantly their choice of what to see. We maintained strict public hours and viewing records, and did outreach promotion to specific communities based on what was in the collection. The public area functioned like a large living room, equipped with several viewing stations and furnished with couches and coffee tables. Viewers selected what they wanted to watch.
The second type of programming was special events that either featured an artist, or organisation, or a program of selected works. As many of these as possible took place in venues in other parts of the city and often involved co-presenting with other organisations: the Chinese Cultural Center in Chinatown, the Vancouver Art Gallery, Art House Cinemas, other artist run centres, Native Education Centre, Feminist Groups, Educational Institutions, the Public Library, Community Centers, and within the context of festivals. Doing co-presentations was both a way to share costs but more importantly for building and sharing audiences. To develop ongoing and different audiences we had to provide engaging programming, and in many cases, this required doing extensive groundwork, building momentum, providing educational materials, and organising a symposium around the work.
And at other times it required doing something spectacular and ambitious such as doing a video performance festival, commissioning installations, and bringing in the mirror balls and strobe lights.
From the get go, the SVES developed long and short term strategies to develop audiences and to get recognition for the form. We spent hours, days, weeks and months in collective meetings discussing ideology, social issues, politics and culture. We discussed the potentials of alternative media to affect change, micro media as opposed to mass media. We were deadly serious about our work as activists and as artists. Everything we did was strategic, having a strong and healthy organisation was important as a base to reach out to other communities and to build alliances.
To fight censorship, massive outreach had to be done. Audiences had to be educated. From a handful of tapes in the mid 1980’s, the Queer Film and Video Festival circuit is now worldwide, hundreds of new works are seen at annual festivals.
The Video In collection includes important early documents of AIM (American Indian Movement) activities and other Native political issues. The Video In location attracted many Aboriginal viewers. WHY WOUNDED KNEE and tapes about LEONARD PELLTIER were popular titles. The response to the lack of representation of works by and about Aboriginal videomakers in the collection ten years ago was the catalyst for facilitating training, mentoring and screenings. In Vancouver there are now several Aboriginal production groups. There is a growing community of accomplished media artists and an audience that eagerly attends the annual film/video festival and screenings throughout the year at various venues.
It has taken several decades for video to gain visibility and respect as its own art form. New digital technologies have blurred the previously separate worlds of film and video production. Just as the monolithic structures of broadcast television have decentralised into the 500 channel universe so have closed circuit venues for presenting video proliferated.
The broadcasters and the television industry can no longer ignore an entire production format as being technically unacceptable. Video is everywhere, the DV revolution is just beginning. From early on, I recognised that once outside the conventions of film and television formats and formulas, the playing field was wide open for anything and everything to happen. It was unexplored territory.
Several events in 1982 would trigger dramatic change, both personally and professionally. I went to China with my mother for the first time. She was returning to visit her five brothers and sisters whom she had not seen in 37 years. Armed with super 8 film and still cameras I went with the intention of capturing an intimate portrait of a family and the real Chinese China. I was completely unprepared for the intensity of such an emotional journey.
Able to see only the stereotypical images in my mind, I was incapable of seeing and appreciating what was around me. Overwhelmed and in culture shock, I got more and more disorientated as we travelled with relatives from village to village. This was the real China that I had ‘not imagined’. I had never experienced being only among my own skin. This was a never ending Chinatown, one I could not just quickly leave.
Back in Canada, I immediately jumped into the year long production of Confused, a series of video productions on bisexuality. These works on identity were my contribution to the growing discourse around video art and sexuality. Coming out was problematic. In 1984, Confused: Sexual Views was banned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. The video exhibition was censored for being ‘inappropriate for a public gallery’ and declared ‘not art’. This controversial decision helped fuel the raging debates around sexual representation, freedom of speech and creative expression.
I would spent the next few years publicly defending video art in the media and in court rooms. The AIDS pandemic and sexual identity politics would become the dominant subject of video production and presentations for the next decade. Meanwhile I was personally struggling with race and cultural identity. Unable to better understand this conflict, I abandoned the film footage and the hundreds of photographs I had taken in China.
I looked for other Chinese who shared the same history and similar experiences. I looked for Asian artists who made works on identity. What I encountered was limited. There were a handful of works by Asian-American writers, playwrights, a couple of conventional documentaries, and some not very good feature films. What was clear was that there were other visible minorities working on similar tracks and that identity art and politics was an emerging force.
In 1985, Richard Fung’s Orientation was one of the earliest video documentary works that dealt with race, and gay and lesbian sexual identity. In 1986 Fung released Chinese Characters, an experimental video that examined notions of gay desire from a Chinese perspective. Also released in 1986 was the feature film My Beautiful Laundrette written by Hanif Kureishi, directed by Stephen Frears and re-launching the career of Daniel Day Lewis, featuring gay inter-racial desire.
On the heels of losing the lawsuits against the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1986, I left for China and upon my return, Elspeth Sage and I started On Edge Productions (On The Cutting Edge Productions Society) to independently produce, curate and program new art and artists. I met Elspeth in BC Supreme Court in 1984. She had come to support me as the artist, and the legal actions I had taken against the VAG over Confused. She quickly became my most ardent supporter and assisted with my defence strategy and professional reputation.
Up to this point I had being doing programming through the Video In and the Western Front. It had become increasingly difficult to get projects supported there. Both centres were now institutions and had their own budget and programming priorities. Race and representation were not high on the list.
The experience with the VAG’s corrupt board, lying curators, the lack of long term support from the local scene and the convoluted legal system left me broke and us exasperated. On Edge grew out of the discussions we had about the lack of integrity, the lack risk taking. We questioned the relevance of the conservative art scene, the tired artist run centre scene.
We were both interested in politicised work and accessible art. We were also interested in working with artists who worked outside the visual art world and with artists who worked with popular culture formats. We decided that if it wasn’t happening here we would go to it or bring it home. On Edge was about taking artistic control and making things happen for ourselves, artists and audiences.
In early 1986, I returned to China with an 8mm camcorder. This time around I went for several months and instead of rushing past life, I observed and absorbed the culture. Living amongst a large network of aunts and uncles, I recorded forty hours of tape that would be released as Ordinary Shadows Chinese Shade, a feature non-fiction.
Starting in 1986, I began to curate programs specifically out of my research around racial identity. On the way back from China, I visited my mentor, Michael Goldberg, in Tokyo and through him met Asian American artist Bruce Yonemoto - based in L.A. He and his brother had just released Green Card, a dramatic feature shot on video about Japanese American identity. Several months after our first meeting, I hosted Bruce in Vancouver and presented Green Card. It was later curated as part of the first critical look at FEATURE LENGTH VIDEO. (1989)
Two of our earliest On Edge successes would become models for curating and operating. An artist that had many of the qualities we were interested in was British writer Hanif Kureishi. In the U.K., he was generating a lot of attention for his fiction and non-fiction writings on race, sex, colonialism and media culture. He was a cross-over artist, bridging both high and pop art scenes. He was writing in intellectual journals, short stories, for the stage and film scripts. In the ground breaking film My Beautiful Laundrette, he deals with a whole range of taboo subjects: mixed race, homosexuality, class and cultural differences. In 1987 he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Although he did not walk off with Oscar, the nomination gave him a front row seat to Hollywood and credibility to do more feature film projects such as Sammy And Rosie Get Laid.
Earlier that year Hanif spent a week in Vancouver. Our programming included book launches, film screening and several levels of writing workshops. While here he wrote the short story The Buddha of Suburbia which I first published in the Asian New World issue of Video Guide. BUDDHA was published in 1990 as a novel and then made into a film.
Another artist we imported was the in-your-face, spoken-word performer JOOLZ. The tattooed, pink-haired biker rocker poet had a cult following in the U.K. She had established herself performing in rock venues and festivals, not an easy context for a poet. She was a compelling story teller. We produced her in an illegal warehouse club environment. Hundreds paid to be forced to shut up and listen. While here, race riots broke out in Bradford England her hometown, and the Soweto riots in South Africa dominated news headlines. Visibly upset at being away and not being there, she wrote HOMELANDS. Together with musician Stephen Rosen, we created the 6 min. video Homelands that was distributed free to any anti-apartheid and anti-racism events. The 6 mins was an intentional time frame. We refused to allow Much Music to air a shorter 3 min. version.
Joolz influenced performance and spoken word and for a number of years different programmers brought her back to Vancouver to perform at the Folk Festival, Writers Festival and at a dance club.
These two successes proved that we could attract large cross over audiences to artists whose principal medium was writing. Both programs involved multiple non-profit presenters and business sponsors. The artists were well-hosted and both created new works during their brief stays. We were able to satisfy the public, the creative community and the artists and of course ourselves. Both of these projects became the foundation for building our community.
We have produced over eighty projects in Vancouver, Banff, Cuba, South Africa, Belfast, Derry, Dublin, Glasgow, Newcastle, Whitehaven, Hull, London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Venice, Halifax, Seattle, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and on the Internet. On Edge imports and exports work. We live locally but program globally. We work collaboratively, across cultures and disciplines. We operate on a project to project. Our budgets go towards production and not towards maintaining real estate.
On Edge is not defined by form or geography. No fixed address meant no fixed identity. This has allowed us to be more upwardly mobile. The projects define what sites and resources are needed. Not working in the white box, our projects are often site-specific and the works presented are new. New often means the unknown factors. There are substantial risks and stress, working in other people’s territory, claiming space, stakeholding is often met with resistance. Programming is about negotiating space.
One of our best known projects was YELLOW PERIL: RECONSIDERED (1990-91). Yellow Peril was the third in what was to become a series of related projects focusing on Asian artists in the New World. Asian New World was a four-part video art and documentary series developed for the Video In in 1987. The eighteen tapes, co-curated with Karen Henry, presented work by Canadians and Americans. The four parts were titled “Identities”, “Bitter Fruits”, “Recent Past” and “Modern Myths + Rituals”. They were promoted as works of a “wide-eyed experimental nature and more accessible works intended for broad band distribution” and as a showcase of a growing and living community of contemporary artists - visible artists of the New World.
The 4-day event was extremely successful, not only in full houses (100 seats) but more importantly, it attracted a largely Asian audience. Reaction to some of the works was overwhelming. The audience was riveted by material that reflected their experiences. The combination of the individual works affected viewers in a very real and positive way.
A second exhibition, Yellow Peril: New World Asians, was produced for the Chisenhale Gallery in London, England in 1988. The gallery was an alternative space in Hackney. It was co-sponsored by Canada House and External Affairs, and included the work of sixteen Canadian artists: eight photoworks and eight videotapes.
The exhibition received curious and mixed reactions. The U.K. had a well-developed ‘BLACK ARTS’ (artists of colour) movement. Much of the initial work referred to issues of decolonisation and living in what was the colonial power base of the British Empire. Within that context, Yellow Peril: New World Asians was seen as peculiar, a prominent exhibition from the colonies featuring the work of Asians. The imported exhibition was not viewed as marginalized, the artists were taken seriously as presenting important new work from at the forefront of Canadian art.
YELLOW PERIL: RECONSIDERED, an exhibition featuring twenty-five photo, film and video artists opened in Montreal in 1990 during OKA. The ambitious national touring project included a publication with six essays by Monika Kin Gagnon, Richard Fung, Larissa Lai/Jean Lum, Anthony Chan, myself and Midi Onodera. The coast-to-coast tour included six primary cities where all components were presented: exhibition, screenings, panels, discussions, workshops and artist talks. The video and film program was available as a separate component for theatrical presentations, as were the artist and curatorial talks.
We knew that ‘identity art’ was emerging, and being first out the gate could be very influential and help set the stage. We intentionally produced a show that would have impact. It was important to have it carefully curated, well packaged and professionally presented. The strategy of coming on strong with a large group show of 25 artists worked. There was something for everybody.
Looking back, Yellow Peril : Reconsidered was an audacious experiment. The process of curating, producing and forcing people to fund it, and for galleries take the show required patience and fortitude. It was no easy task. Fortunately for us, we had been through the resistance to the media art form and sexual identity work. The process of getting the show on the road required doing a lot of education, negotiations and refusing to accept no for an answer. Yet we were unprepared for the vicious attacks and racism from all sectors once we hit the road. I was exhausted from the struggle before the year-long touring even began.
The initial response from ‘whites’ was loud and negative. John Bentley May’s in the Globe and Mail viciously attacked the curatorial intentions without actually seeing the whole show. The attack was a predictable knee jerk reaction with the usual charges of reverse racism, good art is good art and doesn’t need ‘special support’, blah, blah, blah.
From the preface in the catalogue I wrote “ the intention of this project is to contribute in a concrete way to the current discussions around race and representation. Throughout the process we have tried to remain ‘inclusive’.
The exhibition was specifically produced to be exhibited in Artist-Run Centres. Although these centres are predominantly operated by and for the white middleclass, we felt that these organisations who purport to be engaged with “new thinking” would be most open to issues revealed within Yellow Peril: Reconsidered. We viewed the Artist-Run Centres as a potential entry point that could involve other communities. It is projects like this that will innate dialogue in the educational process - to be able to see and better understand the not so foreign or exotic offerings of visible minorities.
And from the closing paragraphs of my curatorial essay “We can start to see what links us as Asians and as Canadians..... we can start to see and understand the differences. There is an Asian Canadian sensibility, there is an Asian Canadian contemporary art, there is an Asian Canadian photo, film and video community. ........this is a testimony that we do exist. I am afraid having said that we will be perceived as equals, as co-inhabitants. Unfortunately in the search for ‘truth’ I have also created the ‘big lie’...... the exhibition only exists due to the pressure applied to the funding agencies and artist-run centers.
The big lie was that there was no Asian-Canadian artist community. The fact that we had 25 artists was based on a wide search, coaxing out the work, many of the works in the exhibition were created for the context, and are first works. In this case, the whole is stronger than the parts.
Yellow Peril was a foundation show of mostly emerging work. The exhibition was produced for mixed audiences. It had to be accessible and setup a context for seeing the work in relationship to the issues. Academically, race and representation was being discussed at great lengths. For us it was important for the work to be made and visible.
A picture is worth a thousand words. We focused on photo, film and video, and only included independent productions, because there was such a lack of work being made by and about Asian-Canadians. Stereotypically Asians in the art field worked as commercial designers, or stuck to traditional Asian styles, and the few making contemporary work were geared towards the Western avant garde.
The national touring show to small artist run centres created a stir wherever it went. The size of the exhibition, the media art components, the artists’ talks and panel discussions, the cost and logistics of hosting required involving several regional partners. A prerequisite for programming Yellow Peril was to do outreach to Asian-Canadian and other ethnic communities. In the larger urban cities, an Asian coordinator was hired to do the outreach.
The year tour generated lots of local and national media coverage. The exhibition was covered in community weeklies and in the ethnic press. It was also covered in many art journals in Canada and the USA. Some initial mainstream print media tried to stir up negative outcry but quickly most media coverage got past the ‘fear of others’ and gave favourable reports, in fact there many rave reviews.
For Asians I wanted them to see something of themselves, and to walk away feeling empowered, inspired and perhaps more connected than before they walked in. For the artists in the show to feel part of the group and to be encouraged and not be afraid to do work that reflects being Asian. For curators and programmers to better understand ‘other’ sensibilities and to start to recognise their own narrow views. The once reluctant gallery directors and doubtful programmers stopped resisting when they saw the work, or became convinced by the public response and the new audiences that the exhibition attracted. Many galleries reported record breaking attendance.
The exhibition had a major impact and in some cities created a context that brought people together and from that real communities developed. Yellow Peril was a professionally curated exhibition. It set a standard that was a model for subsequent exhibitions across the country. Many artists in the show travelled to the other cities to the opening and for artists’ talks. Links were forged between cities and across disciplines and cultures. Yellow Peril: Reconsidered is a marker.
In its success, everyone took credit as trailblazers. We did the groundwork and laid out the strategy. The exhibition was heavily subsidised, and only possible on that scale by involving multiple partnerships. This is was an important introduction and safe way to engage the ‘other’. This was a first step. Some venues followed up with further programs and solo exhibitions of Yellow Peril artists or artists from other minorities.
In Vancouver, the exhibition involved at least six artists centers: Artspeak, Western Front, Video In, Or, Contemporary Art Gallery, and The Cinematheque. The exhibition, screenings and talks attracted large turnouts. Yellow Peril galvanised an already emerging Asian-Canadian arts community and directly influenced the production and programming of identity art in the city.
On Edge has provided contexts for bringing artists, presenters and audiences together. We have provided opportunities for artists to explore new territory, to collaborate and to make new works. We have given opportunities for emerging artists to exhibit alongside more established artists in national and international exhibitions. We have provided management and professional development. Many of our projects and productions have provided opportunities for mentoring emerging writers and curators. As well as originating our own projects, we work as writers, consultants, hired curators, producers of exhibitions, publications and websites, and video productions.
In recent years we have taken advantage of new media tools and have explored the Internet as a way to promote, archive, create and present work. In 1999, we launched onedgeonline.com. This is a permanent site where you can see documentation of past projects, order publications and tapes. Many of our projects live on as video documents. These are used by artists, researchers, educators and have been shown in cable and broadcast.
The downfall of working project to project is that we are always juggling schedules to accommodate the demands on our time. We both work on short term contracts, neither of us have any forms of regular income. Some years have been extremely busy other years we are plodding along. By not having a fixed space in Vancouver On Edge as an entity does have a profile. We are invisible.
Current plans are for ON EDGE to have a visible centre for its activities - a fixed permanent address for public programs. The On Edge Lab will be a space for cross cultural and interdisciplinary explorations. In a geographically fragmented city, it’s time to have another place to gather, a space where we can provide mentorship and programming opportunities.