To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Toronto experimental screening venue Pleasure Dome, the author has examined a decade of largely Canadian experimental media through the lens of that organization’s programming history, other Canadian venues for experimental media, and her own dreams over the same period. She finds that she has internalized the experimental film and video scene to the degree that that her unconscious accurately charts developments in the scene over the past decade. Dreams recorded over the years 1990-1999 uncannily reflect shifts in independent media cultures: the shift from a linguistic to a phenomenological bent; the seemingly opposed move from a visual to an information culture; changing debates in the politics of identity; the shifting interest in sexual representation. Her dreams also reflect the position of Canadian film and video in relation to an international and U.S.-dominated art world. Above all, they celebrate the myriad of small, quirky, rebellious, anarchic — yet easily overlooked, indeed repressed — image-worlds that comprise ten years of programming at Pleasure Dome and


Ten Years of Dreams About Art

Laura U. Marks


All dreams guaranteed dreamed by the author.


This running excursion into Peircean semiotics is intended to help us understand aesthetic developments in experimental film and video of the 1990s in terms of the dynamic of emergence, struggle, resolution, and re-emergence. C.S. Peirce's semiotic theory, unlike the better-known Saussurean theory, allows us to think of signs as existing at different removes from the world as we experience it, some almost identical to raw experience, some quite abstract. For Peirce the real appears to us in three modes, each at a more symbolic remove from phenomena, like layers of an onion: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Firstness, for Peirce, is a "mere quality," such as "the color of magenta, the odor of attar, the sound of a railway whistle, the taste of quinine, the quality of the emotion upon contemplating a fine mathematical demonstration, the quality of feeling of love, etc."[1] Firstness is something so emergent that it is not yet quite a sign: we can't see red itself, only something that is red. Secondness is for Peirce where these virtual qualities are actualized, and this is always a struggle. In the actual world, everything exists through opposition: this and not that, action-reaction, etc. Secondness is the world of brute facts. Thirdness is where signs take part in mental operations that make general statements about qualities and events: it is the realm of interpretation and symbolization. The attitudes toward the world of the three kinds of sign are perceptive, active, and reflective.

Dreams, of course, are highly condensed mental images, and thus chock-full of Thirdness. But in dreams we are immobilized and cannot physically react to the provocative signs they give us: dreams concentrate affect, or the feelings of Firstness in our bodies.


Best Musicians Are Three Bugs    

August 29, 1989        I dream that the best jazz musicians in the world are three bugs. One is a spider who plays clarinet and is like Charlie Parker, one is named Habermas. They float into a huge pool, on a raft, and begin playing and the audience goes wild. They are very wise and give us to think how advanced bugs can be. I knew one of them and was a little bit in love with it, and I was crying and crying, maybe because I knew the bug would be killed, maybe because of the passing of all things.


There is a handful of small programming venues worldwide, including Toronto's Pleasure Dome, that devote themselves to the most marginal and evanescent of moving-image media. Why is this kind of programming valuable from the point of view of the larger culture? Some of the works and artists will eventually be taken up by the broader art world. More important, experimental film and video is a microcosmic laboratory of the most important developments in culture — experimental makers get to all the issues years, or decades, before mainstream media get hold of them. But finally this work is important because it is not valuable from the point of view of culture at large. While it's common to say that reproducible media do not have "aura," that sense that the art object is a living being, single-print and low-circulation films and videos have an aura denied to mass-circulation media. Experimental programming venues nourish short films and videos, works in low-budget and obsolete media, filmic detritus rescued from landfills - in short, works that have aura in inverse proportion to their commercial value. Pleasure Dome revives works that are ephemeral or forgotten, films that have been censored, banned and burned. Like bugs on a raft, they are precious because they are imperiled.


Brains or Love

December 4, 1989   I dream that I am in a crowd of people, Japanese and foreigners, at the station by the My City department store in Tokyo. There's a stall where for a 9000-yen piece we can buy a new brain. There are only two of them, it's a kind of last-chance deal. A tall young clean-cut guy with glasses buys one immediately to go to the vending machine. I am trying to decide whether to take this rare opportunity to get this new brain. If I don't take it, my own brain would be reduced by 50%. I am trying to decide how important my intelligence is to me, since after all I would still have love, and love of beauty, and be more simple: I have a mental image of living in a cottage. Also I don't feel I need the extra years of life the new brain would give me.


The choice between brains and love was a central struggle for filmmakers in the early 1990s. Some insisted on using their media as intellectual tools on the model of written intelligence. This is why so many works from this end of the decade are characterized by scrolling text and quotations from important scholars: purchased brains. At this period art schools, film funders, and art magazines were telling young artists that being a "dumb artist" was no longer a viable choice. Artists were now expected to issue their own considered statements and locate themselves within a verbal intellectual milieu. Work suffered as a result, though certain artists expanded the verbal imperative into an expressionist form in its own right: witness the impressive logorrhea of Istvan Kantor, in later videotapes such as Black Flag (1998) and Brothers and Sisters (1999).  A few brave others accepted the apparent deterioration of their brains as a consequence of love. For example, John Porter, a Pleasure Dome regular throughout the decade, generated huge numbers of films that seemed to be produced from pure passion for the medium, rather than from particular ideological or aesthetic agendas. Yet he has internalized the logic of filmmaking so profoundly that it informs even his most seemingly artless work. As a result Porter's films, and those of others who followed this route, are fertile with ideas, even if the artists themselves are not extremely articulate in interviews.


The verbal-art phenomenon is a case of Thirdness preceding Secondness: judgements and symbolic pronouncements, such as "Film should not/should offer visual pleasure," generate a course of action. This top-heavy semiotic configuration is dangerous for artists because it tends to backfire, since Thirdness is not a stable state but generates new and unforeseen states of Secondness and Firstness. For example, numerous feminist works from the late '80s and early '90s, in a double reaction to the pronouncement above, made "unpleasurable" works that caused audiences to howl in amusement or "pleasurable" works that made us feel we were being bullied. In contrast, work that luxuriates in Secondness, in the realm of simple action — like Porter's time-lapse films, Toy Catalogue versions, and Cinefuge versions— generates all kinds of conceptual responses in the minds of audiences.


History of Cars and Boats

June 9, 1990  I dream of an artist's book where each page is a thin wooden slab with a wood-burned picture. There are pictures of cars from five-year intervals, beginning in 1920, and pictures of boats in five year intervals. If you flip the pages like a flip book you can see a little animation of the evolution of car and boat design.


Postmodernism malingered into the 1990s, and with it the disempowering notion that it was impossible for artists to produce their own new images. Many filmmakers looked to found and archival images as sources of fresh meaning. While any image they produced themselves seemed to arrive already encoded in the sign systems of the dominant culture, archival images had a kind of strangeness and excessiveness that resulted from their codes having been forgotten.[2] Archival images had a way of deconstructing themselves, because their codes, once implicit, were now humorously obvious. Among many archive-gleaners, Mike Hoolboom in Escape in Canada (1993) served up archival U.S. propaganda about Canada with a solarized parsley garnish.


The postmodern dilemma mentioned here is that the entire Real seems to exist in the realm of Thirdness, the general idea that engulfs all particulars. According to the Baudrillardian logic by which many people were seized in this period, the meaning everything that we perceive has already been encoded, indeed dictated in the form of what Peirce calls a legisign. If, as Peirce writes, the recipe for apple pie exists in the realm of Thirdness, but the particular apples used are Second, then postmodernism told us that there were no apples any more, only recipes.[3] Thirdness can be paralyzing, but, as when these artists treat the over-symbolized old recipes as raw material, it can generate new signs, such as the arousal and nausea that are sure indicators of Firstness.


The Immobilized Heads of Mass Culture

April 16, 1992            I dream that a friend and I are walking near a long reflecting pool, and a female reporter is speaking to the cameras from the edge of the pool, only her face visible. As we walk by I see that her face was mounted in a shoe, a gold sandal, and in fact it is all of her there is. I am intrigued by the gimmick but also shocked. Later my friend and I pass a dumpster and two anteaters walking at the edge of the road.

August 13, 1992        I dream about a craft project in a women's magazine: a stiff nosegay of plastic flowers with an eyeball built into the base looking at them, lit from below by a lightbulb.


Mass culture, or what the Frankfurt School theorists called "affirmative culture," is a fixed eyeball or a mounted head that can gaze in only one direction. Marginal culture is free to wander and swivel. Film and video, as industrial media, have a particular relationship to mass-produced media. Because their techniques are shared with movies and television, artists in these media are more pressured (than painters, for example) at every step of the production process to consider their relationship to mass culture. Canadian film and video in the '90s continued their head-swiveling relationship with popular culture. In belated (as it can only be) counter-propaganda to the Gulf War, Phil Hoffman, Stephen Butson and Heather Cook’s Technilogic Ordering (1992-93), a diary of television coverage of the Gulf War edited into a mosaic whose impenetrability reflected the powerlessness many Canadians felt in our complicity with the U.S. war for oil. Screened at Pleasure Dome in 1996, AdBusters' "Uncommercials" alerted couch potatoes to the military-industrial intentions of benign-sounding sponsors like Kraft and General Electric (wait a minute, doesn't Kraft own General Electric?).

            In the early '90s artists referred to themselves as "cultural workers" or "cultural producers" more than artists do now. This was supposed to mean that artists, as producers of culture, were responsible members of their communities, as well as to shy away from the high-art connotations of the word "artist." More work was overtly activist in the late 80s and early '90s. What happened?

            Certainly part of what happened is that less money was available for artists who wanted to make "unmarketable," i.e. truly political, work. (By contrast, "critical" art, as Gary Kibbins points out, always has a relatively ready market.[4]) But another way to understand the shift away from overtly political work that occurred in this decade is to acknowledge different ways of being political. A work that critiques popular culture reinforces its dependent relationship with popular culture. Its goal is political change at the level of language, which is collective but not deeply embodied. This relation of dependency is twofold in Canadian critical experimental work, because it must take on all of American mass media as well as the popular in Canadian culture, if the latter can be said to exist independently.[5] By contrast, a work that is only about itself and the passion of creation offers a model of freedom from popular culture. Its goal is political change at the level of individual action — which is embodied but not collective. And of course in between these poles lay art that politicized personal, embodied experience. In short, the shift away from activist art to personal art during the '90s can be seen as not a depoliticization but a shift in political strategies. though also a sign of retreat in wake of political exhaustion: the overtly political work sometimes did not seem to exert any discernible change.

            Yet we cannot deny that the early ‘90s were a lively period for work in the arguably reactive mode of identity politics. Little of this work showed up in the artist-curated programs at Pleasure Dome, in contrast to, for example, the annual Images festival also based in Toronto. Why?

            In particular, the politics of ethnicity and nationality informed the work of many Canadian media makers who got up to speed in the mid-‘80s to the early 90s. The best of this work, such as Donna James’ gentle meditation on her foremothers’ Jamaican aphorisms, Maigre Dog (1990) and Shani Mootoo’s canoe-generated rumination on Trinidadian-Canadian nationality in A Paddle and a Compass (1992) dissolved identity categories in favor of the fecundity of not knowing who one was, or alternatively, as in the intentionally frustrating work of Jayce Salloum, in the spirit of dissolving all predetermined bases for knowledge. While Helen Lee’s critique of ethnic fetishism in Sally’s Beauty Spot (1990) was enthusiastically received, her poetic sensibility emerged in the seemingly lighter and less critical narrative My Niagara (1992), especially in the concluding shot of an Asian-Canadian latter-day Marilyn Monroe carrying a flimsy flowered suitcase and walking away from the camera in teetering heels, which suggested that presence can be prised away from identity to float precariously away—whether toward freedom or annihilation is more for the viewer to decide.


Cultural critique tends to take place in the mode of Secondness, or reaction. It is thus doomed to a somewhat parasitic relationship with the mass media that goad it along. The best such works, however, are rich enough in their Secondness that they generate the mental connections that are the realm of Thirdness, or, more rarely, the perceptual surprises of Firstness. Identity politics, for example, when it worked, mobilized felt qualities of life into struggle (for identity, by existing in opposition to something other, is Second) and into new forms of communication. In the best cases, such work incorporated the active and reactive mode of Secondness into a journey toward the creation of mental images productive of thought, in the spirit of Thirdness.


Consciousness Is No Different From Reality

February 8, 1990      I dream that a bunch of us are having a political demonstration at the bottom of the stairwell in the college administration building. A tall thin white-haired lady from the registrar's office comes out and tells us, "For Marx his consciousness of himself was no different from his reality." This is an absolutely huge revelation to us: the demonstration breaks up and we are all laughing with the craziness of the enlightened. Then we go to the student lounge and, to people's mixed delight and dismay, a woman lights a papery thing in her hand and throws it into the room, where it bursts in flowery ashes.


The relationship between reality and representation was a typically '80s concern in art. Many works critiqued popular culture. Video artists in the '80s, in particular, eschewed the structuralist experiments of the preceding decade as being politically reactionary, and instead looked to critique the social and economic foundation of the medium, television. Hence the videos that looked like TV shows, with something amiss. The critique of representation, more generally, became the air artists breathed. Saussurean semiotic theory, in turn, gave us ways to understand the world as a compendium of signs, all of which have been effectively pre-perceived for us. This gave film- and videomakers plenty of grist to grind, in the subversion of existing images.

                        But some people were uneasy with the idea that we cannot know reality directly. If their consciousness was their reality, then surely they did have direct access to some sort of reality? Less pressured to evolve with their art form than videomakers, filmmakers were somewhat freer to represent their own experience in the act of experiencing it. Politically suspect though it may have been, they gave the gift of their own perception to viewers and listeners. Ellie Epp, in notes in origin (1987), allowed the camera to be moved by the beating of her own heart. In All Flesh Is Grass (1988) Susan Oxtoby allowed luminous textures and slanting shadows to express the catharsis that comes from abandoning oneself to mourning. Zainub Verjee’s gentle Écoute s’il pleut (1993) allowed the viewer to experience silence, full as a drop trembling on a leaf, for eight minutes out of ordinary time. And a master of the art of gradual revelation, Barbara Sternberg retained a rich, impressionistic audiovisual texture in her work throughout the decade. These and other filmmakers remained convinced that the world is still enchanted and need only be properly recorded to enchant the viewer.


In other words, they used the medium of film as an entranced Perceiver of the world, an agent of Firstness. One might define art as a practice that cannot be subsumed in a symbolic mode. As Floyd Merrell suggests, wine-tasters, jazz musicians, and others with a nonverbal grasp of their art "know more than they can explicitly tell. A portion of their knowledge will always remain at the level of Firstness and Secondness, unmediated and unmediable by Thirdness."[6]


"The Pink"

April 20, 1991                        I dream I am masturbating to this commercial-looking montage of lots of women talking about "the pink," which meant masturbation, and how their men left them alone to do it.


In the '90s a second generation of feminist film- and videomakers came of age. While their predecessors had been into subverting patriarchal culture, the critical stance lost favour with younger artists. Constant vigilance is exhausting and not much fun. Instead, more artists, especially women queer and straight (but later in the decade gay and then straight men as well), began making work that focused on their own sexual pleasure. Again, this work may have looked apolitical or self-indulgent, but as with the general shift from activist to personal work, it was rather a move to a politics of action rather than critique. Paula Gignac and Kathleen Pirrie Adams transcended the dyke-music-video genre in Excess Is What I Came For (1994), a tactile ride for the senses, thanks to the sensuous graininess of video shot in the low light of Toronto’s Boom Boom Room. Queer punk movies indulged in a pleasure that was harder-edged but just as sweet, in Bruce LaBruce's I Know What It's Like to Be Dead (1989), G.B. Jones' Trouble Makers (1987), and Nadia Sistonen’s private performances for Super-8 camera. Kika Thorne luxuriated in female sexuality in work that had a characteristic flou or unwillingness to be bound by structure — although other kinds of bondage were fair game. In Thorne's Sister (1996), heat-seeking infra-red film makes a woman's pussy (the artist's own?) glow in the throes of self-pleasure.


A Glitch in the Performance

January 17, 1992      I dream I am at a performance in a finished-basement type place, full of metre-high slabs of crumbling gray asphalt. There are lots of male-female couples. We are scared that the performance is going to involve the wolves and dog we can hear snarling behind a door. But the artists tells each couple to put on bathing suits — we're glad it's going to be a participatory performance — and do something with water and then jump down the room. My partner is Susan Patten, and so as two women we are a glitch in the performance. But the artist says that the glitch is the point of the performance.


One area in which the critique of representation continued to be important was in queer media. Feminist film and video gave way, or opened the way (depending on your view) to queer work and the interrogation of masculinity. "Queering" Hollywood and commercial cinema was all the rage. Gender indeterminacy was hot: queer artists struggled against the imposition of definitions of gender and sexuality, as in the "Bearded Ladies" show at Pleasure Dome in spring 1993. Queer artists interrogated the bonds of language. Nelson Henricks' precisely structured Emission (1994) poised bodily desire against the drag of the symbolic in a quite literal way, the frustrated lover's voice-over insisting "Turn off the TV, turn down the radio, let me take you in my arms." Canadian men of queerness produced lashings of smart, sexy, and sometimes transgressive work throughout the decade: they include, to name just a few, Richard Fung, Paul Wong, John Greyson, Steve Reinke, Robert Lee, Wrik Mead, Scott Beveridge, Dennis Day, Zachary Longboy, Ho Tam, Michael Balser, Andrew Patterson, Wayne Yung, and Kevin D*Souza. While much of this work continued to be overtly concerned with language, it also generated an audiovisual erotics of its own.

While the boys just wanted to have fun, lesbian work in the early part of the decade seemed to have more demons to battle at the level of language, only after which they could afford to be playful. A raft of political issues floated works by the performance duo Shauna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, Shani Mootoo’s Wild Woman in the Woods (1993), Marusya Bociurkiw’s Bodies in Trouble (1990), and Michelle Mohabeer’s Coconut, Cane, and Cutlass (1994), to name a few. Other lesbian works were overtly didactic, such as Maureen Bradley’s Safe Sex is Hot Sex (1992) and Kathy Daymond’s Nice Girls Don’t Do It (1990), an instructional guide to female ejaculation. The need to establish one’s position and ground one’s voice is well understood in terms of the politics of lesbian identity: being historically placed so far outside of language and representation, lesbian media artists need to claim them before they can transcend them. Exceptions includes some of the punky chicks from the Super-8 scene, who in the thrash’n’burn spirit of punk were not trying to be understood but just to rebel.


In the early part of the decade queer media was powered by struggle against the symbolic order. Secondness is the realm of "not-that," and queer work vigorously reacted to the Thirdness of received languages in both dominant culture and subcultures for what it is to be gay or lesbian. Sometimes this work remained at the level of reaction or generated its own new set of limiting languages, as in the safe-sex shorts that many activist artists produced in the early '90s. Activism around sexual activity is extremely difficult to pull off. Education is a question of the immediate perception of Firstness and the received knowledge of Thirdness converging on Secondness, or immediate response to brute facts. It is almost impossible to educate sexuality, unless a stronger motivation than desire can act like "the firm hand of the sheriff on your shoulder," as Peirce characterizes Secondness.


A Hard Day at the Arts Council                              

March 6, 1994                       I dream that I had to go to an arts council jury, and it is in a building, maybe in Paris, one of those buildings that's supposed to be rationally designed, but it's a huge box divided internally into three parts with undulating inner walls. I'm trying to find Floor N, and a lady in a tiny stairwell office tells me I can't get into that room, but then she gives me a key. I have to try the key in doors on about 20 floors, but doing this I'm actually pricking my arm with a needle, all the way up the inside. I have this row of 20 neat red pricks up my arm; I put antibiotic ointment on them.


            Honestly, arts council juries have provided some of the most democratic, well-informed and passionate discussions about art I've ever taken part in, and this has been at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. The jurors' investments and expertise are different, and it's hard to make rational decisions about what kind of art deserves funding, but somehow we always reach consensus about which projects should get the money. Then we find out there's not enough money to fund even half of them, because of funding cuts during this decade in most of the provinces (the Ontario Arts Council was cut by 40% during the first premiership of Mike Harris; the arts budgets of Alberta, BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia experienced similar cuts) and nationwide (the Canada Council lost funding and then had it restored to less than the previous level). That's where the self-mutilation comes in.


Equations for Your Eye

April 4, 1997              I have one of those dreams where I have to take a math exam, and I an all confident, then I get into the exam and do terribly. I'm trying to recall trigonometry, remembering nothing. This bright-eyed young woman explains to me: "Sine and cosine are the equations for two waves that cancel each other out. Between them they produce the equation for the shape of the lens in your eye."


Structural film and video returned to the scene in the 1990s. This was partly because the concern with representation diminished and artists were newly interested in medium specificity. In addition, the development of new media made it timely to reexamine the intrinsic properties of older media. Structuralism respected the internal coherence of a film or video as a physical body, with all its implied mortality. Many of John Porter's films were structured by the three-minute length of a roll of 8mm, and this internal logic was as pleasurable to audiences as finding that the shape of one's own eye describes an equation. A rash of tapes was produced on the Pixar 2000 in the mid-'90s, and part of the pleasure of watching Pixelvision was knowing that these videos were recorded on audiotape and that the jagged black scar on the frame was the actual image of an in-camera edit. Hard-core experimental filmmakers imposed rigid structures on the most vulnerable material. Mike Cartmell used a "chiasmic" structure to explore identity and paternity in Film in the Shape of the Letter X (1986). In a sort of on-the-spot structuralism, Phil Hoffman’s Opening Series (1992-) is presented in pieces to be reorganized by audiences before each screening. This kind of structuralism has the same effect as lacing a corset around a pliant torso: it allows the stuff inside to remain soft and formless. Later in the decade it would evolve into the scratch video genre, where the ephemerality of forgettable television clips was given a loose structure by randomized commands of digital editing.


 Sad Classified Ads

September 30, 1997            I dream I am in a room full of people who are all lying on sofas and reading newspapers. People are getting all weepy reading, and the mood is very mournful, but another woman and I are catching each other's glance and grinning. It turns out everybody had placed "Sad Classified Ads": it was kind of a performance.


Like the caress of a stingray, grief immobilizes the body as it traverses it. As the AIDS epidemic continued, people succumbed to melancholy paralysis. Although the urgency of AIDS activism abated — it's hard to remain in a state of crisis indefinitely — some artists returned feeling to our numbed bodies with blazing offerings of rage and love. Sadomasochism had a profound place in this process, as in the work of Tom Chomont, for whom s/m was a way to take control of the disease in his body. During this decade Mike Hoolboom built a flaming body of work around AIDS, whose melting saturated colors and glistening high-contrast skins, as much as the bitter poetry of their words, impelled us to cling to life even while we flailed against it.


In its power to immobilize, grief imposes a state of perpetual Firstness. According to Peirce it is impossible to exist sempiternally in a world of Firstness, a world that "consist in nothing at all but a violet color or a stink of rotten cabbage" — or in a pure feeling, be it love or pain.[7] A changeless state of mourning, or of any emotion, is unbearable. The most powerful AIDS work of this decade transmuted the Firstness of grief into the contemplative and active states of mourning and action. In its most transformative state, Thirdness — ideas that are preconceived, verbalized, yea, published in the newspaper — still has the power to move us to emotional states that far precede discourse.


Seinfeld and the "Wilderness"

October 9, 1997        I dream I am in a crowded New York apartment where some show is being filmed, Jerry Seinfeld is the MC. It is very New York and we non-New Yorkers are disdained. For some reason they need another minor celebrity to interview someone, and my mother suggests me, and Seinfeld looks at me with suspicion. I say "yes I'm Laura Marks" as though he should have heard of me, and he's in a bind so he has no choice. But my lipstick has worn off. Seinfeld seems to recognize the importance of this because he offhandedly gives me some money to get some. Then I'm in the bathroom down the hall, ready to put it on. But the light switch doesn't work. The automatic sensor doesn't work, and when I press the button on the rickety old fixture the only shines dimly for a second!

            This dream is set in a big city of vast cold buildings with broad grounds. It's dark and I'm looking for free parking on the snowy streets, but I take a turn onto the highway by mistake, and the voice of eminent Canadian film critic Peter Harcourt says, "It's okay, it's just what they call the wilderness." Soon enough I am amused to find that this circumscribed bit of land that I'm driving through is what New Yorkers call the wilderness.


For many Canadian artists it is a political choice to remain in Toronto, the center of the Canadian art scene, even though New York, the center of the world art scene, deems us quaint and parochial. Pleasure Dome showed many works by New York artists, and many Canadian artists have moved to New York permanently in search of glamour and recognition. In Toronto's small media community, artists live in the light but have no lipstick: in New York we have the lipstick, but we can't get the light to shine on us. A very few Canadian experimental filmmakers and videomakers, such as Donigan Cumming and Steve Reinke, do break onto the parochial New York scene, for example by having their work screened in the New York Video Festival. Other Canadian artists decamped permanently to New York, the better to maintain their Canadian identity. Perhaps the best example is Ardele Lister, who moved to New York from the Vancouver feminist media scene and proceeded to make Conditional Love (1997), a bitter reflection on the U.S. hegemony over Canadian media and the concomitant frailty of Canadian identity.

There is a myth that funding is easier to come by for filmmakers in Canada, and therefore the work is not a strong because it does not have to compete as viciously as American art, and perhaps this is another reason that Canadians ourselves diminish Canadian work. But mostly it is because we internalize the intensely self-absorbed consciousness of the U.S. art-world, according to which we do not exist. The colonized always has to know what the colonizer is doing, but the reverse is not so: Canadian artists, programmers and writers have to be aware of the New York/U.S./world film scene, but the reverse is not so. To them we are the wilderness.


Woman Ejaculates on Prospective Canadian

March 18, 1998         I dream I am watching a video, or maybe a commercial for McDonald's, where a sensual pregnant woman is saying she loves eating hamburgers so much she makes them last for three hours. Then there is a performance in a gallery in L.A., where this same pregnant woman is in a shallow pool, masturbating while watching another woman. Then she ejaculates into the face of a man standing in the pool — she shoots a good 6 feet! It's from my point of view, as though I were ejaculating. I am offended at the performance though, I think it's cheap-shot (!) feminism. This poor man turns out to be a performance artist himself, probably teaches at Cal Arts. He is doing work on orgasm too: he said that in orgasm he is cultivating his plant nature. Something to do with sisal. I promise to mail him a Canadian magazine with a review of his work, a Canadian road map, and something else. He tries to give me money for it, but I have the impression that it's all the money he has, so I refuse to accept his payment.


Experimental cinema has almost always rejected acting as implicated in the illusionist aesthetics of commercial cinema. Plus, acting is expensive to shoot. But performance, confronting the viewer with a real body enduring experience in real time, has none of the illusionism of acting. Part of the return to phenomenal experience that characterized the '90s was the return of performance. Often this was inspired by unabashedly enthusiastic performances from decades past. However, few contemporary filmmakers had not been infected in some way by the post-structuralist disease that would have us believe our own bodies are just textual objects and don't even really exist. For a while in the '90s it was uncool to believe that a person could ever reveal the essence of himself or herself, or even that there was an essence. But in performance you find the meaning of the body through physical, not mental acts; the body has to be right there, not a construct. Performers sacrificed their own bodies so that the rest of us could have ours back. In her 1993 series “Aberrant Motion” Cathy Sisler spun in the streets as a proxy for our collective disequilibrium. In Super 8 1/2 (1994) and Hustler White (1996) Bruce LaBruce stripped all the way down to the layer of plastic wrap covering his heart, so that we didn't have to, or we could if we wanted to. Donigan Cumming convinced non-actors to pray for a Nettie they had never met (A Prayer for Nettie, 1995), sacrificing their authenticity to an audience that in turn suddenly became responsible for both them and her (the deceased Nettie had been Cumming’s photographic collaborator and model, but the video does not tell us that).[8]

            In 1967 Godard famously responded to criticism of his gory film Weekend, "It's not blood, it's red," meaning that his film was meant to be taken as a sign that was already at some remove from the real world it signified. But for a performers in the 90s it was red and it was blood.


In performance the perceiving and acting body is a Peircean sign machine, quivering like a tethered string between the poles of experience and communication. Whenever one presents one's body and actions for public consumption - i.e., presents oneself consciously as a sign - the same accelerated oscillation between the three modes takes place, for one is required to act, or make relations, an operation of Secondness, and to be genuine, or to operate in the mode of Firstness, at the same time that one manages oneself as a mental image. Ejaculating or shedding blood before an audience is only one way to do this.


Divorce Ritual

August 29, 1998        I dream I am in Los Angeles. I exit the freeway on a ramp that is made of wood and undulates like a little rollercoaster, into a hilly neighborhood that is part Chicano, part Asian, and all the houses are close together and kind of doll-like with thatched roofs. Lots of people are in the toylike park, old Mexican men and little boys playing chess. I am going to a museum where my husband and I are supposed to have a post-divorce ritual. It looks like one of those hands-on museums that were cool in the 70s, with lots of winding passages and purple and black walls. We get there and there are several couples, presumably also divorcing, gathered around the table. I've forgotten to bring some document, and also photographs, that we're supposed to burn as part of this ritual. I'm picturing an old photograph in my head and thinking I don't want to burn it!

            Later I walk by the village again and see that the little houses with thatch roofs have been burned for acres. The whole landscape is smoking and gray. It's awful. I am embarrassed when the people from the town see me staring at the misfortune.


One of the most painfully visceral experiences you can have at the movies is when the film catches in the projector gate and burns, especially if it is a precious lone print. We have seen that in the '90s many artists turned to archival film for a source of images. While the images could be deftly recontextualized and critiqued, filmmakers were also sometimes struck by the material of the film itself. In this decaying surface, archival filmmaking witnessed a death, a divorce of the original meaning from the image. Rather than recontextualize the images, filmmakers held funerals for their charred remains. Gariné Torossian built up a body of work during the decade whose surfaces were thick with painstakingly collaged film fragments, their scratched and glued textures overwhelming the appropriated images on their surfaces. Carl Brown's oeuvre throughout this decade continued to be a body of self-immolating cinema, whose recorded images dissolved in the chemical conflagration on the surface of the film. Earlier in the decade, Brown collaborated with Michael Snow on To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991). Through this film’s scarred and crackling surface, vignettes of everyday life are just barely visible, like the charred remains of a neighborhood.

            In the '90s filmmakers returned to touch the material body of film at a time when the medium has been pronounced obsolete. Of course, the idea of obsolescence is meaningless to non-industrial filmmakers: when a medium has been superseded by the industry, that's when artists can finally afford it. What precipitated the divorce of the images from their medium was perhaps the institution of digital filmmaking; the medium of analog video had not been the same threat to film, because the two media looked and functioned so differently. Over in the world of commercial cinema, and increasingly among independent filmmakers as well, films were edited and processed not on a Steenbeck or at a lab but in the virtual space of the Media 100. Where now was the film's body? Celluloid became just an output medium for the virtual body of the film encoded in software.

                        As well as these moving reflections on film's body, the end of the decade saw a surprising nostalgia for analog video. Videomakers who moved to non-linear editing swore they would never go back — yet tapes were being turned out that simulated analog interference, dropout, and generational loss!


A Peircean would note that these works of materialist cinema liberate the medium to be meaningful as a body in itself, rather than the medium for another message. While plumbing archival films for their images is an operation of Thirdness, the mourning of film's material death is First in its reaction to the film as to another body.



I Forget I Own Art

February 2, 1999      I dream I own a work of art I'd forgotten about, even though it's very expensive, because it's thin like a pamphlet and it's just sitting in a letter rack like the Purloined Letter.


Steve Reinke's The Hundred Videos appear to sum up the various concerns of the decade. They began with a linguistic understanding of meaning, and the use of psychoanalysis, a linguistic form of interpretation, to unravel it. They moved to interests in sexuality, desire, the body, and AIDS. Following the anti-visual turn in the arts mid-decade, they questioned documentary's relation to the truth. But throughout the decade Reinke maintained a conceptual rigor that made these slight works linger in the memory of the viewer. The Hundred Videos enter the mind through a tiny aperture of attention and then expand to fill all the available space. The sad ashtray, the sincere inventor of potato flakes, Neil Armstrong's tribute to his dead dog — they went by in one to three minutes but stayed with me for years. By the end of the decade, in a final rejection of linguistic signification, Reinke and his video camera were chasing dust balls under the bed (Afternoon, March 28, 1999).


These are theorematic videos, examples of the most fertile mode of Thirdness. By creating relations among other signs, they are mental images. Reinke brought things together: foreign films and porn films, a love letter and a yearbook photo, an over-the-top pornographic performance and a list of self-doubts. In so doing he generated enabling new concepts and new models for thinking, such as, use hand puppets to role play your fondest desires. Reinke's work showed the generosity of Thirdness, giving audiences material (not about which, but) with which to think.


Aggressive House

March 18, 1999         I dream I am in the house of these radical and rich art-world people who have two young children. It is a radical house, very dark inside, claustrophobic with rough concrete walls. They all go out, while I stay. I crawl under the heavy, ancient wood furniture. The floors have escalator-like treads moving through them constantly, with the angles facing up like teeth, making it fairly impossible to walk. There is something even more menacing in the floor, concealed by long shreds of carpet, but I forget what it was. I think how irresponsible to raise children in such a dangerous house. I go into the little girl's (like 3 years old) room and see that she's programmed her computer to organize her stuff while she is out; things are going through the air as though on an invisible conveyor belt. I am impressed and think maybe I'm the only one who's intimidated by a house like this!


At the end of the decade we were confronted with the Peircean extremes of performance, work so obsessed with action that it could barely think, and information media, work so highly encoded in symbolic form that it was incapable of affect. Now that digital editing could alter voice and gesture to simulacral perfection, the apparent naïveté of appearing live before the camera's witness had a new urgency. Emily Vey Duke, Scott Beveridge, and other artists exhibited pure affect for the camera, in performances whose virtue was in being as spontaneous as the single-take exhibitionism of their '70s forebears. Ironically, it was mostly thanks to digital editing that Hollywood movies, as always belatedly stealing ideas from independent artists, found new ways to produce affective responses in the audience.

At the extreme of Thirdness, artists moved to the small screen and concentrated information with such density that it could no longer be processed as information, but only affect. This time, however, the body experiencing hot flashes was not human but silicon-based. Attacked by,, and other online artworks, computers jittered with illegible information, sprouted rashes of windows on their faces, and crashed. Their human caretakers felt this affective rush, at most, sympathetically. Meanwhile, many Canadian media artists seized upon, or continued to develop, installation as a medium that was apparently more physical than the virtual light of single-screen projection. In works by David Rokeby, Nell Tenhaaf, and other interactive media artists, the intelligent interface embraced the visitor as though to spill its brains into our attentive bodies.


At the end of the decade, everybody was saying we had moved decisively from a visual culture to an information culture. What, then, would become the role of the audiovisual media that artists had been coddling and pummeling throughout the decade, indeed the century? Now that we had machines to see, hear, and act for us, raw experience was a more precious commodity than ever before. The processing of information and the debased notion of interactivity were behaviorist, Secondness-based modes, which besides our computers could do without us. Throughout the decade, experimental film and video artists had been pulling their media from the Secondness-based modes of narrative and critique to a Firstness that was felt only in the body, and a hyper-symbolic Thirdness that was experienced as First by the proxy bodies of our machines. We hoped that new connections, new mental images, some Third thing as yet unimagined, would come to animate our minds again.[9]


7572 words

[1] Charles S. Peirce, "The Categories in Detail," in Collected Papers, vol. 6, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931), 150.

[2] See William Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Film (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), and Scott Mackenzie, “Flowers in the Dustbin: Termite Culture and Detritus Cinema,” Cineaction! 47 (September 1998), 24-29.

[3] Peirce, "The Categories in Detail," 172-173.

[4] Gary Kibbins, "Bored Bedmates: Art and Criticism at the Decade's End," Fuse 22:2 (Spring 1999): 32-42.

[5] This reactive mode takes us into the footsteps of Bruce Elder, who memorably argued that experimental work is the quintessentially Canadian cinema in "The Cinema We Need," The Canadian Forum (February 1985); reprint, Documents in Canadian Film, ed. Douglas Fetherling, 260-271.

[6] Floyd Merrell, Peirce's Semiotics Now: A Primer (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1995), 116.

[7] Peirce, "The Categories in Detail," 150.

[8] Sally Berger, Beyond the Absurd, Beyond Cruelty: Donigan Cumming’s Staged Realities,” in Lux: A Decade of Artists’ Film and Video, ed. Steve Reinke and Tom Taylor (Toronto: YYZ Books and Pleasure Dome, 2000), 282.

[9] An earlier version of this essay appears in Lux: A Decade of Artists’ Film and Video, ed. Steve Reinke and Tom Taylor (Toronto: YYZ Books and Pleasure Dome, 2000), 15-33.