In Visible Colours – Rosemary Heather In Conversation With Zainub Verjee

September 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

A groundbreaking film and video festival made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Vancouver stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics

Still from Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Canadian premiere at InVisible Colours. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The personal trajectory of Zainub Verjee over the past four decades intersects with cultural moments that continue to resonate.

Born in Kenya and educated in the UK, Verjee arrived in Canada in the 1970s to study economics at Simon Fraser University. A close collaborator with Ken Lum in the early years of Vancouver’s photoconceptualism movement, and with Sara Diamond on a history of women’s labour in British Columbia, Verjee also helped build the international profile of the Western Front throughout the 1990s. Her policy work on the BC Arts Board in the early 1990s helped produce the province’s Arts Council Act, leading to the formation of the BC Arts Council, and she later worked on early digital initiatives at the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

As a practicing artist in the 1980s and ’90s, Verjee was included in national and international group exhibitions, including “New Canadian Video” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994; “TransCulture,” a satellite exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995; “Traversing Territory, Part II: Road Movies in a Post-Colonial Landscape,” curated by Judith Mastai for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 1997; and “Tracing Cultures III,” curated by Karen Henry and installed at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby in 1997. (“A first when contemporary art was shown in a mosque in Canada,” says Verjee.)

 One of the defining legacies in Verjee’s career is In Visible Colours (IVC), an international festival in Vancouver dedicated to film and video by women of colour that she co-founded, with Lorraine Chan, in 1989. A landmark event of its time, IVC assembled works by then-emerging artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gurinder Chadha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita and Mona Hatoum. IVC and the issues it foregrounded is one reason why, from Verjee’s perspective, the identity politics of today is in large part a return to a conversation that started in the 1980s.

Rosemary Heather: It’s been almost 30 years since you staged In Visible Colours, with more than 100 films and videos by artists from 28 countries and 75 international delegates in attendance. The event focused on global issues around diversity and representation. What do you think has changed in the intervening time? Have we seen any progress?

Zainub Verjee: In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.

 IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker?

To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.

RH: So IVC was essentially informed by that era’s worldwide push for decolonialization, but with a stronger emphasis on discourse, correct?

ZV: IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval.

There were transatlantic responses in the art world: In New York, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” in 1984, can be read in context of the ascendancy of two generations of Black artists (this includes South Asians) in the UK in the early 1980s. Their contrasting relationship to modernism, and opposition to anticolonial and postcolonial politics, resulted in the making of the Black British Arts movement.

In Canada, the 1951 Massey Report frames this nation-building project, and despite its multiple flaws—primarily its Eurocentric orientation— remains well entrenched today. The failure of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to a flurry of counter-events with the emergence of second-wave feminism. Race also became a major element in this collective endeavour and shook the cultural institutional apparatus. IVC was a forerunner of these phenomena.

RH: You worked with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was a key inspiration for Black British Arts—the radical political art movement founded in the UK in 1982 and inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique. How did Black British Arts influence IVC?

ZV: Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.

Over that decade, artists and thinkers such as Hall, Sonia Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Kobena Mercer and Rasheed Araeen, and institutions like the Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Third Text, were other major influences. They informed me about the agency I had as a person of colour and how I could use that position to intervene on the racialized gender issues of cultural production and institutional discourse that had been unleashed by globalization and a new neoliberal order.

RH: Was this conversation also happening in Vancouver at the time?

ZV: Indeed. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, Chilean women in the exile community established themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles and left movements. Pinochet was, after all, the poster boy of the neoliberal regime!

In 1987, I started working at Women in Focus Society (WIF), a feminist, arts and media centre devoted to women’s cultural production in film, video and the visual arts in Vancouver. I recall the WIF exhibition “Mujer, arte y periferia” [Women, art and periphery], in 1987, raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship as well as the “placement” of women’s art.

It was within these larger contexts that I noticed there were no works by women of colour in WIF’s distribution collection. This overwhelming absence of the voice of women of colour in the Canadian context led to the first conversations that ultimately took the form of IVC.

RH:
 This sense of tumult at the end of the 1980s produced other exhibitions that were equally influential to the direction of IVC. Can you talk about that?

ZV: The two-year period leading to IVC in 1989 became coterminous with other exhibitions of equal critical import.

In Paris, in response to the colonial ethnography of MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition, Jean-Hubert Martin curated “Magiciens de la Terre,” presenting works by more than 100 Western and non-Western artists from 50 countries. In London, Araeen’s “The Other Story” invoked multiple modernities. And in Ottawa, Gerald McMaster’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” framed Indigenous contemporary expression without any apology, offering a definitive moment in the contemporary art history of Canada.

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2017 issue of Canadian Art.

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Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz – An Exhibition

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007. View of the exhibition at KW, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.

Writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1983 when Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 14 1/2 hour film epic was first shown in the US, the New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby noted that the – at that time – recent appearance of home video rental offered a way to negotiate the film’s unfeasible length, and also possibly presaged the creation of a new art form. Canby was right about this, but in a way that he could not have anticipated. The idea that video rentals could democratize and decentralize artworks, putting control into viewer’s hands has been borne out in spectacular fashion by the online video site YouTube, which invented not only new conditions for viewing but an entire universe of viewer-created content.

The question of whether the short videos that can be seen on YouTube can be considered art is entirely germane to Klaus Bisenbeck’s presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Kunst Werker in Berlin. A major force at the KW since its inception, and now also a curator at PS1 in New York, Bisenbeck is a controversial figure in the Berlin art world. This exhibition will do nothing to alter that reputation. All credit should be given to him for the scale of vision he brings to the staging of Fassbinder’s film. Although revered internationally, the German attitude to the director continues to be ambivalent. As a friend of mine said Fassbinder was “too gay, too political and took too many drugs” to really be a welcome addition to the pantheon of great German artists. Recognition of Bisenbeck’s achievement, however, can’t avoid mention of the obvious caveat about the way this exhibition reduces the conditions for viewing the work to the diminished scale of a contemporary audiences’ YouTube-like attention spans.

Originally made for German television in 1980, the film’s 13 episodes plus an epilogue, which have been re-mastered for 35mm, are shown as loops in 14 separate viewing booths. The film is also screened in its entirety in a small adjacent room outfitted with cinema-style seating. While this is intended to provide a context for the liberties the KW takes in presenting the film as an art installation, the intact screening of the film also makes the weaknesses of the latter strategy apparent. Perhaps this was intentional too? Certainly the exhibition is successful in staging a dialogue between the two formats of viewing. In contrast to the strong narrative pull one experiences when the film is seen as a whole, the installation caters to a more distracted form of reception. Temporarily constructed for the show, the 14 connected booths snake around the perimeter of the KW’s ground floor exhibition space, the last booth functioning like an exit into a central atrium-like area where the obverse screen of all the projections can be seen simultaneously. The effect is spectacular, the coherence of Fassbinder’s vision being blown apart into competing disjunctive fragments.

The claim of the show’s press release is that presenting the film in this way allows the viewer to decide “how they want to approach it”. The assertion ignores the fact that viewers’ have always been able to decide how they approach an art exhibition, but the KW is merely speaking in lingua franca of the contemporary art world when it emphasizes the viewer’s ability to participate in an exhibition as one of its main attributes. As English literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes, the current culture’s preoccupation with audience interactivity originates in reception theory’s insight that, “readers were quite as vital to the existence of writing as authors.”1.

Reception theory gave the world the idea that readers and viewers have an active role to play in the creation of meaning, but the question remains: What meaning can result from presenting Fassbinder’s film in this way? Fragmenting the German director’s massive cinematic accomplishment into bite-sized pieces would seem to play to our culture’s worst atomizing tendencies. Take the time to watch an episode from beginning to end, sitting in a viewing booth on one of the cushions provided, and your patience will be rewarded; Fassbinder’s greatness as a director ensures that. Presented with so much choice, however (leaving aside the possibility of watching each episode in full, laboriously going from booth to booth in chronological order to undermine the show’s premise) the urge is to flit around and sample the film, suggesting that the point is to experience its ambience rather than meaningfully engage with its content.

View the work as a momentary series of encounters, and the static quality of Fassbinder’s dramaturgy becomes apparent — but then he never was a director interested in naturalism. Enter a random choice of rooms in quick succession and you get the impression that all of Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place while the characters sit around talking to each other in one bar or another. The presentation makes the film’s typological connection with the genre of the soap opera apparent. Regardless, viewing the film in this way also gives it the fascinating quality of a parallel universe. Each screen is like a window proving a figurative glimpse into Berlin’s past, a world comprised of the extraordinary history of the city and the artworks and literature it has inspired.

The precedent for Bisenbeck’s show is Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993). Gordon’s premise was that presenting Hitchcock’s famous film as an installation (slowing the projection down to a speed of 24 frames per minute) would reveal the film’s unconscious: the ulterior world it created beyond any of individual element of the director’s intention. Considered from this angle, Bisenbeck’s installation works exceptionally well; he compounds the brilliance of Fassbinder’s work by abstracting it. In the process, the prismatic reality he created is made apparent, not only in this film but in Fassbinder’s body of work as a whole.

1. After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin Books, London, 2003. p. 53.

By Rosemary Heather

Curated by Klaus Bisenbeck
Kunst Werker Institute for Contemporary Art
Berlin, March 18-May 13th, 2007

This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings # 103

Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here

July 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

Daniel Cockburn

A bemused and slightly anxious film, Daniel Cockburn’s first feature You Are Here(2010) is a perfectly concocted expression of everything we don’t understand about our new century.

Fitting for a movie that features the viewer in its starring role – the “you” of the title – a central character in Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here (2010) is the aggregate entity ‘Alan’. The film creates Alan by layering in quick succession, shots of different men and women performing – or failing to perform – a series of small actions. Cockburn uses this device to displace the viewer identification that typically drives a film’s narrative. Meanwhile, a voice muses about the fragile nature of identity. “Are you the same person before and after putting something down and picking it up again?

Bruce LaBruce in Conversation with Rosemary Heather

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Canadian art provocateur Bruce La Bruce

Bruce sees porn as the last radical art form

Well, Googie in Super 8½says “I don’t give a damn about continuity.” And it is kind of a luxury, continuity. Because you have to have a person who is specifically hired to do that job and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing. The person who was doing it on Otto had no clue what she was doing and she’d never done it before and she would come to me and explain all the continuity errors of a scene that I just shot after the fact. And I’d be like, “Oh well, thanks for telling me now”. After everything had been shot…

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