IN PURSUIT OF NORTHERN LIGHTS: Tracking Canada’s Living Cinema

Tracking Canada’s Living Cinema

Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak
Originally written for Cinematograph 7: Live Cinema, edited by Thomas Beard
January 2008


Scattered across four provinces, a constellation of artists emanate an intimate glow using antiquated equipment and nimble hands. Some exemplary flashes: The electro-tart Peaches, costumed by shards of colored light, instantly transforms from a “virgin” with rosy blush dots to a “man” with sweeping unibrow and moustache, through quick flicks of a marker and the flip of an overhead transparency. Looped 16mm footage of the British monarch is seized by hand and jammed in a projector gate, its blistering and burning magnified for all to see. Candy-colored illustrations of pimply youth engage in lonely and sordid sexual encounters, abetted by manual animation, optical illusions, and a live monologue about the pursuit of love and artistic success. An erratic history of human management, recalled through salvaged medical and business training films from the 1950s, shudders through twin analytic projectors, superimposed, hand-masked and filtered by gels.

The above clips illustrate recent performances by Toronto-based Shary Boyle, Montrealer Karl Lemieux, Winnipeg’s Daniel Barrow (now living in Montreal), and Vancouver’s Alex MacKenzie, respectively. These artists, working at the forefront of contemporary cinematic performance across Canada, represent two tendencies of a multivalent, transnational, projector-based screen practice. Both Boyle and Barrow orchestrate overhead projectors, hand-drawn and live animation, and their own shadows to realize fantastical vignettes and comic book narratives. Alternatively, Lemieux and MacKenzie manipulate hand-processed, self-shot, and found footage film in their formalist projector performances that entertain the potential for technical failure. Conspicuous, hand-modified, and old school analogue instruments trump the illusion of seamless, unseen technology in the performance work of these four artists, who range in age from late-20s to early-40s. Curiously, they are producing a Canadian pre-cinema that never existed; itinerant projectionists illuminating rooms throughout North America and beyond with their repertoire of updated magic lanterns and optical toys.

Despite a rich and varied tradition, the history of Canadian live cinema has gone largely undocumented. Early pioneers include the interdisciplinary artist Joyce Wieland, who designed a mixed media event in 1967 for Cinethon, a 45-hour festival of underground film in Toronto. Bill’s Hat, commissioned by the host venue Cinecity, “stretched one’s perceptions to just below the pain threshold” with its “writhing welter of sound,” stroboscopic lights, four slide shows, and a 50 minute movie.1 That same year, the government-sponsored, multi screen Labyrinth (Roman Kroitor, Hugh O’Connor, and Colin Low) was presented at Expo 67 in a custom-built, five-story pavilion. Wieland’s rowdy sound and light collage and the epic-scaled innovations that were developed for Montreal’s hugely successful World’s Fair thus initiated a homegrown expanded cinema in the late 1960s.

Favoring a more personal scale, John Porter has playfully performed with hand-held Super 8 projectors since the early 1970s. Porter describes his live pieces as “surround Super 8,” which he projects in galleries, cinemas, film cooperatives, and onto “passing people and vehicles while ‘film-busking’ at night.”2 One example is the Wild West themed “camera dance,” Shootout with Rebecca (1981). A play on words and a brilliant marriage of content and form, Porter enacts a carefully timed duel with a pre-filmed gunslinger, matching projected pistol against present projector. During the 1980s, Pierre Hébert created live animation with 16mm projection, a unique film engraving process, improvised music, and, occasionally, dance. Hébert would scratch directly on developed black leader seconds before it was drawn into the projector. Almost immediately, the viewer would bear witness to his ideographic interventions on the celluloid loop.3 A long time National Film Board of Canada animator, Hébert has recently gained international recognition for Between Science and Garbage (2001-), a series of collaborative performances with the American composer Bob Ostertag.

Since the 1960s, Canadian artists have incorporated live performance as one aspect of a wider interdisciplinary practice. For many, performance also provides a reason, or an opportunity, to team up with interesting, experimental, and often more well-known musicians. From Wieland’s multimedia happenings, to Hébert and Ostertag’s “living cinema,” to Shary Boyle’s visual-aural concerts with Peaches, Christine Fellows, and Doug Paisley (recently as an opening act for the U.S. balladeer Will Oldham), to Karl Lemieux’s ensemble projects with Jerusalem in My Heart and Just’Au Crane, Canadians have been sharing and crossbreeding film, art and music audiences for several decades.

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