We Need Not an Archive, but Songs

We Need Not an Archive, but Songs

Online program. We Need Not an Archive, but Songs (August 2020) has now expired.


Double-sided Tape, Bo Fan (2018)
Kunįkága Remembers Red Banks, Kunįkága Remembers the Welcome Song, Sky Hopinka (2014)
We Began by Measuring Distance, Basma Alsharif (2012)

We Need Not an Archive, but Songs
Curation and essay by Tak Pham

Over the last 30 years, Pleasure Dome has been at the forefront of recognizing and celebrating innovation in moving images, as well as, cultural discourses of the time. Experimentations by artists featured in Pleasure Dome’s program archive capture centurial zeitgeists as they propagated onto other practices and media. Honourable media artists such as Andrew Lorna Mills, Allyson Mitchell, James Peterson, and Steve Reinke have left their marks in not only Toronto, but Canadian media art history.

Since early 2010s, curatorial vision and programming activities at Pleasure Dome has reflected a move towards the urgent conversations about social justices. Working with the guest curators and organizations such as Reel Asian, and South Asian Visual Arts Centre among many, Pleasure Dome has been deliberate in their presentation of experimental media artworks that challenge boundaries between myriad versions of narratives and histories, amplify oppressed and repressed voices, reflect the State’s historical colonial legacy, and capture the complex and difficult effort to reconcile a mirage of internal conflicts from displaced and uprooted identities. On Pleasure Dome’s 30th birthday, I would like to present a selection of three outstanding artwork from past programs that highlight Pleasure Dome’s efforts in engaging and sustaining with the relevant theme of Migration and Displacement.

Often Going Back Home to Visit Our Parents

The video starts with footage of a beach. A lady wearing a pillowy white t-shirt enters the frame from the left as the camera pans leftward showing more people, children, parents, families getting down to the waves. On this personal vacation recording, we hear a conversation between a man and a woman. The man pleads:

Promise one thing. Pa won’t ever know.

The woman reassures:

I promise.

This is the opening sequence to Bo Fan’s 2018 work Double-sided Tape. The 5:30 minute video was curated in Pleasure Dome’s Summer 2019 program Fly by Night, an experimental art park hang out in Lee Lifeson Art Park located in the Greater Toronto Area of North York. A combination of screenings and performances by sound artists and musicians, the event sought to highlight and celebrate the “rhythms and waves of immigrant narratives that sustain and thrive” in the area.

Fan’s narrative builds on a popular Chinese karaoke song Often Going Back Home to Visit Our Parents. The lyrics talk about an adult child returning home with their loved ones to visit their parents and family. The song is often sung during Chinese Lunar New Year time to celebrate family reunion and the wish for the continuation of the lineage, the family’s name.

The first two lines of the song sing:

To find a little bit of leisure, to find a little bit of time, to take our children home to visit our parents often.

With smiles, with good wishes, to take our spouse home to visit our parents often.

The celebratory and joyful spirit of the song is illustrated by sewed together footages from both Fan’s personal archive and scenes from a 1993 movie The Wedding Banquet. In someway like Fan’s personal life, the movie directed by Ang Lee tells a story of a Taiwanese gay man Wai-Tung Gao who lives with his white American boyfriend Simon in Manhattan. Wai-Tung keeps his relationship a secret to his parents. At the pressure from his parents to sustain the family’s line, he even finds a penniless Chinese woman to stage a fake marriage. Things are going to plan, until one day the parents come to America to help him organize his fake wedding. The collision of Gao’s two realities, two worlds, and his relentless endeavor to shield the truth from his parents, everything starts to break down towards the end of the movie.

Fan does not rely on the movie to tell his story; as such, he cuts together only happy scenes. Without prior knowledge of the movie, the work screens seamlessly as a montage from one singular source. The references subtly come through in multiple text overs expressing sentiments, disdains, worries of the speakers about the importance and responsibility of carrying on the family’s name through offspring.

There are many ways to be unfilial; the worst is to not produce offspring.
There are many ways to be unfilial; the worst is not having offspring.
There are many ways to be unfilial; the worst is to not fulfil one’s duty as an offspring.

The title “Double-sided Tape” appears to be a metaphor of an adhesive trying to hold together two planes of existence. Both Fan’s and Gao’s efforts in reconciling the worlds: a life as a homosexual man and a life as a dutiful son. Fan clarifies in an interview; the work is not a resistance to traditional Chinese or Confucian values as audience in the Western world would have thought. In reiterating the “ways to be unfilial,” Fan contemplates on the way to sufficiently translate the expectation of the way place and connect it to the other. He elaborates, “I guess I was also hoping to use the video to bridge the gap between my dad and me.”

Kunįkága Remembers Red Banks, Kunįkága Remembers the Welcome Song

Sky Hopinka’s 2014 10-minute video Kunįkága Remembers Red Banks, Kunįkága Remembers the Welcome Song investigates Red Bank, a pre-contact Hočąk village site near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. The video was curated by Zali Dinçel in Pleasure Dome’s Winter 2016 screening program Minority Report: Films of Colonization and Abandonment of Land. Like Fan in Double-sided Tape, Hopinka juxtaposes first-person account and collective memory. His grandmother’s recollection of the site and historical records of the 1634 landing of Jean Nicolet who was the first European to put foot on modern-day Wisconsin.

Hopinka’s grandmother paints a lively and resourceful site where the Hočąk dwelled.

It was appropriate to suit the need that they had: hunting, fishing, the berries, to maintain themselves. The soil was fertile. The water was full of fish.

Hopinka’s grandmother cannot recall where her people started living on the land, but she knows that they have always been there. Nobody discovered us. The grandmother’s narration stops as Hopinka’s travel footage of highway roads seen from car windows comes to a montage of water. This body of water suggests Hopinka has finally arrived at the Red Banks. The melodic undulation of waves crashing onto the shore, the sound of water caressing lake stones and pebbles brings a sense of home-coming serenity. Hopinka’s intense close-up on the water and increasing emphasis on the lower, bass sounding, registers in the soundtrack foreshadows an impending uneasiness signaling a transition to the second part of the video.

The second chapter of the video begins with a welcome message spoken in Hočąk language. English subtitles overlay montage of water, lake, riverbanks, and the sun.

He wore a grand robe of China damask, all strewn with flowers and birds of many colours.
No sooner did they perceive him than the women and children fled, at the sight of a man who carried thunder in both hands –for thus they called the two pistols that he held.

The lines above are excerpts from Jesuit priest Father Vimont’s 1642 “Jesuit Relation” reporting the reception of Jean Nicolet’s arrival to the Red Banks. As shown in the video, many visual depictions of this arrival refer to the descriptions of the Father Vimont. Assuming the central position on the picture plane, Nicolet debarks the canoe wearing a red China damask while both his hands shoot warning shoots into the sky announcing his arrival. In the foreground, the Hočąk men recoil. The reason for Nicolet donning a China damask was that, like Christopher Columbus, Nicolet mistook the Red Banks shore for Chinese land. Nicolet was on a mission to find an easier trade route to connect New France to the Asian continent. Against the images of the occasions, a song sung in the native tongue beats a rhythm through the scene. Hopinka’s grandma’s voice comes back on to tell the audience that we have just listened to the “Welcome Song.”

I call it the Wisconsin Dells Welcome Song
Why is that?
Because the first place I learned when we used to do dances at the ceremonials, at Stand Rock, Wisconsin Dells, that was their welcome song.

Hopinka’s editorial decision to end on a positive and welcoming note reveals the ironic nature of memory and trauma. Grandmother remembers the land in how it fed her stomach and spirit. History remembers the land in series of events. Do we mask tragedy with happy memory as a coping mechanism? and to what extend does happy memory remain objectively factual? or should it cease to entertain fictions, especially when despite the masking, trauma still manages to leaves it residue.

We Began by Measuring Distance

From Summer 2012 program This Story Begins and Ends with Us, one of the earliest program in Pleasure Dome’s archive that signals a shift of focus to the migration issue, Basma Alsharif’s We Began by Measuring Distance opens with a footage series of cityscapes and the sky. Sporadic high-rises put together rugged terrains. Stratus floats across the sun and moon. Like Fan and Hopinka, Alshari constructs the 18-minute video with two parts: BOREDOM and THE VIRGIN FOREST. The first documents a disappearance of a homeland, witnessed from the 28th floor of an apartment building.

We switched off the air conditioning and stood witness behind our windows as a dense fog settled across the body of water below us. When it cleared, we found that our surrounding had frozen over, and we grew more and more and more and more and more and more and more…

To further emphasizes this sense of disorientation and the cross-generationally geopolitical shifts, Alsahri invites the audience to a game of measurements. They measure: a 360-degree circle, one foot, a shape, an apple; however, the measurements always come up to some other incomparable value. Then, they bring the measurement outside their apartment and try to find a distance between two points. A white sheet stretched between two trees. Failing short of the gap, two people hold each end of the sheet as a series of distances digitally flash on the surface. The voiceover starts to list the two points that will be measured: from Rome to Geneva: 695 km, Geneva to Madrid: 1024 km, Madrid to Olso, 2391 km, Oslo to Sharm el Sheikh: 3988 km, Sharm el Sheikh to Gaza: 405 km, Gaza to Jerusalem: 78 km. Then the distance between Gaza and Jerusalem begins to decrease from 78 to 67, to 48, to 17.

The second part THE VIRGIN FOREST strings together a collection of idyllic shots. Coral reef floats and waves to underwater currents, whilst the audience hear a narration describing the attributes of a virgin forest. The narrator tells us how

The multilayer canopy produces a heavily filtered light, and the feeling of shade is accentuated by sunlight on clear days.
The understory of shrubs, herbs, and tree seedings is often moderate, and is almost always patchy in distribution and abundance.
Numerous logs, often large and in various stages of decay, litter the forest floor, creating some travel routes for wildfire and blocking others.

And how

… a visitor gazing toward the ground will often mistake dead trees in early stages of decay for live trees.

In the bewilderment of what is dead and what is alive. Shots of fluorescent jellyfish pulsating in deep-sea are juxtaposed with footage of bombs raining over a city’s night sky. Against a waltz soundtrack, the differentiation between death and life feels abstract. They look the same, they have the same energy, but they are essentially not the same. Maybe one dies in order for the other to live just like how decaying trees create a firewall so that the surviving trees can grow; and just like the distance remaining between Gaza and Jerusalem reveals the aggression, it also represents an effort to put down a firewall regardless how futile it has been. In Alsharif’s measuring game, death and life dance a sacrificial tune, a song that will memorialize one’s homeland.

We Need Not an Archive, but Songs

The selected artworks above were featured in separate Pleasure Dome’s programs from the last eight years: Summer 2019, Winter 2016, and Summer 2012, respectively. Despite jumps in timeline, different curatorial contexts and diverse personal accounts, the three artworks exhibit a coherence in formal structures as well as a collective approach to processing cross-generational traumas and displacements. Fan, Hopinka, and Alsharif utilize juxtaposition of the personal, archival, and historical footage to carve out surreal space where the fiction and the real are intertwined. Inside this space, the artists try to reconnect, to bridge, and to measure up the distance of displacement between cities, between family, between languages, and between stories.

Diasporic experience is unlike a long story where the narrative is chronological and cohesive. Evident in the diverse subject matters in three selected artworks, the diasporic experience is comparable to a collection of shorts, dissimilar accounts with each next one somewhat a little removed from the last and furthest away from the original. It is also precisely this missing link, that members of this community – artists and audience alike – seek to return to. One could easily evoke a comparison to the three artists’ approaches to Jacques Derrida’s well-known 1994 published lecture Archive Fever, in which he explains the need for the archive – en mal d’archive – that is already within all of us. As sung in Fan’s karaoke song, diasporic subjects all yearn for a day to be able to go back visit their parents; or as Alsharif puts it in the first chapter of the video: to pass time, we indulged in a book memorializing our homeland. However, the artists do not necessarily subscribe to the same journey that Derrida has laid out, hence my deferment in summoning any philosophical framework until this point. As diasporic subjects, especially socially and historically marginalized ones, we no longer have a place to return to. We left because it was unsafe in the first place. Derrida’s “desire to return to the origins” for us is problematic. On the contrary, we sustain and move forward on these memories. The memories of surreal and confused place where memories, wishes, dreams, fictions, and facts live together to weave into a song, a dance, that is joyous in its most abstract form.

Tak Pham is a Vietnamese curator and a critic. He is a graduate of Carleton University and OCAD University. His essays and reviews have appeared in espace art actuel, esse arts + opinions, Canadian Art, The Senses and Society Journal, and The Dance Current among others. Pham is currently Assistant Curator at MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan.