A Vision in a Dream

On Pleasure Dome

by cheyanne turions, with Eli Horwatt

Originally published in Color Magazine 9.5, 2012

Delivering on a heritage that departs from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic fragment Kubla Khan and Kenneth Anger’s moving image work Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, the Toronto-based exhibition collective Pleasure Dome is home to film and video practices at the periphery of experimental film culture. It isn’t really a place: their programming squats various venues across the city, including cinemas, galleries and film festivals. Rather, Pleasure Dome is a state of exhibitionism that departs from the historical American avant garde to present work that is stranger, queerer. They call it fringe film and you can recognize it by the force with which it hits the screen (HARD).

Its membership is an organic amalgam of those who joyfully encounter Pleasure Dome and comprise a diverse range of makers, thinkers, curators and academics. Operating in the tradition of the underground screening series, their seasonal programs (winter, summer and fall) cover a lot of ground in exhibiting a diversity of media art practices, which is indexical to the variety of creative types involved in the collective. Keenly aware of available presentation and exhibition contexts, they steadfastly seeks out artists who incorporate the uncommon, alive and spontaneous into their work, challenging the conditions of black box cinema where docile audiences passively watch on. In many ways, Pleasure Dome is a feedback loop. They intently foster prolonged interactions between artists and audiences, developing communities that endure long after the projector is turned off.

In its origins, Pleasure Dome was one of the few ongoing exhibitors of independent, artist driven, experimental media work. Perhaps as a measure of its success, this kind of work is now part and parcel of Toronto’s film communities (even the Toronto International Film Festival, an industry machine, now features an extensive program of art film under its Wavelengths moniker), and so Pleasure Dome continues to chase the horizon of what else film and video can be. At the forefront of their thinking is an interest in supporting artists who transform boundaries into worksites and question ruling orthodoxies about art-making. In this way the collective is an evolution in tandem with the artists it supports.

Pleasure Dome’s seasonal schedules allow for programming that is particularly contemporary, responding to social and political urgencies of the day. In its 20+ years of programming, the collective has disproportionately focused on issues around identity and representation, featuring the works of artists who are, or were once, marginalized because of gender, sexual orientation or race. In this way, their programming slates are expressly anti-hegemonic and derive from an activist motivation to create a venue for whispered histories. They showcase media art that might otherwise fall between the cracks, inviting work that is ambiguous, ethically evocative and difficult.

The collective also acknowledges the mutability and resonance of work through time, mounting retrospectives of important if under-acknowledged filmmakers to new audiences. This fall, for instance, they will be presenting the moving images of Donigan Cumming, an artist famous and infamous for his representations of the radically other. In the 16 years since he started making films, what of his subject matter still has the power to perplex or revolt an audience? And why?

Also as part of their fall schedule, Pleasure Dome’s upcoming presentation of Robinson in Ruins (2010), the final film in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson Trilogy, follows the eponymous title character as he crosses the English countryside expounding upon myriad millennial anxieties and premonitions of late capitalist collapse. It is a timely presentation of the work, coming as it does following widespread rioting across the UK and amidst paradigm-shifting unrest and uncertainty in the face of global austerity and economic crisis.

By pointing backward and forward in time, Pleasure Dome asks its audience to consider what else we might become. And then, audaciously, they take a chance to make it happen through their support of our hypotheses, however wild, implausible or utopic.

Pleasure Dome is a future-tense mode of existence.