New Toronto Works 2020 Essay by Katherine Connell

Within experimental media, the temptation to position works in contrast to narrative and its myriad pleasures is a well-worn (potentially too-worn) idea. Conversely, Pleasure Dome’s New Toronto Works (2020) present a prism of approaches to experimental media that shift cinematic storytelling conventions like a Rubik’s cube, unlocking new arrangements of approaches to identity, sexuality, history and the artistic process. These are works that respond to new theoretical directions in film and new media, but also resist confinement and validation within abstruse artistic conversations. These New Toronto Works are just as engaged with the immediacy of the world that contextualizes them; from the urgency of politics and the failures of capitalism, to the fascinating contradictions of popular culture.

In a recent piece for Artforum, theorist Paul B. Preciado describes a whirlwind of anxieties brought on by the changes to life during COVID-19, speculating a concerning near future:

Everything will forever retain the new shape that things had taken. From now on, we would have access to ever more excessive forms of digital consumption, but our bodies, our physical organisms, would be deprived of all contact and of all vitality. The mutation would manifest as a crystallization of organic life, as a digitization of work and consumption and as a dematerialization of desire.

In the wake of this online program’s “dematerialization,” we lament the loss of the immediacy and live interpersonal magic that our original programming—formerly a screening at Toronto’s 519 Centre—might have produced. Despite this, New Toronto Works showcases art that activates, animates, and confronts our sensorium. As we, like Preciado, yearn for that future moment in which IRL interpersonal contact resumes, the haptic and affective qualities of this multifaceted program rouse the goosebumps on our spectatorial bodies. In turn, we might find our complex feelings about the present situation recognized and evoked by this program.

Life under social distancing is a spatiotemporal labyrinth during which we discover new relationships to our bodies and those of others. Two metres of space have separated us on sidewalks and the sudden intensities of domestic life have resituated us, but so have the scrolling feeds of social media, the quadrants of Zoom calls, and the perpetuity of streaming media. Poignantly, Freya Björg Olafson’s Disembodied Beings (2019) challenges the binary separation between real and hyperreal, material and immaterial, virtual and embodied. Human and computerized figures move and dance alongside one another, on the cusp of transgressing the spaces to which they’re bound and (im)possibly touching in earnest. Olafson—whose video brings together motion capture technologies, 3D modelling, and found audio footage from YouTube (the voiceover in this film is sourced from human accounts of astral projection)—shows us disembodiment as a nuanced phenomenon. Though the virtual can be liberating, even sublime, it can also be a predictable space in which normative modes of idealism get reified, as with the sexy computerized dancers who uncomfortably orient our gaze at the film’s end.

While less overtly posthuman, Sonia Beckwith’s mixed-media animated short The Bathers (2019) playfully adapts and revises Cézanne’s iconic painting of the same titles. While Cézanne’s painting captures an idyllic stasis amongst nude women lounging lakeside, Beckwith Cole’s video celebrates and naturalizes the bodily quirks, secretions, and exploratory activities of the three women who paint their lips with berries, pick bellybutton lint, jiggle bodies, and nap on one another’s bums. Beckwith uses a cartoonish aesthetic to, conversely, imbue The Bathers with an observed naturalism. The result is a film that acts as comedic counterpoint to art historical representations of women as beacons of idealism. Nikole Hidalgo McGregor’s Aches (2019) is also about the body, peeking into parts of the artistic process that are often made invisible. An impressive fusion of animation and surrealism, Aches captures three different sequences in which the artist’s engaged body crunches and cracks in strain.

If embodiment is inseparable from artistic process, Andrew Lennox’s Little Boshkung (“lake of many echoes”) (2019) and Madi Piller’s Not Moldova, 1937 (2019) also explore the material dimensions of artistic memory. Using the bleeding chemical colours and spectral qualities produced by emulsion lift techniques, Little Boshkung begins with a line from one of Susan Goyette poem’s: “this house is a maze of those bare walls, perfect for showing home movies on./And I am the projector.” Goyette’s epigraph frames Little Boshkung’s approach to linking cinema, the body, and memory: voiceover constructs a lyrical, poetic narrative in which the speaker reflects on the familial impact of his brother’s drowning. While we internalize this story, our eyes float over a patchwork of film cells. This arrangement of material appears topographical, literalizing the ways that the filmic image can both map memory and act as a repository for it.

Also contemplative in approach, Madi Piller’s Not Moldova, 1937 is about the historical extermination and displacement of Jews in Moldova, a group to which the artist’s grandparents belong. The weathering of historical memory is focalized here, with quotidian objects, worn architecture, and the natural world presented as matter in which the past fragments and erupts. Piller’s filmic textures open up fully felt, empathetic, and sensory avenues into historical experience. As such, Not Moldova is a testament to the ways that moving image works can command not only the spectator’s attention but their body, illustrating the haptic properties of intercultural cinema that Laura U. Marks discusses in The Skin of the Film.

On the other hand, Cody Rooney’s Memory and Distortion (2019) questions cinema’s capacity to hold or present memory, using ‘datamoshing’ to glitch together old family footage and early filmmaking pursuits. The literalization of error in the form of the glitch—with it’s colourful rain of pixilation—reminds us that every image and memory is distorted, an erroneous reconstruction. Finding inspiration in Jacques Rancière’s theories of artistic spectatorship, Rooney challenges the viewer as we try to make sense of past and present, fiction and reality, and our subjective relationship to images that chronicle the lives of others.

Polemical prodding at the spectator takes on a more transgressive tone in Bo Fan’s Coherence (or maybe not…) (2019) which embraces the self-reflexivity of the essay film by juxtaposing disparate images with reflective text running as a subtitle track throughout the film. This text, which is neither translation nor caption, meditates on a wide range of topics: identity, sexuality, language, and creative processes. Coherence is self-aware of its status as ripe bait for the interventions of critical theory and warns against the way these readings can subsume experimental work. While the subtitle track describes the narrator’s interest in “pooping,” we’re told that fecal fascination “gets boring when you try to theorize or intellectualize it. Especially associated with the idea of abject. Such a cliché.” While often tackling serious topics, Coherence (or maybe not…) is decidedly against the social currency of artistic or academic seriousness, exhibiting vulnerable, provocative humour that can provide useful frameworks for the present. This resonates with critic Esmé Hogeveen’s conceptualization of emergent affective relationships which get embodied by the figure of the sad clown Pierrot: “levity through laughter can be like an ephemeral sun patch on an unswept floor. A reminder of possibility or change, or even that one’s perspective is bound to shift alongside uncontrollable global forces.” While Hogeveen refers to how we respond to new absurdities, Renée Lear’s Here You Can Only Gain Respect by Killing Other Men (2019) responds to old ones. Here You Can Only Gain Respect by Killing Other Men intercuts fight scenes from director Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”: famous Spaghetti Western films starring Clint Eastwood. Lear’s rapid-fire juxtaposition of footage highlights the spectacle of masculinity that these films make visible. Just as this piece emphasizes the weirdness and largeness of Leone’s films to comedic ends, the artist’s experimental annotation of film history critically engages her own cinephilia.

Sophia Jaworski’s Unquiet on the Western Front (2019) can also be considered a form of cultural annotation. This work uses the hiccups of glitch art, the uncanny nature of found footage, and the eerie surveillance of Google Maps to propel us through a phantasmagoria of contemporary content. As viewers, we’re interpellated into colourful action by recurring segments that propel our onscreen avatar down a tubular, intestine-like waterslide. The act of sliding—in all of its claustrophobia—is analogous to contemporary anxieties: how much control do we have over our surroundings as we’re propelled forward? Will we get stuck inside the tube with the Troll doll-esque Trump figures that suddenly dominate the screen, or will we violently glide to an unknown end: a sudden splash into a deep pool of postmodernity? Even as the image of a Google mapped ghost town buffers to black, we’re left with a lingering eeriness, a sense that the ride hasn’t ended. It’s an uncanny feeling that gets matched by Jan Swiburne’s CRACKERS a brief history of code (2019) which composes its palpitating soundtrack from codified, remixed audio of the artist saying the word “crackers,” which becomes transposed into hypnotic visual configurations.

The present moment is undeniably sharp edged: moments of melancholy, mourning, and panic are scattered throughout a present that stretches before us uncertainly. As the ground beneath us continues to shift, a new curiosity also emerges. In this unprecedented context, this is how we can interpret the ‘newness’ referred to in the title of our program: New Toronto Works.

These pieces—and the inquisitiveness that runs across them—are not a balm for the now but a spark: one that reminds us that we’re never fixed in one spot, story, or medium…and when we feel that we are, we might try shifting course.

— Katherine Connell, May 2020