Video Rental Store: An Interview with Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot and Su-Ying Lee

The following is an interview with Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot and Su-Ying Lee, a collective of cultural producers working in contemporary art under the moniker MUSE. MUSE is a collaborative project that places experimental strategies at the forefront of their creative process and practice, which stems from over ten years of combined experience as artists, curators, programmers, educators, and administrators. MUSE’s launch of Under New Management’s Video Rental Store in Toronto, Canada from August 2-15, 2010, is part of a larger project that hybridizes exhibition-based practices and experiential methods examining the relationship between art and its vast milieu.As made evident by the project’s name, Video Rental Store takes on the video store as a space for distributing video art, facilitating audience participation, and determining or contesting value through the honor system. Following a pay-what-you-wish model, audiences are invited to contribute whatever they deem appropriate, the sum of which is forwarded directly to artists. Video exchanges happen during hours of operation as by the traditional video store definition.This interview focuses on the space of the video store and its potential for generating new modes of thinking about value through alternative economies. Situated somewhere between old school bartering philosophies and new school debates about file sharing online, the Video Rental Store project exist as an experiment that utilizes the video store as metaphor for the circulation of culture.

 


Mél Hogan: Tell me what inspired this idea of “video rental store.” Who is behind this project? How did it start? Where does it end?

Su-Ying Lee: The video rental store is part of a larger project—a group exhibition in stages. The project does not take place in a gallery; instead it uses a retail space as a platform. We capitalize on some of the characteristics associated with such a space. Hence, the video portion of the exhibition as rental.

There exist parallels in the identities of artists and curators as producers and viewers as consumers. The physical context of the project allows us to further make visible those aspects of our respective roles.

This is also an experiment about value, trust, and generosity, which involves exchange between the artist and the viewer. The viewer borrows the video work on an honor system basis. They are asked to return it within a certain “rental period” with payment. The payment portion is open-ended. They pay what they wish. We accept non-monetary exchange for rental. There is a chance that the viewer may not return the work at all and there will be no penalty for this. The artists participate with the understanding that there is the element of risk. This may yield disappointment or delight.

Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot: The project is never-ending in regards to idea generation and potential for future iterations.

MH: When you sent out the call for videos for this project, it was open to everyone. You were hoping to receive hundreds of videos to “keep the store shelves stocked.”

How many videos did you receive? How close are you to achieving passable video rental store status?

SC-B: The call for submissions was distributed through a number of different venues including our own email lists, visual art and performance art listservs, and universities. We also solicited work directly from artists that we regularly work with and admire to ensure their participation in the store/exhibition. No video was ever turned away. If work of a sexual or violent nature was submitted we made note on the cases, which were fabricated by our Exhibition Assistant, Katherine Hong. This notation was not done to censor but was in keeping with commercial video rental store policies regarding age appropriateness.

In the end we had 35 artists participate in the project contributing over 65 videos.  I would have liked to see more in the collection to reflect the capacity that a commercial rental store has on its shelves, but time, resources, and exhibition space dictated those numbers. As it was our first time, some artists were uncertain of what to make of the distribution of their work in that manner and if it would be a successful venture. I think that with the next store—due to the overwhelmingly positive response to the concept and execution—will garner a broader response from artists interested in participating. It will break down the barrier of having to explain the project in a “what if?” scenario and established the credibility of the endeavor.  

MH: Something about it feels like it is mimicking virtual file sharing, which itself derives from ideas of lending libraries and video stores, etc. Any thoughts on that loop? What is the importance of doing this project “offline”?

S-YL: I hadn’t considered the similarity to file sharing. I think the difference is that online the files are not willingly shared by the creator. They are appropriated and distributed without consent. For the Video Rental Store we are receiving works from the artist directly. The artists’ participation is their choice and an act of generosity or perhaps curiosity about how their works will be received and responded to. There is, however, the possibility that the work will be continuously shared since the artist is relinquishing control.

SC-B: I do see the project as a continuous loop of sharing through not only the video rental, but with the other stores that are set up as exhibitions. Allowing the work of artists to be made visible in arenas outside of a gallery space.

Since so much of our daily interactions are mediated through the digital means (social, work, commerce and research) it is an opportunity to have a “real” meeting experience with a physical element of the video.

The importance of doing this offline is the human interaction, the experience of making a selection through conversation with the attendant. I used to work in a video rental store (years and years ago) and know how the act of going to the store, roaming through the isles, grabbing junk food, and ruminating over the new releases is part of the performance of preparing for a night in.

How many times have you asked a video store clerk for assistance in choosing films or deciphering content? You can hear patrons always ask, “Hey, is this good?” With downloads there is no dialogue other than a blog situation where the advice is easy to discredit because it could be anyone (anyone meaning it could be a avid film buff, an action seeker, a melodramatic lover, a viewer with potentially dissimilar interests, or with sophisticated, discerning taste)!

The larger project speaks to bringing back the mom-and-pop shops of another generation that conjures up a nostalgic of simplicity of knowing your service provider. It is about being part of a community and supporting the local businesses that are the face of the neighborhood, not part of a larger online jungle.

MH: You mentioned that Video 99 closed down and as a result provided you with their store fixtures. Do you have any thoughts on video stores closing down, largely as a result of online distribution?

SC-B: It was a happy/sad moment (and one coated in a bit of guilt as it is less than a block away from me and I never rented there). The project is an independent one and we relied heavily on the community to come to rescue us (or play with us) to make the shop happen. With limited financial resources we gave ourselves the task of creating four different shops/exhibitions. This could not have been done without the support of the arts councils, local retailers, brewers, photographers, artists, designers, galleries, production houses, and friends. We had to constantly walk around with our hand out and found that retailers, suppliers and our landlords were very eager to assist in making the project a reality. Video 99 was integral to the success and believability of the video rental store by generously donating the cases, shelving units, and marquee. All of which would have been prohibitive for us if we had to pay retail prices for the store fixtures that fabricated the structure of the exhibition.

The unfortunate demise of this independent rental store that saw over ten years of activity on that street is the sad part. I think that it fuels the discussion that we are trying to engage with in regards to the temporality that is becoming a disturbing reality in the downtown core as the rotating door of independent stores are giving way to larger franchised stores.

MH: Would something similar work online?

S-YL: For our purposes, this would not work online since it is one component of a larger project. Online, it would be out of context.

MH:  I submitted my video for the store in two formats—one as an authored DVD that plays when you insert it into a DVD player or computer, and another version as a “data” DVD so people can copy it if they want. Is that wrong or is the project intentionally open for interpretation?

S-YL: I hadn’t considered that option/interpretation. I think it’s brave and generous! Since this entire project is in many ways an experiment, we’d love to have artists interpret it in various ways. Your method enhances the project. If we are able to accommodate ideas that do so, we will.

SC-B: No, it is definitely not wrong. However, how the user of your work chooses to “work” with the content in the privacy of their home is truly unknowable. We have given no restrictions and understand that there is the possibility of theft both intellectually and economically.

MH: Am I mistakenly reading into this project a critique about the arguments around the threats to culture and art when you leave it in the hands of the people rather than industry?

S-YL: The “industry” I’d be familiar with in relation to this project would be commercial galleries, distributors, and the fees artists command for the exhibition, use, and sale of their work which extends to copyright and reproduction. I tend to support the artists in that whatever the level of control the artist wishes over how their creation/work is used and disseminated and the compensation they receive should be their decision.

This is not a critique about that argument. It is an experiment, largely about milieu. Having worked within institutions, I certainly am critical of some aspects of the way in which they function. But, this is more an inquiry into my own role as a curator, how that is realized and whether curators and art are legitimized by the context of the gallery.

I don’t feel we’re subverting the idea of customer or consumer but we are making transparent the parallels between viewer and consumer. Consumerism is an everyday occurrence in most of our lives. We are aligning art with the everyday.

MH: Can you explain this idea of the everyday in relation to Video Rental Store recreating the space of the video store as retail outlet rather than, say, happening within the space of an existing video store?

SC-B: That is exactly it. These exhibitions are the everyday. People consume everyday. We are a culture whose primary pastime is consumption. Shopping is the number one leisure activity. That is where the success of the exhibition lies in bringing in a non-art based audience. The commercial presentation, or serial arrangements were familiar and brought in people off of the street, yet there was something queer.

I was in the rental store one night to hear a group of people outside talking about the space. One of them said, “Oh ya this is that joke store.” From inside I exclaimed, “We are not a joke!” It made them laugh and brought them into the exhibition to discuss the project in greater detail, seeing that in fact we were no joke, we were renting videos. They ended up taking a couple videos home.

If we were to rent a couple shelves at a commercial rental location or infiltrate their merchandising the project could get lost and I could not guarantee that the sales representatives would be respectful to the artists’ work. It would also get confusing as to what was a rental of an infinite amount of time for any form of payment and what was the location’s videos that have a predetermined rental policy dictating duration and price.

MH:  How does this speak to the relationship of art—its circulation and value?

S-YL: Again, I would say this relates to context. Galleries and museums assign and reflect a value system to art in the way that the spaces are designed, the proportion of space allotted to collections and exhibitions, geographic representation, historical representation, genres, etc. It can be argued that values are reflected in any exhibition in the installation design and placement of work.

Institutions are seen as authoritative. Museums and galleries can choose to sanction or challenge prescribed histories or even write history.

Are we (artists, curators, viewers) reliant on the context of the gallery? This is the inquiry we are making.

MH: I am assuming this is a social project about distribution and sharing—is there something about video’s history in particular, its art history and activist roots, that informs the politics of this project?

S-YL: Video art is conducive to the project because of the way in which people understand DVDs as a commodity and access video regularly through retail and rental. We are presenting video through appropriation of that model.

MH: In what way is this also an experiment between curators and artists and audiences? Is it putting the honor system to a test? Where does the idea of an “honor system” come from?

S-YL: This project crosses the boundaries of how art is conventionally presented and consumed. Expectations are destabilized, creating an opportunity for exchange not typically available in each of those roles.

The idea of an honor system and pay-what-you-want compensation come from our work in an institution. Suzanne and I worked at a public art gallery where she was the Outreach Programmer and I was Assistant Curator. Our ideas evolved during this time through issues arising from working within the context of a public institution and an examination of our respective roles. Giving consideration to the many targeted efforts of galleries which include increasing visitor numbers and introducing the institution and contemporary art to new audiences, there was often the question of how to measure success and how to derive audience feedback. The honor system is an unscientific reflection of the value audiences place on the work. It is an inexact alternative to audience surveys and statistics, which we suspect to be equally inexact.

SC-B: Yes, an experiment of trust with all three! The artists trust that we (the curators) only have the best intentions to properly represent their work. The curators trust the general public to be respectful and return the work undamaged so that it can go into other homes for viewing and eventually be returned to the artist. The audience trusts that the artists and curators are going to give them something of quality and substance for their time invested.  So it truly is a system of honoring all of players involved to make the cycle complete.

MH: How do you anticipate value being attributed to works? Do you foresee people exchanging video for video?

S-YL: People typically understand payment to be money. So, I suspect people will pay what they might normally pay for a video rental, or they will pay nothing because we enjoy receiving things free. It is my hope that by making non-monetary exchange an option, creative alternatives to expressing value will be found. A formerly unavailable avenue is opened for both artists and viewers. Video for video would be amazing in that it becomes a dialogue.

SC-B: We saw the non-monetary exchange of this project as a way for the audience to question the value of cultural production. In [many] way[s], value has already been prescribed. We (I can only speak from a Canadian perspective) would never question the purchase of tickets to a film, rent[ing] a Hollywood video in a commercial outlet, and the bills for accessing various television programming for our home entertainment, but [we] would [question paying to] gain access to a municipal public art gallery. In turning the exhibition structure around to physically mimic that of a commercial venture, it forces the viewer to perform the same act of going to the counter and inquiring about payment. They are then forced to ask themselves, “What would I pay for the opportunity to view an artist’s work?”

Ideally, I wanted to see the exchange of video for video, or ideas in the way of a written critique for the artist, or resource sharing and voluntary time for viewing pleasure, or a work [responding] to [and] complement[ing] the ideas brought forward in the original video. We were curious to see how patrons and/or users approach the honour system. We (and the participating artists) are making a grand optimistic gesture, testing assumptions about the general public’s generosity.

Yet we had to be wary of the other end of the spectrum, gluttony. North Americans have the tendency to grab anything that is being offered as “free.” Here is a perfect example: I grabbed a pair of the ugliest, cheapest sunglasses this summer on the street during the Montreal Pride festival from a TD bank booth. I got back to the hotel and immediately wanted to throw them out. Why the hell had I grabbed them? Why did the girl in the green shirt (other than she was cute) waving a pair of sunglasses appeal to me so much? They were free, free, free. That is all really. I got caught up in the frenzy of my brain telling me to take, take, take. Feeling guilty, I actually wore them later that week (yes, Su-Ying, I am ashamed to say it is true).

So we had to be careful about our wording and not waive a banner stating “Free Videos” but instead ask them to contemplate the value of the artists’ work and to spend time looking through the selection for works that may interest them rather than a “smash and grab” looting mentality.

Theatres and some galleries test the pay-what-you-wish system often to open up their audiences, breaking down the perceived access deterrent of admission costs. I wonder if a study has ever been done of what the average of what we want to pay … and in the end it is really not paying what we can … but what we want.

But … Everything that we want is free, anyway.

MH: Can you reflect on how the project worked? What was most surprising?

SC-B: After all of the stress of the fundraising and coordination, the most surprising part was to see it actually happen!

The project has worked out better than I could have ever hoped for! The videos are flying off the shelves and we have received very considered and thoughtful responses to the work and the concept of the exhibition. On behalf of the participating artists we have received money, tomatoes, cookies, books, film tickets, letters, stickers, and a hand-embroidered bag.

MH: How was the project received by the community? And who constitutes the community?

SC-B: The word community is thrown around with reckless abandon (I too am guilty of it at times). Within this project it has a shared meaning of artists, retailers/store owners, consumers, and neighbors.

Sometimes I use it in reference to proximity or a group with shared interests, ideals, political motivations, or social circles. Our location is perfectly situated off of the main Queen West strip on Gore Vale facing Trinity Bellwoods Park. So when we allude to our “community” in relation to locality it is very broad. The park attracts a disparate mélange of users, who become our primary audience. Walking through the recreational space you will see families, tennis players, musicians, artists, lovers, friends, runners, hipsters, elderly, youth, homeless, dog-walkers, and tourists. It truly feels like the most general public.

Even though I mentioned earlier the craziness that happens around “free stuff” we did not experience that at all. Every patron was very respectful or the “stores” and our pay-what-you-wish policy about almost anything. Yet there was a distrust from the general public that I was not anticipating. Consumers are always told “there is no such thing as free” so they can be a tentative bunch when given complimentary items or goods.

We held a grand opening on the first Saturday that Under New Management opened. Mill Street Brewery and a donor, David Saffer, graciously sponsored the event. With that support we were able to have a barbecue in front of the exhibition site offering free beer, hotdogs and snacks. With a smoking barbecue outside of the space I was certain that we would be overrun with people that were enjoying the park in the afternoon. Instead, our “customers” were leery of accepting the free food and drink and we found ourselves being quite insistent that they partake.

Overall, the response has been amazing and the best and most touching part of this entire project has been getting to know that community. It has affected me more than I ever thought that it would.  

MH: I think traditional video stores sometimes sell off old works when they close down. What will come of the videos after the show comes down? Will these videos be sold, sent back, or archived?

SC-B: The work will be given back to the artist at the end of the exhibition as well as a package including the payments that they received, images, press, UNM swag, a letter outlining how many people rented the work, as well as a huge thank you for making the project a success and honoring us with their work.

In the initial call for submissions, artists were made aware that they may not get their work back. This would only be the case if they were not returned by a renter. It would be great to archive them for future stores, but at this point we do not have another venue in sight (or the financial means to do it again soon) and I would prefer that the artists decide whether they would like to participate again rather than us taking their work “on the road.”

 

Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot is an Assistant Curator at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) with prime responsibilities for exhibition coordination and student outreach. Previously she held the positions as outreach programmer for the Blackwood Gallery and the Art Gallery of Mississauga and as professional development and public programmes coordinator at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. Her independent curatorial practice focuses on event based interventions and infiltrations such as Massive Party, PowerBall, AIDSBeat, and Toronto Alternative Fashion Week. She sits on the Board of Directors for C Magazine and is the former undefeated Pillow Fight Champion of the World.

Su-Ying Lee has curated independent projects as well as exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Mississauga where she is Assistant Curator. Lee is interested in curating exhibitions which are active in some manner: Explorers and Dandies in an open letter to Canada Post: Frederick Hagan & Kent Monkman was an exhibition that was accompanied by a petition to Canada Post in support of appointing Kent Monkman to be an official postage stamp artist; Couch surfing in Mississauga/Couch surfing in Syracuse: Alison S.M. Kobayashi & Christina Kolozsvary was an exhibition generated from a residency and exchange established by Lee; an exhibition confirmed for November of 2009 The Rug: Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star (working title) was commissioned by Lee, allowing the artists to realize a project which took them on an investigative journey into fair trade and industry.

Mél Hogan is currently finishing her Research-Creation-Dissertation (wayward.ca) in the Joint Ph.D. in Communication at Concordia University (Montréal, Canada). Her research looks at now defunct and “crashed” Canadian video art databases and repositories on the web, and unconventional modes of distributing and curating video online. Hogan submitted a video to MUSE’s Video Rental Store in Toronto. She is also the Art Director and Publisher of nomorepotlucks.org, a print-on-demand and online journal of art and politics, and part two of two of the BRUCE video art duo. Website: www.melhogan.com.

 

[ PDF version ]

Wayward: Splinter

Splinter is a video art chain-letter. All artists participating have received an invitation by mail, and invited an other artist to participate.

The idea is to track (and lose track of) the circulation of video, as circulated by artists to artists, outside of any predictable distribution channel.

An artist adapts and responds to the video she or he receives by mail. Each video is then sent back to wayward and posted on the site. The artist sends a copy another artist to continue the process. As implied by the title, the work splinters off in many (wayward) directions…

The wayward.ca splinter project falls under a creative commons license, which basically legally grants invited artists the permission to use the video of other participants to remix and respond, and by doing are agreeing to the same license to whatever you create. All the works should be attributed to the artist and linked back to the source. Videos will remain online for a period of time at wayward.ca.

Expect some sort of compilation to come out in 2011.

Questions? info [at] wayward.ca

Comment Collection: “What is this “PAY” word you speak of?”

COMMENT COLLECTION #5
What is this “PAY” word you speak of

“What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is a conversation about sampling and stealing. ?

Assembled from YouTube comments from videos featuring tracks off of DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, “What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is a collection of questions and insults about what constitutes the authentic, the original, and the essence of musical genius.

“What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is the fifth in the COMMENT COLLECTION project, exploring the power of the viewer to tell and re-tell stories.

Screening: 8th Biennal Queer Arts Festival

TRIP is a short video about time and space compression and distortion when traveling by air. Functioning visually like a slot machine, TRIP is composed of three windows: time and space line up momentarily on an otherwise fragmented journey.

Presented: 8th Biennal Queer Arts Festival, 8 – 19 juin, 2010. (http://www.queercitycinema.ca/2010/)

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque

Hogan, Mél “Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive.

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3 Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

Crash page screen shot

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.

To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

Mediatheque screen shot

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []

FLOW TV Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque (2010)

“Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive. May 21, 2010

 

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque
Mél Hogan / Concordia University

 

 

homepage screen shot
 

 

Mediatheque homepage
 

 

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

 

Crash page screen shot
 

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.
To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

 

Mediatheque screen shot
 

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []

NMP: Jane Siberry, Thoughts on Creating a Monster

I am supposed to meet Issa for an interview in 15 minutes. My phone rings. It’s Issa. She tells me she is still at the hair salon. She is running late. Could I do her a favour and get her a salad—something with protein, something vegetarian—and meet her at the Green Room at 7 instead. I’ll pay you back, she says.

It’s November in Montreal and it is pouring rain and dark. But because I’m about to interview the woman who sang the best song on my favorite mix tape from my first big love in high school, a little salad-fetching in the dark of the winter night seems totally reasonable. And, as I would later understand, Issa’s straightforwardness is just part of her agenda-free, free-thinking experiment. She lives her politics—and having sold all her belongings, including her house in Toronto—she lives everywhere. The night we spoke she made Montreal her home and I was determined to make it a place she would want to return to often.

I arrive at the Green Room, where she was to perform later that night. She is sitting at the piano, writing up her guest list. She wonders if perhaps there would be a venue better suited for her, somewhere else. The thought passes and we sit down to talk. She is at once intense and soothing, passionate, and present. She tells me she’s recently changed her name (back from Issa) to Jane Siberry.

A bit nervously, I dive right into the idea of ‘improvisation’ without much preparatory small talk. It seems to me improvisation is a core concept of self-determination, of adapting, and of what I would later understand from Jane as freethinking.

MH: Improvisation is certainly not something that is new for you, but would you say you have more creative freedom now that you are free from a major label?

JS: There was a certain point with Warner Brothers when I couldn’t do interesting side projects like when I did Maria, which was not a commercial record. I said no problem. I’ll do it the way I like it, but I will give you a companion EP of the most commercial versions of these songs you could ever want. I will do remixes for you. But they didn’t have a system that could handle that kind of thing. I said we could use the commercial versions for the videos, too.


Read on

COMS 570: Intermedia Vernissage

 

I taught COMS 570 in the fall of 2009/10. Students held a vernissage the following semester to showcase their incredible work. This event was co-sponsored by the Mobile Media Gallery, which gave us access to a mobile media deployment tool, affectionately called the gizmo.

Intermedia Vernissage
Project directors: Kendra Besanger and Erin McGregor, with Mél Hogan (course instructor).
[In]ter[act]i[on], exhibited at Snap! at the Loft in Montreal, Quebec on January 29, 2009, featured intermedia works that offered a broad interpretation of communication in relation to digital manipulation. The exhibit served to showcase work created by students in Concordia University’s Graduate Diploma in Communication Studies programme, 2009-2010.

http://mobilemediagallery.org/campaigns/interaction/



NVCQ 21 Years of Image & Nation: Legitimizing the Gaze (2009)

Hogan, Mél “21 Years of Image & Nation: Legitimizing the Gaze” in Nouvelles *vues* sur le cinémas québécois


SYNOPSIS: As a means of activating the queer archive, this paper explores image&nation’s imagination of itself through twenty-one years of festival guides. The guides serve as a tool for tracking the festival’s development, shifting political positionings, and fluctuating commitments to a queer international and bilingual mandate. Having been launched prior to the internet, image&nation’s humble beginnings were a labour of love, a response to an AIDS pandemic, and a rejoinder to and venue for feminist appropriation of video. Twenty-one years later, GLBT visibility and queer politics have entered new territory: has image&nation achieved its goal?

In November 2007, image&nation celebrated its twenty year anniversary as an international film festival. image&nation is the oldest and longest-running LGBT/queer film festival in Canada and the third-ranked festival in Québec in terms of attendance. [1] As one of many festivals part of a growing international circuit of film and video events, image&nation distinguishes itself through its bilingual GLBT/queer audience and international mandate. As such, it necessarily showcases marginal voices, and, in turn, serves to legitimize and normalize them. Over the course of the last twenty-one years, image&nation has undergone multifarious transformations in attempts to expand as a festival and adjust to the ever-changing political climate that positions queer culture within and against the mainstream. It has also had to adapt to the growth, and eventual decline, of the film industry.

As Gupta & Marchessault (2007) suggest, “over the last two decades, film festivals have emerged as important channels for the distribution and promotion of indigenous and mainstream media” (239). In the case of image&nation this has tended to be in the form of a shift from low-budget activist film-making towards a more polished, if not formulaic, product. This transformation invariably reflects both the production of queer films as a growing industry, and the festival’s attempt to construct itself as a legitimate and successful event within an international cinema circuit. The task to balance these two incentives—remaining true to the community from which it grew all the while aspiring for recognition in cinematic terms—is an incredibly difficult task to undertake and one that is all too easy to criticize.

By looking at image&nation as a case study of film festivals, we begin to understand that the very concept of a film festival is one that requires constant redefinition and reinvention. What speaks to the unique nature of the films presented within the context of image&nation? How does it appeal to a specific audience? Is it a niche market? How does it delimit what constitutes queer cinema? And, who comprises the queer audience? Festivals are ephemeral events, despite their recurrent nature. In the case of image&nation, the trace it leaves behind is first and foremost through films and videos, but it also lives on through the festival guides, the media attention it garnered, film reviews and promotional materials, newspapers, (and more recently) online, archival artifacts (media passes, ticket stubs, etc.), administrative documents, and most affectively perhaps, through the collective memory of its audience.

Given its elusive nature and structure, I approach this research project based on the festival’s imagination of itself. Specifically, I look to the program festival film guides from 1988-2008 in order to track its changing imagination and commitment to social change. Looking to the festival’s political engagements as afforded first by and through cinema—as a medium and activity—I take into consideration the way the festival managed and balanced a bilingual and international mandate as the festival became more popular, as well as its links to community activist groups. Methodologically speaking, I rely on archival traces that promote and reflect a particular, yet changing, history of LGBT/queer identity in a Québécois context. I begin the paper with this methodological note. Following this, and supplemented by interviews with current and past programmers (Charlie Boudreau, Anne Golden) and a translator (Gabriel Chagnon), as well as scholarly writing on “New Queer Cinema” (Rich 1992; Waugh 2006; Pidduck 1990[2003]; 2004), I explore the festival’s ongoing quest for legitimacy as a film festival and its position as a site of queer resistance, rooted in 1980’s AIDS film and video activism, and feminist home-made erotica.

Program guides offer a particular entry point into studying cinema and film culture. [2] As I briefly outline here, reflecting on the methodological particularities of using program guides to study social phenomena—in this case LGBT/queer festivals—allows for and demands an exacting dissection of various elements surrounding the organization of film festivals. As their most basic function, program guides make information about the films and programs within a particular festival available to its public(s). However, the length of the film descriptions, the choice of words, the tone, and the placement of these descriptions within the guide, or within certain programs, all potentially tell us something about the nature of the film, the festival and its audience. The cover images also reveal a shifting aesthetic: the drastic changes in design in terms of colour, layout of information, cover image or images, size and format. And, needless to say, the films themselves also reveal a shifting aesthetic, though that assessment is well beyond the scope of this paper. The guides thus provide an interesting lens through which to explore how the festival promotes itself, how films are scheduled and organized for viewers, how the festival has been named and how it renames itself year after year depending on language politics, which venues are used for screenings, who sponsors the events, and which themes surfaced throughout the last twenty-one years. [3]

That said, because the festival aims, at least in theory, to attract a wide audience, the write-ups are typically meant to entice rather than offer any sort of critical engagement of the films. Program guides, then, can be used in research to determine the relationship between the festival, which arguably works to vehicle of a particular cultural formation or community, and its intended audience, who both shape and are shaped by this exchange. Ultimately, the festival program guides inform the festival’s representation of itself—if not an ideal self, a self that is politically, historically and socially constituted.

As the festival became more popular throughout the nineties, and its budget increased, so too did its promotion, overall visibility and reach. As such, recent years allow for a more visible trace and assessment of the festival’s movement, enriched by online sources including both the festival’s own online archive, and the news coverage it inspired. Considering the various offshoots that constitute the festival’s public memory, these guides provide only a limited representation of the festival, however unique and particular their vantage point may be.

The guides are made available prior to and during the festival, and as such, do not account for changes in programming, or audience demographics or reactions, among other things. Furthermore, they cannot provide feedback or clues about reception, they explicate neither curatorial decisions nor selection process, nor detail the films that were submitted but not included, and they do not (/cannot) reflect moments of elation, uproar or controversy, triggered by the programming of specific films. [4] A closer look at the guides also reveals inconsistencies in the festival’s titles; its subtitle has changed every year except for the last three: currently going with “Montréal International LBGT Film Festival”. This newfound “stability” may reveal a hard-earned consensus over three specific matters: the tension between cinema, film and video, the difficulties of bilingual labels, and the never-ending inclusion/definition game of identity politics. As stated by Marc Siegel (1997), “the identity that one affirms upon entering the festival can […] become redefined to include not merely a different relation to race, gender, or sexuality, but to cinema as well” (133). Cinema, then, as a venue and activity, constitutes an important site for exploring the complexities of language, representation and membership in relation to queer identity formation.

Both the affordances and limitations of the guides as a tool for research constitute a rich body of ideas that make up public and archival memory of the festival – however fragmented and idealized. The festival itself, despite various transformations, remains an event (in time and place) and becomes a point of reference in bilingual Canadian LGBT/queer culture.

The way I analyze the program guides in this paper is by looking closely at the festival’s editorial page, normally located within the first few pages of the guides. These guides outline the festival’s goals by often referring to its past successes and failures, its links to community activism and the broader social and political climate around LGBT issues. The guides also offer an interesting entry point into the issue of bilingualism that remains so central to the Québécois context. I use these editorial pages to contextualize the festival’s growth, its quest for legitimacy as a film festival, and its involvement in the fight for gay and lesbian rights. I argue that from its undeniable roots in tactical AIDS activism to the so-called post self-loathing stage of “New Queer Cinema,” the festival’s current conception of itself straddles the available categories of “niche market” and “post-queer,” failing to properly acknowledge the complexity of the festival’s current liminality.

image&nation had very modest beginning. The effects of AIDS on gay and lesbian communities—and in particular their responses to the epidemic—motivated the production of hundreds of films and videos, thus fuelling a large part of the festival’s first few years of programming. Launched by Diffusions Gaies et Lesbiennes du Québec, “Le SIDA et les médias/Aids and the Media” was one of the central themes of the first image&nation (1988), which served as an important historical landmark for the festival. Regarding the films, various shorts from Belgium and France were balanced in large part by American productions, ensuring a relatively even distribution of French-English content.

Importantly, image&nation screened activist videos—“highly visible protest tactics” — influenced by work coming out of New York from video AIDS activists groups (like Testing the Limits Collective) and feminist collectives involved in the struggle (Pidduck 1990[2003], p.269). These works presented often collaboratively-made shorts, testimonial documentaries, safer sex films and PSA-style (public service announcement) films, in particular. The politics and aesthetics of these works are, in a sense, quick and dirty responses to the urgency of the events unraveling—sometimes known as “zapping” practices—which placed the emphasis of video on immediate impact, over originality or authorship. [5] These tactics also meant appropriating mainstream media to make a statement, which was both a means of engaging with the realities of oppression and, perhaps, the beginning of a queer genre of filmmaking (or a queer sensibility). As the festival co-organizer in the early years, Golden recalls:

When I first began at the festival, it was not easy to find films and videos to present. No internet, no festival circuit, no explosion of queer production. (Faxes anyone? Telegrams?) It started to become easier to research films as of 1990-1991, when a festival circuit began and exchanges occurred between festivals in different cities. All these people who were not filmmakers[…] it was their films that would play at the festival. They were testimonies and journals. It was absolutely fantastic. I was blown away by this explosion in video and film.(Golden, personal interview, 2008)

AIDS remained a central theme at image&nation into the early ’90s, which further highlighted the close relationship between the festival’s programs and the political climate of gay and lesbian communities, locally and internationally. This sense of community—a group fighting against the seeming inaction of the Québec government toward the AIDS crisis—may have called for and witnessed a more unified gay and lesbian audience than the festival’s later years.

As such, image&nation constructed itself as a politically-engaged festival, drawing attention to the potential of film/video—and the festival in particular for its ability to mobilize large groups—to enact social change based on collective identities, or more precisely, collective oppressions. To this effect, Martha Gever suggests that the festival is a ‘queer public sphere’ where identities are forged as “ordinary, outrageous, ambivalent” (Gever in Pidduck, 2004, 89) and that identity itself—or the ability to name oneself—is an important first step in effecting political change. Emphasizing “identity” in a round-table discussion entitled “representation, responsibility and moveable merging” (image&nation program guide, 1990), the festival promoted AIDS documentaries on the one hand, and on the other, boasted Québec “firsts,” as the early markings of a true festival of cinema. The role of queer cinema in promoting social change in a Québécois context, however, meant focusing on, and potentially (re)defining, sexuality and gender norms within and beyond the confines of what was made available in the two “official” languages. Golden, a volunteer in the early ‘90s, remembers the recurring criticism regarding the lack of francophone films, due in part to the overwhelming outpouring of American productions feeding the festival’s content. [6] Golden recalls the precarious tasks of hand-picking a selection of films from France, made by lesbians, in order to respond to this lack. But as experimental structuralist films, having little or nothing to do with issues of lesbian representation, Golden’s selection of films may or may not have responded to the needs of image&nation’s audiences at the time, as the dearth of images with which to identify may have called for more overt and obvious lesbian depictions. While these early program guides seem to equate sexuality with visibility on the screen, later narratives attempt to broaden the definition by distancing the body from identity. This distance, as I will argue, has also contributed to the festival’s imagination of itself as a “legitimate” film festival.

Legitimacy is a key point in my analysis as it is often pitted against queer politics in favour of mainstream gay and lesbian politics, against the diverse queer experience in favour of ‘pink money’. However, I propose that queer cinema exists not to resolve this problem/binary/tension, but to maintain a kind of paradox, for which both ‘ends’ are continually reconstituting themselves in relation to an imagined ‘opposition’. Perhaps this is best explained rhetorically through Rich’s question: “how can a marriage between the popular and the radical be sustained when such an association erodes the very meaning of each?” (2004, 19) However impossible it seemed in the early ‘90s, image&nation embodies this marriage of radical and popular in that it actually occupies many discursive and physical spaces simultaneously, as I continue to outline here.

From the onset, image&nation featured films that carved-out an aggressively self-aware and subversive queer identity, with entire programs dedicated to video art addressing the potentials and possibilities of celebratory sex through home-made erotic shorts. These shorts (self-)presented the queer subject as “outlaw” and as “vampire,” because after all, the festival took pride in “videos and films that disturb, stimulate and encourage” (image&nation program guide, 1990). Because AIDS video activism brought queer sex to the forefront of queer identity, sex itself was being explored through explicit sexual imagery and erotica. Golden recalls the risky nature of this programming at early festivals:

I remember Chris Martin and I did a program that was […] well[…] it’s not hardcore by today’s standards[…] but we called it the ‘Contextualization Program.’ You wouldn’t name something like that now! We actually thought there might be some sort of uprising! We did have films or entire programs that were disliked and we knew it […] (Golden, personal interview, 2008).

So while porn left most gay men morally unscathed, lesbian porn was (and remains) a relatively limited phenomenon. According to Pidduck, “explicit home-made sexual imagery has been especially risky and important for lesbians,” because, she argues, lesbian “sexuality has historically been either erased or appropriated for heterosexual male fantasies” (1990[2003], p.272). The divided feminist reaction to these works—sex positive vs. anti-porn—saw the emergence of another type of lesbian video project; the documentation of live performances and workshops that every so often addressed directly the feminist/misogynist porn debate. Interestingly, through image&nation these more conservative works conceded, in the ’90s, to a distinctively pro-sex iconography for lesbians, exploring leather, sex toys, role-playing and S/M, and raising important questions around the role of cinema in relation to identification, or more precisely, embodiment (Drawing the Line, Boschman, 1992; Thank God I’m a lesbian, Colbert and Cardona, 1992). Identification and embodiment are especially troubled in a sexualized context—where the personal is made political by virtue of its exposure. Perhaps it is the nature of these images that pushed the debate of representation to its affective peaks: if these were graphic images of the queer body for the queer audience, they had better be recognizable as such. This era—nudged on to the emerging New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s—saw the emphasis shift from simply naming the queer subject to naming queer cinema.

The festival’s identity crisis is highlighted here, as long-time festival organizer, Charlie Boudreau, explains her attempt in the mid-’90s to rectify the inclusion problem by altogether removing the queer signifiers in the festival title:

I took away “gais et lesbiennes.” At the time I didn’t feel it was representative. It was also the time of “queer”—I like the notion of it. It’s a mentality. Can we please not be defined by our sexual practices? It’s a sad way to see a human being! Maybe ten years ago, it was more “queer” because friends of mine who were “straight” came. There was more of a mix. Now we’re the LGBT festival, but I don’t know what to tell you. I’m trying to move away from labels, and we keep adding labels (Boudreau, personal interview, 2008).

The reappropriation of the epithet ‘queer’, according to Pidduck, “is a conscious political strategy that rhymes with an aesthetics that celebrate the ‘abject’, the criminal, the underworld of queer desire” (2004, 279). But as Boudreau’s quote suggests, using the term ‘queer’ remains problematic. For one, “queer” has a distinctively Anglophone attachment, and while its circulation in academia has managed to navigate somewhat across language barriers, its popular use remains predominantly Anglophone, and perhaps appeals more generally to a generation for which it was never a direct assault. There are also political attachments to the word—implying a radical turn, a re-appropriation, and revenge of sorts. Thus, while one can presume the image&nation audience to be predominantly GLBT or queer-identified, this same label is more difficultly applied to film and video. Can film and video take on such an affective and embodied term to define itself (as presumably the festival has had to)? What makes a work queer: its creator(s), the content, the context of screening? What does this newfound distance from or rejection of the GLBT labels imply? Does it risk dividing the community further along language lines? And what is more implicitly queer about being “undefined,” as Boudreau insinuates? While the answer to the first set of questions may be partially elucidated by the guides, the latter remains at the crux of the festival’s ongoing identity crisis, which may never be solidified as its audience(s) and films constantly renegotiate and redefine the movement and its representation.

What makes a work queer, or how the tensions of this category have played out, is well illustrated in the example of Midi Onodera’s 1985, Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) , screened at image&nation in 1989. [7] Onodera’s film was an experimental structuralist film. In three parts, it depicts a lesbian couple, a sex scene between two gay men in a bathroom stall, and a phone sex sequence. In conversation, past organizer Anne Golden and festival translator Gabriel Chagnon explain the film’s impact on the lesbian community in the late ’80s:

The film got shown in festivals that were more experimental or non-narrative. And then it got picked up by gay and lesbian film festivals because Midi herself is a lesbian […] we showed it, San Francisco showed it […] but here it provoked. People stormed out […] they wanted to stop the screening. This film traveled around the world as a “lesbian film”, and really people should have been saying this film is an experimental structuralist film by a lesbian director! But it somehow got skewed. Midi went everywhere with that film and confronted all kinds of hostility. (Golden and Chagnon, personal interview, 2008)

The memory of angry feminist-lesbian audience reacting strongly to the way they were represented in various films, as rare as they were in the early years, is key in understanding the trajectory and accessibility of lesbian films, and the festival as a site of resistance. Golden suggests that these outbursts were part of the structure of early festival organizing (into the early ’90s), “for an hour-long screening, we had a four-hour long discussion” (personal interview, 2008).

These forums, which were conceived as much for audience members to vent their frustrations as to provide an open space for discussion, highlighted the importance of images for the queer community, and lesbians in particular. Chagnon reminisces, “There was such scarcity of images, for all kinds of “us”, all kinds of colours, classes[…] so we had to watch Desert Hearts, two [white] Bourgeois ladies [who] had nothing to do with us!” and adds that, “because of this scarcity, the images became intensely scrutinized. The intensity with which the audience invested themselves with the viewing is not seen today” (personal interview, 2008). So while images, in an almost unabashed quest for positive representation over diversity of modalities, failed to “represent,” audiences were formulating their desires to identify with the screen, and perhaps, putting into words for the first time, the importance of the shared viewing experience that both relied on and challenged its feminist framework (Waugh, 2006). What remains unsure is whether or not lesbian/feminist cinema has had the power (and responsibility) to change what Pidduck, borrowing from deLauretis (1991), calls “the conditions of lesbian visibility” (1990[2003], p.280).

In the early program guides, the role of the film/video artist is speculated upon, as it appears to be necessarily tactical, a tool for queer activism. Situating itself as a venue through which to question rather than represent queer bodies and queer lives by re-appropriating realities too often thwarted in the mainstream, the “festival is there to raise questions rather than to bring answers or to propose an aesthetic, a vision or representation–we believe in respect of difference in difference” (image&nation program guide, 1990). However, this admittedly diverse voice also points to the difficulties of defining community and cause: “if someone asks for quick, neat definition of what/how we are and how/ we are/were perceived in the films and videos careening through this festival, we say ‘don’t even try it’” (1990, image&nation program guide). The urgency and consistency with which the festival rejects the notion of a static identity nonetheless informs its paradoxical (re)presentation: on the one hand battling out negative stereotypes and making “queer” visible, on the other hand refusing to delimit itself, or its function, or its audience, perhaps to counter the fact that being defined in the mainstream had up until then meant being made “other.” Or, perhaps naming what constitutes ‘visibility’ is more a question of the interplay of allegiances, complexities of understanding oneself as a sexual subject primarily, and identifying with both the audience and the images on screen.

This problem of naming and of being defined is central to queer identity, which the festival necessarily continues to take on especially as Golden, and later Boudreau, address, through the program guides, a distinct lesbian audience, further divided along language lines. The separate addresses—to men and women, the francophones and to anglophones—appeared in the guides until 1995, at which point the texts became co-written by the organizers and directly translated, from French to English. Despite the joining of the audiences in text, the audiences remain largely segregated along gender and language lines (though Boudreau asserts that language differences are more of a divisive factor in the lesbian community). As a translator, Chagnon believes the synopses would be more accurate and dynamic were they written in their (original?) languages as they were in the early days of the festival “because when you translate a synopsis without having seen the work, the result is inevitably of lesser quality, less “alive” and the risk of [making] mistakes is higher” (personal correspondence, 2009). [8] As such, language politics effectively play into the historical accuracy of the festival’s textual memory.

As an international bilingual festival for both gays and lesbians (and bisexuals and trans folks, though not explicitly mentioned in the title), this “unity” serves a key purpose and points to the importance of queer politics as they extend to outside of the theatre. While the film festival caters to different audiences, it is possible (actually, more than likely) that without the joint effort, women would have no festival. This is speculative, of course, but attendance and film production attest to the imbalance in numbers between genders—as Boudreau recalls, men consistently sell out large theatres, constitute 90% of the target of ads in the guides, and purchase special passes ahead of time, while women continue to come out in modest numbers. Boudreau notes, “The guys get the Imperial and the girls get the little theatre […] they can’t even fill that. That was a business decision. It stopped making sense to be ‘equal.’ The boys screenings were sold out three times and the girls are like 100 in a 600 people theatre” (Boudreau, personal interview, 2008).

Arguably, and perhaps even more speculatively, the festival is richer for this diversity—that women rely on the “male dollar”, but that in return, the festival can function as a more diverse and inclusive political platform. However, Boudreau laments this division as a failure of the festival in relation to a broader queer movement:

A sad thing about the audience is that […] there are very few women in men’s screenings and vice versa […] I think it’s problematic to not go see a film because it’s a good film, that is, to only need to see yourself. […] A festival should be more of a ‘cinephile thing’ than a ‘social thing.’ It’s still too stuck with the social. If you are always catering to the lowest common denominator, you are not doing well. (Boudreau, personal interview, 2008)

As Boudreau describes, there is an intricate weaving of identity politics to queer representation, both challenged and subsumed in cinematic discourse. Seeking legitimacy in making image&nation “about film,” distances the festival from what is arguably at its core: a diversity of underrepresented and marginalized queer identities, bodies, and ideas. In other words, image&nation becomes increasingly positioned as a legitimate film festival, for what it is and what it stands against, and in particular, by denying the affective qualities of representation within a queer context—both in the narratives on screen, and the shared spectatorship experience: “I don’t go see myself at the movies, I go for the story. I want to be embraced by an image and words for an hour and a half and leave the world and fall into someone else’s mind” (Boudreau, personal interview, 2008). Richard Dyer describes this utopian impulse, as a “craving for the ‘image of “something better” to escape into,” as something outside our day-to-day (Dyer, 1992, 18). The idea of identifying with, or against, the screen as a means to extend one’s own experience is not by any means specific to queer film and video; quite contrarily, it is at the heart of why people enjoy going to the movies, beyond the appreciation of film craftsmanship and aesthetic considerations.

Boudreau also highlights the difficulty of situating the body-social relationship (Morris 1998[2001]), i.e. the personal within the political or subscribing to the feminist idiom that the personal is, in fact, political[9]. Seemingly aware of this, the festival often refers to more conventional forms of activism: from community groups to government lobbying. image&nation in the early ’90s, was connected to and connecting with the revival of community activism through DiversCité and the creation of the lobbyist group, Table de concertation des lesbiennes et des gais du grand Montréal. 1992 saw the revisiting of Clause 10 of the Quebec Charter of Rights, through hearings with the Commission des droits de la personne, which aimed at making gays and lesbians full and equal citizens under the eyes of the law. The 1993 program guide states, to this effect, an invitation to queer activism: “Please represent yourselves and your communities by supporting this effort and contact your Provincial representative and sign the Petition circulating during the Festival”(3). As gays and lesbians gained legal rights, films began to reflect a more expressly diverse range of topics and subjectivities, moving away from the confessional genre to representing life in narrative, fictional form.

However undefined, the early to mid-’90s festivals mandate saw the notion of diversity take consciousness around gender issues, and marked the passing of AIDS as its single most pressing issue, from which Rich (1992) coined “New Queer Cinema,” (NQC) (Pidduck, 1990[2003]; Pearl, 2004; Waugh, 2006). image&nation’s 1994 festival showcased the now infamous Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994). The film’s popularity, and its place as image&nation’s 1994 opening film, may have been an indication of the festival’s (and broader community’s) queer politics in the mid-1990s: “the film is neither a coming out story nor an excruciating drama about recognition and loss […], but a buoyant, urbane depiction of a few weeks in the lives of a dozen or so avowed young dykes gathered together in the early 1990s lesbian scene” (Henderson, 1999, 40). In its somewhat utopian and shared portrayal of lesbian lives (in a North American context, at least), the film merges lived experience with an idealized version of one’s community through the common Hollywood romantic comedy genre. Go Fish also marked the festival’s first feature full-length film for a lesbian audience. Here, the relationship between queer cinema and identities surfaces: “the lesbian program used to be overwhelmingly made up of short works. In fact, the first few years were relatively hard to program because of the marked lack of films and videos made by dykes,” the guide states, “this festival literally grew up with the explosion of lesbian-made images; allowing us to go from an event that showed the odd feature to this year’s 18 feature length film” (Boudreau and Golden, image&nation program guide, 1995, 7). [10] While a new kind of “lesbian sensibility” surfaced here, to borrow from Rich (1992), video—for its accessibility—is what put women on the (queer film festival) map, though she questions whether video will ever achieve the status reserved for film.

The ten year anniversary edition in 1997 celebrates the festival’s position as a cultural institution and situates it as a renown international event and as the most important of its kind in Canada: “in honour of our 10th anniversary, we will take the time to look back at the decade, to explore the trends, styles and representational strategies employed by media artists as well as the parallel changes within both popular culture and in our queer cultural communities” (Charlie Boudreau, Yves Lafontaine, Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide, 1997, 10). Interestingly, the use of “strategies” to describe filmmakers’ work implies a purposeful and intentional activist stance, alluding vaguely to having an end in sight, or a community-driven goal for determining the ways in which queers should be perceived, inside and out of the festival context. 1997 was the year that the festival became sponsored by Famous Players, allowing image&nation to expand their audience by increasing their number of films and of venues (as well as the number of seats in these venues). [11] Needless to say, mainstream venues and feature length films amount to a more conventional conception of the film festival, finally gaining momentum to expand in size and reach.

The years following the decade celebration of queer films at image&nation saw an increase in corporate sponsorship of the festival, with its Bell Mobility’s “audience choice awards,” for example, [12] as well as a more overt sense of entitlement to and empowerment of a collective queer identity. The 1999 guide states, “these productions are truly essential and this celluloid affirmation of our sexualities, our identities and of course our egos has been a welcomed and treasured treat,” and boasts, “representations of queerness are truly headed for world domination” (image&nation program guide, 1999, 5). Ironic in tone, this guide is the first to frame queer identities in an unapologetic and humourous manner, subverting the usual references of gayness to homophobia, AIDS and suicide, among other topics—which Rich conceived of, though much earlier, in the NQC.

Also, further emphasizing the international appeal of queerness in relationship to a “uniquely Québécois and Canadian perspective,” (5) the festival claims this era to be the most politically and culturally diverse of its history. Arguably, links between the festival’s legitimacy, its expansion and corporate sponsorship, is reflected in its representation of itself as an ‘international’ festival affording a diversity of representation—juggling not only gay and lesbian (bi, trans) films and audiences, but appealing to cultural communities, too.

As depicted in the graph above, the number of countries from which films are submitted represents the festival’s international scope over time.
According to queer film theorist, Ger Zielinski (2006), discussing gay and lesbian film festivals is “a challenging linguistic task” (1). The quest for the perfect community umbrella term—which ‘queer’ attempted to be—resulted in an alphabet-soup acronym, with letters being endlessly tacked on for inclusion. What was once representative of gay, lesbian, and later bisexual (GLB), soon grew to include transsexual (T), transgender (another T), two-spirited (2S), questioning (Q), asexual (A), ally, (another A), queer (another Q), with new identity formations continually sprouting up. The result is often a long acronym, self-defeating in terms of the simplicity it means to provide: GLBTT2SQAQetc. image&nation guides vacillate between gay and lesbian, and queer, though the festival’s respect for bilingualism contributes to this instability of categorizations. Additionally, in 2000, the festival adopted, a graphic “+” symbol, replacing the “&”, which completed the image et nation in French, and image and nation in English. For Golden, having worked on the festival in the early days, this also proves very symbolically, an important “barometer of change”, in as much as the festival’s original title has forever given way to a new, designer-ly designation, which is further reflected in the new dimensions of the guides—becoming smaller and thicker booklets. [13]

Tracking title changes in the guides offers an interesting genealogy of the festival, its attempts at both defining itself as queer and distancing itself from identity politics in favour of a focus on cinema. Prior to 1999, the program guides associate image&nation with “gay and lesbian,” and post-2000, “gay and lesbian” is linked, rather, to cinema. This is a subtle shift, but an intentional one, as gleaned from the guides. In clearer terms, the GL signifier shifts from its association with the festival to an association with the films presented, arguably distancing the label from the audience onto the content of films, from the real (festival-goers) to the virtual (on-screen representations). In 2004, “gay and lesbian” became “LGBT”, and though “queer” appears nowhere on the program guide covers, it is used in both French and English introductory texts (post-2000).

In the program guide of the 14th edition of the festival, the festival describes itself as having reached “maturity”—using the metaphor of a teenage boy breaking from his know-it-all-ness to becoming a rebel. The guide states that GLBT filmmakers are “beginning to look beyond affirmation of our sexual identities on the screen and instead are exploring the multiple aspects and influences in our lives” (Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide, 2001, 5). However vague these “aspects and influences” may be, the festival’s representation of itself and its subjects shifts queer identity away from ideas of sex/sexuality proper, proposing instead a broader exploration of what identity might entail—location, education, class, race, religion, etc. However utopian (or dystopian?) the idea of having a queer or GLBT film festival that does not centre on questions of sexuality and gender (as Boudreau’s earlier quote points to), it necessarily distances the festival from the bodies that inhabit it, off and on screen. So, while rejecting labels (or re-appropriating or reclaiming them) became a useful tool for empowerment, denying the very constituency of the festival raises, in my opinion, serious issues about the festival’s priorities. Countering their own views on the issue, the following year, director of programming, Setzer writes: “this year’s programming reminds us that filmmaking is a tool: a tool of freedom, of identification and of recognition. A tool with the power to both educate and to wildly entertain” (image&nation program guide, 2001, 5). Queer cinema finds again, after a brief overlay, its status as both place and tool of resistance, however different this resistance may have been from the festival’s early days. Boudreau writes to this effect: “renewing and rearticulating how we see ourselves, again this year, legions of emerging and established filmmakers challenge us with provocative and forward-looking perspectives on what it means to be queer in 2005” (Setzer, image&nation program guide, 15, 2005). Creating a culture to call one’s own, to identify with and appeal to, suggest that the goal set out in 1987, however unclear or undefined at the time, may have been met: “giving evidence to the fact that what were hopeful whispers about the emergence of a queer cinema culture in 1987, today is a full-blown discourse”, creating, “a vibrant cinema culture of our own” (Setzer, image&nation program guide, 2007, 13). The goal of queer activism in cinema may not be simply a matter of gaining equality through social and legal reform, not to be “equal”, “accepted” or “tolerated”, but to exist, differently and diversely, to expand and redefine ourselves, and yet to persist through these changes through paradoxical positionings: “collective identities” with “collective memories”. What stands out in these guides, as I have demonstrated so far, is the festival’s tendency to distance itself from the embodied queer subject, while simultaneously legitimizing itself as a film festival about the queer subject, thus privileging queerness as a cinematic theme over the queer cinematic experience.
The queer film festival, having grown out of a need for queer (self-) representation, remains a site of resistance in so much as it allows a predominantly queer audience the freedom from this marginal position, and/or the distance to critically engage with issues around representation. As a (queer) habitus, the cinematic experience accounts for embodied experiences through queer spectatorship, and is always positioned against and within a larger heteronormative context. That said, it would be an overstatement to imply that all films featured at image&nation are in and of themselves counter-normative. Or, that there are no queer films outside of queer film festival circuits. In fact, as Boudreau declares, the ambiguity of the queer festival remains for both creators and audiences: there has been a growing trend by queer filmmakers to feel more accomplished as artists by showing their work outside of the queer film festival context as if to imply that queer audiences are a niche market defined exclusively by topics relating to sex, sexuality, and gender, and more importantly, that this is no longer a sufficient, important, or necessary window through which to present work. Perhaps the most flagrant example of this is the one alluded to in the 2008 festival guide, where Setzer and Boudreau write of their disappointment and frustration when image&nation was turned down from showing the “gay-written and gay-directed” film about “a gay man who dedicated his life to the recognition of queer equal rights” (2008, 13). While Boudreau and Setzer refrain from naming the film, they are referring to Milk, which has since received eight Academy Award nominations. [14] Apparently, screening in queer venues was not part of Milk’s “release strategy,” which is an insult to Boudreau, Setzer, and the image&nation community at large, who for more than two decades have ensured and encouraged a place for queer cinema to be showcased and accessed, rooted itself in political struggle. In continuing their metaphor with the body, in 2008, image&nation reaches the age of majority, it is simultaneously old and young, reflective on two decades of struggle and eager to explore newfound possibilities.

A careful exploration of image&nation’s trajectory demonstrates that terms like “resistance” and “legitimacy” are not givens, and cannot be simply measured against one another. Nor, more importantly, can queer resistance be understood only as a thing of the past, or in terms of the AIDS crisis, overt homophobia and violence, or feminist struggles against misogyny, representations of disability, racism on and off screen, and so on. Resistance, as a concept, presents new opportunities for looking at queer culture as acquiring its due recognition, preserving a distinct queer culture, and allowing for queer culture to be dynamic all the while retaining a political function as made obvious in the festival’s political trajectory. This should be done, as it has been through image&nation, by paying tribute to past struggles, celebrating victories, and acknowledging that some parts of the world are indeed, a better and safer place for gays and lesbians than they were 20 years ago. However, to have an oversimplified, if not nostalgic view of resistance, in my opinion, undermines both the work left to be done, and the power of cinematic images to continue to shape and reflect diversity in flux.

As shown in this paper, in the festival context, legitimacy implies “quality” through a capacity to find and showcase rare films, to promote artists’ work, feature “firsts”, reward filmmakers with prizes and awards, and to present works in a manner that appeals to cinephiles and cultural theorists more broadly. Unlike queer festivals, like MixNYC, [15] for example, that attempt to dismantle the GLBT festival apparatus by opting, instead, for underground avant-garde works, often highly erotic and abject in nature, image&nation’s trajectory suggests a move from showing strictly “provocative” works of these kinds, to include feature films, often from big production studios in the United States. In this sense, the quest for legitimacy seems to be equated, at least in part, to its capacity to show big budget works on the queer film festival circuit.

Thwarting the object/abject of early queer representation by privileging high-cost films and fancy venues that heightened the festival’s status among festivals, image&nation might be seen as losing its edge, appealing to a more mainstream gay and lesbian audience, and succumbing to market-driven incentives. However, a more nuanced assessment of the festival must be made, taking into account the links between festival and activism, both implicit and explicit, and the changing political environment and audiences of the festival: Pidduck suggests, “‘ordinary’ lesbian/gay characters can contribute to the necessary liberal project of visibility, diffusing the social stigma of homosexuality” (1990[2003], p.273). Queers and non-queers have, more than ever, access to images of gays and lesbians, as well as a language by which to both describe and exchange ideas about gender and sexuality—and this has been successful almost to the detriment of the festival’s raison d’être. Perhaps the question of activism needs to be reframed to ask who is expected to make ‘political’ films, in which there is an implicit role of “educating” from the margins, and more importantly, how the personal—the bodily and the sexual—remains at the nexus of queer politics, two decades later. By placing sexuality as both the centre-point and counterpoint to politics, the festival’s self-conception highlights one of the tensions in culture at large—where the community ends and the individual begins.

As illustrated in my brief survey of the festival’s twenty-one years, its quest for legitimacy happened in a linear way, while resistance weaves itself in and out, oftentimes becoming almost invisible from within the festival’s imagination of itself. Arguably then, the festival reinstates the importance of sexuality as a basis for both identity and culture (or cultural reference points), and suggests that rather than always being pitted against a homophobic mainstream, image&nation can resist the more general idea that marginal voices, once “accepted” and “tolerated,” should become subsumed into the mainstream that is said to embrace it, as Patricia Rozema claimed at image&nation’s 2006 conference based on Tom Waugh’s The Romance of Transgression in Canada (2006). [16] Celebrating diversity, expanding the very notion of what it constitutes, and continually challenging how diversity is represented on screen, positions LGBT/queer culture as critical point within cultural studies as it serves to explore the tensions between structure and experience, and culture and identity.

This vision continues to this day, with feature films playing at the Imperial, documentaries at the NFB, and a range of films playing at the deSève cinema, at Concordia, for example. As such, the festival can be seen as occupying many political and social spaces—from abstract repertoire art films, to films exploring the relationship between homosexuality and citizenship worldwide, to sexy amateur shorts, to large-scale productions with somewhat formulaic storylines. In response, image&nation could seek out more underground venues, incorporate local initiatives and artists in the festival’s programming, and broaden their idea of what constitutes cinema by including various media works, as means of re-establishing their artistic and activist foundation, to counterbalance the growing corporatization of the queer film industry, and as a way of creating scarcity to compensate for the web’s mass distribution of queer film and video. In fact, it may have to do so in order to survive.

With more and more queer characters in mainstream films, as well as on television, image&nation programmers fear the worst, with attendance dwindling, and with fewer and fewer works presented at festivals worldwide or submitted by artists and filmmakers internationally. The simultaneous growth (in the mainstream) and diminishing of the queer film (in queer contexts) is affecting the festival’s popularity. [17] In the past few years, works are released on DVD by major distributors prior to being shown at image&nation. This may mean that the overall circulation of queer images continues to increase, but has become more removed form a large-scale collective viewing experience—ironically fulfilling Boudreau’s wish that queer cinema be more about film than “the social.”

Over the last twenty-one years, festival-goers have witnessed the presentation of rare and eclectic works in a context in which queer dominates. While today’s lesbian and queer women’s visibility in the mainstream is certainly greater with popular television shows like The L Word and Sugar Rush, and the wide dissemination of queer content over the internet, it remains that the festival is a venue which both stakes claim to a distinct culture and asserts its power over a place through time. In whatever ways image&nation may continue change, its struggle only highlights those of the community at large: finding a way to retain a radical queer identity both through and against the notions of tolerance, acceptance and alliances allowed

Thank you to Anne Golden, Jules Pidduck, Gabriel Chagnon, Charlie Boudreau, Iain Blair at les archives gaies du Québec, Charles Acland, and Line Chamberland for your time, your insights, your suggestions, and your stories.

References

Aaron, Michele (ed) (2004) New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Boyd, Helen (2007) Trans Group Blog “The Gendercator” Posted May 31, 2007. Online: http://transgroupblog.blogspot.com/2007/05/gendercator_31.html [Accessed June 1, 2008]

Boudreau, Charlie. Personal interview, Montréal 2008.

Crouch, Catherine “The Gendercator: Film Details” Online: http://www.catherinecrouch.com/mainwebsite_html/filmsDetail.php?pageID=gendercator [Accessed June 1, 2008]

de Lauretis, Teresa. (1991) “Film and the Visible” In: How Do I Look? (ed. How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video by Bad Object-Choice Collective, 1991) University of California Press.

Dyer, Richard. (2003) Now you See it: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (2nd Edition) London: Routledge.

Diffusions gaies et lesbiennes du Québec. (1988–¬2006) “Profil” In: DGLQ 1-23

Gagnon, Gabriel. Personal correspondence, Montréal 2008 and 2009.

Golden, Anne. Personal correspondence, Montréal 2008 and 2009.

Griffin, John (2008) “Image + Nation hands out its 21st-birthday presents Outsider-turned-mainstream cinema’s banner program closes banner festival season” The Gazette Online: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Entertainment/Image+Nation+hands+21st+birthday+presents/962967/story.html [Accessed Feb 13, 2009]

Gupta, Dipti and Janine Marchessault. (2007) “Chapter 8: Film Festivals as Urban Encounter and Cultural Traffic In: Urban Enigmas, ed. Joanne Sloan (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s Press) 239–254

Henderson, Lisa (1999) “Simple Pleasures: Lesbian Community and “Go Fish”” Signs, Vol. 25, No. 1. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 37-64. The University of Chicago Press.

The L Word Online: http://www.thelwordonline.com/ [Accessed April 11, 2008]

The L Word on Showtimehttp://www.sho.com/site/lword/home.do [Accessed March 30, 2008]

MacPhee, M-C and Mél Hogan. “Interview with Sarah Shulman on the Act Up Oral History Project,” Dykes on Mykes Radio, CKUT 90.3 FM, Montréal, March 2007.

Morris, Meaghan. (1998:2001) “Learning from Bruce Lee: Pedagogy and Political Correctness in Martial Arts Cinema,” in in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, eds. Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo, New York: Routledge (171-186).

Pearl, Monika B. (2004) “AIDS and New Queer Cinema” In: New Critical Cinema: A Critical Reader (ed) Aaron, Michele. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (23-38)

Pick, Anat (2004) “New Queer Cinema and Lesbian Films” In: New Critical Cinema: A Critical Reader (ed) Aaron, Michele. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (103-118)

Pidduck, Julianne (1990:2003) “After 1980: Margins and Mainstreams” In: Dyer, Richard. Now Your See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (second edition) (London: Routledge)

Pidduck, Julianne (2004) “New Queer Cinema and Experimental Video” In: New Critical Cinema: A Critical Reader (ed) Aaron, Michele. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (80-99)

Rich, B. Ruby (1992) “New Queer Cinema” In: Sight and Sound, 2;5 (September 1992):32

Rich, B. Ruby (2004) “New Queer Cinema” In: New Critical Cinema: A Critical Reader (ed) Aaron, Michele. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (80-99)

Siegel Marc “Spilling out onto Castro Street” In: Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 131-136

Sugar Rush. Channel 4 Online: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sugar-rush [Accessed Feb 16 2009]

Waugh, Thomas (2006) The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Cinemas, Sexualities, Nations. Montreal:McGill-Queens University Press.

White, Patricia (1999) “Queer Publicity: A dossier on Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals” in Gay and Lesbian Quarterly. Duke University Press (73-93)

Zielinski, Ger. (2006) “Exhibition & Community around the Queer Film Festival” Conference paper: Seeking Queer Alliances: Resisting Dominant Discourses and Institutions. Conference at the Gender Studies Centre & American Studies Center, Warsaw University, Poland 29-30 August, 2006.

image&nation Program Guides (authors specified where indicated)

Diffusion gaies et lesbiennes du Québec 1988

image&nation program guide 1989

image&nation program guide 1990

Golden, Anne, image&nation program guide 1991

Golden, Anne and Allan Klusacek, image&nation program guide 1992

Klusacek, Allan Program Guide, image&nation program guide 1993

Hauchecorne, Cécile, image&nation program guide 1994

Boudreau, Charlie and Anne Golden, image&nation program guide 1995

image&nation program guide 1996

Boudreau, Charline, Yves Lafontaine, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 1997

image&nation program guide 1998

image&nation program guide 1999

Boudreau, Charline, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2000

Boudreau, Charline, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2001

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2002

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2003

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2004

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2005

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2006

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2007

Boudreau, Charlie, and Katharine Setzer, image&nation program guide 2007

Film references

Boschman, Lorna Drawing the Line, 1992, Canada, video, 7:30 min.

Colbert, Laurie and Dominique Cardona Thank God I’m a lesbian, 1992, Canada, 16 mm, 60 min.

Cottis, Jane War on Lesbians, 1992, Britain, video, 35 min.

Dempsey, Shawna and Lorri Millan, What does a Lesbian Look Like? 1994, Canada, video, 2 min.

Cohen, Rob, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, 1993, USA, 114 mins.

Kansas, Jane and Laz Van Berkel, How Lesbians Kiss, 1993, Canada, video, 7 min.

Troche, Rose Go Fish, 1993/94, Britain, 16 mm, 85 min.

Edwards, Blake, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961, USA, 115 min.

Van Sant, Gus, Milk, 2008, USA, 128 mins.

[NVCQ::FIN]