Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Big Picture 22

Twenty years after Orwell’s distopian novel 1984 collided with the chronological reality of the year 1984, we have become used to (some would argue occupied by) a level of surveillance and privacy invasion that would make poor old Orwell very satisfied indeed with his prophetic abilities.

It is an urban reality that on any given day each of us is photographed or videotaped dozens and dozens of times. For people living in more prosperous (or just more violence prone) cities, the number of non-consensual starring roles citizens disagree to is in the thousands - any visitor to London or Paris will tell you that there is not a corner, elevator, or back alley available for midnight kisses or quick pees. And forget trying to pinch a souvenir ashtray from a pub.

Artists, ever keen to exploit the latest sources of visual information, have begun to not only question the civil liberties violated by the ever-present cameras, but have also started asking deeper questions about the actual materials collected. Are these countless hours of videotape a narrative, an accidental story? Can individual frames be regarded as, or transformed into art? Where does all this visual information go, and who decides what is valuable and what gets erased?

Toronto photographer Cheryl Sourkes’s new exhibition, Public Camera, takes one of the more recent surveillance practices – the 24 hour web-cam, trained on an unsuspecting, or at least accustomed, public – and filters the enormous amount of information gathered by these tiny spies down to a handful of provocative images.

Sourkes finds gold in the vault, and thus makes us question if in fact surveillance culture’s raison d’etre – to provide, by constant monitoring, a sense of safety and security – has been undermined by its own methodology, by the simple truth that once you start making pictures, no matter how lowbrow the method or how seemingly innocuous the intent or imagery may be, you’ve actually started to make art (like it or not), and art couldn’t rescue a kitten from a tree. Art, by its very impracticality and bad habit of asking uncomfortable questions, is the antithesis of a security device.

Apart from the enormous philosophical questions Public Camera raises (and they are legion), on a purely visual level Sourkes has created a suite of gorgeous photo-works. For instance, her large images of university students studying on shared tables, heads bent to their books (taken from web-cams monitoring student common rooms) are particularly evocative, as the watery Lightjet prints dissolve and soften the hard digital source material, changing sharp pixels to semi-indistinct clumps. There’s a metaphor here about fleeting youth, but you’re already ahead of me on that one.

Sourkes’s smaller photos, most of them taken from web-cams fixed on outdoor spaces such as parking lots or lonely ski hills, are dappled with splotches and weird, Blob-like colours (the results of rain, cold air and snow on the lenses, I’m guessing) - obscuring marks that, of course, defeat the entire point of the surveillance, but make for very pretty pictures.

Sourkes is not the first artist to explore this new archive of found material and its menacing, paranoia-inducing subtexts. Toronto artist P. Elaine Sharpe recently investigated imagery culled from crime scene surveillance, and even had herself clandestinely followed by a gang of paparazzi-like photographers. Multimedia artist Lorna Mills has created a large body of smart ass video and photo-based works culled from reality television. But Sourkes is perhaps the first to find the beauty buried in our collective unease.


What to do about Istvan Kantor? Over the years, I’ve watched Kantor do everything he can to provoke, irritate, enrage and generally piss off the Canadian art world, but the most reaction I’ve personally ever been able to stir up in myself has been a mild bemusement.

Kantor’s work, bombastic and fond of overstatement as it is, has never struck me as being as radical as it’s supposed to be. Like the allegedly scandalous films of Bruce La Bruce, which are really no more than porn films with comedy breaks, Kantor’s work is more dangerous the less you know about art, or care.

A new exhibition of Kantor’s works on paper, however, has made me reconsider my blasé attitude. By their nature calmer than Kantor’s famous stunt/performances, these carefully crafted collages and drawings reveal another, more pensive side of Kantor’s practice. Hold your headlines – Istvan Kantor, blood splattering Neoist noise and sex monger, likes to make dainty pictures. Yes, pictures. Now I really am shocked.

Among the hundred or so works on display, my favourites are Kantor’s manipulated fashion spreads (pages ripped from fashion magazines and sexed up with pastels, and I do mean sexed up), and a charming collection of rude drawings on faded blue file folders.

The fashion works are based on the not-too-original but still vital idea that supermodels are actually inhuman creatures. To prove this, Kantor draws over the models’ pasty faces and emaciated bodies, making them look like robotic skeletons. He also gives all the lady robot-models healthy and engorged penises. I challenge the unsubtle assertion here that the transgendered are less than human, but I’ll let the trans community fight it’s own battles.
The drawings on file folders are simpler affairs, happy to be little more than pleasing bits of naughty graffiti. Kantor is an excellent draughtsman (who knew?), his fluid lines delineating nude bodies with a grace and playfulness worthy of Cocteau.

This small show of personal works will hardly alter the public’s perception of Kantor as the clown prince of Canadian art, but he’d hate for that to happen.


Charismatic Power Plant director Wayne Baerwaldt just announced that he is leaving his position after 3 years as head honcho. Here, then, is WB’s chance to dispel the three hottest rumours about his departure.

Rumour 1: Baerwaldt’s best friend and former Alliance-Atlantis big wig Laura Michalchyshyn, who recently fled to NYC, found Baerwaldt a better job.

“I love that rumour! But, so far, not yet. She could try a little harder, except that I’d have to move in with her to afford it.”

Rumour 2: Relentless criticism in the media over the Power Plant’s programming, spearheaded by the Globe and Mail, has driven Baerwaldt to seek other employment.

“Definitely not true. We certainly need more open and informed critical writing about art– which isn’t happening – but I would have been much more hurt if the level of criticism had been more informed. I did find it revealing that the Catholic Salt and Light TV channel did a bloody remarkable show on Janet Cardiff and we had a flood of visitors who’ve never been here before.”

Rumour 3: Baerwaldt was not getting along with his trust fund-fuelled board.

“Oh no, not true at all. These are the best board members an art centre in Canada could ever enjoy the support of. They make projects that require a leap of faith happen.”
So, why is he leaving?

“We made a lot of headway here – for instance, we didn’t have touring exhibitions before I came. But I want to get back to spending more time with curatorial initiatives and more academic investigations into the programming side of the art world.
I had fun …. but I could always have more fun.”

Cheryl Sourkes
Public Camera
Peak Gallery 23 Morrow Ave. Until March 19

Istvan Kantor
Love is the Robotic Expression of the Machines
Zsa Zsa 962 Queen West Until March 15