[Review of the book edited by Janine Marchessault for YYZ Books & CRCCII, 1995. in Fuse Magazine, Volume 18, No 5, 1995.]


Mirror Machine: Video and Identity


Mirror Machine is a collection of thirteen essays about community and art video in Canada. The essays are both historical and theoretical, though leaning heavily toward the historical.

The first section of the book is "Institutional Contexts." Janine Marchessault focuses on the NFB's Challenge for Change program. Nancy Shaw examines the history of two Vancouver artist-run centres, Intermedia and Metro Media, in the context of the federal government and the rest of Canada, particularly Montreal's Videographe. Kevin Dowler gives a quick history of the Canada Council to 1975 focusing on the institutionalization, the fund-ability, of video art. Although these essays cover only the first decade of video’s institutional history (roughly 1966 - 1976), it's hard not to read them in the light of the Canada Council's current crisis. When Shaw speaks of the development of the Media Arts section as being on a continuum with Explorations, the Art Bank and Publishing Assistance, its scary — Explorations is being dismantled, the Art Bank (despite being largely self-funding) has been axed, and Publishing Assistance is under intense scrutiny.  (On another note, I hope it doesn't take until the year 2011 to see a book that covers 1976 - 1991.)

The next section of the book is "Discursive Histories." Peggy Gale divides video art's twenty-five year history in English Canada into four movements: conceptual, narrative, dramatic and social, as well as looking at Quebec production using the same terms in an altered order. It's a giant thesis packed into a tiny essay. Dot Tuer gives us a whirlwind tour of the last two decades of video art in English Canada. Apart from Tuer's mis-spelling of my beloved NSCAD (as opposed to her NASCAD), I have no complaints. Also Monika Kin Gagnon becomes sensibly mired down in examining what the category "East Asian Canadian video" might mean or include/exclude. 

The last section of the book is "Community, Communication." Renee Baert focuses on a handful of videos to examine feminism in video art. Jennifer Kawaja outlines a process of using video within a community to induce social change through self-reference. Marjorie Beaucage has submitted a beautiful essay called "Aboriginal Voices: Entitlement Through Storytelling." Its written in a densely aphoristic style, yet remains an extremely simple, seductive manifesto. I feel like a grinch not being able to buy into all of her assumptions. Tom Folland looks at video's role in AIDS activism, deftly covering video, its production and reception — including a critique of Canada's version of community cable.

All of the essays are very good — there's not one dog in the bunch.  Still, I can't help but be disappointed. All these social histories are fine, and even necessary, but they dispense with any in-depth discussion of actual video works. Of course Mirror Machine does not purport to be about video work itself, so it's somewhat mean-spirited to criticize the book for what I'd hoped it would contain. Still it seems somehow emblematic, even quintessentially Canadian, to take a given discourse's institutional apparatuses, rather than works drawn from the discourse itself, as the proper subject for academic attention.  But out from the shadow of my overall disappointment drift the three essays that engage through a discussion of actual video work.

The first is by Kay Armatage who, after a lengthy and wide-ranging introduction, gets down to discussing the important work of Vera Frenkel. Christine Ross uses psychoanalytical theory in her intensely knotty examination of Vern Hume's Lamented Moments/Desired Objects.  Somehow, despite the soul-crushing weight of her critical apparatus, she never loses sight of the video in question. Ron Burnett's essay is long and lumpy, full of seeming digressions — it would be impossible to synopsize. I found it riveting, even exhilarating.