Staying Tuned By Christopher Rohde

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of SAW Video. Started in 1981 as a project of Galerie SAW Gallery for local artists to try out the ‘new' medium of video, SAW Video has since grown into one of the premier media art centres and video production co-ops in the country. As a way of reflecting back on its history, SAW Video has organized the exhibition Tape Heads: Video Art and Technology in the 1980s, featuring displays of now-antique equipment from the first decade of the organization's existence. Whereas making a video today is relatively simpler, given the ubiquity of consumer-grade cameras, video-capable hand-held devices, and basic editing software on home computers, in the early eighties it represented an enormous challenge. The equipment was far more cumbersome, less mobile and required highly specialized skills to operate. To demonstrate the perseverance and ingenuity of SAW's first wave of video artists, this exhibition also features a few examples of the rich, fascinating and often technically accomplished video art pieces made during the organization's early years. These videos explore concepts and techniques common to video art during the eighties: the questioning of the relationship between art and audience, video artists' commentary on commercial television, the instability and uncertainty of the photographic image, and the aesthetic exploration of new technologies.

The four video art pieces on display in this exhibition all stem from Videosync, a 17-part series also known as the SAW Gallery Cable Show,which was broadcast on Skyline Cable Vision between 1983 and 1985 as part of the community access initiatives prevalent at the time. Even today, finding video art and alternative media on broadcast television is rare, and introducing it to the public requires finesse. Who knows what viewers might have thought in 1983 when they turned on their television sets and encountered these experimental and eccentric productions? That sense of confusion or shock, when faced with something far outside of everyday experience, is mirrored in one of the pieces itself, c j fleury's The Circle Cycle (1983, 11 min.), which explores the sometimes-fractured relationship between artist and audience.


c j fleury's The Circle Cycle (1983, 11 min.)

View The Circle Cycle in the Mediatheque.


The artist draws on her background as a professional figure skater and choreographer for this video, staged on the Rideau Canal during one of the first editions of Winterlude. Her performance incorporates aspects of both traditional figure skating and avant-garde performance art, mixing the classical and the modern. Graceful lines and spins are juxtaposed with chaotic, irrational gestures, heightened in their incongruity by a frenetic electronic score by Michael Bussière. fleury is ‘evaluated' by a panel of judges sitting in a row of chairs on the ice, but the piece calls into question the degree to which they see, absorb and appreciate what is in front of them. Throughout the video, the judges sit impassively, not reacting or responding, even when fleury approaches them, shaking them and leaning on their shoulders. Although score cards can be seen in the background (before the performance even begins), at the conclusion, the judges do not even assign her a rating. This forms a commentary on the role of the spectator (or judge) in the realms of both sport and art. While sports and athletic performances may be evaluated according to an established system of ratings and scores, fleury is positing that art and artistic performance cannot be judged in the same manner, assigned an arbitrary numerical value. And yet, if these judges were receiving fleury's performance as a work of art, would they not be free to react to it with some empathic response? Perhaps the judges are, like some of the onlookers visible standing around the rink, too confounded to react? fleury's mixing of codes and conventions does defy easy interpretation, and is as enigmatic as the mysterious silver pyramid sitting in middle of the rink. Did the television audience watching this at home have a similar experience?

The difference between what was shown in Videosync and almost everything else on television at the time cannot be overemphasized. Broadcast television in the eighties had fewer channels, less avenues for alternative programming, and was not generally considered to be a medium for transmitting art. Video art's basic difference from mainstream television, however, was often compounded by a sense of ideological and formal opposition on the part of artists. For many video artists in the eighties, being ‘different' from mainstream television often meant more than simply expressing an unconventional point of view. Video art shared the same tools and technology as television, and the desire of artists to use those tools in a radically different way, to produce work that was decidedly 'not TV,' was palpable.

Chris Mullington's I Have to Watch This? (1983, 40 sec.), originally produced as a Videosync bumper segment to fill space in between the ‘real' videos, addresses the artistic community's feelings towards mainstream television head-on. The basis of the video is an editorial photograph taken from a magazine, showing a prisoner strapped into an electric chair with a television set pointed at him, presumably to make the execution more comfortable. Mullington filmed his own disembodied head against a green screen at the Skyline studios and superimposed it onto the head of the prisoner, giving him a voice to comment on his situation. In a humourous twist, Mullington screams and squirms uncomfortably, not from being executed or bound with leather straps, but from being forced to watch “25 more years" of game shows, talk shows, soap operas and sports. Television is the real torture here, but Mullington's sardonic tone implies that he is more interested in poking fun at mundane TV programming than in taking a firm stand against television as a medium. Mainstream television may have lacked more highbrow intellectual stimulation and thoughtful discourse, but it is also not reducible to its basic tools and technology, which had the potential to be used for something more. Mullington's video was, after all, broadcast on TV as well.


Chris Mullington's I Have to Watch This? (1983, 40 sec.)


The kind of image superimposition seen in I Have to Watch This? is a technique taken easily for granted today, given its commonplace use in TV weather reports and the ease of achieving such effects with modern on-line digital editing. In the eighties, however, it could be a more complicated process, often involving the careful real-time manipulation of video switchers. Carolyn Brown's Speculations (1983, 7 min.) employs superimposition to a more complex degree, making multiple images gradually fade in and out over top of one another as a way of commenting on the fragility of memory and subjectivity.


Carolyn Brown's Speculations (1983, 7 min.)


The title of Brown's video is apt, as it conveys the idea that when it comes to viewing images, nothing can be certain. The premise of Speculations is that the narrator has found a stack of old black and white photographs in her parents' home. From there, she constructs an elaborate imaginary narrative based on guesswork. Who took these photos? Did her mother get the wrong roll of film back from the developer? Were they discovered accidentally sandwiched in the pages of a second-hand book? Who are the people in them? Are these people the narrator's distant relatives? Could it be that these are photos from the narrator's childhood, from a past so long-forgotten it cannot be recognized? Paying close attention to the empirical details in the pictures, the narrator tells the histories and biographies of the people and places they depict, drawing on every piece of visible evidence available. This has the secondary effect of causing the viewer to pay closer attention to the photographs, picking up on the cues in the image (an untidy bed, a plastic hair clip) that form the basis of this false history. Adding another layer of complexity, not only are we unsure as to the ‘truth' of these stories, we also gradually become unsure of the identity of the narrator. At times, the narrator's female voice is doubled by a male voice speaking the same lines. The narrator is only ever seen in a genderless backlit silhouette, adding to the ambiguity of who is speaking, and who is remembering. The subject becomes as unstable as the objects that she (or he) is speaking about. This is perhaps a protective measure, pointing towards a hesitation to reveal one's own true life and emotions, to hide behind the veil of speculation and fiction. As the narrator says, it was easier “uncovering someone else's past, as I was afraid of uncovering my own." 

This essay has outlined some of the technological challenges facing video artists in the eighties. The technology available to artists at the time was not, however, only an unwieldy burden or an obstacle to be overcome. In many cases, technology was warmly embraced as a means to produce new types of images and explore new aesthetic realms. Such is the case with Donna Reichard & Aarmèse's Calere (1983, 4 min.), a piece that was produced out of a workshop held at SAW led by renowned video artist and electronic pioneer Ko Nakajima, who was in Ottawa as part of a cultural exchange program between Canada and Japan. Nakajima brought with him the Aniputer, a device he invented in collaboration with JVC which made it possible to ‘cut out' pieces of still images and animate them using various effects in real-time. Although the ability to scan photographs and make them move about or change colours on-screen is relatively commonplace today, even outside of artistic practice, in the early eighties this sort of technology was still highly experimental and the results it could produce seemed like a new frontier of image-making. The excitement the artists behind Calere must have felt trying out this new tool comes through in the video's use of bold, almost psychedelic colours, rapid movement, and pixilation, where the image is translated into a grid of coloured squares to the point of abstraction. The pictures being animated in this video are transformed from ordinary photographs into canvases on which endless possibilities and variations might be performed. Those tiny pixelated squares, an apt visual metaphor for the mathematical language of digital technology, would prove to be an uncanny foreshadowing of the direction video would take in its next two decades.


Donna Reichard & Aarmèse's Calere (1983, 4 min.),


Author's biography

Christopher Rohde started as Programmer at SAW Video Media Art Centre in 2010. He is also a practicing media artist and has been a programming member of the Available Light Screening Collective since 2006.

Artist biographies

In 1983, Carolyn Brown graduated from Carleton University with a Bachelor of Journalism, and was freelance writing for Beau Joust and Ottawa Magazine on artistic and cultural issues in Ottawa. She was producer of many programs at Radio Carleton CKCU-FM, including Artistic License, for several years in the early 1980s. Today she is a science and medical writer, editor, and publishing consultant in Ottawa. Her artistic work is confined to helping artist-friends with their artistic statements, catalogues, and dissertations. In her writing and editing, she is interested in the intersection of scientific and medical issues with society, art, and the environment.

A founder of SAW Video, Chris Mullington began his career as a video artist in the 1980s and continues to contribute to the art. Now creative director of Ottawa production company TV Factory, Mullington's video art aesthetic has strongly influenced his television work which has been widely featured on such shows as CBC's This Hour has 22 Minutes, The Health Show, and CBC Sunday. Fantastic, funny and keenly observational, Mullington's body of work forms a unique tele-culture that is smartly political, and at times poetic, standing as extraordinary visual landmarks on the often monochromatic landscape of television.

Initially formed through movement and choreography, c j fleury draws ideas through diverse media, contexts and timelines. Teaching shields and co-creating Ottawa's Women's Monument Against Violence spurred a two-decade exploration into public-engagement; including groundbreaking collaborations with hundreds of City maintenance employees, a village and the feminist-law community. fleury has lectured through art, civic and legal symposiums, arts councils, museums and various university faculties here and abroad. Of sixteen public-art commissions, her most recent are: fifteen granite/bronze sculptures (Preston Street) and The Metabolics of Peace: A video triptych (Greenboro CC). 

Donna Reichard was a member of Galerie SAW Gallery and SAW Video during the 1980s. During her time there, she produced several episodes of Videosync, one of which included her documentary The Life and Work of c j fleury. She currently works with digital media, mainly on the Web, on environmental issues as a social entrepreneur in the wondrous Pacific Northwest U.S.

Aarmèse was born in 1953 in a small Northern Saskatchewan town not far from where significant Canadian historical events took place. A graduate in Religious Studies from Western U. in 1977, he continued post-grad studies in Fine Arts at the University of Ottawa in the 1980s. Aarmèse was out and proud queer from the beginning as an art student. He continues to be an avid academic/activist with specialties in Hebrew, biblical studies, socio-anthropology, astrology and millennialism. Aarmèse has been involved in fashion production and design while mingling with the Toronto Queen West denizens and art glitterati, exhibiting and working in all disciplines, including theatre and film/video.

Special thanks

c j fleury, Chris Mullington, Carolyn Brown, Dana West, Armez Belair, Calere Boudreau, Edmund Eagan, Paul Couillard, Bernice Lyons-Page, Bryan Dewalt, Gordon Perrault, Patrick Racine, Renuka Bauri, Ramin Khanjani, Michael Caffrey, DAÏMÕN, Meaghan Haughian, Julie Dupont, Alex Massaad and the SAW Video staff.


Website © 2014 SAW Video Association
SAW Video Media Art Centre
67 Nicholas Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B9 Canada
t 613-238-7648
e sawvideo@sawvideo.com