Images Blog 5 - 2010 Andrew James Paterson


Canadian Artist Spotlight Ross McLaren


Ross McLaren is a very good choice for a spotlighted Canadian artist since (a) he was the maker of a significant body of cinematic works that stand tests of time very effectively indeed and (b) he was a prime catalyst in experimental film history, not only with respect to his own work but to, dare I say, multiple communities. McLaren could justifiably be accused of stirring up a lot of shit and then entering it into play.

If one were to time-tunnel back to the 1970s in Toronto, one could have an archaeological and archival field day with the histories of one particular building - 15 Duncan Street. This was once an office for the Ontario Liberal Party, but that is just a footnote. 15 Duncan hosted the Centre for Experimental Arts and Communications (CEAC), which was a force of beyond nature in its whirlwind international performance and media-arts programming and its political provocativeness. (for further reading, check out Eldon Garnet’s informative essay in the 2010 Images catalogue and then Dot Tuer’s The CEAC was Banned in Canada - Dot Tuer, Mining the Media Archive, YYZ Books, 2005).

CEAC also embraced punk rock, and in 1977 the more punk venues the better. In the basement of 15 Duncan, The Canadian power-pop-punk band The Diodes came in and organized The Crash and Burn, which was short-lived and furious. I myself remember punk/art crossover - not only the frenetic bands but also punk fashion shows and then cold beer in a metal bathtub. (for further reading, check out Liz Worth, Treat Me Like Dirt - An Oral History of Toronto Punk, Bongo Beat Books, 2009)

McLaren had begun organizing film screenings in the 15 Duncan basement in 1976. Many of the filmmakers involved were working with low-gauge stocks - Regular and Super 8 in particular. McLaren co-founded the Toronto Super-8 Festival, and he himself used the stock. McLaren had discreetly initiated The Funnel, a proto-artist-controlled organization for the making and exhibiting of film. The Funnel began in 1977, it used the former Crash and Burn space until CEAC had to shut down in 1978, and then McLaren moved the organization to a warehouse at 507 King Street East - very east indeed from most of the downtown artist-run galleries and video cooperatives. The Funnel talked and made serious film, and someone should write a book about all of this. (further reading, check out John Porter’s Super-8 Porter website)

McLaren himself has been a playful and even confrontational filmmaker, and the Images spotlight focuses on his work between 1976 and 1984, before his relocation to New York City where he continued to work and teach. Weather Building (1976) is raw and performative. Shot on Super-8 with in-camera editing, McLaren references but dances around Warhol’s Empire State. Weather Building is notable for its viscerality and its rhythms - the omnipresent footsteps are on the verge of serious crashing. The filmmaker’s body dances with his camera - somewhere between the pogo and the freefall. Weather Building, with its DIY kineticism, anticipates the punks who McLaren came to share space with and who supplied a subject for his subsequent film Crash and Burn.

McLaren indeed shares the structuralists’ concentration on the film medium’s materials. In Wednesday January 17, 1979 (Art’s birthday, according to Robert Filiou) , the filmmaker is cleaning the shelves and their stock at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre when he decides that the leader of the films is more interesting than the images being led to. So then, McLaren splices the strands of leader into a filmic entity, adding dates with that convenience of punk postering - Letraset. The film 9 x 12 (1981) was produces as an microfiche insert for an edition of Impulse magazine. McLaren has assembled nine rows of 16mm. film with 12 frames per row, producing a still image of the Funnel gallery space. When projected, one can see that space deconstructed though time - one day it was this and the next day it was that.

In addition to his amusing essay on rear-screen projection and romantic narratives Sex Without Glasses (1983), McLaren screened a predominately abstract (with serious scratching) film tied to a rollercoaster radio interview with visiting luminance Jack Smith (he of “Flaming Creatures” notoriety). Smith is explaining why he is doing a performance and not a film during his residency at the Funnel - it is because censorship has indeed become a hot button issue since the provincial censor board has been demanding prior submission for classification of all films of all gauges to be screened in the province. The Funnel had already been hit hard by this ridiculous request, with serious legal and financial consequences. By this time, video artists and distributors and art galleries had joined the anti-censorship battle. Smith himself is alternately angry and bored with the subject, and McLaren’s “translations” of his responses to the interview almost comically follow the visiting artist’s oscillations. Now there is clarity, and now static.

The final hour of McLaren’s screening was reserved for his 1978 film Summer Camp. At sixty minutes, Summer Camp is indeed a feature, of the durational variety. This film is indeed a Duchampian exercise in importing found material into an originally-unintended venue or location. McLaren found more than several reels of young “actors” auditioning for a CBC youth culture programme called “Time of Your Life“. The auditions are, of course, repetitive. Each candidate is interviewed by a classically prim CBC employee, then asked to deliver a specific memorized speech about the grotesque cook at summer camp, and then required to perform an improvisation with a CBC actor. The CBC actor portrays the brother who is dying of cancer - he has been told by the doctors that he has three weeks remaining. So how to the candidates react to this news? Well, some already know but are still in denial. And some try to reassure the brother that the doctors can’t possibly know what the hell they’re talking about. There are interesting collisions here between different definitions of “acting”. There are clashes between annoyingly sunny dispositions and grim hospital realities. There are moments when “acting” indeed breaks down.

But...Duchamp inserted a readymade (of course a urinal) into an environment (an art gallery) in which high culture was certainly not supposed to mix with bodily fluids but in which many of the objects on the wall and the floor could be derogatively referred to as “shit”. McLaren is inserting a readymade (a CBC audition tape) into an environment in which narrative tends to be frowned on, actors are considered to be generally unnecessary, and television itself is an inhabitant of another planet. (And video is suspected by some to be a poor cousin of television) If McLaren had mounted Summer Camp as a gallery installation, then people would look at it, get the point, and move on; or else move around the installation while checking in on the “narrative’ at their own speed. Perhaps they might form their own coteries of comic observers - perhaps the installation might become proto-“relational” or whatever. In a cinematic or theatrical screening situation, a tension develops between quick over-familiarity with the structure and the tacit agreement to commit oneself to the strictures of duration. Summer Camp problematizes art/cinematic/ television boundaries by its very everydayness - its blandness and relative monotony. The scene with the dying brother could possibly be shot as flaming melodrama, but this is just an audition tape and visuals are not a priority. Structural exercises make their points quickly and then must complete their own executions - those are the rules of their games.

And so Summer Camp indeed played as a feature that itself had started late. Audiences were more than trickling in for the evening’s finale - a karaoke screening of McLaren’s 1977 film Crash and Burn. Yes, the old punks were beginning to fill the room. And a found-footage CBC audition tape was beginning to resemble a present-day reality-TV show in which none of the contestants were particularly suitable star material.

So, there we go. And again, congratulations to the Images Festival for an astute choice of featured Canadian artist. I made a quick decision that staying for the karaoke might be hard on my implanted tinnitus, and I walked home. It was prematurely summer, and not at all camp.