Thursday, June 25, 2009

Once Upon A Time . . . there were two writers at Walter Phillips Gallery REVIEWED by Anthea Black

In near total darkness, the Walter Phillips Gallery seems huge and impenetrable like never before. The space is painted black, carpeted and seemingly empty - save the projection work by British artist Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time. Images are glimmering in the distance and a soundtrack of indistinct speaking echoes through the space. The projections become fully visible on the gallery's furthest wall after our eyes forget the light of the afternoon outside and adjust to the dark expanse.

McQueen introduces his work using the familiar first line of many a fairytale, "Once upon a time," as the title. The story itself goes back to 1977, when NASA worked with Carl Sagan and a committee of 6 others to select images, diagrams, sounds, music and greetings to be included on a phonograph record aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. The compilation, called the Golden Record, and the messages it carries to our neighbours out in the universe, are still hurtling through space today.

This slideshow features the entire index of images from the Golden Record, including a wide pan of our planet Earth and the Milky Way, an inventory of modes of transportation, various mathematical equations, diagrams of the human life cycle, and picture-perfect landscapes. For 70 minutes, the images cycle at the same maddeningly metered pace with a soundtrack of glossolalia superimposed by McQueen - by now, readers of and Prairie Artsters will be familiar with where we are, and what we're doing there - and walking out is not an option. For me to abandon this work would mean loosing the challenge, but in a broader sense, leaving the installation before the cycle completes would be like turning one's back on human civilization.

McQueen's renaming suggests that the original is a fiction or a fairytale, something that starts innocently enough, but comes with a moral message embedded in the telling, and gains even greater poignancy in the re-telling. By showing the Golden Record under this new guise of storytelling, he invites our speculation about the original work.

As a record of human activity on the planet, the original selection of images is shockingly affirmative - it shows the many areas of human progress, innovation and the miracle of our natural capacities as living, breathing, breeding creatures. Many images of natural spaces are populated only by evidence that humans have been there, peacefully toiling away: lighthouses, simple dwellings and cultivated daffodils. Architectural feats of the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House and the UN Building are also represented in quick succession. Here, these iconic places are haunted by the specter of way too many Hollywood movies, and they seem to pronounce: Oh alien race, please don't destroy us! We are the fruits of human ingenuity and labour!

In retrospect, we see that the Golden Record shares its year of realization with several other monumental works of science fiction. 1977 is also the year in which Isaac Asimov founded Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, Steven Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas launched the Star Wars empire that would become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and arguably the most influential in terms of its impact on popular imagination. It is from this blockbuster era of science fiction that NASA's Golden Record materializes. But even by 1976, the relationship between popular science fiction and the 'serious' stuff happening at NASA was already well established: its important test spaceship was christened "Enterprise" with cast and crew of the Star Trek television series attending.

Where the Golden Record significantly departs from other science fiction of the period, is in the radically different relationship that it proposes with whoever is 'out there.' Many of the other narratives from that time imagine vast destruction at the hands of the spacefairing strangers who the Golden Record seeks to address. If the alien beings that dwell in our imaginations and on our movie screens ever get hold of the Golden Record and figure out how to play the damn thing perhaps they'd be more benevolent.

US President Jimmy Carter certainly hopes so in his contribution to the original disk: "We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe."

Even in Carter's era, the trouble is infinitely deeper than it appears in the heavily edited Golden Record. Perhaps the mood of NASA's compilation will inspire understanding from an alien civilization, rather than the kinds of destruction that we as human beings have ravaged on each other and our planet. The question is: do we really deserve good will?

So let's presume for a moment that the audience isn't 'out there' somewhere, but instead, as McQueen has implied, here: in the gallery. The exhibition context allows us to see how the snapshot of our civilization circa 1977 seems to have been cleansed of all the things we don't like about ourselves. Missing are the images of genocide committed against First Nations peoples, of the charred bodies of Hiroshima, the results of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. In three decades since, our record hasn't improved much. Now, we have a few more genocides, the tar sands, and gigantic piles of technological waste from the first world leaching toxic waste into the rivers - and bloodstreams - of people halfway across the world. In this act of making our experience of the world legible to others, and our complicity in this rosy view, we're also committing massive self-deception.

Perhaps we must look to McQueen's observations about his gut-wrenching film Hunger, for the complex psychological wrestling with our darker sides that the Golden Record seems to avoid at all costs. Of the film, he says, "certain things that I was interested in were not recorded in history books, that [is] what intrigues me more... I am more interested in things between the words." Or in the case of Once Upon a Time: the things between the pictures. The re-presentation of these specific pictures gives us the opportunity to read between them, to critique ourselves at a precise moment in history, and challenge the original document - not as a universal study, but as a piece of fiction.

Very short cat naps provide some relief from the meditative cycling images and audio track's frantic lullaby, and Once Upon a Time seems all the more like a far-away dream that fades in and out of focus as we try to decipher it.

Anthea Black is co-editor of

Image credit for Once Upon a Time: Steve McQueen, Once Upon a Time, 2002 Sequence of 116 slide-based colour images through a PC hard drive and rear-projected onto a screen with integrated soundtrack, 70 minutes
Images courtesy: Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Cross-posted with Amy Fung's Once Upon A Time

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Hit With A Board*

While I feel inclined to say that, as an arts writer, I'm aware of pressing issues within the arts community because it's my job, I must admit I'm mostly aware of these said issues because I sit on arts boards.

Almost every arts organization in this city is a non-profit society, legally governed by the provincial registry to operate by a volunteer board of directors. From the small chapter of cooperative artists working out of their garage to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, every non-profit organization has a board of directors that has to legally meet and be held accountable for the activities and operation of the organization. While the weight and responsibility of being on a board is less than desired by most individuals, especially artists with full-time jobs, this weight is also the leverage one needs to actively and convincingly push for the change we need.

A public arts board is created for public benefit, but the public itself needs to know it can get involved. This may be the most important part, as we have all have at one point passionately or vehemently lamented the situation of the arts and why arts organizations do this and why they do that. If you ever wonder where all the money goes, and why, become a member.

Most non-profit organizations function by maintaining a pool of general members, that anyone (and I mean anyone) can join for a relatively small fee, and as a member, you may and should attend an organization’s annual general meeting, about which they must legally inform its membership—usually with ample notice, depending on their bylaws. This is the easiest way to check into an organization, as their operating documents from their bylaws, financial statements, policies and staff reports must be held accountable to their membership. If they're not, then they're not functioning legally or ethically, and their status as an organization to receive operating funds and endowments needs to be called into question and reconsidered by their members and their funders.

In the past two weeks, I’ve attended two annual general meetings for arts organizations in this city. As a general member for both of these organizations, I felt inclined to exercise my right to check in on the status and direction of the organizations at hand. While change doesn’t happen overnight, it is absolutely necessary to understand how something works before you get involved on any level.

When I was asked to join my first board, I politely declined. Board meetings can be bored meetings, and I didn’t wholly appreciate the babble of bureaucracy, but as I became increasingly invested in the activities of an organization, I needed to invest some time and energy into understanding how they function. I can only encourage others to do the same, as it is your right and the majority’s right to make things better for yourself and for your community.

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 25, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton

Dana Holst, Prey & Daryl Vocat, The Secret of the Midnight Shadow, Latitude 53 through July 11, 2009*

Our precious formative years: Boys will be boys and girls will be girls at Latitude 53

Dana Holst’s Prey and Daryl Vocat’s The Secret of the Midnight Shadow may have come together independently as solo exhibitions about little girls and little boys, respectively, but both these exhibitions from contemporary artists share a common ground.

While Holst moved from Ontario to Alberta, Vocat has moved out east from the Prairies. Their bodies of work and interests are not necessarily opposing of each other, but their aesthetics are radically different. Their pairing here in Edmonton demonstrates a unique programming trait that leaves room for independent ideas to speak to one another from communities far and near, crisscrossing in our seeming solitude. Respectively, the works focus on the representation of little girls and little boys, with the theme of the childhood constructions of gender identities undercutting both their works during the precious era of our formative years.

Prey evokes an era of garters and garlands. Hanging in a pink and stenciled salon parlour marked with heavy dark lines and ornate frames throughout, the room has all the post-Victorian charm of golden gilds and frilled glamour. Using mostly silverpoint illustrations, the prepubescent cherub-faced girls in Holst’s works are dressed the part of the innocent and virtuous, too young to be fully sexualized, yet not too young to be gendered. The girls are sweet, bratty, and whatever else you would associate with the behavioural patterns of those with dimpled cheeks and ringlet curls. Decked out with butterflies in their hair and ribbons around their waists, each girl can simultaneously hold the vacant gaze of the lost or the sinister stare of the possessed.

Image and photo credit: Dana Holst, Slow and Steady, 2009. Silverpoint on paper, 7 x 5" Collection of Jill Davies Shaw and Darren Shaw, Edmonton, AB.

Holst poses the girls in various stages of the hunt, eyeing up their prey or looming over their kill, with pistol or bow and arrow in their chubby little hands. The illustrations are anything but gory, rather, they are graphic in suggestive violence, soliciting the inevitable conclusion that these girls could kill, but refusing to show them in the act. With subtle shadowing in their face, the girls hold the temperaments of riled hunters. They are not hunting for survival, but sport, and the desire to hunt is the desire to overpower their surroundings. Holst composes the girls with their prey out of context; that is, the girls are dolled up, sitting on fluffy clouds or with their cherished pets, but their desire to prey upon others is situated as generic as a greeting card composition, save for the bullet holes in the corpi and the weapons in hand.

Aesthetically and conceptually, Holst bridges the gap between the pronounced nostalgia of identity by Canadian artist Angela Grossmann and the harnessed latent aggression in former-Edmontonian painter Tammy Salzl. The primary difference unique to Prey is that Holst is situating the gallery space beyond just the frames, touching down on an era when women were elevated as the innocent while focusing on an age when desire and power are shaped and groomed.

Linking directly to Holst in their shared fascination on the formation of desire and power, Daryl Vocat’s exhibit in the main space re-creates the childhood imagination as a lived, illustrated pop-up diorama. The midnight garden is filled with dark corners and unexplained moments, bodies suspended in the air and limbs jutting from bushes and trees. There is a charged sexuality in the positioning of the cut out figures, re-contextualizations of illustrated boy scout figures in various poses. Crouched as a wolf, splattered in blood or huddled in a shirtless triad, the boys are taken out of their original context of instructive diagrams of skill building to Vocat’s world of exploration and imagination. The world lurks, but the boys are active in their engagements with each other.

Image credit: Daryl Vocat, Detail of Crawling wolf boy and hand with bone. Acrylic on MDF. 2006.

Directly facing the midnight garden is the series “The Old Guard is Dead,” a set of silkscreens on paper depicting the illustrated scouts at play in a real park. The park in question is here photographed empty and in the daytime—and is apparently a well-known cruising ground. Situating the scouts at play on cruising grounds and titling each piece after an innuendo-friendly Scout guideline, Vocat elicits an overtly homoerotic reading of the scout’s highly structured team building and male bonding. Vocat does this through shades of humour, but the boys' blank expressions layered through Vocat’s sexualized setting creates a much more intense atmosphere than the midnight garden, which still remains somewhere between ambiguity and the imagination. But here in the photographed park, nature, once a subject conquerable by the Scouts’ tenacity, is now undeniably and unimaginatively the setting for repressed abandonment and play.

As a complimentary contrast, the boys in Vocat’s world, much like the girls in Holst’s, suspend their own identities by releasing the very constructs of how they have been represented.

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 25, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Real-Life Pop-Up Book Darryl Vocat: The Secret of the Midnight Shadow REVIEWED by Josée Aubin Ouellette

Viewing "The Secret of the Midnight Shadow" is like being inside a life-size pop-up book, waiting for the next page to turn, or like visiting a stage frozen in time. The large dioramic installation of a forest at night time is inhabited by young, life-size cut-out boys playing in the wilderness. They are free from the gaze of their supervisors to play games exploring their budding sexuality, but they are immobile and anchored to the walls with thick metal pipes.

Image credit: Daryl Vocat "Three boys; see, hear, and speak." Close-up view. Acrylic on MDF. 2006.

The other section of the main gallery holds a series of small prints of the boys, performing similar actions over a pixelated landscape backdrop. This time, they are trapped inside virtual-space rather than a construction paper, paint, and plywood world. The prints inform the reading of the installation by highlighting the importance of Vocat's fascination with printings' roots as a visual tool for the reproduction of information and the importance of the relationship between the boys and the environment in which they are presented. They also represent Vocat's larger printmaking practice in which, like the installation, he adopts and manipulates the illustrative language of the 1918 publication of The Canadian Scout Handbook. Using the diagrammatic and didactic aesthetic, but altering the actions performed by the boys, he comments on the construction of gender and the regimentation of young boys' sexuality by an organization such as The Scouts.

The link between the prints and the installation, apart from the subject matter, is the concept of artifice. Artifice is expressed in the chosen medium by Vocat’s careful staging of the environment. In the prints, the computer screen pixilation has a strong relationship to the scale of the figures presented. In the installation, the flatness of a print is echoed in almost all the formal aspects: the silkscreened black and white drawing of the figures, the paper leaves, the flat midnight-blue paint on the walls, and even the paper bats flying overhead, but the materials that fill the space around them are are immediate and transparent. The boys are in a sense brought to life, occupying space, yet they retain an overwhelming sense of two-dimensionality and artifice. This staging maintains the divide between the viewer and scene depicted and the sense that the figures are also disconnected from their surroundings.

If the illustrative aesthetic used to depict the boys represent the structuralist concept of gender, it is transcended by Vocat’s manipulation of the boys’ actions. Removing the boys from their book-bound surroundings, they are transformed in an act of art and brought into a realm in which they are, in a sense, more real. Instead of posing as the instructions for a guide book, they act as individuals. Their role is reversed from being instructive to telling a personal narrative, but Vocat chooses to only take this transformation so far, creating a sense of disconnection between the boys and their surroundings. By breaking this sense of continuity in the prints and in the audience-to-art relationship of the installation, Vocat creates a tragic flaw in the scenario: while the boys of 1918 are mass produced in reality, this more recent generation’s lives exist only though art as magic. The art of this show lies in the separation between the boys and their surroundings, which imitates our own distance from art.

- J.O.A. Edmonton

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the Frontier of Prairie Art: the Final days of the National Gallery of Saskatchewan REVIEWED by Jasia Stuart

The town of Canora, located in the expansive planes of eastern Saskatchewan and with a population of under three thousand people, would not normally be a place I expect to find a contemporary art gallery initiated and run by young artists. The long-standing wisdom passed on to the young and creative is to get the big city and integrate into the big (and already highly developed) art scene.

The National Gallery of Saskatchewan, which is founded, run, and for the most part solely funded by Sarah Jane Holtom and Brandan Doty, explores an alternative strategy. After spending some time in New York struggling to survive in the large metropolis, where rents are accordingly high, the pair was attracted to the small Saskatchewan community because of the availability and affordability of space.

Holtom’s mother had moved to Canora in 2004 and acquired a storefront space on Main Street which she had intended to run as a small shop. When Holtom and Doty joined her in Canora in 2007, partially because they were able to purchase an entire house, complete with apple tree, for less than the cost of renting a small apartment for a year in most cities, she offered them the space. Thus, the playfully named National Gallery of Saskatchewan was born, starting up with only a few hundred dollars to get the space in shape and totally free of obligation to any larger institution or granting organization. The gallery provides an exciting, if occasionally antagonistic voice in the community, such as the Ben L. Jaques exhibition Pure Evil, steeped in the imagery of horror movies and video games, which did not sit well with some of the local visitors to the gallery.

Poster Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Saskatchewan

I first found out about the National Gallery of Saskatchewan as a student in my final year at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Sarah Holtom’s name was familiar in the Calgary art community at that time as she had recently completed and shown her 100 Portraits of Calgary Artists. News began to circulate that Holtom and fellow ACAD alumni Brandan Doty, who also attended the Yale University's Summer School of Music & Art in Norfolk, Connecticut, had started a gallery in Saskatchewan. As one of their first shows was going to be notorious ACAD painting instructor Don Kottmann, rumors of road trips began to circulate widely, though the number of people to actually make the pilgrimage was considerable smaller than the number who talked about it.

The exhibition up at the time of my visit was Country Favorites, an exhibition of works by Calgary artist Stevyn Mars, Winnipeg’s Martin Finkenzeller and Marigold Santos from Montreal. The assembly of these three artist’s work in such a relatively isolated location is one of the successes of the National Gallery of Saskatchewan. While other arts institutions, such as the local arts council, are present in small towns like Canora, their mandate often focuses on showing exclusively local artists. By bringing in artists from across North America, Holtom and Doty provide a sense of connection and context between different artistic communities, something that can be especially difficult to find in the isolation of the Canadian Prairies.

When I asked Sarah Holtom about the pairing of these three artists’ work, her answer was that the main focus of the gallery is not on curation. The gallery’s most important mandate is to simply exhibit work Holtom and Doty like, generally work by artists they know. Their very first show was literally an opportunity for them to hang their personal collection, acquired throughout their travels, to the public. This approach of simply showing artists they know and like, has lead to work by some very established artists such as Dana Schutz and Ahmed Alsoudan hanging on the gallery walls. The strategy does runs the risk of becoming haphazard or elitist and catering to friendships rather than merit, but the payoff is that it provides some much needed relief from the bureaucracy of more formal institutions.

The gallery is tentatively scheduled to close at the end of July, after an exhibition of work by Brian Marion. While the unfortunate closure can be attributed to the exhaustion of the gallery’s founders in terms of time, energy and funds, despite some funding in the last six months form the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the experiment remains none the less a successful one. After almost two years in operation, Canora residents have warmed to the gallery, which from time to time also hosts more local shows, and its closure will be felt both near and far. More importantly than its demise­ is the gallery’s success as a model for alternative working methods; a do-it-yourself, small town operation that takes risks and puts the emphasis back on artists and their work rather than proposals and paperwork.

The couple both plan to stay on in Canora after the closure of their gallery, both are looking to devote more time to their own art practices. Holtom has recently been employed by Access Television to do a series called the Painting from Life with Sarah Holtom Show, and both Holtom and Doty have recently shown at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Beyond professional activities, both feel strongly connected to the location; having their own home and garden as well as living under the big prairie sky is not something either is eager to leave.

I am all to conscious that my visit to the National Gallery of Saskatchewan was part of a journey running in the opposite direction from Holtom and Doty’s, going from small town to large city, leaving the Prairies for the busy streets of Montreal. But more than big city versus small town or any other dualism, the National Gallery of Saskatchewan speaks to the opportunities that lie in unusual places, especially those that are created rather than found.

All images unless otherwise noted are courtesy of Jasia Stuart, 2009.
- J.S. Red Deer/Montreal

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Deserving More (3 Shows I Never Reviewed)*

Taking this past year to focus on collective issues rather than individual exhibits, I recently missed the opportunity to review three shows that really should have been talked about more. There’s recently been a lot of energy exhausted over arts writing and criticism, but wading through the incessant threads of sniveling self-privileging monologues, there doesn’t seem to be much development in the level of the writing itself. It’s one thing to keep up on grammar, but the depth and breadth of the writing also needs to be polished. Looking over just the past two weeks, three shows that should have received better and more detailed attention include Kim Sala’s “Soundscapes” at FAB, “The Office Show” curated by Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, and “Grandview Manor”, the collaboration between David Hoffos and Victoria Composite highschoolers.

Within a few day’s span, Edmonton opened an MFA exhibit that could have stood in any contemporary gallery and collection; an independent site specific mixed media installation that brought together an incredibly eclectic range and caliber of national artists; and one of Edmonton’s public schools premiered one of Canada’s forerunning media artists in a unique collaboration. Holding onto this perception that art is better in other cities carries over to the false belief that arts writing is better in other places too. It may be better covered, given more room to breathe, but we’re getting there. If we can just stop comparing ourselves to places like New York, which really is quite preposterous, and compare ourselves to similar cities like Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dallas, Texas, Adelaide, South Australia, then Edmonton actually appears rather interesting.

Take Sala’s show, which is without a doubt the most surprising painting exhibit (MFA or otherwise; Edmonton or otherwise) in recent memory. Sala knows how to paint, understands the texture and viscosity and dynamics of paint, but that is not her point. Destroying her completed works and reassembling them, intuitively following the synaesthestic qualities of form and line found in both sound and painting, Sala creates paintings by collapsing sensory parameters and spatial delineations.

Physically tuning into the space between home and studio for the past several years, Sala has interpreted her daily routines into an in-depth exploration. There is movement in each painting, not movement in the fluidity of the paint itself, but movement in compositional coordination, movement in thought provocation and arrestations in how we sense our environment. Some critics have given up on painting for its lack of movement on and off the canvas, but it takes someone like Sala, who follows her own lines of thought and movement, and does so convincingly, to push forward our perceptions beyond obvious art historical perspectives.

“Soundscapes” is also aesthetically gorgeous in shape and palette, which makes it difficult to not completely moon over, as formally the works elevate not just painting, but also collage, which has been growing in popularity again. I attended the opening of “Soundscapes” and found everyone was on their way to “The Office Show”, which had the allure of being a better party. Holding off to see the show until the weekend, this site specific installation is the second project by Shaw-Collinge, who created a sensation with her co-curation of “The Apartment Show” (2007). Moving from the idea of home to the idea of work, “The Office Show” drastically differed from its previous effort in one preconception: that everyone grasps the nuisances of office life. In the same vein as how “Dilbert” or “The Office” is completely not funny to anyone who’s never worked in an office environment, “The Office Show” waded between two very different sets of perceptions. Most artists may not like office work, as many of the works espoused, but office workers can certainly appreciate art. Not mutually inclusive of each other, the fundamental question that needed to be asked was how did the art works situate themselves into an office space, from the front waiting room to the water cooler to each individual cubicle? Some went too extreme in interpretation, which worked well for “The Apartment Show” where home is a space of individuality, but extremism does not exist in the conformity of the office. The most successful piece was then Kenneth Doren’s subtle installation, which could have passed for any forgotten corner stashing old fluorescent light covers and out of date speakers. Using site specific materials, Doren presented a moment of solace, drowning out the office hum with Bach and asking us to peer deeper into the mundane.

Hoffos had apparently quite enjoyed this piece at the opening, as I briefly caught up with him during the three hour viewing of “GrandView Manor”, which was situated under the bleachers at Vic Comp’s East Gym. A Hoffos-esque exhibit in every manner, the students created the projections that touched on issues of homelessness, domestic turmoil, laundry, and other personal stories. Viewed from inside of someone’s empty apartment, with hints of voyeurism, loneliness, and abandonment, looking out of the window you peered down onto a false walk up across a rendering of an Edmonton street, with detail down to the wind swept garbage and pencil thin trees.

Upon request, I did a semi-formal interview with two of the students about the overall process and final outcome. Everyone was visibly exhausted, but you could tell they were actually inspired by this first taste of media arts and interdisciplinary possibilities. At the end of our interview, one of the students was surprised how nice it was to actually talk about the work after you make it and see it, and I just really couldn’t agree more.

-A.F. Edmonton

*First published in abridged form in Vue Weekly June 11 - 17, 2009

Monday, June 8, 2009

Steve McQueen, Once Upon A Time. Walter Phillips Gallery. April 25 - July 5, 2009. Reviewed by Amy Fung

Please refer to this article for the set-up.

In Once Upon A Time (2002), UK/Amsterdam-based film/video artist Steve McQueen revisits a fairy tale narrative of epic proportions. In 1977, a team spearheaded by NASA and American astronomist Carl Sagan took on the grand and presumptuous task of assembling an archive of images and sounds to represent the scope of human civilization. Launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft, which after thirty years in space, theoretically remains the farthest human-made object from our planet, Sagan’s selection for this archive could potentially stand as the sole story of humanity.

The Golden Record, as it remains known, contains 116 images, along with natural sounds such as whales and thunder, and greetings recorded in 55 languages by men and women, along with official greetings by then-newly elected American President Jimmy Carter. McQueen, who continues to subtly devastate our presupposed notions of image as truth, reappropriates all 116 original images for recontextualization. Rather than standing as an emblem of humanity’s complexities and achievements, O.U.A.T takes the same set of images, and forces a contemporary meditation on the evolution of individual ego and collective alienation.

Viewed today, Sagan’s record reads as the ultimate token of self-aggrandizing myth making. Very actively choosing to represent the story of the world beginning with human beings as the absolute central focus of the planet, the record’s American-centricism simply cannot but reveal itself through what has been chosen as the most important factors to communicate and remember. The elements and environment appear under complete resolve and human control; images of the natural world are branded with a scale in the metric system, magnifying species to designate each image back to human relation. Within the representation of human civilization, issues of race, sex, gender, and class appear to harmoniously co-exist together. Any historical markers such as territority, religion, and other traits of culture and ethnographies become interchangable or simply non issues.

There is a closed system of narrative storytelling, focusing blindly on the organization of humanity with no self-reflexivity or irony. A section of images on the evolution of housing and architecture first shows an image of a dark man building with bricks. The image is in mid shot, with the half wall of bricks and mortar and his face dominating the frame. Its relation its surroundings is unexplained, communicating very little beyond its relation to the next image of finished houses built of different materials on the other side of the world. Transitioning into ever more complex structures jumping time and space to exterior far shots of the Taj Mahal and Sydney Opera House, McQueen emphatically points to the problem of non-contextualized image signification. Each image does not speak to each building’s function, history, or place. Assembled together, it is taken for granted that through image alone, a viewer will be able to configure human logic based on sequential image-based narration. Only, what do these images signify to people, not even alien life form, but people living outside of the Western culture? Human achievements, in this light, ultimately require and uphold knowledge of codes and egos that only reinforce the system that doles its praise and value. Presenting the images as a lulling slide show, a form that is more conducive to pedantic storytelling of yesteryears, McQueen attempts to open up the system by re-engaging us with these highly socialized and standarized images of normal human beings, who are mostly white, and male, reproduce, harvest, build houses, play cello, and barbeque.

Situated a top Tunnel Mountain Drive at the Walter Phillips Gallery, the solo exhibition of O.U.A.T. marks one of the more memorably pilgrimmages to Banff. The setting plays a far greater influence for this work especially, as visitors to the WPG make the effort and trek for an experience of art, which for the lack of a better description, is an affect that moves and arrests both thought and emotion. Completely taking over the entire space and transforming the multisectioned room into a cave, the space itself becomes an integral factor in the experience of the show. With a single long bench amidst a sea of carpeting and a luminous floor to ceiling screen, the viewer is forced into an immersion of image and sound within a relaxed setting. Taking a moment to first adjust to the slow flickering light of images in transition, the dull song of imperceptible noises, reminiscent of human voices speaking one after the other in an indistinguisable language begin babbling into rhythm with the slow cyclical effect of the rotating images. While McQueen has retained Sagan’s choice of images, he has converted the audio of greetings spoken in 55 languages into glossalia, or more commonly known as speaking in tongues. Trance-inducing in pace and tonation, with the slow transition of sequential imagery, glossalia invokes mental states of fervor, where the mind supposedly shuts down to a pre-linguistic state as one is overcome.

Sagan’s project was deemed visionary at the time, as a gesture of human greatness for alien communication, but also fulfilling the role of time capsule for future generations. Situated in its history, human civilization, most notably, American civilization, was at an ideological peak. At the forefront of the space race, the United States’s was the first country to put a man on the moon, which when read from a postcolonial lens, streamlined inito Sagan’s mythologization of the human race through an Americanized-centric narrative. As a blank slate, here was the opportunity to communicate and fabricate the story of human beings. Only, there were no images of famines, wars, or even natural disasters recorded. The intersectionality and complexities of humanity were classified rather than abstracted. The inherent problem of Sagan’s record is its hegemonic positioning, especially from a country that played a pivotal role during one of the bloodiest eras in human history. McQueen’s title plays up the moral-laden narrative that told the story of earth as it once was. Only as an critical comment less than thirty years later, it remains clear the repercussions of ideology continually reverberate.

Cross-posted with Anthea Black on June 8, 2009

- A.F. Edmonton