Raymond Boisjoly – Station to Station and Silent Trans-Forming
PLATFORM Centre for the Photographic and Digital Arts and
Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art’s Marvin Frances Media Gallery
4 April – 17 May/4 April – 7 June 2014
Theodore Roszack, the late historian and author of The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), also published in 1991 the novel Flicker, which detailed a film scholar’s discovery of a sect of Cathars (a medieval heretic group dedicated to the idea that the material world was not God’s creation but rather that of Satan which must be resisted and denied) who made use of the various optical illusory effects on which film depends to encode messages of hatred of the flesh, disgust for the world and general despair.1 The novel is a diverting way to spend a few evenings, but was brought to mind during Raymond Boisjoly’s two Winnipeg shows: Station to Station show at PLATFORM Centre for the Digital Arts and Trans-forming at Urban Shaman. In the case of the former exhibition, we have eleven photographs that are, as it were, found photographs: taking the 1961 Kent Mackenzie film The Exiles2 as a source for images, Boisjoly scanned the film while it was playing through an iPad. The results are a series of distorted b/w stills that are embellished with gorgeous imbrications of rainbow colour.
This particular exhibition at Platform Centre is the latest iteration of a series that seems to have been inaugurated by the works collected in the Intervals show at Catriona Jeffries Gallery (Vancouver, March-April 2013). This appears to be Boisjoly’s first use of the scanning of digitally-modulated moving images technique that he makes more precise use of in the Station to Station show. If in the Vancouver show the images were obscured, often beyond recognition, in the case of the photos on display at Platform Centre, figuration remains very much in the foreground. The continuities of this particular project remain the interest in “technological mediation, the relation of photography to time and how the political dimension of cultural practice is expressed, artistically or otherwise.”3
Two things appear to be happening here which, on the surface, fit somewhat uncomfortably together. On the one hand, we have the images’ formal investigations: scanning process catches the RGB distortion of the digitally-modulated b/w moving image. (A rainbow of colour, as opposed to the Lovecraftian horror of Flicker). The question of the precise nature of the cinematic and the photographic image (mediated through the digital condition) becomes paramount. The cinematic image, itself a pseudo-Mandelbrot composed of 30 frames per second (24 if in Europe), depends on the passage of time to reveal itself as phenomenal image. The photographic image has a somewhat more fraught relation to time, insofar as it is, as Barthes notes, marked by temporal passage that is itself constituted by an atemporal punctum.4 That is, to use a different vocabulary, the cinematic image is fundamentally nacheinander, whereas the photographic image is nebeneinander.5
So what is it that Boisjloy is doing, formally, by transferring the nacheinander to the nebeneinander? It should be noted that temporality retains a curious residual effect here: the distortions and RGB efflorescences that present much of the aesthetic pleasure of the individual images. Nacheinander is, therefore, rendered as a luminous virtual presence with respect to the photographic nebeneienander, an effect further heightened by the fact that the eleven photographs in the Station to Station sequence follow through the events of a particular section of the source film’s narrative. Which brings us to the point at which we must account for the second major feature noted above, which concerns the actual content of the photographs. The Exiles, currently celebrated for its documentary depiction of a lost Los Angeles, is also a depiction of a night in the life of a group of American aboriginals who speak of their community and cultural situation in the late 1950s United States. This specific content is maintained by Boisjoly, an artist of Haida and Quebecois descent with a career-long interest in aboriginal representation, through the secure embedding of this series in their source film through retention of a virtual narrativization as well as their figuration; we can see quite clearly that these are pictures of aboriginal people, rather than white or Hispanic, doing things in a recognizable place, a gas station.6
What is being staged here? This question is brought to the fore in the Trans-Forming installation at Urban Shaman. In this case, a looped b/w clip of a televised performance of the American aboriginal rock group Pat & Lolly Vegas7 is screened onto black tarp from which the words “ALWAYS FINDING OURSELVES AMIDST CHANGES ALREADY UNDERWAY” have been cut. The clip runs silently, which compels viewers to focus on the visual effects of the presentation: the tarp gives the images an uncanny silvery shimmer (flicker), augmenting the natural shimmer of the televisual image, with the text seeming both to float above the images and embed itself among them. While the two exhibitions at the two galleries do not directly communicate, they do, however, resonate on at least two levels. On the one hand, there is the question of what we earlier referred to as “luminous virtual presence,” or, more simply, the flicker: the glimmering rainbows of the Station to Station works or the silvery fuzzy shimmer of the Trans-Forming installation. On the other hand, we have two cases of Boisjoly’s deft handling of representations of aboriginal people created for a non-aboriginal gaze.8 Thus, both exhibitions directly experiment with aboriginal representation as a technologically-mediated performance directed to a not-necessarily-aboriginal audience. The question now becomes: how to bring these two observations – the flicker (virtual presence) and the political reality of aboriginal people performing to the camera – into resonance? Boisjoly, in his conversation with the Station to Station and Trans-Forming curators, makes an important resonance: “Colonialism is never present in full before us, and this is the challenge of moving between the general and the specific, to name an experience in relation to a general category without reducing its specificity.”9 While in some ways this connects with Cathy Caruth’s work on postcolonialism and trauma theory10 with regards to the unrepresentability of colonialism, I think Boisjoly’s work adds a further development to this conceptual nexus through his emphasis on the technologically mediated nature of the film and television images. While it remains unquestionably true that these technologies are, to be euphemistic, unevenly available, they are, nevertheless, communcation technologies that, in their depiction of the youth outside the gas station, seemingly hanging out without hassle, or the pleasure that Pat & Lolly take in their performance, suggest that it might be possible to infuse these black/white communication signals with shimmering silver and colours of rainbows as yet undreamt of.
3http://catrionajeffries.com/exhibitions/past/raymond-boisjoly-2013/, which also contains details and images about the Intervals collection. (accessed 17 May 2014)
4“The Photograph does no call up the past […]. The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (82). cf. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus & Goux, 1981.
5Gotthold Lessing distinguishes in his 1766 Laocöon between subjects suitable for representation in the visual arts and those in poetry: “In the one case, the action is visible and progressive, its different parts occurring one after the other (nacheinander) in a sequence of time, and in the other the action is visible and stationary, its different parts developing in co-existence (nebeneinander) in space” (72). cf. Lessing, Laocöon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Trans. Edward Allen McCormick. (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1984). It was perhaps the combination between these diachronic and synchronic modes that resulted in the nineteenth century’s sense of the scandal of photography.
6As Station to Station curator Derek Dunlop notes, the gas station milieu of the present series refers back to an early set of photographs by Boisjoly titled Rez Gaz, which use “rudimentary technology to index a variety of gas stations taken on First Nation communities throughout British Columbia.” As Dunlop notes Boisjoly’s continued use of found images in the Rez Gas series: “[t]he stations are sourced from rezgaz.com, a website that lists the different location of gas stations on First Nations land, where with your First Nations status card, one can fuel their vehicles and purchase products tax exempt.” These two exhibitions are the result of the consistently excellent work of Dunlop, artist, curator and Director of Operations at Platform Centre, and Daina Warren, curator and Director of Urban Shaman.
7Pat and Lolly Vegas had a very interesting if currently unsung career, about which http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redbone_(band) (accessed 17 May 2014). Boisjoly characterizes his interest in these artists: “Pat & Lolly Vegas are really interesting figures. I have done other research concerning Indigenous participation in modernity; the choice of this video is an extension of that ongoing concern. Within ten years of this performance, Pat & Lolly Vegas would progress from wearing sharply-tailored suits while playing a derivative pop song to playing disco music wearing pow wow regalia on national TV. This transition models other developments in Indigenous politics. It is interesting to see this manifest in the context of pop music” (A Conversation between Raymond Boisjoly, Derek Dunlop and Daina Warren: Exhibition Information, 2014).
8We do not know who filmed the Pat & Lolly Vegas television appearances, but given the likely demographics of working in a television studio in the late 1960s early 1970s, we can safely risk the presumption that the sutdio editors and directors, at least, were not themselves aboriginal. In the case of The Exiles, the director Alex Mackenzie’s background could not be more colonially embedded; born in Hampstead and public school-educated, Mackenzie was, to his credit, under no illusions about his privileges.
9A Conversation between Raymond Boisjoly, Derek Dunlop and Daina Warren: Exhibition Information, 2014
10cf. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP), 1996, and indeed the entire field of postcolonial literary studies that emerged from this text.
ALL IMAGES BY RAYMOND BOISJOLY