Janice Tanaka, Monique Moumblow, Steve Reinke.

Curated by: Michelle Gay

20 November 1993 - 22 December 1993
Opening Reception 20 November 1993 8pm

Project Room:

The Autobiographical Imperative: Series #8

This exhibition of video tapes curated by Michelle Gay, opens on November 20th at 3pm and continues through December 22, 1993.

In all the recent video tapes in this exhibition, there is a conscious rejection of a fixed identity. By playing with the construct of autobiography, these artists examine the nature of speaking about the personal. The videos in The Autobiographical Imperativeconfound plausibility and challenge the notion of authentic voice – the speaking voice is no longer saddled with the need to represent a unified subject.

Videos in the exhibition include Monique Moumblow’s Liabilities–the first ten minutes; Janice Tanaka’s Memories from the Department of Amnesia and Steve Reinke’s I Am Not Like You, Joke version 1 and Joke version 2.

Brochure Text:

The Autobiographical Imperative

I imagine that the producers of the Geraldo show attract guests with the notion that they will be given the space to represent themselves–a tantalising opportunity to authenticate their life-stores via a mass audience. In an age where there seems to be an urgent need to represent the intimate details of our lives the Geraldo, Shirley, Oprah, Sally Jesse and Phil shows are the popular and perverse manifestations of this autobiographical impulse. Perhaps people are willing to share their stories on broadcast TV in a distorted attempt to control their own representation.

For a generation now, many artists–in particular, women, First Nations peoples, persons of colour, lesbians and gays–have used the autobiographical form as a means of resistance to dominant or master narratives–a strategy which makes visible that which has been invisible–a filling in of the blanks. This strategy still can move the personal into the realm of the political.

Recently, John Bentley Mays wrote a review of an exhibition by Lani Maestro and Micah Lexier in The Globe and Mail.1 He describes the artists as “pilgrims on the path of intimacy.” “Maestro” Mays says, “has decided to stop agonising in public about (left wing) subversives, and switched her style to match the currently hip curatorial enthusiasms for the melancholy, autobiographical gender and race schtick.” Lexier l on the other hand “produces precise charming, intelligent figures embodying personal experience, but also key life experiences of us all, whatever gender, sexual orientation, position in life.” Mays apparently can find “universal” messages like the “fear of aging, of failing attractiveness, of mortality itself” within Lexier’s work yet dismisses the concerns embodied in Maestro’s work as “whining.” 2 Where does this excessive paranoia about alternate narratives stem from? Is there not now a pressing need to recognise and consider the diversity and complexity of societies? Patience and generosity of spirit seem to be requirements for the understanding of cultural and personal differences.

If identity is a social construction not under our control, and if autobiography is a strategy of representation which we can control, it would make sense that The Globe and Mail art critic might also be tempted by this sense of power over his own representation.3 The videos chosen for The Autobiographical Imperative all experiment with the autobiography as a construct. These artists have created work which pose as autobiography; turning away from strict or conventional forms; questioning it, challenging it. Why this strategy? Why now? What distance does this lend? And to what effects?

In all of these works there is a conscious rejection of a fixed identity. By playing with the construct of autobiography, these artists examine the nature of speaking about the personal. The videos in this group of work confound plausibility and challenge the notion of authentic voice–the speaking voice is no longer saddled with the need to represent itself as a unified subject.

Monique Moumblow began assuming the identity of Anne Russell a number of years ago. Moumblow would rent hotel rooms under the name of Russell, cut her hair, change her demeanour and give slide lectures as Russell at colleges. I hesitate to describe these actions solely as performance and feel more comfortable placing them near the realm of a both private and public exploration of her own ego/alter-ego–a complex of identities (both fictive and non-fictive). I am not convinced that Moumblow is not Russell or vice versa. The sense of play around what is fact and what is fiction is amplified by the presentation of both Moumblow and Russell as the collaborative authors of works, as in the case of Liabilities – the first ten minutes (1993). Moumblow/Russell alternate identities to falsify, fictionalize and complicate her (their) own self representation(s).

Janice Tanaka assembles her autobiography out of absence. In Memories from the Department of Amnesia(1990) a running text appears beneath the visuals recounting events from Tanaka’s mother’s life. This written commentary is dry and impersonal tending to reduce her life into a series of facts. The facts attempt to fill in the blanks of this life while paradoxically emptying it of meaning. A conversational voice-over is interwoven with the text challenging its bureaucratic anonymity and reminding us through the textures of voice, laughter and fond storytelling that lives are far more complex. Tanaka combines these elements to begin construction of her multi-layered, shifting subjectivity in the retelling and in the presence of her mother’s life.

In an arid manner of address, present in all the tapes in this exhibition, Steve Reinke, in I Am Not Like You (1991), Joke version 1 (1992), and Joke version 2 (1992) speaks with ironic authority. In an attempt to flesh out a subject or someone’s subjectivity, Reinke appears in I Am Not Like Youto enunciate provocations which offer a definition of the viewer. The diverse information about ‘you” accumulates until Reinke concludes by telling us who we are, and that he, conversely, is none of these things. This complicates his subjectivity as well as our own. We are left not knowing who he is. We are only told that he is what we are not. He eludes prescribing a definitive self and slips away unknown, again leaving us with an autobiography through absence.

These artists criticize the manufacture of autobiography within the very stories they tell about themselves–their self conscious use of the medium of video as eliding fact and fiction, challenges the notion of an authentic selfhood. Mass media television can offer us sound-bite therapy and unproblematized authority over subjectivity. Modernism attempted to perpetuate a myth of the universal, suggesting that any viewer could project themselves into a specific experience–such as a work of art. The videotapes in this exhibition create doubt about the possibility of presenting the self. In struggling with the notion of definitive certainty these artists have made space for the viewer within the construction of representation.

– Michelle Gay