The fact that the body is a stage, and fragile surface, whose wounds heal, but do not disappear, has inspired cultures worldwide. The subconscious echoing of the first incidental discovery that everybody in this world has made; the one that people know, but do not remember, the trial that resulted in unexpected error... when the skin, the outer limit of our tactile senses, was revealed to break open and bleed. The slow, painful scar that followed, the echoing of the discovery, echoing every time our gaze settles upon that first scar, the eerie fascination with the corporeal condition, the rules it implies, the traces experience can leave on one's body. This memory, the condition it revealed, has inspired people all around the globe, and breathed its way into their most sacred rites. Ritualistic scaring, making an action visible, tracing its beginning and end on the body, marking a moment, and embedding a memory deep into the conscious mind is a practice that is probably as old as the first wound the human being has ever known. Back in the seventies the world of video art was emerging.
Artists used what would by modern day technocrats be considered as crude, even primitive instruments. In the thrall of the raw energy provided by this new art form, Canadian artists created simple and powerful works that much like scars, embedded themselves in our culture so deeply, that their work has been canonized. Two examples of such works that treat the body as a stage and a surface reflecting inner experiences are: Birthday Suit- with scars and defects by Lisa Steele (1974) and 60 unit; bruise by Paul Wong and Kenneth Fletcher (1976). A close examination of the thematic, formal, and conceptual relationships between these two works will serve to reveal and define the way in which video was used at the time, and what kind of standard was set for future artists. The thematic relationships between Lisa Steele's work and Paul Wong's are multifold. The body, and more specifically its skin, and how the traces left upon it by time and circumstance is central to both videos.
Both videos invite us to ponder upon what these traces mean and how they should be read and interpreted. Lisa Steele begins Birthday suit: scars and defects by redefining the body. 'I'm going to show you my birthday suit, with scars and defects's he substitutes the notion of the body as a vessel with the notion of the body as a garment. This substitution sets the stage for the rest of the video.
As she walks the viewer through every scar on her body in chronological order, she pauses to rub each scar with her finger, and let us in on a brief description of the cause of the scar and its 'date of birth'. Paul Wong's and Kenneth Fletcher's piece 60 unit Bruise also addresses the theme of the body, and especially the skin, as a reflection of experience. The difference being that in this piece we actually watch the event that leads to the bruise that appears on Paul Wong's shoulder at the end of the piece, take place. The bruise is caused by an injection of blood from Kenneth Fletcher to Paul Wong. We witness it and are left to ponder upon the implications and consequences of human interaction.
The fact that we can be marked by our interaction with others physically and spiritually, the revelation that the experience of that interaction not only leaves a trail in memory, but can also leave a trail on our body; that our body, our skin, can reflect that interaction, the pain and beauty of it, is what makes this piece so powerful. Both pieces also address history in the way that they both have the feel of history in the making. There is no artifice. The moments we are made to witness are moments of truth if not only because of the transparency of their formal aspects. There is a resemblance to the V'erit'e movement in cinema that cannot be ignored.
The difference being of course that the makers have turned their cameras upon themselves. Nevertheless, much like V'erit'e works, both pieces have the feel of historical documents and hence address history and create it. Richard Fung wrote of 60 Unit Bruise that it has 'the character of a time capsule, a missive from another era'. Lisa Steele chronologically documents her scars on her birthday, thus tracing a deeply personal history of indelible physical pain for us. The intensity and focus of both works points straight to the future and the place that they would occupy there as historical, groundbreaking art pieces. These two pieces not only willfully projected themselves towards the future, but inscribed themselves in their own time by their flat rebellion against, and rejection of, what video was predominantly being used for at the time: television.
Peggy Gale writes that 'in those first years, the fact that video was 'not television' was crucial for artists in Canada; broadcast TV was far more monolithic at that time' The homo eroticism in 60 Unit bruise, the reference to drug abuse implied by the needle sharing, and the emphasis on the intimate bond that needle sharing creates was as far from the mainstream representation of drug abuse then, as it is now. As far as Lisa Steele's Birthday suit: scars and defects is concerned the way in which Lisa Steele represents herself as a female is also revolutionary. She represents herself not in relation to what is expected of her as a female, but rather in relation to what she expects of herself. Sherry Milner says it best when she says that Lisa Steele 'instead of using the camera to fix up her body or to perfect her image she uses it to look at the battle scars of being a woman. ' To this day, where the representation of woman in the media is dominated by male expectations, the screening of this tape is a revolution against the way woman portray themselves and are portrayed in the media.
The piece presents the female body as a scarred surface, with no make up to hide nor camouflage. The power of this piece resides in the fact that it is a rare portrayal of the female body, not as an object to provoke arousal, but rather as a map that traces the personal painful history of an individual. The thematic relationships between these two works arise from the fact that they both focus on the body. They address history and challenge dominant mainstream modes of representation. Equally as important is the formal relationship between the two pieces. The bareness and minimalism of the camera work, the editing, the mise en scene, and sound...
All of which was a result of the limited resources available to both artists. Peggy Gale describes the equipment at the time as 'very low tech ' and as being limited to only 'a camera and monitor' The simple and straightforward camerawork in both pieces breeds intimacy. Intimacy because the camera is not operated and is left to be what it is: a recording device operated only by the eye of the viewer. The viewer is brought one step closer to what is happening in front of the camera because the invisible camera operator that usually filters and selects what is seen is absent. The artist (s) in both cases have complete control and because of this only have a limited range of options. The scope of the production is reduced to one or in the case of 60 Unit Bruise two artists.
The use of this method is the trademark of the early video years, one of the aspects that made video art distinct from mainstream television production. The moving picture had finally returned to the hands of one single individual artist who had nothing but a video camera, a monitor and the freedom of his / her convictions and inspirations. The lighting in both videos is not stylized and in Lisa Steele's case is so rough at times that a handycam aesthetic is created. The poverty of the image defines the recording device in space, and makes it obvious to the viewer.
This principle contradicted the invisible camera aesthetic used in mainstream film and video productions something the artists were probably aware of. Furthermore the editing in both videos is minimalistic, 60 unit bruise consists of one single stationary shot, a camera on a tripod, Lisa Steele's video barely has a cut. The sound is raw, no boom pole, or sound recordist, just the camera mic and that's it. We are witnesses to a recording, like a message on an answering machine, the nature of the material, because it isn't there to entertain or to fool, but to be taken seriously, suits this aesthetic like a glove. The artists move around the camera, not vice versa, they are aware of the camera, and acknowledge it, it's not a show, no voyeuristic experience, but a confessional, an exhibition of art, hence the intensity of both videos.
Because the body is central to both videos the conceptual relationship between both videos is strong. Both videos contain the notion of the body as a stage and map of human experience, a cue for memory, and a crude and poetic recording device. In both videos there is also the ritualistic aspect of marking the body, and honoring those marks, visible traces of pain once endured. In both videos the body is a map and stage for the artist's memory. The difference being that 60 unit bruise because of its performative nature uses the body as a canvas, we see the body marked by the infusion of alien blood, the blooming of the bruise on Paul Wong's shoulder and the video comes to an end. In Lisa Steele's video we are taught the history of her birthday suit, the body becomes a blackboard, a stage for memory and recollection, no scar is created, but rather, all scars are remembered.
In Paul Wong's and Kenneth Fletcher's video the body is used to record an event, in Lisa Steele's the body is read. In both videos a ritual takes place before the camera. Lisa Steele's ritual is more narrative in nature, because speech is used to tell the tale of scars, and to communicate the nature of the ritual to the viewer. The average ritual of the birthday celebration is subverted here. It is not public, it is intimate, the artist is naked and alone with the camera, and by extension: the viewer. At the end of the video, she chants the traditional song and it's up to the viewer to figure out whether, there are a dozen more tapes of previous birthdays stowed away in Steele's attic.
One is also left to make the connection between the twenty-six years of the author and the scars behind them. This work celebrates the artist's survival, her having 'made it', especially because the last scar was caused by the removal of a benign tumour. This is no routine birthday celebration, celebrated because of tradition, but rather a meaningful ritual, invested with meaning, which celebrates survival and endurance. 60 Unit bruise also has an undeniable ritualistic feel to it. Like most rituals, it is a performance. The solemnity of the artists stresses this.
Their silence indicates that they are focused on the task at hand, and have said everything that had to be said about it, before they turned on the camera. On the part of both Paul Wong and Kenneth Fletcher, there seems to be a reverence for what they are performing: a modern day blood brother ritual of sorts, that doesn't need speech, that speaks for itself. The modernity of the ritual is proclaimed by the needle, the fact that they use it, is a clear-cut allusion to drug abuse. This reveals the use of heroin as ritualistic, and that in fact that two people who share the same needle do bond in a way.
The bruise that results of the injection of Kenneth Fletcher's blood into Paul Wong's body is symbolic of many things and gives the ritual, its proper denouement. An important detail of this particular ritual is that it is interracial. In its guileless simplicity this ritual speaks volumes about the issue of accepting others and the nature of such a process. It provokes the viewer into drawing a parallel between our body's reaction to alien blood and our reaction to foreigners.
It stresses the us and them effect, colors it, and makes it visible. In many cases, one accepts foreigners at the risk of being marked and marginalized. One has only to visit a schoolyard, and watch children play for an hour to see these dynamics at work. However another more universal reading of Paul Wong's and Kenneth Fletcher's ritual can be made however.
Whatever applies to this ritual culturally and socially, can also be read on an individual level. Truth be told Paul Wong and Kenneth Fletcher were lovers. Paul Wong admitted to this in a 1998 Fuse magazine interview. The ritual then can also be read on a very personal and intimate level: one can see it as portraying the pain and the glory of accepting a loved one into one's self, the beauty of it, so perfectly embodied by the bloom of the beautiful purple bruise on Paul Wong's shoulder.
60 Unit; Bruise and Birthday Suit - Scars and Defects both come from the same era. This explains a lot of the similarities between them. The low tech material, the restricted resources available to video artists gave the artists an impulse to make do with what they had, and not to create something to be watched, but to be experienced. The fact that Lisa Steele, Paul Wong, and Kenneth Fletcher chose to use their bodies as the stage, map and canvas of their experiences on camera, and that both works are militant and marginalize themselves even today by virtue of their experimental qualities, is evidence enough that a strong bond exists between the two works. A bond affirmed by the exhibitionism evident in both works and the ritualistic component they both undeniably have.