Having recently won the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, Jan peacock has cemented a spot as one of Canada’s leading video artists. In celebration of this milestone, TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Free Screen series will be presenting Using Clouds for Words , a survey of her thirty-year practice .
When you’re approaching Jan Peacock’s work, especially in a cinema setting, it’s best to keep in mind that throughout her career, Peacock has chiefly used installation as her presentation method. This means that what we’ll see at TIFF Bell Lightbox on a single screen may have originally been presented on two or three screens or in other multimedia forms. Secondly, unless you come from a fine art or media art background, these video art works can be challenging. Even to watch more than one of her works in succession, like a screening of short films, is not necessarily normal.
Peacock’s works can be tricky, but video installation or media art is often difficult to approach anyway. One reason for this, I think, can be drawn from a quote of Peacock: “Video is where I can work with shapes of time-language events, sound events, image events-building a space that seems recognizable to us because it’s television, because people spend so much time looking at that box.” Spending so much time relaxing (or vegetating) in front of “the box,” we’re used to a certain ease of viewing. Without the sensibilities of television and movies to happily prod us along, the box’s contents no longer look familiar.
That said, there’s some good stuff here. Of the pieces to be shown this Wednesday, California Freeze-Out struck me the most. Freeze-Out was made during her grad student years at UC San Diego and made its first impact at the 1980 Paris Biennale. Curated by the influential Kathy Rae Huffman for the California Video show, California Freeze-Out mixes autobiography, performance art and, of course, video to explore the identities one creates for oneself in different geographic locations. Peacock contrasts her time spent in sunny California versus Eastern Canada, and reflects on how her identity transforms when she moves from one coast, climate and geography to the other. In order to mark the significance of this change of climates, she films herself lying outside in the freezing cold while wearing her Californian bathing suit, and has a friend bury her in snow. This would make anyone jump, but the shot is wide and the footage is a bit blurry. Instead of experiencing her pain through detailed image, Jan Peacock narrates in a voiceover how, during the experience, she could only keep saying to herself how much it hurt, over and over. She quotes herself in a soft, feeling voice, reliving it through words. Somehow, I felt the snow on myself while watching this.
California Freeze-Out is the most accessible of Peacock’s films. Others demand more interpretation. Another of her films, for example, called Current Details , begins with a blurry walking shot through a library or bookstore, and at the bottom of the screen banal facts scroll, one after another, saying things like “we knew the better the car the higher the cost.” Here, my interpretation was that the artificial text facts, superimposed onto the opaque shot of the library, suggest that we use knowledge every day – but perhaps our grasp of truth is limited or inaccessible. This could mean something else to you, but it will certainly make your brain work.
Other pieces use similar strategies, mixing text and narration with video images, which often make for a dissonant effect. Sometimes it’s not clear what the words have to do with the images. Sometimes the words are more poetic than descriptive. Most of the video is exactly that: video . You notice the difference between video and film through the zooms, the weird frame rate and image quality. This is media art – not cinema as TIFF usually does it.
Jan Peacock’s oeuvre definitely isn’t a walk in the park, but if you’re curious about the canon of Canadian media art and need a way in, it’s worth your time to spend an evening musing and head-scratching over this artist’s esoteric, ambitious pieces. It runs as part of The Free Screen series this Wednesday, March 21st at 7:00 pm. It’s free.