Daniel Cockburn can be difficult to pin down. Not physically – he’s actually pretty easy to find around town, a frequent attendee at festivals like TIFF and Images, a regular at Lightbox and a charming presence on the film-and-art scene. It is his work that’s hard to pin down. As a filmmaker, video artist, essayist, lecturer, writer and performer, his output doesn’t fit neatly into any one category – by design, no doubt.
When I first became aware of Daniel as an artist, it was because of his video work. He was that odd-but-very-smart guy with the wild hair and constantly observing eyes. Quiet off-screen, and dryly hilarious on-screen, as the frequent star and narrator of a number of compellingly puzzling videos.
In Nocturnal Doubling, Daniel explains his firm belief that the entire world – himself included – has doubled in size overnight. Nobody else notices, and he wonders whether he should say anything about it, since it is, of course, impossible to prove. This video is a perfect example of Daniel’s work. One part philosophy essay, one part clever comedy. When I ask him whether he thinks of himself as a video artist or filmmaker, he tells me that video artist is a thing he used to be. “Then I took a few years off to be a writer-director,” he continues. “Then I looked at video again and everything had changed. So I’m trying to figure out what video artist looks like now, whilst also trying to be a writer-director again. But ideally the two wouldn’t be separate. Filmmaker is a weird moniker now, because almost nobody’s shooting film any more, but film does still (barely) exist as an option, so, medium-specificity is still important to me. Technically I shouldn’t be calling myself a filmmaker; You Are Here was probably about 8% film.”
See? Difficult to pin down. But when it comes to integrating all those sides of the creative self, he seems determined to keep all the balls in the air. “Whatever you think of her work – and I like a lot of it – Miranda July has done a really excellent job of keeping her art practice alive in tandem with a narrative-feature career. What I hate is when filmmakers use short films, or an art practice, as springboards for diving into the narrative-feature pool; use-once-and-destroy springboards that explode once the diver’s swimming. One is not a pathway to the other.”
This belief is obvious in Daniel’s own work. His debut feature, You Are Here, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and played TIFF in 2010. It’s a delightful puzzle piece of interlocking episodes that IndieWire referred to as “a more advanced rumination on the fragility of human consciousness than any of the dream levels in Christopher Nolan’s Inception”, at the time of its premiere. I’m inclined to agree. My favourite moments in the film feature Tracy Wright, in one of her final performances, as an archivist who seeks out various audiovisual materials across the city, and is determined to assemble them into a coherent whole. In a way, this is the heart of the film, a search for meaning across a series of (possibly) interconnected narrative threads that cross each other like complex highways on a map. It is video art and a feature film at once. A “meta-detective story”, and a highly cerebral comedy.
And while he is working on other features at the moment, feature film is by no means the only thing on Daniel’s slate.
“Well, I have a feature in development with the Canadian Film Centre, it’s called The Engineers, and it’s a psychological comedy about a trashy novelist who hires actors to go to therapy while pretending to be his characters,” he says. The project won Telefilm Canada’s PITCH THIS! competition at TIFF 2013. “And next spring, I’m doing a two-month residency with IMPAKT in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, where I’ll create and premiere a new lecture-performance, All The Mistakes I’ve Made, part 2: how not to watch a movie. That’s part of the European Media Art Residency, and hopefully I can bring the show back home to Toronto later in 2015.” That’s the working title, he tells me. A sequel to the first All The Mistakes I’ve Made.
In the first lecture, Daniel spends a few moments reflecting on his early video art and talks about the way video art has changed in the era of YouTube. He concludes that artists have to try harder, but doesn’t provide a roadmap for what that looks like in 2014. “I don’t know what video artist means. Which doesn’t stop me from applying that descriptor to people, including myself, but definitely some of those people on YouTube are video artists, and definitely some of them are not.”
So, where does one draw the line? “Sure, sometimes I wonder if art should be less compartmentalized, and more just part of living,” he muses. “But if we expand the definition to include everything on YouTube, then the word gets stretched too thin for my taste, like – as Ian Holm once said – butter scraped across too much bread.”
When I ask Daniel Cockburn whether he feels like there is such a thing as a “new Toronto New Wave” of filmmakers here, his answer is charmingly modest.
“Is the Toronto New Wave a thing that I feel exists?” he begins. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure something’s going on here. And maybe part of what’s going on is that some critics have found a name to attach to a spectrum of things that are happening. Chris Eigeman’s character in The Last Days of Disco says, “I think for a group to exist, somebody has to admit to be part of it”. I don’t know how relevant that quote is here, but I like it. No one self-classifies as a mumblecore filmmaker, but the word has proven useful.”
But when I ask him whether he considers himself a member, the answer is charmingly modest. “Well, I know some of those people, and I like them and their movies and the community-building they’re doing,” he says. “I feel part of that community as a filmgoer. Whether I’m part of that vector as a filmmaker is not for me to say. That’s up to the people who came up with the name.”
I think we may have come up with the New Toronto New Wave right here, at Toronto Film Scene. And we vote yes.