A Persistence of Vision
Images, Toronto’s long-running festival of contemporary moving image culture, celebrates 24 editions next spring
Jonny Dovercourt - December 22, 2010
The dominance of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which has been sucking up the city’s media oxygen as well as audience attention and funding dollars for the last three decades, is what provoked a collective of film and video artists to create the Images Festival, now one of the city’s most vibrant institutions for independent culture that showcases the moving image, but engages countless other media and forms of expression. Emerging during a time when the term “alternative” actually meant something, Images began its life as an alternative film festival that championed alternative formats.
“It was started in 1987 by a collective of Toronto film and video artists called Northern Visions,” says Executive Director, Scott Miller Berry, unreeling the brief history while interviewed at their office in 401 Richmond, a repurposed warehouse that is home to numerous arts groups’ headquarters. “At the time, there was only one festival in town, the Festival of Festivals, now known as TIFF, and many felt it wasn't showing enough by local filmmakers, or women, people of colour, lesbians and gays… and they felt there should be an alternative. Also, it’s kind of hard to believe but even into the early '90s, film festivals only showed film. So from the beginning we've shown video and film side by side.”
Now something of a hub for “media arts” in Toronto — and definitions are a tricky business, it turns out — over the years, Images has evolved into an annual springtime showcase for independent film, video, new media, installation, performance and more. But the festival really is a product of — and an ongoing connector for — another facet of Toronto’s culture scene which remains unsung: its ARC (artist run centre) community. Contemporary galleries such as A Space and YYZ emerged in the 1970’s, as part of a pan-Canadian movement which saw artists take advantage of the funding system to create their own organizations to support and develop the contemporary arts. ARCs that came out of the media arts sphere include production centre Charles Street Video, video archivists and distributors vtape, and film series Pleasure Dome. Many of the Images founders came out of this scene, and many of them are still involved with the festival in advisory capacities.
“There is this real Images family that does exist,” says Berry, who has been E.D. since 2005. “All these people feed us ideas and refer people to us, and there is this real nice generational connection between founders, former board, former staff and artists. There are people that showed at the first year or two that still submit stuff to us, which is kind of amazing 24 years later.”
Though the festival format has evolved somewhat over the years, from presenting an entirely Canadian program to 50% CanCon in recent seasons, Berry feels the mandate has stayed essentially the same. “We've always supported artists that are pushing boundaries of form and/or content. We've always been supportive of political work, difficult work, challenging work… stuff that's on the fringes, that's going to fall through the cracks otherwise. So if anything the mandate's just expanded to include live performance, installation, new media —whatever that is.”
Indeed, Images has become much more than a film festival in the past decade, with its On Screen program being just one component alongside its Off Screen installation series, and its Live Images performance series, which has become one of its best attended and most highly anticipated streams. Launched in 2003, Live Images primarily pairs film or visual pieces with outstanding musicians, the likes of whom have included Tom Verlaine (of Television fame), GUH, The Shalabi Effect, Aki Onda, Susie Ibarra & Lori Freedman, Thomas Köner, The Valerie Project, Cloud Eye Control, and Atsuhiro Ito, who in 2006 memorably performed the Optron, a sound-emitting fluorescent light bulb which both blinded and deafened the audience. Live Images isn’t strictly music, however — the program encompasses all manner of live performance. 2010’s program even included a presentation entitled No Images, in which curators Christof Migone and Jacob Korczynski presented live performances by Alexis and Mary Margaret O’Hara, Ryan Driver, Alex Snukal and others — which took place in total darkness. Even exit signs were blacked out.
It’s such willingness to go against even their own self-defined categories — a film festival presenting an event that featured no projections or visual element beyond the images that danced on the viewer’s retina, in this case — that allows Images to remain at the vanguard. But offering such innovative, provocative work runs its own risks — and that’s dismissal through facile labels: experimental, avant-garde, abstract, art film, video art (note the use of the word “art” as some kind of hex). No one at Images seems too comfortable with any of these labels.
“I think there's an institution of film festivals and there's an institution of ‘the avant-garde,’ and there's a concerted effort on our part to expand what those things mean,” says Artistic Director, Pablo de Ocampo. “It's a mindset where you look at a film or a performance or an installation and if there's an initial inclination that ‘this isn't for Images,’ then maybe you should look at it again. If the audience walks away going, ‘What the fuck was that? Why did they show that?" then we’ve done a good job. We want to keep people on their toes. I think it's good for expanding the discourse.”
Just as they buck the conventions of the mainstream, however, the Images crew also have little patience for the nerdy format-fetishization in which many quote-unquote-experimental artists are prone to indulging. There is far too much obsession on technicality at the expense of artistry, according to De Ocampo. “I don’t care if you’re shooting a Super-8 film, if you’re making a dance, if you’re composing for a chamber orchestra… Is it good? Do I want to sit there and watch it? I could care less how people do it. Sure, it's interesting sometimes. ‘Here's this film, it has a SMPTE time-code track striped onto its audio, and that drives a computer, and that drives eight channels of surround-sound audio…’ But you know — if it's boring, it's boring!”
If such honesty seems an uncharacteristic attitude coming out of good old passive-aggressive Toronto, perhaps that’s because the current Images directorship comes from elsewhere. Berry grew up in Detroit, while De Ocampo moved from Portland, Oregon — where he was involved in the D.I.Y. punk rock and film scenes — to join the Images team in 2007. The duo’s status as outsiders gives them a fresh perspective on the Toronto arts scene.
From L-R: Artistic Director Pablo De Ocampo, programmer Jacob Korczynski and Executive Director, Scott Miller Berry at a 2010 press conference (photo by Henry Chan).
“The scene is what brought me here,” explains Berry. “I was living in New York, and had met some people from Toronto, and had come up for Splice This! [the now-defunct Super-8 film festival]. I was like, ‘Wow, there's so much film happening, what's going on?’ The whole artist-run culture, that does not exist in the U.S., so I was totally intrigued by this concept: artists who run film festivals or galleries or music organizations — wow, that's so radical! The Toronto scene is big and super-active, yet it's very cliquey and divided and competitive — though in a friendly, diplomatic way, which is very Canadian — and that's both a compliment and a critique. I think the funding system is incredible, but also creates a bit of a welfare state for artists, where there is this expectation and entitlement, and also this unspoken competition. What I also don't like is that [when applying for grants] the ideas have to come before the money and if you don't get the money, then the idea dies. Where I come from, coming up in artist collectives in Detroit and New York, the idea is the idea, and you figure it out and you make it happen — you do it yourself. But at the same time with Images, as with all non-profit arts organizations in this country, we can do whatever we want because we get supported to do that, which is also kind of amazing.”
This is the mixed blessing of the Canadian arts institution — institutionalized freedom. Institutions provide stability and continuity for scenes, but without fresh ideas and outside perspectives, they can also breed stagnancy. By continuing to defy definitions and counter categorization, the Images Festival remains one of the most vibrant cultural centres — one that lacks a permanent physical home, it should be noted — in the strangely ineffable city that is Toronto. Just don’t try and tell anyone what kind of festival it is.
“I think that it's darn near impossible to make a tagline that encapsulates Images,” says De Ocampo. “We constantly have these discussions whenever we make our posters or catalogue — last year it was ‘showcasing contemporary moving image culture’ ... what the hell does that mean? It sounded good at one point, but now I don't know what that it is. I think about it in terms of “artist-made” film and video. We show whatever the artists are showing. You never know what's in that box of submissions.”
The Images Festival recently completed their Images Across Asia Tour, which featured screenings in India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. The 24th Images Festival takes place March 31 to April 9, 2011 in Toronto.
For more info, please see www.imagesfestival.com
Jonny Dovercourt is the street name of Jonathan Bunce, a native Toronto musician, writer, organizer and “pinko who rides a bicycle and everything” (Don Cherry, 2010). He co-founded the Wavelength music series in 2000 and currently serves as Artistic Director of the Music Gallery, a Toronto new music centre (founded as an ARC in 1976). Both organizations have collaborated with the Images Festival as part of the Live Images program since 2006.