Where do artists trying to establish themselves and their work go to get recognition? Tucked away in a little corner on Richmond Street, Trinity Square Video is a non-profit centre that provides them this opportunity. At an accessible rate, artists can have their work displayed at the centre and receive training to develop their skills.
I was able to attend the opening reception of the annual Video Fever exhibition at TSV two weekends ago. I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t bumped into my friend Julia Huynh, who told me that a video she had produced was being screened for the first time.
Nine artists had works of art on display throughout the evening. The artists were undergraduate and graduate students from in and around Toronto, with quite a few from U of T. Two TV screens displayed the video-based art; one in the gallery and the other in the adjoining screening room.
I met Julia in an Italian language class, so it felt serendipitous that her video explored language and meaning, and how the latter is sometimes lost in translation. Her parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1981, narrated their story to her in Vietnamese, and she translated it into English using subtitles. I thought this was a creative way to present the story.
Jordyn Stewart had two pieces in the exhibition. With my ever-growing appreciation for nature and the environment, I was drawn to Stewart’s use of the environment as a backdrop for her work. Resurface and Pulse, Off, Dispense, Smoothie, Milkshake, Icy Drink revealed a sort of curiosity we have with our surroundings, including how we manipulate them and how we leave them.
In an interview with The Medium, art and art history students Huynh and Stewart spoke about their work.
TM: When did you realize what your films would be about? Was it sort of a collection of ideas coming together to form one cohesive idea, or did you already have a pretty solid idea of what you wanted to work on?
JS: Well, recently I have become interested in the natural environment and my relationship with it, so for Pulse, Off, Dispense, Smoothie, Milkshake, Icy Drink and Resurface, I initially knew the materials I wanted to work with but I was unsure of the end result of each performance.
TM: What was your film about? What kind of message did you want to send with it?
JH: My video is called Me & Ba. It means “mother and father” in Vietnamese. When I presented it at first during class, I didn’t give it a title. The title just sort of came when I was writing my statement about it. It’s a five-minute video about my parents in Peterborough sharing how they came to Canada when they left Vietnam in the 1980s. It was about six months after they had gotten married. Their story is something that I’ve heard often, and each time it doesn’t lose its importance in that my parents came here not for a better life for themselves, but for a better life for my brother, my sister, and me.
TM: What inspired this idea?
JH: There was a show at the Blackwood Gallery last year that inspired me. There were pieces in a language I couldn’t understand, and I felt very frustrated that I couldn’t. The idea sparked in my mind—why should I assume that it should be written in English? Why should English be the main language of art?
Initially with my video, I wasn’t going to have subtitles. I’m glad my professor helped push the idea further, in that if I didn’t get to share my parent’s story, then no one would get to know it and no one would understand some of the things that they went through. That’s where the subtitles came in and the process was really interesting. I fully understand Vietnamese but I can’t speak, read, or write it, so I had to translate into my own language, which is English, and that was hard because when my parents speak Vietnamese, I realised that it doesn’t “Google Translate” in your head. So writing subtitles was a lot more difficult than I had imagined.
I still kept some parts of them speaking Vietnamese without subtitles so that there is that disconnect where you don’t understand what’s going on, and it lets you keep wondering what’s going to happen.
TM: Was the outcome of your film what you initially envisioned?
JH: I think it was. I did take a more traditional and straightforward approach to filming. It’s more documentary-style. I had close-ups and shots of the hands with the movements. One person commented that they really liked how my dad’s shirt was matching his blue cup and, well, that’s just the cup that he uses.
JS: Not exactly, But that’s what I enjoy most about working with performance—it has a pretty unpredictable result. I never re-shoot because my actions are intuitive, and I could never alter that. What happens, happens.
TM: Both your films focused on the external environment. In a way, they were sort of contingent on it; like the environment was a big part of the story you were trying to tell. What inspired this idea?
JS: I usually use sites that relate to my upbringing. I came from a small town in the Niagara region and I grew up going on frequent camping trips with my family. I guess you could say as a kid I grew up exploring the natural environment. This is why I usually use locations that are more rural or in some ways desolate.
TM: What gets you out of your rut when you’re in your creative process?
JH: We did this exercise once in sculpture class where we were given 10 minutes to write down all the ideas that we could, even if they were “bad”, and just keep writing. I learned not to be so quick to determine what’s good or bad, just to work with it as you go. Sometimes it’s just starting on something, anything, and then that’s when your ideas start emerging.
We just had a reading about how art comes out of failure and I think that’s really true. It doesn’t need to be good all the time. If it’s bad at first and you keep working on it by incorporating feedback from your peers or professors, it can get better.
JS: Usually when I’m working on a piece and I have an idea but I’m not sure if I should continue developing it or move on completely, it usually helps to just try the idea, no matter what state it’s in. It helps to just do it. Don’t think about it too much and just try it, and see what kind of things come out of it. It will either work or fail, but no matter what, it will teach you something.
TM: You’re done with school this year—do you have anything to tell first-year students in your program?
JH: Don’t be so hard on yourself, kids. They tell you this at the beginning, that it’s different from high school. It’s different. Focus on transitioning. It’s fine that you’re not getting the same grades you were in high school. It’s not the end of the world. I know it might seem like it, but I think it’s important to explore concepts and create works that might scare you by not knowing the outcome. There’s something fun in the idea of not knowing.
The Video Fever exhibition runs until February 6 at Trinity Square Video (401 Richmond St W).