Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Collection focuses on the Black Star Collection as seen through the eyes of internationally-renowned Canadian contemporary artists Stephen Andrews, Christina Battle, Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Stan Douglas, Vera Frenkel, Vid Ingelevics, David Rokeby and Michael Snow.
Each artist has read the archive in their own way, selected images with which to work, and created a newly commissioned art installation in response. By commissioning new works, curators Doina Popescu and Peggy Gale enable vibrant examinations, complex re-contextualizations and exciting contemporary re-interpretations of the historic images.
As viewers of these artists’ works we are offered the rare opportunity to experience the potential for multiple layers of meaning hidden in the archive. At the same time we are invited to explore some of the creative processes behind eight significant contemporary art practices.
Stephen Andrews interweaves film sequences from news stories central to recent history – images from the 1960s of the Kennedy assassination and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon, and passages of his own creation in a conceptual “reading” of the Black Star Collection. Through his alchemy of images and of memory, Andrews’ work entitled Dramatis Personae questions the assumptions of photojournalism and cinéma vérité, seeing cinema as a forensic tool.
Christina Battle’s multi-media project, entitled Archived Disasters, examines photographs of disastrous events across several decades of press imagery. Spilling over the confines of the archive and introducing interpretations resulting from her careful study of news stories published in response to the disasters, including those from the ever-popular “yellow press,” she takes us into the uncanny realm of science fiction.
Marie-Hélène Cousineau constructs an installation, entitled Perdre et retrouver le Nord inspired by portraits and snapshots found in the Black Star Collection, which were taken in Baker Lake during the 1960s. Bringing copies of these images with her to the North, she met with the Inuit who had been photographed. Responding to her own experience of living in Igloolik, Nunavut, she also worked with Susan Avingaq and other friends to evoke Northern history and landscapes. Through recounted stories and pictures we glimpse fragments of a world of which we know too little.
Stan Douglas himself writes that the Midcentury Studio project “chronicles the career of a photographer who was introduced to his craft during the war and tried to make it into a business in the postwar period” (1945-1951). Douglas’ photographs in this series are inspired by his meticulous study of the photographers who worked for Life magazine and the Black Star Agency, as well as the obscure Vancouver figure Raymond Munro. The photographs in Archival Dialogues were chosen for their sophisticated relationship to a look that would ultimately be eclipsed in photojournalism, and for their connection to the Black Star Collection in particular.
Vera Frenkel’s video-photo-text installation, The Blue Train, centers on a key phase of the journey of escape taken by the artist’s mother at the outbreak of World War II via a combination of stills, drawings and video that trace the journey through the minds of passengers with whom the experience was shared. The narrative of escape is interwoven with the witnessing narrative of photojournalist Werner Wolff on his 1945 return to Germany. The intimate words and thoughts of the passengers will also be accessible for portable devices over the internet. The Blue Train distills the stress and anxiety of forced migration and the courage of the documentary photographers who captured the experience.
Vid Ingelevics’ Conditional Report examines the contradictions inherent in the archiving process that the Black Star Collection at Ryerson University is subject to. Conditional Report focuses on the preservation and recording of “original” photographic images by digital scanning versus the destruction of exhibition images produced through that scanning process. Video of these acts is set within a simulation of the temporary storage facility of the collection, complete with the sounds of scanners and air-handling units regulating the environment.
David Rokeby’s installation, Shrouded, presented on the Salah J. Bachir New Media Wall in the gallery’s entrance colonnade, reconstructs the way the fovea (the small central part of the eye which can see detail) passes over the image like a searchlight cutting through a murk of blurry forms, selectively revealing details in Black Star images, sometimes along trajectories determined by the artist, and at other times determined by gestures of the viewer. By separating the mechanism of seeing from the habit of seeing, the artist reframes the process of grasping the image.
Michael Snow’s new installation TAUT utilizes some of the extraordinary Black Star Collection crowd photographs, including demonstrations, rallies, riots and confrontations, in a video projected on classroom chairs, desks and green board covered in white paper. The setting thus becomes a three-dimensional white screen for the twodimensional images of three-dimensional events and places.