Safe Keeping: Vtape and the artists whose works live in our care

Safe Keeping: Vtape and the artists whose works live in our care

Vtape & Images Festival present

Safe Keeping: Vtape and the artists whose works live in our care

Curated by Kiera Boult and Dustin Lawrence.

The videos are available for viewing lower down in this post!


SAFE KEEPING: Vtape and the artists whose works live in our care

Late in 2020, Vtape co-founders Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak spoke with the Images Festival’s new programming Collective (Alia Ayman, Yasmin Nurming-Por and Robert Lee) and Executive Director Samuel LaFrance to discuss Vtape’s participation in the 2021 Festival. Considering the continuing evolution of the structure and day-to-day functioning of Images, we listened to the ideas of the Programming Collective: they were interested in an exhibition that explored the vast repository of artists and titles held by Vtape. We considered this and developed SAFE KEEPING, a look at Vtape’s holdings. In order to examine this with “new eyes,” we asked the newest permanent staff members – Kiera Boult (Submissions, Collections & Outreach Coordinator) and Dustin Lawrence (Technical and Distribution Coordinator) – to look for works that had been out of the light for awhile, the “hidden gems,” we called them. Together, they enthusiastically took on this challenge. And together they have developed a beautifully articulated idea: artists have a huge amount of TRUST in Vtape: to look after their work, to hold their work, to preserve their work, and to celebrate them and their work.

The resulting group of individual titles come together as an exhibition (rather than as a program in the Festival). Each work will be able to be played separately, not as part of a program. The exhibition was hosted on the Images website throughout the festival dates, May 20-26, 2021. Now, these titles are available right here (see below the interview between Kiera and Dustin), May 27-June 9, 2021.

Here is the statement about this exhibition from the two curators:

“In life, trust is a large umbrella. When we considered the collection of work we hold at Vtape, it’s easy to see the trust first-hand in the presence and preservation of so many different formats – from open-reel to VHS to Betacam to USB keys. However, that is just the surface. It’s the videos – the artworks – that embody that trust in us, as each waits, patiently, to be watched again. It’s far more than having faith or believing, it is knowledge, an understanding that we will do everything in our power to let the voice of each artwork be heard, that patience will be rewarded, and that trust will be returned.

“The curating of this exhibition is a discussion about trust, its inheritance, its experience, and its stewardship. Your work has guided us through complicated experiences when trust is pressured into faith. We look to your work for a lesson: how to inherit the responsibility to sustain your trust.

– Kiera Boult and Dustin Lawrence

(The following is an edited version of a conversation between Kiera Boult and Dustin Lawrence from March 2021.)

KB: When did you first experience the responsibility to our artists and the medium of video art?

DL: I first experienced the responsibility of our artists and all of the work when I started in the Distribution department and Wanda van der Stoop started to mentor me and give me guidance. Even though I had worked at Vtape for a few years doing other smaller positions, I never really got into the forefront of everything until I got into the Distribution role that I’m in now. I think the main part was connecting to where the work was going, and through that interaction, connecting with who is renting the work and where the work was showing was really, I think, where I experienced that responsibility of the trust placed in Vtape. To have that trust from the artist to do all of this work for all of these titles and know that it’s going to the right place to show to the right group of people.

DL: When did you first experience it?

KB: I first experienced that responsibility my first week at Vtape, when Kim Tomczak showed me the process of digitization. And what I saw was how specific capturing (digitizing) the work is, but while you’re capturing the work you have to capture the intention of the artist. And what I saw was 40-plus years of experience working with this technology but also somebody who’s been working 40-plus years with these artists, and he knows them so intimately and he knows their work so intimately that he’s able to pick up these incredibly small details that I wouldn’t even know to look for. To see him digitize works by friends who have passed away, and see that he is responsible for the legacy of that work. It made me realize how quickly the role of administrator/cultural worker can become caretaker. This was my first experience of the responsibility and I think the most profound experience of the responsibility that we have.

DL: I would also echo that in a way to getting that Tech role – in addition to my role in Distribution – and then working on the capturing and digitizing with Kim, it was a lot.

KB: Yeah, and it must be strange, I imagine, when you’re digitizing somebody’s work, how well you get to know it and them as well. It must feel like a kind of – maybe Dr. Frankenstein is the wrong comparison – but there must be many times where you’re bringing something back to life.

DL: There’s a literal sense, like when we hear of the times Kim had to put a tape in a whole new housing because the original one had broken. That’s really saving the tape’s life literally. In the figurative sense, it’s pretty incredible to think about actually. I never thought about it that way – that we’re bringing work back to life.

And with our program SAFE KEEPING, it’s like bringing works back into the light that maybe people haven’t seen for a while.

KB: My favourite part of our office is to look at the tapes on our shelves. They’re like seeds, they’re so patient and they hold so much genetic information but also codes for living, surviving, and making artworks that you don’t know that you need until you activate them.

DL: You’re never going to know until you take that tape, plant it into the player, watch the work, and hopefully experience an “Oh, this is the tree of knowledge that I’ve been waiting for” kind of moment. It’s a pretty impressive thing to look at that whole level of trust and patience in every work. And it’s all being passed on to us.

When I first started interacting with educational markets through educational streaming purchases and DVD rentals, I could see that was where change was going to happen – through the educating of young minds that are looking to gain this knowledge and gain this information for a better future for everyone.

That’s really where I feel that change will be made. And that’s really big when we work with those educational markets.

KB: And when I think about how I understand what trust is, I had a really hard time describing it. So I read what the definition was and found there was an emphasis on consistency and reliability. And I understand trust to be something that happens outside of yourself with someone else as a kind of transaction. And that transaction involves consistency and the patience required to maintain this consistency.

With this program, I wanted to look at curating the same way – as something that happens outside of myself. It’s similar to what it’s like to be in distribution, trust is this exercise in faith, a very prolonged sense of gratification, it’s almost funny.

DL: I guess I was just going to echo pretty much what you’re saying about consistency and reliability. When you think of trust in a person-to-person relationship, you meet someone and you have to build that trust up.

But with this responsibility that we’re undertaking, it’s kind of like the trust is already built (between Vtape and the artists in distribution). So the consistency is something that we already have and we have to match what’s already expected. What’s expected in that high level of trust in a relationship that’s already so strong when you and I are just starting this relationship, if that makes sense.

KB: It absolutely makes sense. I think that’s the place where the institution or the structure comes in. The strange part about Vtape is that the majority of the staff have been there for so long that we think about those relationships as personal with the staff as opposed to with the organization itself.

Trust is like a type of currency that is inherited. And it’s passed down to us based on the relationship with the original person that held it.

DL: It really puts us in a precarious position. It’s not a burden but it’s such that you have to really balance everything extremely well. As soon as it starts to slip one way and we lose that consistency with one person then it might as well be lost with everyone. That’s where a large weight of the responsibility comes in because it’s not just taking on one. It’s taking on, you know, 1,500-plus artists, 6,000-plus titles, and giving all of those the same amount of justice and keeping that same relationship growing.

KB: Yeah, and I think that anxiety – and I’m going to use the word anxiety – I think that so much of that anxiety is what has been at the root of this curatorial premise for us, or at least for me, I won’t speak for you. But I want this exhibition, and I want this piece of writing to speak to the artists who are inheriting us, that we feel that pressure and allow for this to be the first of many gestures toward trusting us. This is how I hope the exhibition comes to be seen.

DL: Yeah, viewed in a way that can be taken as an example of how we can show the responsibility that we’re taking on and that we’re not taking things for granted. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but you know if you see the care that we’re putting in and the thought that we’re putting into this it’s quite an exercise in trust, and it’s a really great showcase of what we are capable of and how we are able to take on this responsibility.

Vtape and the artists whose works live in our care


Jude NorrisRed Buffalo Skydive, 2000, 03:30 minutes, colour, English


In Red Buffalo Skydive, Jude Norris shares a story of the man who picks her up while hitchhiking, a devout skydiver who after becoming a paraplegic refuses to quit.

At the 01:01 minute mark, Norris says “we were coming through hope…” Hope is the name of a town, while also the theme of this work. Visually, a galloping buffalo animation whose movements repeat throughout the story creates a connection between the persistence of the skydiver and the survival of the buffalo. As Norris narrates the story of the skydiver who knowingly risks his life, she demystifies faith as a heroic act, instead showing it as an internal force that from the outside can appear as chaotic or self-destructive.

Shu Lea ChangComing Home, 1995, 05:00 minutes, colour, Japanese

Coming Home introduces a Japanese-Australian couple whose fate is in the hands of the immigration process. The work concludes with a game of Hanafuda (Japanese: Flower Cards) a Japanese card game often used for gambling. The game mirrors the reality of the couple’s fate, and draws a connection between the act of gambling and divination as an exercise in a hopeful investment for one’s future.

Emelie ChhangurPASSING FOR WHITE; PASSING FOR BLACK in São Paulo, 2007, 03:04 minutes, colour, English

In PASSING FOR WHITE; PASSING FOR BLACK in São Paulo, we are immersed in an extreme close-up of the artist’s mouth as she sings and snaps to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” a song and artist that hold a historical significance for Black Americans who are encouraged to find their way back to Africa. In this work, the song pacifies the artist’s pain as she makes her way through a heavy fog of emotion obstructing everything but the small movements she can make. How is this moving forward when this is the view? So much of “moving forward” is reliant on trusting that what is ambiguous will soon materialize with clarity. PASSING FOR WHITE; PASSING FOR BLACK in São Paulo invites us to stand still in this milky vapour and ground ourselves until it clears.

David FindlayGender, Lace and Glass, 1992, 03:00 minutes, colour, English

In Gender, Lace and Glass, David Findlay examines and challenges the nature of one’s fantasies. He does this by looking at how dominant culture’s co-authorship of personal imaginings can impose priorities and standards that may be miles away from the lived experiences or values of the person fantasizing. This co-authorship can so easily transmute its way into our reality that we quickly lose sight of who we really are, and we lose that trust within. Once the realization breaks free, we can then begin the process of undoing/rewriting a self-image that doesn’t fit.

Ming-Yuen S MaSniff, 1997, 05:00 minutes, colour/B&W, English

In a stark white room, a naked man crawls in a circle on an unmade bed, trying to remember the men he had sex with by searching for their smells. A fragmentary account of his encounters layered within a dense electronic soundscape of whispering voices evokes a sense of memory, loss, and the fear of death. While viewing Sniff, I feel as if the man is searching for himself, trying to remember or get a sense of who he once was. The part of ourselves that we give away, lost, while a scent of the memory remains.

Nik ForrestMy Heart the Rock Star, 2001, 02:00 minutes, colour, English

Nik Forrest’s My Heart the Rock Star explores the idea of gender using the unique perspective of music. Nik examines their brother’s albums, and as they listen it becomes clear there is more beneath the surface. When looking at the album covers, you can see the artists of the era exhibiting a different type of trust within gender identity, a level of acceptance that introduces the ability to fluidly change and challenge gender norms. I can really see myself through this work, discovering who I am as I listened to these same artists growing up, though in the ‘90s rather than the ‘70s. There’s a strong amount of trust that I’ve given to this work since it speaks to me on such a personal level it feels as if it has become a part of me.

Jude Norris / Bebonkwe (Winter) received the prestigious Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and numerous arts awards. Her single-channel videos have been screened at the Sundance Festival and The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Her widely exhibited new-media installations are in the collections of major museums. Bebonkwe’s traditional tribal territory is in and around Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY, but like her ancestors, she considers herself largely nomadic.

Curator, writer, and artist Emelie Chhangur is the newly appointed Director and Curator of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario. This appointment follows a significant career at the Art Gallery of York University where she emerged as a leading voice for experimental curatorial practice in Canada, known for her process-based, participatory curatorial practice, the commissioning of complex works across all media, and the creation of long-term collaborative projects.

Shu Lea Cheang is an artist and filmmaker whose work aims to re-envision genders, genres, and operating structures, and builds social interface with transgressive plots and open networks that permit public participation. She represented Taiwan with 3x3x6, a mixed media installation at Venice Biennale 2019. She is at work on UKI (2009-2022), a viral alt-reality cinema with a CNC/DICRéAM (France) development fund and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2020).

David Findlay is a quiet Black thing-maker born in Southern Ontario, Canada, currently being loudly homesick in Southern California, USA, where he has lived with one of his beloveds since 2011. David’s thing-making tends to focus on stories about desire, identity, and power. His approach strives to foreground embodied honesty, and his preferred tools/media are whatever permits the right combination of hands-on immediacy with fiddly persnicketiness. His writing can be found in anthologies of smut, science fiction, and queer memoir; most of his visual art and musical efforts are still struggling to be born.

Ming-Yuen S Ma, media artist and Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, LA, was born in Buffalo and raised in Hong Kong. His experimental videos and installations have shown in national and international venues. He has worked with numerous arts organizations, including LACE, LA Freewaves, MIX/NYC, Foundation for Art Resources, Inc., and the American Film Institute. He is the author of There is no soundtrack: Rethinking art, media, and the audio-visual contract (2020, University of Manchester Press).

Nik Forrest (born 1964) is a visual and media artist living in Montréal. Born in Edinburgh, their practice includes video, drawing, installation, and sound art. They completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Saskatchewan in 1985 and a master’s degree in open media from Concordia University in 1995. They are currently working on an interdisciplinary research-creation PhD at Concordia exploring trans-ecologies, sound, and listening practices.


Image credit: Gender, Lace and Glass, David Findlay, 1992