Streams Coming Together

1990's video in Vancouver and beyond

All of my videos--except Friday--were made in the 1990’s, when I was living in Vancouver. My first, Lest I Burn, was made in 1991. Vancouver of the time was brimming with activism against racism, homophobia, gender inequality, and numerous other social injustices, and many artists, particularly those of colour, First Nations/ Indigenous artists, and others who were systemically disenfranchised, were making art that paired with these activities.

Arts organizations were actively being called out for the exclusion of the various minoritised groups in their programming. Many were listening and trying to implement changes to reflect a new awareness.

At the beginning of the 90s I was still a full time visual artist, painting mostly, and hadn’t yet been published. Once my first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, was published, it would tear me away from the visual arts. But in the 90s a dream of mine came true because a member of one of these arts organizations was definitely listening.

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Her sweetness lingers, 1994, 12 mins.

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Lest I Burn was the result of a confluence of a number of different streams coming together. My favourite neighbourhood in the 90s for coffee was Commercial Drive in the East End, where there were several Italian and Portuguese coffee bars, filled with groups of men standing and drinking espressos around the tv watching football, but frequented also by openly out and about lesbians, who took up the appropriate space at the sidewalk tables, braving the stares. A strange mix--but it turns out we, too, had a thing for good coffee, and there was always a kind of mutual tolerance. Until in 1991 two women at Joe’s Café, a popular hang out with women, kissed--some say it was a peck in greeting, some say it was over the top necking, etc.--and were thrown out of the café and hosed down by an outraged Joe. Kiss-ins and protests on the Drive would for a short while follow. That’s one stream.

Another was a mix of Vancouver-based artists who made it their mission to support artists like me. Video artist Lorna Boschman and performance artist Persimmon Blackbridge were actively listening to what people of colour were saying about lack of access to art making resources and exhibiting venues. Lorna was a Video In (VIVO, today) member and Persimmon had connections with Press Gang publishing. The two of them set out to befriend and support my art making and what was just scribblings at the time. Persimmon introduced my writing to Press Gang, which encouraged me to write and published my first book Out on Main Street, followed by my first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night.

Paul Wong was there, too, at the heart of various kinds of activisms and a founding member of Video In. Paul didn’t show his hand in getting me involved in video making, but I knew he had his eyes on my activities and on the support Video In would give me. I would watch how he was able to make tapes that were aesthetically edgy with ground-breaking artistic integrity, and at the same time had political and activist undertones. I learned from him and his work that you didn’t have to give up art for politics, or vice versa. This understanding has since underlain all my creative work.

And then there was me, a coffee-loving activist and artist who wrote things that resembled poems, was very much wanting to make videos, and was being befriended by Lorna Boschman. Lorna kept telling me to go shoot something, she’d help me edit it. So full of trepidation- for brown dykes with video cameras, taking up space on the sidewalk, and directing participants, were not common, then-- I nevertheless went onto Commercial Drive, inspired to ‘fight back’ against the discrimination shown the women at Joes’ and the general undertone of discomfort from certain retailers and shop owners with lesbians on the Drive.

I began with Lorna’s shooting guidance to videotape, and to write in earnest a poem about the neighbourhood, about braving the hurtful stares that came my way, about wanting to exercise my right to love whom and as I wished, and finding camaraderie amongst other lesbians. It was a video about the determination to prevail. I had footage and a poem, but no access to editing facilities, or skills. No idea how to move from there, and no money to do so.

Longing and Belonging: 1990s South Asian Film and Video

The reason I say Lorna had a mission, is that I didn’t have to mention any of this. She brought me into Video In, and applied her volunteer credits to my work so that I could make my first video without incurring any expense save for the cost of tapes. With me at her side, she let me direct as she edited the footage and turned the knobs on the console (for it was analog at the time), showed me what was possible and taught me how to imagine and strive for what at first seemed impossible. She taped me reciting the poem, and worked in the background music, all in the studios of Video In. She also walked me through the distribution process, pointing screening opportunities my way. She encouraged me to shoot on my own a small video in my apartment, English Lesson, and again edited that one, which began to be exhibited almost hot off the machines.

By the time I participated in the Banff Centre “Race and the Body Politic” Residency in the summer of 1992, I was properly infected by the bite of the video bug. I had been invited to the Banff residency as a painter, but I also wrote there the collection of short stories Out on Main Street, published later that year. That summer in the Rockies, an old passion for nature and for outdoor physical activities that I regularly indulged in when I lived in Trinidad was reawakened, and I realized that in Canada, that passion was dormant, mostly because the Canadian mountain landscape required skills and equipment that I didn’t know about.

In short, in those days, people like me--of colour, a woman, too--did not participate, like we do now. We were not in the imagination of advertisers of outdoor recreational advertising, and I think this was a prime reason in us not imagining ourselves as having a place on the lakes or the mountains of this country.

During the residency, Wendy Oberlander, a white Vancouver artist who seemed more at home outdoors than in, and whose winter sports pedigree included a grandfather who had died in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, took it upon herself to introduce me to mountain sports in the area. Our differences, despite a similar love of the outdoors and outdoor sports, seemed worthy of an art project. Neither of us had signed up for video equipment as part of our residency but the medium, moving images, the back and forth conversation was right for what we began to work on, and so we found ways to get equipment, and on the sly, as it were, we went off to Moraine Lake and to Vermillion Lakes, and shot footage of us kayaking there.

Back in Vancouver we would finish the tape, juxtaposing stories of her ease in the northern landscape with my memories of adventure in Trinidad and we’d call it A Paddle and a Compass. The Banff Centre wasn’t as thrilled as we were with our renegade video making, in particular the use of their equipment without official sanctioning, and we were given a bit of grief for not playing by the rules. Very oddly, however, after being chewed out, I was then invited to return that fall/winter to the Centre for a video residency, where I was encouraged to write a script and direct the making of a work that would eventually be called Wild Woman in the Woods. Banff offered me the experience of pre- and post production crew and facilities, of working with a producer, a casting director, two professional camera people, lighting, sound engineers, an actor they hired, brought in and housed. The video was screened, again, hot off the press, at the Desh Pardesh Festival in Toronto, to my first big theatre audience.

I would carry on through the 90s to make more videos, loving the collaborative nature of the medium, which also allowed me to put together my writing, and visual disciplines. I believe it was race and sexuality activism that made room for me then and gave a jump start to my previously thwarted attempts to have my work taken seriously in the art world. But it was this same activism, interestingly, that eventually tore me away from visual art and launched a writing career.

In the last five years I’ve returned to painting, and have wanted to make videos, but we’re no longer in the 90s and as technology has changed, resources become scarce again, and funding is harder to come by, I am happily challenged constantly, in writing, to do what video achieved in terms of story telling and visuals.

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Shani Mootoo writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist and video maker. She is the recipient of the K.M. Hunter Arts Award, 2017 Chalmers Fellowship Award, and the James Duggins Outstanding Midcareer Novelist Award. Her forthcoming novel Polar Vortex will be published early 2020 by Book*Hug Press. View bio.

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