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Reviews / October 7, 2013

Lisa Steele Box Set Grows Canadian Canon

In recent years, Toronto-based media arts distributor Vtape has offered curated box sets collecting canonical video works by key Canadian artists such as Vera Frenkel, Colin Campbell and John Greyson. Its latest release, Lisa Steele Collection 1972–1984, brings together five DVDs of digitally remastered solo works by one of Vtape’s own co-founders and its current creative director. Two critical essays (by Joshua Thorson and Alissa Firth-Eagland) and a transcribed conversation with Martha Rosler accompany the box set.

Steele was born in Kansas City in 1947 and immigrated to Canada in 1968; she began making videos in Toronto soon after. The experiments with performance and narrative on the set’s first disc date from the early 1970s, and clearly lay the groundwork for Steele’s more widely known later works. These celebrated works helped to define the first generation of video art in Canada and internationally, a medium that now has nearly become omnipresent. Steele’s work has always reflected on the medium as a gendered tool of power, for example, a means of surveillance and social control, or of confession and self-examination. Circumscribed by the field between the artist’s body and her camera, tapes such as Facing South and the three-channel Internal Pornography (both 1975) investigate the artist’s physicality and psyche through a hyper-engaged, analytic relationship to her environment (her home, her plants). Steele’s voice mediates between her internal life and dreams, and the textured surfaces of the world around her—a haunting encapsulation of “the personal is political.”

The self and the domestic realm become defamiliarized as Steele gleans fragmentary observations and records eccentric anecdotes (“I’ve had this cat for six years and I don’t think I’ve ever dreamt about her—not once”). These works led to the seven-part Waiting for Lancelot (1976–77), a near-hypnotic diaristic narrative of a woman who sees the world around her—the life processes of the earth, plants and human and non-human animals, particularly insects—in too much detail. This hypersensitive description of a woman’s cosmos is simultaneously analytic and oneiric. In Steele’s concise conversation with Rosler in the box set’s booklet of texts, she notes that the newly booming porn industry at the time flooded the visual field with images of women’s sexuality. Steele’s self-exposure—physical, intellectual, emotional; in bed, home, garden—built a vital feminist counter-representation that delved the psyche in tandem with the body and sexuality.

The composition of the frame in A Very Personal Story (1974) provides an apt metaphor for Steele’s broader practice. At first glance, the tape is a straightforward recording of Steele narrating the memory of her discovery, at the age of 15, of her mother’s dead body. Steele’s hands, however, persistently intrude between her and her audience, as they twist and fuss in front of the artist’s face for much of the tape’s runtime. It is as if Steele’s body is subverting her voice’s authority, reminding us that no story—no matter how “personal,” how bare-bones the presentation or precisely described the content—is pure or unmediated as it flows from speaker to receiver.

Steele’s hands feature prominently in two other widely celebrated single-take tapes from this period. In Birthday Suit with scars and defects (1974), Steele “reads” the scars on her naked body, seemingly channeling their origin stories through the touch of her fingers, all in an effort to chart the marks endured in her twenty-seven years of life. The Ballad of Dan Peoples (1976), meanwhile, features the artist again conducting a voice—that of her recently departed grandfather—and she caresses a framed photograph of him as if it were a ouija board (it also acts as a mirror, reflecting back Steele’s environs). While The Ballad…, which focuses more on vocal rhythm and intonation than on specific stories, is arguably a hinge of sorts between the works where Steele speaks “as herself” and those where she performs as other people, it was clear in rewatching her collected works that Steele has modulated her voice as a way of invoking other selves since her very early tapes.

This skilled mimicry culminated in her brilliant, character-based micro-dramas, which drew from her experiences working at Interval House, a shelter for women and children, from 1974 to 1986. The Damages (1977), Makin’ Strange (1978), Talking Tongues (1982) and the hour-long “soap opera” The Gloria Tapes (1980): these are works I return to again and again, so nuanced and dazzling is Steele’s invoking and inhabiting of her characters Mrs. Pauly, Beatrice Small, and Gloria. Joshua Thorson’s invaluable essay frames these narrative works as a kind of conceptual anthropology, while film scholar Catherine Russell groups them as “the performance of the other woman.” Steele’s straight-to-camera monologue as Beatrice in Talking Tongues is a fascinating counterpoint to the similarly composed, first-person A Very Personal Story of nearly a decade earlier—costumed performance replacing the pretense of naked self-exposure. The diptych of The Damages and Makin’ Strange, by contrast, is formally complex, refracting the traumatized Pauly’s lifetime of harsh treatment into perverse, shard-like vignettes.

Steele’s unforgettable characters in these works are neither victims of patriarchy nor feminist heroes; they are complicated and flawed everywomen navigating the social services that are ostensibly there to assist them, but cannot truly understand them. These profoundly embodied portraits—fictional, but distilled from Steele’s keen observation of the women she encountered at Interval House: “synthesizing many women’s lives into single, composite characters, “ as she puts it—simultaneously personalize and politicize domestic violence, representing the artist’s complicity with her subjects. Steele focuses on the social and psychological effects of her protagonists’ mistreatment. The Damages brilliantly condenses Pauly’s life from wounded childhood into damaged adulthood; in the follow-up, Makin’ Strange, she has left care and moved into her own apartment but has fallen back in with her deadbeat poet boyfriend Wayne. In her interactions with welfare, children’s aid and the police, she is full of excuses, obliviously incapable of following their bureaucratic strictures. Beatrice, by contrast, not only articulately details the ins and outs of her abusive marriage, but the apathy of those forces (church, police) she reaches out to for help as well, who casually assure her that all is well and her husband loves her. (The way police wield their authority to victimize women is the subject of Steele’s 1982 meta-cop drama Some Call It Bad Luck, which is included in the box set.)

The glorious Gloria Tapes—a four-part serial in colour video that offers a spare, deconstructive take on the codes of TV drama—follows a young single mother on welfare who is initially not self-aware enough to break from her self-destructive behaviour. A neurotic motormouth, Gloria is perpetually anxious about her child-rearing abilities (or lack thereof); soon children’s aid gets involved and a judge must decide her fate. We see her meet with her doctor, where she finds out she is pregnant again; speak very off-handedly with her father about the sexual abuse he perpetrated on her and her sister during their childhood; receive childcare training from her social worker; and fight with her irresponsible boyfriend Billy. Steele has characterized the transformation that her female protagonists undergo in these videos as moving from a stunned silence or unthinking, survival-based appropriation of the institutional vocabularies that control their destinies, to nascent forms of self-expression and articulation. (In this case, they play out as Gloria connects her own fraught childhood with her feelings of inadequacy as a recent parent.) Gloria’s last words in the tape are, “people can change, I mean look at me” and one believes her. There is a touching parallel between Steele’s skilled ability to “change”—from one character to the next—and the struggles of her characters to alter their own painful patterns.

Alongside her then-partner Colin Campbell, who was engaged in a similar project, Steele developed a form of performance that was distinct to narrative video. (Steele’s wonderful The Scientist Tapes, performed with Colin Campbell while he was making his Woman from Malibu series in Southern California in 1976–77, takes up an entire disc here with its probing of the erotics of and tensions between subjective and objective vocabularies.) This was a highly self-conscious yet affecting form of performance based more on mimicry and bricolage—of voices, gestures and idiosyncrasies observed from real life—than an attempt at traditional theatrical or cinematic realism. To over-generalize the arc of Steele’s solo practice (in 1983 she would begin working exclusively with partner and Vtape co-founder Kim Tomczak), her early acts of self-scrutiny honed her empathetic and studious gaze, generating intimate, finely wrought fictions. Through her remarkable attention to the details of “outer and inner space,” Steele puts artifice in the service of engaged, emotional representation.

I would be remiss not to note that, as valuable as Steele’s Vtape box set is—to scholars, feminists, students, activists, artists, critics, curators, and anyone interested in Canadian video art—the collection deserves better graphic and packaging design (a similar claim could be made for the Colin Campbell set) and a proofreader’s eye. Steele’s oeuvre is worthy of the Criterion treatment and it is unfortunate to catch errors (like typos and obvious stickers attempting to cover said typos) in a collection that is otherwise of archival quality.