SSHRC project 'Archive/Counter-Archive' both visionary and disruptive

Janine Marchessault

Janine Marchessault

In 2017, York Research Chair in Media Art and Social Engagement Janine Marchessault received a Partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to the tune of $2.499 million for her multi-faceted project “Archive/Counter-Archive: Activating Canada’s Moving Image Heritage.” It had 43 co-applicants and collaborators from across Canada and globally, nine from York University across a variety of Faculties. It also involved 24 partner organizations from across Canada.

The work emanating from this project began in 2018 and will span all the way to 2024. Three projects, recently debuted, illustrate the kind of innovative work that’s being created by this enterprise every week.

“Archive/Counter-Archive” is a unique venture. It’s a research collaboration bringing together community and artist-run archives in Canada to emphasize the nation’s most vulnerable moving image heritage. It is devoted to diverse histories from Indigenous, LGBT2Q+, immigrant and women’s communities. It is dedicated to activating and remediating audiovisual archives created by and about these groups and communities.

“Political, resistant and community-based, counter-archives disrupt conventional narratives and enrich our histories,” explains Marchessault, a Trudeau Fellow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Her work explores the afterlife of moving image archives as art forms and new forms of historical knowledge.

Three 2020 projects exemplary of the value of this massive project

The exhibition launch for “Inuuqatikka: My Dear Relations” took place on Jan. 16 in the Davies Foundation Gallery at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery in Kingston, Ontario. Curated by Nakasuk Alariaq, Linda Grussani and Tamara de Szegheo Lang, this exhibition features video works, ephemera and production material created by Arnait Video Productions, the world’s leading women-centered Inuit filmmaking collective.

Part of “Inuuqatikka: My Dear Relations” exhibition. Still shots from “Before Tomorrow.” Credit: Oana Spinu. Copyright Arnait Video Productions, 2009. Reproduced with permission

Part of the “Inuuqatikka: My Dear Relations” exhibition. Still shots from “Before Tomorrow.” Credit: Oana Spinu. Copyright Arnait Video Productions, 2009. Reproduced with permission

Arnait addresses traditional knowledge and contemporary life, and represents the voices of Inuit women across generations. This exhibition runs until April 12 and is part of a March 2020 artist residency at Queen’s Vulnerable Media Lab, when four members of Arnait will be present for workshops, intergenerational dialogues and screenings.

Drawing from its own archival materials, Arnait presents living archives – that is, archives activated through human presence – that embed historical images and video interviews with Inuit women recounting their experiences in the present.

Part of “Inuuqatikka: My Dear Relations” exhibition. Credit: Paul Litherland. Copyright Arnait Video Productions, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

Part of the “Inuuqatikka: My Dear Relations” exhibition. Credit: Paul Litherland. Copyright Arnait Video Productions, 2009. Reproduced with permission

Also this past February, as part of the Archive/Counter-Archive Working Papers Series, which unites PhD students from different universities to hear about exciting archival research, Jenn E. Norton spoke on Imagining the Past at the Free Times Café in Toronto. She is a York University PhD candidate in visual arts.

Norton’s augmented reality (AR), video and installation work, which combines antiquated cinematic and digital technologies, investigates time-based media from a position of hindsight, what she calls “a rear-view mirror approach.” Here, she borrows Marshall McLuhan’s idea that a person can’t understand the impact of new technologies directly, but only indirectly, like looking at it with a mirror.

In her work, Norton creates immersive, experiential installations that reconsider everyday objects, landscapes and activities as fantastical, dreamlike occurrences. Using AR, interactive video, animation, sound and kinetic sculpture, Norton’s installations investigate the shifting boundaries of virtual and physical realms.

Norton’s talk was about four recent exhibitions that utilized this rear-view mirror approach.

Still from Slipstream (2019) by Norton; Jenn E. Norton. Images reproduced with permission

Still from Slipstream (2019) by Norton; Jenn E. Norton. Images reproduced with permission

“Archive/Counter-Archive” also offers compelling case studies. Vtape’s Case Study, for example, puts a spotlight on AIDS activist media in Toronto from the late 1980s and 1990s. Vtape is an artist-run, not-for-profit media arts distribution centre that maintains contemporary and historical video art and media works.

Part of the case study’s research team includes Ryan Conrad, a recent SSHRC-postdoctoral fellow in Cinema & Media Studies at York, who is also working on a book titled Radical VIHsion: Canadian AIDS Film & Video.

This case study has two main components: The first examines the 30-minute tapes that were part of Toronto Living With AIDS, a 1990-91 public access cable television program coordinated by the late Michael Balser and York Professor John Greyson. The series was made by pairing artists with community organizations to create much-needed, culturally appropriate and engaging educational tapes about living with and preventing the spread of HIV.

Vtape’s Case Study: TLWA series episode, “The Colour of Immunity,” directed by Glace Lawrence and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP).

Vtape’s Case Study: TLWA series episode, “The Colour of Immunity,” directed by Glace Lawrence and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP).

The second component features 10 public service announcements (PSAs) created by Canadian artists at the Banff Centre through a residency hosted by Balser in 1993 under the name Second Decade. These PSAs, much like the TLWA series, were designed with specific cultural communities in mind and intended for public consumption through cable television and other distribution methods.

Vtape poster, Toronto Living with A.I.D.S

Vtape's case study: Public access cable television series promotional poster, “Toronto Living with AIDS” (1990-91), courtesy of David Plant/Trinity Square Video. Reproduced with permission.

“By digitizing these videos, we are investigating both the content and the context of these radical artworks. These restored titles can re-enter into the AIDS activist discourse and will be used by contemporary AIDS activists in a variety of educational contexts,” they explain.

To learn more about “Archive/Counter-Archive,” visit the website. To read more about Marchessault, visit her Faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca

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