Angel Blown Backward into the Gluck of Lake Ontario
Ed Video presents:
online premiere of ‘Angel Blown Backward into the Gluck of Lake Ontario’
by Nora Hutchinson
December 21, 2020 at 4:48pm EST
until December 31, 2020 at 11:59pm EST
Ed Video presents a special online release of Honorary Lifetime Member Nora Hutchinson’s 2020 video ‘Angel Blown Backward into the Gluck of Lake Ontario’. Currently showing in a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hutchinson’s latest video will be viewable embedded on this page or on Ed Video’s youtube channel from sunset on the winter solstice until the end of 2020. What began production as a musical and poetic lamentation on the City of Hamilton’s policy of releasing sewage into Lake Ontario became an reflective response to reevaluations of existence brought on by COVID.
Many thanks to video contributors and crew: Chris Adeney (Wax Mannequin), Jeff Bird, Edwin Burnett, Peg Evans, Neal Evans, Tor Lukasik-Foss, Sue Smith, Ray Cinovskis, and Brian Mowery. With grateful acknowledgement to Kevin Hogg for loan of his plastic wrapped guitar player concept. Thank you Ontario Arts Council Exhibition Assistance program for support.
A written interview between the artist and Ed Video program director Scott McGovern to accompany the video premiere:
A Conversation with Nora Hutchinson by Scott McGovern
Recorded on November 29, 2020
With many thanks to Halley Roback for transcribing the interview.
Scott: Please tell me about your current Art Gallery of Hamilton solo exhibition, ‘Nora Hutchinson: Rebel Opera’. How did that come to be, what is featured, and how that experience was for you?
Nora: Oh, it was great, Melissa Bennett was in charge and she was wonderful, and Ryan Ferguson was also involved. And so it just started when she looked at my old VHS tapes. I’m distributed by VTape but I didn’t have the files at that time. When the show was confirmed I had to show her the videos with an old VHS deck, but she liked them. Then we chatted about the stories behind them, and eventually confirmed the show to happen this Fall. Melissa and Ryan looked through all the tapes, and they picked out a couple of tapes that I thought were just junk, just experimental junk, and they put them in because they said, ‘no, it’s to show your progress, remember it’s a retrospective, it’s about imperfections’. They exhibited them in a looping program chronologically, so you can see where I started and how I went from A to B.
Scott: I can understand why they wanted your junk tapes. I’ve been thinking in the last year or two how unfixed the meaning of art is, because it changes so dramatically in different contexts and through different times too. The time and the place it is seen is the backdrop that frames it, and sometimes artists are very close to the concept of their work but a curator can come along and say ‘I’ve got a different way to show this’ to make it mean something completely different.
Nora: Yeah, so that’s what happened. And then some of the tapes I really wanted in, they discarded. So that was the process, and it was fine with me, because one of them I really agreed with, in that it was just too vague. I had filmed something in Vancouver. Just a solo image of me pulling a canoe across a patch of cement and grass. It’s shot from above, and then the people at Western Front did a soundtrack for it. But because we didn’t have any slow motion, I kept stopping and starting it, and then we filmed it off the TV again so it had a slow motion watery effect. What happened is it just disintegrated so much, that it really looked like a big bad mistake. And the colour wasn’t great. Remember we had colour wheels then? Colour wheels - I could never get them right.
Scott: I was delighted when I saw that AGH announced your exhibition, to celebrate your long career as an artist from Hamilton. Sometimes when artists are around they can almost become invisible, so it’s very common that people find more success outside of the community they live in. I was very glad Melissa and Ryan worked with you on this to make this retrospective happen.
Nora: Yes, they were thinking of putting some of my installations up but decided not to, so it is a bare room with rugs and a couple of chairs because of COVID, with photographs on the wall, some of my music scores. Then we had an event where Tor Lukasik-Foss interviewed me live, and it was in a huge pavilion room, so they could put the chairs 6ft apart and everyone wore masks. It was pretty darn good and the screen came down really smoothly and slowly just by pressing a button, and the windmill curtains closed. It was great.
Scott: Any revelations when you first saw your work all together in a space? Any surprises when you saw it come to life?
Nora: Well, yeah, I looked at old tapes that I didn’t have on VHS which came from Vtape, and I thought I don’t remember doing that. Videos I don’t remember at all. What was that sequence about? And then there was the embarrassing ones, like ‘that shot is way too long’, but that was the time.
Scott: That’s interesting to see tapes that are a few decades old that you don’t remember. It’s weird when your videos are stronger than your actual memories, or the key that’s needed to draw out something from really far back in your memory bank, or when it becomes a real memory only through video. Even though it was actually real, this fake translation supplants a lost memory, even though you just have to believe it almost like you would any other video that you didn’t make.
Nora: Sometimes I thought, ’I didn’t know I said that’, or ‘that’s pretty good’, and other times ‘oh no’. It’s just because it’s you and you, you’re the author, so you’re the hardest critic as well. But some things surprised me in a good way too.
Scott: Can you give one example of that?
Nora: Yeah, in ‘C’etait un jeu de memoire’ I did in 1977, it was my first real edited piece because before that we only had U-matic decks, and you had to press play and then press record, you know?
Scott: Yes. I was actually going to ask you about the early days of video creation and Ed Video later, but let’s do that now, while we’re getting nostalgic.
Nora: Greg Hill and Charlie Fox started Ed Video, and then I joined in the early days because I was taking Noel Harding’s class in video at the University of Guelph. Noel was always going to the meetings at Ed Video, so it was very rich, a very rich time. Now if you ask me why it was rich, I would say mostly from Noel Harding, he showed us a lot of work from different places and different people, so we really had a broad spectrum of inspiration. When we met at first we would just gather at someone’s apartment living room and we smoked cigarettes and drank wine and talked.
Scott: What would happen though?
Nora: Somebody took the minutes, but I don’t know who. And I think Greg Hill applied for a grant and we got our first editing decks, the U-matic ones. In Noel’s class, we didn’t have any editing equipment at first, so we had to do conceptual art. I think in one of the first classes, he asked for a two monitor piece, like a video installation thing, and I just thought that was horrible, like ‘that’s really hard’. But I think starting the class off with something difficult was a real kick start. Because we couldn’t edit anyway, you had to go conceptual- you’d turn the camera on, you walk in front of it, or you do your event, and then walk away and you turn it off. We had a great class. Later when I was teaching, we had Jeremy Blackburn, Derek Graham, and Oliver Kellhammer who were all in a band together. Derek Graham was very brave with the camera, and he would bring the whole class up. You only need two good students and the rest follow. If you get a class that doesn’t have anybody like that, it’s just like pulling teeth.
Scott: Yeah, I was speaking to someone who’s trying to teach a university video class during COVID over Zoom, and she found that a technique to heavily praise the leaders in the class worked. The students not trying as hard feel a little inferior so they try harder, as they want to be praised in front of their peers too, or at least they don’t want to be ignored.
Nora: Oh, I wouldn’t do that. Noel did that, but I wouldn’t do that. I just gave them really interesting exercises. Anyways, some of us joined Art Metropole in Toronto, and I joined Vtape. And then Noel brought tapes in from so many interesting people, like Sanja Iveković, Dalibor Martinis, and Joseph Beuys. I was a big fan of Joseph Beuys, and then you get into tape loops like Steve Reich, and all kinds of things, like video as installation. Derek Graham wore the camera on his head, and someone else strapped the camera on their pant-leg and went for a bike ride, and you just see the rush of ground imagery and a foot come in once in a while, he wasn’t supposed to do that though because that was hard on the camera but I liked it anyways.
Scott: I lived in a studio in Toronto about 12 years ago, there was this really nice guy that lived downstairs from me. After a few months of chatting, I found out he was Derek Graham and it was surprising. He was still doing music, and he had a reggae band with his daughter as the singer, and they would rehearse once a week. He was still doing video stuff, working in the film industry, and was really into scuba diving I think.
Nora: Yeah, he would be a real winner that way. In his band with Oliver, they yelled and played noise art. It was great. Then there was performance art, and performance for camera as well, and Kevin Hogg was tremendous.
Scott: He still is!
Nora: Yes, he did a performance piece where he wrapped himself in plastic and was playing his guitar, at the same time.
Scott: I think I saw a performance like that very recently in a video!
Nora: Yeah, I emailed Kevin and said ‘could I borrow your idea, and make a variation on it?’. He said, ‘sure’, and I said, ‘would you like a credit?’. He said, ‘no worries. Just don’t put the plastic over your head’, which of course Wax Mannequin (Chris Adeney) who was in my video did do. If someone isn’t there with you you could hurt yourself, not be able to breathe.
Scott: Yes, I’ve heard that. Safety first, integrity second - but for art but it’s tempting to go the other way around.
Nora: No, safety is not first, the idea is first, haha.
Scott: OK, concept first, safety second, and profit is like number 38 or something.
Nora: Yeah, but the days were very rich back then, everybody was hungry.
Scott: Tell us a little bit about how that hunger worked in those days. What was it like in the late 70s in Guelph? Were you making videos to respond to television? Still even in the 90s, my friends and I were railing against mass media with video, but now today that’s more complicated. Television’s not really a thing anymore, it’s internet culture now. Video’s changed to be on demand to see anything you want any time, there’s no feed locked to time, and commercials that you’re stuck with. Even if you want to see experimental videos you can watch them 24 hours a day, and not even see a tiny percentage of what exists. At that time, how were you and the early artists in Ed Video thinking about video, what you were doing with it, and how was it radical at that time?
Nora: So, it was a new medium. In 1967 the first Sony Portapak came out and Nam June Paik brought it over the the States and people started to use it. Sculptors used it for documentation, or earthwork people used it for documentation, and other people used it for new things. It was a real edge against film and commercial TV, like ‘My Three Sons’ or things like that, and all the crap that you saw on TV.
Scott: Um hmm.
Nora: So when artists got a hold of it, and it wasn’t in the studio, and it wasn’t the big huge cameras that just did the bingo show every Thursday night in studio, then they went wild, and it really was against TV. And then it got into the hands of musicians and they did tape loops, like ‘Come Out’ by Steve Reich, and you could manipulate it in many ways because it was tape.
Scott: There was early link between with Ed Video and Guelph’s local cable station at that time, McLean Hunter. I remember watching a tape of Anne Milne on that station doing some pretty wacky and hilarious things. Do you remember that? What was that arrangement about?
Nora: Actually, I started that. I was working at Cable 8, and I started the show, ‘Are You Talking to Me?’. Hugh Harrison was the PR guy, and I set up a lot of people to do their weird things, a lot of performance type of things, and Anne Milne took it over from me.
Scott: How did you ever figure that out? Why would they let you and your weirdo friends go on broadcast television?
Nora: I don’t know really but they had to dedicate some of their programming to community access. I just had the idea and I said we’ll do it after hours at 11pm, and people would watch it from the Albion hotel or from home. I had contacts, I had Hugh Harrison who was really good as a PR guy, and I knew a lot of artists who were doing weird things with their guitars and things like that.
Scott: I’m glad to get the history right. I just go on evidence I’ve seen in Ed Video’s archive, usually with just scribbled notes on the tape case to give clues. That must have been really exciting though to have that validation and know that you can make something that’s going to be thrown out in the world through broadcast. That’s a pretty unusual dynamic, I think, for media artists.
Nora: I can’t remember how it worked, because my boss didn’t like me much. I couldn’t stand just zooming in on a little red ball for bingo every week. I just couldn’t take it, so I came up with the idea. I had a number of people lined up and they said well ‘just try it but it’s going to have to be after hours’. You’d put a little card in, with a picture of nature or something, and it said ‘cable TV is now off, until tomorrow morning at 9’. So we just went past it and I don’t think they even watched it. I don’t even think the boss watched it, so I don’t think they knew what we were up to.
Scott: It must have raised a few eyebrows for some viewers watching the standard fair of the day and then at 11PM suddenly all of this video art that breaks every rule of what they’re expecting from TV comes on. Was there ever any reaction from the greater community? Or was it just crickets?
Nora: Well Dave Lamb was there, and video artist Teri Chmilar too. Dave screened the calls, I believe, so you would get some nuts.
Scott: Oh, people would call in?
Nora: Yeah! ‘Are you talking to me?’.
Scott: Oh yes! I’m sorry I forgot it was actually a live call-in show. Ones I’ve seen that Anne did, I can’t remember if they had that component.
Nora: Yeah, well we had these interludes where people would do strange things. I had a lot of connections I guess with the university and the students. I remember starting it and I remember losing interesting and it kept going.
Scott: How did everyone feel about what they were doing, seeing as it was so new and there wasn’t much of established tradition in video? Was there a feeling that what you were doing was significant, or was it just goofing off? What was the confidence level of these experiments and how did people in Guelph see themselves as a group of artists within Guelph but kind of in this bigger picture, of this emerging video art thing.
Nora: I think we thought we were hot tomatoes, because we were rare, you know. Everybody in Noel’s class was an artist, they were painters or sculptors. I wasn’t, but everyone else was, and like I said Noel was grumpy and he would get people really worked up and running from his office. I remember one time I showed him a work and he said, ‘do it again’, and I said ‘why’, and he just said ‘do it again’, so I did. I didn’t know what he meant, but I did it again. But he and I got pretty close later on and he gave me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have.
Scott: So he was a mentor?
Nora: Yes, he was my first mentor.
Scott: And he sounds like a good one if he was challenging you, I think.
Nora: He was very challenging. And he did bring in a lot of work by so many other artists, which was the only way you could see it then. We saw a huge slew, a lot of Americans. A lot of guys, and not too many women. He stretched our expectations.
Scott: How were different types of politics permeating into what was going on there? Still in 90s, just making experimental videos seemed inherently radical because it was rebelling against the conformity, the banality of what every other form of video was. Today, I don’t know if that’s the case, as things aren’t just inherently radical just because they break conventions, but what was going on then? Were people trying to get these new ways of thinking or new stories out at that time?
Nora: Well yes, a lot of people were expressing themselves with their own performance for camera, myself included. You had sound, you had your voice, you had image, so it was tremendous for me. It wasn’t like a photograph, it had movement with sound, and you could be the performer. Many people were, because that’s all you had, you only had yourself.
Scott: Many of these early experiments that were done were in response to the limits of the technology, like performance for camera. But they’ve become tropes and I’ve continually seen a lot of young artists working in these same canons. I understand that, but I lament it too. I almost feel like early video artists invented all these canons that made sense at the time, but it really has defined what video art ‘looks like’ in a way that is hard to move on from. What do you think about that phenomenon about how you and your friends were sort of pioneers that built the farm, and today many video artists still live at the farm?
Nora: Oh, do they?
Scott: Yes! Not all video artists but many, including ever new young ones who don’t know the first thing about analog video.
Nora: I don’t know, we were just head butting the limitations. But if they’re still doing that now, well, you can experiment in many different ways. You don’t have to do what we used to do.
Scott: That’s basically what I tell young artists. I mostly blame the university system for blindly perpetuating these canons, and not exposing students to more current media art. I think it’s important to understand though, and I get it as I was taught mostly about 70s video art in the 90s too. Today technology is vast and hard to push against, because it’s difficult to dominate it, but there are many new exciting things for media artists to utilize.
Nora: I was just thinking about Brian Eno just putting the monitor on its side, and how that was a big deal. But see I’ve pushed past that, I don’t do that stuff anymore now. I don’t really know if I’m doing anything unique, I’m just doing what comes to me. I’m competing with myself, for sure.
Scott: That’s good motivation for an artist, to try and one up themselves. I’m very fascinated by what motivates and fuels artists. I think that’s a very pure one because you’re doing it to push your own limits to find out what you can do. How have your ideas about video changed through the years regarding how you think of it as a material to use, or just as a creative medium overall?
Nora: Well, I got into the opera thing because of my classical music upbringing, and when I did ‘In Safe Places’, I even put in opera recitatives - and I hate recitatives, but I wanted to challenge myself so that there was very few spoken words. Recitatives in opera are really icky and not very melodic pieces that tell the story. Where I go is to song. My thoughts come out in a melody. I just studied music all my life, things like medieval and Gregorian chant, Schöneberg, Strindberg, Opera, and I was in a folk trio. I just think in melody.
Scott: Melodies with words that have narrative?
Nora: I’ve always been narrative but not linear. And I just picked topics that I knew about like the death of my father, that had to come out, things I had to do. My concerns have always been about slant sensibilities, like you don’t quite fit in ever, you know? Later, my concerns for the environment became a theme.
Scott: Right, well I think that’s a good segue into your latest video that we are featuring. First of all, can you say the title of it for me?
Nora: ‘Angel Blown Backward into the Gluck of Lake Ontario’.
Scott: It’s a beautiful title. What does that mean to you?
Nora: Well, Hamilton City Council has let sewage run into the bay for about 3 years now, and they’ve done nothing about it. So I could go fight council or I could make a piece of art. Or both.
Scott: It’s a wise thing to know what weapons are available to oneself.
Nora: Well I usually put things into my work. I don’t want to sit in council for 4 hours not getting anywhere.
Scott: I understand that and I suppose I sort of do both as well. It’s essentially the dilemma, to decide if it is best to create some change from within or from without. So where was the kernel of the idea that got you thinking you were going to pursue this new video?
Nora: I kind of float around and then I nail it down, and then I float around and then I nail it down. So it started in 2018, and the first song I wrote, I knew I wanted Tor to be the angel because we’ve worked together for so long, and to sing this song. So first I wrote that song. And I didn’t have a keyboard or anything, and I didn’t even have a microphone. So I sung it into my tape recorder, my cassette, which has a built-in mic, just so I could remember the tune because I write a lot of songs, and I don’t have anything. And then Tor and I were talking about Wax Mannequin because I’d heard him play a couple times and I thought ‘god, he’s so edgy’, I like his stuff, I like his voice, how he hops around on stage, he’s really dynamic, and Tor said ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to work with him’. So I said ‘well I’m going to call him and ask him if he’ll be involved’. I met him outside a coffee shop, and sang the tune to him into his cellphone. He said yes he’d do it, so that’s how one angel became two, but really they’re just the same, two sides of one person.
Scott: They’re twin flames?
Nora: Yes, they are. And then we were just sitting around Tor’s living room, and Sue Smith was talking about weaving and how much she liked weaving and sewing, and Peg Evans was talking about how she loves to fold laundry, and I was thinking ‘oh my god, why would you love that’, but before too long in that conversation I was thinking about them being seamstresses in a new piece. Then I was thinking I would call it ‘The Woof and the Warp’, the two strands, and then I thought no, I think that they - because of the Gluck in Lake Ontario, they’ve got to be the seamstresses that try and sew the world back together again. And that’s when I started to have them sing and sew leaves onto dead trees, and then stitch bark onto birch trees and other trees as well. So I had two hooks there, and because I didn’t get my grant and we had already been rehearsing in 2019, I went away to lick my wounds. I took Tor’s camera and I did the other really funky stuff, like the figurines on the table, the ‘you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone’ sequence. The umbrella as the narrator was my third hook, and I just weaved them all together.
Scott: So the original idea came before COVID took over as more of an environmental themed video but then as it was time to make it, obviously the pandemic altered it’s production pretty strongly too. How did it morph in your mind when it came down to actually make it, and incorporate that new dynamic?
Nora: Well I was lucky that Jeff, Sue, Peg, and Neal had already bubbled, although we were rehearsing in 2019 some of the songs. So that’s why people weren’t wearing masks anyway, because some of it was done in 2019 and some of it was done while they were in a bubble.
Scott: Perhaps the crux of my question is when you have an idea that you’re pursuing, how open are you to going with the flow and modifying as you’re actually making it? How much are you planning it out as a filmmaker would, versus improvising almost like a performer would?
Nora: Oh, well I had to, I knew them and I trusted them, I do not work with people who can’t improvise. I just don’t. I never have, and it seems to be just an element that has to be there, and I gravitate toward that kind of person so I had to give up my director role quite a bit. I mean, I was a director from afar. And also an editor from afar, as Jeff and I edited over Zoom.
Scott: Potentially pushing it more into what people would term as collaborating, when you have that much trust?
Nora: Yes, there’s trust and I can collaborate with them very well. Sue Smith and I started doing performances together 30 years ago. But letting go like that was kind of scary, but I just trusted that they would come up with something - if not exactly what I wanted, something equal to it, or maybe even better.
Scott: Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing I think to find your community to create with, it’s advice I give to young artists who are foolish enough to seek my council, to say ‘it’s of vital importance to find your people, you’re going to need them not just for creation but to grow with into the future as well. If you’re about the same age, as you get older there’s a lot of common ground and wonderful things that can happen over time’. Beyond that, I think that every generation needs to find its own voice that makes sense for their time and their concerns. That can happen in a vacuum but generally it happens through community which is increasingly a little more tricky to figure out, especially right now, but instead of trying to fit into something it’s better to just make your own thing happen. If it’s good, people will notice.
Nora: But you know Scott, if I have a different idea, if I see some performer like Wax Mannequin or someone amazing, I might use them for my next video. I don’t mind asking anyone, so you don’t always have to work with the same people. Wax Mannequin was a wild card in this one. I mean, the gang had to get used to him because we were so tight knit. So I’m always searching for new input.
Scott: Yes, it is wonderful to work with a rotating cast too, and I know that instead of directing somebody, sometimes it is best to just say ‘I trust you, please do what you think is best’. When their pride is on the line, they’ll really deliver, in their authentic voice.
Nora: Yep, I don’t know if I really call myself a director, I call myself a shaper, I guess I shape things.
Scott: That’s a nice way to phrase it.
Nora: But there are some things that if they fool around with I have to say no, but it’s not that much. There’s a through line that’s in my head. If they really disrupt that, which they wouldn’t anyway because they know me, but it’s hardly ever the case.
Scott: Let’s talk a little bit about how you’re thinking about video these days during isolation because of the pandemic. How are you thinking about video’s role during this time as a way for people to communicate. Are you thinking about that little, maybe about the advantages or things that are a bit off about it?
Nora: I’ve found it a perfect time to create, even if you just do simple things about your house. Even with isolation, you know that really your thoughts are everywhere. If you look longly and loosely enough at anything it becomes interesting. It’s a good time for creative work, whether it’s poetry, or just writing in a diary, or getting a camera and just watching people’s shadows as they walk by instead of them.
Scott: That’s a lovely thing to imagine.
Nora: Yeah, because people almost don’t exist, and then cars go by and maybe they don’t have a driver in them, you know? Well it’s just a weird time, and if you are alone, you can easily overthink things, easily get depressed, feel very, very isolated, and you have to work against that all the time.
Scott: I’ve noticed.
Nora: Or you have to use it, so you see people’s shadows and you record their shadows, not them. And record the car without a person driving it, or the sounds around the house, like if you’re reading a book, the sound of the page turning.
Scott: Yeah, little things can become monumental. The little and immediate things that are left have become monumental for a lot of people.
Nora: Yeah, it’s a horrifying time. And yet, we’re alone anyway, actually.
Scott: It’s a great tragedy to realize that we do truly walk alone with temporary companions. And this is an odd and stark reminder of that, for a lot of people.
Nora: Yes, but if you have your imagination, it’s not that bad.
Scott: The creative people have gone into this with a bit of an advantage, to work with what they’ve got, to potentially be a little more at ease at being alone. A person who takes comfort in routines and rigid structures that are now gone may be at a bit of a loss.
Nora: Well they would just fix their house up, wouldn’t they?
Scott: Ha! Yes, and think about how quickly it’s increasing in value. Except if they sold it they would have nowhere to go.
Nora: I know!
Scott: But I think you’re right. It’s a time for people to create and learn, if they can.
Nora: Yeah, I‘ve learned a lot, and it’s always fun to learn.
Scott: Learning is my favourite thing. For me it was positive to see you have inspiration and motivation to create something that’s speaking of our time. That’s always the challenge for artists. It’s like the McLuhan idea that if you’re within an environment, it’s totally invisible, but an artist is the one type of person who can see it from within, and hopefully provide clarity to others about their current condition. It’s of a time yet timeless. And I feel like your video is like this, it makes sense right now, and the future it will feel like a time capsule of this year, for all the horrible and maybe some wonderful memories people have of that. I always ask artists this question because it’s the one thing I’m most fascinated by - what is your motivation to make art, where does this come from within you?
Scott: People have a very wide range of answers, so don’t feel like there’s any right or wrong ideas.
Nora: OK, I wake up in the morning and I get my coffee. I usually have a thought, a phrase in my head, so I write it down. And then maybe later on or maybe the next day, I’ll have another phrase. I don’t write in a diary and I don’t write in a book, I write all over the place. Whenever I have a thought, I just trust those things and then it usually moves into something else. Maybe it becomes a hook, but it could be a phrase. Like, I was just thinking this morning “what am I going to do now?”, and I thought ‘well I feel like I’m explaining pictures to a dead hare’ like Joseph Beuys did.
Scott: Ha! Well, this dead hare appreciates it.
Nora: And I thought ‘well, why don’t I do a video about explaining pictures to a dead hare’, because that’s how it feels in COVID. It sounds awful and lonely, because explaining anything to anybody is also like explaining it to a dead hare because it’s so hard. Don’t you think?
Scott: I definitely think so. Maybe what you’re describing is the conflation between art and words. I think they’re far more different entities than we admit, because if words were perfect in every situation, there’d be no reason for art to exist.
Nora: That’s right.
Scott: It’s a grievance I have with academic art discourse’s insistence that visual culture needs words as crutches to stand up, as words are just abstract ideas in the first place. Words fail a lot of the time with art that is meant to be felt with the heart more than your brain, or your unconscious more than your conscious mind. Words might point at its truth, but they’ll always fail to some degree because art exists beyond language and is so subjective.
Nora: So then I will go out on my balcony and see this other apartment, and I’d see this really horrible tree in their window. It’s like this sparkling spasmodic tree, like you go in the day you can see it plus see it all night long, and I thought it was like a Diane Arbus photograph, you know.
Nora: Actually that disturbs me more than explaining pictures to a dead hare. I’m now not looking at it. Because I find Diane Arbus very disturbing, but it is a very disturbing - it’s just a spasmodic tree, it looks more lonesome than ever-lonesome could ever be. It’s a ‘Diane Arbus tree’. That’s another example of how a phrase will come into my mind.
Scott: Nora, what you’re describing, and I don’t know how to say describe why, but it’s essentially what I’m hoping artists will say when I ask about their motivation.
Nora: Oh good.
Scott: True artists can’t help it, they need to do it, it’s as natural to them as eating or breathing or sleeping, and if they don’t do it, they’ll suffer the same way physically or mentally as if they didn’t do one of those vital things. It’s always like a flowing tap with no handle. These artists expel something from within, essentially for their own benefit, but ideally for other people too. I almost think you can smell authenticity in art. You can tell where it came from. As a curator I’ve noticed that audiences just gravitate towards art that has that real unique, authentic aura. And I think because you’ve been doing it your whole life, you’re like one of those artists too, who- it almost can’t be helped.
Nora: Yeah, and it’s not conscious, it’s not like I’m going to think about art today. When a phrase comes into my mind when I’m having a cup of coffee, I have to write it down. I’m not trying to think of the phrase. Now the work comes when you’re editing, or the pragmatics come later. So I float and then I get pragmatic, and then I float and then I get pragmatic again.
Scott: Well, you’ve got to put the hard work in too.
Nora: Yes, and you’ve got to be grounded too, because you can’t just float around.
Scott: I understand that, and I wonder about when an artist is heavily invested in creating art, what other parts of life do they sacrifice for that? Ideally, they have all their shit together and then the time to make art in good conditions. But that’s not often the case, as life rarely provides perfect conditions, but artists just do it anyways. I don’t know if that’s even a question, but does that trigger any thoughts for you?
Nora: Yeah, like I didn’t get the grant to make this video. And I’ve missed out on many grants, so it’s nothing new to me, but this time I had a feeling about it, and I had the wrong feeling about it. I had thought I’d get it, and that’s a very dangerous place to go to. You really can’t think that way, but I did anyway, and then I lost the funding. So you break the seal and do something creative anyway because I didn’t want to sit there and with that feeling of being a loser. So you just get to work and it doesn’t stop the ideas, it’s just that it stopped me from paying artist fees to my team which I think is really really really important.
Scott: Well, I completely agree with the idea of paying artists, but there’s also something wonderful in just making something anyways. I love the phrase, ‘you’ve got to give it away to keep it, darling’. I think a lot of wise artists realize that, they think of their whole identity as being an artist, like a business, in that some days it’s working and other days you’re haemorrhaging money into it in the hopes that tomorrow will work. It’s not ideal, but just the reality of how things just get done.
Scott: I think in a situation like yours, people absolutely understand the circumstances and would never harbour any resentment about not getting paid or the conditions being perfect.
Nora: Everybody is suffering and compromising.
Scott: Let’s talk about the idea that showing your video online instead of at a screening.
Nora: Oh, I hate the idea of it.
Scott: I do too, Nora! But we’re going to do it anyways! The biggest loss of everything is suddenly there’s no genuine social dynamic left in art. The joke was that people were just going to the reception to chat and no one looks at the art. But today it seems pretty obvious that it is a very vital part of it. But still, as I said before, I define creativity as using what you’ve got, and we still have this available to do in lieu of a real screening. What are you thinking about that? I know it sucks, but, is there anything that you think maybe is exciting about it too or interesting about it all?
Nora: Oh, not really, ha!
Scott: Ha! I love it!
Nora: I mean, I hang on to the idea that we can do it live or as a performance, maybe next year. I just have this awful feeling that people will watch it and put the thumb up. Just press the button and it’s thumbs up. Like, I watched, I liked it. The like thing, or the love thing, and you don’t get many comments. When you’re in front of people and you’re showing it, you can feel what they’re feeling, you can feel their energy in the room. And you just can’t get it this way, so I guess it’s like writing letters to someone. Or it’s going out into the vacuum of the cosmos and that’s what it has to do this time, but I like a live audience.
Scott: I was doing a live streamed show near the beginning of this pandemic, but gave up once there were too many other live online things. Since then this is the only other ‘virtual’ video thing that I’m planning to do. My issue with it is not everything translates well online, that it’s not often used for what it’s good for, but I hope that showing your video online is a good use of it.
Nora: Yeah, but will people watch a 26 minute tape when their attention spans are really little?
Scott: That could be true, and I think about that as well, but I never underestimate people’s appetite for unusual and creative things.
Nora: Yeah, well I think it carries along pretty well so that you do want to see the next section and then you maybe just want to see a little bit more.
Scott: Right, in short vignettes.
Nora: Or the music helps carry it. Like ‘Fire’s Burning’, you know that song, everybody knows that song, I just switched the words to ‘water’s rising, getting hotter’.
Scott: I thought something was off! I was questioning my memory of it. One of the last questions I have for you Nora is, we’ve already talked about this pandemic, but I think it’s really important to for people to stay positive through it. It’s kind of all we’ve got, you can’t really surrender to it. I’m curious if you’ve been thinking at all about if there’s any silver lining out of it, or vital lessons to be learned. There’s a lot of loss and people are sick and dying too, but for those lucky enough to not be in that situation, what might come out of it that might be for the better?
Nora: Well, a deeper consciousness of our existence. You don’t waste your time and you don’t waste your money. Like both of us, if we don’t have cars, and don’t take the bus anymore, you walk everywhere. So it’s being much more close to the earth and much more in tune with getting from A to B, and where you are, and I think you get more spiritual because it’s all you’ve got.
Scott: Despite the isolation, how do you think it might be changing how people relate to each other?
Nora: Well there’s two sides to that coin. You can feel really bitchy because you’re unhappy, you can feel like saying, ‘oh shut up’ if someone is going on and on. I’m not a small talker. And then there’s the other one which is a deep love and care for everyone. There’s a connectiveness in the isolation because everyone’s going through it.
Scott: Yes, small talk is hard for me also, and I feel a renewed sensation of love for everybody too which can be a little intense.
Nora: But it depends on your mood, I think. If I feel lousy, then the world looks lousy. And if I feel OK then the world looks OK. When I feel lousy it’s my responsibility to get out of that. And when I feel good, I don’t push it, I just enjoy it.
Scott: That really cuts to the core the main tenets of almost all esoteric or spiritual teachings - that everything is within yourself, and you have more control of your own energy than you might think. Positivity begets positive things and negativity attracts negative things. You summon what you wish, what you need, and there’s a time for both of those types of energies to exist. But one thing that I’m perceiving is people have become in tune with this idea that they can manifest things with their own energies. And artists have a big role to play in that too, to lead by example or to put out things that inspire, not that art’s role should always be to inspire but it can be, to remind people of the important things they still have and can do.
Nora: Well, yeah! We have a bed, we have food, we have a kitchen that works, we’ve got hot water. It actually is really important stuff. We’ve got clean water, so far. And we take a lot for granted, and now we don’t. I don’t think it’s good to take stuff for granted ever. Even people with a lot of money, they might be suffering more than artists because they can’t have their parties or whatever.
Scott: There are hard yet necessary reassessments for everyone to consider during these times. Nora, thank you so much sharing your ideas, speak about your work, and impart your wisdom. I hope people who take the time to read this can glean some helpful ideas from our conversation. Congratulations on your excellent exhibition at Art Gallery of Hamilton, and persevering on your newest video despite everything that happened in 2020. You are a great inspiration to me, and I’m proud to count you as a friend.
Nora: Thank you, Scott! You ask the most interesting questions. Great interviewer!