Written By: Kalil Haddad
Canada has a history of cinematic transgression. Properties that would later fuel the rise of video art and the adjacent radical scene, at one time bolstered a different kind of subversion. With his 1965 film Winter Kept Us Warm, director David Sector brought to screen one of the most nuanced, if not heavily closeted, depictions of homosexuality ever put to film. While less visibly radical than queer work to come, the film nevertheless remains political for its address of homosexuality; at the time defined as not only a mental illness, but illegal in Canada. Depicted so subtly, many in the cast failed to recognize they were in such a film, the piece went on to be the first Canadian feature to ever screen at Cannes; a tentpole for not only Canadian cinema, but queer cinema as well (Hays, 6). Following the lives of two male university students, the film played into the coded, obscure vernacular of “romantic friendships” (Brown, 83). Politically, a film no institute would have funded in the mid-sixties, the work serves as a benchmark for the power of accessible film technology. Funded by a then-twenty-two-year-old Sector, the film was independent in every sense of the word— empowering fellow creators over the coming decade, including a young David Cronenberg (Hays, 10). While little known today, the film is a testament to the inherently political power of personal technologies. Without the safeguard of the American studio systems or the National Film Board of Canada, the power of creation and self-expression was put into the hands of the people. Blossoming technologies—first film, then tape—created accessibility for smaller filmmakers, empowering smaller causes— the marginalized. Both feminist and queer filmmakers began creating work, using it as a tool to combat the oppression of the period.
This new movement, one that could only happen with the advent of these technologies, came to be known as video art— an extension of not just film, but art and social activism. While Sector’s narrative work shied away from explicit homosexuality, visually or verbally, these works coming after the end of the sixties expressed a newfound radicalism, addressing such controversial issues head-on (Gever, 120). It was this very radicalism that not only brought their work notice, but forces one to question the greater mainstream accessibility their work faced over time and the result this had, not only on their purity of expression, but on their overall influence on queer representation in Canada. For all their initial niche activist work, radical queer video artists ultimately found themselves in positions of influence on Canadian LGBT social acceptance in subtle, but important ways.
In discussion with video artist and filmmaker John Greyson, now an Associate Professor at York University, he explains to me the correlation between technology, video art, and activism:
“Video art has always been a response to available technologies,
so the video art revolution was born through access to Portapaks
… inevitably, first explorations with the medium became formal,
became about the formal properties, exploring what was possible
with this new camera— this new technology; so particularly concerns
of duration, of real time, of looping, of recording. Equal to that:
the radical potential of the Portapak was realized immediately by
activist groups, this was the sixties, and so right from the start video
art was always formal exploration and activist exploration.”
As a burgeoning form of activism, video art exists in an interesting time. Released to the home market only two years prior the historic Stonewall Riots, the Portapak, a self-contained video recording system, allowed queer activism to flourish (Padva, 155). In the early seventies, less than a decade after the release of Sector’s seminal queer work, feminist and queer issues were being debated through the use of this new technology, through the vocal accessibility that such equipment allowed. While renowned Canadian queer artists such as Greyson, Richard Fung, and Mike Hoolboom, would become more prolific after the onset of the AIDS epidemic, coming into their own as artists in the early eighties, couple Lisa Steele and Colin Campbell paved the way for video artists throughout this previous decade, Greyson explains. He goes on to state,
“[Campbell] was finding a way to express early queer sensibilities
in the mid-seventies, often in partnership with Lisa Steele, his wife
for a while … their project was all about complicating definitions
of sexuality, of gender, and of what it means to be a person in this
Through the couple’s early work, both together and independently, they paved the way for other, even more explicitly political artists to come. When they expressed queer perspectives in the seventies, the landscape was about civil rights and representation. When expressed by artists in the early eighties, queer politics became about life and death; allowing the form to turn even more radical (Greyson & Longfellow, 59). Over the course of the previous decade, distribution centres Trinity Square Video and Vtape, the latter founded in part by Steele and Campbell, opened to promote both the spread of work and the autonomy of artists. Video art became viewed in a sense as a direct response to the then conservative Canadian representation being funded by the National Film Board, explains Greyson. This work was not only artist funded, owned, and promoted, but existed on the margins of accessibility. Though various pieces would play throughout international festivals, like Steele’s seminal 1974 work Birthday Suit – with scars and defects, these tapes were never created with an audience in mind, but rather, produced with a political bend— blending the avant-garde with community activism.
As video art spread, so did social conversations—the community. Greyson explains, this allowed for the founding of various conferences addressing video art and their inherent politics; reaching and connecting international communities through form. In his 1986 hybrid documentary Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers, Greyson travels to a political conference in Russia as a queer representative; though not as an artist, but rather strictly an activist (Greyson & Longfellow, 315). He explains to me, “I signed up for this Moscow conference, which was completely not queer at all, as a way of infiltrating and using the leverage as a way to do gay activism and then the art was sort of on the side…” It is at this stage, as their work and profiles expand over the decade, that the explicit role of filmmaker is taken away from these artists— they have become full fledged activists, not only creating visual work, but writing and lecturing as well (Gever, 383). While they continue to use video art as a political tool, they have transcended their prior art niche and been placed on the world activist stage— creating both accessibility for these artists’ initial video work and burgeoning activist politics.
To use Greyson’s career as a case study for the expansion of video artists, parallel to these activist endeavours of the late eighties, Greyson began working in narrative features; 1989’s Urinal serving as his feature-length debut. While formally more experimental than other queer films of the time (1989’s Longtime Companion and later 1993’s Philadelphia— released theatrically the same year as Greyson’s second feature Zero Patience by independent powerhouse Alliance), these pieces served as an accession from his previous decade’s work as a video-maker. During this period, Greyson’s work was brought to a wider audience through this change in form and use of spectacle (Padva, 160). While video art and shorts had a place in festivals, even there they remained a niche compared to the centre piece of such events— the feature. In an effort to spread political conversations further, Greyson opted to go bigger. This, however, also meant co-opting his vision to an extent; forcing it to differ politically from his radical, community-based work of the past. While granted full autonomy by artist-run centres like Trinity Square Video and Vtape, such freedom is seldom allowed when dealing with the infrastructure necessary to create feature work— the dangers of melding capitalism with radical politics. As we sat in his office discussing, Greyson explained to me his then-concerns with this meshing of activism and corporate sensibilities,
“When you get into bed with Telefilm and Cineplex Odeon
and Alliance Atlantis, inevitably you’re already compromised
just entering the door and I’ve always come from the position
that activism is the performance of compromise; that we have
to engage, we have to meet the world, we have to be part of the
world. To be in an ivy tower is to be privileged and
isolated and to work as activists we have to meet the world on
our terms and its terms halfway…”
Greyson explains to me that, while he would like to change some of these early features in hindsight, the representation and stance they brought to a mainstream audience is ultimately more important than no exposure at all. In this way, they serve the same purpose as video art—that of a conversation starter. This notable feature work eventually paved the way for one of Greyson’s most mainstream contributions to the queer zeitgeist—Showtime’s American produced, Canadian shot, 2000 remake of Queer as Folk. On the record, Greyson explains to me bluntly that his role as episodic director was strictly a gig; he found the show’s politics embarrassingly regressive and Eurocentric. Much like fellow series directors Bruce McDonald and Jeremy Podeswa, similarly a part of the Canadian independent film scene, Greyson had limited control over the on-screen content of the series, and was simply working as a gun for hire. He articulates his personal disillusionment with the production of the series, but also acknowledges the overall power of accessible representation,
“… I was inside it and thinking about all this money
and effort being spent getting crap scripts on screen when with
just a little tweaking it could have been so radical … did Queer
as Folk go out there and change some lives? Sure. Because queer
stories inevitably reach people, especially young people who
need them and it does change the landscape … it’s always better
for it to exist … when things exist, they provoke reactions and
things move forward. If things don’t exist we get stuck.”
These words, for however critical of the series itself, serve as an important acknowledgement on the importance of accessibility. Just as the shift from video art to film was done in the late eighties, the form had to change once more to television with the rise of premium cable in the late nineties— messages must be displayed wherever they can reach people, explains Greyson. With artists’ profiles rising through their continuing work, they were given more positions within mass media creation, enabling larger platforms for their politics, however personally constricting, sacrificing autonomy for the larger conversation—for the greatest opportunity for social change.
Over the ensuing decades following the show’s premiere—as well as many others like it, both explicitly queer and otherwise—strides have been made in regards to mainstream queer acceptance throughout Canada and North America, both legally and in terms of representation (Padva, 173). One could certainly point to activist organizations raising awareness around queer causes, coupled with a drive to promote marginalized voices within mainstream media. Greyson argues, however, that these television programs are often given too much credit, feeling they do little in the way of exposing the masses to queer lifestyles in a way other than through a hegemonic lens. Even previously with a foot in the world of television, Greyson believes this is no longer the answer. Not only does such a corporate medium reject radical politics in an even more sanitized way than his studio films, but the delivery system has once more been altered. However, he believes this time for the better, stating,
“We’re seeing much more radical things happen because
the actual delivery systems have changed … [new queer media
represents] interesting things, and again, it’s always better that they’re
there in the culture … it’s way more interesting. There’s a whole
lot of crap, but there’s always been a whole lot of crap … [but now]
there are really interesting things to engage with that didn’t exist
ten years ago and didn’t exist twenty years ago.”
He goes on to say,
“We live a moment now where, between our festivals which
reach diverse audiences, like ImagineNative, people not committed
to the avant-garde—audiences [that are gathered for reasons of] identity and
community— are suddenly watching avant-garde work.
They want to see content, and then you make us see content in a new
way, so I think that’s been strengthened through the decades. Equally
new platforms like YouTube have made for many riches in terms of
Through the use of these new platforms, previous transgressions have found their way into the mainstream, whether through expanding societal notions of positive sexualities or through the artist’s continued use of form as a tool of activism. Though Greyson and his fellow artists have taken many detours along way, both formally and politically, their original methods have not gone away. While attempts have been made to work outside these confines, in the world of features and television, video art continues to serve as a comfortable space to occupy with Greyson and his contemporaries continuing to work within the field decades into their careers viewing it as the ultimate tool of political autonomy— where they feel most comfortable.
Queer content has come a long way. From Winter Kept Us Warm inspiring Cronenberg’s film career to queer Canadian features like 2015’s Closet Monster utilizing the body-horror he himself popularized, it is undoubtedly a bold new age for queer representation; this serves as an even greater metaphor for queer Canadian content overall—the move to depoliticize, to normalize. Whereas homosexuality was once seen as inherently political, whether in the beginnings of video art or in the heyday of Queer as Folk, the landscape has changed in such a way that modern queer content finds itself taking more from Cronenberg than Greyson. Homages may vary, but representation has a root. While undervalued within the Canadian film canon, artists like himself, political artists utilizing video art, paved the way for the depoliticalization of queerness through their early activist work. No longer is the fight for representation, but for expanded notions on what queerness can be. Greyson, while he continues to work as a queer filmmaker, has thoroughly expanded to examine the colonial aspects of sexualization; working with Palestinian and Arab solidarity causes to further queerness beyond the Eurocentric (Greyson & Longfellow, 113). While video art has expanded formally, it maintains its political qualities, functioning with the same purpose— to begin a dialogue. Only now the question has changed and, with that, the approach to the material has as well— beginning once more from the root. Greyson explains to me,
“Video art’s role has always been oppositional, oppositional to
dominant culture aesthetically and politically, so our role continues
and we continue and it’s thriving, it’s dynamic. The definitions of
video art have expanded exponentially and all our identities as artists
have become more and more porous because there is more slippage [now]
between the mainstream and the margin and some of us have a foot in
both and continue to enjoy that.”
Originating in video art, queer artists made their way to film and then television, spreading representation from the margins to the mainstream. Whether autonomous or not, their intent had been met. Now, with that conquered, with goals expanding, the grassroots mentality must once more reset. Community activism in any form, be it short or feature length, inspires change. As long as these cinematic movements continue, as long as these radical-turned-academics continue to inspire change within their students, video artists in their own way will continue to influence the politics of a changing Canadian landscape.
Interviews slightly edited for length and clarity.
Birthday Suit - with scars and defects. Directed by Lisa Steele, 1974. Brown, Shane. Queer Sexualities in Early Film. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Closet Monster. Directed by Stephen Dunn, Elevation Pictures, 13 Sept. 2015. Gever, Martha, et al. Queer Looks Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video. Routledge, 1993. Greyson, John. Personal interview. 27 Nov. 2018. Greyson, John, and Brenda Longfellow. The Perils of Pedagogy: the Works of John Greyson. McGill-Queens University Press, 2013. Hays, Matthew. “Winter Kept Us Warm (Web Exclusive).” Cineaste Magazine, 2011, www.cineaste.com/summer2011/winter-kept-us-warm-web-exclusive/. Longtime Companion. Directed by Norman René, Samuel Goldwyn Company, 11 Oct. 1989. Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers. Directed by John Greyson, Vtape, 1986. Padva, Gilad. Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Philadelphia. Directed by Jonathan Demme, TriStar Pictures, 22 Dec. 1993. Queer As Folk. Created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, Showtime Networks, 3 Sept. 2000 - 15 Aug. 2005. Urinal. Directed by John Greyson, Frameline, Feb. 1989. Winter Kept Us Warm. Directed by David Sector, Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 27 Sept. 1965. Zero Patience. Directed by John Greyson, Alliance Communications, 11 Sept. 1993.