Before and After the Images
Through her work as an artist, curator, author, and educator, as well as her involvement with Groupe Intervention Vidéo (GIV), Anne Golden has, since the 1990s, contributed to the visibility of independent video, the recognition of a medium that has undergone numerous transformations, and the assertion of an activist, feminist, queer voice. She embodies the quiet strength of the Quebec and Canadian landscape, maintaining an essential and enigmatic presence.
Golden’s practice is hybrid in nature, with overlapping approaches, forms, genres, and aesthetics. She loves to tell stories and does so with diligence and affection, and also with a certain nonchalance, a touch of humor and a level of detachment. She displays a remarkable capacity to explore the medium, mining the history of cinema and video, as well as her own stories or those of others, and welcoming the ghosts that invite themselves into her work.
Her use of the interview format marries the mobility and plasticity of her gaze upon the world around her and exposes the agility of thought necessary to a practice characterized by intuition, hesitation, and questioning.
N – How did you begin working in video?
A – I don't think I touched a video camera until 1986 or so. I loved film and did not know there was such a thing as video until after my studies, around 1983. I think Concordia took a young person from suburbia who loved watching Hollywood movies on television and shook her up, nurturing increased exposure to all genres and kinds of cinema. I think of a course called 'Experimental Film' given by Mario Falsetto who has been incredibly influential, a generous and amazing teacher. I think of a course on Film Noir given by Carole Zucker, another formative course and incredible teacher. I also took classes with Tom Waugh, who introduced me to aspects of queer cinema, among many other topics.
After Concordia, I began working at the Festival international de films et vidéos de femmes de Montréal. I see that job as the beginning of a long process that introduced me to video art, independent film, and activism and pointed the way, perhaps, to doing work that was related to my love of moving images.
N – Was there a particular film, videomaker or filmmaker who inspired you to begin working in video or cinema?
I am inspired by many artists. In some cases, it is the sheer beauty of the images by these artists that are inspiring. In others, it is the sheer explosion of newness or the shattering of genres and forms. I am inspired by many artists.
Feature films that haunt me (today, because tomorrow I would add more to this list):
La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles), Les yeux sans visage (George Franju), Peeping Tom (Michael Powell), Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli). I love the work of Kenneth Anger, Jean Cocteau, Stan Brakhage, Sidney Peterson, Dimitri Kirsanoff, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, Andy Warhol, Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, Arthur Lipsett, Hollis Frampton, Carolee Schneemann. In video, I have many, many heroes: Lisa Steele, Doris Chase, Lorna Boschman, Paul Wong, Zachery Longboy, Dana Claxton, Cathy Sisler, Nik Forrest, Manon Labrecque, Nathalie Bujold, Jean-Pierre Boyer, Thirza Cuthand. I’m leaving people out.
There is also my love for horror films, which informs my practice, too. I write about horror and teach the genre and return again and again to films like Halloween, The Others, The Babadook, The Shining, The Innocents, The Witch, Hereditary and, yes, so many more.
N – Initially you made documentary videos and then you began to appear in works as a fictional character, but in other works you play yourself, like an actor. How do you explain this switching back and forth from behind the camera to in front of it?
A – The first video I made was in collaboration with Petunia Alves1, THE OTHERS (1991). It is a documentary and very much reflects what I came to think of as New York Aids Activism videos, once made by Testing the Limits or Gay Men's Health Crisis or artists like Jean Carlomusto. We wanted to make a work that spoke directly about the situation in Montréal regarding HIV/AIDS education and activism. Safe Soap (1993) was the next work and it was made as part of a residence at the Banff Centre. I worked with a full production crew, which I found very strange and difficult. I believe strongly that I benefitted from situations and experiences I had: so, in 1995 with GIV, I co-directed an activist video, LES MARCHEUSES, documenting the 1995 Women’s March Against Poverty.
After Safe Soap, I began to make work where a fictional version of myself appeared. It's not Anne Golden, but Anne playing a version of herself. I was influenced by early video and the fact that these works often featured a staging of the self. I can think of many examples, but of course the main one is Lisa Steele and her Birthday Suit with Scars and Defects (1974), a seminal work.
For me, when I made work that was ‘about’ me such as FAT CHANCE(1994) or LES AVENTURES DE PONYGIRL (2000) or SOMME (2004), I was performing a character, or, more precisely, a version of myself. I was already playing with notions of truth and fiction and with the idea that there is no one real story. I think I went about as far as I could go.
My work is personal. It reflects obsessions I might have. I do experience insomnia, but SOMME took it to a heightened level. I do love westerns, as problematic as they are, and BIG GIRL TOWN (1998) uses tropes from the genre while meddling with those very tropes. When I made FAT CHANCE, I worked with the Lock Up Your Daughters Collective. The project was centred on lesbian artists making a work about sexuality. For this work, I made the decision to appear in the work, since it was so intensely personal. I have struggled with being fat all my life. The work is about trying to feel okay about my body. It would have felt strange to make a work about desire and size without appearing in it. In a way, thinking back, it was natural.
N – Over the years, the historical aspect of cinema, the value that we place on it and that you increasingly place on archives, seems to take over from other issues that you had addressed previously.
For the past 8 years or so, I have moved away from featuring myself in my work, apart from glimpses of my shadow. I have also moved to working with archives, especially those available from the Prelinger Archives.2 I joke that this is due to the breakdown of my beloved Sony miniDV camera, but that only tells a fraction of the story. I wanted to try using images that were not mine and to see whether I could create something that was mine, in a way.
When I turned to the treasure trove that is the Prelinger Archives, I felt that I was creating visual and aural essays. In this recent work, staging the self is an integral part of the torrent of images I am creating. But this aspect is entwined with many other formal considerations so my recent works are not clearly, precisely about self-representation. I do find them personal works that reflect experiences I am having or have recently had. For example, the death of my father has informed several works like THE COMMUTER (2020), THE ARRANGEMENTS (2020), THE HIGHWAY (2020). The fact that my mother has dementia is also very present, especially in works that feature abstract barrages of images like such as SPECKS (2020), PIECES (2017). I don’t know what dementia feels like, but I have imagined that it might be like many different images appearing and disappearing.
To be honest, I don’t fully know why I no longer appear in my own work. I am still thinking about it. It may have to do with aging and not loving what I see. It may also have to do with the fact that the pull of the Prelinger Archives is an uncanny nostalgia that haunts me and I am pulled in.
N – In the 1990s and 2000s, you made videos in collaboration with other artists and often did voice overs as well. I have always been struck by this aspect of your practice – your voice, a personified and sensual voice, and the fluidity of the story. I have the impression that in working with the Prelinger archives you mourned this magnificent aspect of storytelling and narration. Am I mistaken?
A – I agree. People asking me to do narrations or voiceovers was a more frequent occurrence before 2005 (approximately.) For example, I did the narration for Materia Prima (1997) by Nancy Marcotte and the French and English trailers for L’Escorte (1996) by Denis Langlois. I do miss the invitations and the process. Occasionally, I would be asked to do narration for documentaries or for feature film trailers. Harold Crooks hired me to do some narration for his documentary The Price We Pay. I enjoyed the time in the studio, but was also very aware that I am not a trained professional. I am very self-conscious and nervous when I have to ‘perform’.
I have an idea that I may do some narration over images from the Prelinger archives. I’m toying with the idea. I imagine the narration would be minimal and also perhaps unrelated to the images in a way. I’m not sure that I am quite done with my voice. I think my voice is still present in some of my work, but it can’t be heard. Too mystical? Probably.
N – Your work with the Prelinger archives reveals your passion for cinema, but when you look through the archives in preparation for a new work, you do so as an archivist, a feminist, a programmer and a teacher of film and video. At the research or reconnaissance stage, do you think you are looking for fragments of a story to write a film?
A – When I view films from the Prelinger Archives, I am not looking for anything in particular. I watch documents and I see if there is an image or images that calls to me. As you know, there are many beautiful and captivating images in the archive.
When I see images that grab me, that is when I begin to think. I don’t feel that I am writing a film, but I certainly feel that the aura of an image beckons me.
I do often think ‘what am I doing and how am I repurposing these archives?’ It may sound odd, but I often identify with images of one person when I am editing. I may feel that person is sometimes a stand-in for me. When they look at the camera, which becomes a look intended for the viewer, I occasionally think they are looking at me and my job is not to let them down because, in a way, I see something in their gazes that reflects what I feel.
N – This recent work exposes your talent for editing through association, opposition, and friction, which lends these short films and videos a great fluidity. There is also an impressive element of working on the notion of memory on your part, as I notice that certain excerpts appear in different works.
A – I often work on two pieces simultaneously. If I try something and it is not working, I leave the project alone for weeks or even months and come back to it. After I have ‘collected’ some films from the archive, I absolutely focus on whether an image or sequence might be reworked into a short version of a favourite film genre such as horror or film noir or melodrama. I also tend to work on three or four works in a row that could be considered narrative, then switch to working on something more experimental with more abstract images. I think about clashing images: colour and black and white; night and day; pristine images that look perfectly preserved versus ones that have deteriorated badly.
N – Do you think of it as an act of transferring content or rather a form of rewriting or recontextualization? Would you say that the archives can be used infinitely?
A – The first thing I thought of when I read your question was that I don’t want to be too greedy. I often think of the fact that I also sometimes see this activity, viewing and reworking, as plundering. For this reason, I think there is a time limit on this phase of creation that includes working with archives. I suspect that the archives lend themselves to infinite combinations. The problem is not the archives. The problem is me. I sometimes feel that I am repeating myself.
I would answer yes to all three of your suggestions: transferral of content, rewriting, recontextualization. I am actively reworking some images from the archives. Some of the films are incredibly optimistic about progress and technology. The hustle and bustle of modern life is more often celebrated than criticized in the films. Social issues are categorized and hopeful solutions are offered. Women appear but are often on display or half-absent in their presence. Male voices dominate. I have yet to hear a female narrator in films from the archive, though I’m sure there are a few.
I find myself reflecting on the people who made the films, but also on the ones in the frames. They glance at the camera. They smile. Their images are caught in the archive but they lived outside of the frames, beyond the constraints of the narrative and the film stock. I see dogs and cats and other animals and I know they are long gone. The images are ghosts. And these ghostly images are full of other ghosts. Handle with care, I think. I hope I am being respectful even if there are moments in my works where I use humour or am critical of the original representation.
N – Beyond this strong sensation of suspended time, of a bygone age that emerges from the ensemble of your work and your preoccupations, is there an autobiographical link between the Prelinger archives and your own or your family’s archives? For example, have any of your family members shot 8mm or super8 films?
A – There is only one 8 mm film that I know of in my family. The images are of my parents’ wedding in 1950. I have never used it in any of my work. Too personal. Neither of my parents ever seemed to have a camera of any kind. I think I was the first to capture some family occasions on video. I taped a few family events, also with Video 8. I wish there were more family film archives. I might feel less conflicted about repurposing family images if there were more of them.
It is really the stories around and behind the images that I love. When I see images from Prelinger, I often think about the possible stories behind the images. When I see people in films from the archive wearing the fashions of the day, I speculate on their lives. Did they fight in WW2? Do they suffer from PTSD? What kind of car do they drive? Are they film buffs? The ideas flood in and I’m sure the stories are there but I don’t often find them. People retain their mysteries.
N – Let’s return to the idea of the significant ghostly image in your work. A profound feeling of nostalgia emerges from your works, not just in your work with the Prelinger archives, but also in your experimental fiction or more abstract works. I would love to hear about your attachment to the past.
A – Nostalgia is key. I experience it frequently. I think I am often guilty of misplaced nostalgia.
Now, I try to engage with my nostalgic feelings, embracing them when I see a beautiful car from the 1940s or when a narrator tells me good things are coming. I don’t want to go back there to those cars or that optimism about progress. I want to stay here in the present with some of these images that speak to me in peculiar ways.
Because I have been curating work for close to 40 years for a variety of presentation contexts, I often remember specific presentations. I have shown some works many times over several years. So I show works that bring specific memories to me, not unlike ghosts. And these memories, are they clear, precise and correct? Not sure. But I experience them and they become part of the event while watching a video or a film that I have seen before. Sometimes, I believe the gloss of nostalgia is an enemy.
N – Is the presence of ghosts not also an oblique way of talking about yourself?
A – I think of ghosts often. I have used ghost metaphors when curating and writing. I like the idea of the ephemeral nature of watching a program of works. I always imagine that particles from those works emerge from the screen and settle on the bodies of spectators. Everybody is watching the same media artwork. Everybody is receiving it differently. What is transmitted? Is there something else in the beam from a film projector (quite rare these days) or the glow from more recent projectors? I like to sit at the back of a room to see how works settle on people. I tried to articulate some of these ideas in the character Maurice from my novel, From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire (2016). He is an artist whose works sometimes produce odd effects in viewers.
N – You write accompanying texts for the video programmes that you curate; you have written essays on subjects relating to cinema, video, women artists, activism, and feminism. You have published this fascinating story inspired by an important period in Quebec video that reveals your talent as an author working between the archive, testimony, and fiction. How did this book come into being?
A – I was doing my master’s degree at Concordia in Communications. I was already making work that toyed with fact and fiction and fake histories. I hit on the idea of a fictional video centre. At the time, 2005-2007, I was reading many texts about the inception of Canadian and American (mostly) video centres that offered access to production equipment and/or distribution services.
I have always been fascinated by early video. There is an air of utopia evident in some of the texts and videos created between 1965-1978 (approximately.) I began to read everything I could on this period. Just to name a few authors: Ann-Sargent Wooster, Dot Tuer, Christine Ross, and Peggy Gale. I watched videos, too, immersing myself in blurry, black and white images. I was trying to get a feel for the technology used in the videos and became obsessed with the concept of transmission. Is it possible that elements other than images and sounds are transmitted to viewers? I ask this question often and certainly don’t have a clear answer. I started to ‘what-if’ my way through the early seventies. What if there was a video centre founded in Montréal and many of the meetings were taped? That’s how the video FROM THE ARCHIVES OF THE VIDÉO POPULAIRE (2007) came into being. I was also actively trying to reproduce the quality of early video to feature excerpts of these works.
I created four characters. At first, Pierre Beaudoin, Gabriel Chagnon, Nelson Henricks and Dayna McLeod played them. I write ‘at first’ because they incarnated those characters and I lived with them for months while I edited. When the video was done and shown as part of my thesis defense, I thought Vidéo Populaire was over and done. Strangely, I kept writing. Slowly, they became less identified with Pierre, Gabriel, Nelson and Dayna. I imagined them differently to find my way into a novel. I focused on the idea of a fictional oral history of Vidéo Populaire. I wanted to refer to the utopian and political nature of video centres in Quebec. I did not think that my four main protagonists, Terry, Maurice, Carl-Yves and Lydia, were based on specific people.
N – How would you qualify your role as an author in this project? From what perspective are you speaking?
A – I’m not sure I know how to answer the question about how I see my role as author and where I am within the story. Perhaps I see myself as a speculative historian.
The stories are fiction, the centre is not real, the people never existed, but I tried to capture the essence of the times. The cameras and editing equipment are historically accurate. The sense of using video as a tool for social change comes straight out of texts associated with the founding of Vidéographe, Vidéo Femmes, GIV, Western Front and so many other important organizations. The spaces that VidPop occupies are reflections of lofts, apartments and offices I have seen over the years. In the novel, I focused on the euphoria of beginning an important project with like-minded people, the founding of a video centre, and the sense of deception when the project shifts and changes.
I was also thinking about the fact that GIV’s history is, to a certain degree, unwritten. There are documents such as the letters patent, early distribution catalogues and other texts that give a sense of how the founders of GIV saw video and how they wanted to run the centre. There are gaps. The gaps are the spaces I wanted to go. GIV was absolutely an inspiration, but so was Vidéographe. I created a centre that never existed so I could write the oral history with purpose.
I think that curating, programming and writing is a bit like alchemy.
Artist and co-director with Anne Golden of Groupe Intervention Vidéo, GIV.
The Prelinger Archives is a collection of films relating to U.S. cultural history, the evolution of the American landscape, everyday life, and social history. The Archives were founded by Rick Prelinger in 1982 to preserve what he calls ‘ephemeral’ films: films sponsored by corporations and organizations, educational films, and amateur and home movies.