Home » Essays

YYZTV, and the Promise of Television by Dennis Day

This text by DENNIS DAY is published along side YYZXXX: A Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition.

Those were the good old days: the late 80’s and early 90’s in Toronto.

I can still smell the sauted mussels on College Street and hear the swipe of the credit card machine, echoing through Bemelman’s on Bloor. Parking lots and taxicabs had achieved an almost mythical status, as the bustling junctures of an exploding city. At the Salon Parvenu, Rob Johnson was entertaining the factory set with a harpsichord and homemade chapatis.

It seemed that new levels were being added to the food chain on a daily basis: restaurant valets, management consultants and headhunters, to name just a few. (Did I forget booze-can proprietors?)

After graduating from OCAD in 1984 I entered the world as an aspiring media artist who worked on projects and charged GST. There were many more like me, exiting art schools with an almost obscene optimism. When I joined the board at YYZ in 1992, it was fresh and buzzing. It was the perky, perpendicular little gallery that had recently arrived at the corner of Queen Street West and Dovercourt Road. While it had a strong film and video mandate, it still seemed to be shaping its identity, without too much baggage. Jennifer Rudder, Jane Kidd and Milinda Sato were on deck.

Artist James Carl lined large, cardboard appliances along the sidewalk, and informed drunken passersby that they could take them after his show ended.
Inside there were committees for this and that, books being published and board meetings what seemed like too many board meetings for a busy artist like me.

YYZTV emerged out of this ether as naturally as a blooming flower. Didn’t you hear? TV was opening up. Cable was going to be the new thing. Everyone was looking for content. Content. Content. They would even show artist’s videos for Chrissakes. Let’s get on it!

The CRTC had already mandated cable television operators to provide a reasonable, balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern. 1 In some cases this included production equipment and training.

Over at Maclean-Hunter Cable 10 (now Rogers Communications) on Lisgar Street, media activist Mark Surman was working on some of his ideas for an electronic commons; including a social infrastructure of alternative media. 2 He had already facilitated a number of cable-broadcast programs, including SHE/tv and Undercurrents.

YYZTV was next on board, kicking off in 1992 with a screening of Randy and Berenicci’s The 4th Corner of the World . The concept was a monthly show, airing once a week in the Parkdale-Trinity area only. Basically, the idea was to feature a film or video artist, who had been selected by the board, and who was exhibiting concurrently at the gallery. It’s impossible to talk about YYZTV without crediting board members such as Dai Skuse, Wrik Mead, Su Rynard and Bernie Miller, whose tenure at YYZ spanned practically the entire breadth and width of the cable program.

While the concept was to air artists who were showing at the gallery, these artists couldn’t always fill the slots, as some artists did installations or works that simply didn’t fit a TV context or format. Other works were needed. For these additional programs, the curatorial criteria might best be described as a wink or a smile – artists we knew, artists we liked, artists who had exhibited previously. And then there were all those earlier works that had passed the expiry date on gallery exhibition. Basically, an endorsement from a board member was all that was needed to close the deal.

Being one of the video people on the board, I was inadvertently given a fairly large slice of that pie. My personal curatorial premise was don’t get sued! I wasn’t nave enough or provocative enough to kill the whole idea after the first few episodes. I knew that certain things probably wouldn’t fly and that explicit gay sex would likely get us into trouble.

Some artists, like Su Rynard and Paula Fairfield, were already playing with the language of media and television. Others, like Elizabeth Schroder and Tess Payne, were making gentle, quirky narratives that seemed like a reasonable fit. A few artists, like Jan Peacock (from Halifax), made occasional detours, to produce one-off media and TV deconstructions.

In retrospect, it seems that I personally was looking for strong visual or narrative works – that played with visual or narrative form – and whose message (on some level) was television itself. The fact that there were so many films and videos like this to choose from, demonstrated the significance of television in the minds of artists at that time.

The September, 1993 episode of YYZTV, with Tess Payne’s Life on Our Planet and Jan Peacock’s Whitewash, fit this bill. Jan’s fusion of cleanser commercials and a news broadcast (produced at a Banff residency) was an evident de/re/construction that also took us behind the scenes of the newsroom into a type of narrative – consisting of some unlikely protagonists.

Tess’ Life on Our Planet seemed to come at a similar subject from the opposite angle, by inserting a TV documentary into the middle of her fiction. Floating in and out of a television program, it was as though the TV screen was a window and the documentary’s host and guests were simply in another room. Added to this, were actors who quoted magazines and dreamily spoke as if they were reading from a philosophical teleprompter.

Based on a box of old 3/4 tapes, I deduced that YYZTV continued until sometime in 1996, with one of the last screenings being works by Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour. In between, there were too many artists to name, but some notable programs include Johan Grimonprez’ Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter, and Media Art from the Middle of Europe, curated by Nina Czegledy.

I left the board completely in 1995, but continued with some editing compilation duty over at Charles Street Video. In the meantime, YYZTV continued under the stewardship of subsequent boards and the strong guidance of video artists such as Su Rynard, Jennifer Kawaja and Steve Reinke.

It is important to note here that YYZTV wasn’t alone in this artist quest to be on TV. In fact, it was only a fragment of the iceberg. Here in Toronto, artist Geoffrey Shea (UMAS) and Trinity Square Video hosted a symposium in 1986, aimed at challenging the existing relationship between artists and broadcasters. In 1994, producer Robin Cass and curator Peggy Gale, compiled Video Art Vido, a bilingual, 10-part series of artists’ videos for broadcast on TV Ontario.

Entrepreneurs like Bernard Hbert and Michel Ouellette from Montreal, started a production company, Cin qua non Films, with the specific aim of making, acquiring and distributing artists’ works for television.

And what was happening in Canada was happening throughout North America and Europe. In New York, Paper Tiger Television (PTTV) was producing countless low-tech public access programs, attacking corporate media culture.
Deep Dish TV was collecting artists’ tapes for a national satellite network.
Even PBS in the USA ran an artist TV series called New Television – to which I was an occasional contributor.

And finally, some mainstream distribution companies, such as Outspoken Productions (Chicago) were packaging festival hits with the aim of breaking into the video rental market, and eventually onto TV. It was only a matter of time before artists’ films and videos would be flickering in all of our homes.

But was it?

The truth is, this 10-year-old love affair with television turned out to be a long one-night stand. For whatever reasons, artists’ films and videos on television never quite stuck. Many shows came and went (and still do), but the official reasons for their demise can be cherry-picked from the following: too short, too long, too obscure, too provocative, too boring, or too few viewers.

I believe that the real reason is none of these, at least not in the long-term. Television never would – and never will – pay for or subsidize its own deconstruction, unless that deconstruction can be smartly packaged and sold back to the viewer in safe, small chunks (e.g., Saturday Night Live, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart).

What makes television work is its comfort, its predictability and its hypnosis.

And artists’ films and videos will always aim to break that spell.

NOTES:

1. Blisle, Fernand, Balance in Programming on Community. (CRTC, 1988).
Access Media, Public Notice.

2. Surman, Mark, From VTR to Cyberspace. (1994).
www.ncf.ca/ip/freenet/conferences/com-net94/conference_papers/vtr/vtr4.txt

DENNIS DAY was born in Grand Falls, Newfoundland, in 1960. He studied classical music and psychology before graduating in media-based art from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, in 1984. Day has produced a number of internationally-screened videos, marked by their strong use of editing, rich colors and humor. He has won a number of prizes including the Prix la Cration Artistique du Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Qubec (Les Rendez-Vous du Cinma Qubecois, 2001), the Bulloch Award for best short film, at the Inside/Out Gay & Lesbian Festival in Toronto (1997), the Videofest Award (Berlin, 1995) and the Young Director’s Award (Geneva, Switzerland, 1988). Day’s work has been included in a number of museum exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). Television broadcasts include PBS (USA), TV Ontario, CBC, Vision TV, (Canada), NHK (Japan) and Canal+ (France).