Tell me a story

Storytellings gives voices to those who have been silenced

Lucy Chan’s Learning To See was inspired by the people of Vancouver.
Image by: Christine Blais
Lucy Chan’s Learning To See was inspired by the people of Vancouver.

“Everyone of them is somebody’s child.”  The man on the screen tells us that his grandmother used to tell him this refrain when he, himself, was a child. As an adult, he seems to have accepted this mantra into his life. The man behind the camera, Peter Kingstone, hopes we will as well.

Lucie Chan and Peter Kingstone’s Storytellings marks the latest from local artist-run centre Modern Fuel. Their work places marginalized communities center-stage with a major video installation by each artist.

100 Stories About My Grandmother depicts 100 male sex workers telling stories about their grandmothers. Kingstone’s video installation is a straightforward exposure of intimate memories of a marginalized population. With a bit of background information, the stories and installation are just about what you’ll expect to see, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth seeing. After all, your response to it might shock you.

Kingstone’s installation is comprised of six hours video footage of 100 male sex workers recount stories and memories of one of their grandmothers. The videos vary in language and location, with men filmed in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Miami and London, England—all cities Kingstone’s own grandmother, also a sex worker, lived in. Both deeply personal and obviously political, 100 Stories touches and teaches.

These stories humanize a stigmatized population, compelling viewers to challenge their own prejudices and expectations. And yet anyone–from the most bigoted extended family member to sex workers rights activists—can take away something from this project. Even when we know what to expect from the videos, the experience can evoke some unexpected emotions.

The lumpy couches, box televisions adorned with doilies and Werther’s Originals all style the space in which the stories are experienced. Four different makeshift living rooms with mismatched 1970s furniture welcome visitors into creaky comfort. Three televisions are connected to a set of headphones where the viewer is confronted with intimate portraits in their ears and mental space.

The stories are intimate, letting the viewer into personal details from beatings to more conventional portraits of caring women. The men repetitively emphasize the strength of their grandmothers, hard-working women with hard-lives. This raises questions of expectations of gender and age: surely not every single one of these men’s grandmothers were caring and strong? The lens through which the grandmothers are viewed is much more sympathetic than the one we lend to most of the people in our lives. Certainly a more sympathetic perspective regarding sex workers is an issue raised in Kingstone’s work, and a likely effect, because seeing someone else describe someone positively makes us more likely to extend them the same courtesy.

While intending to de-stigmatize sex workers, with the wrong perspective some viewers may exploit the opportunity for a thrill about how the other half lives. Kingstone has established an effective equalizer in these stories and achieves his goal of coming closer to de-stigmatization and establishing visibility.

However, universalizing this experience is a potential risk of the project. While the matriarch appears to provide common denominator, this isn’t the case. We may want to speak of the power of nostalgia and shared experience of bloodlines, but, like the middle class late 20th century Canadian furniture and caramel candies, knowing your ancestors and their stories is an accessory of privilege.

With its limitations and personal significance in mind, 100 Stories About My Grandmother challenges the viewer and creates a feeling of connection. Still, this is likely least effective for the viewers who need it the most, since there’s potential for exploitative exploration of how the other lives. Of course it’s not Kingstone’s responsibility to protect his work from exoticization by less critical consumers, but we should be careful as critics to not play into sentimental stereotypes of the hard-knock life.

The identity of the subjects is essential to the work, but they are people with stories first and sex-workers second. The individual portraits remind us of this; how we must alter and monitor our discourse to account for personalized experience and not speak of marginalized populations as homogenous groups.

The stories, largely loving, achieve this. Recognizing someone else’s capacity to love engenders us to generous responses, perhaps because we recognize that they could love us.  Aren’t we all a little more likely to love those that love us?

Past the wall divider in another room is another video installation. Lucie Chan’s Yearning to See is comprised of an image projected on the wall and five television sets across from it.  The five television sets are each situated on a pillars, with varying size and alternating colours. On the television sets and the projected screens are animated line-drawings that fade in and out of sharpness.  On the projected screen is a series of faces, simple black lines detailing diverse but worn features. The faces are alive, expressions shifting. At times they appear to be aging; at other times they seem merely shifting between different levels of jadedness and naivety.  

Across empty space divided by an observational seat are the televisions, each narrowcasting a different video loop. These images are also animated line drawings, fading in degrees of sharpness, but they are more actively transformational, with forms shifting from indistinct objects to human bodies and back again.

Chan’s work was inspired by people in Vancouver responding to her request for stories of personal cultural lessons. In Yearning to See, images overlap and shift, becoming one another. The middle television’s loop keeps returning to a stylized text with the word “integrate” emphasized over all others, and this word seems to characterize the videos. Images of people, animals and industry overlap and fade into each other, highlighting the interconnected and transformational nature of these concepts. These transformations are loaded with visual wit, with such depictions as faces blowing bubbles – not of gum, but dialogue and thought.

Yearning to See embraces ambiguity, holding no intellectual hands and provoking a visceral mystery. Watching the loops is a lonely experience, as we watch these vague interactions, removed from and longing for their intimacy while privy to the narratives of loss depicted through fleeting overlap. The moments of integration are just that, and their quick dissolution speaks of transient experiences and situations. Even the relationship between the viewer and the art is transient, and the hard cold space between myself and the videos only emphasize the difficulty of connection, offsetting the conclusions of the previous installation.

Sometimes our stories bring us closer, and sometimes they only remind us how far the distance really is, and how even art can never fully bridge it. Storytellings nudges us closer to the edge and encourages us to reach out a hand, only to remind us of the length of our arms left wanting compared to the canyon of individuality and transience.

100 Stories About My Grandmother and Yearning To See show as a part of Storytellings at Modern Fuel until Dec. 12.

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