Colin Campbell, Video Artist

Born June 15, 1942 in Reston, Manitoba. Education: University of Manitoba, B.F.A., 1966; Claremont Graduate School, California, M.F.A., 1969.

Instructor, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1969-72; lived in California, 1976-77; Instructor, University of Toronto 1977-present; represented Canada in a selection of video art at the Venice Biennale, 1980; major retrospective, Media Works, 1991.

As one of the pioneers of video art in Canada, Toronto based artist Colin Campbell has had an international career that parallels the development of video art. Originally a sculptor, Campbell was first introduced to video in 1972, as the technology was beginning to emerge. “For me, video’s appeal lay in its potential for theatricality, performance and narrative,” said Campbell in Now Magazine. “The first subject of those things was myself. Gradually I started to turn the camera outward, developing characters and personae much different from my own.” Campbell avoids slick television style video production in favour of his highly developed grass roots style, which Bruce Ferguson has called the “aesthetics of poverty.”

Campbell’s narratives explore gender-bending scenarios, rich with humour and pathos. In his exploration of gender stereotypes, Campbell has consistently kept to informal styles and scripts, cheap and homespun sets, and a cast often made up of himself and friends, including Ferguson, artists Johanna Householder and Tanya Mars, and fellow video veteran Lisa Steele. His approach was perhaps best described by Adele Freedman in Toronto Life: “Campbell is the kind of romantic who can sense tragic potential in a package of Kraft dinner.”

Colin Campbell was born in Reston, Manitoba in 1942. He gained his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1966 and his Masters of Fine Art degree from Claremont Graduate School in California in 1969. After completing his education, he returned to Canada to teach at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, where he stayed until 1972 – a watershed year in Campbell’s artistic development. “At the time I started making video tapes I met Dennis Oppenheim, a New York sculptor who was doing body work using video. I thought it was a completely compelling medium and since ’72 I have never looked back,” Campbell told Deirdre Hanna in Now Magazine. Campbell returned to California in 1976, where he spent a year making a series of videos, The Woman from Malibu, later part of a selection of Canadian video art, curated by Bruce Ferguson, representing Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1980. Campbell’s prolific production and significant contribution to artist-run centres in Toronto, where he has lied since 1973, have been highly influential. He is known as a filmmaker, performance artist, writer and critic, and since the mid-1980s he has been active in AIDS-related work, including production of a documentary drama, Skin, which focuses on woman and AIDS. His video tapes and installations have been shown at major galleries around the world, including the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Like other pioneers of new media, Campbell explored the possibilities of the medium, as well as his own ideas. Artists working in video in the early 1970s generally created history as they made their own work. Ideas were often simple but groundbreaking and came out of a spirit of innovation and experimentation. In one of his earliest tapes, True/False (1972), the artist made a number of potentially revealing statements about himself, then verified each statements as “true” and then disqualified each statement as “false.” This work played with the notion that while the camera might not lie, the artist might. The title of another early piece This Is An Edit/This Is Real (1974) points to a similar use of the medium as a tool to explore its own working mechanisms, as well as its illusions.

Campbell soon began developing narratives, stories and scenarios that explored themes of sexual identity, gender and the turmoil of passion that creates crisis and drama in the lives of the coolest, calmest individuals. This approach was part of a strong Canadian movement in narrative video art beginning in the early 1970s. Campbell’s narratives began as a very personal vision with such works as This Is The Way I Really Am (1973), and the satiric Sackville, I’m Yours (1972), which explored issues of sexuality and artistic identity from an autobiographical point of view. From stories directly related to his own life and experience, Campbell moved on to create characters in a variety of costumes and guises. In the Woman from Malibu series, six tapes that featured Campbell in the lead role, the main character, as described by John Bentley Mays in the Globe and Mail, is a “California matron, groping through the clichés of her suburban existence for some understanding of her husband’s mysterious death – only to find her own, equally enigmatic death at the end of the line.” Four episodes from the Woman in Malibu were included as part of the Venice Biennale. Adele Freedman in Toronto Life magazine described the character as “an extraordinary woman who is on top of everything but doesn’t know what she’s on top of.” She goes on to describe the video work as “wry and outrageous. Each episode is like a miniature morality play set in twentieth century California instead of medieval England – which means that the moral code is ambiguous and the woman correspondingly ambivalent. The action of the tapes is made up of the woman’s recollections of her past. Her voice mesmerizes as it records the process of her mind wandering in and out of her memories like a faltering ghost. Every detail is given the same significance whether it’s the ingredients of her hurry up lunch special which  she recounts in the bath, or her description of her former husband’s practice of assembling animal skeletons. We are never allowed to forget that the woman on the monitor is really a man; or is it that the man is really a woman?”

Campbell’s work was honoured in 1991 with a major retrospective that covered two decades. Media Works, organized by Bruce Ferguson and Jon Tupper, was first shown at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and later the show traveled to the Power Plant in Toronto. Mays in the Globe and Mail described Campbell’s topics as “the theatrics of sexuality, the melancholy and ironies of Eros,” themes he found “charmingly, strongly treated.” He went on to describe another important work by Campbell: “In the delightful 1988 tape Fiddle Faddle, his attention turns – with characteristic irony, and without a whiff of condescension or malice – to the bookish, leftish academic feminists who were so conspicuous in the art world of the late 1980s. Here, Campbell’s anti-heroine is a politically incorrect lesbian journalist named Rosa Cosa, who has been dispatched by some obscure journal to cover the conference on semiotics and erotics at the University of Toronto… Campbell’s target here is, of course, not serious feminism or serious political conviction, but rather the stale, static roles into which seriousness (especially about sex) is constantly tempting us. In 20 years this excellent Toronto artist has been creating an art that wonderfully tempts us in the other direction – towards a kindly acknowledgment of the ambiguous, desiring, self-deluded almost irrepressibly hopeful creatures we are, towards skepticism about the pseudo-satisfactions of ideology, and hence toward freedom.”

In an interview with Deirdre Hanna in Toronto’s Now Magazine, Campbell reflected on how video differs from other time-based visual media like television and film, and the more traditional art practices such as painting and sculpture. He likes video’s immediacy: “It’s possible to complete projects very quickly, whereas films can take one to five years. As a result, video can reflect extremely current political and social situations. The subject matter can be at the very edge of what’s going on, and it’s there for people to ponder.” As a result, how to create an audience for work that may not suit the traditional gallery setting, and how to support an art practice that does not produce a commodity in the traditional sense, are some of the ongoing concerns occupying artists and curators engaged in contemporary video practice. Campbell continued, “Primarily the way video art is seen in Toronto is than an artist organizes a one-night screening of a new tape. That has its problems because the venues tend to be small, and if people aren’t free on a given evening they can’t see the piece.” He concluded, “Video art doesn’t have a patronage system of collectors, because it doesn’t really fit into conventional art market categories. It’s an easily reproduced multiple. With a Rembrandt, there’s only one painting. And Canada doesn’t have a strong base of visual art collectors anyways. Most Canadian artists have developed with the support of government grants. I can understand the desire of painters, sculptors and printmakers to become part of a commercial gallery’s stable of artists, because potentially they could support themselves through sales. But video artists would be hard pressed to support themselves through sales alone, because the price for tapes are extraordinarily low.”

(Originally published in: Contemporary Canadian Artists, 1997)