Overview: Looking Back and Looking Forward (2007)

Overview: Looking Back and Looking Forward by Richard Fung and Midi Onodera
Over the course of a few weeks, in between crazy deadlines, looming projects and personal obligations, Toronto-based artists Richard Fung and Midi Onodera sat down to have an extended email conversation. Although the two have known each other for over twenty years, this was a rare opportunity for the two to come together, if not in person then through print, to discuss concerns about their work, their creative practice and some of the pressures they’ve encountered in their careers.

Midi Onodera: Unofficially I began making films back in 1979 when I was still in high school. I was fortunate enough to attend a film studies class where we screened a variety of different films – from NFB documentaries to old gems such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a groundbreaking German expressionist film by Robert Wiene. At the end of the term we could choose to make a super 8 film or write an essay. Naturally, I chose to make a film. From the moment I picked up the camera, I never looked back. The desire to make films struck me as something that was both creatively challenging and empowering. I can’t say that my early work reflects any political awareness in terms of gender or race, and back then it hadn’t yet consciously occurred to me that I might be a lesbian. I would have to say that it wasn’t until I spent time at OCAD in the Experimental department that I began to view the world with a finer lens. When did you start making videos and why? Did you approach your work from a political position or was it motivated by the passion of working with moving images?

Richard Fung: Like you, I studied at the Ontario College of Art, OCA before it acquired the D for Design. I majored in what was called Photoelectric Arts, the precursor to Integrated Media, the area I now teach in. After leaving school, I got a job as a community video animator at Lawrence Heights, a public housing area in Toronto that was getting bad press. My job was to train people in the community to produce their own images, which were then aired on the community TV channel. I later got a degree in cinema studies and was very interested in the language of the moving image, but even so it took me a long time to ‘own’ the word ‘artist;’ I saw my work as primarily social and political. So I think we were starting from different places. By the time I interviewed you for my first independent video, Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984), you’d already made short experimental films. Those works, as I remember them, didn’t have identity markers. In fact, in the video you talked about a primary affinity with punk and artistic communities. I was in the midst of organizing lesbian and gay Asians, so in a sense, I was at the centre of that identity project, but I always felt outside essentialized categories. Growing up in Trinidad during the Black Power era gave me a different perspective on what it meant to be Chinese or Asian. And in the ‘70s when I came out, I was often the only person of colour at queer events.

In your landmark short, Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) (1986), you and Anna Gronau feature in an interracial lesbian flirtation scene set in a Japanese restaurant. Is this the first time you dealt with ethnicity and queer sexuality together? What led up to that decision?

Midi: When I decided to make Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax), I originally never intended to do a piece that was specially lesbian/gay/interracial; the scenes that finally ended up on the screen were conceived through a collaborative process with the non-actors involved. It wasn’t until after the film was shot, and I was dealing with various post-production censorship issues, that it became apparent that perhaps the characters and the subject of a one-night stand might be controversial within a mainstream context. Then, when the film started to be screened at various festivals, the political impact of the work hit me. As you will recall, the gay and lesbian film circuit was in its infancy and it felt like we were all just beginning to find our footing – or perhaps it was just me. I remember when you approached me to be in Orientations, I honestly hadn’t really publically acknowledged what it meant or means to be an Asian lesbian.

Your work was/is very empowering on a personal and community level. It opened discussions on identity and made ‘visible’ the invisibility of being a gay or lesbian Asian. I actually never knew your academic background in detail, so it makes perfect sense that you were approaching video with a completely different agenda. I am very interested in hearing your thoughts and perhaps a bit about how you approached Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians. I don’t think it was a particularly open interview. I recall being a bit suspicious of what I considered to be ‘serious’ politics. I think I was just too involved in exploring my artistic process and trying to do something interesting with the moving image. Although I officially came out during my years at OCA, the lesbian/feminist awakening was difficult. Back then, as you probably recall, some of the L/F communities were rather anti-men, gay or straight. There was an intensity about the time that was never easy to figure out, and I always felt as I was being tested – about what I thought and how I saw my work.

Was there one thing/incident/memory that motivated you to focus on work that was coming from a more ‘community-based’ perspective? And then, why did it take you a long time to ‘own’ the word ‘artist?’ What kinds of controversial marks of identity did it bring up for you and for your audience? Do you think that these points are relevant today, to a younger generation?

Richard: I don’t believe there was one thing. I actually came out as gay before I had any sort of relationship with a man – that might tell you something. I was also influenced in my introduction to video by my studies with Sylvia Spring, who had recently finished the first feature fiction film directed by a Canadian woman since Nell Shipman: Madeleine Is (1971). She taught for one year at OCA and had us document the University of Toronto library workers’ strike. She taught us ‘guerilla television,’ and so my use of the medium was influenced by the various social movements of that time. It was this orientation that held me back from identifying my practice as ‘artistic,’ even though my second tape, Chinese Characters (1986), was clearly an art tape and not a social-issues documentary. My distance from the term was heartfelt, and not a political or judgmental stance – I admired my artist friends, I just didn’t think it was me. I think I began to use the term for myself because it began to seem pretentious not to after having received arts grants and such. After a residency at the Banff Centre in the early ‘90s I became fascinated by the process of visual artists and have learned a lot from them.

If I think of younger queer Asian film-and video-makers today – younger than us anyway – I see quite a range of approaches. Some, like Wayne Yung, who is now based in Germany, are still engaging the politics of race and sexuality head on, but with an aesthetic position, technical polish and an approach to identity as contingency that is quite different from the ‘80s. Others, like Mishann Lau, are also making reference to race, culture and sexuality, but the pleasure of watching a film like Shaolin Sisters (2004) is as much about clever writing as it is about the ‘politics.’ Folks like Alison Kobayashi and Ho Tam seem very much in that productive, overlapping zone between media and visual arts.

I’m interested in your own training, because you really took the technical aspect seriously. There is an attention to the art of filmmaking that characterized your work from the start. Weren’t you in the professional union?

Midi: I guess I came out, as well, before I was involved with another woman, hmm. As we are discussing the issues of coming out and making work, it of course makes sense that we are talking about how our identities are formed and how we perceive ourselves – rather than how others observe us through the filter of the physical body or more specifically through the indicators of race, gender, age, etc. I think that’s why I gravitated toward the identity of an artist rather than one that seemed to me an external or ‘assumed’ identity. Of course I know that I am a woman working primarily in a male domain, and perhaps that’s why I became so caught up in the technical side. I felt and still feel that as an artist (there I go again), I need to understand the tools of my craft so that I can not only use them as they were designed to be used, but also ‘break the rules’ and ‘be inventive.’ I was tired of men telling me what I could and could not do; I was fed up with their stereotypical notions that a woman couldn’t understand the tech side of film/video-making.

When I work with people, I look at the skills they bring to the table, and now automatically expect that they will respect me in the same way. Perhaps this is a sign of getting old, but when you’ve been working with moving images for almost thirty years, it does something to the way you operate in the world. When I think of younger artists/filmmakers today, I want to mentor and am interested in younger women. There is still such a small number of women authoring media work. When I speak with some of my academic friends, I am always amazed to hear the same stories that I heard back when I was young. They tell me that young women are still intimidated by technology. They are afraid of making mistakes (in front of their male colleagues), looking foolish (in front of their male colleagues), etc. This is a terrible disappointment to me since I think technology is getting easier and more accessible everyday. But this kind of techno-insecurity seems to stem from the larger global issue of women’s identities in the twenty-first century. Young women don’t seem to own what it means to be a feminist; I’ve heard that to some, the word ‘feminist’ equals ‘bitch’ (and not in a good, reappropriated meaning of the word). Whatever happened to equal pay for equal work? Whatever happened to the reproductive rights of women? One only has to look toward the blatant erosion of the basic right to choose in the US. Perhaps Canada, with its current Conservative government, is the next to act. Being supportive of young women film/video-makers is important for the next generation – without these women taking control over the technology, how many personal stories or good stories will not be told? Even for those women who have been making work for years and who now have families – both children and aging parents to look after – the creative path always seems to be the road less taken. We are called upon to be the caregivers and asked to give up our time to nurture others. But I know that I am ranting; perhaps I’m being a bitch, or perhaps I’m just an old feminist.

As an educator, what are you seeing your classes? How does identity create or locate itself in the next generation? I know that you’ve mentioned some queer Asian artists, but does that work that is produced by queer Asians still have to have queer and/or Asian content? Do you think that we’re still at that point in the debate, or has technology moved us into another direction of identity politics? I don’t mean in the sense of technological determinism, I am merely wondering if technology has truly allowed us to reach audiences in another way, or if we are still speaking to ‘the converted,’ a specialized audience yet perhaps in a more worldwide (www.) way?

Richard: Funny you should mention the gender disparity. I don’t know if it’s always intimidation, but you’re right that fewer female than male students become geeks or have a techno aesthetic. Though there are exceptions, my female students often shine at a conceptual level; male students can get stuck in trying to reproduce the genres they like. In teaching I stress ‘appropriate technology.’ I try to give students a sense of technical choices: some projects need to be slick and some should be down and dirty.

Many young women in my classes are impatient with any implication that they may be oppressed as women; they see themselves as having choices and being in different circumstances from feminist writers. Women students are often hostile when reading Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze, for example, and talk about the ways that men’s bodies are objectified today. I recognize the ways that their consciousness is in fact different from pre-feminist women, but as someone who came of age in the ‘70s, when style was so politicized, I am struck by the spirited resurgence of looks-based femininity.

It’s not so common that my students produce work that arises from their identities or social locations, even though I show videos and films by queer artists, racially and culturally diverse artists, Aboriginal artists and disabled artists. I got for the gamut. I think it may not be seen as cool or creative enough, especially at the lower levels. When I do get these projects, I emphasize that the success of the work is in the specific story they choose to tell and in their storytelling, broadly speaking.

For myself, I haven’t been making work on either queer or Asian themes. My most recent single channel piece is a doc on contemporary art in Trinidad, and my current installation project is on a Palestinian Canadian. What I find, though, is that the queer and Asian distribution and exhibition circuits are so developed that it becomes harder to circulate work that does not fit into these slots. It is hard to place it. Have you found this to be true?

Midi: I think what I am hearing from your comments is the feeling that we’re somehow being restricted by our past identity constructions. By this I mean that the younger generation is naturally turning away from the previous one. Young women today don’t think there is any need to be concerned with gender equality because they believe they are equal. But some may not have reached a point in their work careers where they may face the glass ceiling that women of my generation encountered.

The same thing goes for work created today that seems to be located in identity politics. Our generation was focused on this kind of work in the’80s and ‘90s as a response to the absence of voices. So, naturally, the younger generation has also turned away from this kind of work. I agree that it’s not enough nowadays to produce work that focuses solely on ‘coming-out stories’ – referring to race, gender or sexuality. But if we move on from there, then what is it that defines Asian or queer work? Are we once again addressing the cultural/racial/gender/sexual orientation of the maker? How has identity shifted, and how does it locate itself in the work that we choose to do now?

I feel that the queer and Asian exhibition and distribution networks have come institutionalized and restrictive. There seems to be little support or interest in work that doesn’t, as you say, ‘fit into these slots.’ In some cases, I had a larger and more diverse audience for my work when the ‘alternative’ distribution/festival culture was just beginning to be developed more than twenty years ago. Now it seems that as I choose to expand the subject matter of my work, it gets more difficult to locate the audiences who might be interested.

As I speak to other women film/video –makers, we all see the same thing happening on the international film festival circuit. There seem to be fewer women programmers in the alternative/independent film circuit. And then within a mainstream context, there are fewer women and fewer women of colour in programming positions, and given the number of alternative festivals there are out there, it is sometimes easier to believe that works by queers and people of colour will be taken up at ‘specialty’ festivals rather than be included in a mainstream context. In other words, although the number of works by queers and people of colour continue to grow, the titles and perhaps their makers are still ghettoized by the mainstream. Now we have our own screening places, so no need to come knocking on our door.

Within the mainstream festival circuit, the emphasis is on male-centered drama and quirky oddball ‘family’ dramas. When I finished I have no memory of my direction (2005), which is a 77-minute ‘experimental’ video, it became obvious to me that the work didn’t fit within any kind of current framework, alternative or mainstream. It was rejected by so many festivals that had previously showcased my work that it was quite shocking. I understand that there are different format concerns when dealing with a long-form piece, and that there are never enough programming slots, so the majority of work that gets programmed is short films/videos.

I think in reaction to this experience, I again turned to technology. In late 2005, I began a project to make 365 short ‘movies’: one per day. This year-long project focused mainly on using toy camera technology. Recently I’ve felt dragged down by distribution and exhibition concerns, so by shooting with toys I rediscovered a playfulness that I had forgotten. The thirty-second to one-minute shorts were an incredible creative challenge since I tried not to repeat myself but always tried to look for something different. They were all designed for the small format of an iPod or online viewing. For a while I was posting them online – free to whoever wanted to see them. But recently a distributor has purchased 160 titles, so I’ve pulled down the website. I will, however, be posting the other 205 films on my site and will probably end up doing another 160 to replace the purchased titles, just to have 365 available online.

In part, I see that the web still has enormous untapped potential for reaching audiences. Once again, it has became an alternative distribution path – but aesthetically, works online or produced for an iPod or cellphone are very different form the large movie theatre experience. For me, it’s not so much about producing work that fits within a convention; rather, I am interested in work that pushes me to see and read the world in a different way. It’s making work that of course is informed by my politics and aesthetics, but not dictated by it. Your current work is not specifically queer or Asian – where do you place it in the context of your own personal creative development, and then within the larger exhibition/distribution structure?

Richard: I have been thinking of the arc of your career, in fact, from films with few markers of identity to ruminations in different genres on sexuality, gender and ethnicity. I was struck that I have no memory of my direction (2005) develops ideas begun with Made in Japan (1985) twenty years earlier, both I guess riffing on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983). It seems to me that your work moves in spirals, ever forward but simultaneously circling back to reconsider previously visited territory.

I think I also move in spirals. I keep coming back to two elements that haunt me: (1) Trinidad, the country of my birth, and (2) my extended family. Whenever I think I’m done with them, something that has been tickling my mind suddenly presents itself as a possible project. These are about the past, though, and I’m interested in confronting the present. I want to make work on Toronto, where I live now. It is intimidating as it’s too familiar, too messy; it’s hard to get the distance.

You’ve done experimental, documentary, drama and hybrid forms. You’ve worked in film, video and now web-based digital media. What holds it together for you? Do you have a driving central interest?

Midi: Looking over your body of work, I think your thoughts about the connections between the past and current pieces are quite accurate. Like you, I think that it’s not necessarily the genre or the format that ties everything together, but rather the content and the exploration of the familiar themes that keeps resurfacing in our work. I think taking on Toronto as a subject is interesting, and as you say, it will be difficult to find that distance. However, I trust that by delving into the city, you may find you have a clearer picture of yourself and your relationship to the place you now call home.

(Originally published in Reel Asian: Asian Canada on Screen ed. Elaine Chang, Coach House Books, 2007)