The Review/ Short Read/

A Very Personal Story: The Video Art of Lisa Steele

Soliloquies and collaborations from this innovative artist

by Chris Kennedy
Oct 9, 2019

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective A Very Personal Story: The Video Art of Lisa Steele begins Tuesday, October 29.

Emigrating from Kansas City, Missouri to Canada with a group of draft resisters in 1968, Lisa Steele soon became a key figure in the Canadian art scene. An early adherent of video art, which she subsequently supported as a co-founder of the non-profit distributor Vtape and as a teacher at both the Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Toronto’s Visual Studies Program (from which she just retired this year), Steele has had a profound influence on the development of the field. Her 1974 video Birthday Suit with scars and defects — which is still taught in every art school across the country, its forthright self-representation of the female body maintaining its potency and relevance through four decades of tumultuous culture wars — is emblematic of her entire videography in its underlying conception of art as resistance, its insistence that the personal and the political are one and the same.

Steele first started to create video art in the mid-’70s, commandeering the Sony video equipment in Toronto’s A Space Gallery to create a series of soliloquies in which she would perform long-form monologues for the camera in a single take. Video at that time was a clunky format, with large cameras recording onto half-inch reel-to-reel tape that had to be physically spliced to be edited. Despite these drawbacks, the fact that video recorded sound concurrently, could be shot with a crew of one, and had an image that could be immediately accessed via playback drew artists like Steele to embrace it, first as an affordable alternative to film, and later as a unique medium in its own right.

Lacking in both technical sophistication and aesthetic appeal, video technology inspired an art form that put primacy on the performance in front of the camera, which, in Steele’s earliest works (as in those of fellow artists like Colin Campbell and Martha Rosler), manifested itself in intimate and intense self-portraiture. Steele’s artmaking was also greatly influenced by her work at Interval House, a women’s shelter she began assisting at in 1974, and her videos from this period display her empathetic ability to give voice to the experiences of the women she worked with there. Steele further developed her videos by incorporating more advanced production tools and referencing the aesthetics and structure of pop-cultural formats like daytime soaps and TV procedurals, but with their readymade drama honed and refined by a rigorous visual simplicity that concentrates focus on language and gesture.

Since 1983, Steele has worked in collaboration with her partner and fellow Vtape co-founder Kim Tomczak on both installations (the duo’s ...before I wake is featured at this year’s Toronto Biennial of Art) and long-form video works. The Blood Records: Written and Annotated is the pinnacle of the pair’s approach: an intricate mixing of documentary, dramatization, history, and contemporary resonance highlighting their research on the tuberculosis sanitoria of mid-century Canada. Steele and Tomczak’s most recent video, The Afternoon Knows What the Morning Never Suspected — their first piece to explicitly address the Vietnam War, the event that was so crucial to Steele’s early political development — looks at Canadian complicity in Vietnam, and makes connections between war refugees that have made Canada their home, both then and now.