Rat Life and Diet in North America
By Samuel La France
On the closing night of this year’s Images Festival, sisters Velvet and Lady Nite (collectively, 10,000 Horses) took the stage at St. Anne’s Parish Hall to score a trio of Joyce Wieland films with their “electro torch” compositions. The duo’s synths and ukulele transformed the soundtracks for Water Sark (1965) and Solidarity (1973), and intensified the action in Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), a Vietnam protest film in which gerbils evade their feline overlords to settle amid the delicious, DDT-free grasses of Canada. While these musical interventions were for the most part illuminating, the lyrics of Velvet’s lamenting ballads at times clashed with Wieland’s images. (Why belt the refrain “Born to run!” over a film that, by framing the feet of striking workers and printing the word “SOLIDARITY” at centre frame throughout, makes a pretty clear statement about standing one’s ground?) Trouble with the sound mix during Solidarity compounded the friction: the film’s soundtrack cut in and out during the performance, interrupting Velvet’s vocal accompaniment with snatches of a labour activist’s impassioned speech and resulting in a moment of unplanned pantomime, as Velvet’s lips moved but her voice could not be heard.
Though the above description might make the performance sound like something of a meltdown, the technical issues caused inadvertent but apposite reverberations with Wieland’s work, which is filled with images of mouths that speak but are not heard. The separation of mouth and voice was a central motif for Wieland, a means for her to explore the gulf between body and intellect, and to communicate her interests in and concerns about identity (sexual, personal, political, etc.). As her work became increasingly politicized in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this strict division between language and the body began to wane, allowing Wieland to articulate more explicit modes of resistance against dominant systems of signification and patriarchal authority (the latter of which Wieland neatly sums up in Rat Life’s opening title card as the “corporate-military-industrial structure of the global village”). Nevertheless, despite the seriousness of the issues that she explored in her later work, Wieland’s art retained a sensuous corporeality, a feeling for the physical that links her political output to the playful, exploratory, and even downright silly spirit of her early films.
Before she started making films in the early ’60s, Wieland was well on her way to becoming Canada’s foremost woman artist, most notably through her representation at Avrom Isaacs’ influential Toronto gallery. By this time she had already developed her focus on the body and its ability to be broken down into parts, executing gently abstracted sexual figures and organs in paintings bearing such punning titles as Balling (1961) and Heart On (1962), which undoubtedly titillated and scandalized the Yorkville set in equal measure. Wieland’s impulse to compartmentalize the body’s “privates” led her to employ an increasingly cinematic structuring principle for her canvases, using grids that gradually evolved into sequential panels capable of depicting action, movement, and the passage of time.
In 1963, Wieland completed First Integrated Film with a Short on Sailing, a vertical canvas featuring three stacked panels of a red-lipsticked blonde and a handsome black man drawing together in a passionate embrace. In the centre of the canvas, the outline of a human head faces an arrow that points to the mouth and continues down the throat, as if to physically chart the path that love takes on its way to the heart. Beneath the main frames, Wieland inserts rows of smaller panels that depict the passing of a sailboat, a title card reading “Romance Me,” and a sequential depiction of a speech bubble that emerges from a haze to reveal the words “Oh Walt!” The disembodied exclamation in the last sequence lies at the bottom of the painting, untethered from the figures above, its meaning, point of origin, and temporality left ambiguous. Nevertheless, the proximity of the speech bubble to the two figures encourages the viewer to return to the sequence of frames above to search for a possible connection between denoted voice and potential human speaker, making the painting function as something akin to a film loop.
The tension that Wieland creates in First Integrated Film between the mouth as vessel of speech and organ of desire carried through into her first venture into actual filmmaking that same year, following her relocation to New York with her then-husband Michael Snow. Initiating the relatively lighthearted yet formally sophisticated tone that Wieland would strike in her first few films, Larry’s Recent Behaviour (1963) is a comedic opus full of zit-popping, toe-nibbling, and nose-sucking. These admittedly juvenile images reveal Wieland’s early predilection for fetishization, as she lovingly isolates autonomous body parts and labels each of them with title cards. The mouth, naturally, has pride of place in Wieland’s corporeal order here, and as in First Integrated Film it is kept far too busy with other pursuits to bother with speaking: a few of the choicest appendages on display are licked, kissed, or nibbled by another character’s lips and tongue, while at one point the camera focuses on Snow’s mouth as he lustily gobbles an apple at the kitchen table.
Though it makes only a passing appearance in Larry’s Recent Behaviour, the table in the Snow-Wieland apartment would become central to Wieland’s practice, as it was central to her very life during her sojourn in NYC. Seldom venturing outside due to her fear of the New York streets (which during the mid-’60s were mean indeed) and the city’s lack of natural beauty, Wieland transformed her loft’s furnishings and fixtures into places of refuge, sources of inspiration, and practical sets for her films. For Wieland, the kitchen table—which she referred to as “the core of all my art since I was a child”—was richly multivalent in meaning. In its associations with her memories of childhood drawing, it suggests a link to a pre-linguistic form of art-making unencumbered by logic or reason; conversely, it functions as a symbol of female subservience within the domestic realm, while also offering a stage for Wieland to critique and challenge her allotted place within that realm. The table was also accorded a double-edged spiritual role within the “temple” of the home, as Wieland posited in a recorded discussion with her friend Hollis Frampton:
JW: It is like a kind of altar—the housewife’s—
HF: I think it is everyone’s altar—
JW: —the talking, the eating—
HF: —the talking, the eating, and the sitting and the thinking around a Eucharistic centre.
Given its myriad functions, it’s little wonder that this site of exchange, restoration, and meditation would provide the setting for Water Sark, Wieland’s most important early work. The film begins with images of tabletop objects (a teapot, a dish, a watermelon, and a rose) abstracted by water, glass, prisms, and mirrors. Wieland, camera in hand, then appears reflected in a mirror, at first clothed but soon after topless, her hair adorned with glistening saran and her breasts reflecting off the shards of mirror and glass that she holds in front of the lens. The undeniable delight with which Wieland explores, discovers, and depicts her body in relation to the transformative qualities of the objects and elements around her is magnified (literally) late in the film, when Wieland holds a magnifying glass in front of her mouth to blow up her lips as they rapidly open, shut, and curl in a succession of quick cuts.
Though Water Sark received scant recognition upon its original release, the intricacy and eloquence of Wieland’s exploration of woman’s body as both biological and social entity made the film a prime text for feminist theory in the decade following. Filming herself in the mirror, Wieland is both empowered maker (in the controlling gaze of her eye pressed to the viewfinder) and repressed subject, each body part speaking to different aspects of her socially determined and socially constrained roles. Her breasts call attention to motherhood; her hands manipulate domestic objects as a housewife’s would; finally, her magnified mouth moves without speaking, its grotesque amplification further emphasizing the voice denied it.
Kay Armatage, reading this final scene through Hélène Cixous’ concept of écriture féminine—with the soundtrack’s percussive crescendo likened to what Cixous called “no language, and all languages at once”—contends that Wieland’s refusal to use her voice represents the artist’s striving to free herself of the male domination imposed by traditional linguistic systems. Where in Wieland’s previous films lack of speech was connected to a pre-rational playfulness and polymorphous eroticism, in Water Sark it becomes an act of political defiance, a declaration of the artist’s freedom from the patriarchal constraints of language, motherhood, and wifedom. But this freedom is no heavy load, as evinced by the film’s final, feather-light gesture of Wieland languidly dipping the tips of her fingers into the surface of the water—a reminder of the innate sensuousness that underlies Wieland’s increasingly politicized artistic program.
By the end of the ’60s, Wieland’s alienation from the New York scene led to an outpouring of nationalist sentiment in her work, from quilts, wall hangings, and paintings to her first feature-length film Reason Over Passion (1969), which Wieland described in an interview with Armatage as “a last look at Canada.” Ironically appropriating her title from Pierre Trudeau’s personal motto, Wieland transforms what she saw as a propagandistic aphorism into “visual poetry, into a new language,” continuing her challenge to dominant linguistic and ideological systems. In the opening sequence, Wieland inserts a title card inscribed with the lyrics to “O Canada,” and then films herself silently mouthing the anthem, her moving lips recalling those of a teacher leading a class in song. Following this, the film embarks upon a cross-country tour from Cape Breton to Vancouver in a series of images shot from moving trains and cars, while the words “Reason Over Passion” are printed in the bottom of the frame and their constituent letters constantly jumbled in 537 permutations achieved via a photographic process developed by Frampton.
Reason Over Passion
Initial reactions to the film expressed confusion over the seeming ambivalence of Wieland’s political position, particularly in her treatment of Trudeau, whose presence in the film—in footage shot at the 1968 Liberal Party convention that Wieland treats and rephotographs—is never clearly signalled as either satire or hero worship. However, Reason’s intrinsically critical project comes to the fore in a sequence depicting a schoolroom French lesson, which Wieland presents without English subtitles. Once again withholding language, Wieland not only suggests the difficulties of a nation struggling with the problem of official bilingualism (Canada’s two “official” languages were only granted legislative equality in 1969, the year the film was made), but also identifies language as a tool of political indoctrination. The ambivalence of Reason stems from Wieland’s recognition that the elements of a genuine national identity—language, landscape, culture—are inextricably bound up with governmentally directed nationalist projects that exploit those elements in pursuit of their own narrow ideological ends. In this context, the film’s coast-to-coast travelogue becomes lament as much as celebration; whereas the utopian climax of Rat Life found Wieland’s gerbils hopping the border to make a new home in the clean grasslands of Canada, Reason seems to warn that, soon, the actual grass might be the only thing that’s greener on the other side.
Wieland soon continued her exploration of the connections and disjunctions between nationalism, language, and speech—as both (physical) function and (intellectual-ideological-political) act—in her painting and printing. The lithograph O Canada (1970) was made by Wieland applying red lipstick and pressing her mouth onto the stone while mouthing each syllable to the national anthem. The embroidery O Canada Animation (1971) once again featured a set of anthem-mouthing lips and teeth (which are strikingly similar to the tongue-and-lips logo John Pasche designed for The Rolling Stones the same year), while the quilt Maple Leaf Forever (1972) and the kissy-lithograph The Arctic Belongs to Itself (1973) display mouths that word the title of the works themselves. The last piece in this burst of lip art, Squid Jiggin’ Grounds (1973), utilizes the same lithographic technique as O Canada and The Arctic, the artist this time mouthing the words to a Newfoundland fisherman’s ditty.
While this succession of Cheshire cat grins continued Reason Over Passion’s interrogation of how the speech act can become reduced to a vessel for indoctrinated nationalist sentiment, they also coincided with Wieland’s unexpected adoption of the spoken word in her film work. Following her return to Canada in 1971, Wieland made her most explicitly political film yet with Solidarity, which was derived from footage she shot at a strike at the Dare Cookie Factory in Kitchener, Ontario. Though Wieland here once again separates voice from speaker—placing a verbatim recording of a rousing, eloquent speech by the unidentified labour activist “Bonnie” over shots of the strikers’ shuffling, milling, and marching feet—the effect is not one of disjunction, but unity. In this context of direct political struggle, and with no derogation or denial of the unseen speaker’s own individuality and selfhood, “Bonnie’s” voice could be the voice of any woman (or, indeed, man) fighting for equality and justice.
The following year Wieland travelled to Mount-Laurier to produce Pierre Vallieres (missing accent grave deliberate), a documentary record of the eponymous Québécois separatist and author of Nègres blancs d’Amérique, who had recently been released from prison after serving 44 months on manslaughter charges stemming from his involvement with the revolutionary FLQ; released in the aftermath of the October Crisis, Vallières openly renounced political violence and dedicated himself to providing political counsel to Québéc’s rural populations on behalf of the moderate Parti Québécois. Wieland’s film presents three uninterrupted, direct-to-camera discourses by Vallières—on the plight of French Canadians, the exploitation of women at home and at work, and the continued decimation of Canada’s indigenous population by the descendants of French and English colonists—in which only the speaker’s moving lips are visible. (The National Gallery’s Danielle Corbeil, who helped translate during the filming, was also charged with holding Vallières’ head in place for his extended periods of extreme orificial close-up.) Aside from some black leader during a reel change and a final shot of a snowy landscape, Vallières’ mouth fills the frame for the duration of the film. Inverting the disembodiment of “Bonnie’s” speech in Solidarity, in Pierre Vallieres the intense physical specificity of the speaker is used to amplify the democratic, humanitarian, and egalitarian message he articulates. Here, the voiceless mouths and mouthless voices of Wieland’s past work are finally brought together, fusing Wieland’s personal hopes for resistance and renewal with political strategies whose aim is to realize those hopes.
Following the tepid critical reception and subsequent commercial failure of her first narrative feature The Far Shore (1975), a melodramatic story of a French-Canadian woman’s star-crossed love affair with painter Tom Thomson, an exhausted Wieland supposedly “retired” from filmmaking in 1976, although she completed three more films over the following decade. One of these, A & B in Ontario (1967, completed 1984), finds Wieland in Toronto with her friend Hollis Frampton; the pair begin by shooting portraits of one another but soon get wrapped up in a game of cinematic hide-and-seek, each trying to “catch” the other on camera. The film evokes the playful spirit of Wieland’s earlier works as it follows the friends out of the house, into the streets, and down to the waterfront, where an off-screen Wieland, seeking a concealed Frampton in the beach’s tall grass, utters a single word amidst the sound of whirring Bolexes—“Hollis…”—and a moment later, a wordless giggle. While recalling the exclamation of “Oh Walt!” from First Integrated Film, in A & B the syllables of Frampton’s name are unquestionably tethered to a specific voice and self, the painting’s disjuncture of carnality and language supplanted by a silly, childish, and wonderfully joyous affirmation of friendship within a single word. Two decades after Water Sark, Wieland here breaks her silence. We don’t see her mouth move, but we hear her still.