TITLE: Seasons of the Boys - An Interview with Ho Tam
BY MIKE HOOLBOOM
If Ho Tam isn’t the hardest working man in show biz it isn’t for lack of trying. When I meet him, which is not so often, he seems always in motion, even when he’s sitting in the opposite chair. Already there are new commitments and promises for work which has to be made, and students who are absorbing the precious resource of time and an inner life which is steadily flowing away from him. Who has enough clock for private moments or a day outside of the work flow? Since stepping away from his social worker persona, he has proved himself a tireless producer of paintings and videos. In both media he is a diligent collector of faces, he accumulates faces the way others build stamp collections or baseball cards. In Matinee Idol, for instance, he gathers moments from the great Hong Kong screen star Ng Cho Fan’s 250 films, and shows him in a catalogue of emotions. Here he is crying. Here he is laughing. Here he is greeting his long lost daughter. Ho offers us behavioural studies, as if he were new to this planet, as if, by watching this work, we might also become new, with eyes fresh enough to see the world around us, instead of being content to name everything instead.
The frame of his work is carefully considered. The first step is the most important step, it indicates a direction, an intent. After he takes the first step, the rest of the way is relatively clear for him. He simply moves forward, he completes the initial gesture until the frame is full, the catalogue is complete, the set has been mapped out. He offers us collections of Chinese barbershops on the lower east side. He shows 99 Chinese business men, one after another, looking back at a still camera. How are the humans today? Perhaps by accumulating their behaviour, it will be possible to understand their motivations and common interests. Little wonder that these catalogues have morphed in his later work into an abiding interest in the portrait movie, whether it’s the string playing cop in Hong Kong or AIDS activist James Wentzy.
In the face of globalized pictures, and the globalized subjects and cities they are busy creating, Ho’s models for living, his small portraits and possible lives, are more necessary now than ever.
MH: Most art begins with the act of copying: I want to make something that looks like that, or want to become someone who lives like that. How did you become involved with fringe media? Did you have a significant mimetic moment that led you into the field, and once you got here why would you go on, knowing that this work is so terribly marginal? Aren't you concerned about obscurity, singing songs no one will ever hear?
HT: I am now sitting in a cafe called Mirage run by a guy from Peru. I visited here during my job interview and apartment search and found it quite soothing. For the last two months I have been working at a frantic pace on my university job and the upcoming show at Paul Petro Gallery and the Reel Asian Festival screening, plus a number of other things. Life is a bit crazy and I really have to get away from home/work stations to gain some form of privacy in order to correspond with you.
I guess I have no one to blame getting into a situation like this. Sometimes I feel like I am at a dead end. I was talking to a friend in Seattle and we agreed that it's a hard life being an artist and would never encourage anyone to pursue it unless they feel there are no other choices.
Well, this goes back to your question where I started. I actually studied to become a social worker. I was doing placement in a community psychiatric program which had an art therapy component. While watching individuals making art I realized it was what I really wanted to do. That began my "downfall."
I began by exploring commercial art and did quite well but it was not satisfying because I was mostly a tool. I worked and worked and by the end of the day there was no energy to do anything creative for myself. So I went back to work in the community health field as a life skill counselor, employment counselor and then as a case manager. Each of these jobs assisted individuals to live and work outside of institutions. In all those jobs I talked constantly, seven hours a day, making treatment plans and suggestions. During this period I found time to explore art again and began exhibiting in some Toronto group shows.
There were two very supportive persons in my life: Kirby Hsu, my deceased partner, and Carla Garnet, of the Garnet Press Gallery. They were very influential in shaping me to become the person who I am today. Without them I would probably have continued to be a Sunday painter.
My work is drawn from my day to day experience, and tries to represent the under represented.
When you speak about fringe media I guess you mean video/film art. I was interested in all forms of art making. But due to my limited training (self taught with some night schooling), I was mostly confined to disciplines like painting and drawing. I have always been interested in bookmaking and print work. In 1993 I made an artist's chapbook called The Yellow Pages, playing with issues around racial stereotypes. It examines questions like: what is a real Asian, or a real Asian experience? Nobody is safe from scrutiny and I became confused about what I should or shouldn’t do. I had made chap books when I was a teenager, and produced many flyers in my commercial work, so the print medium was natural for me. The book was Xeroxed and hand bound by pins and fasteners. It is an alphabetically arranged book (A-Z) with headings corresponding to various qualities typically attributed to Asians. For instance: A picture showing a woman carrying a serving tray with a steaming plate of meat had the subtitle: Dog meat. A picture showing a pair of skeletons, one smaller than the other (father and son?) had the subtitle: Number one son.
Did I want to copy? I think I have always been copying. My background in advertising and graphics encourages borrowing and stealing images from everywhere. One of the great technical innovations in the 80s and 90s was the popularization of the photocopier. My experience in advertising taught me lots about that. The Yellow Pages is a book made from the idea of photocopying, but you have to understand, in those days images were not as accessible as they are today. The act of copying could be painstaking. You had to be very dedicated because it took time and money.
Then I chanced upon a call for submissions from Public Access, an exhibition collective, which had arranged to put video projections into the central train station, and I thought the book could translate well into this new context. The Yellow Pages (7:40 minutes 1994) installation at Union Station was a ten foot projection in the lobby but the station is so huge even this large projection was lost in space. The video used a similar approach as the chapbook, both were based on a collage of found images which required lots of research and image collecting via tape and TV viewing.
The Yellow Pages is a tape made in the climate of political correctness and historic facts/fictions. It doesn’t present a single point of view, it leaves that to the viewer, but because everything cancels each other out, viewer negotiation is difficult. This was my response to the policing of thoughts and actions. At the time I was just working with what I knew. I had been to film and video screenings but I was not so aware of video art. When I look at it now, the piece is similar to Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen, in structure anyway.
I am totally aware of my obscure existence. Once upon a time, I read an artist’s interview (I think I still have the clipping), that once you practice for five or ten years, you will not have the skills to do anything else. You have to continue being an artist because you’re not trustworthy or employable. But then again, I could not think of another job I would rather do.
But I do see myself trying to connect with reality in my own little ways. It may be a very lame attempt. My work does not totally renounce or reject the world, in my opinion. But perhaps it is situated in a neither/nor position that is not understood by mainstream viewers or artists. Do I care? Yes and no. I’m allowed to make only the things I want to. If I were a commercial artist, I would probably make things that had more mass appeal.
It is two days later and I am back in the same café. I am still working frantically (or just feeling frantic) about the upcoming shows. This is probably the last weekend before going back to work and my trip to Toronto.
I did not make another video for many years after The Yellow Pages. I think it had to do with equipment accessibility and my phobia about technology. I was accustomed to paint brushes and pencils, not cameras, which I picked up almost for the first time when making this work. In 1996 I went to New York City for the Whitney Museum Independent Studio Program. I had no space to work because of the studio and apartment situation in the city. I also began to question product making and the art market. These factors turned me towards video making again. I made about ten tapes in the four years I lived in New York City.
I’m still trying to reconcile all the different kinds of work I make, discovering how human experience can be shown in each of the mediums I work with. When comparing different mediums I find video/film liberating for me. Narratives communicate to the viewer in a more straight forward way than painting or drawing. Visual art concerns have become rather alienating. I do not feel that I have to follow a trajectory in video. I could start a new project that has nothing to do with the last. And the work can travel. If I could speak and write English better I would rather be a writer, but then most writers want to be filmmakers. So I guess it is not so bad after all.
MH: The Season of the Boys (3:30 minutes 1997) shows a group of shirtless teen Asian basketball players. In voice-over you recite a story about the season of the boys, their beauty reflected everywhere. You say, “History will repeat itself to no end. Together we shall fight and rebel following the path that each of us has chosen. But secretly we believe the myth of that special season will return, some day the boys will come into our lives once more and we shall not be alone. Or rather we ourselves shall become the boys we so often dreamed of, the boys of a season gone by right before our very eyes.” It is a beautiful and moving text, can you talk about how the idea for this movie came to you?
HT: Most of the tapes I made in the past were not pre-meditated. I often gathered material and ideas came later. S.O.B. (Season of the Boys) was made the year after I lost my partner to AIDS. I was in New York City, alone, isolated, and wandered by chance into a basketball tournament. Watching the guys was both exciting and depressing. I was contemplating life and death, beauty and youth, the fragility of existence. I was only 35 then! These questions expanded to gay culture, I was thinking about its shallowness for instance.
Yes, I wrote the text myself and I am a little embarrassed about it. I sound much older than my age, at least, people who have watched the tape tell me that. Before losing my partner I had a happy-go-lucky attitude towards life. It was particularly hard for me, even though it was not a straight forward path either. It took me a long time to find my art for instance, and coming out was difficult. But I usually got what I wanted and I was quite spoiled. After losing my partner I started to look at my surroundings differently. I think internally I was either very depressed by the grieving or I had aged ten years. I took on a more critical and contemplative stance. Gay culture is often so youth and beauty oriented. There is a hierarchy built into this culture and certain attributes are considered desirable. I think ‘liberation’ and globalization has only made it worse. For a long time, perhaps this phenomena existed only in North America, but now it seems to have spread all over. Since the ‘desirer’ and the ‘desiree’ are basically the same person in this situation, we are just victimizing ourselves.
MH: In Dear Sis (4:30 minutes 1998) you film a young girl on the subway who seems entirely unaware of the camera. How did you film her? A voice-over text narrates a letter from a woman to her sister, hoping to make peace. Why this letter with its sentiments of loss, absence and betrayal?
HT: Dear Sis is about human relationships: how one reaches out and another shuts down. I thought of my relationship with my sister watching the girl on the train. The image was taken with a camcorder on my lap without the family realizing the tape was rolling. Of course, the text is also about race and equity issues, because being born into a certain racial and social class shapes experience. So while the text is personal it acquires a political stance as it goes on.
I am a middle-aged, Canadian-Asian man looking at a young African-American girl. That is a very interesting position. Perhaps I have an idealistic stand that all of us should be equal. Living in NYC really opened my eyes to the segregations of race and class and the huge inequities that persist. Parts of the city were no different than the third world. And then there are always misconceptions and misunderstandings among the “Others.” Dear Sis tries to offer a glimpse into this scenario.
S.O.B. and Dear Sis were two of my early attempts at working with text. I abandoned these ideas shortly afterwards, perhaps because I became too self conscious about my writing.
MH: Hair Cuts (8 minutes 1999) features a catalogue of 110 Chinese barbershops and beauty parlours in New York’s lower east side. The sheer number is impressive but you never venture inside, we never see humans or human activities, instead you present a series of signs and facades. Why?
HT: I was walking through New York City one day and noticed there were many barbershops, I had a camcorder with me and began filming one after another. There are a few shots of the interiors and the 'actions' within, but I never went inside. When I was living in New York, I was very broke and cut my own hair. I was amazed at how popular those places must have been judging by their numbers. I was also interested in the video itself as a cultural study which related to signs and facades. As a non-customer, this short study of hair culture featured fascination, attraction and repulsion. Interestingly, if you look carefully at the shop posters, most feature Caucasian models. Perhaps it speaks to how we want to look and what constitutes ideal beauty.
MH: Could you tell me about Pocahontas: TransWorld Remix (4:20 minutes 1998)? What inspired the making of this movie?
HT: It was made with Pauline Park, a transgendered Korean adoptee I met while living in New York. Pocahontas was originally a Disney cartoon and I used the different language soundtracks (of the theme song) to create the music. Pauline wanders through Central Park in native costume. It was my first attempt in “directing” so a lot of movements were improvised by her. I told Pauline what I was looking for so that she could explore with her character. Pauline is not a professional actor so I ended up letting her be herself.
We first see her wandering in what looks like a natural forest but slowly discover that it is only a park. I really had to thank her for performing in cold fall weather in a skimpy costume. I wanted Pocahontas to end up ‘returning’ to the Museum of Natural History, which is just across Central Park, but this was a scene we never got to record. When we worked together Pauline was only beginning to explore gender roles, and now she has become an activist for the transgendered in New York City. I would like to think that Pocahontas has been somewhat instrumental in her transformation.
I lived in the Washington Heights area of New York. There are almost no other Asians living in that area, if someone sent me a letter, even if they didn’t have the correct address, somehow the letter would get to me. I enjoyed my experiences there. I went to this wild party and Miracles on 63rd Street (25 minutes 2001) was made in that neighborhood. I took an ethnographic approach. I let the subjects express themselves with minimal editing, what you see, going in and out of the rooms, talking to different people, or waiting as they have their conversations, is a record of the evening.
Why did I leave New York? There was so much to do and no time to do it, and I wasn’t going out anymore. Mostly I stayed inside my apartment and worked all the time. I came back to live in Toronto, and also returned to Hong Kong to make a few works as well, for instance Cop Strings (6 minutes 1999). It’s about the different personas of an individual, and the identification with work as identity. I was picked up by this guy in the Vancouver airport when I was going back to Hong Kong and found out he was a very talented musician. The video is a personal portrait. Raymond learned to play the "Guzheng" instrument, a 16-26 stringed zither with movable bridges when he was a kid. He was actually a child performer and competed in musical events around the world. I asked if I could record Battle with Typhoon which was shot in his apartment in one take. As you can see in this recording, he is definitely a showman.
Later on, he let me follow him around town wearing his auxiliary police uniform. He had this fantasy of uniforms and guns and being in the forces. The actual filming was supposed to be a secret, he could get into trouble if found out. He would never really address the camera and I was always at a distance (and therefore I never got into the police station). But the exhibitionist in him was excited. I don't know if he had much idea of what I was doing but we had established a trust. I think it was a bold decision for him. Later on, the Hong Kong queer film festival asked to screen it but I declined.
The idea behind this filming of the cop, Mike, which I have almost forgotten myself, is that my father was a policeman! When I lived in Hong Kong as a kid I sometimes hung out at the police station. By filming Raymond I was recalling my own childhood memories.
MH: In 99 Men (3 minutes 1998) you present headshots of 99 men in suit and tie, all a bit soft focused, with musical accompaniment. The pictures are mysterious: who are these men and why have they been collected like this? They make me think of information gathered in official files, data waiting to be put to use. It seems also a reflection on how most pictures, even narratives, bend pictures towards an idea of “use.”
HT: The interest in showing Asian men has been an ongoing interest for more than ten years, both in my painting and media work. In 99 Men I decided to go back to my reference materials, picture clippings of Asian businessman from the community newspapers. They are in fact drawn from some sort of a file, although not an official one. These men are realtors, car salesmen and insurance agents, their photographs taken from advertisements. From my point of view all these portraits are both individual and indifferent. I am intrigued by the grouping and I think of the salesman in all of us. Years ago I wrote an ironic article called Confessions of a Salesman.
“In time, I also learned to make use of my sexual identity. You see, I had gone out with girls before. But I found that being a straight Asian man was not half as much fun as being a queer Oriental boy. Although we are not as desirable as the All American types in the gay culture, we do have our share of clientele because the market is very diverse. I began to learn to accentuate my exotic look, to sell my youngish features and to master my slim and compact body.” (Confessions of a Salesman by Ho Tam)
MH: You have made a number of movies where you collect pictures on a theme and present them as a catalogue succession, without comment. In 99 Men and Hair Cuts for instance, but also Matinee Idol (16:30 minutes 1999) which shows clips from some of Ng Cho Fan’s 250 films, while In the Dark (6 minutes 2004) presents a series of grainy, high contrast pictures made in Toronto during the SARS epidemic. Why this strategy of collecting, gathering and presentation?
HT: My German friend Lothar Albrecht once told me that photographers are collectors and archivers of images. This is obvious in many photographers's work which is about the same subject matter year after year. My work is definitely in that vein. Maybe I just couldn't think of anything better to do. It is only through study of the multiple that similarities and differences emerge. This interests me tremendously. Sometimes I wish I could take pictures of everything simply to document their existence. No other motives. Perhaps I am afraid of letting go? I often wish that I had filmed every building, storefront, or site that no longer stands so I could remember what they used to look like. Tape is cheap and takes less space than photographs, so why not? But I am a bit tired now. Some want pristine pictures but that’s not so important for me, videotape suits me fine.
MH: In Ave Maria (7 minutes 2000) you return to the New York subway and film through glass, watching commuters eat French fries, or wait anxiously, or sit with their mother or father, producing a picture of family life in transit. Everything has a gloriously ravaged, hazy look, it feels like a movie made ‘by hand,’ that you have run these pictures through your fingers. Or is all the tactility the result of video post production magics? Why was this quality important to you? Why the musical hymn on the soundtrack? You look at people unaware of their recording: is this voyeurism, are you stealing these moments? Are they giving consent because they are in a public space? (If I can see them I can shoot them: they are fair game.)
HT: The technique is not post production, it was actually shot with a camcorder using a slow shutter speed. It was the only way to capture reflections from windows because I did not point directly towards the subjects. But the camera was not hidden either. I played on my assumed position as a Japanese tourist with a camera on the subway! I often sat on the subway watching cars passing on the next track which created beautiful reflections. I am really happy that the video captures that experience and heightens it. The hymn was recorded in Spain, in a sacred place called Montserrat, where a church was dedicated to the Black Madonna. Regarding the permission issue I know that they are unaware of being filmed, but they could tell I was taping. You have seen the film, so you know I have total respect for my subjects. Yes, I was stealing those moments. But I remember when I was a child my mother took me on a trip and that day has stayed with me all these years. Nothing special happened, nothing important occurred. I can’t recreate this time, which is more of a feeling after all. This video is a commemoration of that particular moment.
MH: She was Cuba (16:25 minutes 2003) feels like a signal departure in your work, a watershed of sorts, where the highly structured conceptual underpinnings of your earlier work, gives way to something more narrative, more like ‘a movie.’ Can you talk about how it began?
HT: Well, it is a long story. After working on a series of non-narratives I was ready to re-introduce a voice. I haven’t thought about incorporating writing into my work for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it. I was also trying to find a way to re-insert myself into my work, so to speak. The project arose from a conversation with a Cuban friend of mine, Alfredo. He described the reasons he moved to Canada, and talked about his friend Ada, the “she” in She Was Cuba. Ada was already dead, and I was living in New York City, so we never met. The story of her defection may not be unique, but the theme of beginning again is universal.
I wondered how to create a piece around Ada. I thought of the way one talks about a place or person that is no longer there, how one is always outside of absence, and how we fill that gap with our imagination and constructions. I was interested in exploring or constructing narrative through some kind of recollection. This led me eventually to use found footage. I juxtapose her story with mine, I was searching for her but there is also an implied search for someone else, my deceased partner Kirby. In a sense, Ada and Cuba become one, both inaccessible to me. The memories of Ada are told in reverse, from her last days to her first arrival in Canada, while my own travelogue moves forward in time.
MH: This double quest narrative set in Cuba lets his story and hers proceed in alternating scenes, cast over ‘found’ or ‘stolen’ pictures. How would you feel if someone took pictures from one of your movies and reused them for their own ends? Would that be OK? Does the author no longer exist, only contexts, temporary frames and arrangements?
HT: It is an interesting question which I think about a lot these days. It also has to do with how one treats materials. In She Was Cuba, I studied the materials in terms of their contexts before deciding to use it. It is basically a film about films. My friend Alfredo Gonzalez gave some history on Cuban cinema and I also went on my own to look for materials. I quoted certain movies from this research. She Was Cuba can be seen as an anthology of movies made in and about Cuba, and how Cubans are portrayed in the cinema. By introducing these clips, I am looking for layer(s) of meanings within them.
The last scene with the woman walking in the street is from Portrait of Teresa by Pastor Vega. It relates the struggle of a female character who carries the burden of being a mother, wife, daughter, worker and artist. It reflects the roles that Ada plays both in Cuba and Canada, and conjures the space between expectations placed on her and who she wants to be. In both stories, women have to make a choice between starting a new life or following their heart.
Earlier we see a woman carried out on a stretcher, the actress Mirta Ibarra in Fresa Y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) by Thomas Gutierrez Alea. It is a film about a gay subject, and the woman pictured is a fag hag, so to speak. The Ibarra character’s accident obviously mirrors Ada’s death, and both incidents occur in a public space. Ada suffered an aneurysm on the Ottawa River during a kayaking trip. Ada’s portrait emerges as a composite, working with many different images of women in Cuban films. I think Ada tried to recreate her own identity in a new environment (Canada) but I don't know if she was actually freed from her past.
If someone wants to use my work in their work, I think I would be flattered. but maybe there is a difference between borrowing and stealing?
MH: Could you write to me about the title: “She Was Cuba” which implies that she used to be Cuba, but is no longer. Why is the movie made in memory of Ada Perez Esquivel (1967-1999)?
HT: Yes, that is my intention, to say she is no longer "here" (in this world) and "there" (in Cuba once she left). It is also a play on the film title I Am Cuba. She Was Cuba is about memories. I guess memory doesn’t exist if the actual event/person has not already gone! I interviewed many of Ada’s Canadian friends and they sometimes think of her as a representation of Cuba, since this is the only connection they have. I put her acknowledgment in the credits to make the film’s inspiration and sources clear. Though the work also draws much from my friendship and conversations with Alfredo. Without him this work could not exist.
MH: The writing, as usual, is very beautiful. The closing passage is narrated in her voice, and goes like this: “She wondered what could possibly be on their minds when they first landed. Was it to seek, to explore, to conquer, to live, to let live, to be free or to submit? She realized that she was in a similar position, and on that particular day the world was filled with possibilities.” Does she occupy, here at the end of the movie, and at the beginning of her journey (which proceeds in reverse as you’ve mentioned, from her death, to her arrival in Cuba) a place where she is able to embody all of the hopes of this island? And does she then “fall” into experience, having to choose one particular lover, one particular occupation, moving all the while towards an early death? His journey seems complementary somehow, he has lost someone who he seeks again, impossibly, here in Cuba. He is at the end of his hopes, Cuba is an escape, a last moment to dream perhaps, though death haunts him everywhere. Both figures are moving around death, the fated sense of their own endings. Can you comment?
HT: This work is about death, dying, separation and memory. It is a heavy piece but in the end I’m looking for resolution or hope. Art imitating life and vice versa? Does being an artist make one more sensitive? Or is art another kind of therapy? I have been dealing with these questions for the past ten years and this work is a summarization or conclusion. Recreating a person I never met was a challenge, I decided to speak of her in very general terms, there is an interior, but no details. The path-crossing of the two characters describes an ellipse. The female character is never in Cuba but is caught up in her Cuban past, despite attempting to move forward. And of course, for others she ‘was/is’ Cuba. The movie ends with the scene you describe, as she arrives in Canada for the first time. She is neither here nor there, no longer in Cuba, not quite in Canada. The male character is her counterpart, her unconscious perhaps, who arrives at some kind of reconciliation with his past at the end of his search. He has been projecting his own loss onto someone else, living his life through another.
MH: Your new installation takes you in a different direction, with footage drawn from a very different place. Can you talk about how that came about? Why did you refuse the image of sailors in this video? Why is there no conversation, no language used at all? How do the shots of the ocean, often digitally manipulated (using superimposition or speed changes) evoke the presence of the military (as a force which dominates and controls nature?)?
HT: I was accepted in the Canadian Forces Artists Program which invites artists to travel with one of the three branches of the Canadian forces. For a long time I heard nothing but after moving to Victoria two years ago they contacted me, and thought that Victoria is an ideal place to be connected to the Canadian navy. I was flown to Hawaii and sailed back on the frigate HMCS Calgary from Pearl Harbor to Victoria. I brought still cameras and sketch pads and video cameras, and this is the piece I’ve recently finished. I hope to maintain contact with them so I can keep developing the work. Romances has a very sensitive soundtrack by American electro-acoustic composer Lyn Goeringer. The romance of the sea has given rise to plenty of myths and imaginings. In bringing together the rich symbolism and reference about the sea and the voyage, I seek to construct a complex, yet open-ended, larger narrative. The video moves between attraction and repulsion.
In Romances I attempt to use a number of mediums (paintings, video, photo and text) to reconstruct the experience. I think in the end the video piece will change, and become more of a screening version rather than a one monitor installation. The decision to show only the sea and the interior/exterior of the ship without the sailors is mostly because of the limited footage I collected. The trip was only ten days from beginning to end. I didn’t have a concept and was just thinking on my feet. But the ship’s motion left me off guard and mostly I was trying to stay well without getting a headache. I would like to make some on-camera interviews, and film the crew in a certain way, but all this takes time which I didn’t have. I was in the company of two hundred people with hardly a quiet moment. It took over a year to process the collected materials. I have lots of snapshots which were used in the paintings for instance. But I am thinking of fictionalizing the experience—hence the title Romances. So much of my past work is based on the real, and has a singular narrative, and I see this as a departure, weaving fact and fiction together. I would like to recreate the division between the claustrophobic space of the ship and the sea outside.
MH: One of the many things you’re doing in town is showing your new feature Book of James (74 minutes 2006). Can you talk about how that began?
HT: Book of James is a tape about a friend of mine, James Wentzy, a video activist in New York City. I met him ten years ago and became interested in his work when he shared his journals with me. They are filled with drawings and writing. As soon as I saw them I felt someone had to do something with this material, but who? I wanted to take on the job of showing the world these intimate, tactile pages. I made a short piece, also called Book of James (16 minutes 2004) based on the books as objects, as a way of presenting the diary pages. This movie stopped at the moment Wayne is diagnosed HIV positive.
In the feature length version, excerpts from his journals are shown onscreen in an extended passage accompanied by a piano piece by Wang Yemeng. This music is based on a folk song from Taiwan. The original song is a cautionary tale which contains moral advice and warnings, appropriate for the display of James’s diaries.
I showed the short version to many people (some knew James, many did not) and received a lot of questions about where James was at. I came to the conclusion that in order to appreciate the diaries one has to know James better. So the narrative portion came as a second thought. I decided to continue working on the video, since I had already collected so much material and knew that there was a lot of archival footage in James’s video library as well. I thought I would work like Hollywood, if I didn’t have a good idea I would simply replicate myself. I started remaking Book of James as a feature length movie. This longer work uncovers his AIDS activist years in the 1980s and 1990s and then moves into the present, post-9/11 New York.
It was hard to know what to do with the new materials because James had stopped writing in his diaries so there was no personal voice anymore (in Part 2). During this period he became a video activist, shooting demonstrations and conferences and eventually he produced a community cable TV show. I decide to let his footage speak for itself. But I encountered a problem of explaining the footage since I did not want to have a narrator. I had to carefully sort out his activist footage, then put them into three segments: interviews, protests and TV shows. I hoped that this would sum up his work. They also provide the background of the social climate at the time.
In Part 3, the final section, I try to collapse the two previous sections, private and public, and make a conclusion and another update of James’s life. I show him taking his first AIDS medication (the cocktail), and walking around New York City, and then finally out in the woods again. He had started writing in his diary once more, and out of these moments I was able to construct a glimpse into his personal world again.
MH: How did James’s family react to the movie?
HT: James’s parents passed away quite some time ago so they didn’t get to see the movie. His mother passed away in his college years, and his father passed away shortly after James told him he was HIV positive. He also has a brother. James was very proud of the movie, so he sent it to his brother’s family, but he got a note back from his sister-in-law saying that she wouldn’t appear in any more of his videos. They are fundamentalist Christians and objected to some of the content.
MH: Your tape is divided into three named sections: private, political, and postscript. Can you talk about why you have made this strict line between private and public?
HT: James is a very private, self-contained person, but after the diagnosis he turned outwards. He remained behind the camera, however, he wasn’t the one chasing down the police, or shouting out at demonstrations, he kept his own sort of distance. He became an archivist.
His diagnosis changed so much of his point of view, he poured himself into video making which became a way to engage with a new community. He stopped everything else in order to attend ACT UP meetings and find out about treatments and travel to AIDS conferences and demonstrations. He lost the urge to write in his diaries, and found meaning by using art in another context.
Yes, the personal is the political. Even in his most straight forward political reporting, James spoke through the words and actions of others. Naming each segment separately, and enumerating them parts one, two and three, grants the viewer more to think about. My work is always (too much!) about structure (and literacy). I don’t prefer it, but it’s the way I work. I’ve tried to leave that tendency behind but no luck so far.
With Book of James I wanted to open a dialogue, revisiting the history of AIDS activism, making people aware of what has been done, and the possibilities of what remained to be done, as a motivator for new ideas. The climate around activism has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. Today, for instance, an ACT UP meeting would be lucky to draw five people, whereas twenty years ago community centers gave way to large auditoriums to hold the hundreds who would attend. James is disillusioned by this situation and shuts himself away, though he does manage an ACT UP website which constantly updates news and events.
Showing work about AIDS is totally unfashionable, I’m lucky that any festival would accept the work. Who wants to see it? When I was making this piece I read a book about documentary filmmaking and in the introduction it said there are some subjects you shouldn’t take on because they’re overdone, AIDS for instance. You shouldn’t make films about AIDS anymore.
(Practical Dreamers: Interviews with Movie Artist, Coach House Press, Toronto 2008)