Bell Award Presentation (Gladstone Hotel, June 18, 2010)

To my great surprise, in 2009 I won the Bell Prize for Video Art, “awarded annually since 1991 for exceptional contribution by a video artist or artists to the advancement of video art in Canada and to the development of video practices.” They cut me a whopping cheque and a framed note which said this really happens. We were in the Gladstone Hotel as part of the Independent Media Arts Alliance “On Fire” fest. When it came time to say a few words, I read the following text.

There are some doors that you come to that you’re not allowed to open by yourself. It’s the rule, the law, the thing can’t be changed. It’s the writing on the wall, it’s the feeling in your guts. You’re stuck, and you’ve been stuck for a long time. And still the door won’t open. But in the meanwhile you play the old tunes, you make your circles beautiful and for a while that’s enough, isn’t it? The way you say that thing, oh god, please say that thing again, won’t you? The way you always you say it, the way you’re saying it now. The way you repeat yourself, it’s become a way of life, it’s become the way, a perfect frozen moment, a statue. You meet your high school friends and they all look into the still photograph of your face and say: hey, you haven’t changed a bit. And they say it as if that was a good thing.

You get older and you are nothing but grooves and reaction shots, tricks and habits, and as the lines fill the place your face used to be, all you’re really doing is waiting there, standing there by the door, hoping that one day someone will open it for you. That’s the rule, that’s the law. And then the phone rings and someone, some kind stranger from the capital says they’re going to give you an award. Even though you’ve been standing at the door so long you’ve forgotten how to walk by yourself, unfeathered biped, or how to invent a picture, for instance, to arrange pictures so that they show, instead of conceal.

This award, this answering the Bell prize, impossible to imagine it might be for someone like me. Each year the certainties slip away, the money back guarantees, the scientific commandments, and they don’t steal away in the middle of the night, like a secret, no, they leave you at high noon, when the hard light is bright and clear so that you can wave them good-bye. By now, everything I know about video, about art, would hardly fill the opening page of a detective story. Instead, the prize seems aimed towards the voices who have been left behind, for Will who danced in the face of it all, for Roberto who carried us on our back, swimming until he couldn’t, for Babz who sang it through the hurt, for Colin who started the bandwagon, and for the arts councils that make me feel every day like the luckiest person who hasn’t yet died of AIDS. For the councils who grant even those of us who are living in overtime, even more time. To make our mistakes, to try and to fail and to try again. Time to wait, above all, at the door.

When I think about artists making movies it is not award presentations that come to mind, or even the sparkle of a well aimed frame. Instead it is Kim and Lisa crouched underneath a shelf on the closing night of Tranz Tech, unplugging someone else’s cables, or Martin Heath sweeping the floor at Cinecycle, or Yael standing outside the Israeli embassy because someone has to have the courage to be the first person to say no. When I think about artists making movies, showing movies, talking movies, I think of the how many unpaid and unnoticed moments which make it possible to go on. The late night meetings, the patient repair of bruised situations, the thousand and one nights celebrating minor pleasures, tell me, when you start catching the tune, can you hear in any of this the music of the door opening?

In the luggers of gear and haulers of crates, the letter writers and campaigners, the organizers and living rooms screeners, the Bens and Marks and Wandas and Elles and Richards and Roys and free speechers and queers against Israeli apartheid who are turning away from the bankers and lighting up a movement, always busy working behind the scenes not in hopes of seeing their names carved into virtual newsprint, or filling rooms with applause, but because they can open enough to let someone else’s global village of a problem touch them, and act out of that touching with a graceful urgency. Is it because someone has to do it, and they’re used to being that someone? Their gift, their generosity, means that they can’t help themselves, they can’t help opening the door.

The invisible gesture, the voice behind the curtain, the secret strings. How very fortunate I am to live in a city where someone is always opening the door for strangers. For the stranger that I hope to fully become, not knowing anything, not really. I’m just starting out, just beginning to learn how to look, to really look at you for the first time. To see what a world there is, what a world exists in your face, across your face which, as I can see it now, in the good light, appears to be always opening after all, as if in demonstration, or is it invitation? Couldn’t I? Couldn’t you? Shouldn’t we? I’d like to think of this award as an invitation for all of us to walk through that door together. They’ve left it open for us so very long now, with their long nights of unseen work, and there is no price or punishment attached, only an invitation to look, to see for ourselves. Come, let’s go in, shall we?