The Vidéographe (in French Le vidéographe) was conceived as a democratic apparatus of rapid production, dissemination and discussion of independent video works. In November 1971 the centre opened in a storefront on rue St-Denis in the Quartier Latin of Montréal. The Vidéographe space housed the equipment depot, the offices and editing rooms as well as an innovative screening room known as the vidéothéâtre that featured a unique screening arrangement that placed viewers facing each other seated around a central cluster of outward facing video monitors.
I am interested in the vidéothéâtre as a model, as an early attempt at reconsidering the space of viewing, and participating in the viewing, of moving image material. This model becomes interesting when we look at the rapid development of video installation practices in the 1980s and 1990s and the later incorporation of the cinematic experience into the museums and exhibition spaces of contemporary art in the first decades of the 21st century. It is also an interesting model to re-look at after the proliferation of participatory art practices that began to appear at the turn of the last century. What follows is a reflection on an interior architecture that proposed a new configuration that broke with certain conventions for the public viewing of moving image documents.
"The documents are all produced with portable equipment like the one we are using to make this recording. And once their recording is finished, the people come to the Vidéographe to edit it. Once the editing is finshed, they do the sound mix in the little sound studio on the third floor. And, finally, the document is presented in the vidéothéâtre. Here we find a few people watching some recordings they have made, not through the Vidéographe, but through external means. And these people are watching these recordings here in the vidéothéâtre. The theatre is a circular screening room with 115 seats surrounding six televisions suspended from the ceiling. It is a screening room that allows for the discussions that happen very often after the screenings." (Forget, 1972)
An experimental project put in place by Robert Forget and other members of the National Film Board of Canada, the Vidéographe proposed a new structure for the rapid production and distribution of independent films using the then new possibilities of portable video recording. Linked to experiments in télévision communautaire at the time, the mandate of the Vidéographe was the democratization of filmmaking, not just its production, but also its dissemination. The Vidéographe was open 24 hours a day and granted free access to anyone who wished to produce a video there. There were no restrictions based on nationality or language of production, (both sometimes criteria in access to other publicly funded film and video production centres in Canada). Forget recently recounted to me over the phone that he remembers a group of women coming up from New York in the early 1970s to produce a documentary on lesbian politics, something unheard of at the time. (Forget 2013) Along with free access to recording and post-production equipment, there were also productions financed by the Vidéographe; many successful Canadian film directors, including Denys Arcand, Charles Binamé and Pierre Falardeau had some of their first works produced through the centre.
While some of the works produced at the Vidéographe were made available to a cable TV audience, (for a brief time, the Vidéographe even experimented with the narrowcast transmission of independent productions in the Québec town of St-Jérôme. This experiment was quickly shut down by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission as access to the airwaves for television and radio transmission is under the jurisdiction of the federal government and is heavily restricted in Canada. The vidéothéâtre would have performed a vital function making the work accessible for public viewing; beyond the dissemination of independent productions into people’s homes, the Vidéographe's in-house screening room would have performed a vital function making the work accessible in a shared public viewing set-up.
As part of his research into the the new forms of public video presentation, Robert Forget travelled to New York in the early 1970s before launching the Vidéographe to visit the Channel One video theatre, a showcase for the satirical “Channel One Underground Television” productions. Forget claims the configuration of the vidéothéatre was unique in its time, but certainly the three monitors suspended from the ceiling set up of Channel One's television theatre would seem to have been an inspiration for the cluster of centrally suspended monitors of the vidéothéatre. (Forget 2013)
What Channel One's television theatre did was to have audiences watch (pre-recorded) TV in a group at scheduled screening times (like at a cinema or in a conventional theatre). In this manner, the members of the audience interacted with each other in their response to the gags and skits shown on the monitors. Comedy (which Channel One produced and showed) would seem to require a kind of contagious group laughter in order to be seen as being funny. I think Forget also wanted to encourage a kind of collective response to the videos that would be shown in the vidéothéâtre. The, perhaps radical, step that Forget took was to place the viewers in a 360 degree circle around the monitors. With this configuration, the audiences not only watched and reacted to the video programme being shown, but they watched and reacted to each other. Forget states in his commentary to the video Entrée en scène (1972) that the arrangement favours discussion (est propice à la discussion, Forget, 1972), but the unique layout of the Vidéographe screening room was also due to more practical circumstances. Forget later explained to me that one of the challenges of the vidéothéâtre was that the space consigned to it was square. (Forget 2013) Cinemas are traditionally rectangular with the screen at the small end. Forget solved the problem of a symmetrical room by placing the screens in its centre.
The panorama inverted
Four years before the Vidéographe opened, Montréal hosted the 1967 world’s fair. As with many world expositions, innovative forms of moving image presentation were showcased. The Telephone Pavilion featured Canada ’67 (1967), a 9 screen 360 degree circular film production. The film was produced by Walt Disney using a technique, Circarama, first used in Disneyland in 1955. Canada ‘67 is a panorama of material shot highlighting the natural and cultural variety of the different regions of the federation.
In the summer of 2010, I had the chance to visit the Krugovaya Kinopanorama (circular cinema panorama), the Soviet version of the 360 degree cinema, in Moscow. It is one of the few functioning circular cinemas still showing material on film. In the Kinopanorama 11 synchronised films are projected over the heads of the audience. The film surrounds the spectators who are standing in the centre of the room. Their gaze is directed outwards. In the vidéothéatre, the film (video) is in the center of the room with the spectators sitting around it. Their gaze is directed inwards towards the screens and towards each other. Somehow the content of the work shown is reflected in the apparatus of its presentation. Opened in 1959, the Kinopanorama showed films presenting the different landscapes and cultures of the many republics of the now defunct union. The work produced at the Vidéogrape in the beginning of the 1970s looked at social and economic situations in Montreal and other parts of Québec. These were often low or no budget productions and the situations were recounted through individual testimonies spoken into the camera. There is an intimate directness to the best of these productions, a looking into, that was reflected in the inward gaze of the viewers in the vidéothéâtre.
The immersive and panoramic cinema models have had an important and traceable influence on the apparatuses of media art presentation. In an interview with Éric Clément, Luc Courchesne talks of the experience of Expo 67 as a child inspiring him to develop his panoramic works and the immersive space of the Satosphère. (Clément 2011) The cultural legacy of the vidéothéâtre (as an apparatus of presentation) is less evident. I would however insist on the relevance of the vidéothéâtre in relation to the history of artists’ video and in recent contemporary art exhibition.
Interestingly, although the work produced at the Vidéographe in the early 1970s was of a mostly documentary and socially engaged nature, the form, and the conception, of the vidéothéâtre would today seem more sensitive to tendencies in experimental film and video making. The public (and I am presuming often the authors) would sit around the cluster of monitors attached to the viewing room’s ceiling. Thus while they watched the video, they also watched each other and were aware of being watched. Here, the narcissistic characteristic of early artists’ video, identified by Rosalind Krauss in her 1976 essay, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”, would come into play. (Krauss 1976)
If we look at much of the artists’ explorations with video at this time in the United States and in Europe we see an investigation of the closed circuit functions of the medium. In the case of Dan Graham, his early video experiments would result in installations and performances combining live or delayed video feeds with large mirrors reflecting back into the space of presentation. The experience of participating in these works is one of, self-consciously, watching oneself in the mirrors and on the monitors, but also of watching (and being watched). Interestingly Dan Graham developed his practice into the building of functioning architectural pavilions. Among these, he conceived of a series of video viewing rooms, some used by museums to show their video art collections.
There was more formal experimentation in the vidéothéâtre than the mandate for accessibility, a rapid production and dissemination process and opportunity for discussion suggested. According to Forget, there was the possibility to display different images on the different monitors and to synchronise these using the control track from one VTR to programme the other. (Forget 2013) This means that some of the first experiments in multi-channel video installation were done in the vidéothéâtre. It also shows that Forget and some of the producers were very aware of the importance and the new creative possibilities of the apparatus, (le dispositif, as Anne-Marie Duguet, borrowing a term from Michel Foucault, would call it later), of video presentation. (Duguet 1988)
A strong emphasis was placed on audio post-production for video, audio production and also experiments with audio playback at the Vidéographe. On the first floor of the centre there was a sound studio, called Le sonographe, where video makers could post dub their productions, but also where experimentation with sound recording and playback, early forays into electro acoustic music, were practiced. The vidéothéâtre also played a role in this experimentation with sound playback and treatment. The screening room was equipped with a rudimentary quadraphonic sound system. As I understand, this worked by synchronising two videotape players and using the stereo soundtracks from the second player to provide the additional two tracks of sound to accompany the video and stereo soundtrack from the first player. Forget remembers this kind of setup being used during retrospective screenings and 'video festivals' held in the vidéothéâtre. He also remembers a screening of Pierre Falardeau's Continuons le Combat, when the sound system broke and the director continued with making the sound live, calling out the dialogue like a barker in a silent movie projection. (Forget 2013)
After the world exposition in Montreal in 1967, where the National Film Board developed the interior architecture and produced the film programme for the experimental and very successful Labyrinth pavilion, there was much discussion in the board as to how to continue being innovative in film production and presentation, and whether to create more cinematic pavilions for upcoming world expositions. Forget was, it seemed, more interested in the development of what he called le petit écran, television and video. As part of the Vidéographe project, he came up with systems of cable and micro broadcast TV in smaller Québec communities showing the productions of the centre as well as films produced at the NFB and by Télé Québec. After Forget left the centre in 1975, he went back to the NFB to resume another project began in 1968 involving the narrowcasting of NFB productions from their studios to selected recipients. In the 1980s, the NFB used the fibre optic cables in Montréal to 'stream' films to receivers in the city's universities. (Forget 2013) The culmination of this research into video on demand resulted in the launching in 1993 of the Cinérobothèque. In a building that also housed an NFB cinema, there was a videothèque where visitors could consult individually, on video monitors, a selection of the Board's productions. The innovation of this video library was that the viewer selected the film he or she wanted to watch using an electronic interface and the videocassette of the chosen film was then selected from a depository and placed in a VCR by a robotic arm. The cinérobothèque, which was located in a building a city block away from the original Vidéographe, was closed in 2012.
The end of the vidéothéâtre
The Vidéographe ran into financial and administrative difficulties in 1975. It shut down for a brief period and Forget moved on to other projects. As a non-profit organisation, the centre was allowed to hold bingos to pay off its debts and raise money for operating costs. They did quite well with these and raised enough money to buy the building where they are still operating on rue Garnier in the Plateau Mont-Royal borough of the city. The vidéothéàtre was not reinstalled in the new premises. It seemed that after the departure of Robert Forget the mandate of the centre had shifted towards community productions and vidéo engagé, and these forms would not be benefited from such a radical form of screening room. A more cinema-like room was installed in the rue Garnier building with several rows of (comfortable) seats all facing in one direction towards one or more monitors on stands. It was in this room that I held one of the first screenings of my video work in 1989. Documentation of the original screening room on rue St-Denis can be seen in the short video Entrée en scène produced by the Vidéographe in 1972. The only other documentation that I am aware of is a photo that appeared with an article by Daniel Carrière in Cinébulles about the vidéothéatre in 1991. (Carrière 1991)
Carrière, Daniel. 1991. “Petite histoire du vidéothéâtre”, in Cinébulles, Montréal, Vol. 10, No. 4,.
Clément, Éric. 2011, “Luc Courchesne saute dans le vide à Toronto” in La Presse, Montréal, le 27 janvier 2011.
Duguet, Anne-Marie. 1988. "Dispositifs," in VIDÉO : Revue Communications, no 48, Paris: éd. du Seuil.
Forget, Robert. 1972. voiceover commentary from the video: Entrée en scène, Montréal: Vidéographe, black and white, 10 min. 15. My translation from the French.
Forget, Robert. 2013. Telephone interview made with Paul Landon in Montréal on September 9th 2013.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1976 “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” in October, Vol. 1. (Spring, 1976), pp. 50-64.