Fascination (1942-2005)

By Mike Hoolboom

colin-campbell.jpgColin Campbell

Reflections on memory and a man

For the past two years I have been living in a ghost story. I had come to the end of a new stretch, three features in three years, a long relationship had foundered, and I knew only that the next project (there was always a next project) had to come from outside. Too many evenings locked in the same room with the same pictures had watered a blind spot larger than its maker and, instead of retiring the muse with grace, I would try to cheat another year or two up on the wire with a cold call. It wasn’t hubris if I was just answering the phone, right?  

As it turned out, it wasn’t long before the bell rang. It was from Lisa Steele, tireless co-founder (along with partner Kim) of VTape, the artist’s video distribution joint here in Toronto. She was commissioning a series of new shorts responding to the work and life of Colin Campbell. Was I interested?  

I had met Colin exactly twice. Meeting was hello in a crowded restaurant (he was entertaining guests, I was passing through), our reprise a slightly longer exchange at an opening (was it?). He approached of course, throwing the charm spotlight on long enough to let some witty bonbon slip past. When I remarked on his killer tan he waved his hand between us and assured me it was bottled. I misunderstood immediately, imagining that his skin had arrived in a bottle, so I stood there gawping at him (my usual party demeanour) before he floated off on someone else’s breeze.  

Lisa’s program passed in a haze of good intentions, although I was reminded while watching that the eulogy machines of Bill Gates and Apple ensured only accessibility. It was the hippie dream come true: everyone can do it, and everyone will die. Now what? Colin had died only a year ago, suddenly and tragically from colon cancer. Within a few months of diagnosis it was over, there was not even time to spend his last half-year (which doctors warned him was all the time he had) to fill his new beautiful writing paper with letters to friends. Do you remember when? This is how he planned to spend his last months, penning farewells. Now that work would be left to strangers.  

Colin was one of the first video artists in this country, plugging in when ‘portable video’ required serious muscles to haul gear around. He talked, often directly to the camera, and then swung into dramatic adventures, often casting artist friends in monologue-driven demi-dramas that would never be mistaken for prime time material. It was cheap, honest and decidedly marginal, despite his soirées at Biennales in Venice and Sao Paolo.  

He usually appeared in drag, and despite the tone of gentle humour that pervades his work, death is everywhere. It occurs suddenly, invariably accidentally (killers arrive from behind doors or on the highway, always strangers, always men), unleashing a torrent of endings, which Colin presents so amiably it’s hard to remember at the end of a tape that anyone has passed away at all. As Steve Reinke remarked, Colin is only funny when he’s talking about death.  

In my shirking biography, cold war instants provide deep background and improbable genealogies: the Korean War forces the Paik family to seek shelter in Japan. A dozen years on, their number one son is humping his way back from the Sony warehouse with the first ‘portable’ camcorder in a box on the seat beside him. When traffic stalls to allow Pope watchers a better look, there’s plenty of time to unwrap the new machine. When he showed the results later that night at Café a Go Go, video art was underway.  

There are also musings on television, nascent medium by the end of the Second World War although, a decade later, 90% of all North American households would have one. Colin’s story does not wind its way through these landings, but some of his many friends and lovers do. I have spent the past year waiting for the moment when their face opens, when the Colin that each holds inside, that belongs to them alone, in some private, terrible moment of tenderness, may be opened long enough to share.  

His story. I don’t have the right to tell it, to speak the language of ghosts. Instead I am pointing at clues, re-offering moments Colin staged himself, left behind in order to enlarge our memory organs.  

Despite the harsh dichotomies of the cold war, Colin’s life was lived in stereo. He demonstrated this important truth: that it was possible, even necessary, to live two thoughts at the same time. Not either/or but yes and yes. For now the work continues. It takes a long time to say yes. Longer even when the yes belongs to someone else.  

Mike Hoolboom is one of the foremost artist film-makers currently working. His films have been seen regularly at the London Film Festival.