Video Confidential

By Catherine Elwes

video-confidential-tom-sherman-robert-morin.jpgFrom left to right: Yes Sir! Madame…, 1994; Appearance of Voice, 2004; Before Letting Go, 2004

Voice-over musings in the work of Tom Sherman and Robert Morin

Video has long acted as both travelling companion and confidante in the work of Canadian artists. The travelling derives from the experiences of recent arrivals or the family myths of arrival inherited by the children of migrants. Everyone who isn’t a member of the First Nations has come from somewhere else. The sometimes-perilous journeys that brought migrants to Canada generate stories and most Canadian film and video artists are consummate storytellers – raconteurs and fabulators of subtlety, elegance or, as in the case of Morin, of uncompromising directness. In these stories immigrant Canadian identity emerges as a hyphenated sense of self, straddling two or more cultures: French-Canadian, Anglo-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, Portuguese-Canadian, Franco-German-Canadian etc. Canadian identity is always in the process of becoming and that unfolding subjectivity finds its most direct expression in the voice-over musings of film and video artists.

Tom Sherman’s long career as a performance artist has marked his approach to video and the commentaries he crafts in his recent work address nature as a way of anchoring the speaking self in the specific landscape of Nova Scotia. However, he does not appear to court spiritual union with God’s creation and the voice over in Talking to Nature (2002) describes the alienation of the urban dweller who seeks solace in nature. As Sherman walks towards his cottage, the foreground taken up with the spiky seed head he is examining, he tells us not to expect too much: “...we’ve always dreamed of talking to nature, of being part of the bigger picture…but we shouldn’t expect a reply. Nature has nothing to say to us, it stands mute.”

The Romantic ideal of nature nourishing the soul is denied further by Sherman in Before Letting Go (2004). Here, the artist uses the close-up lens of his digital camera to scrutinise the exquisite beauty of a flower. But the flower inspires in him only fear and embarrassment and he morbidly identifies the flower with his dead parents. This section of the work ends with a confession: “when I was a little boy, I was afraid of the dark. Now I’m afraid of flowers.” It is clear from this and other works in the series that part of the fear Sherman expresses relates to the irresistible attraction of the natural world as well as its terrible indifference. From this kind of existential crisis of meaning in the face of nature, the artist lays bare his soul as he wanders, camera in hand, across its territories.

In The Appearance of Voice (2004) the artist has himself been struck dumb and he observes his environment without commentary. The work is primarily visual: Summer leaves break the fall of heavy raindrops, a raven sits darkly in a dying tree and a river tumbles through the landscape throwing up curious yellow foam suggesting the polluting activities of humankind but in fact a residue of iron, tannin and peat mosses native to the area. The artist’s face appears staring into camera as if carved in stone, his hair disordered by neglect and by the more pressing problems of unspecified internal battles. The journey recorded by the video camera is both external and internal. All is delimited by the capabilities of the technology and by the artist’s body of which the technology has become an extension. This imaging collaboration turns to observe the landscape then swings back to locate the artist’s own form, now doubling as the figure in the landscape. Each shot is determined by the length of Sherman’s arm, the span of his stride, the instincts of his wanderings.

The artist’s voice is more in evidence in an earlier sequence in Before Letting Go, one that ironically reworks a web-cam sex scene Sherman downloaded from the Internet. Here, the artist contextualises the scene for us by explaining that the woman is an ex-lover who has now invited Sherman to be voyeuristically ‘included in their festivities’. The absurdity of this scenario builds as Sherman tells us that the man is a landscape architect while she is ‘scheduled to retire in 2014’. The painfully positive attitude Sherman takes to this form of emotional torture ends with speculations about the dog that watches the rutting from the foot of the lovers’ bed. Dogs, he remarks, “can’t feel much of anything without smelling” and dream of “running outdoors in the rain.” Perhaps Sherman envies the animal its apparent imperviousness to emotional manipulation.

video-confidential-tom-sherman-robert-morin-2.jpgFrom let to right: Before Letting Go, 2004; Yes Sir! Madame…, 1994; Talking to Nature, 2002

In an interview with Sherman, I commented that the use of voice-over in Canadian video gives a sense of eavesdropping on someone’s thoughts and produces a confessional intimacy that is more usually associated with feminist video of the 1970s and ’80s. His response was to point out that video footage he made of a place would be hard to distinguish from what I might shoot. “It would be difficult for an outsider to tell which of us had shot which work.” However, “as soon as you add a signature, like a voice and the thoughts that are inherent to that presence, you particularise the medium…and individualise a common experience.”

He added that, as a ubiquitous medium, video “almost begs for some specific identification” and he sees his role as “a guide who provides counterpoint”. When I suggested that the need to add counterpoint, to individualise, might relate to the fact that most Canadians were, at one time, strangers in town, often not speaking English, Sherman added that Canadians also have to fight a sense of ‘not existing’ in relation to the United States. Put together with what the first settlers perceived (erroneously) as an enormous, empty country there might be, as Sherman states, “a need to declare oneself.” [1]

In the work of Robert Morin, that declaration reveals a hyphenated and hybridised Canadian identity. Born of an Anglophone mother and a Francophone father, Morin is qualified to produce what he has called ‘a real fucking Canadian movie’. Not one to mince words, Morin, in character as his alter ego Earl Tremblay, tells the story of his life in both French and English. The resulting bi-lingual work, Yes Sir! Madame… (1994) consists of super 8 movies transferred to videotape and Morin’s own commentary – oscillating between French and English -introduces the improvisational mode that Morin associates with video. The story is told in flashback, tracing the rise and fall of Earl Tremblay, orphaned son of a lobster fisherman who escapes the whiteout winters of the coast for the big city.

Here, he struggles to make a living, moving from job to job until he becomes the personal home moviemaker of an unscrupulous property developer. From there he stumbles into politics and finally gets himself elected as a Conservative MP. But the corruption and hypocrisy of Brian Mulroney and his cronies tip the balance of Tremblay’s mind and after a confession of his own fraudulence on a television talk show, he descends into madness and finally disappears leaving the 19 reels of film that we have just watched.

These are the bare bones of the story, cleverly concocted around super 8 footage that Morin has shot over many years. The artist provides not only the voiceover commentary, but also the sound effects of his father’s boat chugging to shore, the whinnying of horses at the racetrack, the crackle of a house fire and the enthusiastic applause of the party faithful at his election. The process of fictionalisation of the footage through voice is patently evident whilst the plausibility, the astonishing fit of vérité image to invention remains the irony of the piece. The camera itself is a major protagonist in the work, physically pinned to the artist’s forehead and emotionally tied to a dead mother’s bequest made in the belief that her camera would help her son to ‘find himself’. The camera is a mixed blessing for the cameraman. It gets him into trouble in nightclubs but is responsible for his first important job. It acts as a witness to the social and political landscape of Québec whilst guaranteeing the impartiality and marginality of the artist.

For me, the most interesting subplot of Yes Sir! Madame…is its bi-lingualism. At first, the French and English mirror each other in close-enough translation. The bilingualism also has a role to play in the narrative; it gets Tremblay his first jobs. But eventually a rift appears and the Anglo subject splits from his Franco twin. As Morin describes it, “the English part of the character…is an opportunist, an arriviste and the French part is a bum, a layabout who doesn’t do anything.” [2]

Finally the two warring factions decide to part company and one reel is devoted entirely to English, whilst the next is dominated by the adventures of the ‘French Bum’. Tremblay’s schizophrenia is reflected in the politics of Québec, a state that threatened to separate from, but in 1995 narrowly voted to remain part of, Canada. In spite of this, the province is predominantly Catholic and the French language and culture are reinforced in the education system and in all aspects of business and government.

Morin represents the duality of French-Canadian life, but it is hard to position him politically. In fact, he doesn’t think of himself as a political artist, only a ‘free-thinker’. However, the subversive punch of Yes Sir! Madame…was sufficient to have it pulled twice by Radio Canada because of its implied criticisms of the parliamentary opposition leader, Jean Crétien. In interview, Morin upbraids Canadian television for its conservatism and sees Europe as more open because it is made up of sovereign countries that “can accommodate difference”. Canada, he claims, is “a colonial nation and anything that doesn’t fit the straitjacket of the colonised is regarded as dangerous.” [3]

On the ground, the political activism that marked Canadian film and video in the 1970s and early ’80s has tempered into what Thomas Waugh describes as “a documentary witness, a gentle trigger of cultural and social communication within the micro-networks of dissent.”[4] In the work of both Morin and Sherman, that dissent takes the form of a perpetual commentary - wry, individual observations accruing into a chorus of nonconformity that, in the case of Morin, aims, quite simply “to make people think.”


[1] All quotes from Tom Sherman in conversation with Catherine Elwes, London 2005.
[2] Robert Morin interviewed by Joel Pomerleau, March 17, 1998 (Elwes translation).
[3] Ibid
[4] Thomas Waugh, introduction to Vidéographe distribution catalogue, Montréal, 1989.

The work of Tom Sherman is distributed by Vtape, Toronto: and Lux, London:

The work of Robert Morin is distributed by Videographe, Montreal: Catherine Elwes is a video artist and author of Video Art, a Guided Tour (I.B. Tauris, 2005).