Black Diamond is a small town located forty-five minutes south of Calgary. In a mutual decision by local councils to prioritize “cost savings,” it was recently merged with the nearby town of Turner Valley, Alberta, and the area comprising the two has, as of January 1, 2023, gone by the name Diamond Valley (clever!). We must not forget that these are all colonizer names—although youthful, punkish me had a fantasy that Black Diamond was named for the KISS/Replacements song, and not for the prevalence of coal in the area. The actual, earthy land of Diamond Valley ripples off to the east, shaking out into the prairies—which are not flat, if you are not familiar; they roll and undulate and sometimes drop off into breathtaking river valleys, house many small critters like mice and birds, and if you stop to inspect the ground, there is a tangle of plants (including cacti) as diverse as any forest. To the west of Diamond Valley is land that gathers together in larger formations until it becomes, rather suddenly, the Rocky Mountains. This is the traditional territory of the Treaty 7 people.
Black Diamond—it was still called that when I last visited—is the new home of u’s, a curatorial project which previously operated in Los Angeles and Calgary. The move to a small town seems less like a new persona and more like a matured iteration of the project. u’s caretaker is Sean Morel, an artist and curator whose projects operate nearly entirely outside of pre-defined sites for art and are often installed in leftover spaces, such as a Lethbridge strip mall or a renovated backyard shed. The exhibitions produced by u’s do not wait, or often even ask, for institutional, governmental, or grant support, but instead use the structures provided by community, resourcefulness, friendship, and something that years of art writing has suggested is disingenuous or uncritical for me to describe—an energetic passion, love, and dedication to art that I fear gets wrung from many curating artists and arts administrators. u’s projects are only possible because of Morel’s time, keen research, a constellation of relationships, and the occasional use of personal funds.
Between November 15 and December 15, 2022, u’s booked a hotel room in Black Diamond that visitors could reserve, free of charge, as a viewing space. By sending a request via email, one could claim the room overnight to see Sparkle, a group exhibition of video art and film featuring work by Aimee Goguen, Adam Revington and Caleb Dunham, Barry Doupé, Bruce LaBruce, Cindy Lee, Darya Diamond, D. Hoffos, Maebe A. Girl, Maggie Lee, and seth cardinal dodginghorse.
I reserved the room for the evening of December 13th, and on the day of my visit I received a brief email from u’s with directions on how to check into the hotel and see the work. These instructions included slightly covert actions like taking a key off of a post in someone’s front yard and entering the hotel through a back door. Once accomplished, the email prompted me to open the drawer of the hotel’s night table (the kind of drawer from which I remember my grandmother pulling out a bible) which contained the humble physical manifestation of Sparkle: eleven USB drives labeled with colorful, sparkly star stickers and accompanying informational sheets on each artist and video.
Video and performance art has earned the epithet “challenging.” This is an aspect that I sometimes ill-advisedly push aside. In the most basic sense, there is often a physical discomfort attendant to seeing time-based art, which in my lifetime has included sitting on innumerable austere wooden benches in contemporary art museums or trying to make myself comfortable on the dirty industrial carpet of a university classroom floor. As a viewer, I also find that while I invest attention in seeing the work, I am also monitoring other people, mostly to see if they are watching me watch the work. To a peacekeeper like me, in the moment of witnessing a video or performance I can think of nothing more horrifying than somehow having my body betray me. I imagine that without ongoing vigilance I might somehow exude a deep, subliminal disinterest in the work without my knowledge. Whether or not I actually harbor this disinterest is not the object of my concern; I will ruminate in this anxiety anyway. What I ultimately hunger for is the content of video work, which has carried me to many an unsuspecting corner of my heart and psyche.
Perhaps it will tell you something that I am much more familiar with watching video art than I am with staying in hotels. I was not quite sure what to do with two beds and no chairs. I bought a slice of pizza and single beer and designated one queen bed for sleeping and the other for watching videos. With all eight pillows on the watching bed, the sun setting, and a new snow falling, I dutifully followed the technical directions. There were no directives other than for how to make the videos play. Beginning with Gougen and ending with dodginghorse, I inserted each USB drive into a covert media player plugged into the TV and did my best to watch each video through.
Perhaps others would have had a more measured approach to Sparkle, but I suppose being free to experience the exhibition as you please is what makes it so singular. I navigated Sparkle with an appetite befitting of a salacious, bingeable TV series. u’s sparse instructions made it clear that there was no specific viewing order, but balking at making any curatorial decisions of my own, I watched the videos in the order presented on the exhibition checklist. I did not look at the time. It only occurred to me later how gallery viewing makes me feel distractingly self-conscious; I almost unthinkingly watched all the videos with no break except to drink water. This is not to say that I watched everything in its entirety; there were films and videos where I naturally reached my limit: with no one looking or caring (which is likely the truth almost always, anyway), in moments where I felt extreme discomfort I could simply turn the video off and proceed to the next one.
I began with Gougen’s From Girls to Blob (2015) and Hosing (2015), which, in their close shots, borrow from pornographic video structures. Although the actions in her videos are wet depictions of bodily physics—gravity, fluid mechanics, friction—they seem to be less about sex and more about undermining what we expect to see when two bodies meet. Next, I played Doupé’s Distracted Blueberry (2019), a computer animation with a run time of four-and-a-half hours. I think I only watched about forty-five minutes; it is violent and disturbing in a way that feels annihilating. In each scene, an all-male cast restages quotidian happenings (a jazz show, a pool scene, driving down the road) in violent, scatological, or sexual ways. Doupé’s work process is to generate ideas through subconscious and subliminal thought. I wondered: into what, or whose, window am I looking? Distracted Blueberry is not in the realm of smut, or even horror; it is of some other genre that made my conscious thought, the good parts of my mind, feel razed. I cannot say it is an experience that I can recommend. It is like looking under a rock and exposing creatures that you know must exist, but don’t necessarily want to see.
Next, I watched Cindy Lee’s music video i Don’t want to fall in love again (2020), which consists of psychedelic, technicolor footage of the artist singing and playing guitar while looking directly into the camera. Cindy Lee makes music that makes me cry and that I unequivocally love (be gentle, I am not here as a music critic, only a music lover), and the parts of my heart seared by Doupé’s animation were soothed. I appreciated the inclusion of I Don’t want to fall in love again in Sparkle because it dares us to make a distinction between a compelling, artfully produced, non-commercial music video and video art. I see no difference.
Following this, I played Maggie Lee’s Video Salad (2009–11), a suite of videos that were similarly soothing, but painfully so: each of her thirteen, one-to-three-minute-long films felt deeply nostalgic. Video Salad is a careful, quick compilation of a life quilted from dozens of clips of her everyday meanderings through New York City. From her first-person viewpoint, we grasp moments of parties, work, punk shows, skateboarding, pranks, and casual conversation, all in bursts never totaling more than twenty seconds. This barrage of everyday experience is something that is now the lingua franca of social media posting, but in 2009 could only be the fruit of an ardent videographer. What was loudest to me in these videos is how almost none of the young people in living rooms, at Halloween parties, in record stores, and walking belligerently down the street are holding a cell phone. There is a freedom or lack of self-consciousness in this fact. I am about the same age as Lee, which I think is why these feel like part of me and also hurt.
Hoffos’ Still Life with Rotting Fruit (1996) is a 16 mm film that feels like a tricky, sleeping painting. Girl’s McRib (2019) features a satisfyingly quirky drag performance seen from the back of a bar. Revington and Dunham’s Human Comedy (2022), which unfolds in a forest, is an art-world drama about fame and friendship. The video file for LaBruce’s Super 8½ (1994) regrettably corrupted about twenty minutes in, just after I had been introduced to each character.
The video from this exhibition that still has a hold on me is Diamond’s judgement proof (2020). The footage is quiet, featuring covert shots of different hotel rooms and corridors. Watching from a hotel room myself, I recognized the layer of insincere comfort offered by rented space. There are no people in the rooms, and few shots of personal effects or clothing. The audio is a feminine voice, presumably a sex worker, talking to their male clients. The conversations are small: by this I mean they are unheroic, everyday, but their intimacy is what marks their importance. They are about lives, companionship, and connection. The video is soft, and feels like an act of care, not a revelation or tabloid: Diamond’s video generates, piecemeal, a layered humanity for each offscreen character. Her disposition in her conversations with these men is curious without being docile, proffering a more complex manifestation of care in a sex worker/client relationship than is usually depicted in media.
Each of Sparkle’s videos is about the somatic experience of being a body, and also a mind, in the world. These works stitch together vignettes that share trappings with our reality, but do not replicate it. These are worlds where sex is not an amoral form of intimacy, where fashion, love, friendship, and gender meld, fruit un-rots, and binaries and borders can be pushed aside, if only temporarily. They are worlds where the act of looking—the optics, what we are allowed to see, and what we are not—is what is most important. In Diamond’s work, we see, but don’t hear. In Gougen’s work, the casual off-camera conversation is at odds with the drippy, red plumbing that becomes part of the subjects’ bodies.
The display and experience of video art is ripe for reimagination. The Sparkle hotel is an exceedingly rare and innovative—if not singular—format for experiencing video. It is luxurious and slow, an exhibition that dotes on you. Although the hotel room is no longer available, until March 15th, 2023, u’s gave individuals twenty-four-hour access to a private website so that they, too, can watch the videos in a comfortable bed.
However, my solitude during the stay at the hotel only highlighted how most of us thrive in relation to other people, and how our thoughts and ideas—say, about a suite of video works—become more complete and complex when rounded out through encounters with different perspectives. In the hotel room, my castle with pizza and all the video art I could wish for, I experienced some moments where I felt unmoored, floating at sea. In this private viewing space, I found myself swimming in increasingly abstracted musings. I waved to the me-of-the-real-world on a distant shore, the me that knows about having a body, and about vulnerability, friendship, love, and anger. Much of the work in Sparkle is about relationships and people coming together in ways that are strange, grating, beautiful, wet, confusing, generative, and awkward; in short, embodied. I think now about how watching these videos with others would have replicated some of this very knowledge they set out to convey. I recognize that this is complicated: depictions of trans, non-binary, agender and gender-fluid bodies are repeatedly censored by art institutions. In the spirit of previous projects that have operated outside of established art spaces and structures, u’s use of a hotel room as a site for display offered an alternative to a traditionally mediated encounter with art. Therefore, while feeling deeply grateful for this private, introspective viewing of the work, I now have a different appreciation for embracing the awkward, stiff, connected, and brittle experience of watching challenging video work in a gallery full of strangers.
The only video I watched the next morning was dodginghorse’s Nisguya Chu (Underneath/Near the Ground) (2020) which pulled me back into a world of prairie grass and sun. The previous afternoon I had driven from Calgary to Black Diamond through the foothills, where the prairie becomes the mountains. The foothills weave both landscapes together but feel like neither. I have lived several other places than Alberta, and although the province’s distorted and ever-warping conservatism can feel oppressive and end-bringing, I have never lived somewhere where the inhabitants are so enamored with the land as they are here, myself included. This infatuation is present in the ways that we talk about it, look out at it, discuss it, revel in it, name our loved ones and pets after it, and merely delight in describing it. However, in the same ways that we are captivated by the land, we are also implicated in the Albertan extractive capitalist imaginary, a world where oil and gas is the source of spiritual and monetary wealth; where we can, without consequence, rip black gold (oil) and black diamonds from the earth and reconstitute them into heat, plastic, and prosperity; and where expelling exhaust from your car into the mountain air is a right, and maybe even a pleasure, rather than a sick, extravagant privilege.
No matter your relationship to the land, it is your partner in any Albertan journey or experience. I had taken a new route to Black Diamond, and although I was drinking in the prairie sun, the brown grass, the horses, the windblown barns and other structures, I had been driving blindly, unknowing, following my GPS. I had driven, for the first time, Stoney Trail, the nefarious new roadway that is the subject of dodinghorse’s video. Nisguya Chu, shot on 8 mm film, shows dodginghorse’s siblings playing on the land that has since been stolen from their people to make a wide, unremarkable, pointless, barren freeway. I took the other way home.