My first encounter with Vancouver artist Persimmon Blackbridge is on video. She sits on a stool, spotlit in an otherwise darkened studio talking not at the camera but obliquely, away to the right as I watch her. The set-up implies that she is speaking in public, but there are no other indications that there is an audience present. In the absence of such confirmatory signs I eventually conclude that she is talking to me. With long, dyed orange hair she is a striking visual presence, but it is her voice that holds my attention. It is slow and deliberate, almost inviting me to ignore it. I could brush it off, let it slide by me, but I don't. It is as though every word is weighed before it is let out. The language has substance.
The tape, by Lorna Boschman, is documenting and interpreting Blackbridge's collaborative project, Doing Time (1990). Doing Time comprises a number of partial body casts of the women, all former prisoners, with whom Blackbridge worked. The casts of Geri Ferguson, Michelle Kanashiro-Christensen, Lyn MacDonald and Bea Walkus are set onto, or emerge out of the gallery wall. Handwritten onto the wall beside each woman is her testimony. Collectively these texts catalogue a range of abuses and the tactics for coping with them. Wall and casts blend because of the grey paint covering them all. There is other colour - streaks and spatters which enliven: a speck of pleasure, a shaft of light from a high window, the release of pressure and consequent calm brought by a self-inflicted slash or cut.
As I watch the tape I know, although I am not at all sure why, that I shall write about it. What reasons could there be? It looks obvious in form, like art concerned with social issues, issues with which one inevitably feels, if not identification then at least sympathy. The recognition that the work is treating significant social matters in a somewhat familiar style would normally lead to a rapid exhaustion of interest. The tape is long, too long I think as it enunciates wrongful arrest, the taking of children into care, isolation, racism, beatings, intrusive searches. If the aim were merely to place certain injustices in the foreground, then that is accomplished well before the end. But intercut with the slow exploration of the casts and texts by the camera, and the soundtrack of voices recounting experiences, are these short sequences of Blackbridge. In the middle of the tape, rocking slightly, pushing the words out, she says: 'I don't want this to be tourism.' Which, of course, is all that my sympathy would amount to: visit a little hardship and feel moved by it.
A few years prior to Doing Time, Blackbridge collaborated with Sheila Gilhooly in making Still Sane (1985), an account of Gilhooly's three-year spell in a mental institution following the admission to her psychiatrist that she was a lesbian. And what becomes clear when considering this and Blackbridge's other works is that we are not at all witnessing the tourism of the concerned artist. There is no visiting the territory of the other in order to see what goes on there. We can deal with these as works of art on the understanding that they are also seen as tactical moves in the fields of mental health care, queer activism and civil rights, things which do not merely inform, but to a large extent constitute the framework of Blackbridge's everyday life. In this light her self-description as a 'well-known learning-disabled-lesbian-cleaning-lady-white-sculptor-writer-performance-and-media artist is neither as po-faced nor as coy as it might otherwise seem.
Blackbridge is, along with Susan Stewart and Lizard Jones, a member of the group Kiss and Tell. At one point in Her Tongue on My Theory, their recently published collection of images and text, Lizard Jones considers the make-up of their audience: 'I make art for queers first, cherish queer praise, wince at queer criticism. I want straights and the art world to be there, but do I care what they think? If they don't laugh, does that mean there is no joke? They live with me, down the hall, share an office, but they don't live here, in my queer city.' Jones' words articulate my thoughts. The experiences dealt with in these works are not mine. Nor, for the most part, could they ever be available to me. Yet there is a compulsion, a necessity to deal with them. Assuming the works to be wholly contained within the accepted space of contemporary art would entail the touristic or prurient mode of viewing that Blackbridge rejects. What is required is, in Michel de Certeau's words, to see them as evidence of a more fully conceived 'practice of everyday life'. Conscious of the polyvalence of her activity, Blackbridge's Sunnybrook (1994) recounts occurrences during her period of employment at a mental hospital in the 70s. Her job was finessed with knowledge gained as a result of the institutionalisation of several members of her family, and from her own experiences as an outpatient. All that was required in addition was for her to wear a blouse with long, buttoned sleeves to the interview so that her scarred arms would not show. Her relationships with individual patients are charted through a series of tableaux, a lengthy text and an audio tape. Less crucially interconnecting parts of an indissoluble whole, these three elements operate more as alternative expositional modes for the one story. There is allowance made here for different kinds of audiences with differing competences.
A few days after seeing Doing Time I go to meet Blackbridge at her flat, where we sit conversing at her small, triangular kitchen table. Before I am led through to watch the nearly finished tape of Sunnybrook, we talk about the communities, those given voice in her work, of which she considers herself a part. Her face changes, is almost transfigured, as she mentions the pleasure she gets from some mainstream art even though it is the product of a milieu in which she feels uncomfortable. We discuss Scars, another of Boschman's tapes in which several women, visible only from neck to waist and with bared arms, talk about cutting themselves. Blackbridge recalls the participant who finishes her testimony with the observation that if other people don't like what she has done they can eat shit. This is it: no longing for absolution, nor a desire for readmission to the conforming horde. Instead, an insistence on difference which, if it is to have any meaning, finds little use for a system of thinking that casts all else as 'other' to the 'one' of normality.
First published in Issue 18