Gunilla Josephson can't seem to sit still. She became a video artist in 1998 after years of teaching, painting, performance art, and creating arts collectives. I first saw her at the Box Salon at the Rivoli, showing sections of her multi-channel installation Mommy's Crystal Tears; the strange and beautiful images of her digital video work were perfectly complemented by their creator; Gunilla is bold, uninhibited and curious; she has the energy of an artist half her age, and doesn't seem like she's slowing down. The next time I ran into her we were guests at a small dinner party, which almost derailed after a heated discussion she had with other women about feminism.
I stopped by the studio she shares with her husband, author and painter Lewis DeSoto, to talk about a film she wants me to be in, and to pick up my Kubrick's Napoleon book she borrowed over a year ago.
GUNILLA JOSEPHSON: I have two things already, the golden shoes for Napoleon, and we have this for you The Groom to hold onto the horse... (hands me a coil of gold rope)
HENRI FABERGE: Tell me again what this film’s about.
GJ: It's about Rosa Bonheur, who was a French Painting working in the animalier genre. She became internationally famous for her very large painting “Horse Fair,” painted in 1855, now hanging at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. She bought a press and disseminated her own prints of work all through North America and made a fortune. She was the first self-promoted art star. She is still unknown, not really in the artist canon. In my videos I often highlight people, mostly women, who were overlooked in history. Not necessarily from a feminist point of view. For me...if art is anything you can explain, it's how we express humanity, it's the best way to show humanity. In all arts of course, sculpture, music, dance, the written word,...the written word is tricky, because there we have to talk about truth and lies. I grew up in postwar Europe with a Jewish father, and was taught to doubt the word, whether written or shouted. It's harder to lie in an image ; it's not one thing.
HF: The moving image.
GJ: No! All image. I happen to do the moving image now, since 13 years. But before that I was a painter and doing installation. Then I came into a crisis with my materials, mainly wax and rubber in very large slabs. My studio got more and more mouse infested because they loved to gnaw on my wax cubes. It was at a time when the first digital camera came out, a small and handy camera, named Handycam. I got someone to sponsor, to buy half with me. It was my ex-husband actually.
HF: So when you first got into it, you bought a camera to take still photography? Or to make movies?
GJ: No I bought the first generation digital video cam. I was thinking about photography, but my acute need to grasp the photograhic image made it impossible for me to use.
HF: In terms of the physical process? Or the metaphorical capturing of a moment?
GJ: I mean, it's an excellent way to capture image and talk about humanity, there's no question about it. But for me personally if I take photographs I feel, neurotically and wrongly of course, as if I am cheating. Also, video has a briefer, less burdened and newer history, and thereby it is a freer tool. A known fact but still true.
HF: Do you always visualize your films before you shoot, like you have done with this diorama? Or did you just want to map this one out? I like that you've gone to the trouble of representing each character.
GJ Usually I do story boarding, and I log ideas and concepts which I look at when I start a new work.
HF: Who is this tiny alien?
GJ: That's the director. Me. And this is me (points to the other director). Or if that is not me, the other director is me. You know, I don't always do this. But something compelled me, because I had this figure, and I thought of her as Rosa B. She is “wrong”, because Rosa B
dressed in men's clothing, which was unlawful in Paris at the time. She went to
higher court and was allowed to wear men's clothing for reasons of
practicality. She herself said it was for no reason of homosexuality, but for
comfort. And I totally agree with her, it's very nice to be comfortable.
For the rest of the Rosa B mockup I found many of these figures on the street
around here. For example, there is my photographer, she even has blonde hair.
These small plastic pirates put out on the street came in handy as a camera
crew, when painted grey, and so on.
HF: The sound man is very funny, with the ball-and-chain boom pole. So, the film is a documentation of the documentation. She is capturing the scene of Napoleon on the horse, while we are also watching you capture the scene.
GJ: Exactly. But Rosa B was going to be a full character and now she will just be a foot protruding into the image. Wearing a man’s shoe of course. And maybe her palette.
HF: I thought Rosa was to be played by your collaborator Eve (Egoyan).
GJ: Eve is on the horse.
HF: Ah, Eve is playing Napoleon.
GJ: Yes. He is worn out and beaten, a
Napoleon, but with gold shoes. He is Napoleon after all. Maybe Napoleon
will slowly fall off the horse, picked up by the groom, which is you.
HF: Did Rosa B ever paint Napoleon oh a horse, or is this an imagined scenario?
GJ: They didn't live in the same time. Rosa was born just after Bonaparte died. A historian would say it must be Napoleon III, but it was Napoleon Bonaparte who sat there in this fictional time. One of my desires as an artist is to confuse history as written down before, making my digital films one of the new possible truths, or new lies. It’s a lie of a lie.
HF: I'm becoming increasingly interested in historiography, the way that history is written, who is writing it, the perspective with which you’re viewing their version.
GJ: There's revisionist history, connected to feminism.
HF: You were saying earlier that your work not necessarily feminist, but it's the characters from history who have been overlooked who most interest you.
GJ: In the late seventies I started and ran a collective where we, for example, ironed clothes and each other’s hair in the windows of commercial spaces. This kind of overstated feminist statement was necessary at the time, but of course any woman with any kind of dignity is a feminist, men too. Feminism has moved on, integrated, altered our world and continues to do so, as one of the political tools.
HF: What was this collective of yours?
GJ: It was a collective of artists, we were fresh out of art school, and we rented a locale, a store window which was unusual at the time. It was 1983 in Stockholm, where I was educated and lived my life until I came here in 1986. We decided to take art into our own hands, and we had lots of things happening there, but then I moved to Canada and so it ended. And we were so bad at documenting, we were so involved in our performances and making sound pieces, we never documented anything, which is kind of beautiful.
HF: What was it called?
GJ: Vox Orange. “The orange voice."
HF: So what is your individual practice like now?
GJ: I work in all kinds of ways. I start with real life and often with objects. It could be an old gramophone or something. I am fond of that which is not considered ‘useful’ as a conduit in art. Cats, babies, flowers,a ll these things I was told in art school I should stay away from. But I am not only interested in that of course.
HF: So you're not a slave to theory.
GJ: I was an academic before I became an artist, I got a degree in social sciences and worked as a teacher. I then went to art school. I used to say to my colleagues here that I felt very uncomfortable to sit at the same table as a curator, even teacher, basically they are my enemies. I want them to be my enemies. Because I want to be a free card. A free floating wild card. If they want to work with me, great, but I am not going to go into a situation where they need to notice me.
HF: Has that attitude changed?
GJ: I've become more withdrawn. The truth is, I show very rarely in Toronto. I show in Europe, Montreal, Paris. Few institutions look at my work.
HF: Have you approached them? Or does showing in Toronto just not interest you? You don't have a gallerist in Toronto.
GJ: Of course it interests me. I have lived here for 25 years, developed a whole new language in new tools. I am more than ready. But you know, my product is not easy to sell, and galleries look at that. I'm kind of reluctant to make imagery for the sake of making imagery because you can sell it. I tried here (points to video stills hanging on the wall), because I had a gallery owner coming in, and I thought I'd better make something. This is the film you saw actually, Mommy's Crystal Tears.
HF: You don't want to create something that's simply a souvenir of your work. Your work is the video.
GJ: Is it a byproduct? I don't know. I have these two veins of working. One is performance based, and it's one image, one situation, one performance. That has now evolved and become mostly about face, I focus in on a person more and more. I'm not even sure if it might go abstract, but something is happening. the second line are the digital films, semi-narrative. They are long, complex.
HF: Even in some of your work that’s more abstract, it seems like there is a narrative, even if you don't necessarily follow it. There was an early work of yours, The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke...
GJ: That was a time when Lewis (DeSoto, her husband) was filming, before he became a published writer. When we filmed JD in Paris he would ask me "is this a film about dresses, or is it about this character you're trying to create? I said, I guess it's about both. That's how I work, I think my work always goes into a certain amount of abstraction through lingering, and focusing in on line, form and colour. I come from painting and I think you can see that in my work. I used red from the very beginning in my videos. It bleeds, it's not considered artistic. I think it's completely wonderful because it bleeds. And I like artlessness. It guides me.
Video still from The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke
HF: While watching it, I was very aware of your process. Or your presence. There is some reframing of shots, and the sense that you're directing the actor to pose certain ways even if you don't hear your voice. It seemed like an exploration of your process. Even though there is the story of the character, it seems more a story about you and your actor creating the moment.
GJ: It's very true, I like that you pick up on that. Sometimes I have direction in there that is in Swedish or French and you might not notice, there are different languages in there. I have no interest in hiding the process. But I'm not showing the process for its own sake either. It is fine if stuff comes in there, if you see a tripod or you hear someone say "no, that's not good", it colours the film.
HF: An emotional colour.
GJ: I like it flawed. I'm not interested in only a still camera, you know. The moment you take the camera off the tripod, we are aware of the camera as a viewer. One has to know that. If I move it like this, something else happens to the film.
HF: But you have shown in a Toronto gallery before.
GJ: Many times. Wynick Tuck Gallery, Baux Xi, The Textile Museum of Canada, Red Head. I was represented by Archive Inc. Gallery, run by Johnson Chu until they closed down in the mid 2000s. Also at Cinemateque Toronto, and Trinity Square Video for Images.
HF: Your collaborations seem very important to your process.
GJ: I like to work with creative maniacs. That is how my work is born. I remember we would watch the dailies and Lewis would say, "you have to write a scenario for tomorrow, there is a continuation here", so I said "tomorrow she goes to the catacombs, and there she sees something on the wall." On a daily basis we were creating a story, it was a wonderful process.
HF: So he was drawing some sense of a story out of you?
GJ: But I also got very irritated because he was slightly rigid with the camera. So you can see in my films it starts to really move, and that's me taking over the camera.
HF: You would trade back and forth.
GJ: At first. Not anymore. We've been married for too long now, we don't want a divorce so we don't work together anymore.
HF: How did your work come to be seen outside of Canada?
GJ: When Lisa Steeles “discovered” me as a video artist, it was really going well for a while. Lisa is the Creative Director of V-Tape, which is an organization created in the seventies aimed at helping and distributing video artists. Lisa and Kim Tomczak are good people. They are both artists themselves and excellent administrators. This is an unusual combination.
HF: How did they discover your work?
GJ: I was showing an early video called Loco[Motive] at Archive Inc. and I guess they saw it there.
HF: When did you start video?
HF: It's such a process, getting into video.
GJ: Trial and error. I used to sit up all night at Charles St Video, stealing time there.
(she puts on one of her videos, [Loco] Motive Series: The HEDDA Videos, 2000)
GJ: This is not me, I don't know why everybody thinks this is me. I do not have a body like that at all. It's my alter ego, artist, friend Anna-Lena Johansson. I worked with her for a long time. She lives in France, so I go to France a lot. This early work has a lot of edits. (the music in the video changes suddenly) I don't know why I changed that. As if I would ever do that now, it's kind of primitive. But people just loved it. It was curated into a Pleasure Dome Program, then it just spinned off from there. And I thought, wow, I am communicating. I'll make another one.
HF: Having this screened, that was your first legitimate video work? Whatever legitimate means.
GJ: Yes, recognized. I was sitting in the audience, in the black, thinking "thank god they can't see me." But then this went to Luxe Cinema in London, and lots of other places. I thought "there must be something there."
HF: Has anyone had a particularly unexpected reaction to your work?
GJ: Of course. That's part of being an artist. But you know, people who don't like your work usually just become a little cold. They don't walk up and want to talk about it because they don't understand it or like it. My sculptural work is still in this video. I used to make latex molds of furniture, that belonged to a troubled past. I made a skin on the sofa of latex which we then ripped off. It's quite Scandinavian, what I did in those days. Very early on I created this character called Hedda, performed by Anna-Lena Johansson. My productions are called Hedda Films.
HF: Hedda is your alter ego? What's she all about?
GJ: She is about anger, strange behaviour, isolation, alienation. And a personal joy, not giving so much, or caring about others. When I work, I really don't think about anything else, if it's politically okay, that type of thing. That's why I end up with strange things, because I will never censor myself.
HF: It's nice to have an alter ego conduit through which you can explore your ideas.
GJ: In an early piece that we were both in front of the camera, but I like to be behind the camera. My sister was a fashion model, so whatever she was, I am not. Therefore I am behind the camera.
HF: The person behind the camera has the power.
GJ: Totally. But if you talk to a model, they might not necessarily reason that way. There are a few brainy ones, they might think about it. They go on to become film directors.
HF: Do you consider the people in your films to be models, or actors? Or just performers? Because there's so much going on, but I did often get the sense that you had given them instructions to just be, to exist in front of the camera. Then it's through the camera that you're attributing these characteristics. And the editing as well, you're controlling their movements...
GJ: I control the hell out of the films that I make, people often don't recognize what they've done. I always say this, are you giving me free license for this footage? I haven't had a no yet. I have made a portrait of Eve Egoyan, a Canadian musician, and she gave me full licence to the filmed material. Eve is a powerhouse. I like to work with powerhouses. And if I find a man who is a powerhouse, I will work with him too.
HF: Well, I'll hold the gold string.
GJ: Well, maybe we'll promote you to Napoleon.
HF: Or the horse. Maybe you have a horse in mind already.
GJ: I looked for a horse, because Rosa Bonheur's horses were Percherons, big workhorses. I drove around Ontario looking for one. But horse people are strange, and so am I, so it was hard to talk to them. They did not understand at all what I am trying to do. So it didn't happen. Then I made this Toy Maquette for the work, a diorama, and I thought, I'll greenscreen Eve and put her on this toy horse. It could be really amazing. Everyone is here, but it's not a real scene. I have filmed this little diorama scene already, I am getting more and more interested in this rather than the real thing.
HF: What was the Toronto art scene like when you moved here?
GJ: I was a member of Redhead when I arrived here, and it was really good in those days. Now it's not anything you would know about, it's 401 Richmond. We had a space in the Darling Building on Spadina, which is just north of 80 Spadina, which was also full of galleries in those days. Now it's all spiffed up, you wouldn't even recognize it. Now it only houses Katzman/Kamen, still a large and interesting gallery today, and a few other galleries. It used to be the place to go. Redhead was right beside it for years, we ran it ourselves as a collective. And I had come from a collective in Sweden, so it wasn't hard for me. But I really had to start from scratch, no one knew who I was. It was a struggle. I thought, is there something wrong with me. But it’s Toronto. Cautious, cool and cold. The most popular co-op gallery in those days was a place called Cold City, a little gallery with cooler artists than Redhead. We thought that was always going to be there. But then one day that just ended, and nothing came out of it. Coops seemed to die down and struggling, individual artists inhabited a harsher scene. When I started making videos I was hanging out with people who were much younger than me, and usually still do.
(she puts on one of her videos, E.V.E. Absolute Matrix, 2009)
GJ: Eve is a musician. She collaborates with all kinds of artists, for example with dance makers who circled her while she played Erik Satie on the piano and Eve kept putting hats on and off, as she played, if I remember right. She has done sound for many of my videos. And she has performed.
HF: And now she’s your Napoleon. It's funny that we were both drawn to representing Napoleon in our work.
GJ: I know, it's amazing. I've never met anyone in the creative world who has expressed an interest in Napoleon. Not even in theatre. But there is Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I want to place myself in the amazing company of Abel Gance’s brilliant Napoléon, a 1927 epic silent French film that tells the story of Napoleon 's early years. The 5 hour epic of Napoleon was the first multi-screen film ever made, only because there were no projecotrs that could show such long reels, so the film was divided into 5 parts, screened together, side by side. No one came to see it and it was edited down to the conventional size. It quickly got forgotten. I still have not seen it screened anywhere. And then there was Woody Allen’s Napoleon of course.
HF: But you were saying that some of your other subjects are marginalized and forgotten. Napoleon definitely hasn't been forgotten. But you and I have both taken it upon ourselves to re-imagine Napoleon.
GJ: Indeed. Yes, it’s obnoxious enough and yet totally innocent. We create no wars, do not hurt anyone and use little energy for what we do. I have read everything about him. Eve is a wonderful performer. She is not able to be false. And so she will be Eve dressed as Napoleon, with a twist. She doesn't have it in her, to be false.
HF: She looks traumatized.
GJ: Yes. Sad and soulful, very emotional and yet in complete control when she plays the piano
. She gets up in front of the piano, and turns into a
power house slash monster. Like raawwwr! I've said for years I wanted to make a
film about her, and we did. And she said that when she saw it, it was a deep
experience of being inside herself. I felt humbled. Yes, it was an intense
collaboration between a face and a prodding camera. Intense.
HF: It's interesting to watch yourself through another person's gaze. And especially when you've manipulated it this much.
GJ: Yes. You can hate it or love it. It's a love-hate piece. I like extremes. Love or hate is fine, I don't want anything in between for art. As much as it is a disaster as a recipe for life…
HF: Did you do all of these manipulations yourself, more trial and error?
GJ: No, I sometimes work with Jenn E. Norton, another powerhouse 2 here, who knows all about computers and all, and I mean all, about editing.. also sound. And a great artist in her own right. She was my editor for E.V.E.
HF: How did you meet Jenn?
GJ: She was working at Trinity Square Video when I was doing a Artist residency there, that’s when we edited E.VE. I know editing and love the process. I need to be at the helm, as much as possible. I worked with Aleesa Cohene, powerhouse 3, for years on editing my work.
(she jumps up to change the DVD)
GJ: Okay, we can't watch this part, because it is simply too dull. Oh here we go, where it changes and her portrait becomes a throbbing mass of hair, it's a deconstruction of Eve basically. It looks beautiful projected large. And I found that in some galleries the piece reflects on the floor, it’s extraordinary. The kind people at TSV polished the floor, and also at MSAC in Guelph. E.V.E showed at Trinity Square for Images, and in Guelph at MacDonalds Stewart Art Centre. And then in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre in May last year. If I've shown anywhere in Toronto, it's generally been with Images Fest. This throbbing mass, it's edited using a technique which as you know is called mirroring, but it's very hard to use.
HF: It is hard to use well.
GJ: It's very hard to use smartly and economically. I hope that we have succeeded here.I have a few simple methods that I use. My work is never found footage, I make everything myself, with the resourceful Anna-Lena if she is around, including props and some wardrobe, makeup, hair. I love to reverse footage. It's very simple but can have incredible effects. You choose it for situations where you don't see that it's backwards, you just feel that something is strange.
HF: It can be unsettling.
GJ: Yes. Sometimes it's art. If you're an artist and know what you want, these are some things that you can use. It doesn't have to be more complicated.
HF: I'm jealous, I would love to spend most of my time behind the camera.
GJ: But you are such a performer.
HF: It's tricky though, you inevitably give up artistic license to whoever is filming it.
GJ: I know. That sounds scary to me.
HF: Sometimes it doesn't work out, but mostly it does. You just have to trust that person.
GJ: Only work with people you like.
HF: And be clear about your idea and expectations.
GJ: I remember being upset with my fashion modelling sister because she was giving up herself to others. Already then, I was younger than her, I remember saying "do you know what you're doing? You understand that you are in front of the camera, and there is a man there behind the camera?" My sister and I are very different people. She got me into that work, but I was incredibly uncomfortable. I remember a photographer saying, "you will never become a model." Okay! That's not what I want to be. It's all about being a little flirtatious on the side there, and “is this your best side?” You know, they talk about "do you know which is your best side?"
HF: Hmmm, this one's my best side probably.
GJ: You see? As a performer you know it! They all have a symmetrical face, but I have an asymmetrical face. But I think it was my personality.
HF: An asymmetrical personality.
GJ: Idiosyncratic! What do you do when things are too intense in life, you know? I can only express it in art. What else can you do? You could sing or do music, that would have been lovely, but that's not what I do. Or dance. But this is my medium.
Video still from Mommy's Crystal Tears