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PFA artist in residence screens provocative videos

by Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday April 06, 2002

‘I prefer stories about squalor,” said Esme to the narrator in J.D. Salinger’s short story, “To Esme – With Love And Squalor.”  

“I’m extremely interested in squalor.” 

Salinger’s precocious middle-class character isn’t off the mark: people are interested in squalor, especially when they don’t live in it. Photographer and video artist Donigan Cumming is particularly interested in the destitute denizens of the poorer neighborhoods of Montreal, people who often go unbathed, unmedicated, unkempt, and basically squalid conditions in their tiny apartments. 

Cumming was an artist in residence by the invitation of the Pacific Film Archive April 2-5, lecturing and showing his provocative videos featuring his troupe of subjects Colin, Nettie, Pierre, Brenda, and many others living on the economic fringe in Montreal, many are alcoholics and addicts in various stages of recovery, or not at all. 

Viewing the videos may bring to light Pierre blubbering drunkenly about a lost love with snot stringing out of his nose (“After Brenda”), or a naked elderly man dancing and rubbing his swollen belly (“Ecstatic Angel”), or Cumming himself as the cameraman in “Culture” (screening today) rummaging through the apartment of a hospitalized friend and discovering under the bed rotting food covered with flies and alive with bugs. 

“I don’t want you to stay stuck in the garbage,” said Cumming, “but I want you to reflect on what it’s like to see flies gathered around an open tin. And to smell it. I mean, you can smell the video.” 

The truth of the matter is that you can’t smell the video, but still cringe at the grotesqueries presented along with the rough beauty and fading pride in these people populating the world of Cummings’ videos. Cumming clearly has compassion for his subjects – a humanity often muddled and complicated by his role as a documentary photojournalist and video artist. Part of his motivation in working is to examine and critique the tropes and clichés of documentary photojournalism, dancing on the line between truth and fiction, and finding the truth within the fiction. 

“When I fool with documentary, I like a documentary that bites it’s own tail,” said Cumming, who began a project almost 20 years ago called “Reality And Motivation In Documentary Photography.” When he says that cumbersome, over-academic title his tongue is in his cheek, but nevertheless he has a very thoughtful approach to the issues of ethics and truth in journalism.  

He said in the 1970s he was reading critics of “serious, ameliorative” photojournalism. “It was excellent on paper,” said Cumming, agreeing with everything the critics said, “but many of these people weren’t great artists. They were good critics.” He began what became a controversial project with Nettie Harris, an elderly woman whom Cumming photographed in various poses, clothed and naked, once or twice a week, for 10 years until she died. 

In a lecture on images of aging people given last Thursday at UC Berkeley as part of a series presented by the Townsend Center For The Humanities, Cumming showed slides and video footage that clearly illustrated Nettie, a hammy performer by nature, and Cumming, a demanding photographer, had a symbiotic relationship.  

Exploitation was not an issue with the photographs of Nettie’s sagging breasts and emaciated pelvis – some of which were banned in France and Germany. Nor could the trust be questioned with Cumming and an epileptic woman approaching hysteria when Cumming asks her about her boyfriend – an exchange which forces Cumming to reveal his own personal life. Even when he suddenly asks her to sing “Que Sera, Sera” a cappella to the camera, and zooms the lens to the broken teeth, their relationship remains unshaken.  

The question of trust, however, is then thrown to the audience: can we recognize her honor and humanity while listening to her butcher the old Doris Day song with half a mouthful of teeth, standing in what could be described as squalor? 

Cumming admits he puts his subjects through paces. He is not a fly-on-the-wall filmmaker jumping into a situation extemporaneously.  

“The idea is you create a circle and you enter it, and things happen in that circle. The control is the perimeter of the circle.” The wielder of control in Cumming’s videos often flip from subject to documenter and back again. Sometimes the change of power happens moment-to-moment. 

The hand-held camerawork and rambling dialogues give Cummins’s work the feel of spontaneity, as if he had captured the subjects on camera in a moment of candor or passion, when in fact bits of his videos are sometimes re-shot, rehearsed, even scripted. A viewer watching a Cumming video without knowing how he works would naturally assume this is a fly-on-the-wall recording of a truth about destitute living in Montreal. 

“It is, and it isn’t,” said Cumming. “I think it’s only right and proper to bring a level of self-awareness to these things when you’re trying to explain or describe a situation or communicate something about the lives of other people. But you’ve got to be careful not to be too oracular about it, that you don’t pretend to know what’s going on. I think you arrive at a truth when you do that.” 

While speaking to an audience last Thursday evening at the PFA theater (“a performance,” he says) Cumming said he stares at his subjects, his troupe, with a palm-sized DV camera, and the act of staring is regarded by many to be good when it is intimate and familial, and bad when the subject is unwhole or disfigured. Cumming, however, is a champion of staring. 

“I like voyeurism. I like it a lot. I think there’s a case to be made for positive voyeurism,” he said in the studio of KALX radio. “We’re all little lemmings in a maze, and it’s important for us to know what’s going on to the left, to the right, behind and in front of us. We need to watch each other. We probably evolved to nurture a certain level of voyeurism. It’s survival feature.” 

Whether is be evolutionary, anthropological, or socially edifying, Cumming suggests that the lives of the ugly and infirm and maladjusted are something we are extremely interested in.