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Egoyan’s Steenbeckett breaking ground in Regina

author: thomas gallagher | contributor

The exhibit runs at the MacKenzie Art Gallery until Jan. 2. Photo credit: Ego Film Arts
The exhibit runs at the MacKenzie Art Gallery until Jan. 2. Photo credit: Ego Film Arts

A reflection on the newest station of Meet in the Middle symposium.

On November 4th, Atom Egoyan’s Steenbeckett made its North American debut at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Steenbeckett was the focal point of an international symposium put on in cooperation with the University of Regina, Strandline Curatorial Collective, and the MacKenzie itself.

We had been talking about the symposium in my Canadian Cinema class for weeks. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I knew who Atom Egoyan was; we had watched several of his films in class. The prospect of seeing him in person, being able to attend his master class, and maybe even having the chance to meet him was all pretty exciting. But this symposium wasn’t just about Egoyan, this was a symposium that was bringing together many artists, academics, and curators from around the world.

The symposium opened on Wednesday night at Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar. My resolve was put to the test right away. There weren’t a lot of students in attendance, and I felt a little out of place, but everyone was welcoming. Celeste Snowber from Simon Fraser University did a wonderful performance piece on worry – a topic I could really relate to. This was followed by the Armenian Film Series, a collection of contemporary Armenian films curated by Vahram Akimyan from the Armenian Centre of Contemporary Experimental Art. Vahram went out of his way to ask my name and shake my hand. The symposium was off to a good start for me.

The symposium took place from Nov. 2-5 and was part of a larger project that has been unfolding for over three years. That project is Meet in the Middle: Stations of Migration and Memory Between Art and Film, a project led by Elizabeth Matheson for Strandline Curatorial Collective and Christine Ramsay for the University of Regina.

Meet in the Middle is a project that has brought together the work of artists from multiple disciplines to explore the issues of migration, memory, and trauma, with a special focus on the connection between Armenia and Saskatchewan – two places that are geographically isolated, both with a history of forced migration, genocide, and lingering trauma.

The project has been organized into fourteen “stations,” the first of which took place in 2014. There have been twelve stations so far, including a retrospective of the work of Gerald Saul, a faculty member in the film department at the University of Regina, and an exhibit at the Fifth Parallel on campus in October featuring the work of Mkrtich Tonoyan, an Armenian artist whose work is heavily influenced by the time he spent serving in the military.

After the master class with Atom Egoyan, and an afternoon panel with the artists involved in Meet in the Middle, Friday night was all about Steenbeckett. Station nine of the project, Steenbeckett is a lens-based art installation created by Atom Egoyan, a renowned Canadian director known for his work in film, television, theatre, and opera. His work has long explored issues of memory, migration, and trauma, in part because of his Armenian heritage and the history of the Armenian genocide committed by Turkey in 1915, an event that Turkey still denies ever took place.

In high school, Egoyan was introduced to another of his major influences: Samuel Beckett. In particular, the play Krapp’s Last Tape. In the play, Krapp, a writer, sits with his tape machine listening to himself thirty years earlier, reflecting on himself a decade before that. Many of Egoyan’s films explore the intersection of memory and technology. Nowhere is this influence more obvious than in his early film Howard in Particular (1979), where a reel-to-reel tape player is a central element. As Egoyan says, “If you have seen that, you can see how long this obsession has been going on.”

In 2000, Egoyan had the opportunity to create a film version of Krapp’s Last Tape. He chose to shoot and edit the movie on film to match the physicality of the reel-to-reel tape that is central to the play. As Egoyan edited the film on his flatbed editor, a Steenbeck machine, he noticed the parallel between the spools of tape running from reel to reel on the screen and the film moving from roll to roll on the machine in front of him. When he was commissioned to do an installation art piece for Artangel in the U.K. in 2002, this fascination developed into what is now known as Steenbeckett. Since then, the piece has been exhibited at four different places around the U.K. This is the first exhibition of Steenbeckett in North America.

When you enter the exhibition at the MacKenzie, projected on a large screen in front of you is the film Krapp’s Last Tape (2000). You can sit and watch the film in its entirety. Just to the right is a small table covered with film canisters and various collected memories belonging to Egoyan himself. Strewn on the floor is some magnetic tape that you can touch and interact with. To the right of that is Steenbeckett. There, an old Steenbeck machine sits at the back of the room. Running through it is the last reel of Krapp’s Last Tape. You can see the film playing on the small screen of the editor as 2,000 feet of film run through the machine then loop across the room. The room is filled with the whir of film in motion. As MacKenzie Art Gallery head curator Timothy Long put it, Steenbeckett disregards the introverted nature of film and puts it out in the open, unprotected. It is quite a sight to see.

Friday evening at the symposium opened with a viewing of Krapp’s Last Tape and a discussion of the film with Atom Egoyan and Noah Richler. This was followed by an opening reception for Steenbeckett. At one point in the evening, in the middle of a crowd of people I didn’t really know, I felt a little lost, but off to one side was Vahram. He remembered me. We talked about our favourite movies and the language of film.

There was only one event left of the symposium. I got on the bus and headed for the Hotel Saskatchewan. The last event on the schedule was an afterparty in the lounge. I walked into the lobby carrying a backpack and wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a winter jacket. No one else was there yet. I was early; I wasn’t certain I was even in the right place, but I waited. I am glad I did. I had the chance to talk to a lot of people I had seen throughout the week. Vahram even sent me away with a list of movies to watch. At the end of the night, on my way out the door, I waved goodbye to Vahram and two other men that were heading back to Armenia in the morning. They got up, came over, and shook my hand; then they gave me a big hug.

All of this took place right here, in what one person referred to as the most improbable of places. It probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. I got to meet Atom Egoyan, and learned so much from the master class he gave. I met people from around the world, made new friends, and learned so much from them too.

But the most important thing I learned is that there is a really great community of people right here in Regina doing the kinds of things that I want to do, who are eager to share their knowledge and help others on their journey as students and artists. It was a meeting in the middle that took place in Regina—the middle of nowhere to some—because this is where the people are that made it happen. Steenbeckett will be on display at the MacKenzie until Jan. 2. Go see it while you can.

If you missed the symposium, you can watch many of the sessions on egoyanatthemackenzie.ca. You can also go there to read more about Steenbeckett. Meet in the Middle in cooperation with Black Dog (London, UK) have a catalogue on Steenbeckett coming in April 2017. You can read more about that and the rest of the project at meetinthemiddle.squarespace.com.

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