EXC-19: Collaboration during quarantine
Exquisite Corpse is a game invented in Paris by Surrealists André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert, and Marcel Duchamp in the early 1900s. Similar to the old parlour game Consequences, in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution, Exquisite Corpse turns it into a drawing game. Participants take turns drawing sections of a body on a sheet of paper, then folding the paper to hide their contribution. The first player adds a head, the next artist adds a torso, and so on, none of the players knowing what the previous drawing looks like. The result is a strange, sometimes grotesque, often amusing creature. The name itself is derived from a phrase that resulted from the first game, “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine).
The game was enjoyed by Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Frida Kahlo among many others. Even after the Surrealist group disbanded in the 1930s, the game remained popular among artists as a way of fostering collaboration and creativity. Henry Miller often played the game to pass time in French cafés.
During the lockdown imposed by the COVID-19 health crisis, Toronto filmmaker and teacher Midi Onodera was inspired by Exquisite Corpse to come up with the idea of a video version, EXC-19, with people from across the country contributing from their homes. By the time the project wrapped up in August, 68 videos had been created by 100+ different contributors.
As one of the participants – I created four soundtracks and shot and edited one of the videos – I was curious about the overall arc of the project, so reached out to Midi once the website was launched for some insights into the thought processes behind the project, as well as her overall impressions.
All videos are viewable at exc-19.com
Bulletin Interview: Midi Onodera
Before we talk about the EXC-19 project, I wondered how you’ve been dealing with the whole quarantine/lockdown situation. I know Toronto was hit pretty hard early on, with lots of restrictions in place.
Toronto, like Montreal, was hard-hit. The funny thing I discovered while I was inviting people to participate in the project was seeing the two extremes of people’s situations. Either people were super busy or they were so bored they were starting to go a bit nuts.
I enjoyed taking part in the EXC-19 project. It was a welcome distraction during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. How did you come up with the idea?
Toronto initiated its Covid-19 lockdown the week of March 16, 2020. We all faced a mad scramble in the supermarkets, irrational stockpiling and fears of running out of toilet paper and daily essentials. On March 17, my partner and I picked up Sammy, a three-year-old, lean and muscular marmalade cat from the Humane Society. The next day my Video I class at UTSC went online. As we finished up the term and as our “stay at home” situations crept into a new normalcy, I started to think about what my students would do after the term ended in two weeks. Like all of us, they would be forced to stay in their homes, some in complete isolation, others with roommates, many far from home. I began to worry about their mental health, so I created the EXC-19 collaborative video project, based on the Surrealist drawing game, The Exquisite Corpse, modified for the moving image. Each video would begin with a written piece of 19 words. This text was then randomly and anonymously given to someone else to shoot video, photos or source found footage that somehow spoke to the written word. The footage would then be forwarded to another person for editing and finally a fourth person would create the soundtrack. The “collaborators” for each video would only be revealed once the video had been completed. After all, who doesn’t like a surprise?
How did you go about identifying participants? And where they all people already involved in video production?
The wonderful thing about this project is that it could involve non-video/filmmakers. Anyone could contribute 19 words to initiate the start of a new video. Most people with a mobile phone could either take photos or record short video clips or even surf the internet for found footage. The only areas that required more specialized skills were editing and sound. As for selecting who participated I basically thought of as many people as I could to invite, word of mouth and a colleague from UofT made the video project part of her course, so this increased the number of participants and brought in a whole new group of people.
Can you run down the rules that you gave each participant, and why you made them?
The rules were quite loose. Each person was selected based on the waiting list. Depending of the skill set of the person they would be assigned the next video task in the line-up. This was completely random. The title is either the first sentence of the text or the first three words. Really, the only real “rule” was that the text had to appear in some form in the video. This could be shot by the assigned cameraperson or added in the editing process by the editor. Or it could be added in the soundtrack stage. The text was the anchor of each video.
You asked participants to take on various aspects of the video – from writing to shooting to editing to sound – just not on the same video. How did people respond to taking on these very different roles, which require very different skillsets?
If anyone was uncomfortable with their task, they could always reject it and I would give them something else to do. Some people approached the project as a challenge to try something new or something they had little experience with. This was great! This project was meant to be creatively challenging and fun. Other people felt more comfortable doing things they were familiar with – it was a personal decision on their part. I didn’t force anyone to do anything but rather tried to encourage them to explore new things.
In what ways did EXC-19 mutate from your original vision to that what actually transpired?
There was absolutely no way I could predict what would happen to the individual videos. All participants were given full creative control over their section (writing, shooting, editing, or sound). It was always a treat receiving a video in the different stages of production. As the project progressed, I was a bit more hands on and would encourage people to go further if I didn’t feel there was enough footage to work with, but I tried to stay back from judging people’s submissions too much.
Was there anything that surprised you?
All the videos surprised me. As a moving image artist, naturally I thought of ways I would work with the text or footage, etc. but people have their own sensibilities and bring themselves to each task, so this was exciting. At the peak of the project, I felt like I was getting video presents daily, which was so wonderful.
As the project got underway, did you see any commonalties between the different videos, or were they all very different from one another?
Overall, I would say that people are always pre-occupied with the immediate world around them. So, the concerns and commonalities changed over the six months. At the beginning of the lock-down people expressed fear and uncertainty but also hopefulness since we were transitioning into spring. As the project progressed there was concerns of anti-Asian sentiments and racism. At the end there was a hopefulness and a resignation that our current situation was the “new normal”.
Collaboration is common in the arts, but not blind collaboration! In four of the five videos I was involved with I put down the finishing element – the sound/music – so it wasn’t so strange, as everything else had been completed already. But in the fifth video I was given text and told to shoot a video to accompany it with no other guidelines. As you know, I misunderstood and edited the video as well, instead of turning it over to someone else for editing like I was supposed to. I think perhaps my subconscious rebelled at turning over raw footage to someone else, as I shot it with a certain story arc in mind. By the time I realized my mistake it was too late. But then I turned over the video to you to have someone add the sound. And that felt very odd. What did you hope to achieve through this very different approach to collaboration? And how did other participants react to this lack of artistic control?
You’re right, the usual process of collaboration consists of working together on each production element. One does not usually “give up” this creative ownership, but I wanted people to try and trust the process. As creative people we want to retain control because we have a certain vision and want to see that through. In this project, I wanted people to keep an open mind and let go of what they had done. Most people found this way of working exciting and each time a video was finished the participants were pleasantly surprised by the final result. Some people said that they could not believe or imagine how the next person changed or modified what they had done – in a good way. This form of collaboration could not have happened any other time. Now, we are at the point with technology that virtual video productions can happen. We don’t need to be in the same city. We can transfer/send files all over the world. Given that most people were restricted to their homes, they had the time to focus on this and for many it became a welcome distraction to the Covid-19 situation. I am very pleased with the results and have met some incredibly talented people along the way, people I would now want to work with on other projects in the future. Since some of the participants were students this was an amazing opportunity for them to work with a new group of people and “meet” some established artists. I loved your contributions and it was so interesting to see how a soundtrack could completely change/alter/enhance the image.
Tell me about Sammy the cat? You dedicated the project to him.
Sammy was a wonderful cat and I am sorry that I never got to spend more time with him. It seemed appropriate to dedicate EXC-19.com to him because we got him right before the lockdown and then he got hit by a car just a few days after Toronto entered into Stage 3 of the city’s opening. Since he was three-years-old by the time we got him, his desire to go outside was firmly established and although we tried to keep him inside he was miserable. Since most people were at home during this period, he would wander around and visit the neighbours. He was known for just walking into people’s houses and I would get calls about him all the time since he had a collar with my phone number on it. I think Sammy knew more neighbours than I did and I also think he made a number of people happy with his visits. People were feeling so isolated and a friendly cat showing up was entertaining amusement. I miss Sammy but I know he had a good, yet brief life.
What’s next for you, artistically?
I am just starting to get into a larger project that will most likely take me several years to do. But I always want to do something creative so I will continue to do my annual online video projects. Each year I pick a different theme and create monthly videos that I post on my website, midionodera.com This year’s project is about the crazy world of streaming video. I hope people “tune” in on the first of every month to see a new video.
Anything you’d like to add?
There are so many ways that we can all integrate creativity into our daily lives. It does not always mean planning, finding funds and gathering a team together. It can be a simple as making the commitment to write something each day or take one photograph a day. I feel this is so important and can enrich all aspects of our lives.