A Conversation w/ Robert Hamilton

A Conversation w/ Robert Hamilton

The following email conversation took place over the month of August 2014, upon the acquisition of Robert Hamilton’s works General Public Identity (2014) and Vice Versa (2014).  Both works will be shown as part of our first promotional Recent Acquisitions Screening this fall.


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Still from General Public Identity (2014).


Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out:  General Public Identity (2014) engages in part with crowds and the public sphere while Vice Versa (2014) could suggest a return to the self-referential aspects of your early practice.  Is this something you’ve been thinking about?  What common ground do these works share?

Robert Hamilton:  Formally, General Public Identity and Vice Versa are a return to non-animated video. I’ve continued with exploring familiar themes of public and private space. In these recent works I’ve situated myself in the work – one indirectly, the other as a presenter of sorts. I wasn’t conscious of situating myself in the work until afterwards.

For General Public Identity I was curious about how images are captured in public. I brought a video camera and large tripod to a lunchtime public music performance in downtown Vancouver. How the video was shot was important. I was conscious how I appeared while shooting: I’m tall, older, I dressed conservatively and had short hair – I wanted to assume the look of an authority figure openly video taping the public. At the concert I pointed my camera towards people watching the crowd rather than the performance. Some people in the crowd were clearly uncomfortable and gave me angry/concerned looks. While cameras are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, I don’t think it’s clear how to respond when one’s image is being captured. I was working on the video during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and saw the video of Pussy Riot being whipped by the Cossack militia; it was so odd and openly fascistic.

For Vice Versa, I was interested in creating a personal video about my family. It’s something I hadn’t done before and seemed to be a natural progression. It began with a trip to Nanaimo to attend my Grandmother’s 98th birthday. I frequently compare Canada with The Netherlands and this work permitted a sort of real-time visual comparison. It’s organized in a formal grid; four screens that explores the attending, celebrating and leaving each birthday party. While working on the video, the footage made me sad, perhaps nostalgic. I reflected on the importance of family and how we really don’t see each other enough – the joy of seeing family and the sadness of leaving them. A sort of coming and going – I underscore this idea with having the split screen mirrored.

VO:  You chose music in the public domain for both pieces — and the audio seems very important, structurally and narratively, in each instance.  Is it somehow important for you to work with found or appropriated scores and sound?

RH:  The central concern is to find audio that informs/compliments the work, not overshadow it. The type of audio I’ll use isn’t yet determined at the outset of a project. Generally speaking, the audio chosen is from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes I use music (occasionally my own), more often I use my own field recordings.

With these particular videos I was fortunate to have found two recordings that dovetailed nicely with the images. I’m conscious how the music works structurally in the videos, especially in relation to editing. The reduced speed of the recording of Remembrance of Gatshine by the Imperial Russian Balalaika Court Orchestra has an ominous and dark feel that compliments the slow, near-static images of General Public Identity.

For Vice Versa, I began looking for music my Grandmother had enjoyed, perhaps something complimentary, nostalgic. She quite liked the music of Don Ho as many Albertans did of her generation. While searching I came across George Kainapau’s Ne Kali Nei Au (The Wedding Song). The warmth and narrative quality of the duet reflected the dual images found in the video. Generally the audio in my work has a contrapuntal relationship with the images.

I first became interested in using found audio when attending the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1980’s. A local radio station donated a large collection of old radio and sound effect records to the school and I spent hours listening and taping bits I found interesting.

VO:  A lot of your work seems to have a sociological focus.  During my first viewing of Vice Versa I was reminded of Pierre Bordieu’s book Photography:  A Middlebrow Art (1965) and the possibility of systemic or hegemonically conditioned activities within our everyday lives appearing very personal, spontaneous or individuated (stuff like amateur photography, birthday parties or even contemporary social media involvement).  Then again, a reference point like this might be quite removed from your own thinking as a creative artist.  Can you talk about theoretical or conceptual underpinnings across your practice?

RH:  Family rituals such as birthday parties are dutifully photographed and shared. While such images are personal (perhaps conditioned so), they can be read as part of a larger cultural expression. Bourdieu suggests photographic practice as “an index and instrument of integration” (I’m certain I’m oversimplifying here) that people define class boundaries by engaging in different forms of photographic activity. A contemporary example could be the various approaches to selfies. A large-scale project such as Lev Manovich’s selfiecity that analyzed a broad, international sampling of selfies suggests that images can reveal interesting patterns and trends. Birthday parties, in this case a sampling of two, have provided a common ground for a subjective cultural comparison. Formally, the convenience and immediacy of digital cameras has had a significant impact on my work. In Martin Hand’s Ubiquitous Photography, he discusses digitization as having altered the social and cultural functions of photography, image-making practices and the means by which photographic images are viewed. Relatedly, Jose Van Dijk’s Mediated Memories in a Digital Age discusses photography moving from a physical form of memory (i.e. family photo album or family movies) to a digital form of communication (i.e. Instagram, Tumbler, Snapchat). The superfluity of digital images has dramatically transformed the nature of photography and video. The ubiquity and permanence of digital photography has inverted our conventional relationship with memory. To quote Bourdieu: ‘”Photography, far from being perceived as signifying itself and nothing else, is always examined as a sign of something that it is not. The legibility of the picture itself is a function of the legibility of its intention.”

VO:  How did you end up getting work distributed by Video Out?  What has your relationship to VIVO Media Arts Centre been like over the years?

RH:  I first visited VIVO in the 90’s and being from Alberta I’ve always wanted to have my work distributed by Video Out. I approached Video Out in 2005 with four titles that were picked up for distribution followed by another in 2008. I’ve been impressed by the support and enthusiasm of Video Out. My two most recent videos were shot in BC and it made sense to approach Video Out again. I’d really like to drop by and visit VIVO in the new space – it’s exciting!

VO:  That would be great Robert – hopefully we’ll have a chance to see you in person soon. What are you up to at the moment with your work?

RH:  I’m currently working on a few new videos and an installation project entitled The Memory Studio: The Aesthetics of Forgetting. It reflects on the aesthetic concerns regarding changes in the production, distribution, and consumption of photographic images in contemporary digital culture.

I believe there’s a need to reconsider the digital tools and systems that automatically remember everything. Instead of creating tools to remember, the time has come to design tools to forget. With digital memory and digital remembering we are not only creating a digital panopticon but we are creating a temporal panopticon. What we record now may be held against us in the future. Recently, celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence had their personal iCloud accounts hacked and highly personal images were compromised. Edward Snowden’s disclosing of classified documents reveal the American National Security Agency (NSA) as having compromised millions of American’s privacy. An outcome of these revelations suggest online privacy is likely impossible and one may wonder how and why this has come to be.

VO:  Thank you Robert for these generous responses and insights into your practice and ideas. We look forward to your next works at Video Out.


Video Out offers video artists professional representation for rentals and sales of their moving image work. Video Out’s distribution collection features over 5000 videos, both historical and contemporary, by video artists from Canada and abroad. Video Out returns 67% of revenues generated from sales, rentals and broadcast licenses to the video producers we represent. Video Out was founded as a non-profit, artist-run distribution centre in 1980.