Boundary Blurrer: An Interview with Vera Frenkel

For 30 years, Toronto multidisciplinary artist Vera Frenkel has been asking vexing questions. She is omnivorous in this regard, asking them of any individual or institution she comes across that takes for granted a sense of entitlement or that exercises an abuse of power, however slight it may appear on the surface. What makes her interrogations so effective is that she is able to pose them through an intelligence and a manner that are utterly disarming and all the more compelling for their restraint.

One of the main targets of her critical gaze has been the bureaucracy. Since bureaucracies come in all sizes, her response has been commensurate with their scale and activities. From her display of the Third Reich’s bureaucratic masking of evil in Body Missing, to the all-enveloping details of The Institute™, the chain of artists’ residences she has virtually located in vacant hospital buildings across the country, Frenkel has steadily conducted diligent inquiries into the operations of the bureaucratic mind. These inquiries have taken various forms, including a multilinguistic gathering place ( … from the Transit Bar, 1992-98), a national radio program (episodes from The Institute™ called “Artists in Residence” were broadcast on The Arts Tonight in June of 2000), and on a Web site (the labyrinthine intersections of The Institute™, her “video-web poly-serial narrative” can be navigated at Frenkel has a fine instinct for the structure that best suits the nature of each individual project and, as a result, her chosen forms have been migratory and in constant transformation.

Vera Frenkel comes to her suspicions about the nature of bureaucracies through family and history. She was born in Czechoslovakia in 1939; her parents lost 17 siblings in the Holocaust and her favourite bedtime story was how her mother travelled across Europe with a newborn infant and escaped to England, where her father had been grieving over what he assumed was their inevitable fate. In describing that story–“the ins and outs were very complex”–she is also commenting on the sense of narrative exposition and attention to detail she has carried into her writing for the performances, videos and Web sites that have formed the basis of her own artistic practice.

Frenkel has always been concerned with the intersections between art and life, or what she refers to in the following interview as a “healthy oscillation between what is real and what isn’t.” Her aesthetic terrain is vast–“I work on the boundary between the documentary and the fictive”–and her inclination is to blur that boundary. In her understanding of experience, “so much of life is invented and so much of art is inevitable.” Her task, then, is to present that blurring as clearly as possible, giving the viewer insights into the overlapping complications that result from the blur. It is not surprising that she has become fascinated by what happens at the border, whether it manifests as a boundary between political entities, or as a threshold between technologies of communication.

At the core of her questioning of the world and her place in it is an assessment of the artist’s role in society. Because we are living in what she characterizes as “a mad and toxic world,” she accepts that her task, at the very least, “is to encourage skepticism.” Frenkel’s modest assessment is that in this quest she is “learning as she goes.” On the evidence of the work she has presented so far, her learning curve is precipitously steep and brilliantly controlled.

Vera Frenkel has shown her projects at Documenta ix in Kassel, the National Gallery of Canada, the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Setagaya Museum in Tokyo. She is a recipient of numerous prizes, including a Governor General’s Award in the Visual and Media Arts (2006), the Canada Council Molson Prize (1989), the Bell Canada Award for Video Art (2001) and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize (1995).

The following conversation was recorded in Ottawa in April 2007. It opens with Frenkel responding to a question about her commitment to writing.

**VERA FRENKEL: **I think it was Edmund Wilson who said there’s no writing; there’s just rewriting. I’m very critical, I let everything flow in a first draft and it has an energy that you have to recapture in rewriting later on. That’s not always easy.

**BORDER CROSSINGS: **Is your practice fed by reading?

**VF: **It was, although my time doesn’t permit that as much as it used to. I found my capacity to read altered, first after my father died and it came back, and then after my mother died and now it’s coming back again. Apparently one symptom of grieving is that it has an effect on focus, so I can read short things. But I hear language. It’s cadence that animates my writing and when I go over things, I’m listening while I’m editing.

**BC: **The cadence and the rhythm also mean you can adopt a point of view, so if you’re Cornelia Lumsden, then the tone shifts with the character. I gather that is carefully orchestrated.

**VF: **Yes, that’s deliberate. I produce the voice the role requires. But I listen to a work like The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden: A Remarkable Story today and I’m embarrassed because I would do it better now. I didn’t have any money to hire people then and I just fell into doing the parts myself. I thought, Okay, women know how to play roles even though none of them work.

**BC: **They have no efficacy?

**VF: **You’ve got it. There is no satisfactory way of being a woman in this culture. Not that it’s all role playing. Those of us who are luckier than some integrate a lot of roles and find our own paths that way, but it’s not so simple. ***(See Issue 102 to read the full interview.)***