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?
What began as a student project quickly morphed into a wider pool. We were all in the same boat. The call went out, mostly by word of mouth and emails to various people who I thought might be interested and now a little over 3 months later, there are 68 videos produced by this collaborative process by 109 people. This project was a call to come out of isolation and “play”. I didn’t want people to take their assignments too seriously or procrastinate so everyone had a one week deadline. It was about being spontaneous, doing and not thinking. There were no judgements. Since we were all facing similar things in a condensed period of time, there were common themes: isolation, boredom, the arrival of spring, hopefulness, an unknown future, and racism. The project was about how to respond to each other in a creative fashion. It was about the creative process.
As someone who has worked on many film and video projects over the years, I have found that it can become too easy to slip into that “forever in development” mode. Filmmakers and media artists are constantly consumed with raising funds for a project. Waiting for the “green light” to proceed. Due to the expensive nature of the moving image, I have discovered that it’s critical to integrate creativity into my daily life. I don’t like to spend years pushing for my idea to get funded. I want to keep growing creatively, pushing my skills and enhancing my knowledge. My hope for the project was to expose people to this everyday creativity and perhaps encourage them to think differently about how they approach their own work.
I have learned a great deal producing 68 videos at one time. I have been introduced to some amazing, wonderfully talented individuals who have shared their spirit through the videos. I have watched people continue to grow and develop through their multiple contributions and have been completely astonished at some of the results. There are true treasures throughout the 68 videos. I am grateful that we could turn this time of isolation into one of collaboration and I applaud everyone’s contribution.
It is with a heavy heart, that I have to announce the death of Sammy, that wonderful orange cat whom we only had the pleasure of meeting back in March. Sammy was one of those cats who could never live indoors. Although we tried to keep him inside, he was very unhappy until we make the decision to open the door and set him free. We knew the possible consequences, but my partner and I firmly believe in providing a happy life for our pets – even if that means going out into the world. Sammy made so many friends in our neighbourhood. I could tell you stories about him for days. I know he was a welcomed guest to many who were stuck at home and brought some distraction and entertainment to them. Sammy was hit by a car just a few days after Toronto entered Stage 3 in the process of “getting back to business”. I miss him dearly but know he had a happy but short life. Video #2 Free-run Orange Cat was written with him in mind. This project is dedicated to Sammy.
Midi Onodera, August 2020