Sunday, July 17, 2016

Twice Told Tales: an interview with Mike Hoolboom

David: You Only Live Twice begins with a chance encounter between yourself and Chase Joynt at the Orly Airport the day Chris Marker died. Is this really how the two of you met? This chance encounter and later on the café robbery near Marker’s apartment seems so fantastic and coincidental that it’s a little hard to believe. I’m wondering if any of these stories were embellished?

Mike: Every action relating to Chris Marker seems impossible. Even while he was still alive he was a kind of living fiction, everything he touched turned into myth and legend. As a notoriously shy man, he left a space where his real life, attention-seeking avatar might have held forth, opining at international festivals and granting interviews. Perhaps it was his absence that drew us to him. He embodied what David Mamet names as the uninflected shot, an image that fails to signify by itself, but only in relationship. His retiring persona left a lot of room for his many admirers. What was more of a surprise than meeting in Orly, where Chase and I were of course hardly alone, was the fact that we were both from the same city (at least temporarily), and concerned with questions of picture making. Marker has been a reliable touchstone in our journeys, though we have pursued very different directions.

Aren’t all of our most important meetings chance encounters? I’d want it to be otherwise, I’d like to scribble “let’s fall in love today!” in the calendar or else “Get a new best friend” but it usually doesn’t quite work out. Or?

David: I like how you talk about Chris Marker’s La Jetée as a model for second lives – that of experiencing life after a personal metamorphosis due to a turbulent, life-changing experience. When did you first discover Marker’s films and start having this interpretation of La Jetée? And on the topic of Marker, what exactly is the La Jetée film festival that you both attended or the project to reveal his web-browsing history? I’ve never heard of either of these…

Mike: Buddhists sometimes speak of the three kinds of impression an experience can make. Some experiences are written on water, some on sand, others in stone. When we first saw La Jetée it felt like it was written in stone. It is a science-fiction movie about a future that became my future, as if it was conceived and photographed for me alone. As if I had uncovered, strangely and unwittingly, the script for my new life.

The movie’s unlikely romance is set in the aftermath of a terrible war where the question of second chances is floated. If you could survive your own death, what story would be compelling enough to keep your new hope alive? When “the cocktail” arrived in the mid-90s, millions of us who were HIV-positive were delivered from a certain death sentence, at least, those who were not already too close to the end, or who were fortunate enough to live in a country that granted access. But we were faced with a new and unsuspected challenge. We had lived with the promise of closure that proved a rigorous mission, we had bent ourselves towards our dying, and now that had been taken away. Marker provided a map for what might happen next.

Marker’s website has been lovingly maintained (, his web browsings are part of a Second Life cache, and the festival was part of a private arrangement made with Parisian avant-gardist Yann Beauvais.

David: The book recalls Marker’s Sans Soleil with its structure of corresponding letters (which you also discuss in the book). How did these correspondences proceed and when did the two of you decide that this would take the form of a book? What is the time span between all of the exchanges? Which one of you also wrote the third person narrations at the beginning of each section?

Mike: In one of our earliest convos, I mentioned to Chase that I became HIV-positive long before drugs were available, I should have died, but brave new chemistries granted me a second life. Chase began his life as a she, and now is a he. It’s as if, we couldn’t help thinking: you only live twice!

We are both creatures of distance. The only way we could be close, close enough to divulge our forbidden secrets even, was to create a reliable structure. Instead of the unwanted slippages of a live encounter, we could comb our words smooth before releasing them. It helped that our letters always arrived as part of an exchange, nodding yes or no, or simply exclaiming in surprise over the last received missive. You did what? It was hard to keep up with Chase’s winning retrieval of dating patterns or familial trysts, each missive was a nudge to step further out on a limb of trust, newly undressed.

The earliest form of the novel was a collection of letters, and it was necessary for us to retrieve this old technology — the technology of the novel and its open-ended hopes — in order to find a common language. There are so many different ways to become a couple. Some couples like to look at things together. Ford Maddox Ford said that you marry to continue the conversation. We wrote our way towards one another.

The project took about a year and a half to write, generating too many versions to count, and in a gesture of trust that still seems unthinkable one of us would be visited by an inspiring moment of reinvention and shuffle up the chapters. The responses were rapid, or that’s how it felt at the time. It took shape organically, the way a chitchat proceeds, with all of the important underground bits as exposed as we could make them. We didn’t have a map at the beginning, only the compass of our inclinations. The novelist Catherine Bush was instrumental in applying a three-act structure: first life, transition, second life. Once that was in place it was obvious that the stories of our live encounters would provide the opening moments of each period.

David: The confessional aspects about the personal effects of the AIDS epidemic in the book (and in your films in general) present a complex portrait of the emotional and social toll that the disease was imposing onto people and the society at the time. This is one of the strengths of the book as it testifies to this pivotal moment in Canada’s cultural memory. Can you talk more about the period in terms of how these issues were being engaged with in Toronto by activist queer filmmakers and artist such as yourself, John Greyson, Bruce LaBruce, Will Munro and General Idea? What was the urgency to create art, films and media in this period?

Mike: I think the work offers testimonies, a bearing witness, but it’s interesting the word you use instead – confessional. It recalls Augustine’s book of the same name, Confessions, often cited as the first autobiography. His confession is also the saga of conversion, and both hinge on a calling; Augustine describes a voice reciting a Biblical passage, and at this moment he is called to convert to Christianity. His would be the first of innumerable callings and conversions, the template for being “born again” into a second life.

After my sero-conversion (becoming HIV positive) I was also called to make work about the condition. Along with many others, as you note. Two of the three folks who made up General Idea died of AIDS, and their work increasingly turned towards an examination of the iconography and politics of AIDS, most famously turning Robert Indiana’s LOVE poster into AIDS, or filling a room with oversize capsules and calling it One Year of AZT. AA Bronson’s heartbreaking book about the loss of his comrades (Negative Thoughts) remains a touchstone.

The rapid spread of the virus was also a problem of pictures. How do we make pictures that can inform, that can create changes in government policy and pharmaceutical practice, and in our sexual lives? Will Munro was a genius of making community pictures that were big enough for unmet strangers to live in.

I think John Greyson and Richard Fung are the two premier political poets in the fringe media arts scene. Their activism finds new roots in their pictures, Richard’s through a steadfast approach to family, while John’s hybrid creations arrive from a political collage tradition. In his masterpiece Fig Trees, John creates an AIDS opera (!) starring Tim McCaskell and Zackie Achmat, the South African activist whose drug strike brought Nelson Mandela and finally the government onboard to change its deadly policy of refusing AIDS pharmaceuticals. Richard meanwhile also made a movie with Tim, who is not incidentally his partner, and tells the story of his becoming HIV, and blends this illness narrative with his ailing sister, with essayistic asides on colonialism and disease.

I think one of the hopes of fringe media is to find new forms for new contents. To allow different kinds of voices to speak, and to allow them to be heard in different ways. How can we learn to love each other in a new way, and how can we learn to make pictures with each other that might make these new dreams possible?

David: With your published interviews with experimental filmmakers, the website Fringe Online ( and the vast archive on your own website ( includes 28 free-to-download books, the Independent Eye Magazine, Funnel experimental film collective) you provide an archeology of an underground and experimental film history of Toronto that’s a little forgotten about today. What is it about this late-80s to 90s period that you think is really important and should be better remembered?

Mike: When I started making and seeing fringe media it was part of a climate of anti-capital resistance. It wasn’t simply the movies we made, it was the places we lived, the clothes we wore (and didn’t wear), the things we didn’t own, the values we held in common. It was the way we had sex, the conversations we risked, the openings and closings of a face. You made movies with your whole body, as the dancer Deborah Hay likes to say, the whole body at once is the teacher.

Today at least some of the fringe is in danger of becoming a genre, sealed inside an academic kiss, safeguarding its rules and conventions. Recalling earlier modes of cultural resistance is not a nostalgia-fest, or some longing for the good old days, they are warning signs and reminders from the shoulders of past roads. The real estate moguls leveled the old avant scenes and undergrounds. How might they be reimagined today, as the triumphal march of capital turns once radical institutions into ruling class projections? Perhaps we can pick up a few old riffs and hack our way into new pleasure zones, where the lack of a good job will not effect our ability to hook up, where our new distraction machines will not distract us from each other.

David: Your Vimeo account ( is a great resource. Aside from Positiv and Mark, which you discuss in the book, what of your other work would you recommend people to watch to have a better idea of your focus and aesthetic in your body of work? And what are the videos that you have been making in recent years?

Mike: I’ve been slowly reworking and re-editing my entire body of work and posting it on Vimeo, there are more than thirty movies up, and the heap continues to grow. I made a home movie about my nephew called Jack (2000) that’s a dozen minutes long, featuring moments from his first five years. Frank’s Cock (1993) received a generous reception when it arrived, nearly two decades ago, winning awards at Locarno, TIFF and many other ports of call. There were three features in the early noughts that I’m partial to: Tom, Imitations of Life and Public Lighting. New versions of Tom and Public Lighting are ready for their close-up, bits and pieces of Imitations are online and there’s more to come.

Last year I finished an hour-long Marxist love story on super 8 that premiered in Rotterdam called We Make Couples. Could the couple also be a form of resistance? It features guest appearances by Occupy, Pussy Riot protesters, a runaway goat, two poodles, an army of street marchers, Mos Def, Frankenstein and cinema’s first kiss.

I also made Incident Reports last year, a feature-length movie made of one-minute shots that premiered at the Images Festival. It’s a love letter to Toronto with a number of cameos by my pals, film artists and writers mostly. I’m recutting Incident Reports, as usual, tweaking the sound, swapping out some shots, bigging up the colour. Digital media means never having to say the word stop. Last year’s flicks are not up for public viewing on Vimeo yet, but soon they’ll join the others. This year I’m working on four new shorts and a pair of new features. I just edited a book of Mike Cartmell’s brilliant writing called Disasterologies, and am nearly finished an oral history book about the Funnel, both books will be published by the kind and generous folks at the Canadian Film Institute.

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