Library and Archives Canada Public Domain Reels Documenting Spots of Beauty and Interest in Ontario and Quebec Sometime Ago Remix Today [VHS] 19752010

Video by Ryan Stec and Véronique Couillard
Soundscape by If Then Do

Commission for the Public Domain project by SAW Video
Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts

In June 2009, SAW Video commissioned seven media artists to create new video works from public domain materials in the film/video/audio collection at Library and Archives Canada. The result is Public Domain, a program of six new videos that premiered in Ottawa June 23rd, 2010 which toured across North America and Europe in 2011-12.

These images might have been better left untouched

Publication text by Véronique Couillard and Ryan Stec


Look at these images. Take your time to look. It was a fair amount of work to get them for you. To say that they where hidden in the archives would be embellishing, but as artists who where used to simply dipping into the ubiquitous stream of media around us, getting images from the Library and Archives Canada felt comically bureaucratic and almost wholly uncreative. 

We were looking for moving images of Canadian industrial landscapes in the public domain. We wanted to process them into a new video abstraction. Something that pulled the images out of the realm of history and closer to what we imagine our history to be. We thought that there would be a plethora of material at the Archives. Like flags in the nation’s capital. But we didn’t find many. There weren’t many to find. We reviewed a lot of film footage that couldn’t be used because it was too dark, out of focus or simply not what we were looking for. The documentation we imagined did not exist. 

The footage we did find, and wanted to work with, was really quite stunning. But this is where we got stuck. We had found images to work with, but felt they were fine as they where. More than fine. Questions arose. Turned us in circles. Did you have to have a message when you use archival footage? Was it possible to not have a message? Did the images have to have meaning for us, or was it OK to treat them like any other found/borrowed video? We decided to minimize our relationship to meaning. A kind of low impact engagement. Take only memories. Leave only footprints. The footage was heavy. It had its own baggage to carry. 

Once we had selected and obtained the materials, we produced the piece as a live video-performance and documented it in High Definition. The moment we created the piece was also the moment that shaped it. Or rather less poetically, the piece would have been entirely different had it been made another day.  Once we realised this, and admitted it to one-another, it made us feel somewhat cheap. 

And this is where we got stuck again. Our piece felt random and superficial. Purely aesthetic, almost disposable. We had to fix this. Somewhere between alleviating our guilt and a creative revelation we decided we needed to liberate the footage, and place it more completely into the public domain. Our random unique video-performance is a single viewpoint on these historical perspectives. We feel that the whole process should really be open for discussion.