Culture  An intimate distance

Aleesa Cohene’s multi-screen video installation pieces together the pitfalls of family life

No family situation is ever peachy perfect. Each has its own drama to sort out, whether it be living in a home that is always empty, caring for an ill-loved one, or having a brother who hogs the TV all day. We’ve all figured out that Leave it to Beaver was full of shit. But it still makes great material for an artist to work with.

Last Thursday evening, Vancouver-born and Toronto-based artist Aleesa Cohene opened up her seventh video art installation, “Something Better,” at Articule gallery. Her work has been screened at over a dozen film festivals around the world, including the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006.

Much of Cohene’s art stems from social and political critique. She explains that the whole family dilemma reveals a larger issue we are all faced with. It all boils down to a universal activity that we just can’t seem to get right: communication.

How she manages to get her message across is anything but a simple process. There are three screens – Mom on the right screen, Dad on the left, and kid in the middle. We see eight minutes of the characters interacting through the television screens. There’s a lot of action, a bit of dialogue, and music that Cohene pieced together herself to fit the melancholic mood perfectly.

Most impressive is that she did everything with found footage, taking clips from unknown eighties films and rearranging them. Removing the clips from their usual context, Cohene places them into new situations to manifest the story she wants to tell.

Within these eight minutes, the videos tell a story of Dad who is bored of playing house. So Mom kicks him out of their home. The situation leaves her utterly broken-hearted – blank stares, tears, worried facial expressions. Mom doesn’t understand what is wrong with Dad since the entire meaning of her existence revolves around her family. She wants to raise a family with Dad, provide her child with the skills to go out into the world and make his own family some day. Stuck in the middle of all this is the child. Cohene says that the “child is paralyzed because he is a product of these two extremes,” being stretched out like a Stretch Armstrong toy. The child suffers what we have all experienced at one point or another in our lives: questions like “Are you really my parents?” “What’s up with my body?” “And why is mom so sad?”

According to Cohene, it’s impossible to ever fully understand someone else. There are always communication barriers. The screens are so close together; the characters are spatially close, but remain emotionally distant. With all the high-tech gadgets we’ve developed, we have the means to communicate better, but we still manage to be stuck in the same rut.

The exhibition doesn’t overtly attempt to find a way out of the situation. “There is no desire for resolution,” explains Cohene. “The desire is just to feel.”

But “there is hope sprinkled throughout,” she adds, and this hope is symbolized by the piano, the only focal point of daily life where we see these characters understand each other, and even love one another. Humans have developed alternative ways of communicating – dancing, bongo playing, different sex positions, painting. Each medium of communication can make up for what the others lack.