VAL Desjardins is Montréal-based photographer and a video artist who uses performance as a way to express her ideas about gender and queer sexualities. I was able to attend her Coming Home show, after she'd been away for years in New York, finessing her photography and becoming evermore involved in performance art.
AT: You are an artist who appears as much in front as behind the camera–can you talk a bit about what those different positions offer?
VAL: Breaking down the boundaries that have traditionally existed between the camera/artist and the subject has been pivotal in my work. Being able to move between the back of the camera where I plan images and engaging my body in performance for the camera allows me the freedom necessary to express my ideas and include myself as a source of exploration. I love creating images but also feel a strong need to be seen, therefore I need the dance between the two positions to be extremely fluid and open. Sometimes I work with models and shoot traditional portraits, sometimes I set up my camera on a tripod and perform alone for the camera, other times I collaborate with people and create images that record a live performance. It’s always different, there are no rules in my image making world…just feelings, ideas and the desire to express them by making images.
AT: You also do a lot of collaborative work–how does collaboration enhance your work?
VAL: I’ve always enjoyed working with the people around me… friends, lovers, people who intrigue me and more recently with artists whom I want to converse with through creativity. It’s amazing to see the endless possibilities of art that can be produced when different minds and talents work together around a chosen subject. A self-reflective art practice can be isolating so I like to surround myself with people once in while to avoid crashing into myself and getting lonely in my work. Furthermore, collaborating always brings fresh ideas and perspectives! My first collaboration happened quite naturally when I was 16 years old, I began to explore the gender roles in my first queer relationship by putting the camera on tripod and timer so that I could be in the images with my lover. Now my collaborations are much more conscious and mostly involve connecting with other queer subjects, artists with similar discourses, people who have stimulating ideas and visual artists with a strong sense of aesthetic that I am interested in working with.
AT: Your photos are stunning and present queer sexualities in a very powerful way. I especially liked the shared space (the gallery) of sex work, queer politics, and issues of violence towards women. How do these themes come together for you?
VAL: All the themes in my work are somehow connected because they all address boundaries and possibilities in regards to gender and sexuality. Being queer made me search for my place within society and therefore think a lot about the body, social roles, relationships between men and women, and female/male gender fluidity. This search brought up the inherent issues of power, control, and the violence that occur within a group of animals and has lead me to play with the performance of social roles within a binary gender system. Sex work is a reoccurring theme in my work simply because I’ve known many people who work in the sex industry and it is a fascinating territory where gender roles and power and violence all play out on a very complex yet primal level.
AT: Coming Home was your last solo show. It was both very personal and, well, public. How do you negotiate the personal and the public? Is the personal political? If so, how? What does self-reflexive art offer?
VAL: For the show ‘Coming Home’ I asked 10 artists to do portraits of me. This meant being open and listening to what others saw while also accepting a lack of control over the images that would be chosen and presented in the show. Every artist had the freedom to express their perception of me which, of course, varied depending mainly on the relationship I had to the artist. This exposed some personal relationships and some parts of me that I had never exposed but being that I curated the show and chose the artists, there was still an element of control over what became public! I think it’s important to have a comfort level that we’re in tune with and choose how much of the personal we expose to the public. That being said, I am a feminist and do choose to expose myself in my work because ‘the personal is political’, always.
AT: Coming home implies both a sense of returning to a familiar place and making peace within oneself. Is there a “therapeutic” side to your art?
VAL: Yes. My art practice has become a venue for me to explore, express and manifest the different inner tensions and turmoil that exist in my life. We all have issues and subjects that we struggle with and art offers a venue for exploring these subjects. I am fascinated by gender and sexuality and I feel compelled to break the boundaries, explore the reasons why our society is so afraid of fluidity and furthermore examine my personal relationship to these subjects, to my body. I feel that art offers a playground in which I can express my questions, ideas and construct my convictions. For me, making art through performance has allowed me to create a space, a place to inhabit when I’m exploring. And when I feel ready, I can come out and share my images and performance to create a discussion with the world around me.
AT: You have been invited to perform in Alberta (name of show/gallery?) as a “Francophone” artist–how does presenting in french change the ways in which you can communicate issues of sexuality and gender given the differences in language and culture?
VAL: At the end of November I will be performing at ‘lattitude53’ gallery in Edmonton, Alberta. The evening is entitled: ‘Fatale: A Dangerous night of Femme Performance’ (which is pretty hilarious considering that I’m more of a girly boi than anything, but hey, I am a ‘femme’ in French!), it’s part of the ‘Exposure festival’. Performing in french always inspires me to address my French Canadian roots, particularly today because the ‘Quebecois de Souche’ culture is in serious need of a wake up call! Our problems with alcohol, abuse, silence and guilt need to be exposed if we are going to evolve as a culture. I am working on some texts that will address the latent racism, fear and insecurity inherent in the expression ‘Pure Laine’ and link it to my experience as a homo growing up in a large ‘Pure laine’ family. Being queer in this culture has been difficult and I feel that it is in part due to the xenophobia that prevails in Quebec, so I’m going to address it, with my words, my naked body, some sound and some video projection.
AT: What projects are you working on now?
VAL: I now have a studio space at the' Long Hall' (aka Long Haul) in Montreal.
It's a very inspiring 20-member artist collective that hosts events, screenings, fundraisers…I have my own 300sqf space, which is going to be set-up for photo/video shootings and for hosting video screening event so its time to start hibernating and collaborating with people to make some bold and powerful visual art!
Oh ya, and I am completely fascinated by Animal Homosexuality so that’s for sure a theme that I’m going to play with this winter…fun fun…!