A Watched Pot Never Boils

Sara Matthews

In conversation with artist Peter Kingstone

Video artist Peter Kingstone and I got together at his studio at York University to talk about, among other things, boredom, lies and how to think about art. One of Kingstone's latest works, "400 Lies and One Truth About Me" (2003), offers the viewer a silent text dialogue that scrolls down a darkened screen - fictional (all but one) tidbits from a life both juicy and banal, numbered 1 to 400. I LOVE EATING LIVER I am reminded of watching movie credits because they roll by too quickly to read each one, so I watch the loop over and over again, amusing myself by trying to guess which pronouncement is the truth. I really want to know which of the 400 statements is true and I even guess about it the next time that I talk with Peter on the phone. Feeling slightly ashamed of falling for my own curiosity, I am reassured by the knowledge that I am not alone in having succumbed to the desire to know. Traces of this desire can be found in everything from eloquently deconstructive texts on the latest art-stars to nights spent in front of the TV watching the latest reality show nightmare. "Welcome", echoes philosopher Slavoj Zizek, "to the desert of the real". If this is where desire leads than I definitely need to bring along a sense of humour.

Luckily, Kingstone doesn't leave me to face my shameful desires alone. Ever since he was a kid, Kingstone's stories and narratives have always been funny; if not to others, at least to him. "I think humour is a big part of me or part of what I am doing. CHICKLETS ARE MY FAVOURITE KIND OF GUM
Not that what I am saying is flippant - it is important - but humour sort of eases the edges and gets people to understand what I am saying". The humour inherent in Kingstone's work ranges from the downright silly to the artful. Many times I found myself laughing out loud. Kingstone's wit arises in part from the poignancy of his characters' negotiation of the painful yet banal dynamics of life: painful because his stories focus moments we might rather discard - breaking up, feeling ambivalent, thwarted desires, being dissatisfied with one's job, disliking one's body; yet banal because we easily recognize ourselves in these scenarios.

One of Kingstone's early collaborations with artist Mike e.b., "I Hate You" (2001), 'documents' a morning-after scenario between two lovers. A man crouches naked at the end of the bed and stares directly into a video camera set up to record what we imagine to be the libidinous antics of the preceding night. What we actually see, however, is infinitely more intimate - the passionate ambivalence of love unleashed in a litany of complaints. I AM A PERFECTIONIST His lover remains blissfully unaware, sleeping sprawled amidst the twisted sheets. Invited by the narrator to share his innermost thoughts, our position as voyeur allows this glimpse inside the dynamics of love and hate: "I hate you...I hate the way you look. I hate it that you I hate what you do. I hate what you eat. I hate it that you get quesadillas wherever we go...I hate the way you sing..." The diatribe continues even as his lover emerges from slumber to head for the toilet: "I hate listening to your pee from the bed...I hate the way your pee sounds hitting the water in the toilet." Half awake, the lover returns to bed, only to be met by the narrator's petulant embrace. I laugh in response to the agony of recognition.

Kingstone casts himself in the role of the sleeping lover in "I Hate You". The main reason that he appears in his own work is because he's always available and because he can make himself do things that he wouldn't ask of anyone else. Though his pieces are not autobiographical, others are not so easily convinced:

"Some people watch my work and they think - 'Oh, it is all about you.' But in a way my work is not about me because a lot of them are things about everybody - or things that everybody thinks about. "I Hate You" is a demonstration of everybody's love relationship. After seeing the video everyone would say to me, 'Oh, are you and your boyfriend still together'? Well, he's not my boyfriend. I'm still together with my boyfriend, yes, but not him! It is really weird but it happens all the time that when I produce something with someone else, they presume that this relationship is real."

It is the desire to distinguish truth from fiction that Kingstone plays off in his most recent works. What happens when he lies about either his own life or that of someone else? MY NIPPLES ARE VERY SENSITIVE In the unfinished "The First Sacrament of the Church of St. Thomas" (2003), a faux-documentary about a church baptism, the lie is very apparent. Kingstone is curious about how people respond to such bald-faced lying. The typical viewer response, "what the hell is he talking about?" is a question that continues to resonate. Posing the question a similar way, 'what the hell is the purpose of art?', we find its trace throughout Kingstone's work: as an art maker, he is also concerned about the making of art. "I am in constant discussion with myself if this is something that I need to be doing. As someone in this society, here, now, and in Toronto. Shouldn't I be a corporate banker? Is that what the world needs? They don't need another video artist." As a cultural thinker who works in video art, Kingstone's concerns about the making of art are reflected in his art practice: "I want to explore (it) for myself but I want my videos to be interesting to someone else. I HAVE A LAZY EYE They can watch the Church of St. Thomas without knowing that I was exploring lies. They can just watch it and enjoy it for whatever reason. All the stories that I have to tell behind them is this discussion of narrative and boredom and lies which is going in inside my own head, but you don't need to understand that in order to enjoy them".

Kingstone readily confesses his urge to tell stories. His background in writing fiction may have something to do with it - last year, he took part in several three-day novel writing contests, finishing two novels. I GREW UP IN HAMILTON Kingstone goes as far to suggest that he wouldn't even know how to create a non-narrative. The trace of a story remains even in his more recent works that toy with broken and disjunctured narrative sequences. In the unfinished "Driving" (2003), narrative structure takes a back seat to the absurdity of being trapped in a car on a freeway with someone who is trying to break up with you. Art imitates life where narrative displacement synchronizes the ambivalence of endings - should I or shouldn't I? In a moment of self-disclosure, Kingstone admits that while "I am a fan of relationships, I also feel trapped in them, which is not always a bad thing. In the car, I can't leave and this person can tell me anything he wants. I am stuck in the car".

Stuck is how I might describe my feelings while watching another of Kingstone's experiments with broken narrative, "This is Entertainment" (2003 in progress). The video opens to an image of a stainless steel kettle (I have one just like it at home!) on a hot stove element. The audio track is a little hard to decipher at first, but it sounds like someone just off camera is doing a little channel surfing. I keep watching and waiting for the kettle to boil, watching and waiting....watching....waiting. Finally I resort to the fast-forward button - I want the damn kettle to boil already! It reminds me of life - being stuck in a repetitious rut while the rest of the world seemingly moves forward. WHEN I WAS A CHILD I ATE DIRT For the viewer with patience, frustration is a just reward. It might seem an unworthy prize, but this work brings the vital question of how we approach boredom in our own lives: how long can we stay with frustration? How long before we just walk away? Though boredom often gets thrown up as a problem for the social, Kingstone sees it as a productive state:

"For me, I think boredom is a first realize that you are bored and you turn that malaise into production. For me that is the only way that I seem to be able to produce, to keep my mind busy. I actually make things that talk about different subjects, but why I make those things is because I am not enjoying what is happening."

'Leisure time' is not something that Kingstone covets. Instead of channel surfing while waiting for the kettle to boil, he is off working on another project. This productivity often invites complaints from friends and colleagues who urge him to slow down and stop doing so many things at once. But Kingstone has a way of creating an artful mania even from this. As part of the One-A-Day Collective, in which four artists completed one work of art every day for an entire year, Kingstone has produced, among other things, over 100 videos, 200 photographs and a t-shirt. NEW BRUNSWICK IS MY FAVOURITE PROVINCE He admits that while making an everyday relationship to a finished piece of art can be a difficult thing, he enjoyed the process. Since, at the time, he was also working a full-time job, shorter projects were easier to accomplish. Currently completing an MFA at York University, Kingstone remarks that the experience is wonderful because "I can sit back and think about what I have been producing."

While Kinsgtone thinks it is important for artists to know what they are up to and he is very interested in theory, he wants art to do more than just perform theory. Kingstone's work is complex enough to avoid this trap. His richly modulated layering of thought with process is evident in the hysterically funny, "Practical Hypnosis" (2002). The video opens to a cropped view of our protagonist (Kingstone again) in the throes of a hypnotic session. For those who recognize the artist and his voice, we are drawn into the complex of his own self-hypnosis. MY BOYFRIEND ONCE FUCKED BRAD PITT Eyes closed, the protagonist rides the waves of the hypnotist's voice and slowly slips down into an unconscious state, inviting the viewer along for the trip. Just when I am at my most vulnerable, a surprise awaits - Marchel Duchamp's spinning zygotropes in place of the protagonists' now open eyes. But things are not over yet. In a further twist we hear the hypnotist suggest that "I'm telling you what you want to hear...what you want most in the world is to become a corporate banker. You have to forget about making art. Art will never make you happy. Corporate banking is exciting...Art is a waste of time. It does not help anyone. It's just a strain on the economy".

"Practical hypnosis" kind of sums it all up for me. The narrative is so obviously scripted that I know it is an absolute lie right from the start, but this doesn't prevent me from being sucked right in. In the end I am faced yet again with my own ambivalent desire to know. There is one question, however, for which I finally have an answer: Which is more important, being an artist or a corporate banker? I guess it all depends on who can tell the best lies.


CSV 25 September 2003

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