Video artist, filmmaker, in Manitoba and first taught at Mount Allison University before settling in Toronto, where he was a pillar of the art video community, teaching at OCAD and later University of Toronto. Over thirty years, the prolific Campbell produced more than fifty works, often incorporating his own brilliantly restrained transgender performance in such pieces as the wry Woman from Malibu (1976), and pushed the possibilities of video narrative towards unprecedented ambiguity and complexity without ever allowing it to lose its immediacy and direct impact.
One of the artist’s earliest and queerest tapes, I’m a Voyeur (1974, 15), came at a time when conceptual games with the new medium of art video were becoming increasingly infused with the sexual tensions of voyeurism, performance and identity mutability. A minimalist long-take stare at the narrator’s neighbour’s window yields minimal return at first as the lithe, long-haired intellectual restricts himself to typing. But the prurient narrator’s incantatory voiceover whispers to his target—“Do you know I’ve been watching you? ...do you see me?... I’m a voyeur...”— seem to yield fruit as the mysterious neighbour’s banal everyday activities segue more and more towards bathing and undressing, until he finally stares right back at the voyeur-narrator. The mindfuck punchline for insiders, or those who’ve read the description, is that the voyeur is really the exhibitionist, both performed by the artist, and that the two activities are inextricably caught up with each other. But even for non-insiders, the tape is an intriguing and artful tease.
Fascinated by soap opera and voyeurism, and always gently satirizing the arch antics of art world denizens and the queer rebels alike–the bad, the beautiful and the superficial—Campbell contributed perhaps more and earlier than anyone to the consolidation of video as a queer stronghold within the not always hip art scene in Canada in the seventies. Honoured here and abroad, his collaboration with many other artists, including his former partners Lisa Steele and John Greyson, resulted in many vivid roles in others’ works, such as the latter’s Jungle Boy (1985) and The ADS Epidemic (1987). Campbell’s anomalous 1991 film Skin (18) dramatized testimonies by women with AIDS, and he was awarded the prestigious Bell Canada Award in Video Art in 1996.
At Campbell’s death, Greyson summed up the last two of ten basic lessons from “The Woman from Malibu’s Video Art Academy and Finishing School” thus:
#9, bad drag. Bad drag is better than good drag. Bad wigs are better than good wigs. Bad drag skips the surface and slams you right into the hunger of gender, the ten year old boy with the towel over his tits in the bathroom mirror pretending to be Elizabeth Taylor, terrified of being caught. Which brings us to #10, narcissism, video as mirror, camera as confessional, the screen a pool of mercury: darkly beautiful, tremulous, on the verge of wonder, on the brink of tears. Only a narcissist as unflinching as Colin could stare into the lens with such honesty, and see himself so clearly. And know that through such a mirror he could see us.(1)
(1) Greyson, John. 2002. 2002b. “The Singing Dunes: Colin Campbell, 1943–2001.” C Magazine (summer), 29–31.