Gary Kibbins: A to Z

Program Notes by David Clark
for a screening of work by video artist and filmmaker; Gary Kibbins
Centre for Art Tapes, Halifax

By David Clark


Why isn’t there a Nobel Prize for absurdism? After all, the guy who invented dynamite created the prize! How absurd is that. And what have the fields of physics and chemistry really achieved in the last century but bigger and better ways of blowing things up. Dynamite has, of course, provided the cartoons with a wonderful narrative device. The ticking clock and the burning fuse are the preeminent devices for creating narrative tension. It’s the basis of comedy: expectation and surprise. We should also note that there is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics. It was rumoured that this is because Nobel’s wife had had an affair with a mathematician… but then again Nobel was never married. Absurd!

B is for BEAR

In Luis Bunuel’s classic absurdist film “The Exterminating Angel” a group of bourgeoisie’s party-goers in Mexico City find themselves inexplicably trapped in the home of their host even though there seems to be no reason why they can’t just leave on their own accord. And then a bear wanders into the house. Gary Kibbins, it seems to me, is like that bear. He has wandered into the house of cinema where the guests have been trapped by their own assumptions and polite habits. But this might be saying too much since in his essay “Bear Assumptions: Notes on Experimentalism” Kibbins warns us about making too much of this bear, of not caging it in a symbol, and yet I can’t help making the analogy. Kibbins films often have the easy rambling shuffle of a bear at a cocktail party that at any moment could rip the whole thing to shreds.


If you want to look for a model of the contemporary artist, Kibbins suggests, look no further than the child. But don’t look at the children that adults see. Look to the children who are children. A radical artist should struggle through the socialization process in the same way children have to. You balk: Artists aren’t children? But it is easy to think of children as artists. When do they stop? Do they have to give up being an artist when they become adults? Why? Kibbins asserts that artists should be experimenters who “resist becoming completely socialized” in order ”to be able to invent their categories and methods of research…the figure of the incompletely socialized child helps to enable this freedom.”

D is for DADA

In his film P & not P, Kibbins introduces a child’s hobby-horse as an example of the philosophical category of a “non-existent object”. “A child rides around on a stick, imagining all the while that it is a horse. E.H. Gombrich maintains that in this instance, the stick is not something which stands for a horse, the stick is a horse. In fact, it is even more of a horse than a real horse because it is more rideable.” Earl Miller’s review of Kibbins book reminds us that Dada got its’ name from the hobby-horse. And, of course, to go further; ‘Dada’ is also often the first words of the child acknowledging their father. Kibbins is a child of Dada riding his hobby-horse of art. But, of course, it’s not about the art. It’s about the riding.


Kibbins acknowledges that the term ‘experimental film’ is mostly used to distinguish films from more readily identifiable categories such as documentary and drama. And yet, even though the term is shaded with some condescension in the world of film, the term makes possible other alliances beyond the enclosures of popular culture. “Experimental art practice is not science, but it’s not exactly not science either” he writes in “Bear Assumptions: Notes on Experimentalism”. The rigidity of popular cinematic form, solidified by the vast industrial processes that now go into creating the spectacles that blanket our media landscape touching everything from the cinema screen to marketing on cups at MacDonald’s to children’s clothing, has lost it’s ability to maneuver in the polymorphous channels of culture and is likely to be left to haunt the cathedrals of cinema (much like religion has left a shell of exquisite architecture behind as it increasingly became irrelevant) while a generation discovers the new vernaculars of experimentation on the internet.


Flaming Creatures is an experimental film made in 1963 by Jack Smith. Kibbins used the title for a 1997 exhibition of contemporary Canadian video art he curated. He used the term to capture the variety of work in the show and in particular wanted to evoke the extravagant figures represented in this camp classic experimental film as a way of encountering the poetry he found in contemporary video art. His own work fits into this series, particularly the new tape; Triad in 3 Parts, which features the dress-up antics and montage-less editing of Jack Smith’s film.

G is for GRAMMAR

The word grammar fills most of us with post-educational guilt. Grammar is that elusive field lurking in our adolescent memories along with algebra and calculus – hardly the play park of absurdism and art. And yet Kibbins goes back to this term again and again. Grammar is his medium and his subject. As Laura U. Marks remarks; “Freedom is paralyzing, grammar is liberating.”

H is for HALIFAX

Gary Kibbins did his graduate work in art in Halifax at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He is remembered, even today, for his explosive and intelligent presence. It is an interesting thought experiment to read these biographical details into his 1998 tape The Alien Seaman where a character killed in an explosion in Texas considers the possibility of traveling 30 years back in time to the year of the Halifax Explosion (and also the time of the birth of Dada) where his mission is to change the causal links that lead to the dreadful explosion. Gary Kibbins returns to Halifax now to show his work after being away for more than two decades. We will begin our screening with The Alien Seaman – his Chris Marker-esque fantasy about returns and destinies and perhaps we will see him squirming in his seat.


Impossible objects? A square circle, for instance. Or language. Or a homeless child in San Diego, perhaps. There are different kinds of impossibility. Impossibility is inscribed by language. It is only through language that we are able to understand what is possible in the future.

J is for JESUS

Jesus was a fisherman and so the fish has become a Christian symbol. Kibbins new tape; jesuscallingthelittlechildrenuntohim, looks at fishing in it’s modern mediated form to see if we can still mine this metaphor and measure the impulse towards idealism in what has become a nostalgic pastime.

K is for KIBBINS

Gary Kibbins is not a man. He is dynamite.

L is for LABOUR

In Carl Andre’s Overall’s, shots of a factory serve as a backdrop for a series of poems about the lives of thirteen historical figures and their relationship to labour. Belaboured? Not at all. Our culture of narcissism makes it easy for us to digest the endless pop psychological interior explorations we are subjected to in every cop and reality television show we see. But what about history? What about labour? These are funny. These are things we live.

M is for MARXISM

Marx is a stronger point of reference for Kibbins than Freud. Kibbins work points us towards the world of social relations not inward to the life of the mind. I think the first time I ever heard the term “Military-Industrial Complex” was in an undergraduate basic photo class at NSCAD when recent grad student Gary Kibbins filled in for my regular instructor. How we ever got from talking about stop baths and fixer into the grand narratives of the American Political Industrial system I can’t recall but I do remember being left with the feeling that there was more than meets the eye in these things. That no matter what you get yourself involved with there are larger questions to be asked.


P & not P is a tape that presents negation as a social problem not just a logical one. What are homeless objects? Ask a philosopher or ask a Senior Human Services Analyst.

O is for OULIPO

Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or “Workshop for Potential Literature.” It began with Raymond Queneau’s reflection of how to bring mathematics into literature but expanded its’ mandate to include the investigation of the creative possibilities of a wide range restrictions in literature. It also became a highly bureaucratic literary movement that involved some of the greatest writers of the century: Perec, Calvino, Abish. Kibbins relation to the spirit of OULIPO seems most obvious in the way he treats texts in works such as If Gods Had Horses; some phrases and their transubstantiations (2003) and 52 Gods (2003) where the word “god” is repeated 52 times, once for each week of the year. It’s also there in Carl Andre’s Overalls (2000) where he has structured a series of poems based on Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll.


Kibbins work also owes a nod to ‘pataphysics; Alfred Jarry’s “science of imaginary solutions” and the forerunner of OULIPO. Jarry conducted an ironic critique of science by focusing on the particular over the general. He wanted to create a new science of the exception in contrast to science’s reliance on facts inscribed by their repeatability. It was an idea that moved Jarry’s absurdist theatre into the arena of scientific thought. As Matias Viegener points out in his essay “Speculative Grammar”, Kibbins’s politics is ‘pataphysical in how it refuses to be polemic and prescriptive and instead attempts to provoke and cajole. The best result from a Kibbins tape is not to know what to do but feeling motivated that something can be done. Kibbins states: “taking political themes as a topic does not transform art into politics” (p235)

Q is for QUEENS

Gary Kibbins teaches film at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.


The politics of representation. The representation of politics. The presentation of politics. The politics of re-presenting representation. The repression of representation. The politics of repression. Representing the repression of representation.

S is for STILLS

A still in a videotape. A common feature of Kibbins work. Images and text have an uneasy relationship in his work and the still is a middle ground; it is an image frozen in time so that it can be contemplated as if it is a word; as if it could be inserted into a grammar of images and saved from the flow of impressions. We have to remember that our letters came from pictograms. Perhaps with stills we are seeing the birth of new letters.


The problem of time travel is about the experience of time not the physics of time. One could say it was a ‘pataphysical problem – a problem of particularities not generalities. Alfred Jarry himself tackled this problem in an article called “How to Construct a Time Machine”. Jarry’s prescription was to construct and enclosure where you are protected from the forward advance of time. Videotapes and films are time machines then. And if we are the ones who made them we are the ghosts that travel with them. We trap a little piece of ourselves in these works as we leave them in the past. In Kibbins time machine, The Alien Seaman, ghost plausibly negotiates the incongruent shifts of causal time relations and returns to Halifax to the time of the 1917 explosion. “That’s me… raring to go right back to Nova Scotia, because I’ve got some business to take care of there. And when I say right “back” to Nova Scotia, what I mean is back in time.” Welcome back, Gary.

U is for YOU

An I for an eye and a U for a you. These are the economies of grammar that confound and delight us.


The voiceovers in Kibbins work are awkward. The voices betray the words origins in written text. They are spoken in the manner of a lecture or an explanation. The stiff, formal presentation of language puts us on alert to not be seduced; to not let fantasy overpower what it is being said. The monologue is one of Kibbins favourite hobby-horses. The image and voice often find themselves together in his work as if through an arranged marriage; a marriage of convenience. And yet, as we know, these marriages often work out quite well whereas love often fails us.

W is for WATER

Water is a figure of fluidity. A metaphor. It is money. It flows through the landscape of the economy. It is language: “Language is like water; my body is ninety-eight percent language. When I am immersed in an ocean of language, I can breathe. Ambiguity? No problem. Exactitutde? Fine with me. But I would drown in an ocean of images.” (p.225, Reinke interviewing Kibbins)


“Explosions are learning experiences.”
– from The Alien Seaman

“Real education is always violent.”
– Keith Johnstone

Y is for WHY

The spoken word and the written word: a queer game of mistaken identity. Our language is infused with absurdity and nonsense. Even the great logician of the past century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, discarded logic in the dustbin of tautology and threw in his lot with the absurdities of language games. He reminds us how amazing it is for a child to realize that a word can have two meanings. Our language is structured by its absurd exceptions not through the airtight formulations of logic. ‘P and not P’ can only ever be ‘not P and not not P’. Truth is plausible deniability. ‘Why?’ is not a question that can ever be answered. ‘Y’ is a letter that is close to the end but not the end.


‘Why?’ leads us towards the world of sense. ‘Why not?’ also? Or does the exception lead us to nonsense? Kibbins tarries with nonsense in his essay “Ass Bowl Comedy: Nonsense and Experimental Film”. The central concern in this investigation is a consideration of Hollis Frampton’s notorious 1970 experimental film Zorns Lemma. This film is pregnant with meaning although that meaning carries on from a lineage of nonsense that Kibbins links with Joyce, Alice in Wonderland, and the Fischl and Weiss film The Way Things Go. Zorns Lemma concerns itself more with syntax than semantics; order over meaning. In considering the film in the nonsense tradition, Kibbins highlights the use of the alphabet both as metaphor and subject. Frampton uses the Greek alphabet as an arbitrary structuring device in the film because the Greek alphabet’s 24 letters corresponds more precisely with the magic number of 24 frames per second of film. Kibbins work, with it’s chapters and divisions and arbitrary ordering systems, is another link in the project of nonsense, a project he says “is a complex response to two common themes of contemporary art: authority and pedagogy.”

Gary Kibbins is a film and video artist and writer currently teaching in the Department of Film Studies at Queen’s University, Canada. He previously taught at the California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles. A collection of his essays and scripts titled Grammar & Not-Grammar, is available from YYZ Books.