The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto

By borrowing its name, in part from one of the most well-conceived works in the exhibition, the rest adopted from an influential text by cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding, more than adequately debriefs visitors to its theoretical underpinnings before entering the gallery space.  This sort of curatorial guidance may seem pedantic and limiting, but the nudge, instead, is both self-reflexive and strategic, offering a simple cue then encouraging the viewer to encounter the exhibition on his or her own terms.


Otherwise, this exhibition challenges, requires an investment of time, and demands a participatory reading.  Upon entering the gallery, anyone familiar with the space can see immediately how it has been transformed into a series of rooms.  These rooms, branching off the main atrium, house the many video-based works.  With well over ten hours of film and video, the show is decidedly dense, but also captivating and generous, providing space for active contemplation and critical unfolding.


All but one of the six artists in the exhibition are working with the moving image, and the large-scale photographic wall works by Sheelagh Kelley acclimatize visitors in the liminal space of the atrium. These deceptively simple works, take as their subject the abandoned architecture of colonial Zaire.  Seemingly benign and tranquil, the images, shot illegally in 1983, depict buildings that have long been destroyed under the impact of civil war.


The entrance to the first room is the broadest of them all, revealing a cool flickering of white light that serves as a palatable entry point to the exhibition.  Unlike the other spaces, which are essentially black boxes, Zineb Sedira’s three-screen projection, Gardennes d’Images (Image Keepers), 2010, illuminates the minimal white room. The installation is divided into two parts: a diptych on the far wall with a single channel projection opposite. The dual images show an elderly woman being interviewed in French, next to footage of her personal belongings, including a vast archive of black and white photographs.  The woman speaks candidly of her deceased husband and her solitude, while hers and Sedira’s disembodied hands leaf through the pile of decidedly political photographs. The video on the other wall combines similar visual elements, but does so in a comparatively formulaic documentary style.


Zineb Sedira, is an Algerian born artist, raised in France, now working in England, who employs interview as a strategy for excavating oral histories to reflect upon the diasporic experience and question notions of cultural identity as fixed.  More specifically, like much of the work in this exhibition, she focuses on how public and private narratives reproduce and resist dominant representations of black identity.  As Sedira’s subject, Safia Kouaci, the widow of an Algerian war photographer, recounts her difficult experiences of war and immigration to France, her personal story becomes politicized.  By appropriating the visual tropes of documentary filmmaking in the presentation of her subject, Sedira invites what Hall refers to as a negotiated reading, which interrupts hegemonic structures of dominance.[1]


In the next enclave, Steve McQueen’s epic work End Credits, 2012, creates a jarring contrast by confronting the viewer with a relentless spate of sensations.  A scrolling black and white video feed of over 3000 redacted McCarthy-era FBI documents overwhelms to a point of saturation.  The subject of the FBI’s surveillance is the celebrated entertainer turned blacklisted civil rights activist and communist supporter, Paul Robeson.  It’s impossible not to have an empathetic response to this work, imagining Robeson’s lived experiences of exile, impoverishment, and paranoia. This archive both preserves and erases Robeson from history, capturing his resistance speeches and personal correspondence, while making confidential the narrative that oppressed him.


As the rough imagery of this six-hour video speeds by, a set of monotone voices dictate the contents of the documents and the excessive amount of information becomes physically and mentally burdensome to a point of abstraction.  It quickly becomes apparent that the audio and visual elements are out of sync, composed of two separate, staggered loops.  It’s easier to listen to the audio — all fifteen hours of it — than absorb anything from the impossibly fast video. It is this complex relationship of image to text, which works as a reversal of Hall’s hierarchy of arbitrary meaning, whereby the visual is deemed more credible than the linguistic.[2]  Frustrating this structure the viewer is unable to access meaning and is subsequently left to reflect on the futility of looking for it in these documents.


Across the atrium from McQueen’s arresting installation, we find the exhibition’s centerpiece; John Akomfrah’s three-channel video installation entitled, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012.   This sprawling installation, originally commissioned for the Liverpool Biennale, was designed for a smaller space than the main gallery at The Power Plant provides, and again the curators have opted for transparency and reflexivity over authoritative artifice in their exhibition design, deliberately building the temporary walls at half-height.   Three large projectors mysteriously emerge from the darkness above, the light from them permeating beyond the walls into the cavernous peripheral space, the echoing soundtrack forming a gentle layer of background noise throughout the exhibition. This spillage highlights the work’s influence within the exhibition, simultaneously reminding us of its own indeterminacy. 


For this piece, Akomfrah, combines three categories of moving imagery creating relationships that disrupt fixed ideas of history and identity, taking as his primary subject, cultural theorist and personal mentor, Stuart Hall.   Melding footage from Hall’s private life with clips of his public television appearances, then weaving in documentary imagery from both the past and present, Akomfrah invites us to rethink established narratives.  He asks us to make our own narrative connections and question how the identities of public figures are formed in relation to history.[3]  By association he gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own identities with a sense of agency in relation to the easily reproducible histories with which we are presented.


It’s been a while since The Power Plant presented a project this heavily steeped in cultural theory, and they succeed in making it both accessible and thought provoking.  There’s no easy way into this work and the curators leave you to your own devises, but if you take the time it rewards you with a sense of social awareness and personal agency.



[1] Simon During ed., The Cultural Studies Reader, (Routledge : New York, 1993) 100 - 103

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] New Art Exchange, “John Akomfrah in Conversation.” Online video clip.  YouTube, YouTube, 16 May 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.