Detained by the Camera

Catalogue Essay: “Don Gill’s D’Arcy Island”,
Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alta.

The place is now a romance

In 1996 I made an excursion with Don Gill to D’Arcy Island. I was there to (inexpertly) assist with the videotaping of our approach to the island and to shoot footage of whatever we might find there. We had made the necessary arrangements, in writing and in advance, to meet a Parks ranger at the Sidney wharf. Our papers in order, we cast off in a skiff, which partially mounted the beach a short time later through the use of an automated ramp. We walked off to a pebble beach: our retrieval was scheduled to take place in several hours. We were given a walky-talky with which to contact the Park Ranger, and instructed to listen for her alert to rendezvous on the beach. Put ashore so efficiently, with flasks of coffee, bottles of water and bags of gear, the sound of our clumsy footsteps dragging through the stones seemed overly loud and conspicuous in the stillness. My memory of this banished-for-a-day trip is infused with anxiety. As someone whose formative years were spent on the stark expanse of the prairie, where there are always at least two roads out of town, small islands have always made me nervous. Even a weekend on one of the larger Gulf Islands finds me compulsively checking ferry schedules and scanning the horizon. Distracted by a nagging uncertainty of the boat’s return, my edginess was no doubt prefigured by the research we had done in the BC Provincial archives that revealed the conditions in which Chinese immigrants ill with leprosy were abandoned here. Reliant on the walky-talky for our rescue, I checked and re-checked its batteries and fiddled with its volume levels. After sorting out all the gear, I followed with a video camera the progress of Don’s methodical coverage of the ruins with 16mm film – the cast concrete staircase forlornly detached from anywhere to go; pits and hollows in the clearings, the incisions of initials on crumbling walls. Moving through space with the camcorder was a reminder of my long-standing inability to properly accept the prosthesis of the camera. Oscillating between an experience of a place and efforts to represent it, my habit is to dither with the settings, to find myself looking with a naked eye, and forgetting to make images, or focusing in fascination at some blinkered viewpoint, forgetting that a moving image is the objective. I repeat all over again the moment of bringing it to my eye, a hesitation that encumbers the resulting image with being too close to the body of the videographer and too far removed for a viewer to properly enter. That day, I wandered off to the shoreline, set the camera to auto-focus and pointed it at the meniscus of the ocean pushing up against the pebbles of the beach, redrawing again and again the threshold of inclusion and exclusion that marked the island’s edge. The overlapping narratives of the castaway, the desert isle, the many stories of internment, forced exile and utopian self-exclusion that haunt the shorelines of the world reinforce the idea of nature as implacable and indifferent. But it, like this little island, is subject to the ministrations of a network of bureaucracies, from municipal authorities, to provincial, to federal, in a relay of expropriation, altered jurisdiction and denied indemnity. Park rangers have inherited the regulation of this place from the quarantine services, police departments, immigration officials and public health officers over the turnstile of the 20th century. Abruptly narrating the transformation of prison to park, the BC Parks website“1”:#note1 provides this compressed history:

D’Arcy Island is a tiny 83-hectare island park in Haro Strait, east of the Saanich Peninsula, off Vancouver Island. From 1894 until 1924, the island was used as a leper colony. Many tried to escape, but few survived. Although the buildings were demolished, ruins of the facilities are still visible. In 1961, D’Arcy Island was established as a marine park. Fishing, snorkelling and kayaking around the island provide hours of entertainment.

D’Arcy Island’s infamous legacy began when Victoria’s police and health officers conducted one of their routine sweeps through Chinatown in 1891. Hidden in a small shack behind a store on Fisgard Street, officials found five huddled men bearing obvious signs of leprosy. Victoria’s municipal government responded by quickly gaining provincial support to expropriate D’Arcy Island and turn it into a leper colony. For the next 33 years the tiny islet was used as an isolated, segregated dumping ground for people with leprosy. Forty-nine people in total, all men, and all but one Chinese, were shipped to the leper colony. The city spent the money to build a six-unit rowhouse for them to live in, and later, some of the leper residents erected separate shacks of their own. Their only contact with the outside world was a visit from a supply ship. Every three months it dropped off food, clothing and other supplies – including coffins. People were literally stockpiled to die there, in conditions that must have been horrible. The disease strips feeling from the extremities and skin as it eats away the extremities. People with leprosy often suffer injuries and sores because they can’t feel when something is wrong. Nevertheless, the lepers of D’Arcy Island would fetch water for their homes from about 70 metres away. They cleared and planted a garden about one acre in size. The Chinese had a cultural organization and a structure that allowed them to live in a co-operative way and care for each other right up to the time they died and were buried. D’Arcy Island finally ended as a leper colony in 1924, when the federal government shut it down and moved the remaining residents to Bentinck Island near Race Rocks, and closer to medical quarantine facilities, which operated until 1957. In the 1960’s the federal government sent workers to D’Arcy Island to burn the leper’s houses. In October 2000, the island’s sad history was recalled when Victoria Mayor Alan Lowe unveiled a small plaque near the spot where the lepers lived. The plaque bears the name of 13 men, all Chinese, “and four others – names unknown” who died on the isolated island..

This economical narrative too easily resolves the tangle of bureaucracies that governed the use of this piece of land and how it was featured in the successive policies of immigration and public health to parks and recreation. The shunting of responsibility between municipal, provincial and federal governments and agencies is a familiar pattern in the containment of populations that are afflicted, or considered to be afflictions in themselves. D’Arcy is a case study in the circular techniques of history making in which a site of past atrocity achieves ‘closure’ through commemoration and designation as a site of leisure pursuits. The policies of abandonment have been abandoned: the place is now a romance.

Two previous revisionist reports from D’Arcy Island are interesting to consider here. Erik Paulsson’s Island of Shadows: D’Arcy Island Leper Colony, 1891-1924“2”:#note2 is a documentary video work produced in 2000, that situates the establishment of the leper colony within Chinese migration to Canada for the gold rush and the completion of the national railway. It uses interviews with medical missionaries to inform the viewer about the symptoms of the disease, that it is mostly not contagious, and that the lack of medical threat to the general population was well known at the time. Writer Chris Yorath is filmed at the current campsite as he identifies the location of the housing structures and draws attention to burned bed frames and burial mounds that rest adjacent to the picnic tables. Sook-Yin Lee’s voiceover narration guides the story through archival stills and dramatic re-enactment of the arrival, suffering and death of the immigrants. Paulsson uses all the representational devices available to him — composite characters, dramatic technique and actors, stills of racist newspaper caricatures, testimony of experts, archival photographs – to create a compelling redress of D’Arcy’s scandalous history. In one re-enactment, an actor plays the role of a photographer who makes portraits of the actors playing the lepers. Video stills stand in for these very photographs. Paulsson’s purpose is to uncover, inform and educate the viewer about the social conditions that permitted the Chinese lepers to be so badly mistreated. His commemoration harnesses a century of photographic, theatrical and filmic conventions to engage his viewers’ emotions and empathy for the individuals incarcerated on the island.

An earlier document of a day trip to D’Arcy can be found in an illustrated article produced for The Dominion Medical Monthly in December 1989. Also employing compelling text and image, Ernest Hall, M.D. and John Nelson published The Lepers of D’Arcy Island“3”:#note3 for the education of ‘students of this strange disease’. Its full-blown rhetoric aims, with flowery recitative voice, to stir a different emotional response through the use of superlative descriptions of the island’s natural beauty and morbid details of disfigurement. In contrast to the mellifluous script, seven photographs portray the lepers sitting for the camera or arranged in front of their row house dwellings. Their disfigurations are documented in a style that combines the techniques of medical photography of the era, with the conventions of exotic travelogues. This multi-media project sets out to convince the reader of the essential and immutable differences between the two races discussed at length – ‘those who speak the language of Shakespeare’ and those who ‘herding as they do in shacks, sheds and even boxes’ are a ‘difficult (race) with which to deal.’ To the authors, the lepers are merely evidence of the downside of Empire, and the article a cautionary tale for nations who thirst for open access to the resources of the east.

Echoing through the intimate upstairs gallery of the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, the introductory paragraph of The Lepers of D’Arcy Island is heard, as a song. An improvisation between vocalist Patrice Jegou and pianist Deanna Oye, this libretto interprets such lines as “…where at high tide the waters of the Pacific kiss and caress the feet of the forest monarchs…” in robust operatic articulation and somber keyboard. This oration scores a projected compilation of images from off and on shore, a compilation of repeated pans replayed again and again. With an ambient blur that indicates 16mm film, the projection is inter-cut with black and white footage of an approach to the island from the air, and from a speeding boat, embedding an anachronism within it. This central projection area, with its arrangement of chairs for viewing, provides a museum-like tableau. Around it, the installation bears further references to museum display — a projected video montage, a stationary monitor with stills and listening station, and hung on the walls a series of tarp-like photo enlargements that suggest exhibition signage. The authority of museum codes are disrupted by the incongruent images – archival footage is shown to be ‘inauthentic’, the voiceovers subjective and interpretive, the tarp-like banners evocative rather than expository. Repeating images of dripping tree branches, of abstracted landmasses — play across all the diverse modes of picturing. The captured moment through which photography lays claim to the real is displaced between a ‘then’ and a ‘now’, providing no comfortable frame of temporal reference for a viewer to inhabit. These mock documents — the ruin, the primal forest — are too processed and digitized to convince. Through this circular, overlapping technique, the island is systematically dis-enchanted, and the means of picturing it becomes the subject of our rumination.

Gill’s island is multiple and, except for the artist and I, un-peopled. The diverse modes of representation he uses are not employed to engage and convince, as in the case of Island of Shadows, for his intent is not to educate, but to reflect upon the complicated interplay of photomechanical representation, the set of meanings we transpose on the landscape and the layer upon layer of contested histories harnessed by a range of interests. Gill uses technologies that span the history of photomechanical reproduction itself: 16mm film, Hi — 8, VHS, Digital video, and digital output on matteflex. From out in space, Global Positioning Satellites traced Gill’s circum-perambulation of the island and his bushwhack across its width. The resulting maps — connected dots superimposed on a map — record his self-surveillance, adding another viewpoint to the aerial perspective, the hand-held lens that lurches through the underbrush, the stationary viewfinder deep within the damp bracken. One projection features a grid of images in a montage reminiscent of a bank of security monitors. Footage presented elsewhere in the installation is compressed in this format, along with a speeded-up and repeating sequence of Gill performing a 16mm pan. It echoes a scene from the 1929 experiment of Dziga Vertov, Man With a Movie Camera, which is “famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invents, deploys or develops, such as double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme closeups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, and a self-reflexive storyline”.4
In Gill’s montage, a discontinuous chronology of the history of the moving image is compressed, from the animatograph to the kinetoscope; superimposition to the vitascope. While the frame within a frame format is a recognizable style for contemporary audiences, each of these technologies is de-familiarized by their placement in uneasy proximity to one another, and the undisclosed logic of their arrangement. Layering the images and motifs, perspectives and points of view, one atop the other, each representational device is shown as partial, simultaneously asserting and undermining the authority it had in its heyday. With each form complicating and contradicting the other, the whole refuses a comprehensive sense of mastery over his subject. The photomechanical forms, and Gill’s use of them, become the object of his diagnosis. These technologies of control, that so successfully jump the fence between the disciplines of anthropology, medicine, the law, are shown to reach their full potential in the bureaucracies of immigration and quarantine, of corrections, and eventually, the museum.

One resting spot within the installation is hidden behind the entry wall, and behind the rows of chairs. This work requires that a viewer stand close to the wall, which houses a screen display. A moody and monochromatic image of light glimpsed through wintry undergrowth is frozen on the screen and a headset allows us to further detach ourselves from the rest of the installation. Within this intimate enclosure Gill reads from The Burrow, Kafka’s unfinished short story published after his death. It is written from the point of view of an animal/human character seeing to the maintenance of the underground dwelling he has improvised. His hideout is hidden, yet insecure, for to make it completely impervious to outsiders would require that the character eliminate his own means of escape. Speaking softly, the storyteller cites the ‘sheer pleasure of the mind’ that motivates his construction of false entrances and other strategic tunnels. Ironically aware of the paradox of his isolation, and the restless vigilance of his own entrapment, he comments, ‘some ruses are so subtle that they defeat themselves’. In the obsessive anticipation that ‘the enemy is burrowing as well’, the narrator seeks to outsmart an invisible companion, embodying the paradox that “isolation is chaos“5”:#note5 As the burrower repeatedly tidies away all traces of his movements one wonders what kind of drawing would result from tracking his rounds by satellite.

The Burrow, an inverted architecture, a reverse elevation shack, holds the promise of solitude and the false sense of control that that implies. But its structure also contains the multiple viewpoints of its own history:

The landscape includes the material detritus of previous inhabitations and economies. Typically the shack reuses or regroups things with humour and frugality. The boughs of a tree might become a roof. A shack almost always reuses windows, so that looking into or out of the shack is already part of a series, or an ecology, of looking. In this sense a shack is itself a theory: it sees through other eyes. This aspect of the shack’s politics prevents shack nostalgia from becoming mere inert propaganda. The layering or abutment of historically contingent economies frames a diction or pressure that is political, political in the sense that the shack dweller is never a pure product of the independent present. He sees himself through other eyes.6

To sentence the artist/subject to peer from the burrow indefinitely would overlook the pattern of advance and retreat that replays throughout D’Arcy Island. The mobility that is so crucial to Gill’s practice is clearly evident in the moving and static images that repeat around the gallery. His modes of transportation are seen – the airplane wing, the boat hull, the movement of his feet covering the terrain – as another recurrent register attesting to his travels. The time code of the walk differs to that of the flight or the water journey. These accelerations and decelerations have covered ground from the Northwest Territories to Alabama and Texas, Mexico to Halifax as Gill has made pilgrimages to prisons, immigration quarantines, and other Carceral Landscapes. In moving across geographic and conceptual borders, Gill expands the terms of his project beyond a redress of a specific localized history, and sites it in a broader social analysis. The landscapes he visits are detained by the camera, subjected to routine surveillance, and compared to each other in the lineup.

As a series, the title Carceral Landscapes points to recent projects in urban studies such as the work of Mike Davis. In City of Quartz“7”#note7, Davis framed Los Angeles as a militarized zone, in which geo-synchronous police satellites, the panic rooms at the core of mansions, and street numbers painted on rooftops have created an aerial grid index of a prison-city. More recently, Davis has written of Calipatria“8”:#note8 prison in rural California as an example of the rural landscape’s annexation by the prison industry. His study of the relationship of urban to rural and the strategies to contain and regulate populations according to race and class evoke the precedence of the D’Arcy Island exiles and other regulated social groups. Davis notes that while the inmates at Calipatria are hidden from public view, their visiting relations are not, and the town’s residents, although grateful for employment at the prison, wish that more could be done to control these visitors. But tourism and incarceration have been a cooperative venture since the days of Bedlam. Victoria’s Bastion Square, London’s Tower and the Nikkei Memorial Internment Centre at New Denver encourage us to revisit the site of trauma for our own improvement, and in the process of familiarization, salve historical wounds. To acknowledge and commemorate past injustices serves as a reassurance that history has indeed progressed into a more palatable present. The museum, the broadcast, the interpretive centre, the gallery and the performance hall are increasingly called upon to resolve or soften historical conflicts through the use of their more delicate instruments.
D’Arcy Island is one stop on an itinerary of Carceral Landscapes and as Gill carries on to his next destination, he takes with him the burden of knowledge that the technologies he uses are implicated in both the historical and current practices of surveillance and regulation. Revealing the techniques that romanticize both the landscape and its history, his practice deflates the idea of nature as ‘healing’, as majestic or emblematic of a nation state. He presents instead the problem of picturing the landscape as natural, revealing it as a rudimentary architecture under the management of competing social and political forces.

  1. BC Parks – D’Arcy Island, Haro Strait
  2. Island of Shadows {videorecording}: (D’Arcy Island leper colony, 1891-1924) / Red Storm Productions; produced in association with Vision TV, CTV, Vancouver Television, Knowledge Network, Saskatchewan Communications Network; produced with the assistance of Cineworks Filmmakers Society. Kelowna, BC; Carson City, NV: distributed by Filmwest Associates, c2000.
  3. Hall, Ernest and Nelson, John, “The Lepers of D’Arcy Island”, The Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal, Vol.XI. No. 6, Toronto: December, 1898.
  5. Robertson, Lisa, “Sixth Walk”, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Astoria: Clear Cut Press, 2003, page.262.
  6. Robertson, Lisa, “Playing House: A Brief Account of the Idea of the Shack”, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, Astoria: Clear Cut Press, 2003, page.177
  7. Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, London: New Left Books, 1990.