Miss issauga An Exhibition of works by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and Jessica Vallentin.
Curated by Jennifer Matotek. Text by Jennifer Matotek.

The portrayal of suburban space in film and television has always been paradoxical. The first

problem could be that the ‘suburb’ is a symbolic dichotomy, a term and place defined by what

it is near – and what it is not. As noted by scholars such as Robert Kreuk, television sitcoms tend

to depict the suburbs as brimming with neighbourly warmth (such as Leave it to Beaver and

The Cosby Show), while feature films emphasize the alienating qualities of suburban life (such

as The Stepford Wives and Disturbia). Video art, a less commercial artistic medium, is under no

obligation to communicate singular truths to a general audience. The works by Jessica Vallentin

and Alison S.M. Kobayashi presented in the Galerie Sans Nom exhibition Miss issauga support

the concept that within the realm of video art both nostalgic and alienating visions of suburban

life can co-exist in complex simultaneity. For Kobayashi and Vallentin, two young female artists

schooled in Art and Art History at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, suburbia offers

rich creative possibilities. Suburbia provides spaces to contemplate the formation of identity –

identities which can then be explored via voyeuristic artistic practises.

Mississauga. Located within the Greater Toronto Area. Adjoining City of Toronto on the west

side and on the north shores of Lake Ontario.

In 2003, Mississauga’s Alison S.M. Kobayashi found a letter on the Winston Churchill Boulevard

QEW overpass. The note was written by 14-year-old boy named Alex, to arrange a sexual

encounter with another boy (also named Alex). Kobayashi’s 2006 video work From Alex to Alex

uses the letter’s text as source material. Reading the contents aloud as narration, Kobayashi

also (re)enacts in the video the various friends and family members referenced by note’s author

– the two Alexes, the letter author’s homophobic brother, and a mutual friend Vikki, among

other characters – are referenced in the letter’s contents.

Kobayashi’s deft adaptation of visual and aural materials, and obsession with found

objects, carries through to her other video works. In 2005, Kobayashi found an answering

machine in a thrift store which once belonged to a man named Dan Carter, which she then used

as the soundtrack for her video work Dan Carter. In the video, Kobayashi performs all of the

people who leave messages on Dan Carter’s answering machine, as well as many of the people

who are mentioned in the messages.

Mississauga. Current Population: 704,000. Canada's 6th largest city. Area: 111 square miles

(288 km2); 71,040 acres (28,750 ha).

For the mixed media project Smithissauga (2007-2009), which initially encompassed audio

works, photographs, maps and drawings, Jessica Vallentin telephoned a series of suburbanites

with the last name Smith sourced from the City of Mississauga telephone book. Explaining her

position as a student doing a research project on community, Vallentin asked the Smiths who

agree to speak with her about why they moved to the city, and their thoughts on living there.

For the project, Vallentin records some of the answers asked of the Smiths in response to the

following questions:

How long have you lived in Mississauga?

What brought you to the community of Mississauga?

What is the reason you stayed in Mississauga?

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the City of Mississauga?

As the audio soundtrack of Vallentin’s phone interviews play in the video adaptation of

Smithissauga for this exhibition, dozens of images of homes flash onscreen – the homes of the

Smiths listed in the City of Mississauga phone book. In addition to these images and the audio

soundtrack, a list of the addresses and phone numbers all of the Smiths in Mississauga rapidly

scrolls vertically on the left side of the screen. The presentation of all of the information

gathered by Vallentin – text, image, and sound – is difficult to process and nearly

overwhelming, as all information is presented simultaneously.

On Vallentin’s last of three phone calls, the responses she receives from Mrs. Smith

confirm the stereotype that people choose suburban life out of convenience, stating that

Mississauga was selected as her home because “it’s an in-between kind of city” – sprawling

geographically and psychologically between work and family – a kind of limerent space.

From a kinesthetic point of view - the viewing experience of watching Smithissauga

does not mimic actual suburban experience. The video is tightly condensed with information

delivered simultaneously visually, aurally and textually – it moves quickly and there is no

sprawl. The sharp edits from static image to static image do not capture the feeling of

meandering around streets which are barely discernable from one another, or driving quickly

past unending tracks of identical town homes and strip malls. As Mrs. Smith from Smithissauga

says, “(Mississauga) can be a very contrived place to live… it’s still the kind of area you drive

most of the time to get to places.”

Mississauga. The only city in the GTA serviced by 7 major highways. Excellent highway

connections, less than 2 hours from the U.S.A. border. 3rd largest municipal transit system in

Ontario servicing approximately 28 million riders annually.

The actions Kobayashi performs for the camera in From Alex to Alex and Dan Carter, do not

always reflect the message contents, and the performances are not complete re-enactments.

The investigations Vallentin embarks upon with Smithissauga are performative, without

truly being performances. Upon critical investigation, From Alex to Alex, Dan Carter, and

Smithissauga reveal themselves as built across a spectrum of oppositional relationships: aural/

visual, public/private, past/present, material/immaterial, narrative/non-narrative, fiction/

non-fiction, found/created. The answering machine tape soundtrack in Dan Carter, the letter

in From Alex to Alex, and the telephone book source and phone interviews in Smithissauga,

support video works such that they become both authored and authorless, narrative and non-

narrative, textual and anti-textual – placing the videos not in the category of being ‘neither/

nor’, but rather, the category of ‘both/and.’ These relationships can be interpreted as assisting

Kobayashi and Vallentin with their central shared artistic problems: how to use exteriority to

express or depict interior lives. Both artists utilize settings, found objects and experimental

processes as strategies engage with this challenge.

Mississauga. More than 53,000 businesses in total. Major Head Offices: 40 of Canada's top 500

companies and 59* Fortune 500 corporations.

Although From Alex to Alex, Dan Carter and Smithissauga deal with notions of identity,

Kobayashi and Vallentin employ some differing approaches. Kobayashi transgresses race, sex,

age and class in her performances of the lives of others, playing upon the permeable boundary

between self and other in a kind of reverse alterity. Vallentin, conversely, is more scientific and

calculatingly voyeuristic. Directly collecting information from quantitative (phone books and

maps) and qualitative (phone interviews) sources, Vallentin eschews the norms that usually go

along with subtlety surveying and spying on the hypothetical neighbours (ie. the ‘Smiths’).

Mississauga. Average January temperature: -6.3C (20F). Average July temperature: 20.8C

(69F). Average annual rainfall: 68.46 cm (27.0"). Average snowfall (November - March) 115.4

cm (45.4"). Average annual sunshine: 2,038.3 hours.

It is interesting to consider how Kobayashi and Vallentin’s works in this exhibition fix

suburbia as the object of their “gaze” (considering the term as it was critically theorized by

Sartre and Lacan). Being the object of another’s gaze is often accompanied by a feeling of

shame and consciousness – a recognition of looking and of being looked at. The suburbs, as an

abstract concept, naturally have no feelings of shame, but Kobayashi and Vallentin’s ‘subjects’

who comprise part of the suburban construct – the Alex who authored From Alex to Alex’s love

letter, and the voices captured on tape in Dan Carter and Smithissauga – could hypothetically

feel shame due to their direct and indirect involvement in the creation of these art works.

Kobayashi and Vallentin, by zeroing on the very heart of their suburban experiences and

delving into the secrets of other’s experiences, gaze upon the suburbs through their work as a

means of taking ownership over it. Kobayashi and Vallentin, as women, could be seen as

displacing conventional understandings of the ‘gaze’ and moving the relationship ‘from subject

to subject’ to ‘subject to object’ as they inspect suburbia from their own unique perspectives.

Transmitting ideas and memories over time, Kobayashi and Vallentin’s works are potentially

located within Foucault’s concept of “the space left empty by the author’s disappearance,” – a

void in which Dan Carter, From Alex to Alex, and Smithissauga are neither authored, nor

authorless; fiction nor non-fiction; narrative nor non-narrative.

As men might be to cities, women might be to suburbs in a culture where popular media

defines terms across polar opposites.