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Tuan Andrew Nguyen The Boat People, 2020 (still). Single-channel video, 4k, Super 16mm transferred to digital, color, 5.1 surround sound © Tuan Andrew Nguyen 2021. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. (All images courtesy MOCA Toronto)

While many institutions are inching back to business-as-usual programming, others are continuing to emphasize virtual programs that offer incisive and accessible art experiences to their audiences. The Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto has just announced the winter season of Shift Key, their streaming film platform.

Shift Key is a critically acclaimed and much-watched platform for the work of cutting-edge international contemporary artists and curators,” said MOCA Executive Director and CEO Kathleen Bartels, in a press release on the 2021–2022 season. “This edition of Shift Key brings international perspectives to MOCA’s fall programming, and provides a dynamic portal for MOCA to engage audiences beyond the Museum proper.”

Cecilia Vicuña, Paracas, 1983. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix

MOCA launched Shift Key in spring 2020 in order to present and support artists, expand digital offerings, and maintain programming consistency through the uncertainty of COVID restrictions. The inaugural program was curated in house, but MOCA now invites guest curators to select artworks that feel relevant at this moment and can be shared online to watch for free. Previous curators have included Daisy Desrosiers and Native Art Department International (Jason Lujan and Maria Hupfield). Videos have a one-month window for active viewing, and thereafter remain as an image and associated materials, forming an online archive

This season’s program has been guest curated by Carly Whitefield, and is titled What we carry forward. The series draws inspiration from explorations of inheritance and the public realm elaborated across GTA21’s physical and digital spaces. Unfolding over the course of four months, Shift Key will feature pairings of artists’ films, videos, and animation that “open up questions of legacies and spectres, ownership and agency,” according to the website.

On view November 1, 2021 through February 28, 2022, the program begins with Samson Kambalu’s A Thousand Years (2013) and Dogs See Invisible Things (2016) and Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn’s The Boat People (2020). These first two are part of Kambalu’s ongoing ‘Nyau Cinema’ series, a group of short films featuring spontaneous site-specific performances in public space often recorded by strangers. The films are informed equally by the aesthetics of early cinema and the improvised screenings Kambalu attended as a child in Malawi in the 1980s. Nguyễn’s film, The Boat People is set at the precarious edge of humanity’s possible extinction, and follows a group of children who travel the seas and collect the stories of a world they never knew through objects that survived.

December will present Allora & Calzadilla’s Returning a Sound (2004) and Theo Eshetu’s The Return of the Axum Obelisk (2009), both of which center acts of reclamation and repatriation. Returning a Sound sonically maps a citizen’s journey from the town of Isabel Segunda around the demilitarized areas of Vieques, Puerto Rico, on a moped whose muffler is fitted to a trumpet. The Return of the Axum Obelisk is a single-channel version of Eshetu’s elaborate, non-linear video installation, which charts the 2003–08 return of the obelisk of Axum to Ethiopia 70 years after it was confiscated in the Italian invasion and relocated to Rome.

Kicking off the new year, January’s 2022 program is comprised of Mona Hatoum’s Roadworks (1985) and Aura Satz’s Preemptive Listening (Part 1: The Fork in the Road) (2018) which focus on themes of public resistance and resilience. Roadworks (1985) is a short video edited from documentation of Hatoum’s hour-long performance of the same title, performed in the streets of Brixton in southwest London in 1985. In the performance, the artist takes long, slow strides through the street market with a pair of Doc Martens boots in tow. Preemptive Listening (Part 1: The Fork in the Road) (2018) explores sonic obedience and disobedience through the trope of the siren. In the film, the sounds of Lebanese trumpet improviser Mazen Kerbaj are heard alongside actor and activist Khalid Abdalla’s account of the siren as the emblematic sound of resistance, oppression, and lost futures during the Arab Spring.

Finally, February brings the close of the program with Cecilia Vicuña’s Paracas (1983) and Cauleen Smith’s Pilgrim (2017), which experiment with animating objects and sites in the creativity and generosity of spirit of those who shaped them. Conceived as a visual and sound poem in seven scenes, Paracas is an animation of a two-thousand-year-old Pre-Columbian textile developed in the Paracas/Nazca region and now found in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Pilgrim unfolds as a pilgrimage across the United States, tracing sites that have come to inspire Cauleen Smith. These include Alice Coltrane-Turiyasangitananda’s ashram, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, and the Watervliet Shaker Historic District in New York state, the site of the country’s first Shaker community.

Cecilia Vicuña. Paracas, 1983. Video still. Courtesy of the artist and Electronic Arts Intermix

“This series brings together a range of voices and artistic approaches, each prompting different ways of thinking through the question of what we carry forward. It moves from the immediacy of objects encountered in the landscape to more intangible sounds, gestures, and feelings. I’m very grateful to MOCA for the opportunity to convene and make accessible powerful works by a remarkable group of artists,” said Carly Whitefield.

It seems that Shift Key is primed to offer a huge range of filmic experiences and much food for thought, to be enjoyed in the comfort and safety of home, even as the world continues to experience its own saga of uncertainty. In conversations about a return to normal, it is heartening to imagine this as part of a new normal, where museums seek to make top-tier art films and programming available to all.

Correction 11/10/21 3:00pm EDT: An earlier version of this article misspelled guest curator Carly Whitefield’s surname. The error has been amended.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

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