The New Arts Court: SAW Video steps out of the shadows into the light of a shiny new complex

Penny McCann is the out-going head of SAW Video. Photo: Peter Robb

The opening of the new Ottawa Art Gallery is not the only thing worth celebrating in local culture this spring. There has also been a major upgrade inside the former courthouse that sits beside the new OAG.

Inside Arts Court, one of the many organizations that has benefited from major renovations, is the SAW Video Media Art Centre.

For Penny McCann, the outgoing executive director of SAW Video, it has been the culmination of several years of hard work.

First some history: SAW Video is 36 years old. It started as a video project of SAW Gallery. In 1981, the video side of the visual arts was just starting to gain some traction in the capital, McCann said.

“Artists wanted some access to video equipment which was hard to get then,” McCann said.

To meet that demand SAW Gallery sought a grant to purchase some 3/4 inch video equipment. That was the trigger. Immediately artists started using the gear and SAW Video was born.

It was a heady time for this kind of art-making, McCann said. Across the country, media art centres were starting and growing. The Canada Council recognized that and put in place a program to fund start-ups. “So we are children of the Council too,” said McCann.

SAW Video was a very tiny co-op in the beginning, she said, but it started growing almost immediately. In 1988 with the creation of Arts Court both SAWs moved in and formed a multi-disciplinary centre. That partnership would eventually out grow its usefulness and the two parted ways, amicably, McCann said.

“We’ve always been compatible,” she said, if, in SAW Video’s case somewhat unknown to a wider public.

“Nobody knew about it because we were hidden in the basement of Arts Court, behind SAW Gallery.

“We serve and support artists working in video, media arts and film. We are a production centre. We are very transactional, for example, we rent equipment, we give workshops. We give grants and we also do programming.”

In the end, she says, “it’s always time-based media of some sort. … It’s also contemporary, so we do a whole range of things in terms of programming from screenings, to performances, artist talks, commissioning projects and exhibitions.”

SAW Video also ventures into new technologies. For example, “this past December, we hosted a Virtual Reality piece called 2167.” The piece, which was a TIFF Bell lightbox co-production, was made by Indigenous artists including Kent Monkman.

“If it is image-based and time-based, we are there,” McCann said.

In the rejuvenated Arts Court, SAW Video is out of the basement. They have a much larger footprint that includes exhibition, workshop, office and studio spaces. There’s even a spot to chat and have a coffee.

“We can now really expand what we do. It’s an amazing opportunity to get this new space.”

To get the new digs, McCann and her team had to raise some money.

“We had wanted a new space for a long time. We have really been cramped. We have a staff of seven and in not an ideal space.”

Almost a decade ago, the various tenants of Arts Court were told that the OAG was moving out. SAW Video was one of the groups asked if they wanted to expand and it took no time to say yes to being partners in the city’s redevelopment of Arts Court.

The project really got going in 2013 and by August 2017 the money needed for the expansion was in place. In all, McCann said SAW Video raised about $430,000 to put towards the renovations of their piece of Arts Court heaven.

Today SAW Video is a co-operative with about 230 member artists.

“They are anybody who has anything to do with video including such things as web series. It has to be independent work,”she said.

SAW Video streams works on line and they pay artist fees for everything. In the exhibition space, known as the Knot Project Space, they have an open call for submissions. And they also hold an annual exhibition of member works called Resolution in February.

“We are within a philosophy of affordable access and trying to break down barriers. We are very committed to making things as affordable as possible. We give workshop subsidies. We give grants. Honestly it makes us different from many things,” she said.

One of the key commitments of SAW Video is to bring people and artists together.

“You can shoot a really great film on an iPhone and edit it at home, but you cannot have discourse, you can’t be influenced by other artists. It can be very isolating. So for us, more and more we are looking for ways to bring people together.”

Building a community of artists matters, she says.

“I don’t think that’s going to change. Artists need influences and they need inspiration. We are often the first place a media artist comes and gets paid for their work. You hand them the fee and they stare at it.”

McCann is convinced that with its new space will come more visibility and more opportunity for SAW Video to have more impact. And that’s important because the media arts community in Ottawa is fragile, she said.

“There is very little infrastructure. There aren’t movies of the week shot here, that sort of thing. There is a lot of activity in the independent scene but not much else.

“What I have seen is a community that is shrinking and losing a certain amount of expertise.”

With the new space, she hopes that SAW Video will be able to help artists “who emerge here, to stay here.”

SAW Video has an annual budget just under $600,000. How much it will grow and how quickly remains to be seen, but McCann doesn’t want it to get too big too quickly. That would make it less nimble and less responsive to the artist members.

“I would like it to be very dynamic with diverse range of people here and I would like the public to know they can come here and see something interesting that they won’t see anywhere else.”

The future, she said, “is only starting to dawn on us.”

And there are more shoes to drop that will add to the intensity, including, most importantly, the completion of light rail which will make it much easier for the public to discover things such as SAW Video and the new Ottawa Art Gallery.

For McCann this activity will take on new meaning. After 14 years and all the fund-raising memos and all the business plans, McCann is about to leave her post and resume life as an independent artist.

“I’m falling off a cliff of uncertainty (but) I’m very committed to screen-based work because that’s me as an artist. As a leader that’s what I brought to the organization. I’m a filmmaker.  That’s my milieu.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.