Midi Onodera

Midi Onodera, media artist, filmmaker (born 26 October 1961 in Toronto, ON). Midi Onodera is an experimental film and video artist whose work reflects her experience as a feminist, lesbian and Japanese Canadian. Working in a variety of formats, she has produced more than 25 independent short films, as well as a theatrical feature film and numerous short videos. Her work has earned national and international attention, including a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2018.

Midi Onodera, Vidoodles
A poster for Midi Onodera's Vidoodles series.

Education

Midi Onodera studied visual art at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University) from 1983 to 1989. She also attended the Canadian Film Centre’s Film Lab in 1994 and its New Media Design Programme in 2001. From 2007 to 2012, she was enrolled in OCAD University’s BFA program as a part-time student.

Early Films

In her twenties, Onodera received substantial attention for two films: Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) (1985), a three-part narrative dealing with sexual rituals in an era of casual personal contact; and The Displaced View (1989), an intricate, first-person exploration of the cultural world of second-generation Japanese Canadians. The Displaced View was nominated for a 1989 Gemini Award for Best Documentary Program and received a special citation from the jury. These two films displayed Onodera’s talent for open-ended narrative. They also established the central themes of gender identity and cultural identity that would emerge to varying degrees in her later work.

Her first theatrical feature, Skin Deep (1995), was screened at such prestigious festivals as the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It also received the Best Feature Film: Audience Award at the 1995 Hamburg International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. The story of a young artist working on a film about the pleasure and pain of tattooing, Skin Deep explores dark themes related to art and sexuality. Onodera’s first and only feature film, its critical and audience reception ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to intrigued confusion.

Vidoodles and Short-Form Videos (2006–09)

Onodera’s preoccupation with media and new technology, especially the ever-evolving technology of online visual communication and gaming media, led her to explore the capabilities of a variety of toy cameras. She worked with a modified Nintendo Game Boy Camera, an Intel Mattel computer microscope, Tyco and Trendmasters video cameras, and digital video formats ranging from Hi8 video to digital video and low-end digital toy formats. From 2006 to 2007, she posted a year-long series of daily online videos, appropriately named “A Movie a Day.” These allowed her to explore a range of expressive possibilities and experiment with technical effects. She referred to these short, 30-second to two-minute-long moving image works as “Vidoodles.”

The Vidoodles are short and impressively varied, seemingly spontaneous and unencumbered by weighty meaning. The narratives, if they exist at all, are fragments drawn from what would appear to be everyday life. They occasionally seem to display the specificity of personal experience. The viewer, however, is left with the impression that if individual videos seem to express personal feelings, the combined effect is that they are not the feelings of the artist, but those of someone else — or anyone else. Generally, Onodera acknowledges issues, but these seem to be noted in passing, as if they existed merely as scenery sitting as a backdrop to our everyday lives. Occasionally, a “message” surfaces or appears In the form of overlaid text. For example, in Don’t Walk, a stop light changes from “wait” to “walk” and the traffic light image of a walking man appears with the overlaid text, “Don’t women ever cross the street?”

Over the last decade, Onodera has continued to make short-form videos, releasing on average a video project every year. These have generally been organized into annual themes or structural strategies that reflect her changing interests. For example, her 2009 series, comprising weekly mini-movies that she posted online, was called “Movie of the Week,” a gentle tribute to the 1960s TV series but designed for “today’s iPod audiences,” as she noted in her introduction.

Odonera said of these short videos in 2013 that, “As an artist with an experimental film background, the Structuralist/Materialist films of the 1970s and feminist New Narrative cinema of the 1980s have informed my work.” She also said that videos designed to be viewed on mobile devices such as an iPhone “have the potential to expand storytelling conventions and can empower disenfranchised voices through financially viable productions and the ubiquity of mobile video devices.”

24 FPS (2011)

In 2011, Onodera explored the historical evolution of moving picture technology by experimenting with an iPhone app called QuadCamera. It allowed her to shoot eight-frame sequences at intervals of between three and nine seconds. The results replicated the stuttering effect of early moving pictures and evoked the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequential series of photos of moving humans and horses anticipated later developments in motion picture technology. Calling the series 24 FPS, Onodera described the collection as tributes to “the foundation of moving image theory.”

Kicking Around (2014)

With her 2014 series, Kicking Around, Onodera explored the use of found material. She salvaged sequences from various sources, including scraps of 8mm home movies and other discarded footage, and presented them virtually unchanged or with the minor addition of sound, music, captions, etc. The result is often jarring or unsettling, as with Home Movie No 5, which pairs a sunny winter clip of children happily shovelling snow with a sombre, oddly threatening synthesized orchestral soundtrack.

In the same series, Onodera includes in its entirety a music video featuring an obscure Toronto rock group from the 1960s, the Sidewalk Skipper Band, coupled with a long interview that Onodera did thirty years later with two of the band’s members. The video assumes an artifact-like status, a faux historical significance that it never had in its original life.

Lonely Videos (2017)

Onodera took the idea of exploring retrieved and reworked cultural ephemera even further in her 2017 series Lonely Videos, in which she reworked found YouTube videos. In her introduction to the series, she noted that YouTube receives more than 300 hours of video a minute, of which about 30 per cent have fewer than 100 views. This means there are a great many videos with very small viewership — lonely videos, as Onodera calls them, “desperately waiting to be seen.” For Lonely Videos, Onodera revised and reposted a video each month with fewer than 20 views. The reworking of the videos varied with each, usually involving rearrangement, insertions and deletions. These changes generally obscured the intentions of the original creator, often producing humorous, sometimes bewildering results.

My 8 Days as a War Artist (2017)

Also in 2017, Onodera undertook a more ambitious project involving footage she had shot in Afghanistan in 2006 as a Canadian government-sponsored war artist. She worked on the project, titled My 8 Days as a War Artist, intermittently for seven years to make sense of her time embedded with Canadian armed forces during the War in Afghanistan.

Onodera originally intended to document the experience of war through the eyes of people who provide non-military support for the troops. However, her experience in Afghanistan led her to reflect deeply on her own attitudes on the use of military force to resolve conflicts. Much of this searching self-reflection is recorded in a daily written diary that she posted online to accompany the project. The video project itself is a viewer-navigated narrative comprised of short video clips arranged in the categories of “memory,” “the unknown” and “the imagined.” These give the viewer access to an open-ended experience of the tedium and occasional terror that accompanies life in a forward operation military base.

Other Projects

Onodera has continued her explorations of emerging image and communication technology. She has recently become involved with artificial intelligence and the developing chatbox technology, which involves the creation and gradual development or “education” of an alter-ego “friend” she calls FauxMidi. Her chronicle of her evolving relationship with FauxMidi can be found on her website under the project called Soliloquy.

Characteristic Traits and Themes

Onodera’s political and social concerns have always shaped the presentation and egalitarian distribution of her art. For viewers, however, the power of her short videos often lies in their open-ended potential for interpretation, their expressive exploitation of the medium, and the attendant visual motifs that reveal the mechanics of their production. These motifs include jump-cuts and split-screen sequences, as well as rough, low-resolution video and audio. The videos’ short length focuses attention on the roots of moving image history and the ways in which the medium’s constraints can concentrate expression, similar to short-form poetry such as haiku or a sonnet.

In a 2010 interview published in Imaginations: A Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies, Onodera said, “My tiny movies have a very different relationship with the viewer than larger screen movies. Unlike conventional cinema that draws on techniques and a visual/auditory vocabulary of over 100 years, tiny cinema’s history is only five years old, marked by Apple’s introduction of their fifth generation iPod.” Appropriately enough, Onodera intended that her tiny videos be viewed on common mass-market devices such as iPods and iPhones.

Awards

  • Best Feature Film: Audience Award (Skin Deep), Hamburg International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Lesbian Short Film (The Basement Girl), Sapphos Movie Awards (2001)