You've never seen a family slideshow like this...or have you?

For Toronto artist Mitch Robertson, what started as a rainy day game with the kids turned into a haunting project about the fuzzy nature of memory.

What started as a rainy day game with the kids turned into a haunting project about the fuzzy nature of memory

Mitch Robertson. Motel Pool, 2018. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)

Long before the invention of FOMO, the most annoying thing about seeing people's vacation photos wasn't being blasted with pics of Machu Picchu on Instagram — it was sitting through a holiday slideshow. And even if you've never personally listened to mom and dad reminisce about a 1982 trip to the Keswick Pencil Museum while they click through six consecutive rolls of blurry photos, movies and TV (or at least every Patty and Selma episode of the Simpsons) would have you believe this quintessential pre-Internet experience was more boring than, well, a trip to the Keswick Pencil Museum.

Mitch Robertson, for his part, can vouch for it. The Toronto artist, 43, says he recalls restlessly sitting through well-meaning aunts and uncles' holiday snapshots, agonizingly wondering, "Oh god, how long will this be?!"

The slideshows he does for his own kids, however, are decidedly more entertaining.

It blurs this idea of, 'Wait, did that happen?'- Mitch Robertson, artist

"It's kind of like a rainy day game," says Robertson, describing the family tradition he inadvertently invented about two and a half years ago. Robertson collects slides, among various other things, which he picks up through estate sales and eBay. Over a decade, he's amassed about 15,000 of them — photos taken by various strangers from parts unknown — and to sort through a new haul, he'll sometimes fire up the projector and get the whole family to help. That's where the game comes in.

"It's almost like a Balderdash kind of thing," he explains, but mixed with one of those campfire games where people go around a circle adding lines to a story. He'll pull out a box of slides and everyone — mom, dad and their two kids — pretend they're looking at old family photos. "We'd flip through not knowing what we're going to see — assuming we're not going to see anything that isn't suitable for an 8-10 year old," he laughs. And for every slide, they make up a story.

Let's say you're starting with a box labelled "Egypt 1973." Somebody might call out, "Do you remember how we tried to climb this pyramid?" and the make-believe memories pile on from there.

"It's just silliness, but they'd have a great time with that, flipping through these images," he says. "But ultimately, when you're young enough, I suppose you can get convinced by the game. You start to acquire an aspect of it, where it blurs this idea of, 'Wait, did that happen?'"

Tell the story of a family vacation to Egypt enough times, and you might just start to believe you were actually there — even if the photos were taken before anyone in the room was ever born. Tourist, Robertson's latest exhibition at Toronto's Birch Contemporary, was inspired by that notion.

"For me, I was trying to work with this idea of nostalgia and memory — the aspect of recalling images that aren't our own memories," he says. "Stealing the memories, in a sense."

Using found slides from his collection, most of the works appearing in the show are composites of other peoples' Kodak moments. One image, for example — Motel Pool — layers slides of just that, blurring them into one disorienting but universal postcard image. The slides themselves were presumably taken at different times and places.

I'm collecting this collective experience.- Mitch Robertson, artist

Robertson doesn't know when and where each photo was taken. The viewer doesn't either — unless, through some extreme chance, they recognize one of the unidentified vintage vacationers. But even without having been there, even without actually swimming in a motel pool, the scene is just generic enough that it reads as familiar — so familiar that it might as well be one of your own hazy recollections of a summer holiday.

The slide-on-slide images are trippy, but the way human memory works is way more mind-boggling. For something so personal, making memories can be a bit of team sport. What we decide to remember is influenced by all sorts of outside factors. If you've ever told a family story, and had someone fight you over who said or saw or noogied what, you know how everyone has a different take on the same experience. Over time, the group agrees on some of those divergent P.O.V.'s, whether they're accurate or not, and they get adapted into the way everyone keeps telling the tale.

We'll also "remember" things that never happened, or that weren't even possible. Those are "false memories." Considering the holiday subject matter of Tourist, one famous study is a fitting example: about 20 years ago, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus (something of a pioneer in the area of false memory) recruited a group of subjects who'd all been to Disneyland as kids. After showing them fake ads for the park — ads starring Bugs Bunny — more than 30 per cent of them claimed to have seen the wascally wabbit way back when. But it never happened. Bugs isn't even a Disney character.

Is this the collective experience that maybe we aspire to, or hope for?- Mitch Robertson, artist

Fake memories, stolen memories, borrowed memories, shared memories — they're all hinted at in Tourist.

Says Robertson: "It's the idea that if you tell a story enough times, there's a truth to it — or you've borrowed somebody else's experience."

Getting to look at other people's lives is part of what drives him to collect slides in the first place, he says. One box from an estate sale might hold the entire story of a family — one unique experience. But their story gets completely deconstructed as soon as it's part of his collection. Robertson files the slides under his own, seemingly arbitrary but potentially universal categories: landscapes, people blowing out birthday candles, pictures of retro Starburst clocks.

"I've changed what was important about the experience," he says. "I'm collecting this collective experience."

In some ways, Robertson says he's been working on this project as long as he's been collecting slides, and Tourist picks up on a lot of similar ideas about shared memory that he's been tapping into for the last two decades. For Original Copy, in 2002, he re-created his living room to stage a slideshow of kitschy postcards — scenes that were juxtaposed with his photos of the IRL landmarks. His 2005 series, Place Paintings, was based on postcards from famous Canadian spots he'd never seen.

"This project and previous shows as well, they always come back to the idea of is this an experience that I could have had? Am I essentially telling another person's story, but is it a parallel to any life lived? Is this the collective experience that maybe we aspire to, or hope for?"

Take a look at some of the work appearing in Tourist.

Mitch Robertson. Zoo, 2018. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. Hotel Room, 2018. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. Sidewalk Loop, 2018. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. The Three of Us, 2017. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. Continuous Landscape, 2017. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. Swimming Pool, 2017. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)
Mitch Robertson. Museum, 2018. (Courtesy of Birch Contemporary)

Mitch Robertson. Tourist. To June 2 at Birch Contemporary, Toronto.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.


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