Bill’s Hat was a live cinema event performed twice in 1967, once at the experimental Toronto film festival Cinethon at Cinecity on Yonge Street in August (which had commissioned the film with a $1,000 prize), and again at the Art Gallery of Ontario in November. As biographer Jane Lind describes,
“…This idyllic film was only a part of the whole performance of Bills’ Hat, which included an altar with a hundred candles and pots of flowers. From the ceiling hung a pillow shaped like a heart. A woman lay silently on top of a piano with the hat on her belly. Besides the 50-minute movie projected on a screen, four simultaneous slide show featured the “hundreds” of people wearing the hat, and some of those sitting in the audience had small hand-held projectors that projected images on the backs of others. Strobe lights did for the eyes what the sound did for the ears, music from two live bands, Stu Broomer’s Kinetic Ensemble and The 25th Hour, a rock band that included Joyce’s nephew, Keith Stewart.”
The press release from the AGO (imaged below), and Wieland’s conversation interview with journalist friend, Wendy Michener (from the CQ archives, below), give the clearest accounts of her performance and film, as Wieland describes how she filmed and photographed hundreds of people wearing her old raccoon hat, including Jackie Burroughs, Jack Bush, Jean Sutherland Boggs, Judy Lamarsh, A.Y. Jackson, Timothy Leary, and Graeme Ferguson, whose son, Munro appears as one of the idyllic children in the opening sequence.
Michener and Wieland talking about Bill’s Hat
1/4 inch audio tape, Coll. Cinémathèque québécoise
The following is an intimate interview between two friends and contemporaries, Wendy Michener and Joyce Wieland, which centers around Wieland’s groundbreaking mixed media art work Bill’s Hat (1967). Michener’s questions provide insight into Wieland’s motivations for creating the piece – what Wieland describes as her desire to have everyone try on her hat and to spread the joyousness of the “hat of brotherhood.” Commissioned to do the work by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Wieland sets out on a journey to film and photograph as many people as she could trying on her old racoon hat. Different on everyone, the hat manages to reveal people’s character as they pose in front of Wieland’s camera – some stick their noses up at the strange hat and others are as creative as they can be. Shooting over two hours of film and many slides Wieland had a ton of material to work with while stitching together her multi channel artwork. As a pioneer in early mixed media productions, Wieland’s response to Michener’s question “why mixed media?” sheds light on the historical context of the art world in Toronto and New York at that time. The role of musical performance in Bill’s Hat is of particular interest to Michener, who remarks on the highly oppositional relationship between the aggressive live music, what Wieland describes as the “new jazz music,” and the gentleness of the film and slide images. This interview segment is a wonderful opportunity to gain knowledge into a landmark mixed media experience which, Wieland explains, was intended to create an immersive “world of feeling” that, under the ideal circumstances, could provide a “profound high.” For Wieland, this was an attempt to create an intensive “art world” based on a life-like sense of being where one is not able to capture everything at once – you will always miss something. In her response to Michener, regarding whether people were ready for this kind of thing, Wieland replies, yes ¬– “audiences are hungry for it.” (Vanessa Meyer)
Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak describe Bill’s Hat within a history of Canadian live cinema, referred to as ‘expanded’ cinema as coined by Gene Youngblood in 1970, and also linking it to Expo 67’s multi-screen event, Labryrinth.
“Despite a rich and varied tradition, the history of Canadian live cinema has gone largely undocumented. Early pioneers include the interdisciplinary artist Joyce Wieland, who designed a mixed media event in 1967 for Cinethon, a 45-hour festival of underground film in Toronto. Bill’s Hat, commissioned by the host venue Cinecity, “stretched one’s perceptions to just below the pain threshold” with its “writhing welter of sound,” stroboscopic lights, four slide shows, and a 50 minute movie. That same year, the government-sponsored, multi screen Labyrinth (Roman Kroitor, Hugh O’Connor, and Colin Low) was presented at Expo 67 in a custom-built, five-story pavilion. Wieland’s rowdy sound and light collage and the epic-scaled innovations that were developed for Montreal’s hugely successful World’s Fair thus initiated a homegrown expanded cinema in the late 1960s.”
Wieland describes in the AGO press release, “The whole film (and slides) are non-art portraits of people in which they do what they want with this hat – and therefore, act or stand in front of my camera. It’s only love: therefore it can’t harm you.” As described in her interview, which offers a complex portal into the cultural politics and lexicons of the 1960s, she observes that people’s personalities were revealed as they donned the hat, embracing and enacting completely new persona, or just sticking it on top of their heads without much reaction.
Citations: Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 2001), 167. Brett Kashmere and Astria Suparak, “In Pursuit of Northern Lights: Tracking Canada’s Live Cinema,” available at http://www.brettkashmere.com/livecinema.html