Paige Smith plays with the gaze in “Watching You Watching Me”

The SFU visual arts student’s multimedia exhibition explores queer identity through an experimental lens

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A person makes a playful face in the mirror, with her face painted bright colors and the rest of the photo is black and white
PHOTO: Paige Smith

By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly wrote that Smith’s video, Tethered Connection, is 35 minutes. This was updated to “35 seconds” on November 24, 2022.

Content warning: mentions of voyeurism

We’ve all heard the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I didn’t comprehend this until I explored “the gaze” in the communication course Technologies of Gender and Sexuality. The male gaze is traced back to 19th century nude oil paintings, in which women were painted to be objects of male voyeuristic pleasure. This demonstrates how powerful apparatus can be in enforcing gendered power dynamics.

Experimental filmmaker and visual artist Paige Smith’s multimedia exhibition, “Watching You Watching Me” explores this idea through a variety of lenses, pointing to the medium’s influence. With a BFA in film from SFU and diverse cinematography experience under her belt, Smith is currently pursuing a post-baccalaureate diploma in visual arts at SFU. 

Inspired by a “fascination with the acts of watching and being watched,” Smith’s motion picture artworks and photography reveal how queer identity and sexuality are represented and internalized through the lens. Her approach is deeply personal.

Walking into the dimly-lit exhibition space in the Cineworks black box studio, Smith’s 2018 film, Watching Us, which was projected onto the wall facing the entrance, took up my immediate attention. As the film panned throughout the walls of an empty apartment and a 1940’s soundtrack eerily played, the lens eventually lands on a queer couple in the bedroom and I’m put in the position of an unwelcomed spectator. I meet the eyes of a distressed woman and painfully relate to her hyper awareness of being watched, all the while feeling uncomfortable in my viewing position.

The eight minute film quickly takes a horrifying turn, as a roughly-drawn sketch of a man appears on screen, symbolizing the ever-present surveillance of the male gaze. Suddenly, the couple is in separate rooms; one of them is staring at a static television screen, while the other is crying in the bedroom. 

According to Smith, the Watching Us deals with her fear of being watched and watching other women. She told The Peak the film addresses “internalized queer-phobia” she experiences as a pan/bisexual woman. In a blog post, she wrote “consumption of queer women’s sexualities [ . . . ] changes how we act, how we see ourselves, and it is painful.”

Smith’s outlook has become more hopeful. Her 2022 looping film, The Big Reveal, makes this clear. The 16mm black and white short features four women and non-binary folks undressing, subverting the conventions of a striptease by painting their bodies with “bright, semi-opaque colours.” The performers also make playful faces in the mirror. Smith used food dye to particularly cover each frame.

I think [the shift in tone] is due to both my mental health improving and my desire to create artwork that can help us imagine new and hopeful futures,” said Smith.

The 2022 video installation, Tethered Connection, also plays with conventional expectations. A 35-second clip of Smith undressing in her bedroom played on a computer monitor with an office set-up mimics the format of watching a camgirl or amateur porn performer. When her skin is displayed, however, it is illuminated by a white glow. 

Being in front of the camera in both 2022 films was vulnerable for Smith, but important. “[Being behind the camera] came naturally to me in a lot of ways, the mechanisms of the camera are logical and there is some solace in that,” Smith said. It wasn’t until The Big Reveal, that Smith considered being in front of the camera. 

“I felt a need to participate in the project as a form of solidarity with my friends who had volunteered,” said Smith. “It felt like all this time I had really been doing a lot of taking — taking images, capturing people through film — and that it was time to do a little giving myself.”

She added, “I’m learning more through performing what it means to be watched, and it is a scary, vulnerable, and beautiful thing.”

I’ve always been aware of the male gaze and its persistent influence over my sense of self. “Watching You Watching Me” helped me recognize how the media forces you into subject positions that reproduce dominant gender roles. This is why it’s so important for queer filmmakers to be in control of their representation.

To learn more about Paige Smith and her future projects, check out her website and follow her Instagram.

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