David Tomas was born in Montréal in 1950, but spent part of his childhood and adolescence in London, England. In the early 1970s, he studied in fine arts (majoring in painting) at the City and Guilds of London Art School.1 In 1973, once he had received his diploma, he returned to Canada to pursue a master’s degree (MFA) at Concordia University, in Montréal.
When he completed his academic studies in 1975, he partly abandoned painting and sculpture in favour of a more conceptual approach to art making. From then on, he became interested in the relationship between different fields of knowledge—something he would continue to investigate throughout his entire career—beginning with exploring the visualization of phenomena invisible to the human eye.
In 1975, he began making films that recorded infinitesimal durations (numbers on a Geiger counter), thereby making the plasticity of scientific data perceptible when transferred from intelligibility to a space opacity. This research also led to performances and polyptychs such as Nuclear Religion (1975/1980), in which he presented photographs of a particle accelerator at the Department of Physics at McGill University. The images were accompanied by technical drawings, a book encased in a Plexiglas frame, and a statement proposing a model for a new museum institution.2
While producing this body of work, however, Tomas observed that some of his main influences from the conceptual movement (Bernar Venet, among others) appropriated methods from the humanities and pure sciences as part of their critique of the self-referential art object without ever really engaging in a dialogue with university researchers.3
In order to avoid this pitfall, he decided to acquire specialized academic knowledge by choosing an atypical path: in 1976, he enrolled in the graduate program at the Université de Montréal’s Institut d’histoire et de sociopolitique des sciences (Institute for the History and Sociopolitics of Science), completing his master’s thesis on the stylistics of scientific writing.
During this period, Tomas also became familiar with structural semiotics, which he used to conduct analyses of technical objects that led to his first papers and articles. After graduating in 1979, Tomas began his doctoral studies in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University. In the preliminary thesis proposal he submitted in 1981, he drew links between rites of passage, narratives on the origin of photography in the 19th century, and the emergence of technologies from the industrial revolution, such as the railway network/steam engine.4
Tomas subsequently submitted a reworked proposal that focused more on photography’s overlooked role in ethnographic observation, submitting his thesis in 1988. Meanwhile, he continued his study of the concomitant systems of value production, namely through written articles5 and a series of installations titled Experimental Photographic Structures.
The first iteration was produced at PS 1 (Centre for Art and Urban Resources) in New York, in 1981. Various venues within the Belgo building in Montréal were used for subsequent versions of the project in 1981 and in 1982.6 In each of these installations, Tomas programmed a sequence of actions that would automate the image production process. A timer triggered a Polaroid camera and a flash simultaneously, while a closed-circuit video recorded the passage of a model train as it crossed a suspended bridge. This resulted in seemingly contentless traces: “brute photographs” recording only the contact of light on emulsion.7
Tomas then produced an installation titled Arrow in Flight (1981), as part of the Erweiterte Fotografie, 5 Wiener Internationale Biennale, at the Vienna Secession, which once again brought together the movement of the model train and the instant of image capture, this time alongside obliterated Polaroids, his own family photographs, and archival prints of the territorial colonization of Western Canada.8
Although Tomas never directly associated his work to photoconceptualism, he nonetheless contributed through his publications to the dialogue of its primary participants in Canada and the United States, as well as in the UK. As with the writings of Victor Burgin, Mark Lewis, Martha Rosler, Alan Sekula, Jeff Wall, and Ian Wallace, Tomas’s articles from this period outlined a shared preoccupation with circumventing modernist discourses on photography with the combination of a writing practice and the creation of artworks, without one taking precedence over the other.
Tomas published in journals such as Semiotica and SubStance, the latter being an interdisciplinary platform that placed essays by French philosophers translated into English side by side with theoretical proposals, such as his, at the confluence of semiotics and cultural studies.
In 1983, Yajima Gallery, directed by Michiko Yajima, began showing his work on a regular basis. Tomas’s first exhibition there was his performed installation Photography: A Word(1984). In an attempt to provide a provisional definition for the term “photograph,” which is absent from Raymond Williams’s lexicon Keywords(1976), Tomas brought together a constellation of textual fragments that outlined a parallel history of the medium. He reused several elements from Experimental Photographic Structures: a model train crossing a bridge captured by a closed-circuit video camera. Tomas, who was present in the gallery, would observe part of his surrounding environment through a camera lucida (a 19th century drawing device that uses a prism and a lens to project a three-dimensional outline of an object or a landscape onto a sheet of paper).
In 1984, S. L. Simpson Gallery, directed by Sandra Simpson, began a collaboration with Tomas by presenting his performed installation Behind the Eye Lies the Hand of William Fox Talbot. In it, Tomas evoked the figure of William Fox Talbot, the inventor of the calotype process and author of the book The Pencil of Nature (1844). Once again stationed within his installation during opening hours, Tomas, equipped with a camera lucida, would draw a black square on the surface of a calotype of Fox Talbot’s hand.9
During the same period, Tomas realized several performances where this time he spoke, including Notes Toward a Theory of Photography (1982), a vinyl record of recorded fragments of his texts read out loud and filtered through different acousmatic filters, and Lecture to an Academy (1985), a recorded statement in two voices, also filtered through a synthesizer, which recalls evokes the discursive context of the oral delivery of academic knowledge by quoting from Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy (1917).10
These works prefigured the now-established genre of the performance-lecture, which Tomas engaged with from the very beginning of his practice with The SX 70 1972: A Machine for the Critical Examination of Context in 1979 at Optica (Montréal), until the end of his trajectory as an artist.These performance-lectures are also part of a group of works dealing with sound, which he began during this period.
Between 1985 and 1986, Tomas made a series of installations revolving around the vulnerability of the human eye and its machine-future by inscribing texts from literary sources (Jean Genet, Homer, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Dziga Vertov) directly on the walls of the exhibition space. Avoiding didacticism, these works added other layers of complexity to the previous installations while preserving some of their characteristic elements: closed-circuit video and in situ architectural interventions. Also, the typography of vinyl letters and the dissemination of the texts in many orientations echoed the experimental graphic design of the Russian avant-garde (El Lissitzky in particular); according to Tomas, this formal use of language suggested an “acoustic space” of the reading experience11
Tomas produced his installations, Through the Eye of the Cyclops, The Photographer (1985), Eyes of China, Eyes of Steel (1986), as part of several important group exhibitions in Canada during the 1980s, including Aurora Borealis at the Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal in 1985, and Songs of Experience at the National Gallery of Canada in 1986. After its inaugural exhibition at Yajima Gallery in 1985, Through the Eye of the Cyclops was presented in Amsterdam, Lyon, and Vancouver.12
In 1986, 49th Parallel, a Canadian contemporary art centre in New York, presented Tomas’s installation Off-world, in which he showed segments from Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982) on a monitor with quotes from the film script inscribed presented on the walls of the gallery together with excerpts from notes by the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov.13
In the installation Utopias, exhibited at the S. L. Simpson Gallery in 1988, Tomas created a support structure that allowed him to simultaneously project slides of a series of photograms from Blade Runner and other images (etchings and photographs) that were rare examples of the first contact between the British and the Indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, between 1858 and 1922, who until that time had been completely self-sufficient. Tomas had previously analyzed these ethnographic documents as part of his doctoral thesis in anthropology in 1988, titled An Ethnography of the Eye: Authority, Observation, and Photography in the Context of British Anthropology 1839-1900.
In 1989, James Clifford invited Tomas to pursue postdoctoral studies in the Department of History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That same year, Tomas was appointed professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Ottawa, where he was already teaching part-time.
At the end of the 1980s, he began investigating the science-fiction genre, in particular the novels of William Gibson, in order to comment on the rise of heterotopias in cyberspace well before the democratization of the Internet.14 The examination of these embryonic technologies, which promised to conquer new virtual spaces, complemented his research on colonialism and cultural dispossession.
In 1991, Tomas presented the performance This is What you Want, This is What you Get at the Banff Centre, adding a cyborg figure to his camera lucida and references to Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera.
Produced at Banff at the same time, his single channel film Rum and Coca-Cola (1992) juxtaposes, among other things, soundtracks from 1950s alien invasion movies with televised video clips from the Oka Crisis—the conflict between the Mohawk nation and the owners of a golf course in the town of Oka, Québec, in 1991. Within this footage, Tomas intermittently inserted animated images of a scarecrow (hentakoi) with a White man’s head, sculpted in 1900 by the inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands, located in the Indian Ocean.
Also in 1991, Tomas began a series of drawings, installations, and performances titled Time Transfixed, completed in 1994. In this work, he references a painting by René Magritte titled La durée poignardée (Time Transfixed) from 1938, which shares many of the same motifs that Tomas had used in his previous works, particularly the locomotive and also the idea of the suspension of time.
In 1994, in the installation and performance Time Transfixed IV (later retitled The Incubator, in 1998), Tomas created a relationship between his body, the figure of the hentakoi, and a video loop of childhood photographs, the details of which (camera, toy train) seemed, to him, to anticipate this future project while distilling the content of Magritte’s painting. In 1994, Oakville Galleries organized an exhibition called Chemical Skins around this cycle of works, and published an accompanying catalogue.15
That same year, he won the Andrew W. Mellon & Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in Contemporary Art Criticism from the California Institute of the Arts, enabling him to complete his book Transcultural Space, Transcultural Beings (published in 1996), which stemmed in part from his doctoral thesis.16 This book, which elaborated a theory of the phenomenology of intercultural zones of contact, was recognized as an important contribution to visual anthropology.
In 1995, curator Lesley Johnstone proposed Tomas as a candidate for the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with an augmented version of his Time Transfixed installation series.
In 1996, a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts allowed him to produce a series of drawings that were later transformed into large-scale photographs. In these works, which were first drawn by hand or with the aid of a camera lucida, the change in scale created an ambiguous space between an autographic trace and an allographic process. They also integrated motifs—photograms of films, ethnographic photographs, anatomical dissections, plants, machine fragments—whose appearance attests to a way of thinking in progress, on the edge of becoming discourse.
This line of research and inquiry wasn’t new; Tomas had been developing an extended drawing practice both as part of his performances since the 1970s, and in conjunction with his many written articles on the graphic representation of technical objects.17
In 1997, Tomas conducted research in the Department of Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he began writing his book Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies (published in 2004).18
Using two grants he received from the University of Ottawa in 1998, Tomas designed a website in VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) titled The Encoded Eye, The Archive and its Engine House, an interactive platform that brought together autobiographic texts and several documents around an interface made by superimposing the circular structures of the British Library, the Roundhouse in London, and Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.19
In 1999, Tomas left the University of Ottawa to take a teaching position in visual and media arts at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Two years later, he received the Claudia De Hueck Fellowship in arts and sciences from the National Gallery of Canada to undertake research on epistemologies of laboratories, while also continuing to write Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Tomas created three-dimensional works that were closer to sculpture than his installations from the 1980s. His structure Not Here, Not There (2001) originated in part from an extrapolation of an architectural model—a cylinder—described by Samuel Beckett in The Lost Ones, (1970), where humans live in complete isolation.20 In 2004-2005, Tomas also produced sets of objects based on components of a house that Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister, in Vienna in 1926.21
In 2004, the artist-run centre Dazibao published A Blinding Flash of Light: Photography Between Disciplines and Media, an anthology of essays by Tomas on the subject of photography that had appeared in various journals (Cultural Studies, Semiotica, SubStance) since the early 1980s.22
Video was a medium that Tomas would return to regularly, either by using it as a closed-circuit system within his installations, or by making single-channel videos (starting in 1992 with Rum and Coca-Cola). Between 2004 and 2010, he adopted the video-projection format by “animating” (his term) during the editing process samples from a collection of historical photographs, exhibition views, and his own drawings. These silent works, for example Stereovision (2007-2008), An Imperfect History of Cinema (2008-2009), Of Dolls and Automatons (2009-2010), juxtaposed artefacts from various 20th century cultural contexts, often also underlining autobiographical threads.
In 2013, Tomas published Vertov, Snow, Farocki: Machine Vision and the Posthuman, which combined the results of several years of research on these three filmmakers.23 This book represents the culmination of a reflection on the expansion of cinema which, since the beginning of its history, has tried to go beyond the paradigm of the sovereign author and the human eye.
In the mid-1990s, Parachute magazine invited Tomas to become a regular contributor. The result of this collaboration was a series of polemical essays in which he discussed the emergence of neoliberal culture in museums.24 The effects of the most recent mutations of capitalism on the internal mechanisms of the art field became his central focus in 2009. Tomas noticed the synchronicity of two phenomena: the anchoring of artistic practices within the university, and the rise within the auction market of conceptual art works from the 1960s and 1970s, which were greatly influential to him during his studies.
The research he undertook around a new method of analyzing art deemed “meta-economic” resulted in a series of essays, installations, and curatorial projects.
This preoccupation with exhibition production dates back to his Experimental Photographic Structure cycle, in which Tomas played every role, bypassing the need for intermediaries and even working without a given institutional context.25 During the 2010s, the project of building a discursive space in which his own works could be integrated with those of other artists, often close interlocutors, became an integral part of his process.
In 2010, Tomas conceived the two-part exhibition Live Rightly, Die, Die at Dazibao, in Montréal, mapping the residual tropes of exoticism within the international network of contemporary art.26
At Artexte in 2013-2014, Tomas investigated the auction catalogue as a multivalent object.27
For the Montréal Biennale Looking Forward = L’avenir, presented at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2014, he presented an installation on the experimental exhibition This is Tomorrow, organized by Richard Hamilton at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1955—elements of which were subsequently put up for auction by Sotheby’s.
As part of his teaching activities at UQAM, Tomas founded a research group on contemporary art auctions to examine critically the transactions occurring within this speculative market. A major grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) in 2017 allowed him to secure the structure of the group, which consisted of the students Catherine Béliveau, Emmanuelle Duret, Rosalie Jean, Manoushka Larouche, Catherine Lescarbeau, and Geneviève Massé.
The book An Economy of Discursive Fields: Lot 94, E6-03, an account of the series of exhibitions that were held in 2018 in various locations during the auction sale of Fake Estates(1974) by Gordon Matta Clark in 2013, was published posthumously in 2019.
Between 2015 and 2019, Tomas coordinated the publication of the online periodical PDF, which distributed his ongoing research findings as well as those of his collaborators, through articles, archival documents, and even drafts of projects.28 Like his work on auctions, in which the sequence of exhibitions roughly followed the chronology of the transactions themselves, PDF was published according to a temporality that reflected the often brief visibility of cultural objects in the public space, based on notable events in the contemporary art field or the response to political circumstances of the moment.
David Tomas died in 2019.
— Text by Vincent Bonin.
David Tomas’s works can be found in collections including the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
1. Some facts reported in this biographical chronology were taken from an unpublished text by David Tomas entitled “Career Narrative,” from the artist’s archival fonds.
2. This piece was presented as part of Tomas’s first solo exhibition at Optica, in Montréal, in 1979, titled Works on the History of Physics. On Nuclear Religion, see Gordon Lebredt, “David Tomas,” Parachute, no. 47 (1987), 40.
3. On this topic, see David Tomas’s text: “Artist: Identity in Mutation,” in Escape Velocity: Alternative Instruction Prototype for Playing the Knowledge Game, Montréal, self-published, 2012. Available in PDF format: https://davidtomas.ca/files/DavidTomas_Escapevelocity_nov2012.pdf. For a discussion on interdisciplinarity in David Tomas’s work from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, see Alberto Cambrosio and David Tomas, “Pour une pratique negative de la photographie,” Parachute, no. 37 (December 1984–February 1985), 4-8.
4. See David Tomas’s thesis proposal submitted to his committee in 1981, in the archival fonds of the artist.
5. See, among others, “The Ritual of Photography,” Semiotica, vol. 40, no. 23 (summer 1981), 1-25
6. For more on the second version of Experimental Photographic Structures, presented at the Belgo Building in 1981, see Diana Nemiroff, “Tim Clark, David Tomas,” Parachute, no. 23, (summer 1981), 36-38.
7. Tomas reinterprets Roland Barthes’ concept of brute photography: “It is as though in the beginning (even if utopian) there were a brute photograph (frontal and clear) on which man would then lay out, with the aid of various techniques, the signs drawn from a cultural code.” Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977). 44.
8. For more on this piece as it was later presented in 1983 at Forest City Gallery in London, Ontario, see: Goldie Rans, “David Tomas” Vanguard 2, no. 5/6 (summer 1983).
9. For more on this exhibition, see Mark Lewis, “Behind the Eye,” Border/Lines, no. 2 (1985), 6-7.
10. Lecture to an Academy was presented at the Redpath Museum at McGill University, in Montréal, on February 9, 1985, and on May 4, 1986 at the National Research Council, as part of the exhibition Songs of Experience, organized by Diana Nemiroff for the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa.
11. David Tomas explained his use of the concept of “acoustic space” (quoted from Marshall McLuhan) to Monika Kin Gagnon in an interview from 1987, of which the audio recording and transcript can be found in the artist’s archives.
12. Raymonde April, Gilles Milhalcean, Robert Racine, Barbara Steinman, David Tomas, at Espace Lyonnais d’art contemporain, in Lyon, and Luminous Sites at Coburg Gallery, in Vancouver in 1986.
13. See the press release for the exhibition in the artist’s archives.
14. As an example of this, see David Tomas, “The Technophilic Body: On Technicity in William Gibson’s Cyborg Culture.” New Formations, no. 8 (1989), 113-129.
15. Chemical Skins: David Tomas, Marnie Fleming (ed.), (Oakville: Oakville Galleries, 1994).
16. David Tomas, Transcultural Space, Transcultural Beings, (Boulder: Westview Press: 1996).
17. David Tomas, “Mimesis and the Death of Difference in the Graphic Arts,” SubStance 22, no. 1 (1993), 41-52; What is a New Technology? Machine Drawings, Sentience, Intercultural Contact,” Parachute no. 84 (1996), 46-51; and Michèle Thériault and David Tomas, Duction (Montréal: Éditions Carapace, 2001).
18. David Tomas, Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies (New York: Continuum, 2004).
19. For more on this work, see David Tomas, “From a relational history of the technology to the design of a three-dimensional electronic book: ‘The Encoded Eye, the Archive, and its Engine House,’” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 9, no. 7 (July 2001), The article was published on line in 2001, but the link is now broken. A PDF version can be found on the artist’s website: https://davidtomas.ca/files/tomaslea---volume-9-no.pdf
20. This piece was presented as part of the exhibition DAPRÈSLEDÉPEUPLEUR/AFTERTHELOSTONES, organized by Michèle Thériault at Galerie UQAM in 2002.
21. An augmented version of this piece was presented at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in 2010, as part of the group exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows, organized by Lesley Johnstone.
22. David Tomas, A Blinding Flash of Light, France Choinière (ed.), (Montréal: Dazibao, 2004).
23. David Tomas, Vertov, Snow, Farocki, Machine Vision and the Posthuman, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
24. David Tomas, “The Chrysler Effect and the Museum’s Terminal Paradox,” Parachute, no. 75 (July, August, September 1994), p. 51-54 and “Sensations & Dickheads,” Parachute, no. 89 (January, February, March 1998), p. 28-34.
25. Tomas organized his first exhibition, Media, War, and the New World Order, which brought together faxed works at the Centre international d’art contemporain in 1991.
26. David Tomas, Live Rightly, Die, Die, (Montréal: Dazibao, 2012).
27. See the accompanying exhibition text written by David Tomas: https://artexte.ca/app/uploads/2013/09/guide1.pdf
28. See the project’s website to download PDF versions of each issue: http://pub-doc-file.org