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March 8, 2006

Truth or fiction?

By Crystal Lamb

Can we ever really know if someone is telling us a lie? What do the stories people make up tell us about their personalities? Can interrogations have such an impact on innocent people that they will confess to a crime that didn't even really take place? These are examples of the many questions installation/video artist Linda Duvall raises with her new exhibition at the McIntosh Gallery at the University of Western Ontario, which runs until April 9.

The exhibition, Enough White Lies to Ice a Wedding Cake, took about a year to complete and is made up of two sections, Reinvented and Polygraph, both of which feature ordinary people who were invited to make up stories while being videotaped by Duvall.

Duvall, who holds degrees in sociology and English, as well as fine art, divides her time between Toronto and Saskatoon. She has already completed the same project with subjects from Oshawa and Saskatoon.

Linda Duvall's latest exhibition
Photo by Crystal Lamb
Artist Linda Duvall's latest installation/video exhibition will be at the McIntosh Gallery until April 9.

"What I was amazed by was how credible these people were," Duvall said. "I realized something really important was happening. We think we're really media savvy, when really we're very easily persuaded and seduced by what we see."

Reinvented specifically involves people from the university and local community, whom Duvall invited to take part in her "project about lying." She told the participants stories, had them tell the stories back to her in the first person, and then she asked them to elaborate on the story.

Each of the six stories, which include being very poor as a child, finding out your spouse is gay, and being sent to jail, came from Duvall's own personal experiences, she said, but were constructed in such a way as to give the participants a great deal of freedom to make them become their own.

"Whatever our own stories are, they're not unique. And I didn't realize that would happen. People all have an entry point to it," Duvall said. "I'm interested in stories that are accessible but have an edge. This isn't about making people comfortable," she added.

Six televisions with headsets are set up around a dimly lit room in the gallery for viewers to watch and listen as the participants tell their stories. Each monitor shows one story, with the viewer seeing only the participant's head, and the interviews have been edited to reflect what Duvall calls the fast CNN style.

Having local people take part in the project is important for two reasons, Duvall said. People who come to the exhibition may know one of the people telling the stories and be more affected by how convincing the lies are, and the stories, in many ways, "reflect the community."

Morag Webster-Lefarge lisens to some tall tales
Photo by Crystal Lamb
Morag Webster-Lefarge listens to some tall tales while at Duvall's exhibition at the McIntosh Gallery.

"It's interesting how the stories change depending on where the people are coming from. I was really looking at having a broad range," she said.

The other section, Polygraph, comprises three large projection screens showing footage from polygraph tests given by a former test administrator for the RCMP to four subjects who are told they must answer questions relating to a fictional crime.

"One person actually confessed to the crime," Duvall said. "I set up the structure but I didn't know what would happen. What we see is that truth can be shifted. There's different ways to push people and lots of subtleties of language, in terms of how you manipulate the truth," she added.

Duvall said her goal for this project was to get people to question their notions of truth and to negate the possibility of any "absolute truth," but also to make the entire experience one in which people can participate, both as part of the project, and as patrons at the gallery.
"It's not just about coming and passively looking at art," she said.

Gallery curator Catherine Elliot Shaw said she's certain the exhibition will be a success.

"The word will spread like wild fire," she said. "Everyone will be saying, 'You have to go see so-and-so in the exhibition.' More than half the people in it are from Western, so a lot of people will know someone in it."

One participant, Alison Lee, the director of women's studies at Western, was at the gallery for the walking tour Duvall gave Friday afternoon. She described the experience she had as a participant in the project as "fabulous".

"I was a little hesitant at first because I'm shy but I got really into the stories. It's a little bit like acting because you can take on a different persona and be imaginative," she said.

The stories Lee and the other participants told had many viewers convinced.

"It's fascinating," said Katie Bestvater, a second-year music student at Western. "It makes you question a lot of things. It's like a documentary and it's presented very matter-of-factly, so it makes you marvel at how easily people can tell a lie."