(Video still from Fine Line: Check Check, courtesy of the artist, 2019)

Ian Johnston: Fine Line: Check Check  

March 15 to April 27, 2019

The Fine Line series marks a shift in Ian Johnston’s artistic practice from a focus on the materiality of consumer culture to an investigation of the role of doubt in mass culture. In Check Check, the ubiquity of the self-doubting individual is inextricably linked to a mass culture marked by distrust of the very mass media which give it shape. Stepping into a space intersected by four large projection screens, the viewer is surrounded on all sides by a looping series of such vignettes screened, variously in fragments and in their entirety accompanied by a four-channel score from composer Don Macdonald. The events and the non-events in Check Check unfold in a sequence that subtly choreographs the audience’s movement within and around the installation.

Johnston’s turn toward video for this piece stemmed from the consideration of an obsessive behaviour familiar to most, namely our highly emotionally-charged relationship to screens and digital devices. The installation harnesses the knee-jerk nature of our conditioned responses to visual and auditory cues not only the pinging of a smartphone, but even going back as far as silent film.  

Marked as it is by deeply-rooted emotional experiences ranging from acute foreboding to limitless possibility, Johnston turned toward anticipation as a point of intersection between the personal experience of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, the logic of consumer culture, and the ongoing fragmentation of political discourse. Starting from the premise that consumer culture evidences traits associated with obsessive-compulsive behaviour, initial research focussed on popular and academic discourses about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)1. This research confirmed certain aspects of my initial premise while also revealing an important distinction: unfettered consumption has none of the oscillation between doubt and certainty that is the hallmark of OCD, also known as the ‘doubting disease’.

The Shattering Uncertainty of a Safety Blanket

Interpretive Essay by Katila Whiteman

Fine Line: Check Check is an installation of screens displaying various vignettes that lead the mind’s eye to the periphery of multiple fine lines. Each scene has thoughtful detail that one can relate to on an abstract level. There is a specific story and theme behind every scene and yet also a chance for each member of the audience to create their own story during the experience. Visual and auditory cues provide a path for awareness to follow, yet the audience is simultaneously making constant interactive choices.

The accompanying music brings ripples of attention and emotion, creating a sense of harmonic balance as the viewer is guided amongst the four screens. Having a musical narrative paired with screens is instantly reminiscent of cinema culture. However, the multiple screens and unassigned viewing positions in Fine Line: Check Check disrupt traditional viewing practises. Instead of the person and the projection both inhabiting fixed positions, the relational dynamics between body and screen become more fluid and malleable.

Negotiating four screens at once leads to the necessary exploration of space, both physically and mentally. The vignettes have an abstract tension that feeds into potential spatial interaction. When standing in the middle of the screens, there is always a screen just outside of our field of vision due to the spatial layout, which can create a slight tension. It is a constant possibility that, while absorbed in the action on one screen, there is something happening on another screen. Therefore, the body is more inclined to pace, move, twist and turn in response to the context of each vignette. Each scene leads to dichotomous emotional responses, inviting the viewer to conceptually explore seemingly distant themes at the same time.

Johnston spent years researching obsessive-compulsive disorder, frequently called the “doubting disease,” to inform this work. At the core of OCD, there is a constant flux between certainty and doubt. A thought of doubt arises that calls for a specific compulsive context before it can be resolved. Oscillation between certainty and doubt is a universal theme that everyone relates to on varying levels. 

The vignettes play on a loop, making it possible to enter and exit at any moment of a very specific cyclical interplay of calm and apprehension. Interaction is a choice that is guided by sensory cues and spatial relation. While deciding what screens to watch, what sounds to hear, and what space to occupy, we are concurrently drawn in to a deeper mental reflection that continues even after leaving the gallery.

[1] Obsessive-compulsive behaviour can easily be mistaken for addictive or superstitious behaviour and vice versa but the frequency, intensity and motivations differ significantly. Obsessions are typically linked to compulsions that are often ritual in their predictability and repetitiveness and, can be action oriented or behaviours of avoidance or thoughts. In the context of obsessive-compulsive behaviour to obsess is to worry or be concerned about that which is highly unlikely if ever to occur. Obsessions can take many forms such as magical thinking, that some unrelated action can exact consequences on someone or thing in another place, or the need to check a lock or light switch a particular number of times to ensure a sense of security or intrusive thoughts of abhorrent actions that a person might perpetrate.  


1. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour can easily be mistaken for addictive or superstitious behaviour and vice versa but the frequency, intensity and motivations differ significantly. Obsessions are typically linked to compulsions that are often ritual in their predictability and repetitiveness and, can be action oriented or behaviours of avoidance or thoughts. In the context of obsessive-compulsive behaviour to obsess is to worry or be concerned about that which is highly unlikely if ever to occur. Obsessions can take many forms such as magical thinking, that some unrelated action can exact consequences on someone or thing in another place, or the need to check a lock or light switch a particular number of times to ensure a sense  of security or intrusive thoughts of abhorrent actions that a person might perpetrate or intrusive sometimes abhorrent thoughts.

The Fine Line series is made possible by support from the BC Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

The artist  wishes to acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien, The BC Arts Council and the Banff Centre for Art and Creativity.