Deanna Bowen, Night Prowl (2019). Commissioned work for Vancouver Heritage’s WALL project
AFTER (SO FEW AND SO MANY) WORDS
IN JANUARY 2016, I delivered a keynote address at the Media Arts Network of Ontario (MANO) biennial conference where I reflected upon my experiences with artist-run media arts centres in Canada. I explained to the membership that just about everything I knew about myself as an artist, activist, and educator had something to do with my varied roles in several Toronto artist-run centres from 1996 through 2005. I flipped through numerous slides and video clips of my work while recounting my arc lineage. My first co-curatorial gig (with Katherine Setzer) was in 1992 at the now defunct Women in Focus Society in Vancouver. I was fresh out of Emily Carr College of Art, before it was a university. I left Vancouver and moved to Toronto, shortly after my grandparents’ passing, and landed an administrative position at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto where I worked, grumpily, between 1996 and 2002. Bad attitude and humour aside, the origins of my grief and malaise would ultimately reveal itself in two decades of experimental interdisciplinary moving-image based work that took up issues of race, gender, sexuality, generational slave trauma, white supremacy, afro-indigenous identity, co-existence and solidarity, forced migration and systemic oppression in Canada and the US. None of those works could have been produced anywhere other than the artistically expansive, yet contradictorily restrictive and inclusive, networks of municipal, provincial, and federally funded centres and without the assistance of their devoted staff and memberships. My final years in artist-run media arts culture concluded with a three-year senior administrative position at InterAccess, in addition to a few years of juggling graduate studies and short- term contracts with the Images Festival and A Space Gallery between 2006-2008. After that, my practiced shifted to focus on critical components of artistic research, social and historical activism, and university teaching.
In preparation for my speech, I asked MANO Executive Director Ben Donoghue if there were any publications or histories of First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ media artist organizing or production in Canada that I could draw upon. I knew that while the cumulative number of books about global media arts practices are relatively small, there were many texts about historically and predominantly white media arts organizations and artists. It would seem natural then, that there would be some sort of similar text about media arts practices that reside on the fringes of established media arts centres. Put more bluntly, someone must have written a book that recorded the histories of First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ organizations, collectives, artists, and their works. Regrettably, Ben explained that while there were a handful of small anthologies on specific organizations, there is no evidence that any relevant books or major critical works existed. With this appalling deficiency in mind, I delivered a keynote about the crucial role artist-run media arts culture had played in my political and artistic development. I also talked about the challenges of attempting to teach my First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ university students about ‘marginal’ artist practices because resources and supporting texts about them didn’t exist. I closed the keynote with an open dialogue with MANO community members about the need for equitable representation in media arts programming and organizational staff & board composition. I challenged members to commit to making tangible, meaningful change. This difficult, but honest conversation galvanized conference attendees to address race, class, gender, sexuality and disability in concrete terms.
Echoes of discussions from past decades, past artworks, and past organizing circulated over the course of the conference. A key question that arose was “how can the media arts sector move from an inclusive, yet exclusive, space to one that dismantles systemic oppressions and actively undermines colonization?” Subsequent discussions over the next days ranged from white fragility and the aesthetics of privilege to the expectations of marginalized artists to perform their trauma and alterity. Earnest, but frustrated, MANO members also spoke to their past and ongoing struggles to address contemporary intersectional realities and experiences, the irrefutable lack of historical references points, and their subsequent reliance upon oral history and collective memory to ground discussions and action. The MANO staff and board seized its opportunity for leadership by inviting me to spearhead what we all understood to be the first book covering the histories of First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ media artists, collectives and organizations across Canada.
With this weighty responsibility in mind, I am humbled and honored to have had the opportunity to work with all of the brilliant visionary writers who have come together to create Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada. This is the first iteration of what will be an ongoing project of documenting the historical and contemporary contributions that First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, and LGBTQ artists and administrators have made to the media arts in Canada. The following collection of texts and artist portfolios are meant to serve as a foundational resource for artists, curators, and educators who are interested in parsing out the political concerns and thematic complexities that arise from/with moving image practices that incorporate a broad spectrum of intersectional identity-based issues. Instead of anti-canonic, I see this project as one that can map an alternate set of discourses, practices, and views across the field since the 1970s. Though not exhaustive, the print and web-based book addresses the ways in which individual and collective media arts practitioners outside of the established white experimental film/video canon have created time-based works in (often) less than ideal creative climates. Of course, it is understood that these non-nurturing creative conditions are indicative of broader structural inequities and, as such, Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada also looks at the development and evolution of public funding policies that have helped and or hindered the creation of media arts centres, curatorial collectives, and archival initiatives.
Given the scarcity of existing texts of this nature, Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada should be viewed in two ways. First, the book is a literary offering of long-overdue gratitude to the countless First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ Canadian media artists, administrators and scholars, past and present, who have fought for the creative spaces and opportunities we enjoy today. I would suggest that the essays and artist profiles featured in Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada undeniably illustrate the common wisdom that the greater Canadian media arts community stands, knowingly or otherwise, on the shoulders of giants. The book reflects my heartfelt desire to document and increase the visibility of these vitally important cultural and creative legacies that have been, and continue to be, primarily documented as minor accounts within broad histories focused on white mainstream artists. Secondly, its 2019 and the scarcity of representation persists. Therefore, I insist that Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada is an emphatic rebuke to the woefully myopic ‘histories’ that fail to acknowledge or appreciate the boundary-pushing individual, collective, and organizational practices of media arts makers who rightfully critique or reject the norms and omissions of white mainstream media arts cultural circles. Ongoing failure to cultivate and learn about the histories of First Peoples, racialized, differently abled, or LGBTQ organizations, collectives, artists and their works can only result in the perpetuation of a flawed and shallow vision of Canada that fails to reflect the ingenuity, depth and richness of Canada’s national cultural community. This volume should not be the first of its kind; and given that it is, the gravity of this disturbing reality should stand as an inarguable indication of systemic bias and an unmistakably urgent call for heighted cultural accountability and drastic changes in cultural polices and organizational structures.
I am proud to be in a community of practitioners who strive to analyze and document the greater artistic and political trends that have spurred our brave and transformative media arts practices in Canada’s cultural fringes. There are so many under-appreciated artists and artistically innovative works that would remain outside of media arts history and beyond contemporary audiences if it weren’t for your passion, criticality and dedication. I have learned a great deal from you all and I have grown enormously from our shared journey.
This important anthology is becoming because of you: Geneviève Wallen, Erika DeFreitas, Leilah Dhoré, Pamila Matharu, Kim Ninkuru, Shelley Niro, Cindy Mochizuki, Midi Onodera and Louise Noguchi, Tess Takahashi, Kay Armatage, Mike Cartmell (1954–2014), Barry Greenwald, Jeremy Podeswa, Michael Douglas, Sylvia D. Hamilton, Rehab Nazzal, Lisa Myers, Mike MacDonald (1941–2006), María Alejandrina Coates, Alexandra Cousins, Liz Park, Vanessa Kwan, Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, Amanda Strong, Cornelia Wyngaarden, Chick Rice, Jason Edward Lewis, Kim TallBear, Andrea Zittlau, Francisca Duran, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Steven Loft, Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw (1958–2006), Ken Lum, Shaun Dacey, Cassils, Ricky Varghese, Francisco-Fernando Granados, Archer Pechawis, nichola feldman-kiss, Dipna Horra, Maya Wilson-Sanchez, Jordan Arseneault, Alison Duke, Grant Arnold, Dana Claxton, Glenn Alteen, Scott Miller Berry, Chris Chong Chan Fui, Niranjan Rajah, Zainub Verjee, Aliya Pabani, Jayne Wilkinson, Allison Collins, Santiago Bose, Mark V. Campbell, Roland Sintos Coloma, Joella Cabalu, Richard Fung, Alice Jim, Dan Pon, Gulf Labor, and Christina Battle.
Thanks also, to Assistant Editors Keli Safia Maksud and Anna Cox, MANO Executive Director Ben Donoghue, designer Jennifer de Freitas and web builder Archer Pechawis for your endurance, patience, humour, and grace. Any and all kinds of “wouldn’t have made it without you” statements are inadequate. I am deeply indebted and grateful for your companionship, commitment and faith in this project.