In Process: Q&A With Banff Artists in Residence
By Abbey Hepner | Thursday, September 20th
This past summer I was an Artist in Residence at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Canada. The Banff Artist in Residence program or “BAiR” provided an opportunity for artists to work independently on a proposed project during a five-week residency. The residency provided studio space, production facilities, and hosted a number of artistic events to help artist cultivate new work. The Centre is located in the province of Alberta, surrounded by mountains and turquoise-blue lakes, and located within Banff National Park. The appeal of a residency is the opportunity to escape the constraints of everyday life and focus on making art.
Banff facilitated a community of artist peers to share ideas and inspire each other. Perhaps one of the most unique experiences in a residency is watching peer’s artistic projects unfold and change throughout the duration together. As viewers, spectators, or consumers of art, we often experience artwork in its nicely polished final state. There is something inspiring and perhaps even vulnerable about stepping into an artist’s studio and contemplating their work as it unfolds. This is my favorite part of the artmaking journey, when some of the uncertainty fades and ideas begin to solidify. This week, I’d like to share exactly that: three artists from the Summer BAiR program share their work in progress.
Rita McKeough is an installation and performance artist based in Calgary, Canada. Her work incorporates audio, electronics and mechanical performing objects. Since the late 70s, McKeough has been committed to creating chaotic and immersive installations that reconfigure contradictions and tensions in our everyday lives. She uses interactive technologies to represent complex interspecies relationships and to create links between her installations and sound and music practices. McKeough consistently works from a feminist perspective, and her recent work focuses on the environmental impacts of oil production and demonstrates her desire to use sound to create a rhythmic voice of agency and empathy to articulate forces of resistance in the natural world. McKeough’s work has been featured in Radio Rethink: Art Sound and Transmission (Banff Centre for the Arts, 1994), and Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women (YYZ Books, 2004). McKeough feels fortunate to have the support and assistance of her friends and community to produce her work. Following teaching appointments at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Mount Allison University, McKeough is currently teaching at the Alberta College of Art + Design and she is grateful to have worked with so many extraordinary students and colleagues throughout her teaching career.
AH: Thank you sharing your work with us. Tell me a bit about your previous work that connects to the work that you made during your residency.
RM: My recent installation Veins is based on my ongoing concerns about the consequences of energy resource development processes on our natural landscape. It is an interactive installation with performing objects, electronics, sound and animation. I was deeply motivated to make this work by my sense of unease as it relates specifically to the ongoing planning of the Keystone pipeline and the Trans Mountain Pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia, in Canada. However, I want my work to look more broadly at the sheer complications and risks we take in our relationship with the natural environment. In the installation Veins, pipelines moved like veins through the body of the landscape. The motorized snakes and the robotic tree trunk drummers represented and interrupted the lines of oil moving through the leaves within a proposed landscape and the sound component created a rhythmic voice of agency and empathy. I was interested in trying to construct an immersive and conflicting experience of disarray and vulnerability of the environment and give voices to the forces of resistance in the natural world.
I am continuing to work with this concept in my new installation which I began to construct at our residency. I would like to use sound, animation and interactive objects to identify and articulate the shifts and complexities of my understanding of relationships to land and to land development. Specifically, I want to examine the links between land reallocation, housing development, subsidence, erosion and the threat to animal and plant species and habitat.
RM: The work that I have produced since I moved to Alberta in 2007 has been directly affected by my exposure and responses to both oil production and it complexities and problematic contradictions and the suffering to animals from the failings of large scale industrialized farming. One of the first works I produced after moving to Alberta was a performance entitled Alternator. The premise for the performance was that I am searching for oil under every oil leak and oil stain that I find in a parkade or parking lot. I positioned my constructed miniature oil pumps on the stains that I found and tried to extract oil out of them. In the back of my small car skeleton I had an empty 45-gallon oil drum and attempted to fill it from the oil that has leaked out of cars. I generated electricity to operate the oil pumps by using a hand-cranked generator that was built into the steering wheel of the car. When the steering wheel was turned it generated electricity to operate the miniaturized oil pumps. The generator produced enough power to operate the DC motors on the oil pumps. I was interested in implicating myself by creating a co -dependent system that only allowed me to solve a problem by creating it.
RM: Tender was a hospital for hot dogs that were physically or psychologically injured. After I had exhibited my installation The Lion’s Share where hot dogs where hunted and eaten in the diner. I was focusing on processes of industrial food production facilities that risk the quality of life of the animals being slaughtered. I wanted to offer an opportunity to imagine the possibility of hotdogs healing and being reconstituted into cows and then released back into the prairie to live a full life. The motto of the hospital was:
There is always hope for any hot dog who has been rescued or who has escaped from a restaurant, diner, grocery store, refrigerator, kitchen counter or right off a dinner plate. There is always hope for a full recovery despite injuries or psychological trauma. With rest and rehabilitation the hot dogs can be returned to the fields where the fresh grasses wait for them and where they will live in peace, unharmed. “We never give up.”
AH: It was so great to see your work in process at Banff. What did you set out to do and how did those ideas evolve or change?
RM: Thank you so much for your kind words Abbey. It was wonderful to meet you and to see your work in progress as well. It was such an inspiring and productive time at our residency and I really appreciated having the time and support at the Banff Centre to develop several pro-types for a new installation work I am just beginning with the working title of Descendant. I was trying different structural solutions for a component of this new work. I was also building some objects that will be a part of the installation as well also working on some sound recordings for the project. My dream plan is to find a way to build a system and a structure that deciphers imagined hybrid organic communicative systems within plant and animal communities and reconfigures them as digital messages and images in sound, animation, text and interactive objects. I am hoping I can find an interactive system that could allow for a complex language of exchange between the viewer and the plant and animal performers in the installation that will use humour to allow a meaningful layering of images and ideas to surface.
AH: The piece you shared during Open Studios at Banff was very moving. I think it struck a chord with what we were all experiencing in Banff as the wildfires were closing in and the smoke-filled air had been intense for weeks. It was also surprising because I had come to recognize the dark humor in your previous work and your sound piece was serious and visceral. You have such a diversity of talent! Can you talk about the piece you made in Banff and what experiences inspired it?
RM: I made this sound work in response to the rising temperatures, lack of rain and the rampant forest fires. I wanted to create a sense of empathy for the people, the trees, the animals and the birds that are caught in the fires.
As the temperature rises a persistent image of everything bursting into flames haunts me. The forest fires seem impossible to put out and their heat is so intense that everything that they touch explodes. The air is full of ashes and it is too hot to breathe. Birds are flying above and below the fires and the ground is covered with animals of all shapes and sizes running for water. I realise I am imagining the worst and focusing on the path to my troubled images of the future but with this new sound work I was interested in trying to construct an immersive, experience of the heat and disarray of the fires and the heat using the visceral quality of sound.
A link to Rita’s sound piece will be available on her website shortly.
AH: What’s next for this piece? Do you see it as part of a larger work?
RM: No I made this work to be an independent sound piece but I may end up developing some of the ideas in this work for my next installation.
AH: Thank you for sharing your work Rita!
Chris Reilly is a Detroit artist, hacker and teacher. Chris holds a MFA from UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. Working individually and collaboratively, his artwork explores communication, relationships, perception, participation, and collaboration using media including games, performances, software, installations, and open-source hardware/software projects. Chris has performed and shown artwork in solo and group exhibitions in the US, Europe and Asia. Recent shows include Body Clock at CAVE Detroit; the Intimate Instruments workshop at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and Music Tech Fest in Ljubljana, Slovenia; a public installation at Zero1 Biennial in San Jose, CA; and collaborative projects in Hong Kong’s Microwave International New Media Arts Festival. His works have been profiled in Hyperallergic; We Make Money Not Art; Make Magazine; Wired Magazine; and Punk Planet. Chris has published photo/video essays and art texts in Geez Magazine and Infinite Mile. Chris is Associate Professor of Art at Eastern Michigan University’s School of Art & Design; he has also taught New Media and Digital Fabrication courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as authoring 3D modeling/animation courses for lynda.com.
AH: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Tell me a little bit about your previous work such as your project Intimate Instruments, and the ideas that it is exploring.
CR: My pleasure! The Intimate Instruments workshop came about during a body of work that was about mediated relationships, and [mis]communication, specifically around a long-distance relationship I was in at the time. I made the first Linguaphone of Tremulous Communion as a very quick-and-dirty afternoon studio project. I was interested in how two people could simultaneously share a vibration or sensation. It was a happy accident to me that only the players could hear the instrument, which I now think is one of the most interesting aspects of the work. I was initially making it as a one-of-a-kind sculpture that others were invited to play with me, but that seemed to center too much of a gross-out factor rather than exploring intimacy and connection like I intended. Maybe a year or so later I was invited to do a workshop at the Hammer Museum, and I thought it would be a good idea to invite others to build their own Linguaphones so they could experience it themselves. The workshop format really complements the object itself, and turns into a fun, vibrant way to deal with the sometimes-sticky feelings that come when playing the instrument with someone else.
AH: It was so great to see your work in process at Banff. What did you set out to do and how did those ideas evolve or change?
CR: Thanks! The proposal I submitted was to combine a new musical-instrument-like sculpture with some interactive video projects that I’ve worked on over the past few years. I wanted to make a physical object that was easy to touch and manipulate, and use that to generate abstract visual patterns in an intuitive way, rather than using a keyboard/mouse interface. I was envisioning it as a sculpture that could also be activated as a synaesthetic audiovisual instrument.
AH: How did participating in the artist residency inspire, shift, or change what you were making? What about the environment of Banff?
CR: The landscape alone was enough to shift my focus; it’s really impossible not to be affected by how sublime it is at Banff. That brought to mind themes I’ve dealt with in the past such as how my body relates (or doesn’t) to a ‘natural’ environment; conscious vs. unconscious thought; abstract vs representational imagery, etc. Coming to an institution as large as the Banff Centre was overwhelming, which I expected after a long hiatus from studio work. I was very anxious to get some projects developed, but felt torn between that and just hanging out with other artists, or going to all the programming that’s available like dance or music performances. I was also surprised at the level of culture shock that I experienced at Banff. There seems to be an approach in Canadian art that is distinct from the US: it’s more academic, sometimes more reserved. I wonder if that’s the British influence? For better or worse, that affected my work, the landscape affected my work, and the working styles of the artists around me crept in too. For example, I ended up using some very basic weaving techniques in the artwork I made, and I figured this was because I was studio neighbors with a basket weaver.
AH: I think it’s great that other artists and the landscape in Banff shifted your work in such an interesting way. The video piece you did was compelling and I see an interesting connection with the Linguaphones; the device mediating a connection but never quite succeeding. It’s such a relatable metaphor. Can you talk more about your relationship with technology and how your work reflects the way you experience the world?
CR: That’s a great interpretation; I couldn’t have put it better myself. I feel like there’s always an internal struggle for me between feeling and thinking; intuitive and rational thought; mind and body; etc. And I see those parallels in the mirror video and the Intimate Instruments workshop, for example. Much of this line of thinking comes from the experience of being a Type 1 diabetic for most of my life, and being coerced into staying organized and thinking rationally when those are perhaps not my most natural ways of navigating the world, as well as the general anxiety and mental toll that comes from dealing with a chronic illness. There’s an ambivalence there that comes into much of my artwork. In the case of the mirror video and photos, it is on one hand an attempt to take in the entirety of the landscape experience: to photographically capture the mountains in front of and behind me, and myself, and the geometric abstractions over the mirror. Of course this is almost impossible; some parts-- like my face--inevitably get left out, either cropped by the frame or hidden by some other visual element. There’s a performative aspect to the photography, too, where I’m hand-holding all the parts which are surprisingly heavy after a minute or so, and there are times when I really struggled to keep everything together. So the mirror video in a way is asking: how do I navigate this amazing primal landscape, take it all in, while balancing these other aspects of my existence that I cannot leave behind?
AH: This makes a lot of sense, the video evokes a strong vestibular reaction. It made me a bit ill and yet I couldn’t stop watching, trying to struggle along with you. What’s next for you? Will you be returning to the interactive video project that you set out to create in Banff or did this project lead you in a different direction?
CR: I’m still thinking that through. I did really enjoy making watercolors and would love to incorporate that process into whatever I do next. The interactive video project is still interesting to me, specifically in making an instrument that could be intuitively responsive and beautiful, unlike a keyboard and mouse. I think there might be something in that pursuit which could be accessed more easily through a plastic media process like drawing or painting. With more technically elaborate projects like the video proposal, I wonder sometimes if it’s just a very cloaked strategy of giving myself permission to draw and paint?
AH: Thank you for sharing your work Chris!
Robyn Cumming is a photo-based artist with a fervent interest in representation and a personal fascination with depictions of the human creature. Often employing humour as a strategy to transgress boundaries, she attempts to make work that is both wondrous while disconcerting, seductive while grotesque. In recent years she has undertaken a long-term investigation mapping the intersection between incongruent visual objects with an anthropologist’s eye. Culling anonymous, found, and historical photographs from Ebay.com by searching with the descriptions “bad” and “teeth, she is interested in the subjective language we use to describe, analyze, and ultimately categorize the content of an image. Robyn received an MFA from York University and holds a BFA from Ryerson University where she now teaches in the Image Arts Department. She is Faculty Director of the School’s off-site gallery Ryerson Artspace.
AH: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Your previous work has many interesting themes that seem present in the work that you made in Banff. Gesture and illusion certainly play an important role in your art, as does gender. Can you talk about that?
RC: Thanks for reaching out, Abbey! I explore femininity in much of my work, likely because, as a woman, it’s a concept I’m often forced to engage with. I think I’ve developed a kind of internal database of gestures, poses, qualities and materials that relate to this topic through a lifetime of viewing and analyzing imagery that attempts to embody and solidify rigid ideas of femininity while deconstructing women’s bodies. So my work attempts to play into and subvert those depictions both in terms of content and the overall structure of an image’s construction. So there is this sweet spot I’m trying to hit with the gesture, the posing, the costuming; it needs to both seduce you the same way the images I’m critiquing do while also making a little joke.
AH: It was great watching your work unfold during the course of the residency. You told us in the beginning about a violent experience that one of your relatives had and how it was propelling the work. I think some of the most profound work brings up broad and current social issues while still connecting to an experience that is personal to the artist. Your work provokes conversations about victim blaming, slut-shaming, and reflects upon the challenges of being able to exist and navigate the world safely as a woman. I can reflect on my own experiences when viewing this work with a wide lens but contemplating your relative’s experience galvanizes the work, it elicits a different kind of empathy and anger. Could you share the story and give a bit of context for the work you made in Banff?
RC: I too was fascinated by the work you were doing! The work at Banff stemmed from a story about a kidnapping my mother shared with me about one of my relatives, along with vivid memories during my youth focused on the crimes committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka in my hometown. I become interested in natural sites where crimes often happen or conclude. Sites where bodies are found or experience trauma, more specifically, female bodies. Brambles (thorny shrubs with blackberries or raspberries growing on them) were a common theme among many of these sites. This led me to forensic botany where I learned that brambles offer a kind of crime scene treasure trove because they pull so much evidence. The thorns tear skin, yank at clothing, pull out hair. Brambles also have a very particular growth pattern that easily reveals a timeline. And yet there is this sweet and sticky offering, these berries, that make the brambles seductive. That tension is the place I felt the work could burst forth from, seduction and violence. A shrub that cuts you when you try to grasp its fruit.
RC: I started with bronze because it had a lot of references that worked well with this idea of tension. There is a long history of disembodied hands in bronze but I was also thinking about garden sculptures and door-knockers: the female body as decor. The bronze is heavy and hard. When working with it I had to grind and scrape, I easily cut myself on sharp edges. I chose the peace silk because it looked like human hair and was the most delicate material I have ever encountered. As an aside, I also liked the fact that silkworms feed from the leaves of mulberry trees. It was incredibly difficult to combine the silk and the bronze. The harshness of the bronze instantly pulled apart and destroyed the silk. It required tremendous patience and delicacy.
AH: Did participating in the artist residency inspire, shift, or change anything you were making?
RC: I don’t think I would ever have made anything like this had I not participated in the residency. I teach full-time at Ryerson University and devote a tremendous amount of time to mentoring emerging artists through the process of making work. It’s a great gig but I find it extremely difficult to make time for my own work. At Banff time felt sprawling. I learned an entirely new process and was able to manifest something in 5 weeks that likely would have taken me over 1 year in Toronto.
AH: We talked a little bit about the environment of Banff and issues of navigation. Did the environment in Banff inspire anything new in your work?
RC: I certainly never would have come to the birch tree eyes had I not been in Banff. That was a completely unintended development in the work. I had been experiencing all of these feelings of vulnerability in the natural environment there. I was feeling quite weak and slow because I didn’t acclimatize to the altitude well, but I’d also see and hear these warnings about not entering the forest alone. As a woman in Toronto I am used to being warned about walking alone and avoiding particular spaces, but there is also a sense of familiarity to the spaces I’m being warned about. I know what to expect even if it’s a threat. In Banff there was a degree of unknown. Hiking alone I felt unsure of what could destroy me and what that destruction might look like. The trees became these silent witnesses.
AH: Thank you for sharing your work Robyn!