An Interview with Curator Cleo Reese

By Malcolm VanDelst

The 23rd Annual General Meeting of the Independent Media Arts Alliance took place in June. This event, comprised of exhibitions, presentations, round table discussions, screenings and meetings, happens in a different Canadian city every year.

This year, Rim Shots, Media Arts Festival, as the meeting was called, took place at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Vancouver, BC.

Aboriginal media artists, and co-founders of IMAGeNation (Indigenous Media Arts Group) and the National Aboriginal Media Artist Coalition, Cleo Reese and Dana Claxton, curated Inside Focus, one of three pivotal screenings at the meeting, bringing a strong native presence to this national association.

The First Nations Drum talked with Cleo Reese about the programme she co-curated, Rim Shots, the Indigenous Media Arts Group, and the evolving presence of First Nations in the national media art community.

Let’s start with Inside Focus. What was the programme about?
Inside Focus was a program of works from artists from the Pacific region, I guess throughout BC. We looked at a variety of works and decided on the program that we screened. We had a theme of alienation. It seemed to be a recurring theme when we were (auditioning) different works.

It went with the overall theme of Rim Shots, the whole media arts festival, using the globalization of culture as one of the topics we were looking at and how artists find themselves in that milieu. All the works that we showed were distinct. They all had a different way of telling a particular story that was compelling and interesting.

We just thought, we’ve got lots of talent here on the coast. We showed not just our own Aboriginal peoples’ works but works from the all the artistic communities in this area, and from Victoria.

And alienation seemed to be the defining element?
Yes. It is a time when its easy to feel lost, you know, and maybe not quite at home in (a global culture). Artists have to create their own environments, whether they are internal or external environments – that’s what makes them artists – to take what they see and feel and express it in their own ways. This is what we found in the works we selected. They were individual but all expressed an interest in the world beyond themselves.

So globalization has expanded – made the world bigger – by making it more in our faces, perhaps? And the reaction is to feel small, or alienated?
People have different reactions and artists have their own way of dealing with problems. If they see something as a problem or if it is an issue of importance to them, they will take it and work with it in a creative way to (express) what they feel. There are issues of technology, issues of cultural loss, loss of identity, freedom, loss of spirituality – all of these are things that people struggle with constantly. It’s a way of making sense of them by doing something creative. The result is some of the works we have shown at Rim Shots.

Rim Shots was a media arts festival and IMAA is the Indigenous Media Arts…?
No, it’s actually the “Independent Media Arts Alliance”. It had a name change last year. It used to be called the “Independent Film and Video Alliance”. To get more in sync with changing technology its now called “Independent Media Arts Alliance” simply because technology has changed. We don’t simply work in film and video anymore. There’s new media; there are other formats.

… The Internet…
Yes, and new media technology…

…Music – digital…
Yes, including music, and all digital formats…

Digital forms of photography, things like Max…
Yep, some photography, but media, in general.

How does technology fit into what you were talking about: the loss of culture and spirituality?
Well, it’s a medium to be used. People used oil paints and expressed themselves by making paintings. Then film came into use; after that, various other formats. There are artists using all of these formats in whatever way they want or need to express themselves. People are constantly evolving and using whatever’s there and adapting it to their own needs. There are multi-media environments now. That seems to be the way a lot of work is going, instead of using just one medium. But of course, you have people who are always going to work in the one medium of their choice. So, we’ve got everything.

Did the works in Inside Focus encompass traditional art making techniques?
Some of them did. It went from film, which worked solely in light, colour and sound, and went into animation. There was the film medium, the video medium and, of course, the digital.

Digital film?
Yes.

Also, cross genre. We showed narrative works to documentary to experimental – to show the differences out there and the (various ways to tell) a story.

Do you make media art yourself?
Yes. I work mainly in documentary. I’ve done a bit in other mediums as well – not so much mediums – but I’ve worked in short dramas, and a bit in television.

Which was your favourite piece in Inside Focus?
I would like to look at the very first one and the very last one.

The first (piece) was a short by Velcrow Ripper, an artist in Vancouver. I really enjoy his work. He’s always got an interesting message.

(The one we showed) was “Rise”. To me, it was about the alienation of, because I am an aboriginal person, I would say, non-aboriginal, or white people. They have ways of looking at spirituality, maybe because their traditional religions didn’t work for them, where they go out and search for meanings in their own way. That was one of (these ways), this Burning Man thing, which was the focus of “Rise”.

The very end (piece) was a drama by Claudia Medina who is also based (in Vancouver). She is originally from Mexico, or her parents are from Mexico, and she went there to make her story.

It’s a spiritual, supernatural type of story where wandering souls find one another. People who are spiritually lost sometimes run into other souls who are also lost – looking for something, some place to rest. It was a beautiful short drama depicting that whole looking around for your soul, your essence or your being. It ended with an inspiring, healing message, which is what we wanted to get across with the whole Inside Focus programme. People who have been lost can find themselves again. They may need help but (can find) whatever it is that they need to know to help them continue on as healthy, functioning human beings.

Can you talk about IMAGeNation?
IMAGeNation is an annual Aboriginal film festival, held in Vancouver, usually at the VanEast Cinema on Commercial Drive. It’s a community-focused festival. We show films and videos from all over the indigenous world: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, and North and South America. We show the variety of indigenous cultures and the variety of talents and stories out there, but also the fact that we are all connected. This comes across in the works we (screen). People can see the talents indigenous people have, the wonderful stories and the art that comes out of the communities. It’s amazing.

How long has IMAGeNation been in existence?
The first one was in 1998 and we have continued every year.

You founded IMAGeNation?IMAG
Yes, myself, Dana Claxton and several other people were the original founders. It’s been growing every year. It’s an exciting event. We’ve got every other kind of film festival you can think of, but this is our own Aboriginal film festival. We are really proud of it and happy that we are able to offer it.

Do you get funding, like Canada Council grants?
Oh yes, we get Canada Council funding. This is the first year we’ve actually got other sponsors, like the National Film Board and the Museum of Anthropology. We had a panel and a film series that was done at the museum (of anthropology) this year. We’ve had other sponsors that we’ve been able to bring in. It’s great: bringing more people into our community, sharing and helping each other.

If people want to submit something, get involved or donate to IMAGeNation, how can they do that – is there a web site?
We have a web site: www.imag-nation.com. They can get information about our past festivals and information about who we are and how to reach us. Our next festival, we’re planning to hold in February. In the past, we’ve held them in early November. This year, we held it in February. We’re going to keep on with that time frame: late February or early March.

What about the National Aboriginal Media Artists Coalition?
NAMAC, for short, is a group of Aboriginal people who work for artist run centres or individuals across the country. All have a media arts component to their programming or they’re strictly media arts like us. The Indigenous Media Arts Group deals strictly with media, mostly video production and the IMAGeNation festival.

NAMAC has gotten together in the last three years at the AGM of the IMAA (Independent Media Arts Alliance) and have held meetings in our own communities, discussing the issues of importance to Aboriginal media artists and media art centres – and, artist run centres that may be visual arts or some other focus, with some component of media arts involved – we get together with all these groups, plus individuals, because they are many places that don’t have an Aboriginal media artists’ run centre.

We join with individuals who work in this field. They’re video producers, film producers, directors, writers, and television producers, even. We talk about common issues and concerns and try to do something about (them).

So is IMAG a body of the National Aboriginal Media Artists Coalition?
Yes, we are. We actually belong to the Independent Media Arts Alliance. We are a member centre. We go to meetings and we have a voice and a vote.

You’ve been a member since…?
For the last two years.

That’s the National Aboriginal Media Artist Coalition and IMAG?
Yes. Actually, in the IMAA there are 5 regions that make up the centres across the country: the Pacific region, the Prairie region, the Ontario region, the Quebec region and the Atlantic. As a result of our involvement with the various Aboriginal representatives that have been going to these meetings, a new region was announced three years ago: the Aboriginal region. There are two members on the board. I’ve been a member for the last two years and now I’ve been replaced with a new member. We do that every two years. We’ll have a new member come on. These two members represent the Aboriginal voice on the IMAA.

Who’s the new member?
Her name is Kym Gouchie. She’s from Penticton, part of the Ullus Collective and also a member of the IMAA.

How has membership in the IMAA helped IMAGeNation and the National Aboriginal Media Artist Coalition?
It’s good to be involved in a larger organization that lobbies and advocates for media centres and media artists so we have a voice in the national – at the level that they work with: with national funding bodies and organizations – so we have a voice at that level.

We are also able to connect with other media art centres and artists that may have never met an Aboriginal person. Through networking and going to meetings together and that sort of thing, we are able to see common concerns and maybe ways that we can work together. That’s been beneficial. I’m sure it’s going to be even more so in the future.

How have IMAGeNation and the National Aboriginal Media Artist Coalition contributed to the IMAA?
We are a member centre. We’ve had people on the board. I’ve been able to attend meetings, participate and help in decision making and getting information out. I was very involved in this year’s Rim Shots, connecting with local resources, helping to bring in the elder that spoke and did the opening prayer, helping to get the salmon; doing Inner Focus. I helped with the planning. I was glad to be able to participate.

…and bring Aboriginal culture to the IMAA…
That’s right. Bring the Aboriginal culture and our participation as Aboriginal artists. It’s good to be able to do and offer some things that maybe other people can’t, that they just don’t have -

Yes, the culture – Any word on next year’s Rim Shots?
Well, it will be a different name. “Rim Shots” was the name the Pacific region gave the media arts festival and the AGM. It’s going to be in…St. John’s? No, Halifax – that’s next year’s IMAA Annual General Meeting. There’s a group (in Halifax) that’s going to look after it. They are going to give it a new name and focus, so we’ll see what happens then.

And you will be representing again?
Yes. I’ll be representing the Indigenous Media Arts Group, as well as other members (will be representing).

How do you see the future of Aboriginal involvement in Canadian media art evolving?
This is a good entry into other organizations, by being part of this larger group, the IMAA. But we also have plans to develop our own regional and national organizations that will sit down with other bodies – other funding bodies, broadcasters and what have you. It’s really the beginning. Something’s got to start somewhere. We’ve been slowly working towards a point where we are able to go to other organizations, talk to them, and voice our concerns rather than sit back and wait to see what people are willing to give us. We will be more active and act as a lobbying support group.

For more information about Aboriginal media art, your web site….
Yes…There’s a lot of Aboriginal media art out there. We encourage people to look for it and find out about it. The web site is great because people can access it from wherever they are. It’s one really good way to get information out.

People can also call us here if they have interest in and/or questions for the Indigenous Media Arts Group.

The phone number is: 604-871-0173 or or email: Imag@telus.net.