Interview with Candice Hopkins

Posted on June 10, 2009, 7:46 pm, by Elizabeth LaPensée, under Artists, PEOPLE.

Candice Hopkins, formerly the director and curator of the exhibitions program at the Western Front in Vancouver, is also a writer and artist whose curotorial efforts often relate to her Tlingit heritage. She has been published by MIT Press, BlackDog Publishing, New York University, and Banff Centre Press, among others. She is co-curator of the exhibitions Jimmie Durham: Knew Urk (2005), which originated at the Reg Vardy Gallery, Sunderland; and Shapeshifters, Timetravellers and Storytellers (2007), organized by the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. She graciously gave us an opportunity to get her insight on Aboriginal new media art, seen in the following interview.

How did you come to be a director and curator and how did you find a space for your Tlingit heritage?

I came to be interested in curatorial practice through first being an artist. However, shortly after finishing my BFA, I became more interested in how to contextualize practices, organize events, and in writing. It made sense to pursue further education in curatorial studies. Although it is now a more conventional way for curators to be educated, in 2000, pursuing a formal education as a curator was a less usual way of coming to the practice. Along the way I had the great opportunity of working as both an intern, resident and then curatorial fellow with the Walter Phillips Gallery at The Banff Centre. It was there where I really learned the tools of the trade and had my first opportunity to organize exhibitions outside of an educational environment, assist in organizing conferences and symposia, and putting together publications. One of the great things about being at the Centre at the time was the Banff International Curatorial Institute, a kind of think tank that brought together top curators, artists and cultural workers to think about issues like collecting, its impulses and desires, architecture and space, as well as the issues related to Aboriginal practices.

I have always been attracted to experimental practices and during my time in Banff, I applied for a position at the Western Front, an artist-run centre in Vancouver. For the past three and a half years I worked at the director and curator of the Exhibitions Programme, which included organizing exhibitions, talks, workshops and publications for the space. It is a space with an incredible history of avant-garde and collective practices and it was an amazing opportunity to be a part of this. At the Western Front I had complete autonomy over the programming and had the opportunity to organize responsive exhibitions given that we didn’t have to program shows years in advance like you do at larger institutions. The Front has always fostered a diversity of practices (cultural and otherwise) which made it easy to see myself operating in this space. What was also incredible was being a part of Vancouver’s artistic community—if only for a short while—as there is a wealth of knowledge of the city’s art history and a very good support structure for artists. Also, the number of incredible Aboriginal artists and scholars who live there is an invaluable resource.

As for making space for my Tlingit heritage, I think that my background certainly informs my interests and decisions but I have also maintained a relationship with my home community in the Yukon. While I was in Vancouver I assisted with initial research and planning on a new arts and crafts co-op that is being designed in Carcross. Outside of this I think that it is as much about creating space for different perspectives to come together.

How incredible! I was in Banff Centre since my husband Myron Lameman was there for a film related residency and I had a chance to tag along. It was a life changing experience since I was able to get my hands on the Tradition, Transference, Technology book on Aboriginal new media. I’m curious: What do you feel is one of the most inspirational pieces you have worked with?

Certainly one of the most influential pieces I have worked with would be by the artist Jimmie Durham; however, it’s hard for me to name a single piece in a body of work that spans several decades. He is an artist, activist and writer and perhaps the best-recognized Native American artist working internationally (for a Native artist to gain recognition outside of national or even regional borders isn’t an easy thing). In 2005 I had the opportunity to work together with him and a colleague Robert Blackson on an exhibition, artist book and public art project. During the installation of the exhibition at its first venue in Sunderland, UK, Jimmie came and stayed for about a week while we put together the show. I have learned an incredible amount from him about art, politics, and being in the world, and frequently turn to his writings, particularly the books “A Certain Lack of Coherence” and “Between the Furniture and the Building” as a source of inspiration.

Along with Jimmie I would also cite the work the work of Faye Heavyshield, particularly the installation “body of land,” as a source of inspiration and much thought on Aboriginal conceptions of place and territory.

You speak to the work of Aboriginal new media artists marking a front in cyberspace in the article “Making Things Our Own: The Indigenous Aesthetic in Digital Storytelling.” How do you feel our representation and presence as indigenous peoples in digital storytelling has changed since then?

I think in relation to this article it is important to preface the thinking of Loretta Todd, when cyberspace was just being formed. I think that in her article “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace” she brings up a number of key questions and issues that we are still grappling with today. Certainly change has come due largely to time and the advent of new technologies, but I think that what has remained consistent is the ability of Aboriginal artists to continually change these technologies to meet their needs. I think that this is true when Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun challenged his programmers in created the virtual reality piece ”Inherent Rights, Vision Rights” and is true today in works by artists like Archer Pechawis, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Skawennati Tricia Fragnito and others. What are also exciting are initiatives like Isuma TV, which has made almost every production by Isuma and Arnait available to whoever wants to tune in. I think with the shifts in technology there is greater accessibility and greater opportunity for networks, which means that works have more visibility than ever before.

I think that further shifts will be marked by the relatively recent understanding of artist practice as research meaning that artists have more opportunities now to collaborate with academic and other institutions to produce their projects and access research-based funding.

Speaking of research related work… How do you feel that cyberspace reshapes the borders of “public art” and how does this relate to the Native sense of community?

This is an interesting question! cyberspace certainly reshapes our idea of public art because it redefines what “public” is. In cyberspace public cannot just be considered the physical spectators of an exhibition or event, but must take into account another kind of non-localized viewership. I think it also begs the question, that if it exists in cyberspace, does this make it public and therefore “public art?” Public art is frequently understood as something that takes place outside—in public, as opposed to inside in a legislated space. Further to pushing at the definitions of public, I think that this question also brings to mind what public space is in cyberspace. Much of space in cyberspace, to use the internet as an example, is already “owned” either as part of a servers, or some other means. I think what would define something as public in this realm would be based on accessibility. If you take a more broad definition of cyberspace than I would say that artworks which incorporate GPS and hand-held devices as sources of networking and communication also redefine our public interaction but based on a locative means.

In terms of how this might related to a Native sense of community, I think that this has already been enacted in works by Skawennati’s “Cyberpowwow” and Cheryl L’Hirondelle’s “Prayer Flag” and other database-driven web projects. I think that Native people have a strong desire to create community and create territory wherever they are. Cyberspace is no exception.

That’s great! Relating back to other work you’ve been involved in, please tell us a bit about how the 2007 exhibition Shapeshifters, Time Travellers and Storytellers was envisioned.

Shapeshifters was a really incredible opportunity to work with a long-standing institution with excellent resources. The project was initiated by Kerry Swanson, the Executive Director of imagineNATIVE, an Aboriginal film and new media festival in Toronto. She decided that she would like to team up with another curator for the project. Robert Houle conducted early research and I joined the team later on. What was interesting to us what to think about the unique ways in which Aboriginal artists—both traditional and contemporary—depicted ideas of time and space. This was achieved through strategies of reenactment, artworks which looked at the mutable relationship between the past and the present, and commissioning new works which responded directly to the new architecture of the space and the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. A “eureka” moment occurred for both Kerry and I when we were looking through a number of Inuit works in the collection. Among them were drawings from around 1914 done by Inuit who had assisted Robert Flaherty when he was filming early scenes which would later become the film “Nanook of the North.” For us, it was a reversal of perspective whereby the documentarian was in fact documented by the subjects of his film. These drawings were paired with contemporary pieces by Suvinai Ashoona who made pen and ink renderings of the landscape and architecture of her community in Cape Dorset. In her drawings the landscape takes on fictive or mythical elements creating a tension between what is real and hypothetical.

The exhibition was also an opportunity to be in dialogue with the ROM’s long history of exhibiting Aboriginal art and artifacts. For the exhibition Faye HeavyShield made a white beaded book devoid of text, which was inspired by the Plains beadwork she viewed in the vaults and Kent Monkman created a new painting, which took as one of its sources, a painting by Paul Kane from the collection. The ROM has the largest collection of Kane paintings in the world. In Kent’s version, you see Paul Kane, fallen, at the end of a painter’s duel between Kane and Mischief (an alter-ego which frequently appears in the Kent’s works). The scene takes place on the grounds of Kane’s still standing Toronto house, now in the gay district of Toronto—an irony that was not lost on Kent. Many other works in the show also took a very specific look at the history of Toronto’s region, including video portraits of neighboring regions shot at dusk by Allan Michelson. The videos are encased in monitors in gilded frames, and each, at approximately 30 minutes, changed so slowly they appeared to be paintings, the landscapes reminiscent of Hudson River School painting. The vides were created in response to a quote by the photographer Edward S. Curtis in which he metaphorically equated the setting sun with the imminent death of Aboriginal people in North America. In Allan’s version the landscape is devoid of people, save for the signs of industrialization—a wind power farm seen in the distance and the lights of a steel mill reflected off the river in Hamilton, Ontario.

From Shapeshifters, Time Travellers and Storytellers

That’s so inspiring! As a writer, I sometimes feel constrained to particular media, but now I’m buzzing with ideas I want to explore! For you, where are you headed next in life and what do we have to look forward to?

I have just taken on a new position as Sobey Curatorial Resident at the National Gallery of Canada. It is a one-year term. As for the future, I am leaving my options open. I would love to stay at the National Gallery longer if possible and save this I would be interested in pursuing a PhD.

Of course I’m biased, but I’d love to see more Aboriginal PhDs with crossovers in art and writing. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what you’re working with next! Thanks so much for taking the time to enlighten us.

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  • so this fossil is man made, not really a fossil itself? lol :D

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