Dallas Flett-Wapash and Taylor McArthur

Exhibition Curated by Cecilia Araneda

Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba
Digital Exhibition / insiteart.ca
June 18 – July 31, 2020

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Curatorial Essay
by Cecilia Araneda

One of the many borders in the art world is the city and rural divide. Art thrives where there is access to wide audiences, and audiences in turn respond to large art clusters. Indeed, many of the largest cities in the world are synonymous for being important art destinations. On one side of this divide is the contemporary art world, with its many small and grand art galleries and institutions. On the other side is the world of small cities and town, most especially on the Canadian prairies, where large distances serve to magnify the divide. The art world’s city and rural divide may not be as clear solely from the perspective of the visual arts, where it is possible to sustain scalable careers able to bypass the institution by selling directly to private buyers. For those who work in the media arts, however, the divide is immediately clear, for it is not possible to have a small-scale media art practice with local sales sufficient to sustain even the direct costs of the career. Media art requires institutional support for art production to gain traction, and this is what makes most of Manitoba outside of Winnipeg a desert for the discipline.

Media art is a collection of art practices that share two integral, unnegotiable elements: the artist interacts integrally with technology in its making; and technology is also required for the audience to access the form. Media art is turned on and off; and once the technological interface is turned off, the artwork no longer exists. Media art is also often time-based, existing with a beginning and an end. However, the technology society uses to access the internet – software and computers – is now so embedded within our daily lived experience that it is common for audiences to not recognize them as technology. It is for this reason, paradoxically, that media art can often also be so difficult to understand as art. Even though the public can consume vast quantities of media art and related practices, the forms – which range from movies to electronic art to video games to virtual reality – are still often quite mysterious to most.

When I arrived in Brandon looking to uncover a media art community, I found suspicion that I might not understand the nature of the task before me. Brandon likely has good reason to suspicious. Its ability to serve as a starter city for many kinds of careers likely means that it’s had a lot of fleeting relationships. But I’ve lived most of my life in Manitoba, with a childhood spent north of 53, and so Brandon was not surprising or unusual to me. The true difficulty was nothing especially unique to Brandon, but rather something unique to the media arts in comparison to the visual arts: in professional media art practice, institutions are responsible for presentation equipment and technicians able to maintain and operate them. Professional media art organizations grow out of their equipment and technology capacity, and not in any other manner. It is true there is a slice of media art that veers into the visual arts. However, visual art centres can find it very difficult to expand beyond forms that use comparatively inexpensive prosumer playback equipment, such as TV monitors and speakers, simply because they tend to not have the kind of equipment acquisitions and management budgets that true media art centres do. This is what makes it so difficult for media art to gain a meaningful foothold outside of the reach of big city resources. For those who have never worked in media art centres, encountering the cost of core software, equipment, technical support and ongoing upgrades, can be shocking.

I suspect people expected me to try to give analogue filmmaking a home in Brandon, as this is what I am most known for. But the form is a problematic place to start when it is only older generations that intrinsically understand it on a conceptual level. Digital art, on the other hand, is what the broader film world was a decade or two ago: the default media art practice that young artists enter en masse, whether formally or informally. More than a generational divide, it’s a new way of seeing driven by the interactive and nonlinear experience of the digital native generation. Digital art also requires fewer external resources than many other media arts, even though there is a time versus resources exchange that tends to be made; it is possible to proceed with fewer resources, but progress will take longer. And so when I met first Dallas Flett-Wapash, and later Taylor McArthur, it gave me a strong sense that creating a meaningful digital art community in Brandon could be possible, as there is likely already strong talent for it and other media arts here. Could there be a way to navigate around the other missing elements that Winnipeg and other large cities can offer, including ongoing access to specialized media art curators and the ability to have media art presented as an art form onto itself and not peripheral to another? Time will tell.

During one of the first conversations I had with Dallas Flett-Wapash, I admitted to him the last time I played a video game was decades ago – perhaps even before he was born – when arcades were easily accessible in places like the Winnipeg airport and in the downtown. It might have been a table top PAC-MAN game or possibly a game of Tetris. When I asked Dallas what video games were conceptually, as it seemed to me that they had changed a great deal since I last played one, my question caught him off guard – for video games have been so present in his life that he couldn’t imagine a context where they wouldn’t be intrinsically understood. Dallas’ strong connection to video games goes far beyond merely wanting to play them; he is deeply interested in their ability to trigger the imagination and invite you into new worlds and new ways of seeing. The importance of video games to his life has been as central as how I experienced movies when I was growing up in northern Manitoba, and these two media art forms are similar in their ability to open the imagination to large real and imagined worlds far outside our own physical sphere. Rarely do people who love art become artists, but when you see Dallas working on game concepts, you know this is the space where he is meant to be.

Dallas Flett-Wapash is Ininew and Saulteaux. He is a member of the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, but spent his childhood in several predominantly Ininew First Nations throughout northern Manitoba before moving to Brandon to pursue post-secondary education. He is a graduate of the Assiniboine Community College’s Interactive Media Arts program and also holds a BFA from Brandon University. When I first met Dallas at an event, he was wearing a bear clan medallion. When I asked him for a more formal meeting later, he would wear the same bear clan medallion once again. Nearly a year later, when we went to have his first professional photo taken, he would come wearing the same bear clan medallion yet again. Dallas tells me he does not know with certainty if he belongs to the bear clan, which is a legacy of Canada’s long lasting colonial policies of separating Indigenous peoples from their culture. But his sense of connection to the clan, which is broadly responsible for community protection and healing, is clear in how he views his work in video games as creating a safe space for the exploration of culture and worldview. While Dallas is Ininew and Saulteaux, it is specifically his Ininew culture and language that he is exploring with his current work.

I would meet Taylor McArthur a few weeks after meeting Dallas. One of the first things that stands out about Taylor is now proficient she is in a wide range of media art equipment and software, even though 3D animation and 360° video are where she is most at home. Taylor’s path into art was not a direct one, shifting directions after having started a different professional pathway. She, too, would eventually become graduate of the Assiniboine Community College’s Interactive Media Arts program. It was last spring, at the tail end of that program, that I would take her on as a student artist-in-residence for nearly two months. Every time Taylor would show me her prototypes and mock ups, I recognized in them a strong, innate tendency towards Indigenous Futurisms. There’s a common through-line I’ve observed in Indigenous media art practitioners, that regardless of region or direct influence they tend to be more drawn to genre forms than is common in Canadian independent media art. There is an intrinsic bigness within them that I can appreciate as a Latin American, in the way it can evoke Magic Realism.

Taylor McArthur is Nakota and Ininew, and a member of the Pheasant Rump Nakota First Nation in Saskatchewan, though has lived all her life in southwestern Manitoba. As we talked about media art practices last spring, Taylor also spoke about her First Nation and how she felt drawn to her reserve. In as much as it is a community home, it was also an elusive place – a place that would only give of itself in its own time. Time is an interesting thing that is often perceived as a moving constant, yet at different points in our lives and under certain circumstances it can take on different properties, speeding up or slowing down in ways that might even trigger entry into an alternate reality. Different cultures can also perceive and gauge time differently, in ways that can surprise monocultural people when they encounter this clash to their sense of what they believe to be universal. Having grown up in two cultures concurrently that have different senses of time, I’ve learned it can be a malleable concept: it can be strict or it can be flexible; it can be an expression of politeness or one of intention; it can be a general idea of the near future or it can be a specific timetable. Time also seems to expand itself when you are immersed within an unknown, speeding up only as things become familiar. It is in the boundary of this idea that Taylor’s work resides: between the known and the unknown, a sort of presque vu – something that is familiar, but also not. Taylor’s work moves through permutations of hypothetical futuristic visions of her Nakota culture with the digital art tools that are omnipresent within her generation.

I did not set out to specifically work with two emerging Indigenous digital artists as a curator, but rather this was just an obvious progression of a process into which I had already entered. I don’t say this lightly – the process has been a guiding principle of my art career for well over a decade. It opens a way of seeing that is freed from artificial attempts of control, and it is within this space that I have produced my most sophisticated work as both artist and curator. Both Dallas and Taylor have complementary working methodologies, despite being very different aesthetically and in intention. And in the informal conversations we had over weeks and months, there was always a common through-line of wanting to better understand their cultures and how their art practices could provide an entry to that. In this context, given the reserve has been a constant physical presence in both of their lives, using it as the triggering framework for this exhibition was also a natural progression. As homes often can be, the reserve is a complex space, as the outcome of state displacement policies, but also the site of culture, community and language. Along the way in this process, I asked a lot of questions that I hoped would serve as a clarifying funnel, and in rare instances I did make suggestions. Mostly, though, we had many discussions about technology and methodology, as well as the power of beginnings, middles and ends.

In his work, Dallas Flett-Wapash considers the quotidian experience of growing up on reserve, expanding the sense of the ordinary with retro video game aesthetics and humour. He takes you into a rec room experience where he invokes the magical worlds that developed in his imagination while playing video games growing up on the reserve. Taylor McArthur uses the reserve as a point of departure to consider her First Nation and culture in a context beyond the present. She uses highly recognizable prairie landscapes to serve as the effective launch pad into a new future. Together, with !in.site; they use an art language that is foundational to their digital native generation – a generation that has never lived in a world without the internet – to give us insight into worlds, perspectives and cultures that are physically near to us, but which we might never have experienced before. They provide us guiding maps through physical and imagined geographies and architectures, inviting us to take a journey back into childhood and forward into a distant future.