Jackson 2Bears explores the future of tradition

Three things set Jackson 2Bears apart as the 2013/14 Audain Professor of Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest for the Department of Visual Arts. Not only is he the first UVic alumnus and first local artist to hold the position, but he is also the first person reappointed for a second year.

Jackson 2Bears

Jackson 2Bears

Following in the footsteps of such noted Indigenous artists as Rebecca Belmore, Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas and Nicholas Galanin, 2Bears is a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) multimedia artist and a frequent face around campus. Having completed both his Masters and PhD here, he taught for both Visual Arts and UVic’s Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture before accepting the Audain position. But he’s kept busy off-campus this past year by participating in solo and group exhibitions such as Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art. at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre, the Beat Nation tour which saw him invited to perform in Montreal and a number of East Coast performances with the Noxious Sector collective, as well as participating in Open Space Gallery’s recent public art symposium Reclaim The Streets.

As with all Audain professors, 2Bears’ year was split between teaching and studio practice. “There were periods where I was really focused on working with students—which was fantastic—but because of the way the position is set up, I found a lot of time for my own work,” he says. “Much of my year was about intense research; I really wanted to use this time to experiment with my own practice. Sometimes at the mid-career level, you find yourself in ruts or overly familiar ways of working; I was conscious of trying to upset that for myself. I wanted to do the research in order to recreate my practice.”

But he was also found himself challenged by his experience teaching the 300-level Audain seminar, which included students working in a variety of mediums: from painting and sculpture to digital media, performance and music. “Working with students at the senior level, it feels less like teacher/student relationships and more like we’re a group of artists working together, helping each other out,” he says. “I found that immensely helpful—especially in an environment where you’re forced to be critical of other peoples’ work all the time in that role, you go home and do that to yourself; it enhances your own practice. You look at your own work, and the voice in your head says, ‘Am I following my own advice here? Have I really thought this through?’”

2Bears in performance

2Bears in performance

Currently working on creating entirely new digital instruments for his Audain exhibition in September 2014 (“I’m adapting an old analogue synthesizer into a video performance machine . . . I want to treat video like sound, so it can warp and move like a synthesizer and music”), 2Bears has also been writing (“I’m also working on some new texts directly related to indigenous philosophy and technologies”) and looking at enhancing community engagement with the Audain position.

“I’ve been building relationships between Visual Arts and First Peoples House, Open Space and the community, but it’s taken a lot of this year just to get that off the ground,” he says. “But it would make me very happy to see that carry on, create more of a sense of community with the Audain position—not just community here on campus but bringing in other artists as well.” Already in the works is a series of mini-residencies with fellow contemporary indigenous artists Maria Hupfield, Sonny Assu and Corey Bulpitt.

All in all, 2Bears is pleased with his first year as an Audain Professor. “Absolutely, it’s been a great year,” says an enthusiastic 2Bears. “It’s been a real challenge working with students—in this environment, it’s very rich, very interdisciplinary, and everybody’s coming at things from different angles and perspectives—but it’s been fantastic.”

Created in 2009 as part of a $2-million gift from B.C. art philanthropist Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation, the Audain professorship brings in mid-career professional artists to both work with students and further their own work.

Jackson 2Bears named Audain Professor

The Department of Visual Arts is proud to announce the appointment of Jackson 2Bears as the 2013/14 Audain Professor of Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest. Following in the footsteps of noted Indigenous artists and previous Audain professors Rebecca Belmore, Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas and Nicholas Galanin, 2Bears is the first UVic alumnus—and the first local artist—to be appointed to the position.

Jackson 2Bears

Jackson 2Bears

A Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) multimedia artist, 2bears is a frequent face around campus. Having completed both his Masters and PhD here, he has taught for both Visual Arts and UVic’s Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture. His work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally, and he is currently one of nine contemporary artists participating in the group exhibit, Ghost Dance: Activism. Resistance. Art., running to December 15 at Toronto’s Ryerson Image Centre.

While his classes have already begun—he’ll be teaching both the third-year Audain seminar and a second-year digital media arts course—2Bears’ first Audain duty will be presenting in the popular Visiting Artist series (8pm Wednesday, September 25, in Visual Arts room A162), which are always free and open to the public.

“I’ve been at UVic for a long time, so part of my role is to bring some of those other areas and people together with Fine Arts,” he says. “My personal project is to start plugging this Audain position a bit more into the rest of the university, both for myself and whoever comes next.”

2Bears work

2Bears putting his art into action

Making connections is a large part of what drives 2Bears as an artist. He describes his current practice as focusing on “the aesthetics of Indigenous identity in contemporary times . . . I envision my practice as a form of cultural critique in which I explore alternative ways to engage with the question of Native spirituality in our modern, technological society.”

2Bears works with new media, interactive installations and multimedia performances to reflect on issues of racism, colonialism, discrimination, Indigenous subjectivity and Native stereotypes. “My conceptual interests lay in identifying points of convergence between contemporary technocultural studies, and Indigenous teachings,” he explains, “the aim of which is to reconceive of a means by which we can understand contemporary Indigenous subjectivity in the context of our technological culture by identifying alternative means of engagement and resistance.”

2Bears sees no clash between traditional First Nations and the more contemporary practice for which the Audain position was created to highlight. Paraphrasing noted American Indian author Vine Desloria Jr., he says, “It’s a strange misconception of the traditionalists that indigenous culture happened a long time ago, that we’re always having to go back to the past. But a crucial part of our tradition is change, transformation, evolution.”

2Bears Heritage MythologiesNot that he’ll be pushing his students to create First Nations-influenced art, regardless of their cultural background. “That would be a very restrictive model—even if they were all Indigenous students, but didn’t want to work with Indigenous content,” he says. “I do some lectures on contemporary First Nations art, just because it doesn’t really happen anywhere else at the university that I’m aware of, but that’s just coming from my perspective, sharing with the class where I come from. I do want them to explore their own cultural background—but if they are interested in First Nations art, I want them to approach it on their terms, not mine.”

“One thing I learned from Taiaiake Alfred in UVic’s Indigenous Governance program was about encouraging non-Indigenous students to approach things from their own perspectives,” he continues. “We all participate in this landscape called Canada, so it’s not about imagining themselves as an Indigenous person, but approaching things from their own cultural backgrounds. People come from all different backgrounds. I always tell my students not to make stuff I would like, but to find out for themselves what excites them—especially in those crucial third and fourth years, where they’re encouraged to think for themselves and find their own practice. I’m just here to facilitate, moreso than telling them what to do. It’s really important that the teacher-student relationship isn’t one of master/disciple . . . I see it as more participatory; we’re all in a group working together. It’s all about reshaping that teacher/student relationship.

When asked what aspect of that message he’ll bring to the Audain professorship—created in 2009 as part of a $2-million gift from celebrated BC art philanthropist and National Gallery of Canada board chair Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation—2Bears doesn’t hesitate. “Each Audain professor brings their own artistic practice and their own background as a teacher and as an artist in residence as well, so each brings their own talents and creative energy to the school and the space,” he says. “Each year, the course is meant to be quite organic and geared toward whoever is teaching it and their specialty—for me, that means an interest in contemporary First Nations art and an interest in larger social and political issues.”

2Bears performing one of his scratch videos

2Bears performing one of his scratch videos

It will also mean exposing his students to his performance art. Primarily inspired by electronic music and DJ/VJ culture, 2Bears uses remix as a tool for cultural critique—which he’ll be experimenting with in his studio as artist-in-residence. “A lot of what I’ve been doing over the past few years is live cinema—scratch video, I call it,” he explains. “Picture a DJ with turntables, but back in 2005 I started programming a version where instead of just scratching music you could play video on the turntables: spinning it backwards and forward, use the mixer for not just volume but brightness and cross-fading. What I want to do now is build some more audio-visual instruments—some sort of video synthesizer, where I take an analogue keyboard and make it not only produce sound but video as well. I’m also working on some pow-wow drums that will project video images when you play them.”

Clearly, 2Bears has tapped into something with his often playful take on popular Native stereotypes, which he says “function as mixed-media interventions against extirpative and discriminatory representations of First Nations culture.” His multimedia works have been exhibited at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Toronto’s ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, Vancouver’s Video In Video Out, Edmonton’s Visual Eyez Festival and the Digital Art Weeks in Zurich, Switzerland—and he has released several recordings and live performances on CD and DVD, in both solo and collaborative contexts. “I tell my students that even when I was doing my undergrad in the 1990s, there was no such thing as ‘video art’,” he chuckles. “New digital technology makes it all so much more accessible to everybody.”

From his Clip Art Self Portrait series

From his Clip Art Self Portrait series

Beyond a greater appreciation for contemporary Indigenous art, 2Bears also sees the artist-in-residence aspect as another strong benefit of the Audain position. “It’s good for the students to see their professors struggling with the same decision-making processes, how to actually produce and make work. It’s too easy for students to see professors as really successful artists where they work hidden away in their studios—but it’s really fantastic to be involved in a more community-like aspect. Again, it changes that whole professor-student relationship.”

Given his participation in the current Ghost Dance exhibit, as well as such recent popular exhibitions as Beat Nation: Art, Hip-Hop and Aboriginal Culture and the AGGV’s upcoming Urban Thunderbirds/Ravens in a Material World exhibit, it seems like a good time to be a contemporary Indigenous artist.

“It’s not that there are more artists now—indigenous people have been making art forever—but I do owe a debt to all the battles that were waged in the generations before me, back into the 1950s and ’60s, when native artists were fighting to have their voices heard and work seen in contemporary spaces,” he says. “During that period, Native art was considered more artifact, more cultural phenomenon—not contemporary work. That shifted dramatically in the ‘70s, so it’s thank to those folks who waged those battles and won them; now, there’s an appetite for it. These multimedia collages are, for me, a means of discovering a self-reflexive path of engagement with my own Native heritage by way of remixing and reappropriating Indigenous identity for myself.”

From Nicholas Galanin's Ever Shoot An Indian?

From Nicholas Galanin’s Ever Shoot An Indian?

On a related note, 2013 Audain Professor Nicholas Galanin is screening Ever Shoot An Indian?, four short films exploring issues around contemporary Indigenous identity. Running on an 18-minute loop, they can be seen 10am to 5pm weekdays to October 4 in the Visual Arts Building’s Audain Gallery. As with all Visual Arts exhibits, this is free and open to the public.

2012 Audain professor Nicholas Galanin wins $50,000 in US fellowship

Nicholas Galanin, UVic’s 2012 Audain Professor in Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest, has won a $50,000 Rasmuson Fellowship from the United States Artists organization.

The Sitka-born Galanin is a multi-disciplinary Tlingit/Aleut artist who has struck an intriguing balance between his origins and exploration in new perceptual territory. His teaching term with UVic’s Department of Visual Arts ran throughout fall 2012—shorter than previous Audain Professors Rebecca Belmore and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, but all the time his busy schedule would allow. Like Belmore and Yahgulanaas, however, Galanin will present an exhibit of new work in the Audain Gallery in September 2013.

Galanin’s famous “Inert”

United States Artists—a non-profit organization aimed at investing in “America’s finest artists”—has granted nearly $18 million to artists over the past seven years. Galanin is one of 54 artists who have each received an unrestricted grant of $50,000 this year. According to the USA news release, the artists were chosen for “reflecting the diversity of artistic practice in America” and include “cutting-edge thinkers and traditional practitioners from the fields of architecture and design, crafts and traditional arts, dance, literature, media, music, theater arts, and visual arts.”

Galanin’s “Things are Looking Native, Natives Looking Whiter”

As reported on the Canadian Art website, Galanin’s fellowship was in the Crafts and Traditional Arts category—although, as the USA news release states, “his work might also be described simply as contemporary art with Native themes.” Galanin is an artist who defies categorization, a visual artist and musician (who performs as Silver Jackson) whose multimedia pieces often involve computers, video, photo manipulation or sculpture in a variety of forms.

Speaking to the Anchorage Daily News, Galanin admits that some might see the “traditional arts” designation as a bit of a stretch. “But based on my contacts and the people on the panel, it was the right choice,” he told ADN. “A lot of my art comes from the traditional context. But I don’t care what they call it.”

Canadian Art‘s Leah Sandals notes that his work was recently featured in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Beat Nation, a survey of artists “who connect Aboriginal identity and urban youth culture . . . A touring version of the show will open at Toronto’s Power Plant on December 15. Galanin’s work was also featured in group shows at Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery and Bill Reid Gallery over the past year, while Trench Contemporary Art (his Vancouver dealer) recently wrapped a solo show titled I LOOOOOVE YOUR CULTURE. His work was also in Montreal gallery Art Mûr’s A Stake in the Ground, curated by Nadia Myre, in January.”
When asked about his plans for the prize money, Galanin told ADN‘s Mike Dunham, “I’m saving it. Maybe it will go to buy a home or get my studio built.”

Performing the Art of Professorship

When it came to selecting an artist for the inaugural Audain Professorship in Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest, the choice for Visual Arts department chair Daniel Laskarin was clear: it had to be Rebecca Belmore. “She’s a First Nations artist of substantial repute, a person with a strong international reputation who had represented Canada at the Venice Bienale, and one who could give our students the benefit of her skills and experience,” explains Laskarin.

In a word, Belmore was ideal. Born into the Anishinabe First Nation in Upsala, Ontario, but currently based in Vancouver, Belmore is internationally recognized for her enviable 25-year legacy of multi-disciplinary art, which explores themes of history, place and identity through sculpture, installation, video and performance.

In the catalogue for the 2005 Venice Biennale, where Belmore’s performance projection “Fountain” was Canada’s official entry, noted Cornell University visual historian and artist Jolene Rickard described how the artist’s “role as transgressor and initiator—moving fluidly in the hegemony of the west reformulated as ‘empire’—reveals how conditions of dispossession are normalized in the age of globalization.”

Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a more fitting artist to kick off the Audain Professorship, which—thanks to a $2-million gift from celebrated BC art philanthropist and National Gallery of Canada board chair Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation—will bring a distinguished practicing artist to teach in the Department of Visual Arts each year. (As well as the Audain Professorship, the main public gathering and exhibition space in the Visual Arts Building is now named the Audain Gallery and Atrium.) In addition to her noted residencies and extensive exhibition history, Belmore’s work has appeared in numerous exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including two Canadian solo touring exhibits in the past decade.

Speaking at the end of the academic year, Belmore is obviously pleased with what she describes as her “first kick at the can at working a whole semester.” Offering a characteristically wry smile, she says, “Usually I just do short-term workshops and, in that sense, this Audian Professorship is quite beneficial, especially for myself—to let me figure out how I can fit into this idea of teaching. And I have to thank Mr. Audain and the university for collaborating on this project. It’s a great opportunity not only for the program here, but for artists like myself—and, of course, the students.”

Working with a small number of undergraduate students with zero performance experience (“they were totally green,” she says with another smile), Belmore explains how she had them create performance art pieces throughout the entire semester. “I was trying to share with them my process as an artist—which is kind of spontaneous, and involves more short-term planning than long-term. I ran my classes with a certain looseness, trying to verge on spontaneity, which was great, because they were really quite open to going with the flow, trying to figure out what I was sharing with them. And they made great work; I was quite surprised and impressed with their enthusiasm and creativity. Another thing I really enjoyed was being asked to do studio visits; I had some really good conversations with students outside of my immediate classes.”

Belmore's 2008 piece "Fringe"

One challenge Belmore faced was encouraging her students to think beyond the Ring Road. “I was trying to get them to think about themselves in the context of a larger society, to work with a mix of personal experiences and what’s going on in the world.” That’s something Belmore herself had to deal with when she was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design back in the ’80s. “I initially came to performance art from a more politicized point of view, because there’s nothing more politicized than your own personal being, your body,” she explains. “Using the body as a vehicle to negotiate and navigate the contemporary art world is a very interesting path and journey; my being here is another experience for me to continue to push myself as an artist.”

Speaking on behalf of Belmore’s classes, Laskarin says, “The students she worked with were very enthusiastic about their experience with Rebecca, and she was able to offer them a perspective that was extra to what they were already exposed to by our continuing faculty.”

And when asked for her take on her UVic experience, Belmore just smiles. “Obviously, as I’m maturing—I don’t want to say getting older—I’m happy to experience teaching in a traditional art institution,” she says. “Everybody was very supportive—and very busy—and now I have a better understanding of how much work it is to teach at this level. And I’m curious how it affected my students’ other work; hopefully there’ll be another performance art class in the program at some point.”

Laskarin is also clearly pleased with the recent announcement of the next Audain professor: acclaimed Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, currently participating in the Haida Manga Reading Room and Comic Jam Studio at Toronto’s Gendai Gallery. “In the long run—and already—the Audain Professorship will continue to bring an expanded field of vision to the Department,” says Laskarin. “It’s a small department in a small city, and even with the considerable experience that our faculty bring to the table, it’s very valuable to be able to bring in that kind of direct contact with outside influences. As faculty we travel to keep engaged with contemporary practices and thinking, but this is something that our students are not always able to do, or able to do so extensively; the Audain Professorship helps to bring the world to Victoria.”

And while Belmore will return in September for an exclusive exhibit at the Audain Gallery, does she have any advice for Yahgulanaas as the incoming Audain professor? “If you’re not already from Victoria, the challenge is to figure out how to be here and how to be somewhere else at the same time,” she offers, after taking a moment to ponder. “I’m in Vancouver, which isn’t very far away, but crossing the water once a week was kind of tough; if I lived up North or wherever and had to move here, that would really be a challenge. The ideal would be to make a temporary home in the Visual Arts building, so students could drop in and have a more casual relationship, but that didn’t really work out for me. It’s tricky to negotiate public space and private space; some people may be able to do that, but it’s complicated.”

Finally, does she have any hints on what we can expect from her Fall exhibit here? “No clue,” she says with one last, quick laugh. “I’ve gotta go get to work.”


Find out more about Rebecca Belmore by visiting her site

See some examples of the Haida manga style of incoming Audain professor Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Read more about philanthropist Michael Audain in this piece from The Ring and this from The Globe and Mail (May 9, 2011)