The beauty and agony of home

0 Posted by - July 15, 2011 - Blog, Conversations, Installations, Screen, Sound

God’s Lake Narrows is a new interactive narrative on the National Film Board of Canada’s increasingly interactive website. Exploring themes of longing and belonging, Winnipeg artist and former resident of the God’s Lake Narrows (GLN) reserve Kevin Lee Burton deploys photographs, text, and a layered soundscape to introduce audiences to his community and all the beauty and agony that it entails.

The text begins by situating reserves in a framework of proximity and (in)visibility – “For those of us who aren’t from one, or don’t know someone who is, our experience is limited to what we see and hear on the news: an endless loop of stories about poverty, illness, abuse and death.” Burton’s project — originally conceived as an art gallery instillation — sets out to challenge and complicate the way many (Canadians) view, think about, and form opinions of, reserves — all 3,063 of them.

Interrogating the space of community and identity, the web version is a jarring experience that lets beauty in while the pains associated with prejudice and oppression haunt the spaces of remembrance and place. Art Threat had the chance to speak with Kevin Lee Burton about the project.

Art Threat: Can you tell me more about the impetus and history of the project? I understand it migrated from a material world installation to finding a virtual home online. What were the reasons for this and how does it change the project – moving from material to virtual?

Kevin Lee Burton: Yes, you are correct about the evolution of these images. This project was actualized by the National Film Board of Canada’s producer Alicia Smith, who walked into a co-exhibition between myself and Caroline Monnet, entitled RESERVE(d), which was at the Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art gallery in Winnipeg. The photos that you see on the site were what made up my component of the co-exhibition.

The move from material to virtual definitely changes the tone of the images. The way the viewer sees the images is completely different between the gallery setting and a computer screen. When the images were exhibited, they were mounted back-to-back (exterior w/ interior) and suspended in a circle in the middle of the Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art gallery – the people (interiors) looking into the circle at you.

My friend Caroline (co-exhibitor) and I are primarily film/videomakers and we wanted to explore how our experiences as directors of the moving image would translate into a gallery setting, namely directing still image based works. The exhibition also incorporated video projections and an audio soundscape, so the interesting thing that we found out was that there was barely any difference, except this time the images were still and the audience was mobile while viewing the exhibition. In God’s Lake Interactive, that reversal of mobility was re-inverted, which is kinda cool.

What the greatest thing about God’s Lake Interactive is that the images started out in a image-based exhibition for a gallery, which showcases northern ‘reality’/subjects to a southern audience, but now the North is also an audience to this exhibition of images ~ something that was on the top of my list of intentions for bringing these images into fruition. I wanted to bring the art world back home and I really wanted to show folks at home how their/our surroundings has so much to offer, in terms of art making – photography, video, etc. The importance is that people in the north get to see their lives and realities in a different context as well.

In GLN you talk about misrepresentation of First Nations communities – is the project a way for you to address this? Do you think that media can hammer away at ignorance and stereotypes effectively enough to transform a society? Specifically a society with dominant traits of settler-privilege and reckless self-fulfillment?

There are definitely political intentions latent within this project – given my past, how can I not be political on some level? There is very little that media can do for those who are ignorant. Often, this very issue of “educating the masses out of their ignorance” is talked about as a mission within media. This approach is very back-assed-wards in my mind. Those who are ignorant need to guide themselves out of the negative and prejudiced world they live and wallow in, but that is not at all what I focus on.

I like to work from the individual outward – without healthy individuals, how can you imagine a community? I think that if I honour, respect and share the gifts and blessings that I’ve been bestowed in this life, that will resonate positively and constructively with others that are receptive to the ways in which I wish to share. Not to say that I live the most ideal life, but I know that I am very hard on myself to try and be respectful and I am constantly questioning myself toward betterment and understanding of my surroundings. I believe this self-reflection is a good place to start, and my art practice engages with that beginning point.

GLN strikes me as both lovely and arresting. The soundscape, images and words almost lulled me into a dreamy state – but I was quickly jolted out of it as the messages sunk in: identifying and struggling with the pains of both segregation and assimilation, and the alienation that comes from ignorance as it forms identity. Is this the kind of reaction you were going for? Is there something else you are hoping audiences will take away from the experience?

I’m honoured to hear you ask this question, as that is exactly what the intention was. My home is a very beautiful place (physically, emotionally and spiritually), but it also has a very rough edge for me too. I wanted to translate the very mixed emotions that I too have to go through, still each and every time I go home. As mentioned and is visible in my project, I’m quite White-looking and queer, so I not only had to deal with prejudice coming at me, I internalized self-abusing ways over the years, so that still comes up when I go home – God’s Lake Interactive sort of becomes that internal conflict. I must also make note that there is no difference between the North and South, when it comes to prejudices and homophobia, but in fact, very ironically, I think the North is much more forgiving in different areas ~ I found that out when I moved away from home at a early age.

The other main thing I want the audience to take from this project is my love for home and the people in my life. I wanted to show the world the amazing, powerful and resilient people who comprise my family and friends and helped me become the person I am today. Of course, there are more than these six people. The people in the images are people that I hold with so much esteem and appreciation, so it is a celebration of the positive in my/our lives in God’s Lake Narrows, rather than another exercise of continually wallowing in negativity.


More and more documentaries and other media are being produced about First Nations history, culture and community in Canada – yet as a programmer I see few works that are made by First Nations artists. I know this is less the case in the visual arts. But I’ve also noticed a slow shift in the mediascape, where more FN artists are constructing their own Audio-visual narratives. What are your thoughts on this in terms of who is telling the stories, who has access to resources (including the resources – often connections – needed to have works seen), and how important it is that communities—especially those that have been systematically oppressed—tell their own stories?

By all means, Mr. White folk, tell our story, but only if you’ve gone through proper protocol with the people/community and have been invited to do so.

In my mind, you alluded to the biggest issues regarding representation ~ access and resources. Art is very often a luxury, when you think about the materials and time that is needed to engage with it. Yes, it appears to some that artists live very lax and comfortable lives, beer-guzzling, beach-dwelling, festival-attending, drawing, taking pictures, ‘playing on the computer’, etc. Yes, we do these things, but that is only a small portion of what is required to survive as an artist. I use the word survive, because it can be very hard to live with the meagre amounts of money a lot of artists make – arts funding isn’t something that one should rely solely on, especially considering the goofy demon that is our Prime Minister right now.

Of course, my stance is that we should always be telling our own stories.

This conversation opens up a big ‘can of worms’ every time it is discussed, which gets tired quickly. Namely, because the non-Indigenous/Native/etc. folks that earnestly tell the Indigenous stories can’t seem to understand their role in taking the very limited resources we have out of our hands when they are telling our stories – as there are usually separate funding sectors/bodies/envelopes, both Federally, Provincially and Municipally that must meet an ‘Indigenous Quota’. Instead of understanding these detrimental actions, it seems to become ‘about them’ (personally), instead of the truism that it is about – resources. By all means, Mr. White folk, tell our story, but only if you’ve gone through proper protocol with the people/community and have been invited to do so.

When you say “It’s time to repaint that picture” it feels like a call to arms. Can you talk about that?

I guess it is a sort of call to arms. Native/Indigenous realities are very complicated, given our histories. It is imperative that we keep focused on who we are and what we wish for ourselves, the old ones and our children – and keep on that, as consistently and adamantly as we can. Our parents and grandparents endured so much in a short span of time, that it is baffling how they remain such coherent and loving people – now it is our turn to take on the role of working toward sustaining our cultures, languages and identities. Our realities were abstracted for some time, but now we must carry forward, translate and re-translate the visions of our people, a sort of ‘booya-kah! booya-kah!’ to Colonization.

We are still here and that is worth appreciating.

Check out the interactive site here, the blog here, and another interview with Burton here.

Disclosure: the above post includes a paid link for Nipissing University.

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