Getting Messy and Complicated with Dana Inkster – Dayna McLeod

Dana Inkster

Dana Inkster is an Alberta-based media artist and cultural producer whose projects range from beautiful, intense experimental videos to gripping, insightful documentaries. I spoke with Dana about her diverse practice, life on the prairies, the multiplicity of identity and experiencing the messy and the complicated, and how that translates into her work.

Redux 1, the video featured here, will be available online on NMP until July 8, 2009. After July 8, you can see it via YouTube here.

Dayna McLeod: How does your “art practice experiment with the bounds of cultural representation and our expectations of narrative” as you state in your artist statement on your website?

Dana Inkster: What I most engage in primarily is that whole notion of experimenting with expectations of narrative. It’s about my background in terms of critical thinking and being a political studies major for my undergraduate degree, and realizing that media persuades. Forever we get fed these very traditional stories and we can expect how these stories are going to go and what it means and what it means about our culture and our community and who gets to author those stories. That’s all well and good in terms of having codes for understanding our culture, but I often found, as much as I enjoyed stories growing up and at all ages, in movies, I always felt that my experience never quite fit. There was always a twist at the end so the expectation of the narrative when I get to write the stories, I try to work in that twist so that it kind of shifts expectations of what the narrative is going to be. But also paying respect to the tradition of storytelling because I like a good story, but I like a good twist on the end.

DMC: You use a lot of traditional conventional narrative structures within your work. Where do you situate yourself as an artist in relation to your audience and yourself as the storyteller? What is your perspective?

DI: I use traditional conventions of narrative as a shared language. I don’t want people to get lazy about what they expect out of stories, so on one level I feel it’s my job to complicate what a story is, what a message is. But also to play off of that shared language to kind of disarm people, to participate in a story that they might not otherwise care about. In terms of the identity stuff, it’s pretty fluid and I can’t quite extricate the multiple identities that I have, that I’m continuing to gather. But definitely in terms of standing on the outside looking in, it began with race for me because I’ve been black longer than I’ve been a dyke. But when I came out and embraced a queer identity, it fit. It fit with my perspectives of the outside looking in but still wanting to articulate myself and demonstrate what my experience is. And now I’ve got this other weird twist of geography- I’m adding to the list of identity. It’s blowing my mind that I live in this small town.

DMC: In Lethbridge Alberta!

DI: And I haven’t quite embraced that as an identity but again, its kind of this twist of the expectation of the stories that come out of small town Alberta. Being in Alberta, I don’t actually feel, like at all, that I’m home. But it helped me to realize that I’ve never really felt that. So, might as well be on Mars and just get on with things, acknowledge that I’m on Mars.

DMC: Is that what it’s like there?

DI: Well, yes and no. I think by moving here, it did a couple things. It helped me to think about my own prejudices with regard to expecting intolerance from people and, god-damned it, as a good Central Canadian girl, I’ve been expecting a lot of red-neck activity and it’s just not happening, and I have all of these zingers that I haven’t been able to use.

DMC: Like what? Can you give us some examples?

DI: Well, in terms of the zingers, the desire to have a confrontation with someone, not wanting to back down from confrontation. Because that was a big part of my life living in Montreal and growing up in Ottawa. There was always this confrontation around racism so I thought that if I’m going to the belly of the beast, I’m going to be well equipped to defend myself and no one’s picking on me. So it’s strange on that level. And also when we moved here, I embraced that I have to just be myself regardless of my location. It was interesting too- a lot of people would say, “Oh I could never live there because of XYZ,” and I was one of those people, it included Alberta. It’s like, “Oh! I’m still very queer, and if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” That was an unexpected experience in this last move.

DMC: It’s interesting what you’re saying about confronting your own prejudices about Alberta and assuming that you’ll be harassed for being black, for being queer, for being a woman, and that you’re ready for it, you’re tough for it. In terms of adding to the list of your collected identities, I wanted to ask you about the “Mommy identity”, because this has come up in discussions I’ve had with other artists, like Toronto performance artist Jess Dobkin where they are suddenly pigeon-holed or dismissed or labeled as a Mommy Artist, which just seems to further fracture feminist identity- you’re making “Womyn’s Work”, you’re making “Queer Work”, which seems to function as a not-so-subtle way to assign audience, alliance and/or affiliation, but ultimately ghettoize these types of practices.

DI: I’ve had various moments, it’s been over a decade now where I’m feeling that if someone is asking me to fill a commission or speak or pitch a new project, there’s that expectation that it has to do with identity. And it comes up over and over again, and at different moments it changes all of the time. At different moments, I make my peace with it because it’s like, well, if you want to play according to those rules, okay, let’s play. But then I definitely have had my moments where it’s like, ‘how come nobody asked me to make that documentary about trucks? Why can’t I do the benign food show, why does it always need to be charged with this message about my cultural experience?’ but then at the same time, when I say it out loud, it’s like, ‘fuck! My cultural experience is underrepresented so I might as well step up and explore it.’ It’s a rich landscape that I’m still excavating and even right now in “The ‘Bridge”, as I call it, I’ve been thinking about and trying to rage against the degree to which my practice is getting mainstreamed, and actually desexualized. It has a little bit to do with not only the success of making that NFB (National Film Board) documentary, 24 Days in Brooks but also taking on this university job in a university town. There’s a lot of work that I make that I just don’t show to my students because this is the Bible belt. So I’ve been trying to balance that and continue to nurture my practice in a way that remains sexualized. Like I said for a long long time that the work I make is extensibly about fucking and mending the broken heart, even though I don’t visually represent fucking, but that’s how I think of it. So it’s interesting to hear about other artists being pigeonholed as Mommy Artists because I’ve thought about that. Can I still make work about fucking and be a Mommy? I’m intrigued by it. It’s exciting to see what I’ll come up with, with all of these kinds of uncomfortable audience possibilities. I’ll figure it out. There’s room to figure it out here, which is nice.

DMC: What is the difference between experimental video art and broadcast television documentaries in your practice? How do you approach these types of projects?

DI: I love it because it’s kind of schizophrenic. And also, the mainstream, it’s about knowing what the rules are really, really well so you can break them. That’s how I see it. And I like marketing. I like working on the marketing of features and all of those mainstream production kinds of things because, if nothing else, it helps me go, ‘I thought so.’ Knowing the secrets behind how our media gets generated and the lack of criticality.

DMC: Can you give us an example of a function or a standard that you’ve re-appropriated or dismantled and reassembled?

DI: When I was doing marketing, it is very basic conversations about demographics and selling things to people. Selling ideas to people. Selling things to people that they don’t necessarily want or need. But it’s a very mainstream practice to market mainstream media content. I enjoy it because it’s like, ‘oh, that was pretty straight forward.’ It’s like a formula and it works all of the time. And, it’s insightful. It makes me feel like I have a bit of an inside scoop about production, distribution and exhibition and I like that. So the interesting part is, I’ve had people ask me what I do for a living and that changes to my contentment ever other year. I will always make work. I always feel like I’m going to make art forever. And my experimental practice is my own. So that’s the luxury. I’ll do what I have to do to pay the bills or continue conversations with the communities with which I live, but that often is about a lot of mainstream stuff and I just have this great fortune of telling these experimental strange stories and they travel. They have this ripple effect but I don’t have to be so canny about what I’m trying to say, or if there’s a message, or who I’m trying to reach. I just make this work and fortunately, people express some interest. But I will always have that. So the experimental practice is not going anywhere, it’s the mainstream practice that pays the bills that everybody knows.

DMC: Is that how you see 24 Days in Brooks?

DI: Yes. That was a mainstream foray, but one that’s close to my heart. My background is political studies, that’s my undergraduate degree and the reason I fell in love with that whole world was because of the power of media to shape communities and people’s lives, and weaned on NFB documentaries so I’m quite proud to be a part of that library, but at the same time, I brought my black, queer, feminist self to that process, a very institutionalized process that moves quite difficultly in some ways.

DMC: Do you mean politically? Internal politics in a national institution?

DI: I mean like having conversations about who is the audience and what they are expecting- what story are they expecting and there were times where I wanted to tell a story that maybe wasn’t expected and I had to fight for that. And it wasn’t anything radical. I think how my experimental practice does affect, or ‘impinge upon’, as my mother would say, how I tell all stories. I don’t want to just do it the way people are expecting the story to be told, and at times, the producers were bored with me trying to do that. That was painful, at moments.

DMC: And in the end, did you get to tell the story that you wanted to?

DI: Yes and no. I mean, with that film, the truth of the matter is, I got a green light from the NFB to tell a story that had nothing to do with labour. It was all about people migrating from Africa to very white prairie Alberta, and I just wanted to investigate their experience of this placement. So I got this green light and then 3 days into my on-the-ground research in Brooks, the strike broke out. So I was going back to my producers begging, ‘Can I still just tell my small little story?’ and they’re like, ‘No way’. So that’s why it turned into the labour story. The production all the way along was about me trying to hold on for dear life to the actual personal story of the people that I met versus this very traditional, power to the people, labour story. I know nothing about labour, but at the same time, the reason I embraced the labour side of the story is that I thought that this was my opportunity to make a documentary about trucks. So I embraced that opportunity and still tried to be the heart and the spirit of the original story that I wanted to tell. But it was a tug of war, there were a lot of moments where the producers were like, ‘we want this to be old school labour, Norma Rae but with black people’, and I thought that there was a twist in there that could be told.

DMC: You’ve talked about producers expectations, mainstream demographic predictions. In regards to your experimental practice, what are the expectations of that audience? Is that important to you?

DI: It’s so interesting that you would bring this up, because I just had an exchange with the commissioning coordinator for a series of Pride videos. The curator of this project wanted to have conversations about me meeting the expectations of Pride partiers. And so just a few hours ago, I was, ‘well, this is a Canada Council funded project from my point of view- their expectations, they will hopefully just go with the flow.’ I can’t make a piece that… when it’s art-based, I have no interest in those questions, and that’s what I ended up saying to the curator. This is not the place, in my mind, to be concerned with that at all because that is what TV is for, that’s what advertising is for. Art is very different, to my mind.

DMC: Can you talk more about how your practice is about fucking and mending the heart? Does this have to do with homophobia? LGBTQIA identity politics?

DI: I mean the whole notion of fucking as it relates to my practice; I use that word because it’s the most appropriate because it’s really about emotional violence that we put ourselves through or we put others through and it’s not necessarily slash and burn, but there’s a certain violence to it that people survive. When I say fucking, it’s kind of the emotional violence that we put ourselves through but also because we’re drawn somehow viscerally to a sexual experience that might be love based or might not be love based, but fucking! You know what I mean. In that notion of the complicatedness that was really what I came out into. It’s this permission to be all messy and complicated and you know, gorgeous in terms of a queer life- it was all of those things. I try to make work that is all of those complicated and messy, but sweet things.

DMC: Can you walk us through the entirety of the Art of Autobiography? There’s the original documentary, and how did the 2 experimental projects come out of that project?

DI: The Art of Autobiography actually was a documentary project that I started with the National Film Board in 2000. It was under another working title and they were helping me develop it and that totally fell apart and I walked away from the producers because they were so fixated on this story of my biological mother’s sexual assault. And I had just met the woman, too. They were like, ‘okay, this is the story to tell’, and I was you know, I’m not going to put this 65 year old woman through your sensational, bad, documentary ringer. So I just walked away and dealt with their lawyers sending threatening letters that they owned this story and that I had better not make a documentary. It was ridiculous. So I have a love/hate thing with the NFB, between the marketing job I had there and that experience, and then 24 Days in Brooks. So I just worked away on a whole bunch of other things and got funding to make it on my own. Again, the Canada Council for the Arts, the CALQ (Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec) helped me to do that. I made this longer piece that was a broadcast hour because I still wanted to explore that for a whole lot of reasons. So I finished it and it had it’s screening at Sundance, which I didn’t attend, which was another interesting foray when I said I wasn’t going to my screening, they were scandalized that I would not accept that invitation and spend $7000 to go. But it was done and it was great and it was fun and I felt better. It helped me kind of navigate this new relationship I had with my biological Mom.

DMC: And you interviewed other adoptees for the project?

DI: Yes, 6 others. I didn’t want the focus after that NFB thing to be about me and my story. I wanted to kind of level the playing field a little bit. Because I find with adoption, like race, like queer- I find that people often will go, “oh, well my cousin is adopted”, and so they know what the experience is like and half of the time, I’d be like, “what are you talking about?” So I wanted to include as many voices including my own in that story.

DMC: How did that work, examining yourself as subject while directing the project? How were you about to navigate both of those roles?

DI: It was really wonderful, I mean the people that came forward to share their stories on that night, they were just so ready to be part of the process, so I was able to take away, cause the treatment I had written was very much about my own family. And I was so lucky to have these other people, these 6 other people to come forward to tell their stories, so I could chip away at my navel gazing and include their voices so that I could just be molded into the fabric. The whole story did start with just my story and luckily, these other people were generous enough to add their stories to the mix. So I was able to treat not only my personal story, but also what came out of Dusty’s that night. Kind of like using archival material and then weaving it all together.

DMC: Autobiography is a form of self-portraiture. Has this work helped you in a quest for identity?

DI: I guess it has. I think for me, the work, it’s just an utterance. If I could write better poetry I would. But I can’t so I’ll just use a video camera. And so it’s just something I do. And in terms of The Art of Autobiography, I was commenting on my own penchant for it. But also to say that it’s available to all of us. The beauty of being adopted is that you can make up your own story. No one’s going to chime in and go, “Oh no, that’s not how it is!” But for myself, that definitely changes all of the time, depending on what moment I look at and what kind of mood I’m in, which is great. It’s a never ending resource of perspectives and I think that, the segue to the Reduxes is that I finished the larger piece but then I was looking at it and it was done and out in the world, but I thought it doesn’t quite speak to certain kinds of things that I want it to speak to. It seemed to get a little too, mainstream and quiet in its representation of my experience. So that’s why I gave myself permission to go out and make those Reduxes, cutting up bits and making them weirder because I felt no inclination to speak to anyone else’s expectations and with the longer more mainstream piece, I did. With the experimental stuff, not so much. I could just say what actually, I felt spoke to the darkness a little bit. It’s great- I feel like any work that I own, I can go back and change it whenever I want. And I’ve been compelled to do that and I think the Reduxes are a bit of that.

DMC: I think that’s a good point to make too, for people who are outside of production, that somebody else can actually own your project, that the bigger the production gets, the farther away it can potentially get from the creator.

DI: 24 Days in Brooks? I have to buy copies if I want one.

DMC: Can you talk about Redux 1? The narrative about the mirror really makes me want to talk about “The Gaze” and all that that implies.

DI: Well I find that fantastic. I love that. For me, that’s where things start getting interesting because in a lot of the experimental work that I make, I put them under this umbrella called, Agenda Sketches. And Redux 1 is a sketch. I knew that I wanted to take excerpts from the longer, larger work of The Art of Autobiography and that’s a story that I just find hilarious and heartbreaking. If it were someone else, I’d be like, ‘oh you poor girl!’ but instead I go, ‘oh shit. That’s me.’ I just thought it was very funny. But in the video process, I knew that I wanted to start with the audio and take that out but the visual composition was all very sketch based. The beauty of sitting in front of the computer with all of those bells and whistles that you can get in your editing software. So none of it was planned out. It was shot with the kind help of the lovely and talented Annie Martin in our little house in Lethbridge, and it was for a show at the University of Lethbridge that I was just invited to be part of, and so I made it specifically for that. I wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for that small show.

DMC: Why did you have someone else tell the story? Can you talk about 3rd person versus 1st person narrative?

DI: That’s an audio clip from The Art of Autobiography. And the reflection you see in the eyeballs is actually a clip also from The Art of Autobiography. So Annie shot the close-up, I set up the camera and she hit record, but it was always my intention to take not only that audio clip, but also that visual clip that one sees in the longer piece. And in terms of 3rd person narrative, that had a lot to do with the production of The Art of Autobiography. I was trying to get my birth mother to participate. She’s a lovely woman, and it just wasn’t her bag. It kind of shifted how I represented her experience or her voice. So I hired Kathy Imre who was also in Welcome to Africville to play the role of my birth mother in the shadows. So with her voice, I’d written that script based on bits of letters from my birth mother, conversations that we had had. So in terms of choosing the 3rd person to tell that story, it fit into The Art of Autobiography so I could make clear that I had come out to my biological mother and she was fine with that more or less and she just embraced it with a loving heart, and I think that anecdote kind of sums up that part of our relationship to suggest that it is quite loving and accepting, even though we don’t know each other that well. So that’s how it turned into the 3rd person to tell the story. It was really just about trying to include her voice in The Art of Autobiography, a lot of creative choices about how to do that. I just think of that story, and really and truly, get thrown back to being in that bar. It was definitely a night to remember.

Dana Inkster is an Alberta-based media artist and cultural producer. The range of works that she has written and directed span a variety of genres, from experimental video art to broadcast television documentaries, and selections have been screened and acquired in all continents. Dana is currently teaching at the University of Lethbridge in the New Media department.