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Artworks That Explore How Colonial Legacies, Among Other Things, Extend Their Reach


In the final two interviews for this Women’s History Month conducted by Jacqueline Bishop, Jamaican-blooded women artists Olivia McGilchrist and Beverley Bennett share their thoughts on their works….

Olivia McGilchrist, I first saw your work at the National Gallery of Jamaica in one of its biennials, and found your work both sensual and immersive. As such, it is a real pleasure to have this chance to talk with you. Let’s start off with the obvious, that you work mainly in film, new media and virtual reality (VR). Why are those media so appealing to you?

Thanks for your interest in my work and for giving me this opportunity to share my ideas with readers here; it’s a pleasure. I began with drawing and painting then I discovered sculpture, installation and performance art, but photography and the experience of working in the black & white and colour darkroom caught my attention early on. During my BA in Fine Art, I focused on photography and experimental film, particularly on the possibilities of creating a sequence of images which can be layered and juxtaposed through editing and experimental installations, first with slide projections then super-8 film and video projectors to create multi-screen installations. This eventually led me to virtual reality: A virtual stage for any type of installation I could imagine. The appeal for working in these mediums goes hand in hand with the ideas I am exploring: Attempting to imagine what the future looks like, and more specifically who is present in a future imaginary which I am suggesting and evoking.

In addition, as I reconnected with my Jamaican heritage, I realised that a Caribbean future was largely absent from mainstream VR narratives, or rendered through the lens of the exotic, the other. In a nutshell, after approximately 10 years of pointing a camera to the world around me, I realised that my own representation was not being challenged in the place of my birth and I began questioning my own privileges through my “whitey” series. In turn, this led me to create work about legendary and mythical characters such as River Mumma whom I only recently discovered and was immediately drawn to learn more about. Through working in VR, I became aware of the possibility of juxtaposing real and imaginary characters in 3-D environments, in which audiences can have agency.

In much of the description of yourself you are clear to articulate that you are “white French-Jamaican”. Why is it necessary and important for you to make your identities clear? Do you identify with your French identity as much as you do your Jamaican identity?

Since going back to Jamaica in 2011 and being supported and recognised as a Caribbean artist both locally and internationally, I am aware of the different levels of privilege afforded to me as a white artist working with the latest technologies, holding a European passport which allows me to travel globally. I identify as a Caribbean-European, part-Jamaican and part-French/Swiss (I grew up on the border) and also as someone who was living in London for 10 years, hence being sensitive to the contemporary social and cultural realities in the UK. Living and working in Montral since 2014 has also shaped my artistic perspective.

Maybe now would be a good time for you to give us a sense of your biography — where you were born and grew up, schools you attended, and most importantly, the place/s you consider “home”.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, we lived there until I was four. My father, a young Jamaican diplomat, was then posted to London, UK. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer and died at 42 years old. My mother decided that my younger sister, herself and I would move back to live with her side of the family on the French/Swiss border where I grew up between the ages of seven and nineteen. I attended primary and secondary school, “college” and one year of “lyce” in the town of Ferney-Voltaire (France). I was able to go to Paris for two years of “lyce,” completed my “baccalaurat” in the literary branch, planning to pursue French literature at University. This changed suddenly as my mind locked into the visual realm. I was then able to go to London for my BA in Fine Arts, opening myself to a new world. Following my studies, I worked in the photographic industry, was involved in several artistic and community projects, including alternative cultural networks concerned with creating “temporary autonomous zones” to challenge aspects of the neo-liberal social and cultural landscape. Still in London, I went back to University for my MA (2009-2010) after which I returned to Jamaica (2011-2014) and then moved to Montral where I am completing my PhD.

You are very interested in exploring how “colonial legacies extend their reach to VR technology”. Can you explain what you mean by this and why it is important for you to examine these topics? Jamaica is arguably a postcolonial society, so what is to be gained by examining colonial impact?

I approach VR technologies within a continuum which has led me to research the inherent colonial bias in the mediums of film and video games. My project aims to study VR from intersectional perspectives, whilst addressing my privilege as a white VR artist who gains from new findings in a medium operating within what Canadian scholar Nichole Lowe describes as “registers of whiteness”. Prompted by the question “what might a Caribbean future look like?” in an artist’s open call, I started developing a research-creation project which investigates VR as a decolonial tool through the notion of Caribbean futures. In doing this I am drawing from the submerged histories of the Middle Passage in the aftermath of transatlantic slavery, where much of the archive lies below the sea. I adopt tidaletics as a research-creation method, where water connects my own experience of navigating between Caribbean and European cultures. I aim to highlight the absence of Caribbean and other unrepresented voices in the emerging field of VR-making practice. And yes, though Jamaica became independent in 1962, and since then a lot has changed, there still remains many aspects of Jamaican and Caribbean contemporary life and culture that remain deeply enmeshed with colonial legacies, which inspires my research in these areas.

You are currently a PhD candidate and your thesis titled Virtual ISLANDS has as its formulation “water as a historical space”. Can you explain exactly what you mean by this and the importance of Paul Gilroy and Kamau Brathwaithe’s thinking and scholarship to the work that you are doing?

Paul Gilroy introduces the chronotope of a ship in movement, sailing between the three continents framing what he defines as “Black Atlantic” space: Europe, Africa and the Americas. Alongside the forced movement of black people around this space through ships, Gilroy argues that cultural and aesthetic forms have developed in similarly non-linear movements, continuously evolving through the histories of contact between cultures from previously distant lands. In my doctoral research, I analyse artworks by contemporary artists who engage with these notions in contrasting ways such as John Akomfrah, Arthur Jafa and Sondra Perry.

Virtual ISLANDS: Submersion and Hybrid Identity in Virtual Reality combines a written thesis and a virtual reality and video installation tying together the relationship between Caribbean futures — as an alternative to Western techno-futurism and the possibility of submersion as a postcolonial stance within VR-making practice. Grounded in the violent histories of the transatlantic slave trade my thesis juxtaposes Gilroy’s Black Atlantic with Brathwaite’s tidalectic formulation of water as a historical space in VR creation.

In doing your work, however, aren’t you engaged in a colonial enterprise in the making and naming of new virtual Caribbean island spaces?

My artwork aims to propose decolonial VR-making practices through the facilitation of non-linear and fragmented story arcs more representative of Glissant’s model of future human interaction within immersive environments. I am designing an experiential artistic project with VR, rather than a narrative-led VR experience. My VR artwork offers viewers two forms of engagement where virtual immersion is related to the experience of being in water. Viewers can navigate between virtual islands or remain still amidst a virtual tidal wave, represented through 360 videos and 3-D animations. Inspired by the call and response structure of oral cultures in the Caribbean, my artwork will feature virtual waves composed of sequences of video stills, exploring Brathwaite’s tidalectics through a virtual space where viewers are given agency. In VR, viewers can direct their gaze in any direction as opposed to the linear, static viewing perspective offered by a video screen. Different types of images and sounds (360 video and 3-D models, local and spatial sound) evoke the Caribbean’s complex relationships with water: from geographical dependency to environmental precarity. Inspired by Jamaican and Haitian mythical characters (River Mumma, Mami Wata), Cuban and Dominican Orishas (Oshun, Yemaya) who are all connected to submerged histories, my artwork draws from these Caribbean myths and histories by combining figurative and abstracted visual elements and transposing these into VR. An artistic proposal for introspection and self-reflexivity on the legacies of transatlantic slavery which continue to inform cultural, environmental and technological developments of the current moment are implicated in my work.

You are unequivocal that the body can be a political landscape. You are admirably not shy about confronting your own racialisation. Curiously enough though you do not seem to recognize your gender as a charged political landscape as well. Firstly, can you talk us through how you believe the body can be politicised? Secondly, in positioning white male patriarchy as opposed to the white female body as a source of oppression do you believe you are negating the ways in which the white female body can and is at times a source of oppression on colonised bodies of colour both male and female?

Thanks for this question. Today, my current research requires, first and foremost, tackling its tendency to centre whiteness as a default form of embodiment. This includes questioning and addressing my privilege as a white female artist of mixed heritage who gains from new findings in a medium operating within registers and phenomenologies of whiteness (Ahmed, 2007). This also means signalling the persistent racial inequity of discourses centering whiteness and white privilege in VR and promoting intersectional and inclusive futures for VR beyond the west. In my current research, one of my methodological approaches is an interdisciplinary analysis of Virtual Reality technology, embodiment and empathy. On the one hand I am reading from intersectional feminist writers and sociologists to explore how the body is instrumentalised through gender and race. On the other hand, I am reading from academic research in VR led by psychologists concerned with the affordances of virtual embodiment as a proxy for “being” in another person’s body.

In response to the first part of your question: As I explored the affordance of placing my alter-ego “whitey” in the Jamaican and Caribbean landscape, there was an increasing tension in how I could grapple with the different forms of privilege afforded to me as a white woman with a hybrid cultural background. Perhaps the artwork did not explicitly address some of the issues I was grappling with at the time, and which I continue to explore today: how is the white female body read as both a source of oppression and one that is oppressed? In which contexts does this operate on both registers and what is my position as a white female artist when addressing these themes through my work?

By placing “whitey” in the Jamaican landscape, my intention was to evoke the complex histories of oppression embodied by both white male and white female bodies in the Caribbean, to highlight the enduring presence of white privilege and the relative absence of a conversation where gender, race and class intersect in a meaningful way. I may not have made this clear enough through the work and remain open to discuss how this can be better articulated. I pay particular attention to the critiques of white feminism by American scholars bell hooks and Angela Davis, both important voices in Black studies and feminist scholarship from the early 1980s to the present. I am inspired by the critical race theorist Kimberl Crenshaw’s interdisciplinary scholarship combining legal and black feminist studies. In TEDWomen 2016: The urgency of intersectionality — a talk available online — Crenshaw introduces the court case against a black woman that led her to coin the term “intersectionality” to describe the triple challenge faced by many black women in America. Reading these scholars has allowed me to grasp my own privilege as a white woman in Jamaica. I have more work to do in terms of reading from Caribbean feminist perspectives, which I plan to do in the next stages of my research.

I wonder if you can talk a little about the reception of film and new media as visual art practice in Jamaica. Do you find that these mediums are readily accepted as legitimate art practices on the island?

Between 2011-2014, when I was based in Jamaica full-time after having just completed an MA in Photography/Fine Art at the London College of Communication (UK), I was really inspired to see how open Jamaican artists and art lovers were to film and new media works. This did not directly translate in accessible options for the production and exhibition of new media works for the majority of artists who might be interested in exploring these mediums, which require both personal access to the necessary equipment to create the work, but also an infrastructure in which the work can be shown and understood as artwork, over and beyond the medium’s intrinsic properties. Perhaps there needs to be a larger conversation with other Caribbean artists working in these mediums, around this question since I have been primarily based in North America working more consistently with new media.

Is there a market there for the kind of work that you do?

Very good question! Yes, the artworld and the art market have embraced media-based artworks, however the collector base for these is smaller than for more traditional artforms. I remain confident, though, that since many artists are now co-creating platforms and networks for the distribution of their work, this will hopefully become clearer for those wishing to work in these media. I am currently looking for better ways to distribute my own work, as I have a tendency to focus on exploration and production and less on how the work will be made accessible to wider audiences.

Finally, what is the thing that drives your artistic projects?

Thanks for asking this question! When I began creating artwork back in high school in France my influences were painters such as Antoni Tpies, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat. As I discovered the work of experimental, avant-garde film-makers such as Luis Buuel, Jean Cocteau, Pedro Almodovar and Andrei Tarkovsky, I began thinking about both film and photography as creative spaces in which I could start creating more immersive environments. Photography took over for some time, and then video and video-installation which led me to VR. I have always felt connected to the notion of world-building, whether through a pen, brush, camera lens or 3-D game engine. The motivation driving me is to question how these worlds I create or co-create are meaningful to the viewer/participant and what they might learn or take from it, were they inspired through the experience of being there? I think in the final analysis it’s the question of meaningfulness which drives each one of my projects.

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