A Conversation w/ Russell Wallace
The following email conversation took place over six weeks or so (in the late summer and fall of 2014) upon the acquisition of Russell Wallace’s The Snows, Oppenheimer Park, Upstream and Waterside (all 2014) for active Video Out Distribution at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Russell’s new works in distribution will be shown as part of an upcoming Recent Acquisitions Screening at the centre this November.
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: You have such an extensive history as a creative artist, musician and educator within a variety of multi-disciplinary and collaborative new media projects and contexts. You have at least three decades of experience as a cultural producer – so it’s hard to believe these four short films are the first to ever be shown publicly! What took you so long?
Russell Wallace: Well, anyone who knows me knows that I get distracted easily and that when I am left without a strong deadline I tend to leave things alone for a long time.
The good thing about going to school is that there are deadlines and those deadlines help me by giving me a bit of structure. I know I am an “adult” and I am supposed to be disciplined with my own work but having family and needing an income usually becomes a focus.
In terms of some of these films, I created a few of them a long time ago on super 8 film and not having access to a super 8 projector left me in the dark so to speak. Once I transferred the film to DVD I was pleasantly surprised by the footage. The shots of Oppenheimer Park in the 80s brought back a lot of memories. My mother volunteered a lot at the missions on Powell Street back in the 60s, 70s and 80s and brought me along for many years so it was a place that was familiar. I also worked at the Firehall Theatre back in the 80s and seen the change in the neighborhood when the harder drugs became more accessible.
The rediscovery of the footage, with access to the newer technologies, inspired me to develop the films a bit more by adding music and re-editing. Back in the 80s creating and recording music and shooting on film were out of reach for many people. Today I can play with editing software, do multitrack recording and produce a film all on a laptop. This creates, on one hand accessibility and limitless time to produce but on the other hand the sense of unfinished works since you can go back and redo edits, change music and add new footage.
With online video channels, access to an audience is much more easier then inviting family to watch films on a super 8 projector.
VO: With the four works coming in, I was struck by a sense of conflated times and cultural paradigms — not just with processes and technologies (super 8 and the digital age) but with a looming (but never directly stated or indicated) simultaneity (or collapse?) of the world before and during European occupation and violence within Coast Salish territories and beyond. Maybe this is something that occurs incidentally in your work as a St’at’imc person concerned with the cultural history of your family and community? Are you thinking about this sort of stuff a lot as you make things?
RW: Intent and context are key words based in traditional works and they are reflected in the work I do whether it is music, film, or writing.
Three of the films deal directly with moving from point A to point B in a sense of linear journeys through time. There are distortions in these time journeys though they exist to change perspective in some way. When I shoot footage I don’t have a sense of intention as to what it will be in the end. This improvisation in some ways limits what I can do later on in the process but these limitations create interesting choices.
With Upstream I set up a camera on the bus and travelled down Hastings Street and found that my focus was determined and limited by the what I could see out the window at any given time. The stops were beyond my control and the camera compositions were totally random but what I saw was that there were many cars and very few people. When I sped the video up the stops became the focus then; we see an empty bus stop, empty cars, an empty lot, a poster in a window and finally ending on a car with a person inside moving fast in a parked car. This feeling of living in a city, that is always demanding our attention somehow, has a frenetic energy. This movement through time put in the context of salmon traveling upstream to spawn creates questions like; if we are spawning then what is it that we are spawning? I am in a big bus with many other travellers and we will be deposited somewhere along the way to continue our journey.
Impulse is another tool that I use in the creative work. The choice to turn on a camera at a certain time and to record events or landscapes may inspire ideas later on. With Waterside – The Crossing I had no idea what would happen if I just turned the camera on when I crossed the bridge on a winter afternoon. The greyness of Vancouver winters made me choose to take out the colour and to play with the contrast. The view of the city is the focus for most of the video. The intent was to show the greyness and the context of crossing a body of water has many connotations. We see a bigger context when we are removed from the situation. In this case the city of Vancouver is present as we cross the water and then becomes hidden in the trees, traffic and buildings. Then again the city obscures the islands and mountains that have been here for many eons.
With impulse we choose to initiate a process, with intent we find a direction and with context we create another layer that offers a different perspective. Am I conscious of these as they happen? Not all the time so surprises and epiphanies can happen when you least expect it.
VO: The Snows is the only work with language — words spoken off camera — with you speaking english and your mother speaking Ucwalmícwts. It’s a poem isn’t it? Could you talk a bit about its origins? Was this something written for the video? Did the video develop out of the text?
RW: The poem the Snows was written in 1999 when I spent a few days in Calgary. It was January and it was cold and snowy. I was doing some work at an artist run centre and was commuting back and forth from the space. I ended up walking most of the time because no taxis would pick me up, they would slow down look at me and drive away. Living in Vancouver I had no good winter jacket so I had layers and the top layer was an old army coat. I got a sense that I did not look like a person with a lot of money and at the time I was also becoming very sick with an internal infection that required some heavy medical attention when I got back to Vancouver. I walked and thought about being denied access to transportation just for the way I looked and walked. I thought about age and how to survive the cold winter. In my language when we ask someone their age we ask, “how many snows are you” which is a poetic way of asking how many winters have you survived. The poem was written with that in mind.
When I got back to Vancouver I asked my mom to translate it and so she did. The following year I was commissioned to write a new piece of music so I decided to use the Snows as the basis for the music. I recorded my mother and then recorded my voice. The other voices include my mom, my sisters and a friend Wayne Lavallee. With the composition and recording complete I presented the song at a conference in Toronto. Years later when I was playing with the idea of video it snowed in Vancouver and that is a rare occasion so I ran outside with my camera at night and shot footage with the poem in mind. I thought about it in a literal sense and went with those images from the poem. I walked around with the traffic and at the end I seen my reflection in the bus stop glass and noticed my age and thought about turning the camera on me since the poem is about age. It was uncomfortable but I tried to remember how it felt when I was sick and had to trudge through the snow and how hard that would be now.
VO: The super 8 footage in Oppenheimer Park was shot in September of 1987. Did part of the impetus for configuring and completing the work now, in 2014, come out of a desire to address, or draw attention to, what’s become of the communities involved with that space over time? The first time I saw the work, I immediately thought of the current tent occupation and the temporary suspension of the annual Powell Street festival in support of tenant rights and social justice in the immediate area.
RW: The impetus to complete the film came from watching the original footage for the first time in 25 years. Originally it was shot for a film class at Capilano College taught by Jim Bizzocchi. I have been in this park ever since I was a child growing up in Vancouver back in the 1970s when my mother Flora Wallace would volunteer much of her time at the missions on Powell street. I played baseball down there in the eighties, worked at the Firehall Arts centre in the 90s and seen the changes occurring in the neighbourhood over the years. To me it is more of a documentation of the people that visited there in 1987 than anything political, although social issues can be inferred from the location. I do see the changes in the neighbourhood as something that is not beneficial to those who have lived down there and made it their community. The development and gentrification of the downtown eastside will erase much history and many communities and that would be a very big loss.
VO: Speaking of sites and history, can you talk about what your relationship to VIVO has been like so far? Have you had much to do with the centre over the years (before you brought this work to Video Out)?
RW: I have worked with VIVO in the last year through the NEC Native Education College’s Digital Longhouse project. The project was to create a number of videos to stream on a website. NEC set up an agreement with VIVO to provide free workshops to youth in shooting, lighting, and editing. Previous to that I have visited and worked with artists who were working on films and videos. Most of that work has been composing music for films directed by Dana Claxton. I remember seeing a number of screenings at the office on Main street over the years. As I had just finished going to Spirit Song Native Theatre school in 1987, I vaguely recall going to some meetings or auditions at the Homer Street office.
VO: I know you’re a very busy guy creatively, so this next question might be a bit of work for you to get through. Can you talk about some of the projects you’re working on now?
RW: I volunteer with different organizations in different capacities for various reasons. I work with the Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast in developing programs and grant proposals. So far we have published a wonderful book of text and art called Salish Seas as well as put on a number of workshops over the years and have collaborated with the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop. I also work with Red Cedar Aboriginal Theatre as an artistic and managing director where we have developed a musical based on the life of jazz legend Mildred Bailey. I work at NEC Native Education College as a culural coordinator where I develop programs that promote culture, arts and language. I sit on the Board of Directors for Warriors Against Violence Society (a community group that seeks to end violence in our families, homes and communities) where I am very active in fundraising efforts for this underfunded but necessary program. Amongst all that I am also a part of a number of professional music ensembles such as Kalan Wi, See You Now, and Language of Rhythm. In my spare time I am a dad and grand dad….well that is what my family tells me.
VO: Thank you Russell for this great chance to learn more about you and your first films in distribution. It’s been a pleasure. We look forward to your next works at Video Out.