Kelowna's Alternator finds 'abodigital' age in Newfoundland artist's work
It’s National Aboriginal Day when Jordan Bennett picks up the phone and dials in for an interview en route to Edmonton.
A fine arts graduate whose hoping to do his master’s degree imminently, he’s already mastered the unthinkable, earning a living solely off his visual art and spinning electronic music. And he has been award the Newfoundland and Labrador Art Council’s Emerging Artist of the Year for 2012, booking a solo show called aboDIGITAL currently in Kelowna's Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art.
“The concept for the show came about by looking at how aboriginal people in Canada have been adapting so well to technology and using technology,” said Bennett.
Hearing others joke he is the most digital aboriginal person they’ve ever met, he created a series of paintings and installations documenting his own attempts to explore his culture via various media.
Kelowna’s show at the Alternator Gallery is not only the first to show the work, but will likely be the only cohesive installation of aboDIGITAL he shows as it will then piecemeal out with a set of wooden turntables going on the six-stop Beat Nation tour starting at the Vancouver Art Gallery. At the same time, a skull sculptural mixed media piece will head to Winnipeg.
One look at the work and it’s easy to spot the genius in its genesis.
A Mi’kmaq by birth, Bennett is one of Newfoundland’s young aboriginals trying to recreate a heritage all but forgotten, and he’s turned to social media and Google to do so.
Using Facebook sites that give the meaning and phonetic pronunciation of words in his language, he’s slowly learning a mother tongue likely different from his ancestors.
Googling Mi’kmaq words, he's discovered one can have them read back in three different voices—a female voice, and those of a male elder or a young person, like himself.
It’s one of the inspirations behind a string of Google main-page images in his show, a suite of the most Googled phrases about aboriginal people in Canada.
All of this said, Bennett doesn’t think of himself as an aboriginal artist.
“I want people to look at it and think it’s not that I’m an aboriginal artist, but that I’m an artist that is aboriginal. If you think of an aboriginal artist, you expect this certain formula. I want to do art that people look at and read into it. I want the wow factor and I don’t want people to look at it and think: Oh, he’s aboriginal.”
As such, each piece reflects his own journey through various aspects of the culture he’s uncovering.
Casts of several animal skulls—he didn’t want to use the actual skulls to respect the animals—show off a multimedia display of what that animal’s life is like, for example. He’s researched the rods and cones in each animal’s eyes, making a video installation of what each would see.
The piece includes an audio feed of the scenes in the video; although, by far the most interesting audio in the show stems from Turning Tables, that set of wooden turntables.
Bennett saw how DJs had revived vinyl and uses the piece to draw analogies between the return to records and young First Nations people trying to recapture and rebuild the stories and sounds of the culture stripped from them by colonization.
Taking a tree to craft the turntables—two record players with mixers to the uninitiated—he fastened the wooden decks such that one plays an audio stream of him learning to sound out words in Mi’qmaq, while the other, on first blush, is silent.
“In Newfoundland, the Beothuk people were completely wiped out within the last 120 years,” he said. “…That’s where the first European settlement would have happened, so we had to travel across Canada to build on other cultural traditions and legends and adapt them to what little culture there was left of the Mi’kmaq who intermarried with the Beothuk."
Just as one can look at a piece of wood and see the old story of the tree, technology can be used to revive old cultural stories and components like these words; and the tree itself, in a sense, rises again providing the sound of a needle hitting vinyl.
“The record player was such a pinnacle form, a piece of technology that was in everybody’s home and allowed everybody to hear sound from all around the world. Then that died out and eight tracks came in, then cassettes, then CDs and then now CDs are pretty much gone and we’ve re-adapted this whole technology and brought vinyl back to life—but in a different style,” he said.
Bennett gives the tree new life, just as he is giving his language new life by using technology to research and revive the lost sounds.
“It’s that whole if a tree falls in the forest thing,” he explains.
Bennett got into DJing through a friendship he foraged with Bear Witness from A Tribe Called Red, a First Nations instrumental hip hop electronic group from Ottawa.
To witness this incredible show, stop by the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in the Rotary Centre for the Arts before July 28.