Profiles on Practice: Christina Battle

NK: Hello, my name is Nadia Kurd and I’m the host of Profiles on Practice, a podcast that examines the life and work of women artists of colour in Canada.

CB: My name is Christina Battle and I’m a media artist and curator based in Edmonton. My practice looks at the complexity that surrounds disaster. I’m especially interested in the ways that communities support one another and provide one another support during crisis or times of crisis and pulling from that altruism as a way to help strengthen community before disaster strikes.

NK: Could you talk a little bit more about your background and training as an artist? 

I come to artistic practice a little bit in a roundabout way I think. Although I’ve been working as an artist for quite some time now for over 15, close to 20 years, I think so in some ways, maybe it’s not so roundabout at this point. I originally studied environmental biology in university and undergrad, and really was invested. And I think a lot of what I was learning in environmental sciences continues to be present in the work that I do as an artist. But I didn’t know anything about artistic practice or contemporary art at that time. And soon after I graduated with my undergrad degree, I sort of tried for a little while to get work as a biologist even though looking back at it now, in hindsight it kind of makes me laugh thinking about that because I’m not sure that I actually had an idea of what a biologist really was or what that kind of work would look like. But I did try for a little bit and kind of failed. And then I decided that I would treat myself to taking classes through continuing ED at the U of A actually after I graduated in just things that I enjoyed. So, I took a scriptwriting course and really loved it, it was a filmmaking and screenwriting-focused course. And you know, I’d always really loved movies and was really interested in especially independent cinema and the way that narratives unfold and storytelling that takes place and cinema and it kind of stuck.

And then I decided to go to Ryerson, I moved to Toronto to study Film Studies, which was a hands-on sort of production-focused filmmaking two-year program, it was part-time. And it was at this time, so this was in, maybe I’m dating myself—this was in the late nineties, early two-thousands. It was at this moment where in filmmaking things were beginning to become digital but hadn’t quite yet. A lot of my learning about film and my introduction to film was really analog based, very hands-on. You know, editing on flatbeds, which I still really value that way of thinking about filmmaking, moving image, and especially about time, because it really forces you when you’re editing things linearly on a flatbed at least it forces you to think about time from beginning to end. You know, you can’t jump around and edit and collage things together, how you would digitally now. You sort of have to really sit with time and think about it when you’re working in that way. So, I feel really grateful that I sort of entered in at that moment.

 When I’ve finished my final year at Ryerson we had just started to move into digital editing and then it very quickly kind of took over so I kind of got to see both worlds and an introduction into two. And then really at that point, because that filmmaking program wasn’t entirely artistic in the way that I think I sort of came to know and love experimental film and cinema. I didn’t fit in super well, it was quite narrative-focused like I think the goal, a lot of my peers that were in the program was to get jobs working in the film television industry to go to Hollywood, that sort of relationship with moving image. I very quickly found the experimental filmmaking community in Toronto kind of by accident. I became a member at the local film co-op, which is called Lift, and then that was when I really started to be introduced to understanding that film and video were art forms. I don’t think I hadn’t really thought of it that way before.

Like the idea that there was this relationship between movies and like an art gallery or a conversation that was sort of separated from these larger sorts of popular culture Hollywood realms is pretty new to me. And that’s kind of where it all began. I sort of look at my segway into becoming an artist as being really DIY. Like it comes out of this sort of scrappy, piecing it together and really community-driven, collaborative way of working.

NK: Does your background in environmental biology play an important role in your work in any way?

CB: Yeah, I think just as a person it instilled in me this interest and care about land and the environment. I sometimes forget that you know, I was really young in undergrad, so it’s kind of wild to me that in a way some of the things that I was learning about how to manipulate the genes of plants as an example, you know, I was doing it at like 17, 18 years old and thinking that that was normal. So, it really introduced me to this different way of thinking about our relationship to the land, to plants, to animals. That definitely shapes the way that I come to think about artistic practice and moving image work, it also comes in primarily or often through the subject as well.

In a lot of my work, I’m invested in thinking about disaster and even though I think I’ve only really, it’s been more recently that I’ve articulated that interest that I say to other people that my work is about disaster, as an example. It’s really been there from the beginning. I’m not sure why, like, I’m not sure why it is that my films, even the earlier ones were really taking a lot of that on other than to say that sort of what I came out of knowing, right. That’s the subject and the stories that I came to want to start to tell. So yes, it definitely comes up.

Although I think often what I tell people that my work is about disaster. They sort of assume it’s about like environmental collapse or natural disaster, which it certainly is on some level, and sort of every work that’s where that environmental biology degree comes in. But really, I’m interested in thinking about the complexity of disaster. So not just, you know, the tornado or the hurricane, but all of those complex under weavings that are a part of those incidences. So that might be the way that different communities deal with crisis or are prepared or not prepared to deal with crisis because of economic, political, social reasons, to the ways that governments respond, take advantage of, manipulate disaster in times of crisis.

I started thinking about disaster as being more complex than just the sort of environmental collapse or disaster.

NK: It has a bigger social, cultural implication. 

CB: Yeah. And all of these things, the social, the cultural, the environmental, all of them are related. And, you know, we see that through government policy. We see it just through the way that we even come as individuals to understanding disaster or expecting it, which I think for most of us, at least in the Western world is really shaped by Hollywood movies, for better or for worse, often for worse. And so, I’m interested in that dynamic of how it is that we think about our relationship to the land and the complexities of community and media propaganda that all feed into it.

NK: So, my question to you is I’m really struck by the amalgamation of image and video installation and social practice in your work. Could you talk a little bit about that and how you envision audiences engaging or approaching your art? 

CB: Yeah, it’s a really good and complex question. I think I’ve been practicing for quite a while now and my artistic practice has shifted for sure and it has become, we were just talking earlier about interdisciplinary, and I think that that’s true. It’s become more interdisciplinary over time. Part of that is just because of how I have come to experience other artists’ work and have artistic experiences as a viewer or as an audience member and how I’m impacted by that and by other strategies and tactics that different artists work with.

Part of it, I think comes from thinking about disaster in this sort of more complex way and trying to reconcile or work through different strategies for tackling different parts of the complexity. So sometimes film and video make sense to tell certain stories for me, sometimes something that’s more two-dimensional makes sense, sometimes something more relational with participants makes sense. It depends on that element or layer disaster that I’m tackling in my work, but I also think a lot of it comes from coming to artistic practice through this really DIY community-based way, right? Where, you know, I never went to art school until I went to grad school. That was the first time where I was introduced to art history. I’d never taken an art history class before, so I kind of didn’t know the ways that maybe we’re expected to think about making artistic work or not, or the way that those disciplines in academies are often separated or siloed, that was really unfamiliar to me.

I deliberately wanted to do a Master of Fine Arts because I wanted to be able to take what I was doing more seriously. I recognized in myself as an emerging experimental filmmaker at that time that I didn’t have a background in understanding the history of experimental film. I was learning a lot from the community I was a part of, but I didn’t know a lot of that, those stories or where things came from or why it was that the history of experimental cinema sort of operated in a particular way and I really wanted to take that part of what I was doing more seriously. So, I deliberately went to grad school to try to think about what it means to be an artist. And then I was lucky that I ended up at a grad school in a program that was interdisciplinary. So, at the master’s level, at least you know, we were I think officially signed up through particular departments or areas, but it was really up to us what type of work we made. We had access to all of the tools that every area had access to and every student had access to. And then a lot of the coursework that we did was focused on contemporary theory and engaging with contemporary conversation, not very specific to the formal classifications of different areas or art. That sort of opened me up to thinking about the potential of making work that expanded beyond cinema and thinking about cinema as something that takes up space that occupies space in a gallery, as opposed to necessarily just—I don’t want to say just—as opposed to necessarily being presented in the darkness of the cinema, which I do also love. And some works do operate in that way for me but being able to sort of sit with the number of ideas simultaneously in space as if you were, is also really exciting to me. And I do think it comes from being situated as being particularly within art school, in that sense.

NK: Can you maybe talk about a specific artwork or project where maybe different elements, different genres of art you were able to combine, and maybe a little bit about any sort of ideas that came from participation or audience feedback?

CB: Sure, this is a great question because I think I also am learning a lot about how I’m comfortable with engaging with different styles or methods or modes of looking, even now. I’ve even come to thinking about my engagement with participatory practice, like “participatory practice” in air quotes really recently. I’ve never articulated that before. I always sort of thought the way that I was working, which always did incorporate working with community, you know, organizing film screenings in that sense, I guess I was taking on the role of curator. I hadn’t articulated that for a really long time. It just seemed like a natural way of working with the community of peers and I think that really came out of, because experimental film, and filmmaking, in general, is a collaborative practice. Right? The way that I make film and video is very much individualized. You know, I don’t really work with other people. I do my own camera work and editing and so on, but the experience of making film and video is very collaborative. It goes quite hand in hand with that medium or genre of making.

So, working with community and sort of bouncing ideas off one another and sharing other artists’ work as a part of practice came pretty organically to me coming out of that community. And I think maybe where I’ve sort of expanded working on that more recently is taking on that role of being someone who deliberately is making works that others will participate in. Whereas before I think I thought about it more as just a relationship with viewers and collaborating with viewers as a way, even for me, to come to terms with different artistic things that I was doing or be comfortable with them. Now, I think I’m a little bit more deliberate about that. So, one example where I feel like I took on a number of different methods and modes of working [is] a recent exhibition that was in Toronto, which you had referred to earlier in our chat, Bad Stars, which was curated by Emily Fitzpatrick at Trinity Square Video in Toronto, I think in 2018, my sense of time is not that great.

And that was the first exhibition I’ve done when through conversations with Emily, I think I did also realize like, “Ah ha! my work is really about disaster.” I’m not sure if I had said that really out loud much before that. And through conversations with her, I was able to sort of work through this like, “What does this mean? What does disaster mean and how is it that I come to it?” At the same time, I concurrently was working on a PhD that was sort of forced me to have to articulate these things. So, it was like great timing to be able to try to put some of this theory into practice. And I, of course, work with time-based imagery, I work with film and video. I knew there would be something video-driven in the work, but I was also really interested in incorporating other people’s voices just understanding that disaster is something that is so complex and is felt so differently by others and in other communities as well. That work also included a collaborative project where I emailed, I don’t know a lot of people. I think 30 responded or 40 responded and I asked them to submit an image of something that spoke to them as being representative of disaster. So, I wanted to try to portray the idea that disaster means different things for different individuals. And then also thinking about in visual culture, how it is that we come to a sort of imagine what disaster looks like, which is for most of us really shaped by media.

I remember coming across this statistic early on that the number of, I’m pretty sure it was an American statistic, but the number of Americans who have actually experienced disaster firsthand is very low. So, I was really interested in how, you know, we have this sense of what disaster is even without having a direct relationship or experience to it. So, sort of extending that invitation to others to share an image that summarized disaster for themselves was one way for me to try to introduce this larger, broader conversation into the gallery. And those images were presented along with the emails that people sent back on one wall. And then another way to encourage this broader opening up of dialogue was to invite a number of guest speakers into the gallery to present their work and working through and thinking through disaster. And that was a great way essentially too for me to learn from others about how it is that they are experiencing and thinking about disaster and then doing that alongside a group of viewers or audience members.

NK: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your curatorial practice and kind of elaborate on some of the motivations and considerations and I don’t want to say methodology, but maybe methodology.

CB: Maybe it’s all methodology. Again, that’s a term curator that I only recently started using to describe myself, I feel like. Even though when I say recently, maybe it’s been a number of years now. I think I’ve been curating for as long as I’ve been an artist. Again, I really think this comes out of coming out of this DIY experimental film community where it’s quite normal for filmmakers to share and show one another’s work. As to why that is, is maybe a great question. I always attributed it to the reality that the history of experimental film is quite separate from like a gallery or like a proper gallery artistic practice in that because works are dependent on being screened in cinemas or with using technology, which often in contemporary practice like galleries aren’t equipped to do even to this day, you might be surprised to hear.

So, because of that, artists took it upon themselves to just show their own work and program or curate a program of artists’ work that included their own along with others. I used to always think about how, at least in the United States, a lot of filmmakers, it’s not unusual for them to sort of go on tour like a band would. So, they’d you know, have a film and they want to show it, they want to screen it, share it with others. And they’d call up their friend in whatever states that they have nearby and organize a tour for themselves where they show up at the local cinémathèque or the DIY screening venue and have a night where they show their work. And often that is their work working presented along with other works of people from where they’re from.

So, it’s very much like a natural thing that happened when I started making film works because I was so involved in artist-run culture in Toronto, through my jobs, as well as an artist. I also was just organizing and putting together screenings along with that. And one of the first collectives that I was a part of was a group of friends. We went by the name of ‘The League’ and we were for emerging women, experimental filmmakers in a community that was very much not filled with other, you know, there, of course, there were a lot of other women filmmakers, but that was definitely not the dominant trend in experimental cinema. We sort of banded together as this group of experimental women filmmakers who just wanted to do stuff ourselves. And we have a bunch of manifestos somewhere out there. I have a bunch of them in the basement I think, but essentially what we did was we put together events or happenings. I feel like I’m recounting all of these stories with like a question mark at the end because we were active for a number of years, but it was so fun, and it was really just friends hanging out and doing stuff and taking control over the things that we were doing.

I mean, I think we were aware of what it was we were doing, but we didn’t necessarily define it in a way that I think a lot of artists do now, or a lot of collectives do now. It was much more spontaneous and fun. Essentially, we just hosted a lot of parties I think, where people come together and watch films. We would make film loops, these were like 16-millimeter film loops and we would make them somewhat collaboratively in response to a theme or an idea, or a conversation that we were having among the four of us. And then we would present them as sort of visual backdrops to this sort of happening or event. And we also did a lot of curating as a part of that, where we would show other artist’s films, put them together, and make a night out of it. I think I’ve been curating from the beginning. The way that I come to curating now really is influenced by that experience. I think of myself in my role as a curator, as a collaborator, and as a facilitator, so someone who can help artists see whatever ideas it is that they have through.

Also, now that I sort of curate more in art galleries that are a little bit more institutional, I see myself as an advocate to help translate those ideas of the artist onto the workers or those in the gallery, but also to advocate on behalf of what it is that artists want to do. A lot of the work that I curate, especially now doesn’t necessarily fit so easily into genres that sometimes galleries are familiar with or mediums that they’re familiar with. So, you know, social practice, participatory practice, they’re not necessarily objects that are created and shipped to a gallery and then just installed. And with that, I think comes up the need to have a lot of conversation between the artists and those that are working in institutions. And so, as a curator, I sort of see my role as a moderator between those two things. And I see it as a collaboration in the sense that I’m bringing artists together to work individually, but also to share their work alongside one another and really fostering those connections and conversations.

One of the more recent exhibitions that I curated, which was here in Edmonton at the Mitchell art gallery last year, wasn’t that long ago, it feels like forever ago, this year. It got shut down right before, or a little bit early because of COVID so my memory of it is hard to know the timeline. But with that exhibition is really important to me to introduce these four artists to one another, who had been working sort of independently, individually, but all of their practices had this sort of overlap that I thought they would really value just knowing one another. So as a part of that curatorial project, we did a lot of work where we had conversations as a collective group about what it was, what it meant to be making work in this way, what their expectations of institutions were for showing work like this, and strategies that we might come up with together to engage in with communities as a group and as a collective.

That exhibition was called Grasping at the Roots and it was at the Mitchell Art Gallery here in Edmonton, which is a part of MacEwan University.

NK: You collaborate with a number of artists, such as Serena Lee. Could you discuss your process and what considerations are made in these projects?

CB: Yeah, so I think almost always I have some sort of collaborative and/or a collective project on the go in addition to my individual practice. I get a lot out of working with others and having conversations with others, I sort of see this difference between collaborative work and collective work—I think I’m still working through what the differences are. But even though I enjoy working in both modes and models, collaboration is something that I really enjoy as an artist. There’s something about the shared responsibility that I find really freeing. Not having to have everything that I do, not having to stand behind everything that I do from just my own voice but being able to sort of share that with another. I’ve been collaborating for a number of years. I totally forget for how long. I think since 2016 with Serena Lee and our collaboratory project is called Shattered Moon Alliance. Which kind of started, like the name was a bit of a joke and we’re good friends and have known one another for quite a while and always had these conversations about what it means to be a practicing artist, and how it is that we wanted to be practicing artists. A lot of it also was, you know, a lot of griping and complaining about different art scenes and where we saw ourselves fitting in or not fitting in. And then sort of eventually, I guess, we decided to formalize that griping and complaining and sharing, into a collaboration.

I think we began thinking it was going to be just one project probably, but it then has been this ongoing collaboration for at least four or five years where we haven’t lived in the same place for quite a while. So, it’s always been collaborating at a distance, which I think is also a really unique way for me to collaborate with someone. I hadn’t really done that before. But I think a lot of the project, a lot of the strength in the project comes out of the fact that we are collaborating across distance. So, it really shifts the way that we think about making work together. We talk a lot about wanting to sort of questioning and like what it means to make work for a gallery space or the so-called white cube, you know, our relationships to objects and where our comfort and discomfort sort of lies within making like tangible, physical things to share with others in space.

And because we collaborate at a distance, I think it offers a sort of really interesting tension within those conversations because we’re not working in a studio together where we can just make a bunch of stuff and then present it, so often there’s a lot of unknown. And then we kind of just come together in the moment for an exhibition and it’s very spontaneous and we just sort of figure it out. And there’s something really freeing about working that way that I’m more than certain that I would not be comfortable doing on my own.

NK: Thank you, Christina Battle and podcast collaborator, Femme Art Review, audio engineering by Riaz Mehmood, and music by Kevin MacLeod. The Profiles on Practice podcast was generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Originals initiative.

Episode transcribed by Adi Berardini. Femme Art Review, 2021.