Go West

New media and digital innovation pushes across the prairies and beyond

Deanna Radford - November 10, 2011
Go West

Though not as often in the spotlight as their counterparts in the East, Western Canadian new-media festivals and collectives have spent the last decades reshaping the landscape of their region’s cultural development for the 21st century. 

Festivals such as send + receive and the recently created Memetic (both from Winnipeg) as well as Signal + Noise and New Forms (both from Vancouver) have strong track records of presenting innovative Canadian and international electronic music, exploratory sound and digital art. Meanwhile, media arts centres such as Video Pool (Winnipeg), Paved New Media (Saskatoon), the Banff Centre (Alberta), and VIVO, W2 Media Café, Western Front (all Vancouver), to name but a few, have been instrumental to the development of these innovative and often burgeoning art forms in their own right. 

It's time to survey Canada’s new-media western front, highlighting some of the institutions and cultural innovators whose efforts are bringing the ever-evolving worlds of the electronic arts to vast and often geographically isolated parts of the country.


Founded by a group of eight artists in 1973, Vancouver’s Western Front is one of the oldest digital arts collectives in the West, let alone anywhere in the country. An interdisciplinary centre at its core, it has grown to feature media art, new music and performance programs, according to Media Arts Curator Sarah Todd.  “Sound is actually a really interesting thing because it has traveled through all these programs at different times in all these different ways," she says. "It actually has been a unifying force.” 

Todd shares the history of the centre; “Western Front started in 1973 when Vancouver was a real frontier town. We were really way out there. And I think that's why artists like Eric Metcalfe and Hank Bull and Kate Craig and Glenn Lewis, the founders of this place gravitated towards digital, [and] at that point analog media of all kinds, because it was easy to distribute, because we were far away. So it was really important to use things like sound, use telecommunications technology and radio and all of those things so we could be part of a bigger conversation. And I think that's something we're still striving to do.” 


Western Front's newly renovated sound studio
Photographer: Ben Wilson


In Alberta, places like the government-run Banff Centre and its New Media Institute (BNMI), established in 1995, have only bolstered the curation and presentation of multimedia work, as well as the fostering of new communities.

BNMI offers programs to “support creative pluralism, different modes of inquiry, the production of new work, and the engagement of artists, producers, technologists, and researchers with the aesthetics and culture of new media.” This go-to place for artists from across the country enables them to deepen their own research and activities and then return with that to their home base. 

Another two provinces eastward, Winnipeg’s, send + receive has steadily grown into a pillar of the electronic arts on the Prairies.  Originally a project of Video Pool Media Arts Centre in Winnipeg, send + receive was founded by artist, musician and curator Steve Bates in 1998. 

The festival takes its name from the mechanical device called a transceiver, which can both send and receive information. Inspired by the function of radio waves as sonic canvas, as well by innovations in experimental music, sound and media art and other forms of digital expression, send + receive was designed to fill the chasm between unexplored new art forms and Winnipeg’s geographic isolation. 

Moving into its thirteenth year this fall, the festival thrives. Artistic Director and sound-artist Crys Cole says, “send + receive fills a very important space in the Prairies. The Prairies of Canada are often simply overlooked. Artists don’t tour through the prairies or consider visiting very much. Due to the sprawling nature of Canada, foreign artists are drawn to the coasts and the major cities and so, send + receive has created a much needed forum for international sound artists to be invited to our region.” 


Sound of Vision exhibit at Semai Gallery, Michel Germain, not half at send + receive 12 in 2010
Photographer: Robert Szkolnicki


A year after send + receive was founded in Winnipeg, another significant festival emerged in British Columbia that has gone on to usher in a new generation of digital artists.  The brainchild of Malcolm Levy and Jarrett Martineau, Vancouver's New Forms Festival was born at the turn of the century as a base for its founders’ artistic pursuits upon returning to Vancouver after academic studies in Montreal. 

“We felt that there was a need and there were a lot of the artists in the community who were all very much wanting it, for lack of a better word,” says Levy. “They were all very interested in it. Now, there had been different festivals around media art and electronic arts that had happened at different times in history on the west coast. This is not the only one that ever existed or something like that. But at the time that we were beginning the festival, this was the only one.” 


Headquarters for NFF, 2011
Courtesy of New Forms Festival


Understanding these organizations as important cultural greenhouses at the regional level helps in navigating how they work and cultivate new talents together. As a network of western Canadian entities, these organizations are currently strong enough to both share artists and infrastructure, as well as pursue international interests. 

“As with most art forms, things are becoming increasingly international, but at the same time people are looking inward at their own cities and cultures and how to speak around that, and how to talk within that,” says New Forms’ Malcolm Levy. “And I think it's very important to sort of see both those worlds. At one point it’s about the community within and nourishing that. And at another point it's about everything else that's happening too.” 

Sarah Todd notes the 2010 Western Front symposium, Noise Not Noise, was created with these layers of collaborative possibilities in mind.

Noise Not Noise was an organization-wide project, so all of the areas of Western Front worked on it.  I think it has been really indicative of the way that sound has been dealt with here. It's part of the fabric of Western Front is. It was also this way for us to engage with people outside of Vancouver in this conversation as well. That's something that we're really embracing, this really wide idea of what distribution can be: how to stimulate this discourse, especially in the media arts. I think it's really important.”

The concept of collaboration has now become part of send + receive’s mandate as well. Cole says, “I think it is really important for send + receive to bring international artists to the prairies. It’s a unique opportunity for eminent artists to come to a smaller prairie centre to not only present their work but also to discuss and educate through artist talks and workshops. The idea is to stimulate the creative community and expand our audience’s general daily experience. 

“Visiting artists interact with the local scene, other visiting artists and the audience and get an intimate and personal experience. I have found this to be true of many festivals around the world that take place in more isolated places. It allows for personal exchanges and real dialogue.”

The enormous expanse that is Canada offers a unique terrain for all of these forms, with space for diversity and bringing truly inspiring results. No matter the location, presenters, centres and festivals of electronic music, media and digital art are essential in promoting technologies and innovation. In providing spaces for dynamic exchange and creation, digital arts institutions are serving as pods of creativity, creating networks that facilitate new models of artistic practice over time.

Deanna Radford is a freelance writer and poet living in Montréal. She's a former contributing organizer of send + receive and is a member of the .dpi editorial committee at Studio XX. She maintains her blog here: http://deannaradford.blogspot.com/

Blog photo by Robert Szkolnicki @send+receive 13


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