Using Technology to enable community

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

There is often a bit of benign mischief in the artwork of Linda Duvall, who lives and works at her art on an acreage about forty-five minutes southwest of Saskatoon. She is considered a ‘new media’ artist, and also calls herself a visual artist.

According to Timothy Dallett – Artistic Director of paved Art + New Media, the Saskatoon art centre and gallery on 20th Street – “New media in art practice refers to art that uses information or communication technology as its primary medium or as an integral component of the experience engendered by the work.” These technologies might include the Internet, video, audio, computers, telephone software, satellites, and so on.

Within Linda Duvall’s artistic explorations are pieces that use video, voice mail, audio, and medical imaging. Linda also incorporates intervention, interaction, eavesdropping, gossip, dinner conversations, found material, projection, and more. Duvall defines new media as “media that is familiar to me.”

Every piece she creates is different in concept than the one before. She is part sociologist, part story-teller, part conceptualist and social animator; she and her artwork act as catalyst for, and archaeologist of the ephemeral.

Underlying most of Duvall’s work is a concern expressed in a statement relating to her piece in the “Future Cities” exhibition in Hamilton. Duvall says, “When all cities have McDonald’s, Gap, and Home Depot, it becomes more urgent to enable citizens . . . to recognize their own individuality.” She’s interested in local truths. But she’s also interested in lies, or truth’s relativity.

A recent piece, shown at the Mendel Art Gallery and at two locations in Ontario in 2005 is Enough White Lies to Ice a Wedding Cake. ‘Talking-heads’ of several people are seen and heard simultaneously on several television monitors dispersed throughout a gallery. These talkers are all spinning lies extrapolated from a story they’ve been prompted with. They are responding to an off-camera, unheard questioner, as if they are characters in the prompting story. The images on the screens jump-cut from one head to another and the characters ‘jump’ from one screen to the other randomly. Each is convincing in his/her story. The viewer wonders: Are these truths or lies? In another room a video plays, showing other subjects being put through a polygraph test. But what makes this art?

A simple answer might be: art is what artists do. And many artists are interested in defining new territories for art to reach into. At the least, we can say that Duvall is dealing with narrative, and the piece is using familiar technology to ask questions, such as, ‘How do you define truth?’ Narrative and questioning occur in most arts – dance, painting, music, drama, opera, song, etc.

Another inventive piece is “Bred in The Bone,” made in 2002. Two image-making technologies join in this project – standard photography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a medical diagnostic machine that looks inside the body to render tissue visible. Enlarged MRI photographs of fragments of Duvall’s internal body parts are laid over photographs of her genetic family. The family photo is made partly visible through innumerable pinholes poked in the medical photographs. This image sandwich is laminated, and then suspended and lit from behind, replicating the viewing procedures of the original medical images. This is a new and ‘penetrating’ concept of the self-portrait, impossible to render without modern MRI technology.

Duvall has a degree in Sociology and English (Carleton). She also has a Bachelor of Education (Queen’s), an Art degree (Ontario College of Art and Design), and an MFA (University of Michigan.)

The sociologist-observer appears in her art, for example, in the concept of “Techno-Trance” a video study in facial close-ups of video game players. The face of each player is recorded from the point-of-view of the video screen he is focussing on to play the game. In the gallery, each of these faces is featured individually on one of six television monitors. It is fascinating and unnerving to watch the absorption and rapture of the players. Video gaming is often anti-social activity. But here Duvall has made it public, has turned the event inside out, to make the player into the watched, the studied. This piece came to her when observing her son’s absorption in video games. Duvall says, “I have to take in the current environment, and that environment is media and technology based – these are more a part of our language today than painting is.”

Linda-as-social-catalyst emerges in “Face to Face,” a 2005 piece which staged, for strangers, a potluck dinner. A diverse range of people from the same community were invited to share conversation and food. Guests were seated so that each person carried on a conversation with one other person for ten minutes, then shifted seats to converse with a different person, and so on throughout the event. The event actualized the underlying belief of Duvall and her collaborators – that one of the best ways to create understanding across diverse parts of a community and break down barriers of mistrust is for individuals to meet face to face in a friendly, non-adversarial and equal environment. Duvall’s collaborators were U of S psychology professor Lorri Sippola and multi-media artist Lorelie Sarauer.

Linda says, “I’m facilitating. I organize a situation so people can be participants. I create a shared experience.” This is a radical departure from the notion of the artist as a producer of objects to embellish a living room, a corporate wall, a building exterior, a cinema screen, or an MP3 player. Her work is often ephemeral. In fact, she is happy if her pieces disappear once enacted. In many of her pieces, the ‘viewer’ is no longer a passive bystander. The participant – who may not be an artist or even an art appreciator – is creating the work, is experiencing either the artistic process or the interaction with the artistic concept.

Linda Duval completes one piece a year, and has done so since the early nineties This consistency has resulted in shows or events in many centres, including Toronto, Hamilton, Peterborough, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Kelowna, Barcelona, Westport in Ireland, and Guatemala City. Combining the fees from these shows with occasional grants from the Saskatchewan Arts Board and Canada Council, infrequent partnerships with corporations such as SaskTel, and income for mini-residencies enables her to fund her art and make a living. “It’s not a good living. It’s sometimes hit or miss,” she says. Sessional teaching income from U of S helps too.

Duvall’s romance with technology pushes expenses up. She says, “You need equipment, but it is getting cheaper.” She takes advantage of Christmas sales to purchase several DVD payers for $50 each. But this is only one of the technologies she may use. Owning her own equipment makes her shows more trouble-free. When sending a show to a gallery, she ships the equipment already set up in a package. “The gallery can just open the package, plug it in and run the piece. This is professionalism,” she says. To help realize the technological side of her artistic notions, she works with Dwayne Moore, a technical advisor at Media Group in Saskatoon.

Duvall notes that it is hard for her and other artists to break out of Saskatchewan’s provincial boundaries, yet this is essential in order to earn more money from the artwork. When you’re working here, it’s hard to get noticed outside the province.” she says. “Curators don’t even stop here.” But she is pleased that she stopped and stayed here in 1992, moving from Ontario via graduate school in Michigan. Duvall is also grateful that galleries in Saskatchewan and further afield are interested in showing her work. She acknowledges that “my work probably makes the most sense here in terms of the size of this community.” And community is at the heart of her work. She says that “globalization emphasizes the need for the local.”

With community in mind, and her impetus toward sociable, conceptual and distinctive art-making, and her interest stories, Linda Duvall is thinking about her next projects – two website pieces, an altered version of “White Lies,” and a series of one-minute videos called “Kitty Olympics,” which she says “may or may not ever get shown.”

Her pieces don’t necessarily always fit into the ‘new media’ parameters. In fact she says “I may be a fraud in terms of new media.” But often the best art is that which escapes definitions and categorization. This is an intention of Duvall’s work. And meanwhile she’s having fun. “I only do pieces where I’m enjoying myself.”


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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