James MacSwain, born in Nova Scotia, received a B.A. in English from Mount Allison University and studied theatre arts at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. In 1973 he settled in Halifax where he began a career in theatre and arts administration. Since 1980 he has been working in film and video, receiving Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and Nova Scotia Arts Council grants as a media artist. He has been a former board member of the Nova Scotia Arts Council, the Independent Film and Video Alliance and the Canadian Conference of the Arts. Two years ago he retired from his employment as the Director of Programming for the Centre For Art Tapes. MacSwain was the recipient of the 2011 Portia White Prize.
It seems I’ve always been a member of VANS. I think I joined when Storme Arden was the director and she wanted more participation from gay and lesbian artists and encouraged my partner, Andreas Guibert and I to join as a couple. It was cheaper! Up to that time I was mainly a media artist working in animation but I was beginning to explore visual art collage as another spin off of my collage animation process. At the time VANS organized exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and other venues that showed these collages. Now I’m into creating art books as well as photography, both of which I’ve shown in the Corridor Gallery. These I particularly enjoy as this kind of participation is very low key but still keeps me active with deadlines and allows me to experiment without being stressed by considerations of “professional excellence”. Also, I’ve been on the Exhibitions Committee for at least seven or eight years and love looking at work from other artists and hanging it in various venues.
The Flesh Pots of European Culture
Way back when I was a student at Mount Allison University I took two years of art studies. However, coming out of the public school system of Amherst with no art background I quickly floundered and switched to literature which at that time was more conducive to my development. I continued however with my studies in Art History and I would say that this discipline was very important to my development as an artist. Three years later I was in Edmonton taking theatre arts. Here, it was set design that I enjoyed the most and was well on the way to being a theatrical set designer when I was swept off to Europe and the flesh pots of European culture. I was mostly intrigued by Surrealism and Dada and the modernist influences of the New Romantics. This emphasis on Surrealism has put me in good stead creating satirical political images inspired by my activism in queer and artists’ rights and human rights in general.
Poverty, poverty, poverty! Isn’t that the cry of the artist no matter what discipline you belong to? The cultural climate of Canada has always been problematic with the ups and downs of cuts to the arts as indications of how the arts are viewed by the general public. Even when culture is cited as a good for the body politic and that it is even an economic engine of some import, governments are not convinced. As a media artist, I thank the gods and goddesses for the various arts councils, especially the Canada Council. Without the grants I’ve managed to obtain from the arts councils and without the low rent I enjoy as a member of a cooperative household, my artistic career would not exist. As well, hail the artist-run centres and the smarts that created them and sustain them. For example, the Canada Council has rewarded the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Cooperative with a project grant that joins poets to filmmakers. Robin Metcalfe as the poet and myself as the filmmaker are well into the creation of a 16mm film.
History and the Human Condition
As I mentioned above I’m most influenced by traumatic and desperate images maintained by the new Surrealists as the human race copes with questions around collective democracy and global warming. Life is messy and basically relative and finding a pathway into this chaos is always exciting and to some extent instinctive. Particularly in my poetry and visual art I am very influenced by historical eras and I am always reading about history and the history of literature as stimulation for my art practice. This is very much a collage attempt to understand the arc of our human historical progress as images from various historical periods are set side by side as if discussing their particular biases and traumas. It’s easy to lay down apocalyptic or disastrous images in the hindsight of history but what are the solutions for the future? It is these images and questions that describe the work I aspire to.
Coast to Coast Collaborations
I am very lucky in my studios. I am a member of the Manual Training Collective and have a studio in the old school building on Cunard Street, as well as a studio in my home. I recently was out in British Columbia on Mayne Island where Jo Cook, my art book collaborator, and I created a book in her studio space. It is based on the lives of two British women artists, Dora and Leonora Carrington, whose only overt connection is that they have the same last names. In my home studio I continue to create accordion books – these are 3D objects that are really in depth theatrical boxes that combine collage with historical and cultural images. In my other studio I’ve been working of several book projects. The latest is a series of collages that illustrate the poem, The Drunken Boat, by Rimbaud.
I have a new animation coming out in the near future, entitled The Lighthouse Keeper, and of course a lot of time will be taken up with launching it at various venues. Jo Cook will be hosting our book at the annual Beer and Book evening launch at a venue in Vancouver in December. The collages of the Rimbaud poem will be the next collaboration with Jo next summer. The poem project will be screened in Halifax sometime in the early months of 2013. The Images Festival in Toronto is launching a series of cross country screenings to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary – one of my films will be screened on this tour. And there is always the unexpected.