Dana Samuel is chuckling to herself. I've just asked how a biochemistry major came to be a multimedia artist.
"I call it a nine-year transition," Samuel says between her chuckles. Back in the late 1980s, Samuel says she stumbled onto her current craft when a chemistry professor needed someone who could animate his teaching videos. At the time, she was studying biochemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton.
"That was the start. I had no idea I'd end up one day making art videos and audio."
Before plunging into full-time artist status, Samuel dabbled in graphic design and went on to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto before earning an MFA at the University of Western Ontario in London.
Samuel exudes a laid-back vibe. She calls herself a "video head" âe" someone who spent her teenage years playing video games, tooling with early computer programs and also working at the McMaster University radio station.
"I was at the cusp of the media infusion."
It's this media-savvy background that informs her work. Her pieces explore ideas of communication, chance and forms of expression. In one late 1990s piece, she played with the concept of email correspondence and social networking sites, at a time when the Internet was just coming into its own.
"We write in a 'coded' way over the internet," notes Samuel. "I was on this dating site and I would have chats with people âe¦ and I was intrigued by the anonymity, the bravado of what they would say and people's handles."
Samuel would go on to take those conversations (without identifying who said them) and transfer them to poster-size quotes, which she placed around Toronto, repeating the exercise in Edmonton.
"It's like saying 'For a good time callâe¦' but you don't have a phone number!" Samuels laughs, delighting in the prank.
One of her most ambitious projects involved a pirate radio broadcast.
"I've always been fascinated with radio âe" it's ephemeral, transient and sketchy, you could lose a signal so easily."
Back in 2003, Samuel was reading about the 1881 Greely arctic expedition, which was organized by the U.S. government to explore scientific research in the North to mark the first International Polar Year. The expedition, lead by Adolphus W. Greely, was a disaster marked by conflicts between Greely and his men and constant misses by supply ships trying to get food and provisions to Greely. The expedition lost 19 of 25 men.
"There they were, floating on ice floes, and completely missing each other," Samuel says incredulously. "It was a utopia gone wrong."
The story inspired her to create a radio play in which six characters (including Greely, his wife, a ship mate and Thomas Edison âe" inventor of the phonograph and other telegraphic devices), write and respond to each other.
"It's based on this theory that sounds can be frozen and thawed âe" displaced in time," says Samuel.
So, one week in 2003, Samuel stuck her antenna out her apartment window in London and broadcast the show from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night.
"It's an intervention into radio space. And late-night radio is the home of the crank, the conspiracy theorist. You know, I expected a CRTC truck to come charging up the street at any moment."
Samuel laughs again. She is clearly pleased with her experiment, which she altered and replicated two years later in Oslo, Norway âe" a commission through NRK (Norway's CBC). That project, instead, focused on Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
Since embarking on artistic pursuits, Samuels has had her works exhibited at various venues including the OCAD Gallery, V Tape in Toronto, the ArtLab Gallery in London, Ontario, as well as garnering several scholarships at OCAD.
She is the currently the director/curator of the InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre in Toronto (check out the centre's Networked City project, which featured five outdoor works along Yonge St. in Toronto). Samuel is busy, continuing to spread her ideas of art as a tool of intervention.
In 2007, Samuel - along with artist and art historian Mark Schilling - taught a class at OCAD called "Art & Design in the Social Sphere," a first-year course meant to force the art and design students to think about collaborating with each other and using different media to show their ideas in the public arena. It's a course she and Schilling will be teaching again in 2008.
"We want the students to think laterally," notes Samuel. "There is no formula. It's more about the approach and how you carry it out."
Samuel and Schilling have divided the course into four modules.
First, is "Free/Stolen" âe" where students explore how art is given away, what is permitted and questions of fair copyright. Students are given examples, such as the Toronto duo that conducted free dance lessons all over the city.
Second is "Critical/Mass" - about mass production or large-group participation. Something you can do in multiples.
Third is "Social/Work âe" where artistic work is seen as labour-intenstive and often involves the personal and political. Samuel cites the work of 1960s black American artist Adrian Piper, who used to hand out business cards to people who made racist jokes with a statement that would begin: "Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance."
Lastly, there is "Public/Space" âe" taking the art to the street but, of course, within the parameters of safety.
Samuel recalls a student last year who wanted to set up speakers all over Trinity/Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto. This student was concerned about the lack of bird noise in the park because she could only hear city sounds when sitting in the green space. Unable to actually set up a series of bird recordings, the student instead created a model of the park and placed a CD under the model, which beamed out bird sounds.
"It was a beautiful model," Samuel says. "I loved it because it was such a sophisticated project and idea."
Ultimately, Samuel says the underpinnings of the OCAD course comes from a book she read, What We Want is Free, by artist Ted Purves.
"It's about the idea of generosity: about artists that do things for free or give things away and what that means for social practices and activists."
Samuel says she was captivated by the example of American site artist, Gordon Matta-Clark, who in 1971, created a restaurant called Food in Soho in New York City. It was self-funded and staffed by artists. Dishes were given away for free.
"It wasn't a soup kitchen. He just served food for free," Samuel shakes her head and chuckles. "Wow. That is so cool. Can you imagine the implications of that?"
It's a question Samuel intends to keep exploring.
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