‘Media with movement’ is how Evann Siebens describes her practice. A trained dancer, Siebens now works in photography and video art, with her first love of dance often playing a central role. In 2015, BAF Gallery exhibited her show ‘deConstruction’, which recorded the politically and socially charged process of building demolition, bringing to it surprising grace by juxtaposing the films with the delicate accompaniment of Chopin’s preludes. Her Façade Fest 2017 project, Orange Magpies, also deals with place, but includes the theme of dance much more overtly. Siebens collaborated with two dancers, James Gnam and Vanessa Goodman, and filmed their improvisational movements against a series of highly recognizable Vancouver backdrops. By projecting these images onto the Vancouver Art Gallery façade, complex conversations about history, place, and identity begin to unfold. 

Burrard Arts Foundation: Can you tell us a bit about your artistic practice and background?

Evann Siebens: I work with media and movement, often incorporating dance into films and installations. I have a former career as a professional dancer, with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bonn Ballet in Germany, and have made documentaries and media with many different forms of dance, including Hula, Bharatanatyam, Afro-Caribbean and Contemporary dance. I shot dancers in New York City for over 15 years, including Baryshnikov, Lucinda Childs, Bill T. Jones, and have worked with dancers in Vancouver such as Justine A. Chambers, Jane Ellison and now James Gnam and Vanessa Goodman. I’ve shown installation work at galleries such as BAF and in February had a film screen at the Lincoln Centre Film Society as part of the Dance on Camera Festival. I also recently performed at the Western Front and the New Media Gallery and am represented by Wil Aballe Art Projects (WAAP) in Vancouver.

I like to work improvisationally, and worked closely with my two collaborators on this film, choreographers James Gnam and Vanessa Goodman. They created improvisational dances at each location in Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver and West Vancouver often responding to the geography, history and people at the site. I then took this raw footage and ‘re-choreographed’ it in the editing room, creating a hybrid form that couldn’t exist in a live, theatrical setting.

BAF: Describe your project for Façade Fest 2017.

ES: In Orange Magpies, dancers in bright orange utilitarian jumpsuits move through the landscape of Vancouver. Fast, sharp editing, match-on-action techniques, and a driving beat create a structural danced film. Projecting the images and familiar locations overtop the neoclassical architecture of the Vancouver Art Gallery creates another layer of meaning.

On the surface, it is a bright and kinetic dancefilm, using my background as a dancer to shoot the performers, and sense of motion to re-choreograph the film through editing. The sites through the lower Mainland will be familiar to many. Yet there are layers under the surface. The title Orange Magpies refers to the association with thievery that magpies hold in European folklore, such as The Thieving Magpie by Rossini (also used in A Clockwork Orange by Kubrick) or Heckle and Jeckle from The Talking Magpies animations of the 1950s. The nest of a magpie is sometimes described as a ‘bed of thievery.’ The film’s soundtrack is a remix of the original Radiohead song Morning Mr. Magpie by Modeselektor with lyrics that reference this history. The dancer’s physical gestures such as holding their hands out before wrapping them away also lend metaphoric meaning. I wanted the dancers to stand out from the landscape, in their bright, everyman orange jumpsuits, to be outsiders, but they have also been read as prison suits, referencing the Vancouver Art Gallery’s history as a courthouse and prison. It was particularly important to me to acknowledge that the locations where the film was shot, like most of Greater Vancouver, are sites that are unceded and the traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples – Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.

Siebens at work during her artist session with Go2 Productions.

BAF: Have you ever worked in video art or projection mapping before? To what extent was working with this technology a new experience for you?

ES: I work mostly in video and photo, and enjoy using multiple screens and channels of moving imagery – my last installation had 26 channels of video! In Orange Magpies, rather than exploring the whole range of technological ‘tricks’ offered by the projection mapping technology, I chose to explore the idea of foreground and background space. This is seen by the different channels of media shown in the windows and doors of the gallery, opposed to the pillars and roof façade. I also was interested in juxtaposing the neoclassical architecture of the Vancouver Art Gallery and its colonialist associations, with the contested landscapes shown in the film. The city as site, with the dancers dressed in orange questioning the institutional superiority of the architectural building, and layered overtop of its Vitruvian principles. It holds a compelling double meaning for me.

BAF: Is your Façade idea an entirely new project or are you further developing existing themes?

ES: This is a new project that I created, in collaboration with choreographers/dancers James Gnam and Vanessa Goodman. It’s an extension of my on-going work into translating movement to media and how the body moves through space. Projection mapping onto the facade of the Vancouver Art Gallery also creates an interesting hybrid between a traditional proscenium stage and a movie theatre screen. I’m interested in breaking the frame, in moving beyond the traditional two-dimensional space of film, in questioning the status quo. The visual transgressions of dance media, that on the surface seem so simple and pleasing, are an entry point for feminists and activists to have their say, an allowance for a complexity of politics, enabled by the moving body through time and space.

BAF: Your work will be projected over the entire façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Have you ever worked in such a large scale before? What has been exciting, and challenging, about the process?

ES: It will be great to see the work on such a large scale – giant dancers! And also to reach a wider audience than one might usually see in an art gallery. It also allows local Vancouver choreographers James Gnam and Vanessa Goodman the opportunity to show their craft in a different and wider community. Exciting!

See Evann Sieben’s projection mapped artwork in Façade Festival 2017 – it will be shown from 7:30PM to Midnight on Monday, September 4th, as well as in the encore presentations on September 9th and 10th.