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Toronto, ON, M6J 1Y2

Monday to Friday

9AM - 5PM

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FFOTO's Five Quarantine Questions for Rita Leistner, Skawennati, and Bill Clarke

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Rita Leistner's #WFH set-upRita Leistner's #WFH set-up.

FF/QQ 9 brings responses from documentary photographer/filmmaker Rita Leistner, whose fable-like series, The Tree Planters, is the subject of her upcoming film; and Skawennati, whose art addresses history, the future, and change from her perspective as an urban Mohawk woman and as a cyberpunk avatar. Joining them is Bill Clarke, a Toronto-based writer known for his thoughtful art commentaries and his impressive collection of art and artist publications/multiples.

- Craig D'Arville



Rita Leistner, Artist (@ritaleistner)

Enchanted Forest 11, by Rita LeistnerThe Tree Planters - Enchanted Forest #11, 2019

Craig D'Arville: Tell us about this photograph. 

Rita Leistner: This photograph is part of my “The Tree Planters — Enchanted Forests” series. I made it last summer in Farwell Canyon, British Columbia. We were a few hundred kilometres off the grid, at night in a burnt forest that was the result of massive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. Being in a remote forest at night is scary. We blasted music on a portable speaker to ward off animals like bears and cougars. The work is meant in the traditional sense of “enchanted forests” and the psychoanalytic reading of forests in fairytales as places of foreboding, danger, doubts and other obstacles, as well as places of possibility, personal transformation and a reckoning with nature and society. This photograph, like the whole project, is an allegory. But like the “Portraits” none of it is staged. It’s created in the real world, with light the only artifice. So “the real” becomes a vehicle of the allegorical (and we are much more used to fiction being used this way).

CD: How is physical distancing affecting your art practice?

RL: As a photo-documentarian, I have spent most of my career embedding with and documenting communities in extreme conditions. There is no story for me without the face-to-face. And so I have to wonder what there would be for an artist like me to do if social isolation were to continue for a very long time. However, in the short term, I’m still in post-production of my film and book for my project on tree planters, which I’ve been working on since the spring of 2016. I think all of us who have work to do from home and a safe and comfortable place to live realize how fortunate we are.

I’m like most photographers in that I work in a “digital darkroom” on a computer. And now I’m working on my film with my editor Darby MacInnis, my composer Kevin Quain and my Sound Designer and Mixer Chandra Bulucon remotely, on Zoom. It’s not ideal, but it’s incredible to have this tool and to be moving forward on schedule (film festivals have not extended their deadlines). I won’t be able to be in the room for the colour grading of my film in the next few weeks – to be clear, Zoom is terrible for viewing film footage because of the connection, sound and video lag and colour discrepancies. It can only be used to get a very general idea of what you are looking at and listening to. As the Director of Photography on my own film of course I would look forward to that final pass on the look of the film, so I am very disappointed and concerned about that. Fortunately, I have a first rate lab doing the work – Toronto’s Red Lab. A few months from now, when my film and book are done, I’ll have to reassess what to do next. But truth be told, after more than five years working on a project I’d been thinking about for twenty years, it was already going to be a bit of a creative crisis figuring out what to do next. We were meant to be going to festivals and promoting this work, Paris Photo New York, and Paris Photo, you know, but those have all been cancelled are or up in the air.

I have a lot of things to be grateful for, and I am not one to agonize over things that are outside my control. If the time comes, I will I have to look right in front of me and assess what is within my control to accomplish related to my art. At the end of the day, all I want to be able to say is that I lived in the moment and I did my best.

CD: What are you doing to stay engaged with your community during this strange time?

RL: I live alone, so the one “in real life” social freedom I have, of being allowed to go for “distance walks” with a few of my closest people, is precious. I’ve also picked up my camera again for the first time since last summer as a way of helping me to think and see.

I really miss going to my local coffee shop Ella’s Uncle and I want them to still be around when this is over, so I buy coffee beans from them every week from their Instagram account @ellas.uncle (they deliver) and it makes me feel I’m still connected to our “coffee shop community.” Once a week I have a private Spanish conversation lesson on Zoom, because when this is over I’m going to Mexico City (and Paris and New York). And like everyone, I’ve been Zooming with family and friends I haven’t seen in ages, and that’s quite wonderful. 

An unexpected pleasure has been Zoom calls with curators. Many are making a special effort to connect with artists and keep appointments that were cancelled due to the coronavirus. Perhaps because they too miss human interaction, there is something more intimate in these meetings than in ordinary times. This time in history and our efforts to continue to thrive is a powerful shared connection. It’s also implicit that we will one day meet face-to-face (again or for the first time); and there is something very hopeful in that.

CD: We're all spending a lot of time on social media right now. Whose work is getting your attention right now?

RL: I try not to spend a lot of time on social media other than working with my editor remotely on Zoom – if it’s for work, is it still called “social media”? I’m reading more than usual because I have nowhere to go at night (I usually go to a play at least once a week). And I’m enjoying my photobook collection, which I don’t get to do when I’m on the road — right now I’m looking at Soviet Photography: An Age of Realism, The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott and Chris Marker: Staring Back. I’m reading a biography about Dorothea Lange, Grab a Hunk of Lightning, and “plague literature,” like Albert Camus’ The Plague and Blindness by José Saramago (which is also a brilliant film written by Don McKellar and directed by Fernando Meirelles) about a pandemic where everyone goes blind (you can find it on iTunes). I’m inspired by these works that are allegorical microcosms of the world. There’s a lot to be learned from them. They inform my work about communities as well as my understanding of where we are at the moment. I am trying to stay as present as I can in this moment and engage in things that are the opposite of escapist. I’ve been watching The Agenda with Steve Paikin every night. The more I can take-in what the world is going through the more I will be an artist of my time and the more my work will reflect that.

CD: Any advice you’d like to share to help others coping with working from home, or in isolation?

RL: I don’t have the challenge of having children or others at home who rely on my time and so I feel my advice would almost be insensitive to someone who has that enormous added responsibility. One thing I am very good at (like most artists!) is self-motivation. I make a lot of lists. I have a calendar I keep close watch on. If you dropped in on me between 8 AM and 8 PM unexpectedly (I only wish you could!) you would find me “dressed for a day at work,” at my desk. My home is always extremely clean and tidy, and that hasn’t changed. Having order in my physical environment is important to my mental / creative health (what is a photographic frame, after all, if not an imposition of order on chaos…). I have a routine that I more or less stick to. By 8 or 9 PM I’m usually done. I turn off my computer and the day is over. Sometimes I take a nap during the day. I used to run in the middle of the day for a break when working from home, and I miss that – there are too many people in the streets. I used to run to the Stephen Bulger Gallery, which is 2 kilometers from my apartment, to say hello to everyone there. Now I run at 6:30 AM when the streets are empty or when it’s raining so I don’t encounter others. I have to get rigorous exercise or I become really unhappy, really fast. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, make lists and do what you can, one day at a time, like always. And try not to worry about the things you have no control over. If I start worrying about mistakes I’ve made in the past or thinking too much about the future – which we know nothing about – that’s when I can get derailed. Anyone can handle the burdens of just one day. So that’s how I try to roll.

Rita Leistner's #WFH set-upRita Leistner's #WFH set-up

Read our recent interview with Rita Leistner

Shop FFOTO: Rita Leistner


Skawennati, Artist (@skawennati)

She Gathers the Rain, Machinimagraph from Words Before All Else, 2018, by SkawennatiShe Gathers the Rain, Machinimagraph from Words Before All Else, 2018

Craig D'Arville: Tell us about "machinimagraphs".

Skawennati: When I make my machinimas, I spend a lot of time working on the characters' outfits and the sets or environments. Sometimes these elements are only seen very briefly in the movie, so I thought "Why don't I take a picture --it lasts longer"! The virtual environment that I work in, Second Life, has a fantastic camera that allows you to take high-resolution images which I call "machinimagraphs" (because if a movie made in a virtual environment is a machinima, then a still image captured in one must be a "machinimagraph").

"She Gathers The Rain" is an image taken during the production of Words Before All Else, Part 3. This is the series that I am currently working on. In it, my avatar, xox, gives the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen, also known as the Thanksgiving Address, also known as greetings to the natural world. With this series, I am exploring what it means for an avatar to give thanks, and to do so in a non-natural world. Here, she is giving thanks for the waters, and the playa set came from fond memories of Burning Man, 1999.

CD: How is physical distancing affecting your work flow?

Skawennati: So far so good. Machinimas, like films, go through a pre-production phase, in which my team finds or makes all the costumes and sets. This is the phase we are currently in with two machinimas, and we are able to work while apart by showing each other pictures. I show them iPhone photos of my pencil-sketched ideas, and they show me screenshots. We also share an asset list which is basically a check-list of items we need. When shooting, I always work with at least one other person, in person, in the AbTeC lab where we have powerful computers and, more importantly, can see and hear each other while working. So the plan is that all the pre-production gets done now so that when we are finally reunited, we can shoot!

CD: What are you doing to stay engaged with your community during this strange time?

Skawennati: I call my mom every couple of days and I've been doing check-ins with friends from all over my life. I'm having Zoom and Second Life meetings with my team, Zoom lunches, Zoom drinks with friends, Zoom "play dates" with my niece and nephew, and a Zoom + Discord dance party!!  (This post was not sponsored by Zoom 😉)

CD: We're all spending a lot of time on social media right now. Whose work is getting your attention right now?

Skawennati: I'm actually trying to reduce my time on social media at the moment, but I'm working with some brilliant young artists:

Maize Longboat, Kanien'kehá:ka, Six Nations of the Grand River, is a Game designer and the Skins Workshops Associate Director: Terra Nova

Emma Forgues is a new media artist.

Kahentawaks Tiewishaw is a Kanien’keháka visual artist from Kanehsatake, specializing in illustration, 3D modeling, and game design.

Kaia’tanó:ron Dumoulin Bush is a Kanien’kehá ka/French-Canadian visual artist.

CD: Any advice you’d like to share to help others coping with working from home, or in isolation?

Skawennati: My only real challenge with working from home is that I don't get to have my fifteen minute brisk walk to work. Somehow, I find it difficult to get away from my desk to exercise. On the plus side, though, is that each day I eat delicious, healthy leftovers from home instead of buying my lunch, which I tended to do often. I am not bored. In fact, I feel kind of busier. I also feel some pressure, like I should do something smart with all the time I gained from all the cancellations and postponements -- like my taxes! -- but somehow I don't have time to get to those extra things. To calm myself, I remind myself that our main job right now is making sure we are healthy.  To that end, here's my advice (you asked!):

  • Try to stick to your pre-pandemic routine, or a routine that works for you. Get plenty of sleep. Get some sunlight.
  • Be sure to eat well.
  • Exercise each day. If you can't do that, at least take some deep breaths. Do you know how to take a deep breath? Breathe in through your nose as you silently count for 8 seconds (more is better). Breathe in so much that it feels like your lungs can't hold any more air, then breathe in for one more second.  Exhale the stale breath slowly, through your nose, for at least a count of 8.  One great way to help you visualize what you are doing is to imagine pouring a pitcher full of water into a tall glass; the water hits the bottom of the glass first, and fills to the top. Your lungs are the glass and the pitcher is pouring air. Think of the breath as going all the way to the bottom of your lungs first, then filling them to the top.
  • Take a few minutes every day to improve your work/home environment. Clear a desk, or maybe just a drawer.  I cleaned my keyboard and it made me so happy!
  • Call people if you are lonely or if they are lonely.

Kindness is not postponed! Love is not cancelled!


Shop FFOTO: Skawennati


Bill Clarke, Art Collector & Writer (@billseesworld)

Bill Clarke selfie
Bill Clarke's #WFH selfie

Craig D'Arville: What are you working on right now?

Bill Clarke: Just wrote some texts for Waddington's contemporary art auction catalog for their next auction, which was originally scheduled for May but has been postponed, presumably because of all the economic uncertainly caused by Covid. I wrote about artist Steve Driscoll and a longer piece about trends in the contemporary art world, which, as we know, has undergone a sea-change in recent years with the #MeToo, movement, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activism pushing galleries and institutions to think differently about inclusion, and gender and racial diversity. Also recently completed a short feature on the work of Winnipeg-based photographer William Eakin for FFOTO, which will be published in May. While looking for full-time work, I've been taking contracts to manage events for galleries and doing some freelance writing, mainly reviewing Toronto shows for international magazines. But, now that galleries have shuttered because of Covid, that's all stopped. I've been in touch with my overseas editors to see what they might be looking for content-wise but almost everyone is in the same boat. A lot of magazines have moved writing in-house for the next several months to save money. 

CD: How is physical distancing affecting your work flow?

BC: Given that galleries have closed, my work 'flow' is now more of a work 'trickle', maybe even a 'drip'. So, I've been taking this time to build skills that will be good for me to have in the future. My professional background is in communications, strategic planning, and project/issues management, and I've been looking to return to that line of work for some time. But, that field is now requiring people to have more tech skills than when I first entered it 15 years ago. Because employers aren't particularly active now, though I'm still applying for what I can, I've started some online, go-at-your-own-pace classes in HTML coding and database building, cataloguing my art collection as the basis of the learning. I have a lot of art, so this could be a months-long project that will make me an expert at it by the time I'm done!

CD: What are you doing to stay engaged with your community during this strange time?

BC: To be honest, I've been fine on my own. I can go days without hearing another person's voice and don't feel particularly lonely as long as the stereo is on and I can take a bike ride at least every other day. That may change if the stay-at-home directive goes into months, though. I also live with a lot of art, so I feel like I'm surrounded by the art community when I look at my walls, and that's a nice feeling. Otherwise, FaceTime and Zoom have been good for staying in touch, especially with friends outside of Canada. We're all like, "Why have we never done this before?"! I belong to a 'book club' made up of collectors of artist books, ephemera and limited editions, and we'd meet up every six-to-eight months to share things from our collections. Instead of cancelling our spring gathering, we connected by Zoom a few weeks ago and held up our books and objects to the camera for the others to see. Granted, it wasn't as satisfying as passing around the books and objects among ourselves, but it was still nice to see everyone, of course.

CD: We're all spending a lot of time on social media right now. Whose work is getting your attention right now?

BC: I follow many of the artists in my collection and/or their galleries on Instagram, of course. To name a few:

But, the Instagram account I really can't get enough of is @anhourbeforesleep. I'm 99 percent sure it's artist Geoffrey Farmer and he posts the most interesting video clips or links to animations, documentaries and experimental films from the early-20th Century up to the present day from every corner of the globe. I'd flagged so many things to go back to and watch in their entirely over the last year that I'm glad I now really have the time to.

CD: Any advice you’d like to share to help others coping with working from home, or in isolation?

BC: Don't become completely sedentary or sit in front of the computer day after day. That becomes too easy to do, especially if you don't have a dog or aren't living with a partner. Get up and move... go for a walk, take a bike ride, exercise at home even if it's just to get the blood pumping a bit. It'll prevent you from feeling like a complete slug.

It's also okay not to be as productive as you feel you should be, especially if working from home is a new thing. I have several friends whose office jobs migrated to home and they're as busy nine-to-five as they ever were; some are actually busier as they had to pick up the slack when interns, temps and contract workers were let go. But even though they are performing the same work, figuring out how to keep things moving when they can't just walk over to someone's desk has been difficult.

But, for those of us who must drum up our own work and fill our days, I'd say just find something to accomplish every day. It will make you feel a bit more in control at a time when many people feel like they've been cut adrift. It doesn't have to be major like, oh, landing that dream job or creating the vaccine for Covid (though either of those would be great). Something that will focus your attention or that you've been telling yourself for ages that you really need to do. My suggestions: clean out cabinets and drawers, cull your wardrobe for donating once charities resume accepting items again, re-align the brakes on your bike, organize boxes of photos, re-sort the record collection, start a low-pressure online course, nail down a few more bars in a piece of music or figure out how to make mashed potatoes that aren't so lumpy.

Learn more about Bill Clarke, art collector


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