Lisa Jackson is a filmmaker, but she’s never allowed that job description to limit what she creates or where and how she screens her works.
The Anishinaabe artist’s breakout piece was last year’s haunting virtual-reality animation Biidaaban: First Light. In its eerie world, one that won a Canadian Screen Award, nature has overtaken a near-empty, future Toronto, with trees growing through cracks in the sidewalks, vines enveloping skyscrapers, and people commuting by canoe.
Before that, she created a short 360-degree film about the Highway of Tears, an IMAX exploration of lichens, and a five-minute movie about a 1950s residential school that morphs into part zombie flick, part dance video.
All that and more has brought her here, to Transmissions, a 6,000-square-foot, immersive film installation that invites visitors to wander through windy coastal forests, by hauntingly empty glass towers, into soundscapes of ancient languages, and more.
Through the labyrinthine multimedia work at SFU Woodward’s, Jackson asks big questions—about Earth’s future, about humanity’s relationship to it, and about time and Indigeneity.
Simultaneously, she mashes up not just disciplines like film and sculpture, but concepts of science, storytelling, and linguistics.
“I always joke that I can’t stay in my own lane,” says the upbeat artist, an SFU film grad who has finished her MFA at York University in Toronto, where she’s now based. She’s sitting on an East Side café patio, near the place where she’s staying while she completes and premieres the ambitious Transmissions. “My whole thing is ‘Build it and they will come.’
“The tag lines I’m working with now are ‘the roots of meaning’ and ‘knitting the world together’,” she explains. “In western society, we tend to hive things off into ‘That’s culture. That’s science.’ But from an Indigenous point of view, it’s all connected.”
Transmissions is split into three parts, with what Jackson describes as a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like Biidaaban, it’s also visually stunning: the artist admits she’s playing with Hollywood spectacle.
Without giving too much away—a big part of the appeal of Jackson’s work is the sense of surprise—Vancouver audiences will first enter a 48-foot-long, six-foot-wide tunnel, surrounded by projections that morph from empty urban streets to a forest and a river. Further engulfing them is a soundscape that features strong winds, while black mirrors along the floor skew perspective and play with what’s above and below ground.
“You feel out of time and space,” says Jackson, who wants to challenge western society’s linear notions of minutes and hours. “I want the audience to have a physical response and an emotional response. To me, that gets closer to the Indigenous understanding. Because the Eurocentric way is more rational, where the intellectual is put ahead of everything else.”
Viewers then enter a room, where the highly collaborative Jackson has worked with artist Alan Storey, who’s helped create Plexiglas towers that look like the ghost high-rises of an abandoned city. (Storey has also designed other components of the installation.) As audience members wander through them on foot, projections make their shadows dance on the structures. Like Biidaaban, the section hints at a postapocalyptic or posthuman world. Jackson operates in an emerging realm of Indigenous futurism.
“It’s been this response to the idea that Indigenous culture is often seen as being a thing of the past, and this is a way to react to today,” she says of the term.
From that lost city, viewers move on to a projected video of what Jackson refers to as the Digging Woman. Artist-performer Jeneen Frei Njootli digs harder and harder down into the earth as rain pounds more and more furiously. Only when a moonbeam finds her does she rest.
As she did with the VR piece Biidaaban, Jackson imbues the future, and our impending environmental collapse, with hope, or the promise of a way through. In Transmissions’ third section, visitors enter a hyperreal futuristic landscape animated by Victoria artist Kelly Richardson; stars twinkle, a breeze blows, and magical purple bioluminescence makes the leaves of the trees glow. Then they move into a womblike dome, take seats on tree stumps surrounded by carefully placed speakers, and listen to the hushed voices of elders talking in Indigenous languages.
Those disappearing languages are not just the climax of her film installation, they are the crux of Jackson’s complex ideas.
“One of the initial motivations for it, that eureka moment, was that I realized the complexity of the world-view within those languages,” explains the artist, who reveals that often entire projects come to her in a sudden flash. “Linguistics will predispose you to think in a certain way,” she notes.
Jackson admits her fascination with Indigenous words may in part stem from the fact she cannot speak her own language, Anishinaabemowin. Her mother spoke it as a child, but was forbidden from using it for 10 years of residential school. She passed away when Jackson was 19.
But here is what Jackson has learned of Indigenous languages: humans aren’t the centre of the universe, but are rather part of nature. The land speaks through us. Time is a verb, and past, present, and future weave together.
“We know that these languages continue to be threatened. What I am particularly concerned with is what is contained within them. The ideas within these languages are incredibly crucial right now, particularly in the times we’re in as it regards the environment,” Jackson says. “I’m not a speaker; I don’t have all the languages, but this is to open the window just a crack.
“Having worked with a lot of elders, what they will all say, across the country, is ‘It is all about the language.’ Because that’s where the culture is,” she emphasizes.
Jackson wants to unsettle us with her immersive imagery and soundscapes. The beauty of Biidaaban and now its “sister project” Transmissions is that they can be interpreted in so many ways. As a sheer sensory experience, they are beautiful, haunting works. Some found Biidaaban disturbing and dystopian; others found it uplifting and hopeful for a new way toward the future.
Dig deeper, and there are philosophical, political, and even mystical ideas. Indigenous people will understand the work on different levels because of some of the cultural touchstones, Jackson comments.
“It’s this idea that we bring together different ideas to open our eyes to other lenses of the world. That’s what I’m hopeful it will do,” says the filmmaker, who already has a new animated work about her mother and aunt’s residential-school experience on the go and a documentary on a “kind of Indigenous Indiana Jones” under way.
While experiencing Jackson’s ambitious Transmissions, as well as her other work, you may not know how to categorize it—and equally, you may not know quite how to interpret it. And that’s exactly how the artist wants to unsettle you. “I don’t spoon-feed people. You have to decide how you feel about this,” she explains. “I like this idea of people finding themselves in a place where they’re not sure what to feel or think. And that’s generative.”
SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and Electric Company Theatre present Transmissions at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from next Friday (September 6) to September 28.