Husband-and-wife artists David Campion and Sandra Shields have been crafting photo-text installations that explore the history and damaging effects of colonialism for nearly two decades. But even they couldn’t have predicted the shoot-’em-up muse behind their latest show: the controversial Grand Theft Auto, a video game that tasks players with completing a series of violent crimes—guns, drugs, and robberies included—as they climb the crooked ladder of a fictional underworld.
“In most video games, you play the good guy and you go around beating the bad guys,” says Shields, speaking to the Straight by phone alongside Campion from their home in Deroche, B.C. “In Grand Theft Auto, you play the bad guy…and you win by being the baddest one.”
The similarities between Grand Theft Auto’s premise and the European settlement of British Columbia—the latter being a topic that Campion and Shields have tackled in past exhibitions—struck Campion as he was watching a friend play the game. Having previously framed the issue of colonization in the context of a storyboard, the couple quickly realized that a video-game guidebook would serve as a neat vehicle for bringing to light B.C.’s problematic history while challenging audiences to consider their roles in the thieving of indigenous land.
“We were looking for a popular form that might resonate with youth,” explains Campion. “So it [the guidebook] became a kind of shorthand for telling a complex story.”
Five years of research and creative efforts later, Campion and Shields have built Grand Theft Terra Firma, a disarmingly humorous installation of composite vignettes, props, and character portraits taken from an imaginary video game of the same name. Presented as part of this year’s Capture Photography Festival, the exhibition casts viewers as a gang of white bandits carrying out “daylight robbery” by order of a criminal mastermind in England.
Portrait photographs of actors dressed in full colonial garb introduce visitors to characters such as “the governor”, “the land speculator”, and “the pioneer”, all of whom play a part in the plundering of First Nations’ properties and resources. Images of “power objects” like cannons and surveyor’s chains teach players how to fend off indigenous resistance, and strategy text suggests methods to heighten prejudice levels while keeping empathy at bay—both keys to advancing in the game.
Most compellingly, a snapshot of “homeland security” warriors and computer-manipulated photographs posing as screen grabs depict members of B.C.’s Stó:lō community—outfitted in contemporary clothing—as Grand Theft Terra Firma’s victims. “We had quite a lot of conversations around that,” Campion notes of the contrasting wardrobes. “And we reached a conclusion that it was important to speak to the idea that, for indigenous people, the theft is not some kind of abstract thing that happened a long time ago. It’s a lived, daily reality.”
The events portrayed in the screenshots, which include the removal of First Nation families from their homes and interactions between the crooks and indigenous hunters, are all inspired by moments in B.C. history. Campion and Shields worked closely with the Stó:lō community, the University of Fraser Valley, and the Chilliwack Museum and Archives to conduct their research, effectively flipping the celebratory imperial-settler script while forwarding the national dialogue around reconciliation in time for Canada’s supposed 150th birthday.
“You can’t have meaningful reconciliation without talking about what actually happened,” says Shields.
In Burnaby, local interdisciplinary artist Cindy Mochizuki is also delving into Canada’s unseen past for this year’s Capture. Her exhibition Rock, Paper, Scissors explores the lives of Japanese-Canadian migrants who moved from Yonago, a small city situated on Japan’s northwestern shoreline, to the islands of B.C. during the 1900s.
Featuring a mix of video, radio drama, animation, and sculpture, the immersive, multimedia installation tells three fantastical short stories that incorporate archival images and footage of Japanese-Canadian labourers filmed shortly after they arrived in Canada.
“Oftentimes, when we think about Japanese-Canadian history, we think about the internment,” Mochizuki says by phone. “I was interested in looking at the time before that: the stories of my great-grandparents when they were younger and their lives before that traumatic event, and the things that they were up against, the things that they were achieving.”
Many of the documented materials follow the migrants working in the coal and lumber industries—two natural resources that ground the tales voiced in Rock and Paper, respectively. In Rock, a set of gelatin-silver portraits uncovered from a Cumberland studio also reveals the brave, beaming faces put on by Japanese-Canadian families despite the discrimination they experienced. “They’re sending them back home to families in Japan just to show that they’re okay,” Mochizuki says of the photographs. “But they were living in really poor conditions, working in mines for really low wages.”
Like Campion and Shields, Mochizuki hopes to draw attention to memories that are often sidelined in Canadian history, many of which illuminate the parallels between past and present-day affairs more than we’d like to admit. “There’s something to be said about the idea that these stories from the 1900s could be referencing or alluding to things that are happening now, politically,” Mochizuki explains.
“Canada has this reputation from the outside that it’s kind of a place where racism and misogyny don’t exist,” adds Campion. “And yet, deep in the country’s psyche, it’s there.”
The Capture Photography Festival presents David Campion and Sandra Shields’s Grand Theft Terra Firma at Reach Gallery until May 7, and Cindy Mochizuki’s Rock, Paper, Scissors at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre until April 30.