JH: The reason that I wanted to do this interview is that I am interested in the ways that your art practice and your studies in archival science, and your work here at Artexte intersect. I find it interesting how you have acquired all these areas of experience which are different, yet also related.
I’d like to know more about your art practice. I am wondering if you could talk a little bit about your background and your studies in fine arts.
BGO: I studied at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), from 2010 – 2014. I originally went with the intention of being a painter and a drawer. Then I took a video class with Kathleen Tetlock – who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, hands down. So that influenced me to continue making video art. I made my first documentary in 2010 which was about Drag Queens and Kings in Halifax and me coming out as trans, and the overlap between those things. I was deciding “do I want to be a Drag King, or is this actually something different?” Since then, it’s kind of taken off and I’ve just been doing video and photography and a bit of installation work. I am still trying to maintain at least a part-time art practice while I am in school. I have been working on art projects full-time this summer.
JH: I was curious about that actually, how your practice has evolved. I didn’t realize that you were not always doing video, that you began working in other mediums.
BGO: Growing up, I never really thought of video as something that was really accessible for some reason. Even though it probably could have been. I didn’t grow up with a cell phone. I didn’t have one until I was 18. I was always interested in movies and video but I didn’t realize that I could make my own. So it was a really cool moment when I figured that out.
JH: How did you first become interested in archives?
BGO: I think it was when I read something in the Archival Issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly in late 2015. At that point, I was already volunteering at the CLGA (Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives, now the ArQuives) in Toronto, and it struck me that this was something that I was really good at – organizing things and making sense of others peoples collections of photographs and ephemera and stuff like that. So I just kept looking into it and it clicked that this was something I could do and that it would go well with my art practice, because I am particularly interested in moving image archiving and photography. It just made sense one day and I thought, ‘I need to look into how I can do this as a career’, and now here I am, in Montréal.
JH: One of the things I am particularly interested in is the fact that you are doing a thesis project, an independent study. Because I know that when I was studying at McGill, I knew of only one person that was doing an independent study. It’s actually quite rare in the Information Studies program at McGill.
BGO: (laughs) It’s a weird situation. I applied to McGill and I said I would only accept if I could get SSHRC funding to go, because I didn’t know how else to fund my studies because I don’t do very well working while I am in school due to mental health issues. So I got the SSHRC, which was really weird because that doesn’t usually happen within Library and Information Studies, which confused me, because I feel like it should – there are a lot of opportunities for research to be done within Information Studies. So I thought ‘well I guess I am going to go,’ but I knew I had to do a research project. I proposed something that I knew I was going to be interested in, but I didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be – and I still don’t really know. It’s still in the early stages. I just wanted to work on something as a trans, gender-variant moving image artist, having an interest in interviewing other artists like me and their experiences with video distribution centres. That’s kind of where I am at right now.
JH: Can you talk a little bit more about your research project?
BGO: At this point it’s a research paper, maybe it will evolve into something else, like a curated video screening. I’ve started to think about that. I’ve been looking at video distribution centres in so-called Canada, looking at Vtape as a focus because I love the way that they work with artists, and how they represent and support marginalized artists. I am also interviewing queer, trans, gender variant, and 2Spririt moving image artists about their experiences with video distribution centres; and if they don’t have an active relationship/don’t distribute with centres, is there a reason why? I’ve been looking at their work and how it has the potential to disrupt/allow others to rethink how they view or interact with archival institutions. So like most things I do, it has a lot of layers and it kind of gets a little messy. So we’ll see where it ends up.
JH: What are some of the things you’ve discovered in your research?
BGO: The artists that I’ve spoken to unanimously consider distribution centres to be a form of archive. There has also been shared sentiments that distribution centre staff need to understand the aboutness of the work in question, and the artists identity, in order to adequately disseminate the work and support artists. I consider video distribution centres to be participatory archives, so I want to unpack that more and see if, and how, trans and 2Spirit moving image artists are collaborating with distribution staff to represent and share their work with the public.
As far as the video distribution centres themselves, there is always work to be done, but I am not really looking for an answer with this project, because I don’t think there is ever going to be a clear-cut way to represent all trans and 2Spirit artists through keyword searches in archival databases. You are never going to be able to find everyone based on this language that we have. Maybe just looking at that and realizing, that’s okay, but how can we improve these systems to adequately represent trans and 2Spirit artists
JH: I think it’s interesting to think about how artists want to represent themselves as well, and how they want cataloguers to describe their work. There is also this need for research, and inevitably it’s all about accessibility. Language is always evolving, and yet we have these systems in library science which are kind of rigid, but at the same time we have to adapt and make them evolve. Keywords and subject headings are essential tools we use to describe works, yet they can also leave out critical information, or misname things. I think about it because we run into this issue all the time at Artexte. Sometimes I’ll come across keywords and I think ‘wow this is really outdated!’ I think we only recently just added LGBTQ+ as a keyword.
BGO: Oh yeah, I noticed that a while ago while I was searching I thought ‘well this is weird!’
JH: Yes, it is! Because we had a set of already established keywords, so that when you search a subject and everything (or most things) on that particular subject will come up. But now, the fact that we continue to use some of the older terminology for newer publications, it can actually hinder research because people are not really using terms like “Art + Homosexuality” to search for things.
BGO: Yeah, those aren’t terms we are generally using anymore.
JH: Exactly. So there is such a huge need to revisit our naming practices, because people are not going to find the right information if it’s not described using the current language that they are using. I don’t know if there are any concrete solutions, we do need rules and naming structures in information science, but I also think we have to continuously question our methods as well, and see how we can improve.
BGO: It’s also part of living institutions. You should constantly be updating that because you are constantly inviting more artists to have their work here. Yeah that was a big thing too (for video distribution). Are some artists avoiding distribution through centres because they can do a good enough job themselves? If you have a website and a Vimeo, what’s the point? Unless you want to make some extra money.
JH: That’s really interesting because at the same time for collections, keeping these histories, is really important. Having the presence of LGBTQ+, transgender, 2Spirit or gender variant people in collections, assures a history of their work – an accessible history. Having a Vimeo or an artists’ page – it’s only one place which, could eventually disappear. At the same time, I also think sometimes about the fact that not everyone wants to be remembered.
BGO: That’s true. That hasn’t come up yet with the artists that I’ve been talking to. I am hoping that through the Summer and Fall I’ll have some different conversations, and we’ll see what happens. Yes, some artists don’t want their work or any iteration of their identities to be in archives. I’ve run into that with a couple of trans people, just in passing, not within the context of this project.
On that note, with the changing language, it would be interesting to draw those connections in e-artexte, connecting similar works by using see also/related works links.
JH: Yes for sure!
BGO: An artist that often comes to mind is Colin Campbell. I think he might have identified as bigender (or at least a gender bender) but a lot of people don’t know, or never saw him that way. They maybe just saw him as a cross-dresser, or just dressed up as a feminine persona for his work, so there’s that kind of stuff that kind of goes unmentioned in larger archival collections.
JH: Yes, I think that should be a part of the training process for institutions. We have to create better tools I think, at least to educate ourselves and educate the people working in our institutions, to adopt better practices.
BGO: Well part of that too, would be to contact those artists, when it’s possible. I think a lot of people are really intimidated to do that, especially for bigger name artists. But I mean, artists are just people, oftentimes really friendly people. I contacted Lisa Steele this week because I wanted to ask her permission to do a remake of her piece ‘Birthday Suit With Scars and Defects’. She said she’d be honored. So you know, sometimes you just have to ask.
JH: Yes, that’s true.
BGO: I guess I didn’t have to ask, but I wanted to do that and to connect with this artist that I admire. So asking an artist about their preferred pronouns and identifying terms or whatever it is, should just be something that every cataloguer does. Yes, it takes more time, but you know, a lot of things we do are really tedious, so if you don’t enjoy that type of work…
JH: I think that it’s part of the need to come out of the everyday bureaucracy of a job and to go further.
BGO: Yeah, you have to push it further.
Click here to see part two of this interview, where Beck discusses their art practice, in particular the award-winning video work, A Thousand Cuts, which was subjected to censorship in 2018, at the Calgary-based art space, Arts Commons.
To learn more about Beck Gilmer-Osborne’s work, visit their website.