GUAGE: by Jennifer LaFontaine and Camille Turner


An ongoing email conversation between Jennifer La Fontaine and Camille Turner discussing their work as practitioners and collaborators.

Toronto based social media practitioners Jennifer La Fontaine and Camille Turner have come from different worlds. They co-facilitated The Story Project and here they discuss the intersection of their practices.

Jennifer La Fontaine wrote
Hi camille, I'm starting the email conversation by answering the first question you asked me which was "what has lead me to do this work?"
I went to York University to do my undergrad degree in Environmental Studies.  I also started taking Fine Arts photography classes and was particularly interested in how activism and art could be combined in my life.  There seemed like a big divide between these two worlds until I met Deborah Barndt, a professor in Environmental Studies, who has spent her life using photography as a tool for education, activism and social change.  She has been a mentor and inspiration to me ever since.  During university, I explored a lot of issues connecting to the use of media- who controls it, who makes it, who consumes it.  I was interested in using media to tell stories that were not heard in the mainstream, that represented people and ideas that were reflective of my life.  When I graduated, I applied for a job at Central Neighbourhood House as a Women's Outreach Worker.  The manager called me up and said, "It says on the second page of your resume at the end that you are a photographer.  Can we interview you for another position to facilitate a photography program for women?"  They had not even posted the job yet.  By pure chance, I got a job that I did not even believe could exist- to work with a diverse group of  women to explore social justice issues through photography. 
So, my path started in an academic world, was driven by activism, and I ended up in social service. 

Camille, what were the inspirations that lead you to this work?


Camille Turner wrote
I love how life brings us to places that we could not have dreamt possible ourselves.My story begins after I graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design with a general diploma in art. I did not have any media experience at the time so its amazing to me that I am now a media artist. I wrote a screenplay in my final year and after I graduated, decided to take a film course so I could understand how media works. I really enjoyed making my first film. I ended up working in media organizations such as:The Canadian Film Centre and Black Film and Video Network then apprenticed with a media artist. I got the bug and decided to study interactive media. My colleague Michael Alstad and I started Year Zero One because we were interested in the new and growing field of I began hanging out at InterAccess electronic media arts Centre where I sat on the programing committee. It was an exciting time. I witnessed artists experimented with sound, video, electronics and communication technologies, bending and stretching them to do incredible things like telerobotics where people at the Venice Biennale steered robots at InterAccess gallery through minitature installations.

This world became my community but I was very aware of how white and how male it was. I live in Toronto, the most multicultural city on the planet according to the UN yet, I had never met another black new media artist until I went to MIT in Boston for a conference in 2001 called Race in Digital Space. It was the first time I was surrounded by people who looked like me who were at the forefront of digital technology. The person who inspired me the most was mervin Jarman, a pracititoner who is a member of the UK based activist group, Mongrel. mervin's background is Jamaican like mine. Mongrel works internationally to hack into the closed system technology exists within and to facilitate access and skills for people who have been locked out of the system. I went back to Toronto determined to create a point of entry so more diverse voices like mine can be represented.

Jen, why you have chosen the media you work with?


Jennifer La Fontaine wrote
The media I work with is almost exclusively black and white photography. In The Story Project, we also used digital photography, digital video, sound and the web. I found this an exciting mix of media, where it created a multi-layered approach to telling our stories. It wasn't a linear experience, but a circular, sensory experience of stories and I loved that.

People sometimes wonder about black and white photography being outdated or not relevant any more. I find that it is an exciting media, and still very much in demand. The darkroom is often the most satisfying moments for the participants, and I have heard over and over again about their pride in making something that is all their own. I originally chose photography as a medium because of my background in activism. It could be used as a way to document events that were not being covered in mainstream media, to prove that they happened, to keep record of our actions. In a way, that intent has continued, as I consistently explore whose faces are not seen, whose stories are not told. The act of diverse groups of women coming together and putting themselves into the 'picture' I think is in itself a political act, and photography is the tool for that to happen.

Back to you Camille..... I have been inspired by you to learn digital video, sound, and web design. It has opened up many more possibilities, and as I said earlier, I love the combination of these different forms of media. Tell me more about why you focus on technological tools for art making?

Camille Turner wrote
I use technology as a tool for art-making for a variety of reasons.Communication technology is becoming seamlessly integrated into the fabric of our daily lives. Its seductive and infiltrates our public spaces, our homes and workplaces. It shapes who we are and what we think we know about each other. Its interesting to see who is represented by this media, by whom and for what purpose. I'm really interested in harnessing its power and at the same itme, critiquing it. My mission is to tell my story using digital media and to empower others to be able to tell their stories.

So Jen, it was fortuitous meeting you. I found out about you when someone from Central Neighbourhood handed me a flyer about your program at a Pride Day celebration. It had information about how women in a group you facilitated documented the womens' march in Montreal and New York using black and white photography. This inspired me to work with you. What made you interested in our collaboration and can you expand on the nature of the collaboration in this project?


Jennifer La Fontaine wrote
I find being an artist within a social service environment can be rather isolating. I am often not aware of what other artists are doing in the city who are working on similar projects. One of the problems is that funding is often for short term initiatives, where artists come in, work on the project and then leave. Having the chance to work with another artist who has a similar vision of engaging communities using media was a fantastic experience, where I was able to challenge myself in different ways. In our
collaboration, we worked together closely on the vision, and brought different strengths to the project. I brought a long time experience of working with the community, and an understanding of all the structural elements that are needed to make a program run smoothly. Brining you in as a media artist allowed me to integrate several different media—digital video, digital photography, web design and sound into the program. Using these types of media opened women up to many opportunities for learning and telling their stories.

Camille, can you expand on why InterAccess became a partner in this program, and the impact you think it had on the community there?


Camille Turner wrote
This project was developed during my curatorial residency with InterAccess who partnered with us to provide the equipment, studio space and technical assistance and an exhibition in the gallery. For me and members of the interaccess community who attended the opening, this was an exciting event. Its so rare to see representations here of cultures outside of the mainstream and my goal was to change this. Women from the project attended and brought their families. It was wonderful to witness their excitement and pride as they entered the gallery. For many of them, it was the first time, they were represented and had the power to represent themselves in media that usually excludes them. One little girl turned to her mother as she entered the gallery and said "mommy, why are you on tv?" InterAccess gave us access to equipment and free reign to use the studio and gallery as an active community space during the exhibition. We did mini-workshops and hosted pot-luck feasts with a variety of groups from York University masters students to ESL classes from Regent Park.

So Jen, how has the storyproject impacted the women in the program and the community served by central neighbourhood house?


Jennifer La Fontaine wrote
To illustrate the impact on the community, here are some quotes from participants describing their feelings and experience of their involvment in the Story Project.

> I learned how to create a sound poem and how to edit sound from the computer. I also learned more about myself.

>I felt happy to develop skills I did not know before.

>Once I joined the photography group, it made me feel good about myself. This group allowed me to remember who I was, and I look forward to the future, and it also gave me hope.

> I learned how to develop film and print photos. It helped me retrieve what I learned before my stroke and it helped me greatly.

>It feels great to be a part of this group and meet and learn about different cultures.

>I would like to teach photography to other women.

>I felt happy to interact with women from other cultures.

> I want to get more involved in photography. I would like to be able to make a small living in photography, but first I want to learn more, and the more I shoot the more I learn!

These are quotes from the peer facilitators:

>I learned to think things through thoroughly in my head before relaying the info.

>Teaching is a good way to learn about ourselves, about patience, being open to ideas.

>There is nothing better for confidence than to teach skills to others.

>In maintaining my sobriety, it changes the way I deal with people. I discovered I could do really different things.

>I learned how to use the darkroom, how to process negatives, and how to teach people what I know.

>It gave me confidence to do other things I feel I cannot do.

So Camille, maybe you could end by talking about the impact was on the InterAcces folks.
j en

Camille Turner wrote
The feedback from the InterAccess staff and members who came to see the show was positive.They told me that they would like to have more programming like this at InterAcces but so far, I am the only member actively involved in this type of programming. Within the organization, there are mixed feelings about community collaborations. Some members do not see this work as "art" while others, like myself feel that projects like these hack into and open up a closed system so is a form of hactivism which is a vital and legitimate art-form.

There was one success story with the project I did before the Story Project. It was a collaboration between Regent Park Focus, a youth media arts program and InterAccess. Three of the youth joined InterAccess and there continues to be a relationship between the organizations.