Re-Mediating Curtis

Researcher: Stephen Foster
Multi-channel Interactive Video and Audio. Running time 10:00 loop. 2013
Stereoscopic Photo Installation for Light Box. 2013

In the Land of the Head Hunters (later titled In the Land of the War Canoe) is an early ethnographic film by Edward S. Curtis shot on Deer Island near Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. The Re-mediating Curtis project is a creative research project exploring interactive multi-media and digital photo-based installation. The project is a critique and reflection on the film and its influence on popular images of Indianess. The complexity of the films relationship to the cultures of the Northwest Coast and specifically of Vancouver Island in identity formation is explored through a series of gallery exhibitions of interactive multi-media installation and digital photography along with a published series of short essays, photo-essays and presentations.

While In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) has been referenced and discussed in both Anthropology and Contemporary Art discourses little work has been done focusing on the temporary village constructed on Deer Island (part of the traditional territory of the Fort Rupert Indian Band) by Curtis for the purpose of filming. In the Royal British Columbia Museum there is a significant presentation of Curtis’ work in relation to Northwest Coast Culture as part of the First Peoples Gallery. The Gallery presents segments of Curtis’ film as well as large-scale versions of his portraiture. As a person of North West Coast heritage and an individual who grew up on Vancouver Island I have always found the exhibit problematic as it does not acknowledge or reflect on Curtis’ film and his images as being largely a romanticized and imaginary construction. However multiple and complex Curtis’ objectives in making In the Land of the Headhunters were, it is clear that the project has a place in the development of “salvage ethnography” at the turn of the 20th century. The film In the Land of the Head Hunters has offered a filmic lens through which to reframe and re-imagine the changing terms of colonial representation, cultural memory, and intercultural encounter.

The project includes a multi-media interactive and digital photo-based installation developed from Curtis’ photographs and film mixed with original footage of Deer Island with animated reconstructions of Curtis’ film set and popular culture images that reflect Curtis’ legacy. Using techniques developed in my previous work The Prince George Métis Elders’ Documentary Project digital video and animation will be presented on multiple screens in a highly experimental interactive gallery exhibition. The multi-screen installation allows interviews to be presented simultaneously with original footage developed for the project. The installation allows for multiple interpretation and perspectives on Curtis’ legacy by incorporating a nonlinear interactive strategy to documentary. The viewer, through the process of moving through the space constructs his or her own complex and perhaps even contradictory critique of Curtis. The subsequent papers and photo-essay presented at conferences and published in international journals function in multiple ways to engage issues of representation in an interdisciplinary context while capturing the more subtle and complex relations between Cutis’ work and contemporary communities.


Images from Toy Portraits Exhibition: