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Imagine Otherwise: Marcella Ernest on Native American Filmmaking and Podcasting

Imagine Otherwise: Marcella Ernest on Native American Filmmaking and Podcasting

retro
July 12, 2017

Marcella Ernest wearing a grey shirt and teal earrings

 

How can scholar-artists best balance their scholarly and creative endeavors? Can sound media and podcasting make exclusive spaces more accessible? How do the words we use to describe ourselves affect how we and others perceive our work?

In episode 43 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with video artist Marcella Ernest about why complex subjects require complex film techniques, how scholar-artists can use their academic pursuits as inspiration for their creative endeavors and vice versa, imagining and building a different world requires a new relationship between humans, land, and resources.

Guest: Marcella Ernest

Marcella is an Ojibwe interdisciplinary artist and scholar.

She creates soundscapes with poetic imagery and abstract narratives. The collision of electronic media, ethnographic archival materials, found footage, unique sound design and film and photography is what Marcella uses as a foundation to create. She uses these renderings to translate critical issues of gender, family, memory, and sexuality that deliberately challenge racist representations of Native American women and engage the public with complex identity and social issues.

She attained her BA in ethnic studies with a minor in film studies from Mills College and holds a master’s degree in Indigenous documentary research methodologies and film production from the Native Voices Program at the University of Washington.

Presently, Marcella is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her dissertation research is focused on processes of racialization through visual histories of Native American representation, and the understanding of how members of colonized groups use experimental video and digital music as an artistic and intellectual medium of re-mix for cultural and political expressions of resistance to such processes.

We chatted about

  • How Marcella conceptualizes her interdisciplinary work (03:00)
  • The intersection between art and academia in Marcella’s professional journey (05:00)
  • Advice for others who straddle the line between art and academia (08:30)
  • Marcella’s experience in the world of podcasting, and the role of podcasting in her work more broadly (13:00)
  • Marcella’s upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (15:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (17:00)

Marcella Ernest wearing a grey shirt and teal earrings. Text reads: People are very complex, especially women, in terms of all the things we have to balance and our lived experiences. For me, experimentalism is the only way to get the essence of human story out there.

Takeaways

The role of research in filmmaking

When I first arrived [in grad school], I was very much in art student mentality. Learning the process of documentary film-making requires years of research, and felt like a bit of a challenge. Now I feel like it’s absolutely necessary for anything that I create.

The challenges of applying academic principles to artistic endeavors

Finding that intersection of my own practice and people that practice a similar style of artwork is really challenging. As a scholar I want to come at it from an unbiased approach, but a lot of the artists that I read about in books or who are involved in these conversations, I often know personally or make similar projects as I do.

Letting scholarship inspire artistic work

I had a moment in a course where I felt very creatively inspired by this book [Photography on the Color Line] instead of academically inspired. That’s a very overwhelming feeling because then I feel like, which direction do I want to go in?

Advice for others who straddle the line between art and academia

There are dissertations that I call ‘dream dissertations’ where you do a written component to a creative piece. I feel like I could really excel in something like that. So that’s part of my advice: to find the right fit for you in terms of programs and institutional positions.

The unique platform Marcella has found in the Sounding Out! podcast

A lot of Native American things get boxed into this exclusive Indigenous space. Something I like about Sounding Out! is that it’s not an exclusively Indigenous space. Sound studies is this contemporary and edgy scholarship site, and through my podcast I focus on Native American issues.

Imagining otherwise

I really want to know that our trees and our animals and our water will be safe and take care of, and will be able to take care of us in the future. That’s been inspiring a lot of my work—written, visual, and audio.

More from Marcella

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

This is episode 43, and my guest today is Marcella Ernest. Marcella is an Ojibwe interdisciplinary artist and scholar.

She creates soundscapes with poetic imagery and abstract narratives. The collision of electronic media, ethnographic archival materials, found footage, unique sound design and film and photography is what Marcella uses as a foundation to create. She uses these renderings to translate critical issues of gender, family, memory, and sexuality that deliberately challenge racist representations of Native American women and engage the public with complex identity and social issues.

She attained her BA in Ethnic Studies with a minor in film studies from Mills College and holds a Master’s degree in Indigenous Documentary Research Methodologies and Film Production from the Native Voices Program at the University of Washington.

[01:13] Presently, Marcella is a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her dissertation research is focused on processes of racialization through visual histories of Native American representation, and the understanding of how members of colonized groups use experimental video and digital music as an artistic and intellectual medium of re-mix for cultural and political expressions of resistance to such processes.

In our interview we talk about Marcella’s insistence that complex subjects require complex film techniques, how scholar-artists can use their academic pursuits as inspiration for their creative endeavors and vice versa, imagining and building a different world requires a new relationship between humans, land, and resources.

[To Marcella] Thank you so much for being with us.

Marcella Ernest: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate being invited on. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Cathy: Your work is really fantastically interdisciplinary. You’re drawing on a bunch of different forms of media to address a bunch of different themes. You use sound, video, and all kinds of different structures. I’d love to hear a little bit from you about how you conceptualize and approach your work and what drawing on all those different forms of media enables you to explore.

Marcella [02:30]: I work a lot with biography and I always have this experimental documentary approach: it’s like unconventional, I’m interrupting this linear timeline that we’re so accustomed to. So it might be incomprehensible, but it also might be very confusing. Not everybody likes it, but hopefully each person can leave that space learning or feeling something more than being told something.

People are very complex, especially women, in terms of all the things we have to balance and our lived experiences. To me, it’s almost like experimentalism is the only way to get the essence of human stories out there because there are just too many layers for it to be one soundtrack and one video track.

Cathy [03:28]: Can you share a little bit about your journey, how you came to that experimental documentary format?

Marcella: Well, I guess I should say first that I’m an artist and I’m primarily a video artist. So that’s one level of it. I trained in graduate school for my master’s degree in documentary production and research. So that was my entrance into academia and filmmaking was a bridge, finding that documentary area where there’s a lot of research involved. I’m trying to do a timeline in my head about when all those layers you just asked about started.

I came into my master’s program for documentary film, but I came into that program from an art school background. I left that program with more of an interest in academia and scholarship than when I first arrived.

[04:28] When I first arrived, I very much had an art student mentality. Learning the process of documentary filmmaking requires years of research, which felt like a bit of a challenge. Now I feel like it’s absolutely necessary for anything that I create.

Cathy: I’d love to talk more about this intersection between art and academia since your work is such a fantastic example of how those two fields can help each other, can support each other, to ask really interesting questions. I know you’re an American studies scholar and you write a lot in your scholarly work about Native American art and artists and you obviously make your own pieces from the production side of things. How does your work in the classroom or in academia shape your artistic work and vice versa?

Marcella [05:29]: I’m Native American on my mother’s side. I’m Anishinaabe or Ojibwe. My father is a non-Native. Finding that intersection in my own practice and then studying or looking at people who practice a similar style of artwork is really challenging actually because as a scholar, I want to come at it from an unbiased sort of approach. But a lot of these artists that I would read about in books are that are involved in the conversations I know and I met  them. They make projects or at least are thinking about really similar things.

[06:13] So I’ll give you an example. American studies is interdisciplinary, which is great for somebody like me because there’s this big push towards intersectionality. One of the books we read in my visual culture class in American studies was Photography on the Color Line by Jean Michelle Smith. Jean Michelle Smith works a lot with photography. I remember being particularly struck by her critique of W.E.B. DuBois and the photographs that he presented during the 1889 Paris Exhibition.

I had this moment in that course where I felt really creatively inspired by that book instead of academically inspired. That’s a very overwhelming feeling because then I feel like, which direction do I want to go in? It’s always a time during when I have to sit down and write a paper or have some sort of academic or essay deadline that I feel most creative and that’s a horrible, horrible thing because all I want to do emotionally and physically is express myself through some sort of tangible like painting or a video project. So that’s a moment I think where the two sort of merge.

[07:17] I built a huge series of work from that called the, um, that I called The Archives or Asanjigowin in Ojibwe. That body of work, which is five short experimental biography pieces, was inspired by Photography on the Color Line and Jean Michelle Smith, just in the way that she was looking at race as having many layers.

So when we look at a photograph of a woman, there’s so much more to that photograph. We have to ask questions of who is she, why is she there, how is she wearing these sort of antebellum clothing, what’s her story? That inspired me to build this whole body of work that I didn’t have before.

Cathy [08:03]: That sounds really cool.

Marcella: It’s challenging though because at the same time, I need to also be writing. It’s hard for me to switch back and forth.

Cathy: I think that’s something that a lot of people share who have creative pursuits or dreams if they haven’t started. Do you have any tips or advice for folks who are straddling that academic/artistic line?

Marcella: Yeah, that’s a good question. I was thinking about that a lot. I think I would say it’s almost like balancing other things like when you have children or something where you have to balance your time. That might be sort of an obvious answer, but trying to merge the two. So I’m reading these books for whatever reason almost intentionally looking for creative inspiration from those books so you’re researching your art while you’re researching your scholarship.

[08:58] I’ve been finding it difficult lately to balance both. When I got back from Italy—I was there for the Venice Biennale—when I returned home I was like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m retiring from art until 2019.” But when I said that, I had 110 ideas of things I want to make.

Cathy: That’s always how it goes, right? When you’re finally like, “I’m done!” or “I have no time!” it’s always when the creative juices get going.

Marcella: Jeez! Of course! It’s awful. And this is exactly what happened. As soon as I said it, it was like, “Oh wait, now I have so many, so many ideas.” And they’re ideas of mixing sound and finding images, but I really have to focus on finishing my dissertation right now.

Cathy [09:48]: Are you able to integrate some of your artistic work into the dissertation or is it a more traditional scholarly piece?

Marcella: No, I can’t, which is unfortunate. I wish that I could. I’m in the American Studies Program at the University of New Mexico, which I love. I really do encourage people to look into that program or work with them or whatever. They’re very rigorous in terms of intellect. The intellectual landscape of the program is really great.

[10:34] But there’s no sort of these dissertations that I call “dream dissertations” where you do a written component to a creative piece. It was after I had already joined this program that I kept hearing about these mystery dissertations. I feel like I could really excel at something like that.

So maybe that would be part of my advice: find the right fit for you in terms of programs and positions, institutional positions.

Cathy: You brought up sound and you are also the host of a podcast called Sounding Out!, which is really fantastic. I highly recommend anyone listening to this to go check it out. I’d love to hear about your experience working on that podcast. What has been your favorite part? What’s has the experience been like?

Marcella: I love working with Sounding Out! I haven’t had an opportunity to meet the whole team that puts Sounding Out! together, online or virtually meet them. But I really enjoy working with Aaron Trammell. He’s a co-creator but he’s also the producer that I work directly with.

[11:26] That’s probably been my favorite part really. I mean he’s been really great to work with because I feel like he’s pushed me into a direction that I wasn’t pushing myself into in terms of developing story. And I’m thinking through sound in ways that I wasn’t doing or hadn’t really done. That’s one reason why I really enjoy it.

The second is because we’ve built this Native American platform but have not named it that, which I think is really cool and interesting. It’s not a Native American podcast. A lot of Native American things get sort of boxed into this exclusive space, a sort of like Indigenous space. Something I like about Sounding Out! is that it’s not an Indigenous space, it’s this sort of sound studies, contemporary and edgy scholarship site.

[12:29] Through my podcast, I focus on Native American issues. I get to challenge other scholars and community people to think about whatever it is they’re working in or what they might be experts in through sound. I think it is really challenging, exciting, and fun to have those conversations. Instead of looking at it visually, we think through it intellectually through sound—like a protest or language or relearning language or all these different things.

Cathy: How has your work in the podcasting world let you kind of be part of larger conversations? That’s one thing that I really love about podcasting as a medium: being able to get scholarly ideas or artistic ideas or activist ideas beyond the confines of our normal, everyday communities. Have you found those kind of community building aspects particularly compelling?

Marcella [13:25]: Yeah, I have. Unfortunately, I haven’t really had any opportunities or made any opportunities I guess I could say to really communicate with the podcast community per se. So you might be the first person I’ve spoken to that also does a podcast.

Cathy: It’s a growing medium, right? It seems more artists and scholars are getting involved with it, which is really exciting.

Marcella: It is exciting. I love it. That’s another thing: why can’t I do a dissertation where I can write a little bit of it and then I can podcast a little bit of it and then I can create a film for a little bit of it?

Cathy: I think that would be awesome.

Marcella [14:11]: I think so too, but that’s not what’s happening in my life. But yeah, I like it. And you know, these are topics and these subjects that would inspire me to sit down and write an essay in the same way it inspires my colleagues. Like, I’m working on an essay about border violence and they’re really into it and really inspired. I feel that same way about producing a podcast and finding the people that I’m going to have these conversations with and researching it. So that’s really good. I wish it was as valued in academic circles as publishing an essay would be valued, you know?

Cathy: Definitely. So what kind of upcoming projects are you working on? I mean, obviously you’re working on your dissertation, which is a giant project in and of itself, but what else? What else do you have coming up?

Marcella [14:58]: Let’s see. So I just finished this big show during the Venice Biennale. I went there as an exhibitor in 2015 and then again in 2017. So that was huge and we just finished it. When you finish something, you know how were just mentioning, it feels like you can have this big exhale? [laughs]

Cathy: Definitely.

Marcella: Oh yes. It’s not like a joyful, like I’m so glad I’m done with it, but it’s I’m finished with this. That was the project where it’s like, “What do you have coming up?” It’s been like that for like the last five years. It was just this constant, this is coming up.

Cathy: So maybe you have a break coming up. That could be nice.  [laughs]

Marcella [15:35]: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like ending that wave. The only thing for 2017 I have is I’m in a show called Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. It is in the gallery space in New York City. It will open November 10th and will be up until January 2019.

Cathy: Wow.

Marcella: Yeah. That’s really exciting for me for a couple reasons and one is because as a filmmaker, I’ve been trying to transition myself professionally into more of a video artist, moving away from saying filmmaker to video artist. But it’s hard to claim that you’re an artist. I’ve never felt like I was worthy enough. I compare it to my friend who’s a blacksmith. Him being able to say he’s a blacksmith versus a welder meant that he did a lot of training and put a lot of time into his craft before he could call himself a blacksmith.

[16:37] So I’ve just started to be able to call myself an artist, which is a big move for me. As a filmmaker, video artists are moving out of the theater and into the gallery space. Being invited to do that by the curators at the NMAI [National Museum of the American Indian] is a really big deal for me in terms of my goals and what I’ve been working toward. It’s really exciting and motivating for me to reach that point.

Cathy: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the work that you’re doing. I really like to ask guests what their version of a better world is—that world that you create or you attempt to contribute to when you create your art, when you step in front of a classroom to teach, when you create whatever it is that you create in the universe. So I’ll ask you what is perhaps a big, possibly scary question, but I think one we don’t get a chance to ask each other enough and we don’t get chances enough to answer. So here’s one of your chances: what kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Marcella [17:33]: What kind of world do I want? Wouldn’t it be great? Well, my mind goes into different directions with that one. I really do believe this and I should say this and I do believe it, a world that we should all work for collectively is to take care of the land that we live on. I say “we” meaning human beings. I think of the residual effects of our living here, like water and having clean water. I certainly don’t want my daughter, who’s four years old right now, to be in a war over water when I’m 80 and unable to help her run from water wars or whatever crazy future thing could happen.

[18:35] But maybe that may be a little abstract. I really want to know that our trees and our animals and our water will be safe and taken care of and able to take care of us in the future. So that’s one thing that’s been inspiring a lot of my work: written and visual and audio/sounds. I’ve been doing a lot of work with fire and water, thinking about the chaos of lands and history.

I would also like to see and I hope that I build a world through teaching where we get students and young people and even adults to see history and see people’s positions in the world differently than we do now.

[19:25] For example, I taught an American popular culture course and in the beginning of the semester, you get a lot of students that don’t know the Native American experience. They don’t know the black experience. They don’t know the Mexican American experience. I mean, they might, but it’s always very surface. I think these important conversations about race and ethnic relations need to happen in more meaningful ways. I think that would make a better world, along with, you know, clean water.

Cathy: I mean, they’re part of the same project, right?

Marcella: Yeah, I think so. Absolutely, I think so. I think they’re both really important and it all has to do—I guess at the end of the day—with us being human beings living on this earth. That might sound kind of cheesy, but it’s really real.

Cathy: It is indeed. Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.

Marcella: Thank you.

Cathy [20:21]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Priyanka Kaura, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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