An interview with Heather Dew Oaksen, founder of 911 Media and faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts in the Video/Digital Arts Program. Heather has been a constant support for many of the video artists features in STUDENT SHOW. (click to read artist bios)

Julia Greenway (Curator, Interstitial Theatre) Can you begin be providing our audience with a brief description of your background and current professional endeavors?

Heather Dew Oaksen I am educated as an social anthropologist and urban planner, I began making media while working for the Tulalip Tribes in Washington to create improved services on reservation; my first film focused on their indigenous fishing rights and culture. I continued to create and curate independent films, and eventually video, as the founder of Seattle’s Focal Point Media Center, a division of an interdisciplinary artist space "and/or". Focal Point morphed into what is today 911 Media Arts Center.

For a decade prior to teaching at Cornish, I owned a production company directing and shooting independent documentaries and experimental shorts. Freelancing gave me unique opportunities to learn skills, craft and concept from others in a wide range of commercial and artist based situations. Teaching has allowed me to combine theory and practice in a setting that privileges artistic inquiry over commerce. My own artwork alternates between advocacy for others and personal interests. I find that each feeds the other with unanticipated outcomes. In the last ten years, my projects have ranged from experimental documentaries to three-dimensional, multi-screen video projections in public spaces.

I recently completed a feature documentary, MINOR DIFFERENCES. The film follows the lives of five juvenile offenders as they grow from boys to men. In 1994 they were incarcerated 15-to-18 year olds: Caucasian, Mexican-American, Native American and African-American. They committed serious crimes when they were kids: murder, kidnapping and assaults. They were felons by age 16. MINOR DIFFERENCES introduces the offenders in maximum-security lock-up. We meet them again 18 years later. The film premieres October 11th at the Northwest African American Museum.

JG Could you describe 911 Media Center; what type of outlet are you providing for video artists in Seattle?

HDO I was the founding Director of Focal Point Media Center (1982), opened as one of several artist run programs in the multi-disciplinary art space called "and/or". When that organization closed, Focal Point morphed into 911 Media Arts Center; although I continue to be an enthusiastic member, I am no longer a Trustee, or involved in its day to day operation. The current Executive Director, Steven Vroom, can best answer your questions about services available to video artists.

JG Can you describe the Video/Digital Media Arts program at Cornish College of the Arts?

HDO The Video/Digital Media program is one of the areas of concentration offered to students enrolled in the Fine Art Department at Cornish that includes photography, print art, sculpture, drawing and painting. Students may choose a single area or as many as three concentrations. We encourage the creation of video/digital media as both a stand-alone medium (single and multi-channel work with monitors and projection), and as an integral time-based component/element in 3D mixed media pieces, performance, and cross-disciplinary installations. Faculty expect students to find their own voice in the work they complete-- supporting their exploration of the diverse aesthetic style and genres that media art now encompasses.

JG What is the main skill set or core experience that you want each of your students to achieve before leaving your program?

HDO I want students to be able to think critically and with creativity about their ideas and the outcome of that exploration. Because “tools” of any kind can shape your thinking, it is important to attain competency in current software, production gear, aesthetic fundamentals and art history. That said, technology continues to change constantly--exponentially; so much so that educators are hard pressed to know what new knowledge/skills students will need to learn in 10 years. I believe it is more important to be able to problem solve and experiment than it is to focus too heavily on the latest iteration of soft/hardware or commercially viable style or format. Students who can be open and flexible, willing to experiment and risk in the process of making their art, will more likely create an exciting final outcome-- whatever the parameters.

JG Clearly, video differs from other traditional mediums in its consumer viability? How do approach this idea with your students?

HDO I am assuming that when you say “consumer viability” that you are speaking of video as a product like a painting---and it’s ability to be sold or collected in the art market. If that is your question, I would say that I encourage my students to make work that excites them, that satisfies their artistic curiosity, and that makes them want to continue to create…rather than worry about what may or may not be of value to others (buyers, curators, galleries). While Video Artists both nationally and internationally have continued to impact the form and content of contemporary art, and the work in its many forms is present in nearly every prominent exhibition, it is also true that just like in any other medium (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.), most artists will not be able to financially sustain themselves by their art alone. Nearly everyone in America, famous or otherwise, has a day job. Given that model, I believe video artists are in a unique position. The skills required in the field (aesthetic, conceptual, problem solving and ease with changing technologies) prepare individuals for a wide range of employment opportunities—most of which have some kind of digital interface.

JG Where do you think video work lies the in the spectrum of concept versus craft?

HDO Just like any other art form, video/digital media needs an integration of both concept and craft to be successful. Similar to the idea of “simplicity” in physics: an elegant solution is the most direct or least complicated evocation of form and function/content. And, every concept will require its own aesthetic configuration.

JG How does video work influence contemporary art?

HDO Time-based media art is nearly ubiquitous globally as a result of the availability of High Definition Digital SLR and other small format cameras, simplified post-production software, and instant distribution possibilities through the Internet. These relatively recent advances make it possible for almost any artist to freely explore creative impulses with new “tools”. The spread of digital media art horizontally through multi-modal nodes has been termed “Alter-modern” by author Nicolas Bourriand, and is now fully integrated into many other art forms, either as a delivery mechanism, complementary element or independent conceptual construct.

JG What is the future for video art? What is you prediction for the role video art will play in the Seattle art community?

HDO Video Art has a long and unique history in Seattle where its vitality continues today. In the mid ‘70’s, provided by the alternative artist space, and/or, artists gained access to video post-production gear--specifically ¾” editing equipment. With this crucial creative element available, video art and experimental hybrids flourished. Soon thereafter, Cornish College of the Arts sought to begin a video art concentration; they attracted the video pioneer, and now renowned artist, Gary Hill, to build the program. Moving to the present, Cornish will graduate 17 out of 45 art department seniors with at least one concentration in video/digital media art. Perhaps even more significant, artists of all disciplines are utilizing aspects of digital media in their work thus exposing new audiences to expanding artistic possibilities.

And, judging the many current exhibitions featuring video artists and their work (Henry Art Gallery, Cornish Gallery, Frye Art Museum, Western Bridge, SAM and several private spaces), artists using video/digital media are alive and quite visible. Another positive indicator is the growing number of area patrons, passionate about this art form, who have collected work from the U.S.A. and abroad.

JG Can you talk about your own art practice?

HDO As an artist, I strive to give “voice” to sub-groups within American culture. Originating from the perspective of the underrepresented, I create stories that give visibility to their identity and concerns and formally function within communities in unexpected ways. Increasingly I question the content of a piece, and how the form of the media experience affects the perception of the subject, and, ultimately, the delivery of the information between the sender (artist) and receiver (audience).

My process usually begins with words from those I interview: immigrants about “sense of place”, children using augmented communication devices, young men incarcerated in state juvenile facilities. From that foundation, the visual and aural imagery, and presentation structure develops. I look to move beyond pure documentation to engage in a deeper consideration of content made possible through the use of aesthetic tools and form. I construct images that are abstracted by way of their altered scale, use of light, and point of view. I value visceral images and sound that surprise and contain mystery, creating an encounter that one cannot experience without technological support, such as an extreme close-up view, multiple layering, parallel juxtapositions, or the manipulation of time. By collaging sequences that are less representational, I challenge the viewer to see issues in new ways, and to make a more personal connection to the material.

Most of my installations are sited where the public "finds” the art casually, as they are traveling (the Coleman ferry dock), shopping (across from REI), waiting for the bus (Tacoma’s Commencement gallery storefront), browsing for a periodical (Seattle Public Library), or sitting in traffic (large windows on Denny Way). Viewers are more able to approach the artwork free of the expectations associated with a broadcast television format, or gallery space.

JG What artists are you consistently exposing your students to?

HDO I am a big fan of exploring the work of contemporary time-based media artists from around the world; the list is surprisingly long! Some artists come from/cross over into other disciplines; some use digital media only for certain projects. What gives power to their collective work is the wide variety of ideas/projects out there and the processes that artists use to achieve them. I also try to bring in local time-based media artists when time and funds permit.

Here’s the list we cover:
Jennifer Steinkamp-USA
Doug Aitken-USA
Shirin Neshat-Iran
Stan Douglas-Canada
David Claerbout-France
Bill Viola-USA
Dalziel +Scullion_Scotland
Anri Sala-Albania, Isaac Julian-England
Eijah Liisa Ahtila-Finland
Nam June Paik-Korea
Guy BenNer-Israel
Lorna Simpson-USA
Yang Fudong-China
Michael Rovner-Israel
Gary Hill-USA
Gillian Wearing-England
Tony Oursler-USA
Mika Rottenberg-Holland
Krzysztof Wodiczko-Poland
William Kentridge-South Africa
Anthony Goicolea-England
Corey Archangle-USA
Kim Sooja-Korea
Oliver Herring-USA
Stephanie Smith & Eduart Stuart-England
Bruce Nauman-USA
Marina Abramovic- Yugoslavia (Serbian)
Pipilotti Rist-Switzerland


Dakota Gearhart (aka Tiffany Peters & Tiff Mich) describes her work as “encouraging others to experience ordinary subjects in extraordinary ways... accomplishing this by experimenting with the roles of vulnerability and voyeurism in - [her] relationships with humans, nature, and technology.” Gearhart is currently pursing a MFA at the University of Washington, and received her BFA in 2007 from Florida State University.

Gearhart's work has been exhibited internationally, including Seattle exhibitions at the Object Gallery, and Jacob Lawrence Gallery. She was recently published in Intimate Landscapes by Open to Interpretation Books. And in November will be participating in a group show at Gordon Parks Gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota as she prepares for her MFA thesis exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, opening in May 2013.

Reilly Sinanan describes his work as “a state of being and likewise making that is less consumed by object and product but rather process and practice.” Sinanan is a junior at Cornish College of the Arts, working towards a cross disciplinary BFA in sculpture, video, and performance art. His work has been exhibited throughout Seattle including space such as the FRED Wildlife Refuge and as part of the Degenerative Art Ensemble. He is currently working with the Degenerate Art Ensemble towards the creation of The Predator's Songstress, a generative performance and production scheduled to take place this coming fall.

Rylee Stearnes describes her work as “random subjects that may appear conceptually weak... possess[ing] the bitter contrast of happy moments turned into dead memories.” Stearnes is a senior at Cornish College of the Arts, working towards a BFA in video and painting. She incorporates photography, illustration, and music into her stop motion video work.

Jenisa Ubben makes new media work that is a collaboration of dance and video. Utilizing the talent of professional and student dancers, and choreographers; she creates interactive multi- media experiences. Ubben is a senior at Cornish College of the Arts, working towards a BFA in video. Her work has been exhibited throughout Seattle including the Cornish Main Gallery, The Closet Gallery, and at The Baltic Room. She has received funding from the Krielsheimer Foundation, the Cornish President's Scholarship, Cornish Merit Scholarship, and Cornish Continuing and Departmental Scholarship.