Paul Armstrong brought the esteemed artist, musician and political activist Brian Eno to town in January. Now he's helped create a new digital art and hip hop-inspired ensemble of seven First Nations artists to rouse local audiences, then the world.
Beat Nation Live is hip hop singer Kinnie Starr, MC and rapper Ostwelve, electronic cellist and loopmeister Cris Derksen, video mash-up artist Jackson 2bears, performance artist and singer Skeena Reece, Haida artist Corey Bulpitt and storyteller and digital innovator Archer Pechawis.
The supergroup performs together for the first time in Vancouver at CBC Studio 700 June 15 and 16. Its seven members fly to Paris the following week to perform at the Futur en Seine Festival of Digital Life and Creativity. It's the second installation of the biennial festival that draws people from around the world to indoor and outdoor venues in the centre of the city of light.
Armstrong, artistic director of International Arts Initiative non-profit, which aims to boost arts in B.C. and the Coast Salish nations, took multiple trips to Europe last year to gauge interest in a forward-looking, multiplatform First Nations group that merges music and visuals.
He says he was blown away by aboriginal artists including Reece and Pechawis eight years ago when he moved to Vancouver from the United States and worked on the Talking Stick Festival. He has sought ways to create new opportunities for them ever since.
"Vancouver's got a very unique urban aboriginal arts scene that has been nurtured a lot on media arts by artist-run galleries here over the past 20 years," Armstrong said. "It's very, very strong. And it's already hugely recognized in terms of visual and performance art out in the rest of the world."
Beat Nation Live grew out of Grunt Gallery's Beat Nation: Hip Hop as Indigenous Culture website, an online exhibit of aboriginal artists and musicians.
Tania Willard, co-curator of Beatnation.org with Reece, says hip hop culture has long been popular with aboriginal youth.
"I can remember going to a powwow when I was a teenager and there being a group of kids who were travelling around doing breakdancing at the powwow," she said on the phone from her home on a Neskonlith reserve near Chase, B.C. "This was like 15 years ago."
Like inner city black youth, young aboriginal people use hip hop to write about racism and injustice, Willard said.
"There's a real link between this innate sense of oral tradition and storytelling culture that really harmonizes with hip hop," she added.
Starr is known for her smooth voice and smart lyrics, Ostwelve for his dark rhymes. Derksen has played at South by Southwest and with a broad range of artists including Kanye West, and Reece is known for her frank and funny performances. Together they'll generate new material for Beat Nation Live.
Haida carver Bulpitt will create images of traditional aboriginal and hip-hop iconography that compliment the beats with Tangible Interaction's digital graffiti wall. Pechawis will use the digitally triggered video drum he created. Jackson 2bears uses clips from old cowboy and Indian movies, where Caucasian actors donned dark wigs to play First Nations folk, and mixes live feeds into his VJ sets.
Armstrong hopes to plan a live graffiti painting party mid-day in Vancouver June 23 so real-time images of it can be incorporated into Beat Nation Live's performance in Paris.
More info at mundomundo.com.