Dan Smeby is a celluloid based filmmaker and visual artist from Newcastle, New Brunswick. Graduating from Concordia University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Smeby has most recently held residencies at Nyege Nyege in Kampala, Uganda and Juke Studios in Kuwait City, Kuwait completing several collaborative film projects. Dan is now thrilled to take part in his first residency project in his home province alongside Francophone and Mi’kmaq artists as part of the Cross-cultural residency at the Saint John Arts Centre. During the residency, he will bend the confines of the conventional, with a time based mixed media installation.
So, what led you to embark on a career in the arts? Is there any particular moment you can point to that spurred your interest in filmmaking?
I think my interest in filmmaking has always been there, even when I was young, alongside this acceptance that the arts would always be a push and pull relationship for me, regardless of the format it presents itself in. However, I have realized that the arts, whether it be filmmaking or any other art form, are quintessential to me. Kind of like breathing; I have no choice but to need it. For me, it has been about finding a balance, a way to allow the creative seed to breed, while still being able to shelter it from other elements of life.
Why do you think that, out of all the various artistic disciplines, filmmaking is the one that really drew you in?
I think filmmaking is the medium I have shown the most dedication towards, but my creative process usually involves a lot of writing and drawing to allow that type of spirit to come out, whether it be related to a film project or not. I work extensively with sketchbooks, and that fluidity is essential to allow for any filmmaking project to blossom. Celluloid filmmaking practices particularly encapsulate me because of the obsoleteness and the license that this allows the author. I enjoy working with a sense of longing, nostalgia, and dream-like qualities. The tangibility of the old cameras, film, and processing techniques creates unintended “mistakes” that I often embrace and allow to shape, fold, and reform the project in ways that a standard digital process lends less to.
Can you talk a bit about the project you worked on in residence and explain what it’s about and what you’re hoping to achieve?
Initially, I wanted to focus on three different waterways that might attempt to co-relate the differences and similarities between languages represented in the residency: Mi’kmaq, French, and English. Then with the world stopping, turning upside down, and being fundamentally shaken at its core, this aspect quickly became less relevant. I became increasingly interested in the whirlpools found at the reversing falls bridge in Saint John. I decided to focus on this to describe my viewpoint of the “state” of the world.
I shot the whirlpools, then hand-processed the 16mm film with organic materials and began testing how to attach the physical film to plexiglass. I also experimented with these high-tech programmable LED string lights that form a stark contrast with the ancient film strips I was using. This coexistence was interesting to me, but soon I became less interested in this concept’s juxtaposition and started thinking more about formal elements regarding the final product.
I decided to reshoot the falls, this time with 35mm still film on slides. Providing a larger image than the 16mm, I was now working with 35mm stills on strips of physical film that I would adhere to the plexiglass with various adhesives. I still have yet to decide how many plexiglass forms will be in the final exhibition, but I’m hoping for at least three that will play off each other in the installation with the other resident’s work.
Sound also became critical, and as a collective (the three residents), we decided that we all wanted to be part of its creation. We also thought we could use the LED lights to highlight arrows simulating the COVID-19 procedures that greatly influenced this residency’s outcome. I am also excited to develop a more classic 16mm film projected on a loop for the exhibition. This film is solely the whirlpool’s described in a magical, realistic way, with an exaggerated soundscape using location sounds recorded in Saint John, hand-drumming from Francine’s community, and audio news clips from this turbulent time.
Is this project, in any way, tied to Saint John itself since it’s where you did the residency, or is it a more general work?
The work is tied to Saint John, in terms of the whirlpools’ location, but my goal is to allow the whirlpools to become more celestial, like weather patterns. Continually forming, turning in on themselves, transforming and reforming, in and upon themselves. Less about Saint John, but more about my experience at that location and at that time.
The residence you’ve just done puts you in a space with artists that have quite different life experiences and approaches to art than your own. Have these interactions affected this project of yours or, at the very least, broadened your perspective on other cultures?
I sincerely appreciated the exchanges I had the opportunity to have with Fran and David. We all had different schedules and worked in different manners, but I believe we were all eager to support each other in our personal processes and, together as a collective, work towards an exhibit together. I certainly loved learning about Fran and David’s ideas, listening to how they changed, adapted, and progressed throughout our time together. I certainly benefited from my exchanges with them in terms of my project and how it fits with their concepts and intentions.
When will people be able to see this finished project on display?
We were hoping to exhibit the work together at the Saint John Arts Center early in 2021. Maybe potentially showing the work in Miramichi as well, because it’s a middle point geographically for us three residents.
Lastly, what’s the next project that you want to work on? Or, if you haven’t thought about it yet, is there a project you’ve wanted to work on for a while but haven’t been able to get to yet?
I’ve just finished a film entitled À Mains Nues, an ode to the handmade, showcasing a baker, painter, and butcher working to a punchy score. It has been accepted into the official selection of FIN 40 (The Atlantic International Film Festival) in Halifax, so I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the festival run for that film.
My next project is a part of the Digital Originals with the Canada Council for the Arts and CBC entitled #krey-zee. In it, we ask the mental dis/ability community about the pop-culture use of words like crazy. Co-director Robyn Badger and I are trying to spearhead a much-needed discussion surrounding what “crazy” means for those of us who have been diagnosed with such a label. After that, I plan to focus my work on this advocacy for mental health through the arts, whether that be video workshops for those without a fixed address, research within the clinical psychiatric fields, or making my own films that nourish my own mental health.