Risa Dickens

Interview by Angela MacKenzie
Portrait by Francesca Tallone

Risa and I have been friends for many years. She’s one of the coolest people I know, not to mention kind, creative and smart as a whip. We always have such great conversations so it’s a pleasure to share a slice of that with you. Risa has lived most of her life in Montreal, as well as Ontario and L.A. and has been working in web for nearly 10 years now. She has an exhibit tonight for Salon Data, at Eastern Block in Montreal. We talk about the exhibit, being greedy for family stories and about finding passion and balance in your work and life.


Angela: It’s kind of funny to interview you.
Risa: I’ll put on my interview hat.


As long as I’ve known you you’ve been really heavily involved in the arts and have supported artists in the community. Where do you think that is rooted? I know your family is quite artistic.
Yeah, that’s just normal for me. It’s just what I’m used to. My dad’s a playwright. My mom hung all the paintings at my eye level when I was around two. My grandmother wrote a romance novel and would send me paintings of flowers. She had a business I guess in the 70s and early 80s writing love poems for people. I don’t know. That’s my regular?


That’s your norm because it was surrounding you.
And it just seems like anything that I grew up wanting to support or believe in would have that element of freedom and joy. Playing dress-up or learning improv when I was younger, singing along and learning to play music… those were all the things you would want to support in the world. Those were the moments of freedom and goofiness and joy that I would want to support. A cause I could see myself getting behind over a lot of other causes.


What sort of artistic things were you involved in during high school?
I did theatre every year. I went to a private catholic girl’s school and we did a play with the theatre club every year. They were really good, we had good directors and did cool musicals. I did shows with Loyola, the private catholic boys school. Those were more ridiculous and fun and mostly to be around boys. I was always in the fine arts options and drawing and painting classes. I’d go see plays and to the fringe festival in Toronto in the summer because my Dad would be involved in some way. I had to do well in every other part of school to be allowed to do that much theatre because it meant that I would be coming home at 10pm most school days.


I remember that too… doing theatre and my mom being really strict about my grades because it was hard to let me stay out that late on a school night.
Yeah with a bunch of bad looking kids, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.


When you were older, in your 20s, you started Indyish, an artist network. What was your original goal and vision for that community?
I always envisioned a space, at first a non-virtual live space. But then it became a virtual place where you had the mutual support and arts networking that happens in arts communities, but brought together online somehow. So that was sort of the loose idea when we created that website. A space that persisted over time the way that the web does that’s really satisfying. We thought if there was one place where everyone could post, a shared group blog, then no one artist would have to be posting all the time for there to be enough cool content coming through for it to be an interesting place for readers to visit. I think that ended up being true for quite a while. Also the idea that you could promote shows or post a photo series

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and things like that. Then we started hosting regular events that sort of brought people together in the real world. The web is quiet and exists over time where those live events are loud and noisy and exist for one moment and that’s all they are. Recordings of them are lame or indecipherable and they don’t really speak to how much fun you all had.


So hosting the Monthly Mess and other events was a way to create life out of what was normally just virtual?
Yeah, exactly. And it’s just a totally different kind of connection and communication that happens in real life one-on-one encounters than in more mediated, quiet, web and print.


Where you involved with artists outside of Montreal?
We had members on the site from across Canada, the States and some in Europe. When we did the art relay that we did at the Fringe, a million years ago, that Tessa led, there were people that participated from different countries. There were three legs of the relay that were entirely virtual that we promoted on different forums. A couple people joined that weren’t from Canada.

For people who don’t know what the art relay entailed can you describe it?
We did it a couple different ways but the basic idea was there would be teams and each team had however many members in it and they would run different legs of the art relay. The first leg might be that you write a script for a 5 minute short. It then gets handed to people who stage it, actors and directors, and then it gets handed to a band who makes a soundscape or a song and then you staged the whole thing live. Or it might be someone writing something, and then it goes to an illustrator and then those illustrations go to an animator.


That’s really fun.
It was really fun and as crazy as you would expect. Some of the things that were made were really beautiful. It’s a lot of work!


You have an exhibit coming up this week as part of the Salon Data series at Eastern Bloc. Is this your first time having your own exhibition of your work?


How do you feel about that?
I’m excited about it!


Can you describe what the exhibit involves and incorporates?
It’s a strange beast of a thing, but so is everything I guess. Everything is connected. I started doing these embroidered pictures on clothes, also a million years ago. They’re second had vintage clothes, mostly my grandmother or grandfather’s. I freehand embroidered pictures of cities and things. The first one I did at a family reunion as a way to not be so reactive to things. It made me become more quiet and a bit more of a listener. At these family reunions, especially on that side of my family, you can’t help but be super aware of the stories these people have carried around. Especially what people of older generations went through. Spending time with family is always potentially painful, people have their egos up and they have so much they want to share about themselves but they want to perform, in a way, also. I do it too, you know, a way that shows off our best selves from the rest of the year. Everyone is a great storyteller in my family and the stories change over time, mine do to. So that goes into the embroidery.

This summer I had an artist stay with me, Holly de Bourbon . She pulled out this blank wooden Russian nesting doll and she gave me one to illustrate and she had these black pens and she had one for herself. So we were illustrating while we were trading these family stories. I loved it! She shipped me a box of these dolls. It feels like embroidery, they’re these things that you can kind of hold in your hand and travel with and reprocess stories both small and big, with different pieces brought in each time. The show at Eastern Bloc is a works in progress series. It’s important to reiterate that, because that’s definitely the state that this project is in. There are 12 of these Russian dolls that’ll be displayed on tablecloths that I designed using QR codes. If you scan them they link to an archive of photographs of my family and other things too. My grandfather wrote the story of how he and my grandmother met and so I have one page of that. Or one of the poems my grandmother wrote for one of my cousins. A lot of the pieces that could be a long session of telling these stories or why I think they’re important or amazing are kind of just represented by the QR codes. So those will be on display and then I’ll sing three of these songs that are based on interviews with members of my family.


Are the interviews primarily with women in your family?
Yes, they are all interviews with women. They’ll be part of the final version of this project if there ever is such a thing.


What do you feel about these women’s stories and how have they affected you as someone in their family?
I have so many tangents of thoughts and conflicting thoughts about these stories. I feel that I’m almost as or more impacted by stories that are not from my family— stories from other people’s families and stories from books. Stories are the big thing in my emotional matrix. And so I’ve always wanted them and I felt like I was almost greedy about how much I wanted the ones from my own family.


Greedy like you’re collecting or hoarding stories?
I just wanted all of them, you know? I always describe books like, I eat books.


I can relate to that.
I know! So with my own family’s stories I just wanted them more, felt like they were mine more. Even though they’re not. They’re always somebody else’s. And depending on the context you’re not even in them at all, but as soon as you start to care about them and tell them then you’re now in one version of them. I like that. They’re sort of endless with different purposes. You’ll never know. Like my grandmothers’ story, her time in the Danish underground is fascinating to me. She was so self-deprecating about it. She told me things and wrote down things that she didn’t tell my cousins and she told them things that she didn’t tell me. That is normal. It’s how life will play out for any of us, really.


But you have to piece it all together to get the full picture.
And also just accept you’re not going to. We’re definitely not going to have the full picture and to a certain extent it’s a choice which pieces you want to obsess over or torture yourself with or hold closest to you to give you comfort. They’re all equivalent choices. The shit things that happened to her, or the shit things she did to people, or the amazing heroic things she did… There’s a truth out there but I don’t think we have access to the completeness of it ever.


Have you ever thought about when you’re older and if you’re granddaughter wanted to know stories, how much you want to share and how much you would want to keep for yourself forever?
Yesterday I had the thought that I was going to start keeping any article of clothing that I had loved and worn, in trust for my daughters and granddaughters. Because that is the thing I wish I had the most. It’s what I can’t picture half the time. What did you wear? What was the dress that you loved the most when you were sneaking around during the blackouts in Copenhagen? I have pictures of them with the blackout curtains on the windows having a costume party! I think about the materiality. The stories… I mean when you’re blogging and putting things up on the internet you kind of give up any worrying at a certain point. I work for Yelp now and I write reviews a lot and post them on the site. I had to be like, I guess those are just out there now. I don’t know, they’re no more or less true than anything else. The versions my kids will have of me are going to be so different, I can only imagine.


I guess at that point it’s about how much we remember too. We recall what we want to recall. Some things get left out and it’s not even on purpose.
Totally. Our values change and people are contextual. We’re going to look so different to our kids.


You were just talking about Yelp and you have a pretty big role there. You’re the community manager on the anglo side for Montreal. What do you feel about the importance of balancing your work life and your personal life and passions? You seem to find a way to do that and make it work.
I feel like the luckiest person. When I have that balance in my life where I can pay the bills and not be too stressed about paying off my credit cards or whatever. When I can do work that is meaningful and that I enjoy. When I have time to process life through an artistic practice. Also, it’s important to have a physical balance. Because you run and I know you’re kind of Zen about that. If we get some balance of those things for any brief period of time I think we’re really, really lucky.


Things just work the best in all aspects of you’re life if you’re content because you’ve found balance for all the areas that are important to you.
I think it is okay just to pay attention to what makes you feel good and try to insist on that all the time. Not just going for instant gratification.


Be kind to yourself.
Yeah, with your time with the projects you take on and the people you work with. Life is much better for me and more successful when I’m just doing that. That was something we always tried to do with Indyish. Just work with people we like.


You’ve traveled a lot in recent years. What destination would be next at the top of your list? A place you’ve never been but would like to see.
Well I don’t really travel like that. It’s funny but I never had that list of destinations. It’s always been an opportunity comes up, the place is beautiful or there’s something about it that now I’m fascinated by. I know that I’m going to Portland for our friend’s wedding, and to Seattle to see this amazing woman who is actually named Dr. Doolittle and writes orchestras with animal sounds. She used to host these women’s musical hootenanny events in her kitchen. That’s when I started writing music, at her house. So we’ll play some songs together this summer.


What would you most like to accomplish down the road that you haven’t already?
I want to write a good book.


Like a fiction?
Uhhh… the goal is to write something good. Something non-shitty. That’s my goal. Full book form. Non-shitty. And… have a family. Whatever shape that might come in, that’s on my to-do list.


I think that’s a good to-do-list.
Check. Non-shitty book. Baby. [We both laugh]


Pass On
Data: Salon IV
April 24th, 7pm


Risa Dickens • Risadickens.com