Stephen Foster


Stephen Foster

Arriving at the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies building at UBC Okanagan feels a little bit like you’ve entered a world-class centre for the arts and the only limit to what you can do there will be your own imagination. Installations and exhibits line the walls and studios with art projects in every medium are in progress behind every door you pass. There are myriad spaces for artists within and beyond the walls of the building and you get the sense that Stephen Foster, who is the department head of Creative Studies, is quietly ensuring there’s a steady conversation going on between disciplines in order to feed the interconnected, multidisciplinary world that is Creative Studies at UBC Okanagan.

An established artist whose work similarly spans a variety of mediums from digital video to photography and interactive sound and video installation, Stephen brings a lifetime of experience to his work as a professor and director of the Summer Indigenous Intensive Program.

Here he discusses some of the themes of his work, his exhibit at the Smithsonian, and what inspires him to work in and teach media arts.

You explore issues of Indigenous representation in popular culture in your work. How does using a variety of mediums and media help you to communicate your message?

A: To quote Marshal McLuhan, “the medium is the message.” The mediums I use and the tools of presentation are the same as that used by mass media in popular culture. Using light boxes or interactive installation is a way of projecting my images and sound into a dialogue with popular culture and even subverting it or at least complicating the discourse. It is about subverting the dominant myths of representation.

What is unique about the kind of equipment you use in your work?

A: When making my work I like to use a mixture of older technology with the cutting edge digital processing. I sometimes like the analog feel of the image produce by older cameras or lenses. I also enjoy how using older tech changes the physical process in making an image or sound. It is not uncommon for me to use modified lenses from the forties and vintage synthesizers to produce the types of sounds, video and photographic imagery for my work.

Stephen Foster
As the director for the current Summer Indigenous Intensive Program what part of the process of developing each year’s programming is the most rewarding?

A: Celebrating Indigenous scholarship and art with world-leading scholars and artists. The Summer Indigenous Intensive is a unique opportunity to experience Indigenous scholars in a dialogue with each other as they work through some of most challenging and complicated issue facing Indigenous artistic and cultural practice. The impact it has on our students and faculty is profound and I look forward to the events associated with the intensive every year. It is my hope that in some way it will have a lasting and transformative effect on the University, local community and Canadian society in general.

What work across myriad media and genres (video art, documentary, new media, interactive technologies, web-based technologies, and audio) — what form inspires you most right now?

A: My current work is most interested in interactive media that uses sound and video triggered in unsuspecting ways. It is about engaging the audience directly in the creation of the work through their own simple and direct but subtle interactions with the surrounding space or objects in the work. Sometimes the audience is not even aware that their presence has altered the piece. The idea is to create a living work that changes depending on how the viewer approaches the work or the choices they make when viewing the work. Each time the work is viewed it is transformed by the viewing.

How has teaching media arts evolved over the past decade and how do you keep up when digital technologies are evolving so quickly?

A: I have been teaching digital media for over 25 years. The technologies of capturing image and sound have become increasing intuitive and portable not to mention more integrated into our daily lives. The way we interact with digital media has become more physical. The increase in quality and capability of digital technologies are obvious but it is the accessibility that has really been transformative not only for society in general but also for art-making.

The process of working with digital media has become more immediate, tangible and in some ways more ephemeral. What took weeks to accomplish with sophisticated and expensive computers can now be done my most smart phones in minutes if not seconds. The means of distribution have also changed radically over the years as well and we now have means to publish our instantaneously but this often seems to result in a short life span of some work and in that sense digital artwork has becoming fleeting and less permanent in the way it is consumed by its audience.


The increase in quality and capability of digital technologies are obvious but it is the accessibility that has really been transformative not only for society in general but also for art-making.

What advice would you give to visual artists just starting out?

A: Remain open and experiment. Always experiment and don’t take a medium or format as a given. Art has the ability to transform society and that can start by a simple or subtle shift in an artist use or manipulation of technology or traditional medium.

Outside of your own art practice, you teach and are Chair of the Creative Studies program at UBC Okanagan. What, in your opinion, makes the program unique?

A: The program really consists of creative writing, and performance, and visual arts. In all three disciplines, the types of courses and interactions they have with the other programs allows students to kind of develop a much more interdisciplinary approach to making art. So students will do a little bit of performance, but they’ll also be able to be painting, doing photography, and digital media, and many have mixed it all together in installation.

The small community at UBC Okanagan gives you quite a bit more intimate kind of connection with the students, faculty and students. So there’s much more contact with students in general and a stronger sense of a cohort. Students tend to work very intensely with their peers and form strong bonds over the four years they are here. That’s a key part of the experience here that’s maybe a little bit different from larger university settings.

Stephen Foster was invited to exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2017. The exhibition is called Transformer: Native Art in Light & Sound and runs until January 2019.

DESCRIPTION: This installation imitates the shadow play an adult might perform for a child on a camping trip with hands and a flashlight. It references the Haida story of Raven, who brings daylight to his dark world by transforming himself into a boy and tricking his grandfather to release the light. Foster uses a commercial nylon tent suggesting contemporary society’s technologically mediated relationship to nature and its inability to experience the natural world directly. The store-bought materials are Indigenized by the play of light and sound as a site of cultural transmission. For more on the installation, visit the Smithsonian.

Stephen Foster, Raven Brings the Light, 2011. Multi-channel video and audio installation. Collection of the artist.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Stephen Foster, Professor, Head of Creative Studies, UBC Okanagan.

Story team: UBC Brand & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Graphic Design.

Published: June 2018