In their words: Conversations with Writing Topography artists — #04: Michael McCormack

Over the next several weeks, we will be posting interviews with artists currently featured in the Gallery’s Writing Topography exhibition. These interviews were conducted by Rebecca Goodine, a university student participating in an internship at the Gallery. These interviews present artists talking about themselves and their work in their own words. Interviews were conducted with the artists by email, and have been lightly edited for grammar and flow (occasionally, questions and responses have been removed). At the end of interviews, we’ve included some links to provide a bit more information about a topic or theme from the interview; these links have been chosen by us, and were not provided by the artists.

Michael McCormack

Photo: Roger Smith

I think of the physical elements of the work as a porous substance that morphs according to the space that it is in (much like sound does I suppose), and primarily considers the atmospheric qualities of the work.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic practice.

I have been working with sound and audio recordings since I learned to use my yellow Sony cassette recorder in grade six. My art practice is often collaborative, and responsive to spatial experiences with sound and the physical implications it has on our environment, emotions, and memory.

How would you describe your work in the exhibition?

The installation of STATION converges two main structural elements that each emit a polyrhythmic light throughout the gallery. The space is illuminated by both cold and warm lighting that is accompanied by broadcasts of sound through structures associated with the mobility and temporality of the DEW Line. A looped recording is transmitted through FM radio to five radio receivers that play a split signal of simultaneous light and sound throughout the gallery. The audio that is heard throughout the space keeps a steady rhythm, resonating a sound of what could be sonar, radar, or chimes. In a curved line coming from the wall are 5 oil barrels, cut in half, so they appear to be either ascending from the floor, or descending into the floor. Inside each barrel is an electrical component consisting of a synchronized lighting system and a radio receiver that receives the transmitted audio track, emitting a synchronized halogen light projecting a semicircle on the gallery wall. The lights in each barrel flicker in sync with each other, so as the volume increases or decreases so that the intensity of the light will brighten or dim through the entire space. As visitors walk through the space their bodies may interfere with the radio signals, evoking further awareness of the radio broadcast elements of the installation.

Projected from inside a Stevenson Screen arctic weather station* structure is a looped video showing slides from my grandfather’s collection of his experience at the DEW Line cut together with fast edits. The images flicker by quickly and sporadically. Periods of darkness come in intervals of about 5 minutes housed in a structure resembling an early 20th century polar weather station. A second rhythm of light spills into the space from this structure.

Can you tell us about the process of creating the work in the exhibition?

Over the past three years, I have worked collaboratively with Amateur Radio Clubs and individuals throughout Atlantic Canada, developing a body of work drawing on the experiential elements of acute, first-hand radio listening, and how it has played a role in our understanding of contemporary communications practices. STATION unravels our relationship with peripheral media aesthetics to further consider our conditioned state of social interactivity.

STATION converges archival audio and visual material of twentieth century radio and communicative media with an immersive media installation inspired by first-hand experiences of amateur radio and DEW Line Operators as remote sensors of our broader collective consciousness.

This project has taken on many formations both as gallery and site responsive installations, and in all cases explores the boundaries of radio within each space. I have shown it in galleries, portions of it in elevators, and plan on showing a version of STATION literally on the frozen Kennebecasis River outside of Saint John, NB this coming February of 2016 as part of a show with Third Space Artist Run Centre.

What was the inspiration for this work?

In the early 1950’s, my grandfather BW Cosman worked as a Telecommunications Engineer in the construction of the DEW Line Project*, a project consisting of dozens of Distant Early Warning stations stretching from Alaska to Iceland to provide warning for potential Soviet invasions on North American cities. Much like the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the RCMP presence before it, the construction of the DEW Line brought resources and infrastructure, imposing a ‘hub’ mentality to a part of the world where many cultures still lived nomadically, with a strong relationship with the land and it’s resources.

Using Shortwave Radio technology, the DEW line project operated as a network, an analog communicates system, becoming a blueprint for structural networking in communications practices today such as the World Wide Web, and the use of broadcasting through social media (YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, and Facebook). The social, environmental and political impact that this project has permanently altered our culture, our identity and our environmental well being.

The images that are used in the video portion of the work were taken by my grandfather and his co-workers in the DEW Line. Many of the images in B.W.’s 35mm slides reveal both the harsh arctic conditions with intervals of lighthearted interactions with coworkers. The images are unfiltered, sped up, and randomized, constructing an anti-narrative of B.W.’s stories in an attempt to create a cluster of all of his DEW Line experiences at once. This is not at all an attempt to overlook B.W.’s personal experiences as much as it is to create an immediate and universal experience with the media and materials that we are left with without the influence of a narrator.

What was the development process like from your initial idea to the finished work?

It was definitely very research based. I was lucky to incorporate most of the production of this work through a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada during my MFA at NSCAD University, which I completed this past spring. There were a lot of trials to test radio in various spaces and scenarios. The audio track from this piece was developed as part of an installation in the Faubourg Elevator in Quebec City during the Manif D’Art Quebec City Biennial in 2014 curated by Vicky Chainey Gagnon. This eventually became part of a gallery installation, and now I am considering bringing it back out of the gallery again. I think of the physical elements of the work as a porous substance that morphs according to the space that it is in (much like sound does I suppose), and primarily considers the atmospheric qualities of the work.

How does your work connect with broader themes?

One of the many broader themes is the environmental impact that the DEW Line had on a part of the world that had beforehand been left undisturbed.

Shortly after the DEW Line started, the soil in the immediate vicinity absorbed minerals and radioactive material, which was either sent away to treatment facilities, or deposited in landfills under the original sites. In addition to this, PCB’s and other contaminants have negatively affected air quality within a 20km radius of each DEW line site, creating a wall of environmental contamination from Alaska to Iceland.

The thousands of people who worked in the remote DEW Line sites had very little knowledge about the impact that pollutants such as PCB’s, lead, mercury, antifreeze agents and other solvents and heavy metals had on the soil, air, permafrost, and animals that many Inuit hunting communities depended on. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the Government of Canada began to take responsibility for this vast environmental destruction. Between then and 2013, the Department of National Defense and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada worked together on the DEW Line Remediation Project* to clean up the sites, costing the Canadian Government over 575 million dollars, and involving almost two decades of seasonal work for a crew that consisted of 85% Inuit workers.

The scientific data available for the physical cleanup was meticulously collected and documented by the Canadian Government in contrast to the very little we seem to know about the social implications of the permanent shifts this made on a way of living in the North. Stories, relationships, and experiences of working in and around these sites over the years are kept in the memories, or personal archives of the many DEW Line Operators, and the regional inhabitants who were greatly affected by the imposed infrastructure on their way of life.

When I first experienced this piece, I was struck with a feeling almost akin to a sense of foreboding, as if I was experiencing a warning alarm… Could you talk about the DEW project, and why/how you chose to create this kind of effect? Could you also talk about how this work expands on your general interest in communication?

The development of the DEW Line began in the 1950’s. Materials were urgently air-lifted into isolated locations with no previous infrastructure as a front line defense. The DEW Line was constructed with the backing of the US Military and provided a resistance to the Soviet Union in a war that sparked such a great fear on both sides that the many nations in the path of the expanded defense efforts had little choice but to be a part of it. The ability for the DEW Line to multiply so rapidly allowed for future land claims, borderlines, and colonial motivations. The structures of both the Quonset Huts and the DEW Line mark a landscape, leaving strata or landmarks that become monumental references, remembered perhaps not so much for their impact on the landscape as much as their iconic historical presence.

My grandfather’s position as a DEW Line Operator put him on the very edge of the Cold War, and involved spending an entire year in extreme isolation scanning the airwaves listening to SW radio signals to detect information involving potential threats such as the invasion by Soviet Bombers. He became a professional listener in an environment that may have mirrored his experience listening to broadcasts from the Second World War twelve years earlier. At the same time, he engaged himself as a remote extension of a larger nervous system within the complex communication networks of the American Cold War machine.

The emotional strife that we endure when technology fails us is evident enough in our daily domestic struggles with technology. Like Television, and Radio before that, our relationships with computers, iPhones, and tablets, are founded on the comfort and familiarity of the many features and functions they have to offer. Our technology has become mobile, and multifunctional and we have developed more complex relationships with these technologies through the many kinds of media they deliver. Though some of us may either stylistically or pragmatically long for an “obsolete” technology, the commercial branding or the celebrated features of the newest technology motivates the flow of production.

What does ‘creativity’ mean to you?

Being flexible with ones self.

What kinds of things do you find helpful as sources of inspiration?

One thing I often do is just go to thrift stores, flea markets, or pawn shops and browse. It helps to bring things to the surface and to make connections between what I have been doing in the studio and the material around us. I will also go for a walk, or get out of the studio space and just find something to listen to and use that as a guide.

What advice do you have to give to new and aspiring artists?

Spend as much time outside of your studio or workspace as you do in. Share ideas, be open to feedback and constructive criticism, and be honest with people about your message and your intentions.

Learn more about…
Stevenson Screens (Environment Canada)
Distant Early Warning Line (Wikipedia)
DEW Line Remediation (Canadian Forces)

Artist bio

Michael D. McCormack is an interdisciplinary artist from Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 2002 he founded the McCleave Gallery of Fine Art, a performance-based curatorial project consisting of a portable suitcase art gallery, and served as its director/gallery attendant/custodian. The McCleave merged with the Suitcase Art Gallery Space Research Institute (SAGSRI) in 2007.

From 2009 to 2013, he worked as director of Eyelevel Gallery, an artist-run centre in Halifax, and as a representative for the Association of Artist-Run Centres from the Atlantic (AARCA).

McCormack has curated works throughout Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and Ireland and exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in galleries, festivals, and artist-run centres across Canada.

He completed his MFA in Intermedia at Halifax’s NSCAD University (2015), where he developed his two most recent works, BEACON and STATION.

About the Exhibition

Writing Topography runs September 26, 2015 through January 10, 2016. The exhibition is organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and made possible with the generous support of the McCain Family, the Harrison McCain Foundation, and the McCain Foundation. Admission is FREE for Beaverbrook Art Gallery members and for children age six and under. More information on memberships and benefits can be found on our website at

Featured artists include: Robert Bean, Gerald Beaulieu, Jennifer Bélanger, Rémi Belliveau, Jordan Bennett, Kay Burns, Amanda Dawn Christie, Richard Davis, Leah Garnett, Pam Hall, Mark Igloliorte, Navarana Igloliorte, Ursula Johnson, Philippa Jones, Stephen Kelly, Eleanor King, Fenn Martin, Michael McCormack, Kim Morgan, Nigel Roe, Sara Roth, Anna Torma, Gerald Vaandering, and Kim Vose Jones.


One thought on “In their words: Conversations with Writing Topography artists — #04: Michael McCormack

  1. Pingback: Recap: Writing Topography interviews | Galerie d'art Beaverbrook Art Gallery

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