Ben Davis | 2024 Riding Mountain Artists’ Residency

Photo: arsenical land (in progress), Ben Davis.

The Riding Mountain Artists’ Residency gives Manitoban artists time to focus on their work in the beautiful natural setting of Riding Mountain National Park.

The next artist-in-residence for 2024 is Ben Davis, a visual artist based in Brandon. Ahead of his time in the historic Deep Bay Cabin, Ben answered a few of our questions about his work and how he’ll be spending his residency.

MAC: Tell us a little about yourself as an artist and your practice.

Ben Davis: Originally from England, I am a visual artist and art educator. In my practice, I focus on land – its many forms and the multiple ways it may be understood – particularly in relation to social and environmental justice, ecoaesthetics, decolonization, and perception. I work across a diverse range of media such as drawing, painting, installation, video, and sound, often in collaboration with other artists. I am interested in the physical aspects of place as well as the people who live there, and I strive to understand land through examining its history, uses, and the values of its inhabitants over time.

I have exhibited widely, and since moving to Canada, have taught at Brandon University while also being actively involved in community arts education. I have been awarded Banff and Hospitalfield residencies, won multiple grants from funding bodies including the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council, and have presented papers and introduced new work at conferences nationally and internationally.

Tell us about your project—what will you be working on in the Deep Bay Cabin? 

I will be working on one component of extracted, a long-term project which aims to understand and question practices of largescale resource extraction exemplified by those in and around Uranium City, SK. The work is intended to highlight issues of environmental damage, relocation, loss of lands, industrial expansion, and community abandonment; issues that are current and critical with both global and local relevance, including here in Manitoba.

Detail of Uranium City Tracing 1, 2018, Ben Davis.

extracted explores Uranium City, SK, a decommissioned war-industry site, in relation to social and environmental justice and ecoaesthetics. Building on an initial collaboration with Kevin Walby (University of Winnipeg), I am working with photographs, audio interviews with Indigenous and settler residents of UC, maps, and other documents as prompts toward works that, through their materiality, bring to light contradictions behind photographs of seemingly benign Northern lakes and land and unsettling research pertaining to the same locales, drawing attention to far-reaching consequences for people and place.

From this starting point, I am now using the instance of Uranium City to develop work through which to address widespread resource extraction more broadly; numerous Northern sites, including in Manitoba, where  issues of land devastation, lingering toxicity, and forceable relocation of Indigenous peoples all remain real and pressing, particularly at this moment of climate and environmental crisis in Canada.

This work focuses on images of what appear to be areas of natural beauty, but which are, in reality, toxic. It integrates five components as a single body of work: bitumen oil paintings incrementally disappearing oil-based ink block prints (bd_02), collage using Victoriana wallpaper, group tracing gatherings, and a video installation with accompanying soundscape.

For the duration of the Riding Mountain residency, I will be exclusively focusing on this fifth strand, working with the video footage and accompanying audio I recorded during earlier group tracing sessions, along with recordings of conversation and commentary provided by my guides as they provided an informal tour of Uranium City and a number of surrounding significant sites when I visited with the community last year. Additionally, I hope to record ambient sound while in Riding Mountain and explore the possibility of integrating it as part of the extracted soundscape when the work is exhibited at aceartinc., Winnipeg, later this year.

What is your relationship with the park, and what are you most looking forward to exploring?

I’ve been a semi-regular visitor to the park since moving to Manitoba in 2008.

Riding Mountain is an hour north of Brandon where I live, and my partner and I have visited the park on many occasions through a variety of seasons, whether to walk or bike or XC ski on one of the numerous trails, to relax on a beach or swim in the lake, but always to enjoy nature.

When family and friends visit, we always share the park with them, whether encountering a mother bear and her cubs at Moon Lake or hiking along the Escarpment Trail, driving out to explore the Buffalo Enclosure, or pausing for a picnic and a quick dip off the jetty at Spruces.

From  2011 through to 2019, I facilitated over thirty weekend workshops for the Dauphin Arts Group. My journey from Brandon to and from Dauphin regularly entailed driving through Riding Mountain on highway 10, an opportunity I always looked forward to, especially as it afforded me quiet glimpses into the natural world of the park as the seasons transitioned from Fall to Winter and on into Spring.

The possibilities are endless, and even after all these years and a number of memorable encounters with wildlife, I feel as though I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the park’s offerings.

How do you hope the park will influence or inspire your project or practice?

The location and setting of the residency at Deep Bay provides a powerful contrast between preserved and protected healthy lands with those lands ruptured and poisoned by large-scale resource extraction. This of itself carries real meaning and resonance and will inform and inspire how I work: making and creating in nature to raise awareness toward safeguarding it for future generations . But additionally, the residency here in the park represents a unique opportunity in terms of time, space, and periods of quiet solitude to devote myself entirely to working with video and sound recorded for the project, punctuated by revitalizing conversations with curious park visitors, all of whom with have their own experiences, knowledge, understandings, and points of view.

What would you like the public and park staff to know about you and your work?

The work I will be undertaking during the residency is just one aspect of my art practice, and although on first glance, editing video and audio seems removed from our natural world, the wider project is intimately informed by concerns for environment, place, and people. I would welcome the opportunity to chat with people about this project, these issues, and my other work.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers and the Riding Mountain National Park community?

In 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that although the then unfolding coronavirus was the biggest challenge the world had faced since WWII, the planet’s “unfolding environmental crisis” was an “even deeper [environmental] emergency” that the world must not forget. With extracted, I am working toward this shared goal of not forgetting, but of highlighting the crisis and encouraging wider public engagement.

The TRC Final Report (2015), states that we have much to gain from listening to the indigenous voices of those most affected by environmental impacts caused by other human’s decisions. Listening to these voices might provide a way forward toward healing a region. With the audio recordings I made and video footage I took when I visited Uranium City last June and Walby’s earlier recordings of interviews with several current residents of Uranium City, Indigenous and other frequently marginalized voices from rural, remote, and similarly partially abandoned communities will be centered and heard, their experiences, opinions, and beliefs a fundamental part of “extracted.”. These voices are central to the entire larger project, but especially the collaborative tracing component. They offer a layered understanding of Uranium City and its difficult history from diverse perspectives, honoring the community’s cultural expressions and knowledge.

The Riding Mountain Residency represents the ideal venue to develop and present this new audio-visual component of extracted for the first time. The innate contrast between playing the audio and video recordings and accompanying discussion of critical environmental issues within the protected setting of Riding Mountain would, I hope, speak volumes. There is real resonance and meaning in developing and then discussing the project and associated issues in the relatively untouched setting of Riding Mountain National Park, a beautiful natural location not dissimilar to the locale of Uranium City except that the latter has been deeply and negatively impacted by long-term large-scale resource extraction. How would Riding Mountain be affected and changed if mining was ever allowed to take place here?

The Riding Mountain Artists’ Residency is offered in partnership by the Manitoba Arts Council and Riding Mountain National Park.

Interested in the staying in the Deep Bay cabin? Find out how to apply to the Riding Mountain Artists Residency through the Learn – Residencies grant stream. Apply by January 15, 2025 for a residency in the summer of 2025.