Who We’re Watching: Joële Walinga

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Image Credit: Joële Walinga

The question of who has the right to produce work—and to assess its worth—has left the art world to grapple with the common criticism of elitism. Historically, art galleries, cinematheques and other cultural institutions have tended to favour a narrow, academically sanctioned universe of understanding, and to outsiders they can often feel unwelcoming or inaccessible. Filmmaker and artist Joële Walinga has felt these restrictions firsthand, and, having found her own way within these institutions, is now using her practice to remove these barriers for others. Committed to making people who may not necessarily identify as artists feel comfortable in traditionally exclusive spaces, Walinga is unique in her ability to bridge the social gap between artwork and audience.

Walinga is unique in her ability to bridge the social gap between artwork and audience.

Born in Calgary and raised between Alberta and Ontario, Walinga was discouraged from creative pursuits throughout childhood. Determined to explore her artistic potential on her own, she eventually enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) in 2011, where she studied intermedia arts for one formative year. Aside from an additional semester at Concordia University in Montreal, Walinga’s practice has been largely self-directed. Currently based in Toronto, where she has lived and worked for much of her adult life, she has relied on her own intuition and interests to guide her, supplementing her formal training with personal experimentation and literature that piques her curiosity.

This foundational experience of carving out her own path through the art world has informed much of Walinga’s work, both as a visual artist and as a filmmaker. Running throughout her oeuvre is a recurring preoccupation with inclusion and encouragement, with creating the means to allow people who may not have any formal background in art to find a way into its universe. Walinga is also driven by a genuine and open curiosity that expresses itself in eclectic, often experimental ways, and that always seeks to question her relationship to the world around her with deep empathy and attention. What most sets her work apart, however, is her ability to meld this openness with intellectual rigour and a striking aesthetic sensibility all her own.

Walinga is also driven by a genuine and open curiosity that expresses itself in eclectic, often experimental ways, and that always seeks to question her relationship to the world around her with deep empathy and attention.

In early conceptual works, Walinga explored notions of accessibility that reflected her own personal and professional artistic journeys. The interactive performance piece What Colour Should We Paint This Chair? (2015) saw Walinga and collaborator Dylin North paint a wooden chair 83 times over the course of a five-week residency, taking colour requests from a phone line and live-streaming their labour on weekdays from nine to five. “It was meant to really open the door to the gallery in a collaborative way,” says Walinga, “letting people make a decision we would respect enough to go through with without question.” Placing the onus of creativity on the callers, the piece subverted aesthetic decision-making, exposing the often unglamorous work at the heart of art and creation. It also encouraged the audience to trust their own judgements about art-making, moving beyond feelings of alienation or self-doubt.

Image Credit: Joële Walinga

This notion of unfettered encouragement extends into Walinga’s film practice. Her first short film, Cave Small Cave Big (2017), a surrealist drama centred on the adventures of Butterfly Girl and the theft of her cave by a mad scientist, was conceived of, and guided entirely by, the imaginings of two five-year-old girls, Madeline Harker and Adelaide Schwartz, the children of friends. Faithfully adhering to the script they outlined for her, Walinga went to lengthy efforts to bring their concept to life, in the process producing a stylistically compelling and deceptively simple fable about ownership and loss. The first in a forthcoming series of films written by children and directed by Walinga, Cave Small Cave Big premiered at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and has continued to screen at various venues around the country. “My intent was to tackle the aesthetics of empowerment head-on,” said Walinga of the piece, “and to remind children that their ideas are valuable and worthy of viewership, even outside of the traditional spectrum of artistic or filmic influence.”

Tonally different from much of her previous work, while still possessed of her unmistakable eye for aesthetic detail and signature open-mindedness, Walinga’s first feature-length film, God Straightens Legs (2017), premiered at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, and opened 2018’s Vertical Features series in Toronto. The experimental documentary focuses on Walinga’s Christian mother Renée’s struggle with cancer, as she eschews conventional treatments in favour of divine intervention. Walinga sits silently off-screen in Renée’s room as she makes calls to insurance companies, prays with friends, and watches televangelist Joseph Prince preach, all while waiting for a literal miracle. Aided by captivating, ethereal sound design (courtesy of Walinga and Marcel Ramagnano) and cinematographer Maya Bankovic’s purposeful gaze, the result is an  immersive experience. The rooftops of suburbia give way to endless skies of clouds, while a lilting electronic score invokes a certain melancholic nostalgia and children’s peals of laughter echo next-door. This heightens Renée’s sense of isolation, as she is confined to bed and forced to watch life continue on outside her window.

Image Credit: Joële Walinga

In one particularly memorable scene, Walinga listens to her mother recount the changes she would make to her plain, unadorned room and hospital bed. In the next, the director is creating that same dream room for her before our eyes, complete with an enormous headboard, plush pink pillows and white roses in a bedside vase. It is a moment of cinematic miracle-making—formally brilliant and deeply tender—and another form of the non-judgmental encouragement at the heart of Walinga’s work. It is also the mark of an artist attuned to others, patiently willing to explore across difference, and with the unmistakable talent and vision to translate these experiences into affecting work. If the future of Canadian moving-image practice looks anything like Joële Walinga, then we are in good hands.

Paloma is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and a graduate student at The University of British Columbia's School of Journalism.

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Paloma is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and a graduate student at The University of British Columbia's School of Journalism.