Making sense of conflict

Kingston Whig-Standard
16 April 2014

Art is often viewed as a transformative experience, and for installation artist Nichola Feldman-Kiss, creating it was, too.

Feldman-Kiss is one of three artists whose work is being shown as part of the upcoming exhibit, “Terms of Engagement,” which opens at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre next week.

Each artist was embedded with the Canadian military in a conflict zone as a part of its Canadian Forces Artists Program.

Feldman-Kiss — whose work, in this exhibit, consists of 61 digital photographs mounted on to dowels and plastic, and those photos are illuminated using electro-luminescent ink — spent a month or so in 2012 in Sudan.

“What I came to be aware of is that there are certain conflicts out there in the world that I could not make head or tail of no matter how much research I did, no matter how diverse my alternative or mainstream my sources were, no matter how much history I read, I was still not going to be able to make sense of them,” she explained.

“So I was really driven to make sense of something, and Sudan was the most, the longest, pervasive, most complicated, least-understood, least-talked-about (conflict).”

She was also drawn to learning more about trauma.

“It sort of dawned on me that I can’t understand what they’ve seen,” she offered. “I can be sympathetic and empathetic, a deep listener and curious and all of those things, but at the end of the day I know I can’t understand what they’ve seen and how it affected them. It kind of dawned on me that really to understand trauma “¦ that I would really to also be on the ground.”

Feldman-Kiss was drawn to the theme of protection, and, in order to examine it, she figured she had to learn about doing so herself.

So she took two courses at the Peace Support Training Centre located at CFB Kingston: hazardous environment training and pre-deployment training.

“We did practice scenarios,” she said of the HET course. “I used to be a lifeguard when I was a teenager, you know, and we had fake drowning victims? So we had fake, theatrical human rights abuses and scenarios like that to deal with. It was very intense.”

Then it was on to five to six weeks of pre-deployment training, which she said was “a different project in itself.”

“It threw me completely me out of my comfort zone,” explained Feldman-Kiss, who for five years was a resident artist at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

“I’m an anti-military person, a non-intervention person, a self-determination person. So it was completely outside handling munitions, small arms, and IEDS, and learning about suicide vests. So we learned about typical Afghanistan stuff and a little bit about civil society stuff.”

The experience, including her training, changed her opinion about the military, Feldman-Kiss feels.

“I just didn’t feel like those sort of lofty opinions that I had about the military were necessarily relevant at the most granular, individual person level,” she explained. “And there were people of all degrees of sophistication and education and, you know, it was just a micro-society.”

The Sudan trip also changed Feldman-Kiss’ perspective, and she immediately wanted to get back into the field upon her return.

“I came back with being deeply saddened, completely lost my idealism, became much more practical,” she explained.

“And now the things that I choose to do have to be much more meaningful because my relationship to that fleeting thing of life, I realize how much more fragile it is. And today, here we are, fine, but tomorrow it might not be that way, so I’m really much more about exploiting today than I ever was, and the things that I choose to engage with have to really feed me at a deep place.

“I’m really not about wasting my time.”

Peter Hendra, Kingston Whig-Standard
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