Erin Shirreff discusses Parks Canada, a short film series from the 1980s depicting Canadian national parks, which influenced the artist’s video work Lake (2012). Lake was the subject of the 2012 New York Close Up film, “Erin Shirreff Takes Her Time.”
ART21: Tell us about how you first encountered Parks Canada.
SHIRREFF: When I would get up on Saturday morning to watch cartoons with my brother, we would be lying in the family room, watching Roadrunner or Dungeons and Dragons. And in between the cartoons there would be these little vignettes that came out of nowhere and they had this very, very haunting music. And it was just this sequence of images of the landscape in Canada. And I remember one that had a loon, you know just floating along and this haunting loon call. And then they were over and then we would go back to watching cartoons.
This was when I was five, six. And I didn’t really think anything of them, but I guess they really lodged in my mind because years later I was living in New Mexico. I was listening to this album by Boards of Canada (a band who’s actually from Scotland.) And I heard this sort of strange echo of something that was really deeply familiar but I didn’t know what it was. And I went online and was researching it, and other people had kind of noted the same thing. And they traced it back to the NFB, the National Film Board of Canada. And then I started just trying to actually remember what those things were, those little pieces of TV. And I talked to my brother about it and we both got super obsessed by it.
ART21: How did those videos resurface for you as an adult?
SHIRREFF: Actually just this past summer my brother sent me an email and the subject line was “this is going to blow your mind.” And I clicked into it and it was a link to this amazing person on YouTube who had found all of these remnants [from the Parks Canada film series] and compiled them. And when you click on them it’s like you’re instantly transported back to the carpet of your parents house.
The music [by composer Alain Clavier] …. it’s very sort of disquieting music. They’re very moody pieces and they to me seem really, really distinctly Canadian. And Canadian of that time period. They would not be produced now. Just what that means is a hard question, because it’s sort of a cliché to say Canada’s identity is not having an identity. I grew up with both Canadian culture and American culture and seeing both for themselves because they are so beside one another. I grew up watching Degrassi Junior High and 90210, two high school narratives that couldn’t be more different. I always felt a certain amount of pride about being from the country that made Degrassi Junior High. And I have a certain amount of pride in those shorts you know. And it’s not a nationalistic thing, but they allow for an experience that isn’t necessarily happy or jingoistic or celebratory or triumphant, it’s just sort of there. It pictures an equanimity with the wilderness. Like you’re just sort of in it for a bit with your backpack and then you go back home. It’s not like you are blazing a path down the middle of it or trying to colonize it in some way. Here’s this hulking backyard that is out of anybody’s grasp.