Notes from the Field: COUSIN
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, Matt speaks with Adam Piron, a member of COUSIN, about some of the thinking behind the creation of the initiative, as well as what has happened since he started the project with co-founders Sky Hopinka, Adam Khalil, and Alexandra Lazarowich in 2018.
COUSIN is a collective that was created to provide support for Indigenous artists expanding traditional definitions and understandings of the moving image by experimenting with form and genre. COUSIN creates work that is personal, proudly provocative and driven by strong, artistic voices, celebrating this work and getting it made, seen and shared. In 2020, COUSIN, with support from Cinereach, launched an open call for projects by Indigenous artists, offering grants to eight projects to help support the development, production and/or completion of films. COUSIN has also organized screening programmes of work by Indigineous artists, including COUSIN: CYCLE 0, a free online programme that presented previous works by artists selected for their first cycle of commissions, as well as curated programmes at MoMA Doc Fortnight, SF Crossroads, REDCAT and various other venues and festivals.
When did you form COUSIN and what sort of things were you thinking about at that point of foundation?
We were all friends before COUSIN. We all knew each other, mostly through the Indigenous film world, which is not huge. All of us had some kind of crossover with each other from festivals and other events. I work for Sundance. At the time, I was the manager of their Indigenous programme and also a film programmer on the short film team. I met Alex first, in 2014 I think, and then I met Sky in 2015. I met Adam Khalil around 2016. It was weird too because we were all friends and we all knew about each other, but it wasn’t until the Flaherty Film Seminar in 2018 that we were all in the same place at once.
It was from there that it all took off. We were passionate about the need for a better form of support for Indigenous artists working in, for lack of a better term, the experimental film space, and Sky, Alex, and Adam all had direct experience in this. This was something that we all kept talking about, so we decided to try to make something that gave some sort of support for artists working in this space, or offer some type of platform. When we eventually got a grant from Cinereach, we were able to put that towards a first cycle of commissions. With the pandemic, we then shifted a little bit because I think everybody at that time was having the same thoughts: how is filmgoing, or even filmmaking, going to be changed by this?
I think we were pretty strategic with the projects that we selected. We were super excited for all the artists, some of whom we knew and some we didn't. I think we came up with the idea to try out online programming a day or two before the selection announcement. Seeing as everybody was locked inside and we were all on our computers all the time, we decided to set up some kind of streaming programme showing the previous work of the artists we were working with so as to give people a taste of what's to come. I think people really connected with that.
I don't know if you would agree with this, but I think there was a moment early in the pandemic, probably in the first 6-8 months, where it felt like studios were scrambling and larger independent filmmakers also didn't know what to do in terms of distribution, and as a result there was this interesting blossoming of experimental filmmaking online. There were a lot of people that were streaming things for free and just putting their work out there, and there were also people that were still making work because they were already used to making stuff on their own or in their own house. It was this weird sort of planetary alignment where, not by any sort of intentional design, we happened to be in the right place at the right time.
With the focus on experimental filmmaking, did you perceive an absence or lack of support for Indigenous filmmakers and artists in that regard?
We use experimental filmmaking as a term, but I think we also try to also be aware that anything that's at the perceived margins gets thrown under the experimental film umbrella. I think that was also part of our mission. We also wanted to identify and support people that were making something from an Indigenous-specific cultural logic or point of view, specifically in terms of the formal aspects of the filmmaking. The way that we put it in our mission statement is that we're supporting Indigenous artists that are pushing the formal boundaries of the moving image. We use ‘the moving image’ because we are also interested in artists operating in a more hybrid space too. Some of the commissioned artists crossover into installation, and one of the projects is intended to be made, in part, in VR. So, I think we're trying to keep it somewhat open, but I think ‘experimental’ is a good way to describe it for the time being, despite the trappings. I think the other thing is that it allows an audience to come to the work with a certain expectation and a certain set of rules, or lack thereof. Something that we've been really into is having the artists and their work speak for themselves rather than us trying to speak on their behalf.
In the US in particular, a lot of funding and support for Indigenous work traditionally has sort of been for narrative film and documentaries. There's reasons for that. In the US, we don't have the type of support that Indigineous filmmakers in Canada, New Zealand, or Australia have. So, I think because of this, there have been very few channels for support for Indigenous work. This is not to bag on any of the institutions that have Indigenous programmes. It is more that they have their specialties in terms of what they have been able to do with the platforms that they have. In terms of the artists working in this space, there just hasn't been that type of support because there is an interesting sort of dynamic with a lot of the support that is available where a certain colonial dynamic comes into play where, when going to a funding body that's backed by government money or other sources, you have to fit within a certain bracket. That's a little bit harder with experimental filmmakers, especially if they're Indigenous, because I think there is the expectation that if you're an Indigenous filmmaker you have to be making films on social issues or about community. Traditionally, that has always been the challenge because those resources have been very few and far in between. We knew that this was happening, so we decided to try to build some type of platform or create a space for a different sort of community.
How do you see COUSIN as functioning? You commission work, but you presumably wouldn’t see COUSIN as a funding body? Is it more like a system of advocacy or a way to amplify artists you appreciate, regardless of whether or not you have funded them?
I think we are still figuring that out, but also somewhat intentionally keeping it ambiguous. We are gearing up for our next cycle of commissions which will be slightly different. We wanted to support artists and their projects, so I guess we are a funding body to some degree, but I think that we've also tried to skew what that means by trying to give any type of support that these artists need. It's that interesting chicken and egg type of thing where you want to support people but, outside of funding, what does that support look like? So I think we've tried to kind of keep our offering somewhat holistic, or somewhat bespoke, depending on whatever the artist's needs are. Funding is definitely a component of that, but we've also done the programming too. That involves sharing previous work by the artists that we're currently working with, but also just work by people that are our friends or that we’ve come across. I think our main thing is to support and amplify. Maybe that is the most simple way to put it.
Yeah, I had noticed that your website was quite vague in terms of the descriptions you use and the way it's all laid out, so I was wondering if that was an intentional way of signaling that this is an organization that is always changing and growing?
The four co founders have our own dynamic of how we work together and how we approach the work and support these artists. It's not necessarily a closed group. I think because we're volunteer-run, we've avoided a lot of the trappings of other arts organizations where the lines become a lot more rigid because, just from a funding standpoint, you have to. There are good and bad things about being a volunteer run organization, but in general it has given us a lot of flexibility to really identify, amplify, and support a lot of this work that we're passionate about and keep things pure on some level.
I did want to ask you why is it important that COUSIN operates independently, compared to more traditional institutions? What freedoms do you get from working in this other way?
We've been very fortunate with some of the funding that we've received in the sense that we didn't have to grant write. A lot of the opportunities that we've had have been the result of people who have reached out to us because they've seen the work that we’ve done. We've really been able to stick to the idea of letting the work talk for itself. We've been able to make really intentional decisions about the funding we receive and where it's directed. I think there has always been something intentional about what we're doing that has resonated. We've kind of just done our own thing and supported artists who've made really good work, and people have connected with that.
How do you find artists that aren't in your direct network? And in a broader sense, what sort of work are you as a collective drawn to?
The first cycle was our first time doing something like that collectively. We knew some of the people that were already out there and we knew that they were going to be applying. That was great because we really like their work and we want to support them if we can, but then there were other people that came totally out of the blue and that was also amazing too. It has been super fulfilling working with them. With this next round, we're definitely going to be doing a lot more outreach to different communities, because we know there are voices out there, and maybe there are also some people working in that space that don’t know about us yet. So, for us, it is an interesting challenge. It is a small world, but there's still a lot of work that's just not on our radar. The best we can do is put out an open call and reach out to people too.
I wanted to ask how you have been dealing with bridging distances of understanding with this work, because COUSIN may be bringing some of this work to new audiences, especially internationally, that don’t necessarily understand it?
Everybody is invited, but we are definitely centering an Indigenous audience with COUSIN and talking to them first. That's kind of what I would say to that. It's almost like that David Lynch quote where somebody said to him: “You've said that Eraserhead is your most spiritual movie, can you explain that?” His response was: “No.” That's kind of what I would say about that too. There's some things that we’ll only speak to certain people about, whether that is other Indigenous people, or even people within our own tribes.
I also think what also makes COUSIN different from some other organizations out there is that we're not necessarily interested in trying to educate people on Indigeneity. We're just supporting people that are making work and just letting the work speak for itself, whilst also centering an Indigenous audience. I think there is also this burden that people in general face where people see you as a representative of a group. You are to a certain extent, but there's also the idea of trying to actively move away from that. There is that weird tension to it. I may be a representative of a group, but the only thing I can be authoritative about is my own experience. I think people think of Indigenous people as one group where we are a number of different things. I can't speak for other Kiowa people, I can only speak of my own experience.
I wanted to go back to something that you were talking about earlier, because I had wanted to ask about it when you were talking about how COUSIN is focused on experimental filmmakers. I’m interested in your thoughts on whether or not you feel that the term is useful as a way of bringing people together? Do you think that experimental work should be ring-fenced and protected, or is that kind of furthering the forms of marginalization you were speaking about? Is it a useful marginalization?
I would say it's useful, but I’m also realizing a lot of its limitations as well. Sky and I have talked about that term, and Adam and Alex as well. Some of the artists we work with are very consciously working within the experimental film space. They may even be making reference to other well known experimental films in their work. I think it's great. There should be Indigenous people working in that space. But there are also people we work with that are approaching the moving image by thinking about what they can do with the medium, experimenting with the form from their point of view and cultural perspective as an Indigenous person. This bucket term of ‘experimental film’ provides a space that can include this too, because it offers room to try things out. Something we were really adamant about early on was creating a space for Indigenous artists to experiment and really kind of figure out what their voices are. With a lot of the other available funding, there's not a ton of room for something like that. So, for us, it's convenient to use the term ‘experimental film’ because it provides room to work in for people that we want to support. It's both convenient and intentional. We see it as a gray space that works for encompassing both what people are doing but also what people may want to do.
I thought it also was interesting that you said that the term ‘experimental’ creates an expectation in the viewer that for you is actually useful, because a lot of people often say the opposite: that it creates a sense of intimidation or a negative expectation that can be off putting.
I think that there can be a lot of baggage when you say you're an Indigenous filmmaker, depending on the audience. If you're facing a more mainstream audience, and you say you are an Indigenous filmmaker and you are making Indigenous films, there is an expectation of what that looks like. But I think if you follow the experimental standpoint, you're going into a room full of people that are very open minded. They are there to absorb the experience and to process it on its own terms. This is my own opinion, but I’ve found it to be better because people are approaching the work first, and then kind of working backwards, whereas with more traditional film audiences, it's always the opposite. They're starting from the Indigenous thing and then working from there. That actually makes sense. Just thinking about the work being made by the artists that COUSIN has supported, the confines of what is ‘experimental’ is not really that limiting. Even just in terms of their aesthetics, no one artist is really that similar to another.
With all of the artists, there is a desire to push their work to the next stage and have that space. With COUSIN, we've always wanted to make a space where Indigenous people don't have to ask for permission to do this sort of thing, or to have to justify why they're doing it. Just let them do it. Just speaking personally, if, at the end of the day, people look back on COUSIN and think that it was cool that we let Indigenous artists do what they want on their own terms, for me that would be more than enough.
The idea of COUSIN is secondary to the work itself? If the work all looks the same, or people have some expectations of what a film that went through COUSIN would be like, then you would have failed in your founding mission in some way?
I don't think that we necessarily have a brand or anything like that. We're not a production company that tells people they have to hit these things or create work in a certain register. I think it is based on all of our own tastes and the strength of the artist’s works. I'm sure people will maybe see some overlap in some of the stuff, or some connecting themes, and that’s cool. If we can just amplify this work then I think that is great because then people will always have something to look back on. If there is some Indigenous kid out there who is figuring out filmmaking, and then they see a film made by Kite or Fox Maxy and it blows their mind, then, for me, that is mission accomplished. Or if there is someone else out there who is trying to figure out a different way to make films that are true to themselves and how they see the world as an indigenous person and they see work through COUSIN that helps with that, then that is what COUSIN is for, in my opinion at least. Outside of directly supporting artists, it is also about showing people that there is a different way to do something and that they don't need to be asking permission from anybody to do it.
The last thing I wanted to ask was if you had any inspirations for COUSIN, when you were setting up? Were there other collectives or spaces you looked to? Inversely, were there certain models or ways of doing things that you actively didn’t want to replicate?
Because we are still figuring it out, I don't know if there is anybody in particular that we wanted to be. This might sound a little bit crass, but I almost see us, the COUSIN co-founders, as a Swiss army knife in the sense that we all have our own experience and expertise, specifically around this experience of working in the film space and being Indigenous. We've definitely seen some folks where it hasn't necessarily worked out that great for them, but at the end of the day, we're just friends doing this thing. We had this idea, we wanted to do it, and now we are seeing how far we can take it or where it will go next.
it is probably quite healthy to not be so attached to something that you have to compromise it in some way, or become dependent on it for your income for instance?
We don't have to show up to the office and hang out by the water cooler. We are all friends and we are really all passionate about this thing, and that’s why we're still doing it on a volunteer basis. That's what it has always kind of come down to, a dynamic of mutual respect. We're all really into each other's work, and into supporting all of these other people as well, too. It's been fairly laid back and pleasant to figure out the rhythm of COUSIN as it goes.