Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 98: Art, Migration, and Connection — with Adriana Contreras

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Melissa Roach, Adriana Contreras

Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hola oyentes. Bienvenidos a Below the Radar Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded at the territories of the Musqueam. Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Me nombre es Fiorella Pinillos.

Melissa Roach  0:20  
And I'm Melissa Roach. For this episode, we're joined by Adriana Contreras, a visual artist, communicator, and graphic recorder, who we've had the pleasure of working with at SFU while she was the Marketing Manager for SFU Woodward's cultural programs,

Fiorella Pinillos  0:34  
We hope you enjoy the episode.

Melissa Roach  0:41  
Hi, and welcome to Below the Radar. Welcome to our colleague and friend Adriana–would you like to maybe introduce yourself a little bit and see where you're coming from?

Adriana Contreras  0:53  
Thank you so much, Melissa, Fiorella. For this invitation. My name is Adriana Contreras. I'm a first-generation immigrant. I'm a visual artist, graphic recorder, visual communicator and just a big enthusiast for arts and culture. I was born in the lands of the Muisca people, which is known as Bogota, Colombia, and I migrated with my whole family when I was 15 years old. Let's leave it at that for now.

Fiorella Pinillos  1:22  
Adriana, your story is so inspiring just hearing about the role of art in your migration story--can you tell us a little bit about that, and how that played, art played a role in connecting you with a sense of place?

Adriana Contreras  1:36  
When I moved to this land, by the Salish Sea with my family, as I was saying I was 15 years old, so... it's a very volatile time; teenage years are not easy. And then encountering a new landscape, a new way of life and language, a new education system, like all these things that kind of came together all at the same time. It was very confusing. We arrived in the summer, we arrived actually July 1st, and we were living in an apartment on the West End. So everything felt a bit like a vacation, then we moved to Burnaby. And then once September hit, it was time to go to school, reality hit like, "Oh, this is for real, we're not going back, this is our life now." Growing up in Colombia was very... I liked my school very much, I liked what we did, I liked everything. It was something that really impacted... impacts who I am now. My time at school in Colombia impacts who I am, and so that transition was harder than I had expected. So when I was choosing my courses, I was very conscious to choose a lot of art-related classes. Because there was some, it was something that I could at least understand, it wasn't like–I could understand English, but I wasn't very fluent. This was something that I could be good at, or I could feel that I was succeeding at something when everything else was kind of failing, like... the sciences weren't working so well, because I couldn't understand the terminology, and all these other things weren't going so well, but the arts were something where I could just go sit and relax, and let it all out in a visual way. And I've been lucky to come with really amazing art instructors, from the beginning. I think about them a lot, because they were the ones who could see past the language barrier to see who I was and what I could bring out, and what I could express, and they really uplifted that for me. And so that kind of made me want to pursue the arts after I finished high school. So, I went into doing my studies, at SFU, at the School for the Contemporary Arts, but I've also had a lot of support from my parents. And I think all of us in our family, went to something in the arts as a way of rooting ourselves in place, and understand where we landed, understand the geography, understand where we, where we are, because of what I was just saying, about being able to express ourselves in a different way, that it didn't require the language, but also because of the connections we made, the people we met, who could see us for who we were. And we created a, like, really strong network of support through instructors and other artists and people who also want to imagine a different world. And I think that's the magic of it. You didn't have to talk so much--the connection was beyond words. I don't know how to really, how to explain it, but it's something where you look at the other person or you see the movement or you talk about a form of dance, you share music, and the connection is there. And I think that's why it's been so important: the friendships that we've formed and that network of support has really been around the arts, and cultural events and cultural spaces.

Fiorella Pinillos  4:59  
I love that--it's all super beautiful. For me, it was a little bit the same. You know, I totally relate with what you're saying, with me as an immigrant, art and dance was what really connected me with this new place? Definitely that the relationships that I formed through art and through dance are still the strongest friendships I have. It's amazing what art can do.

Melissa Roach  5:25  
Yeah, I love what you're saying about having those few instructors who, it's so important to have those, especially when you're a teenager, as you said, teenagers, being a teen's a hard time, a really hard time, but having instructors that really see you, and to have that happen through your own art, that's, that's really incredible. You mentioned dance, we know you're a dancer, and you love dance, and you've worked in the dance world too, like with New Works, and when you were with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, can you share with us where your love of dance comes from? I'm sure it stems out of a lot of what you just shared, but could you share a little bit more?

Adriana Contreras  6:04  
Yeah, I grew up with a family that likes to dance. And I think it's also just cultural with a lot of families in Colombia; when you have a party, dance is part of what a party is. So, you have your gathering, but then the music plays and people just get up and dance. And that's just essential for it that, like, even the way you lay out the room for a party, you have a dance floor no matter what. So, I think that from there, I have a vivid memory of like being probably like five years old, and there was a party at our apartment, and I went over to my dad, "You have to teach me how to dance!" And then my cousins were teaching me how to dance, but it's, yeah, so it was something in me, I really wanted to do it. And then I did some training. I did ballet when I was very little. And then my school that I was mentioning it was a school, I can say that it's, super long. It's called Centro Educativo Integral Colsubsidio]. I don't know if I want to call it an experiment, but it was like something where they will, whoever came together to put together this school, they wanted to try something new. So they weigh the design, the school, the playgrounds, the connections of the buildings, the hallways, the connection, like the outdoor and indoor, and the curriculum had a lot of arts in it. So we had, twice a week for sure, we had art classes. And we could also choose between music and dance. And so I always had dance classes as my weekly routine within the school curriculum. And then when I moved to Canada, that was something that was lacking. And I tried a few things, but it's like, "Oh, no, I don't move like this, this is not what I'm used to, I don't understand this music, what is going on." And so I left it for a long time and I missed it. And then in my mid-20s, after a bad breakup and being super sad, I was like, "I'm gonna do what I want to do," and so I just signed up for... a friend invited me to a contemporary dance class. And, and I was not good at it, but I was like, I'm gonna do it anyway. And it just kept going on, I stick with it for almost three years. So I was dancing with this number and start dancing [??], I also got to dance with Vanessa Goodman, and a lot of artists that I've got to work with later on. So it was an opportunity for me to connect with my body and have something to look forward to every week. And from there, I realized that I was... I already knew this, but like this is my entryway to something that I've always wanted to do, and be part of the performing arts. So I'll backtrack a little bit--my training is in the visual arts, visual arts, contemporary arts, art history, and a lot of my emphasis was in Latin American art. But I was getting lonely in the studio, like I want to do something else I want to do something that involves other people in the collaboration in the creation, being part of a dance collective, opened new doors for me, or made me realize that I could be applying for jobs in the performing arts, something that hadn't occurred to me. So, a position came up with New Performance Work Society to do marketing and promotions, and I'm like, I will apply for this, and... and it worked! So I was part of the nonprofit for a few years and a job that began as a marketing and communications role turned into curation and coordinating events, and that opened so many more ways of connecting with community and also rethinking what I could do.

Melissa Roach  9:37  
That's incredible! I love the first time going back... every party is a dance party.

Fiorella Pinillos  9:43  
Yeah. And they love you know, what? Adriana, the first time... The first time that I saw Adriana was for one of the performances of New Works. And I just saw you presenting that... presenting this flamenco show, and you were just, you know, out there out front of this audience and saying, "Yeah, me nombre, my name is Adriana Contreras," and presenting with your beautiful accent. And I've always been terrified of being in front of public, talking with my accent... and you were doing that I was like, "Oh my god, I just want to be her!" But yeah, anyways, that was my first memory of of you. I didn't even know you. But I knew "Okay, like... this is someone that I want to meet."

Adriana Contreras  10:30  
I remember that. So Right. Yes. Yeah.

Melissa Roach  10:34  
Both of you. For me, like both of your love of dance has been like, infectious for me. And I used to go see dance live. I didn't know how magical it was. Adriana invited me to New Work shows... Mind blown.

Fiorella Pinillos  10:50  
Yeah. So Adriana, can you tell us a little bit about the connection between arts and social change and, or... art and community and social change? And how do you would have been your experiences with that?

Adriana Contreras  11:05  
I think the fact that my connection to our changed, so drastically when I moved here, as that kind of lifesaver, or something that I could hold on to so tight, and I knew how important it was. I started to... to see other things around the impact of art and society as a whole. But I think something that did impact me quite a bit was going--when I was in university, and the teachers that I had in university, so I had the pleasure to study with Carmen Rodriguez, who was leading the Latin American Studies with an emphasis on arts and culture. And so we were learning, I was learning about Latin America, from a very different point of view, I'm learning a lot of history that I had never learned before. But learning about it from the standpoint of the resistance, I happen to the arts, a lot of the artists that had to leave, and were exiled for so long, artists who lost their lives in the battle for social justice in Latin America. And so that really guided a lot of my interest on wanting to learn more, but also understanding that art cannot be neutral, you... you make a choice with your art, you make a choice of where, where you want to take it and the message that you want to give. So, it's not trivial, it's not unbiased, ever, like you... you make a choice, when you're creating your artwork, and you... there is a message that you want to send. And so with that power, comes a lot of responsibility of what it is that you want to express, and who are you bringing into the conversation? And also, who are you leaving out, if you are not conscious of what you're creating? And I think that also guided my choices on the work that I pursued. For many years, I worked at the gallery at SFU, which also gives me access to understanding collections and what is curated what comes into museums, what comes into galleries, what's kept, what stories are, are held dear, and which ones are missing, and what is the... what is the responsibility of curators to also ask those hard questions? And then the choice of working with New Works was--So the fact that the priority for the organization was to make dance accessible to everyone. So, there was this priority on making things not expensive, so people can access it, because that is something that I noticed somewhat, when I moved here was that accessing performances or cultural spaces, or courses, even like training for the arts is expensive. And for me, I mean, that's, that's a very huge disservice to society as a whole when you are starving people of expressing themselves and connecting with others and seeing the range of expression that we have. So I think I've been very deliberate of where I've worked and the work that I support, and also the spaces where I... where I want to be, to make sure that they are recognized for that important service and that important place that they have in society, and to make us think of new ways of being and imagining other futures.

Melissa Roach  14:22  
Well, you're reminding me of another point to, like, consumer, not conflict, but thinking about, like access, and I know that New Works really like, prioritizes that their ethos and for that reason, like, that a lot of the artists that invite are, I see, called... emerging artists, that... I just think about how, emerging artists are really ones who just haven't had their artists status codified by an institution yet.

Fiorella Pinillos  14:54  
Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Adriana Contreras  14:57  
And there's also a limitation with age when it goes to the idea of emerging artists, because a lot of artists who maybe they're just starting their career because they just couldn't do it before, for many reasons: family responsibilities, access to... anything, anything! Like, there's so many reasons why you might start your career later in life. I find it so heartbreaking, but it has like an age limitation that you can only be emerging after a certain age or like that... That's the expectation.

Melissa Roach  15:30  
Yeah, totally. I'm gonna quote our friend carla, carla bergman. She said to me before that, it doesn't make sense to have you go from emerging to not emerging. She says like, we're always emerging in different ways as we try new things. 

Adriana Contreras  15:46  
That was so beautiful. 

Fiorella Pinillos  15:47  

Melissa Roach  15:48  
Yeah. As you're talking about, y'kno, the connections and... between arts and justice and how you, how it's shaped, how you've chosen where you want to work in your career. It'd be great if you could tell us about what you're doing now. Because that all seems like, so solidified in your work now with Drawing Change. So, I'd love to hear about your journey in becoming a graphic facilitator and how you came to be doing this work.

Adriana Contreras  16:19  
Yes, this this year has been really interesting too, because that has been in my mind a lot, how. like, all my worlds came into one, into this new practice that I am diving into. So in 2018, my colleague and friend Karina Nielsen told me about the opportunity to be a community scholar with the organization Drawing Change, which is led by Sam Bradd, and with Drawing Change, we... we're visual practitioners we're graphic recorders, illustrators, visual storytellers, we work to take ideas that are complex, and, and express them in a different way to help people make those connections and understand them... I wouldn't say better, but to see them from a different point of view. So I applied to be a community scholar with Drawing Change, and I was accepted. And I was thrilled to be invited to be part of, of that program. I didn't know what exactly it was going to entail, so... it meant that I received training with them, that was the fall of 2018. And then just an incredible amount of support from the organization to continue practicing, to continue creating my portfolio, to break those barriers that I had in my mind that I couldn't do it, like the persistence of support from Sam asking me, month after month, "Do you feel ready you want to do this, do you want to do graphic recording, show me what you've been doing!" And it took me a while, but in the spring of 2019, I was like, "Okay, I'm ready." So we put together a small portfolio. And from there, a lot of opportunities have come for me to, to come to spaces, to listen, to graphic record, to make connections to support important work that is... that is very close to my values. So I've had opportunity to work with organizations that support migrant workers, I've done a lot of work in the field of education, mental health... I've also worked with Indigenous organizations. And the range is huge--work that does research on climate change, and just transforming how we relate to land. And all the way, I was saying before all my worlds kind of collapsed into one in a really good way. Because the work that we do with graphic recording requires us to listen deeply, which I feel I've been practicing my whole life? I've always been told I'm too quiet, that I don't speak enough. And it's like, "Well, it's because I listen, I like to listen to stories, I really like to pay attention to what people have to share." So, that was one big part of it. But also, graphic recording is a very embodied exercise where you are listening with your whole body. And those experiences that are being shared in the room, I can feel them come through me, and especially when we work large scale on paper, we're standing up in front of this paper, like, larger board so the relationship to paper is different than working on a smaller scale on the desk, where you... you feel your your body moving as the, as those words are coming through. So there's a little bit of that dance aspect of it, and also a performance aspect because we're doing this in front of people. So, it is... it is a very different relationship, when other people can be there to see and react on the moment to what we're creating, to what we're putting together. We're listening to their words, and we want to amplify their messages so they get to see that as well. And that really helps to... to fuel conversation in a different way, or to feed, is a better word. It's a nicer way To feed conversation in that better way, to nurture and to uphold what people are saying, so that they feel seen in that moment. So, the words just... don't stay up in the air, they land somewhere, and they're planting seeds. And a graphic recording, it's almost like you're taking a snapshot of the moment, and capturing some of that energy that was built in that moment. And we can remember who we were at that moment: we said this, we made these commitments. And this is where we're dreaming. It's a good way of remembering what we want to achieve, so that it doesn't dissolve over time.

Fiorella Pinillos  20:38  
That's amazing. And you've also done some of these graphic recording in Spanish. 

Adriana Contreras  20:43  
I have, yeah. And that was very interesting for me, because I, I feel that... it is different for sure. It's a it's a, it's a different part of my brain that is working, it's a different part of my body that is, that is being kind of lit up--like there's a spark, there's a different memory. It's super interesting. And the first one that I did in public was for a speaking tour of a woman's organization from Colombia, that happened here. And then the second one was for the Columbia Trade Commission. And so, it's also a topic that is, that I know, because I grew... grew up in Colombia, but it's also new, because it's that we're imagining what peace can be like. And it's also very emotional, but it's also hopeful. So it's like everything in one. Yeah, it's very interesting to work in different languages, for sure. And I've been also analysing a lot how translation plays... plays a role in graphic recording. And I'm still at like, the beginning of this analysis, or this discovery of what that is, because it plays a huge role. That type of imagery we choose is not obviously understood across contexts and across languages, so. I love this work, because it's, it's an endless learning. It's like, there's so much to learn every single time that we're invited to do graphic recording for an event for an organization. Yeah, there's just... so many questions that are also always being sparked during the moment and afterwards, and the connections that just keep on growing. And then you start to see patterns emerging from what you hear in one space. And it might be a completely different topic in another meeting, but very similar hopes and dreams and, and also challenges. It has transformed a lot of how I move in the world for sure.

Fiorella Pinillos  22:43  
That's so cool. Graphic recording has changed drastically, since the pandemic, how have you adapted to this new reality?

Adriana Contreras  22:55  
Um, I think we're still adapting. [all laugh] But we so in the beginning of the spring, so when the lockdown began, and everyone was trying to figure out what's going on in the world, a lot of work stopped. And then it picked up again, with a lot of force in the summer, I think when... when everyone learned how to deal with Zoom, how to manage the virtual spaces, and when we realized that "this is like... this is gonna last longer than anyone expected." So, I started to work digitally using an iPad. I'm projecting the canvas when we do virtual events. But I've also tried to keep the option of working on paper, because I do feel that it brings a different connection, both to people who are at their event, but also for me to take a bit of a break from sitting in front of the screen to do something that is physical, because it's been reduced, obviously a lot, how much I do like, large scale and on paper, but digital has also opened a lot of doors to exploring the use of colour, to using like... to doing digital collaging to do, like all these different things that you can do, because the options are endless, the type of tools that you can use. But in itself, like, the listening is still there--I find that a bit more challenging sometimes, because in, in physical spaces you... you'll not only hear the conversation, but you feel the presence of people and there is an energy that is there. There's also an approachability where people will come over to my board to see what I was doing and asking questions or even leaving little notes like "Oh, can you please add something else?" So that aspect of that interaction is lost. And we're still having this conversation with my colleagues of how are we adapting to this new... to this new way of working and how is it transforming the field, and it's it's a very... we're in the very early stages of this conversation, and this... introspection of how we... Yeah, how we're looking at ourselves, like. The work that we do always asks us to be like, self-reflective, but this situation is asking us to be even more self-reflective, because we have to talk about everything else--like we have to take into, into account just how much our tools have changed. And I was listening to Heather Martinez is, is a graphic recorder and a lettering teacher that I've been studying with as well. And yesterday, I was listening to a podcast where she was talking about her work, but she was talking about, like, how we listen, when we're sitting in front of the computer with iPads, that we hear from the top of our heads. Like when we're graphic recording in a space we're hearing with our backs, because people are behind us. And when we're listening and working in front of a screen, we're just seeing with our heads and the top of our heads, and she was talking about how can that bring us back to this sense of like being in school and like, what our memories of school are and how that... I had never thought like, I hadn't thought of that before. And I'm like--wow, there's so much to explore there and like, our kinetic memory and embodied experience. So I think there is a lot with graphic recording that is so close to dance that is like, this is the perfect... the perfect transition for my life.

Melissa Roach  26:23  
So interesting. Yeah, I'd love that you've described before, how it feels like it is a form of performance, when you're in the room with people, or even I guess when you're sharing your screen, you're performing for people.

Adriana Contreras  26:36  
And it's interesting, because when... when you're on screen, or you're... when you're projecting, what you're drawing is different, because people are used to seeing images on the screen, right? We're also... it's very different. It's um, it's almost like you're broadcasting, rather than you're performing. It's, I don't know, the expectations are different. Like it's... it is for sure a huge question. I think we're still grappling with why.

Fiorella Pinillos  27:00  
I wonder like, this... role of art in your immigration story. Is there still a role for art in your immigration stories--is this still true, what you told us at the beginning?

Adriana Contreras  27:15  
I think for me, for sure it's, it's still very present every day. And something that came up for me when the lockdown started with COVID-19 is that, like, we lost a lot of contracts, that contracts were delayed at the start of the spring, there was uncertainty for everyone about what was going to happen. And for anyone working freelance, you didn't know what was going to come. I didn't know what was going to happen. And then... it was incredible for me, and it was wonderful that a lot of the people who reached out to me to offer me work were dancers and actors that I had worked with before. And they were like, wow, I had I thought that once I left that organization, those relationships would start to disperse, and it was like the complete opposite. It's like, "Oh, no, we're here, and we see what you're doing, and we want stay connected." And that was very... humbling, and very powerful, and it just made me feel so happy that... that I could count with that. So it just really reminded me of... that network exists and is still being fed by all of us. Like, if we as artists and creators support each other, we can get through the hard times for sure. Like it's difficult. I know it's really hard for everyone right now, and we don't know when theaters will reopen, we don't know what funding is going to be like in the new year, but... I know that people are taking care of each other a lot, and... new creative ways of... of working, of creating income have come out. Like, the organizations that are doing well, they're able to support others, and they have made that effort to do it, and I especially think a lot about Vines Festival, and the great work they've been doing always, but also, but especially this year, like switching roles and jumping into support people to just do things like, get their taxes into place so that they can apply for CERB, and other things. It's like, they don't have to but they're doing it, and it's incredible for me that... that we take on those roles to support each other because that's what matters, like. We need to put on that work to make sure everyone is okay we can continue doing our work because we don't want our arts community to disperse or or disappear because... because of the situation we're going through right now.

Melissa Roach  29:41  
So lovely. That's, like a beautiful note to end on: community and support staying connected through this. Beautiful.

Fiorella Pinillos  29:54  
Muchísimas gracias, Adri, por estar con nosotros en Below the Radar. 

Adriana Contreras  30:06  
Muchas gracias. Thank you so much for inviting me, it's very lovely to be here with you and... yeah, very honored. 

Fiorella Pinillos  30:19  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity office of community engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Adriana Contreras. Visit the links in the show notes to learn more about her work. Below the Radar is on Twitter at BTR underscore pod. Like and subscribe to never miss an episode. Gracias, y esta la proxima. 

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
December 22, 2020

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