canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview with Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan

As collaborators since 1989, Shawna Dempsey (above right) and Lorri Millan have created a prolific body of performance art, print publications, video and film.  Their most recent text, the Lesbian National Parks and Services Field Guide to North America (2002, Pedlar Press) is a thought-provoking, uproarious send-up of the field guide genre. It looks and feels like a field guide from the 1950’s, from the light sheen of its pages and the cover lamination, to its rounded corners and romantic illustrations. But within its pages lies an examination of the diversity of sexual practices among animals and plants, and a radical critique of sexism in science and sexual conservatism in the broader culture.

Shawna and Lorri spoke with Anne Borden via telephone in early February 2003.

Let’s start with the design of the book itself. You replicate the aesthetics of the guides from the 1950s or 1960s.  How did you come to that decision? Because it seems like it was probably a fairly expensive decision.

Shawna: It was an expensive decision. There were a couple of factors that contribute to the look of the guide. First, we got our friend Daniel to do all those gorgeous illustrations. That was a really great match with us. Daniel captured the naive 50s or 60s style of illustration of the earlier field guides, a romanticized nature that you don’t get with modern guides, which are all photography.

Lorri: The illustrations capture it well. The rangers have a mid-20th century nostalgic feel to them, while talking about 21st century concept perhaps! We’re very fortunate that Daniel did that for us.

Shawna: Zab, the book designer,  worked really hard to replicate an authentic field guide, in everything from materials to laminations to the rounded corners. But it was really our publisher who was willing to take the risk of pushing the price of the book up to have it looking just the way it should. Our publisher realized that she could sell more if the price was lower, but she also wanted it to be a beautiful object.

Lorri: For us the form was really important. We wanted people to pick it up and believe it was a genuine field guide that they could go into the field with, which in fact they can. At the same time it also needed to feel authentic. The work needed the authority of all those details to persuade people that it was the real thing.

Shawna: We were lucky to be with Pedlar Press because I don’t think another publisher would have been as receptive.

The Lesbian Rangers and the Lesbian National Parks and Services started as a residency, right?

Lorri: Right. We were invited to be part of a site-specific show in Banff, and they asked us to do something very specific about the Banff site. Sort of out of the blue we said "Well, let’s be rangers" and it all flowed from there. We didn’t really have any idea about what it would mean to interpret "the wilds" from a lesbian perspective.

Shawna: We had our office, we did a pamphlet describing the ecosystem with a map of the town site, and everywhere we went for the duration of the four weeks we were in uniform. So we’d go top the bank as rangers, we’d go to the grocery as rangers...

Lorri: Part of being a lesbian ranger is that you are outed and an out lesbian everywhere you go all the time. Which is something we had really thought about, but everywhere we went, we had this big label on us.

Shawna: It was kind of exhausting, you know, you’d get into a cab and the driver says "Oh, what uniform is that?" and then you have to kind of take a deep breath and say "Why, we’re lesbian rangers…"

What was the response in Banff?

Shawna: Word traveled really quickly. It’s a very small town.  By the end of our time there, somebody we knew overheard a conversation where someone said "I was talking to the rangers," and their friend said "Oh, the lesbian rangers?" and she said, "No, the other ones…"

In the context of recreation, family recreation, there’s really no space to talk about lesbianism, especially when it comes to the "natural world" because we’re still considered "unnatural."  So that’s the place we put ourselves in.  And then we’d be talking to these really straight families and they’d be reading our crest and they’d say "les-bi-an… where are you-all from?" and of course we’d give them the pamphlet so that they could take the word "lesbian" home with them…

How did the experience of the residency evolve into the Field Guide?

Shawna: When we were rangers, people would see the performance and they would suspend their disbelief to the extent to which they would ask us "How do I join?" or "Where can I find out more about your organization?"  And then Lorri and I were kind of scrambling… So we thought we should do an NFB-style video, a Junior Ranger handbook and a Field Guide, all of which we’ve done.  Then when we started doing the research, we found that the natural world is incredibly diverse with respect to gender and sexuality.

Lorri: We tried to put together the different elements of the Lesbian National Parks and Services based on what made sense, otherwise it might have been one long sex-joke, a big … bush romp. It made sense that the rangers would have to publish a guide to help people to go into the wilds, and to interpret the lesbian wilds. It made sense to have an outreach video.

What was the writing process like?

Shawna: We sketched out the sections we needed, and then we’d each begin on a section. For example, Lorri would take the section, "Keeping Wet in the Bush" and I’d take "The Pacific Tree Frog."  Then as we wrote in the same room together…. we’d exchange our writing and rewrite each other’s work and then hand it back.

The information on the natural world is by and large factual, other than when you make an obvious leap like with the "bulldyke moose" and her strap-on antlers.  But you expand upon this information for a deeper analysis; for example, you note that the centre of a tree trunk is essentially dead, receiving nourishment from the outer rings. "It is the outer fringes which carry the lifeblood of progress, whereas the conservative centres of power are devoid of vitality. Tree trunks, like social structures, grow and change due to activity on the margins."

Lorri: The reason we wrote the book is that embedded in its form we could talk about all kinds of issues. We did our research with artists’ eyes, not scientists’ eyes, in a way which is interesting to us. While we tried to write in an accurate, factual way, and almost everything in the book is true, we did pick and choose. We’re artists, we’re not lecturers, we’re not academics. What maintains the interest in the work for us is how we can make this work something that evokes an experience that helps people change the way they think.

Shawna: Ever since early on in our work, we’ve tried to make visible things that are hidden or shameful or that are not spoken about.  I think we’re pretty didactic at our roots, and the challenge is to slip in that didacticism in a way that’s not too heavy-handed or easily dismissed by the viewer or reader. 

Can we talk about your being exes?

Lorri: Sure.

Shawna: Yeah-yeah…

You have this creative partnership where you share a lot workwise and financially, and spend a lot of time together.  But you also have partners and families apart from each other.  I only know one other pair of exes who do that…

Shawna: It’s funny, A.A. Bronson doesn’t feel that if you have an artistic collaboration that you can have relationships outside of that.  He thinks that the collaboration will always come first.  We’ve kind of felt like we shouldn’t have to choose.

Lorri: I think that we are more balanced about our work and our relationships now than we have been at other times. Especially early on and perhaps leading up too when we broke up, the first five years we worked seven days a week.

Shawna: and toured up to seven months a year…

Lorri: And that I don’t have regrets about.  But at a certain point you can’t maintain that, and it’s hard to maintain any other kind of relationship. Breaking up really forced us to evaluate how we work and how we allow each other the space to pursue the other things in our lives.  We both value the other things we experience besides the work, because without that I don’t think there would be work. Most of our best ideas come from the rest of our lives, you know? 

When you’re an artist, it’s easy to have no boundaries about your work, and just do it all the time. The downside to being self-employed is that until you’re reasonably established, you just work your butt off all the time. I think we’ve come through to a place where we can set more boundaries around work. 

How many years have we worked together, Shawna?

Shawna: Going on fourteen years.

Lorri: We wouldn’t still be working together if we haven’t come a long way and continued to learn about how to be each other’s friend and each other’s co-worker. It’s no different from any other relationship in that respect.  You just have to give it that respect and time and realize things change and it’s possible to continue throughout that change.

Shawna: A big change has been Lorri’s having a child [2 ½ year old Xavier]. Now we try to work according to more of a schedule and then do gigs outside of that. It works out well and gives us structure. But as Lorri says, early on we just worked constantly.

Lorri: It was fun.

Shawna: Well, it was our lives.

You’re known in the arts community for your discipline and your success as making it, full time as prolific artists, without selling out. What has it been like for you to get to that point?

Shawna: We’re both kind of laughing, because we’re both so broke right now…

Lorri: We do the work that we want to do, and we’ve been very fortunate in that we get grants and opportunities to put the work on.  Part of our choice is that we don’t make very much money as artists, but we’ve decided that that’s what we’re going to do, so a lot of the work we do relates to the business of being an artist, now. We’re constantly trying to keep on top of how we’re going to get the next grant, or…

Shawna: …or the next gig or the next screening…

Lorri: That doesn’t mean that we’re entirely above selling out, it’s just that in the few times that we’ve tried, no one’s buying.  While we have a lot of skill, in some ways we’re so far removed from the mainstream...  I guess [our work is] more ball-busting than we realize! So that’s the other side of it: we’re not very good at selling out.  In the end we’re quite idea-driven. If we have an idea that might work well in a mainstream setting, we’re not above pursuing that, but I’m not sure we’d have a lot of success, because the mainstream is not terribly interested in us.  We haven’t taken a stand about it per se, but we have taken a stand about wanting to make the work that we want to, and
not making compromises.

Shawna: It’s easier for us to make a living with different projects on the go in different media. It’s easier to get funding that way, easier to get gigs, and it keeps us more interested in the work as well, because we get to work on really different projects. Also, our business fluctuates wildly in its money situation within a year.  In the beginning that was really hair-raising, but now we’ve gotten used to it.  We don’t panic as much anymore. And we know more what we can do when that happens, we know we can write an article for a magazine and make $150, you know, teach a workshop at a coop, or any number of things.

Lorri:  It helps that there’s two of us, too. Most artists that I know work alone.  Almost all artists work alone. I think then when you hit the financial crunch, when you don’t get that grant or that show, or you do and you’re working your butt off and maybe the fee doesn’t go as far as you’d think, if you’re on your own, your spirits can really flag. I think because there’s two of us, well, it’s less lonely.  When one’s kind of going "What are we doing this for?" the other one says "Oh, come on it’ll be all right, off we go." 

It’s very hard to collaborate and its one-in-a-million to find a person you can have that with. It’s like any kind of relationship, I suppose, in terms of success rates. It makes a huge difference. When you’re an artist and you go through hard times, it can be really difficult to pick it up and go back in the studio again….

Shawna: Having each other makes it way easier.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.






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