IOTA: Gallery Pop Up Deux - James MacSwain


IOTA: Gallery Pop Up (Deux) is a pop up gallery that featured twelve Nova Scotia and New Brunswick contemporary artists, and two Halifax commercial art galleries for an online sale and pop-up sale event. Artworks were available for pre-purchase from May 1st to June 17th, 2017. All artists were featured for an interview as part of the Six Questions series, released every few days starting the first week of May 2017, and leading up to the live pop up event: June 17th, 2017 at the Anna Leonowens Art Bar + Projects.

The below artworks are no longer available for purchase through IOTA.

These ten accordion books are constructed using the accordion principle of pleats that like the musical instrument can be both opened and closed. This movement presents a world drawn mainly from the proscenium theatre and its receding perspective. The construction allows the viewer to look down the length of the accordion, sharing a narrative told by mythological and historical characters. The accordion book has a history of articulating tales of enchantment; with titles such as The Shaman’s Trance and Minotaur and The Flea: Homage to William Blake, this eclectic mix of symbolic stories blend fantasy with facts. As we stare into the centre of the accordion book, the construction presents us with yet another magical moment – at the back of the accordion an acetate image that acts as a lightbox glows with its own aura of enlightenment.   


James MacSwain is a senior member of the Cultural Community in Halifax. His collage style is spread throughout both his media and visual art practice. MacSwain has received media grants from the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and Arts Nova Scotia for his animations that have been screened both nationally and internationally. Ha has sat on many cultural boards and committees; he often takes on a mentorship role for emerging artists. He was awarded the Portia White Prize in 2011.


Six Questions with James MacSwain

IOTA: You have been making art for nearly 6 decades, starting in literature (recently, your short story ‘Puss Cat in the Underworld’ was shortlisted for the Exile’s Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Competition), then theatre (as performer and playwright), book making (through Perroverlag, and animation (you were the 2012 Moving Images Festival featured filmmaker). Is there something about your hand-made, collaged accordion books that brought together the various dimensions and techniques in your practice?

James MacSwain: Yes indeed. First of all the accordion books are sometimes called theatre books, because they present a stage with the proscenium arch. And of course the accordion books are three-dimensional; they are a sculpture, which you can actually pick up and move back and forth. This connects directly to my experience as an animator using a collage technique to move inanimate objects into some semblance of life. This relates as well to my appreciation of language, particularly poetry that allows the inner life of the mind to manifest itself as writing on the page. Viewers often remark that my animation scripts are very poetical. All these aspects of my visual aesthetic have converged somewhat in the accordion books giving them both an unworldly aura and a deep connection to material existence. 

IOTA: It would be easy to cast your work to the experimental genres such as the performative antics of Dadaism or the perception-defying Surrealism, but while you use dark humor and a blend of characters from mythologies, folklore, and even Hollywood to displace our sense of storytelling, you stay quite true to the narration of your characters’ quests. Can you elaborate on your creation of ‘the quest’?

JM: The quest is a literary trope that takes us on a physical journey where the protagonist, an everyperson figure, through their adventures manage to overcome evil or repression, thus achieving the goal of an integrated identity. The quest provides an overarching narrative that grounds the story of the characters who then can be as surreal or obsessive as they like while going about their business. In my animation, Nova Scotia Tourist Industries, the protagonist has been given the task to write a pamphlet urging tourists to come to Nova Scotia to commit suicide. In Star Boy the protagonist is a star in Hollywood that is promoting a new transcendent drug. With the accordion book we have a 3D stage that moves back and forth that mimics the ability to time travel; characters move through various historical or mythological zones so that the viewer can explore their own quest depending on their knowledge of history and myth.

IOTA: In this interview (, you describe aspiring to work, akin to your activist role in your community, that inspire a future vision of our world by collaging not only historical figures from various schools of thoughts, but by setting them against each other, to achieve a sort of solution or resolve to our socio-political state. Is this a traumatic place from which to create as an artist, or do you see it more so as progressive, like in activism?

JM: In my film, Amherst, I tell the story of growing up gay in a small Nova Scotia town

Artist in his studio, 2017

Artist in his studio, 2017

In the 1950s. This story forms the bedrock of my activism when in the late 1970s and through the 80s I was an active protesting cultural member of gay liberation. Amherst was shot in 1983; by the late 80s I was creating documentary videos in Toronto of the AIDS crisis. This was a terrible fractured time for the queer community; to balance the trauma of the crisis, my cultural work became more and more devoted to collage. Collage is created through a judicious ordering of contemporary illustrations, most cut from paper sources. These images are so arranged to provide a critique or satiric take on the assembled visual content. Collage is great for political protest to the subtlest of inner emotional states. At present with my work on the accordion books, as the narratives become more fantastic and surreal, my collage has broadened to include narratives in a global context.     

IOTA: Based on the symbolism and marker histories implemented in your accordion “windows” which range from images of Saturn (the planet of rings), the divine comedy, the cosmos, stories of dread and violence, and others you seem to suggest that we have a choice to make. What do you suppose is our fate?

JM: The fate of the human species – what a challenging question for it supposes that you are widely knowledgeable in cultural theory, sociology, psychology, anthropology, quantum science and historical geography to name a few.  It’s true our need to know is insatiable but no one knows future time, not even big data. There is climate change that could precipitate droughts and mass starvation and there is the stupidity of war that could escalate into a nuclear holocaust, yet most of the things we do are comfortable habits, at least here in conservative North America. However abuse both sexual and physical is widespread; our cities are chemically polluted and our raw resources are eroding. With automation and the digital revolution, middle class jobs are vanishing into the ether. The global capitalist economy has created pockets of wealth but many more pockets of poverty. The choice should always be to express displeasure at our laziness as we take the lowest common denominator as our goal. Of course all of this is a goldmine for the artist; the drama of the human species is palpable and always reliable as a fund of apocalyptic blockbuster narratives. Whether these narratives become reality is speculative, but it’s true the human species is addictive to the excitement of gambling…  

IOTA: The theme of democracy frequently comes up in your work. Can you elaborate on this?

JM: Ah democracy, the flipside of apocalypse. Well as a political ideology it’s the best we’ve come up with. The population of the planet has passed the seven billion mark. Perhaps half of that seven billion live under some form of government that depends on the police or army authority to keep the people in line. Democracy needs citizen input; it needs to be constantly challenged to keep it honest. That’s the weakness of democracy; its citizens can become complacent and allow corruption to flourish. Greed has a way of tempting even the most abstemious of politicians… Animation and film in general have had a varied history with censorship; even here in Canada we’ve had censorship boards that now and then raise the hackles of free speech activists. Democratic constitutional rights like freedom of speech, religion, sexual orientation etc. allow the artist to explore without reprisal the darker aspects of being human. So my work has always contained a political warning of some sort to keep the viewers on their toes

IOTA: What’s next?

JM: Well I will definitely continue with all my book arts projects, including my August sojourn in British Columbia on Mayne Island and my residency with Jo Cook and Wesley Mulvin of Perro Verlag. This is always such a treat; the island is so peaceful and the cedars so tall. Through a project sponsored by HRM and AFCOOP concerning the commemoration of the Halifax Explosion, I will be back to my first love – animation. I’ve begun the research and the collecting of animation materials and will be shooting on the 16mm Oxberry animation stand in June of this year. And in the spring of 2018, artists and filmmakers Eryn Foster and Sue Johnson will be premiering the documentary they have produced of my artistic and activist life.