Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s’ by Andrew Burke

Some countries have pageants and parades; Canada has Hinterland Who’s Who. Produced by the National Film Board (NFB) from the 1960s to the early 1980s, the much-loved series of documentary shorts first aired as one-minute interstitials on the televisions of the nation. Each wildlife vignette opened with the same melancholy flute music; the earliest Hinterland Who’s Who, from 1963, presented a relatively familiar quartet: Moose and Beaver, Gannet and Loon. Later instalments, broadcast in the 1970s, showed a greater variety of subjects and increased confidence with the form. Like the decade’s grooviest carpets, the Musk Ox is all shag, and there is a boreal poetry in the Snowy Owl—a tundra beauty queen—and Polar Bear, “a nomad of the Arctic pack-ice.” Despite the inevitable parodies, the dry humour was there from the start: consider the territorial Robin, attacking its uncanny double, or the Canada Goose, thwarting scientists’ taxonomies with its subspecies of Honkers and Cacklers.

These NFB interstitials and other analogue media have assumed new meanings in the digital era. Like Polaroids and photobooths, video cassettes, broadcast reels and even 16 mm film, they have become sites of nostalgia, relics whose exotic materiality encodes the strangeness of the recent past. The Canadian 1970s were born from the aftermath of the country’s 1967 centennial, when ambitious nation- building initiatives, and more than a decade of Liberal government under Pierre Trudeau, collided with growing anxieties arising from the Cold War, the energy crisis and a deeper environmental awareness. Modernist visions of place shaped two influential projects: in late 1967, CBC Radio aired The Idea of North, Glenn Gould’s sound collage; and funding from the new Canadian Film Development Corporation (established in 1967, now Telefilm Canada) lured Michael Snow back from New York to make La Région Centrale, 1971, his experimental landscape film shot in northern Quebec. Feminist artists were also probing Canadian identity. Joyce Wieland’s “True Patriot Love,” 1971, was the first National Gallery solo exhibition by a living female artist, and in 1972 the House of Anansi (est. 1967) published Margaret Atwood’s Survival. By the time SCTV satirized compulsory Canadian content in “Great White North,” with Bob and Doug McKenzie, they could do so because CanCon was already a victim of its own success.

A quarter-century after 1967, young Canadian filmmakers and performance artists were revisiting the cultural icons of the post-centennial era, turning an ironic, postmodern gaze on national institutions like the NHL, Glenn Gould and the NFB’s wildlife shorts. In 1993, Atom Egoyan’s dark hockey drama Gross Misconduct: The Life of Brian Spencer aired on CBC, and François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould swept the Genies. In Banff a few years later, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan introduced “Lesbian National Parks and Services,” a performance project that included a 2002 film and three Hinterland Who’s Who-style PSAs in Lesbian National Parks and Services Presents: Endangered Species, 2009, commissioned by Pride Toronto.

Canada 150 was both a sesquicentennial celebration and the 50-year anniversary of 1967—as Doug Saunders puts it, “the 50th birthday of the new Canada.” In the 21st century, with new media in its ascendancy, digital culture seemed inseparable from analogue obsolescence, and artists engaged in the work of mourning the time before the Internet. Video relics could be archived and remixed thanks to YouTube and, for at least one art collective, dumpsterdiving. Founded by Matthew Rankin and Walter Forsberg, L’Atelier national du Manitoba mined a local television station’s discarded videotapes for the found-footage video collage/art-mockumentary Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets, 2005.

Reconciliation has also become a powerful force in contemporary Canadian art. For The Brian Sinclair Story, 2010, Guy Maddin borrowed the idea of Michael Snow’s robot camera from La Région Centrale to expose institutional anti-Indigenous prejudice. Curator Paul Seesequasis (Willow Cree) used social media and crowd sourcing in his multiplatform “Indigenous Archival Photo Project,” 2015–. And in his multimedia installation ARCTICNOISE, 2015, the Inuk artist and DJ Geronimo Inutiq returned to Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North.

Andrew Burke explores this rich legacy of ’70s media in his recently published book, Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s. Burke, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Winnipeg, is interested in analogue media in the “afterglow” of ’67. Although the burnt orange and coin-operated viewfinder in David Drummond’s cover design signals nostalgia, the meaningfully jumbled Helvetica hints at a project of recovery. In five contextual studies, Burke argues that traces of this lost decade endure in Canadian culture and popular memory. Defining a long Canadian ’70s, stretching from the centennial to the 1984 election of Brian Mulroney, he draws on Walter Benjamin’s and Derrida’s concept of hauntology to theorize a progressive nostalgia that cherishes details, not symbols.

Burke admits to fetishizing the analogue, which he equates with “the texture and format of cultural memory itself.” The book celebrates the problematic utopian 1970s, yet is silent on the women’s movement and the decade’s female artists. Although Joyce Wieland, Kenojuak Ashevak and Catherine O’Hara are mentioned in passing, the omission deserves an accounting. Burke specializes in film and music, and his book embraces the audio, less so the visual, thus glossing over some potentially productive connections. To take one example: Death by Popcorn foregrounds an altered NHL logo that is an artwork in its own right. Entitled Winnipeg Without the Jets and sold as a serigraph print, it is the work of Paul Butler, the artist and curator known for his international Collage Party. The logo represents a continuation of Butler’s earlier series “World Without Fashion,” where fashion advertisements showed models excised to leave a silhouette, recalling Michael Snow’s “Walking Woman” series—a seminal work shown at Expo 67, which brings us full circle. Despite these omissions, Hinterland Remixed is an elegant paean to a decade some prefer to forget. As Burke writes in his coda, “The 1970s are still with us … it remains possible to harness the decade’s energies to positive ends.” ❚

Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s by Andrew Burke, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019, 264 pages, paperback, $29.95.

Dr Sarah Sheehan is a writer and critic based in Hamilton, Ontario.

Volume 39, Number 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #155, published November 2020.

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