Ottawa’s Digital Arts Resource Center celebrates its 40th anniversary

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When Annette Hegel joined the marketing team at SAW Video in 2015, the artist-run new media center had an identity problem.

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Although it had been part of Ottawa’s cultural landscape for decades, few people outside of the contemporary art world knew anything about it.

There was, as Hegel put it, a “brand confusion” between SAW Video, Club SAW and the original artist-run centre, SAW Gallery, which began as part of the legendary Sussex Drive cafe, The Owl. All but lost in the mists of time was the fact that the name, SAW, was derived from the street location, Sussex Annex Works, not that that clarifies matters.

“People in Ottawa had absolutely no idea who we are or what we do,” said Hegel, a German expat who came to Ontario in the 1980s to attend art school and found herself working in cultural marketing with a specialty in branding.

She became director of the Arts Court-based organization in 2018, and high on her to-do list was to change her name. After a consultation process, the decision was made in 2020 to rename SAW Video to the Digital Arts Resource Center, or DARC for short.

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Why? “Because digital arts are what we do,” she said, noting that their work encompasses more than just video. The center offers a range of training, resources and specialized equipment in all aspects of digital production, from cameras and lighting to synthesizers, audio equipment and installation expertise. Additionally, it is set to open a new, fully-equipped soundstage on the nearby University of Ottawa campus, which will be available for the exclusive use of independent media artists.

Hegel’s to-do list also included coming up with something to celebrate DARC’s 40th anniversary, and she knew she didn’t want another retrospective, which had been put together for the 35th anniversary. This time, since extensive renovations to Arts Court and the Ottawa Art Gallery, the center has a small gallery space and a curator, Amin Alsaden, to fill it.

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“We really felt that this year, at this time, with the world on fire, we have to look forward in a hopeful way,” Hegel said. “Basically, I told Amin that I really wanted us to bring voices into the space, and I’d like to bring voices that reach beyond Ottawa’s middle-class white homogeneous community.

Alsaden succeeded in spades, conjuring up an ambitious series that features the work of a different artist each month for eight months. Entitled Tending Land, the exhibition revolves around the theme of the earth, seen from different angles. It continues until August 12.

Amin Alsaden
Amin Alsaden

“There are all these crises in the world, from environmental degradation to the rights and struggles of indigenous communities,” Alsaden said, “but the more we thought about it, the more we realized that it all comes down to land. The issue of land is central to communities in Canada, but it is also central to many people around the world, especially those who experienced colonialism, which is in fact the global majority.

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“So each of the works deals with the experience of colonialism from a different angle.”

The exhibition opened in January with a short film by a black American, Ariel Rene Jackson, entitled The Future is a Constant Wake, inspired by the discovery of the bones of slaves buried under institutions. The next installment came from Brazilian artist Aline Motta, who explores her roots in a contemplative film that travels between Brazil and West Africa.

This month’s work is the irresistible Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) by Hiwa K, an award-winning artist based in Germany. His film recalls pivotal moments of his long journey on foot in the 90s from his native Kurdistan to Europe.

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To see it is to experience a perilous journey through a magnificent landscape. Until Hiwa finds her way on a boat, you hear every sound of the countryside and follow every footstep, with an unusual prop giving a hint of her fragmented perception. The propeller is a steel pole, adorned with small mirrors, which he swings on his nose, navigating only from the scraps of earth that are reflected in the mirrors.

“He never knows where he’s going,” said Alsaden, who will be conducting an online chat with the artist at noon on April 22. “It builds on those fragmented thoughts, and it’s always about being where you are, and how you have to build coping mechanisms, like this rod, that allow you to relate with a place, but without ever having a complete picture.

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Still to come are pieces by Berlin-based Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri, Samuri Chakma and Naeem Mohaiemen, who focus on the Chakma people, an indigenous community from Bangladesh, Nguyen Trinh from Vietnam, Joel Spring from Australia and Caroline Monnet , the Algonquin-French Canadian. multidisciplinary artist who lives in Outaouais.

As for DARC’s future, there are plans to expand the center’s training courses into a full-time educational program for emerging artists, with fundraising to provide students with a stipend while studying. A proposal is also in the works to offer programs and courses to people in rural Ottawa.

Hegel says, “I think we’re in good shape for another 40 years.”

Earth Trend

Gallery, Digital Arts Resource Center

Where: Arts Court, 67 Nicholas Street.

When: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday

FREE ENTRANCE. More information at

[email protected]

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John C. Dent