Viola Cohen

Email: viola-cohen@news.ok.ubc.ca


 

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ALISA CHUNG BEGAN HER UNIVERSITY SEARCH WITH A CLEAR VISION: find a reputable institution to study physics that also offered a smaller, intimate setting with an international flavour.

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Chung ventured to Portland, Oregon, during high school. But when it came time to choose a university, she decided to go beyond national borders and look for a more global educational experience.

UBC Okanagan stood out as the perfect fit, not only providing a world-class physics program but also a diverse and welcoming community. The university’s emphasis on balanced teacher-to-student ratios appealed to Chung, ensuring a personalized and enriching learning experience.

While Chung’s primary focus of study is physics, university enabled her to reignite a long-held passion for art history. That eventually led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in physics and a minor in art history and visual culture.

Chung says that art history classes help her engage the creative side of her brain, encouraging her to think differently about topics lacking a definitive answer.

“I’m excited about exploring critical thinking in the context of culture, power dynamics and gender relations,” she says, adding that studying the intersection of art history and physics is a fascinating way to understand the world.

“This kind of critical thinking intertwined with a creative perspective, encourages me to view things differently. Questioning who has examined them before, to think about why, and explore more diverse perspectives.”

In the realm of physics, Chung says there’s an acknowledgment that mathematics is a philosophy on its own; a unique way of analyzing, viewing and processing the world.

“I believe art history operates similarly—there’s a distinct approach to understanding how the world functions and how we navigate through it. This dual fascination with physics and art history has been an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking journey for me.”

Through her studies in art history and visual culture survey classes—taken in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies—Chung is able to further analyze the Eurocentric, gender-biased concept of genius in both art and science.

“This helps shed light on the need for a more inclusive and diverse narrative in teaching; in both my art history and science classes, we question why certain figures are elevated in academic discussions and others aren’t.”

Chung says that she has seen that art history progressively re-evaluating and incorporating diverse perspectives, but the history of science remains entrenched in gender bias.

“This realization made me think about the pragmatic mindset prevalent among scientists; why should we care about the narrative of our history?

“I’m working to apply the principles of analyzing art or texts in art history to show the importance of delving into the biases ingrained in scientific journals.”

Chung believes there is room for art history’s analytical lens in the world of science.

“Thanks to my degree from UBC Okanagan, I can apply a fresh perspective to teaching math and science, addressing gender biases and exploring innovative approaches to educating future generations.”

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WHILE WESTERN POPULAR CULTURE HAS DOMINATED the entertainment scene across the globe for decades, since the early 2000s a new competitor has emerged: Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

From TV programs and pop music to video games and films, two decades later the global circulation of South Korean popular culture is bigger business than anyone could have initially imagined; the country’s exports of cultural content almost sextupled from USD $2.3 billion in 2008 to USD $12.4 billion in 2021.

Now, words and phrases like Blackpink, BTS, Gangnam Style, Squid Game and mukbang are readily recognizable and synonymous with South Korea’s culture and success.

But how exactly does pop culture move from one country to the next, and why do certain cultures explode in popularity?

That’s what Dr. Kyong Yoon wants to find out.

A Professor of Cultural Studies at UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, Dr. Yoon researches digital media, mobile communication, migration and Korean popular culture.

A giant statute of two golden arms crossed at the wrists. The move is symbolic with the Gangnam Style song, and the words are etched into the side of one of the arms. A round platform is under the arms, where people can stand.

The 2012 global hit “Gangnam Style” by South Korea’s PSY eventually inspired this statue in Seoul. Standing on the stage below the hands triggers the art installation to play the iconic song. The statue has also become the new landmark of South Korea’s now-famous Gangnam neighbourhood.

He says that South Korea is one of the few countries in the world that exports its popular culture to such a degree as a means of developing “soft power.” Soft power refers to the influence a country exerts through its image rather than through military or another coercive force.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a rapid movement towards digitization. Videos and music could be shared more easily between people, which was further helped by the arrival of digital platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Netflix.

“All these factors combined at just the right time to help South Korea effectively export its culture.”

Dr. Yoon adds that compared to other Asian nations, South Korea is relatively small, which means its media and culture industries don’t have as large a domestic market as China or Japan. In response to rapid digitization, the country needed a new market, which turned out to be global.

As UBC Okanagan’s Principal’s Research Chair (PRC) in Trans-Pacific Digital Platform Studies, Dr. Yoon aims to advance the research on digital platforms that cross the Pacific Ocean like YouTube and Netflix, which are increasingly reshaping cultural production, distribution and consumption.

“My research over the last 10 years has found that cultural content and technology are very closely tied together. Technologies like the mobile phone and social media have been a definite component of success for South Korean content expansion.”

During his five-year PRC project, Dr. Yoon will comprehensively examine how media production, circulation and consumption are reshaped around major digital platforms and in transnational contexts. This will be done through an investigation of various platforms, the media content available on them and audience engagement with the platforms.

“These global platforms have contributed to the unexpected international success of non-Western media that otherwise would not have been disseminated globally.”

Dr. Yoon points to examples like the hugely popular Netflix show, Squid Game, as well as the growth of online videos like mukbang (known in English as an “eatcast”).

In these cases, viewers find the South Korean cultural content relevant to their everyday lives; “Squid Game depicts the hardship and insecurity that many people face in competitive capitalist societies, while mukbang offers the viewers a sense of eating together in increasingly individualized societies where people often have to eat alone,” Dr. Yoon says.

“These mukbang streamers sit in front of a camera and just eat. Sometimes there’s no communication, other times they tell a story. Some streamers also slurp and crunch and make all those noises that lead the viewer to ‘feel’ something while they’re watching.”

Research shows that watching mukbang can help viewers recreate the social aspect of dining with others; it can also open the door to enjoying luxury food or something not permitted on a diet, like binge eating junk food.

In exploring platforms like YouTube and other social media, Dr. Yoon hopes to use his PRC to explore this emerging field of digital platform studies, and move beyond the dominant Western-centric discourses about digital media.

“My goal is to contribute to opening up new areas of digital research, and enhance the interdisciplinary research capacities of UBC Okanagan, which has been a true space for inspiration for me.”

He adds: “The Principal’s Research Chair program has enabled me to develop global networks with leading scholars in the field of trans-Pacific digital media studies beyond UBC and Canada. I hope in the near future to host a first-of-its-kind international conference on trans-Pacific platform studies here on the UBC Okanagan campus, where a whole host of stimulating digital projects in the arts and humanities are taking place.”

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TUCKED AWAY IN THE CREATIVE AND CRITICAL STUDIES building at UBC Okanagan, Professor Michael V. Smith is doing more than just instructing students in creative studies.

For him, creating a welcoming space for all students is crucial to the concept of teaching and learning; somewhere people can find their voice, passions and interests.

While this sort of focus on inclusion may not be writ large in every classroom, it’s something Smith says openly on the first day of class. Not only because it’s where his research interests lie, but also because it’s what he truly believes in.

“I grew up in a blue-collar home in a small town, and I was quite regularly bullied and humiliated by my community for not presenting appropriately for the gender other people assumed I was,” explains Smith, who is gender fluid and goes by the pronouns he/she, him/her.

“My favourite colour is pink, and it’s hard to be a man who likes pink in North America.”

Michael V Smith is caught mid-sentence speaking as a student looks at him, intently listening

As a result, Smith says he always found the idea of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) a motivating theme because “through diversity, we understand there’s more than one way of being in the world. And then we also recognize that our way of being is unique to us, so we can’t make assumptions about other people based on our own experiences.

“That’s why I’m always trying to make space for other people in my classroom. I want to help them have greater access to language, ideas and tools, so they can articulate their own understanding of the world.”

A Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies since 2008, Smith is renowned on campus for his work in the EDI realm, both through his actions in the classroom and his research work. A writer, performer and filmmaker, he examines issues of class, identity, community and belonging.

Smith can trace his passion and conviction for the themes of EDI to his own experiences growing up in a culture that clung to stereotypes and preconceived notions of gender. This awareness about the power of stereotypes and exclusion became a starting point that still infuses Smith’s work to this day.

Michael V Smith is dressed in pink as a clown wearing rabbit ears. He looks sadly at the camera

A still from The Floating Man shows Smith dressed as Peanut, a “genderqueer clown in love with pink,” having a reflective moment.

“A mantra of mine that came out of the 1990s AIDS crisis was, ‘silence equals death and action equals life.’ Whether it’s in the classroom or my own writing and art practice, I’m always looking at voicing the silences in the world.”

He adds: “That’s an equity piece because, as a queer person, I’m trying to make more space to allow me to be my best queer self in a culture that doesn’t like queer people. My work in teaching and research—and who I am as a person—aims to give voice to those experiences that have gone unnoticed or unwritten about.”

One such experience not often discussed by society is the complex and multifaceted relationship between body and gender navigated by those who transgress gender signals.

In his 2022 film The Floating Man Smith examines the false narratives he’s faced about his body over his lifetime; his students are also featured in the film and share how Smith’s work and teachings in class have helped them through their own gender journeys.

A Rorschach-type photo in which Michael V Smith is in a black body suit against a white backdrop. He is making shapes with his body that are meant to be interpreted. Two such images are shown here

Made in partnership with photographer David Ellingsen, these images show Smith in a body suit creating ‘concrete poems’ which are meant to be read. As Smith says, “All language and all meaning are first and foremost of the body.”

Another project, The Body of Text, involved Smith wearing a black body suit and posing against a white background, simulating a Rorschach-type test.

“It’s the same body making different shapes, and we’re reading those shapes,” explains Smith. “There’s imagery and assumptions associated with those shapes, just as there are with gender. I’m interested in how to undo those assumptions and humanize the idea of otherness.”

For Smith, sharing such stories makes for a far richer and more complex understanding of the world. It’s something he’s trying to emulate in his teaching while creating a space where everyone belongs.

“We’re not a monoculture. And even though we may feel safer when we’re a monoculture because there’s less to negotiate and it’s easier to navigate, we’re not healthier because of it.

“As a society we need a robustness in diversity because, ultimately, that’s how we’ll thrive.”

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Why are your specific studies relevant in today’s day and age?

Studying English and creative writing has been a transformative journey for me. I began to see the world through different lenses—helping me realize that the assumptions and beliefs I held were not objective realities, but rather, culturally and textually dependent. I was able to see the intersectional ways in which different values shape our understanding and representation of culture. By examining the assumptions, beliefs and values that are presented in cultural texts through various social lenses, I hope to develop a critical eye to question what we think of as common knowledge.

You’re the recipient of an International Community Achievement Award. What does this mean to you?

The award recognizes international students like me who contribute to the UBCO campus and community, while maintaining an excellent academic standing. It means all my hard work to support and enrich the community is being acknowledged.

This gives me a great sense of pride and belonging, not only for myself but for everyone who has encouraged me to use my experience and creativity. The people and opportunities at UBCO provide me with the energy and passion to give back as much as I can.

What’s the best advice you have for new undergraduate students?

UBCO is a unique place, offering many of the same opportunities as larger universities but with a smaller community. Take advantage of every occasion that presents itself during your time there. These moments come in many forms, such as leadership roles, internships, study abroad programs and extracurricular activities. By staying engaged and participating in a variety of activities, you’ll be able to develop new skills, gain valuable experiences and make lasting connections with your peers.

Personally, I’m involved with the student newspaper, The Pheonix News, as Editor-in-Chief, and I’m also a Senior Writing and Language Consultant at the Student Learning Hub. Last year, I was also a small group leader for my IMES (Innovation, Management, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability) community, and I hope to continue in this role.

Do you have a mentor? If so, how have they influenced you?

There have been so many people on campus who have inspired and given me so many opportunities to learn and thrive. Without these amazing people, I would not have been able to develop my skills and passions as much as I have. They have been essential in helping me become a leader, a critical thinker and an active member of the community. Their guidance and support are invaluable and I’m grateful for the opportunities they have provided.

What do you hope to do after graduation?

As an editor, I hope to dedicate myself to supporting and enhancing people’s writing skills. Through editing, I can help others express themselves clearly and effectively, and bring their stories to life. I also hope to use my skills to help amplify the voices of the marginalized, unique and oppressed—ensuring that their stories are heard. By helping others write and share their stories, I can play a small part in creating a more inclusive and equitable world.

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BEING A CREATIVE PROFESSIONAL IN THE FINE ARTS can be a challenging career path to navigate. For visual artist and curator Tania Willard, hearing other artists speak about their practice opened up possibilities for her own path.

“When we have an example of someone doing that in their life and the kinds of ideas they bring to their practice, it’s essential for artists to see that modelled.”

Willard started in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Okanagan University College (now UBC Okanagan) in 1993, and one year later transferred to the University of Victoria to complete her undergraduate degree. She then lived in the lower mainland, working as an artist and curator. Willard is of Secwepemc and settler ancestry, and returned to Neskonlith reserve near Chase, BC, with her family in 2013.

With a background as an artist and curator, Willard reconnected with UBC Okanagan when she attended the Indigenous Art Intensive as an invited artist in 2014. The intensive is an interface between local, national and international Indigenous artists, scholars and curators, as well as students and faculty at UBC Okanagan. “The intensive offers a chance to hear, learn and understand from Indigenous artist practices located here and in other places.”

A close up of Tania Willard's art on an orange flag, showing contrasting colours of black and orange

In 2022, students and faculty from UBCO came together for a series of workshops to carve a hummingbird relief print in honour of the children (little spirits) who never came home and to remember the unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada.

Willard jumped at the chance to connect with other artists visiting the area, including James Luna and Rebecca Belmore. When she started her Master of Fine Arts in 2016, Willard notes she could participate more fully with the structured courses around the Indigenous Art Intensive.

“I was fortunate to have more opportunities to connect with these artists, to collaborate and think together through different projects.”

During the 2018 intensive, Willard presented her thesis exhibition, which was an incredible opportunity for the visiting artists to see her work and give feedback on her thesis defence. As of 2019, Willard is the director of the program, as well as an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts in the Department of Creative Studies. “It seemed like a natural full circle to come back here to get my master’s and now teach.”

As part of her curatorial practice, Willard created Bush Gallery in 2013, based in her home territory. Bush Gallery provides a space for land-based ways of thinking and working, and also operates as an artist collective with other artists.

Willard points out that living on reserve the resources available are very different than in a larger centre. Through her role at UBCO, Willard has made a connection between the Bush Gallery and the Indigenous Art Intensive through her concepts of site/ation. “It was a chance to invite other artists to visit my home on reserve, and to understand those spaces and how we interact with our natural environment.”

A painting of Indigenous baskets in various bright colours stacked on top of one another. A pink background accentuates the baskets.

Tania Willard’s digital mural titled Gut Instincts, 2018, which she created during the Indigenous Art Intensive. Gut Instincts is an affirmation of women’s intuition, gut instinct and ancestral voices. This work takes its origin in a design from a cedar-root basket collected as part of the North Pacific Jesup Expedition (1897-1902) from Stl’atl’imx territories. As an expression of Indigenous women’s art forms, the disappearance of named makers and ancestor artists represents the colonial disappearances and dispossession of Indigenous women, communities and lands.

Site/ation studio is a research-creation space that uses collaborative creative practice as a methodology to acknowledge, advocate and advance Indigenous land-based knowledge through creative making. The Site/ation studio is supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and will be located near University House on campus.

“The possibility of thinking through the land and our experiences in a gallery space continues to circulate and engage.”

Willard adds that over the last couple of years, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to gallery closures, society has become aware of the greater need for inclusivity, diversity and representation. “We see an increase in demand for galleries to change, for collections to be accountable, and for boards to include equity, diversity and indigeneity.”

Through Willard’s work at UBCO with her students and the Indigenous Art Intensive, alongside her creative practice, she brings creative thinkers together.

“Once you get people together, you get really interesting outcomes, whether that’s exhibitions, texts, or ways it feeds into local culture and community. That’s one of the most valuable things because the unexpected happens.

“We don’t often get the opportunity to share our creativity until after school finishes, when we’re out in the world trying to make our work. This is a chance to do that in advance of starting an art career.”

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ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ARE USUALLY CONSIDERED SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL, but they are seldom resolved in these terms alone. With an interest in contributing humanistic perspectives to global issues, Dr. Greg Garrard uses his skills in understanding other viewpoints to help bridge the distance between various disciplines, and help clarify the multiple points of view that can exist within challenging topics.

“Sometimes you need to ask different questions. And that’s the specialty of the humanities. Asking better questions,” explains Dr. Garrard. “I want to get to a place where we can understand what different groups may not be seeing so we can better work together.”

When it comes to climate change, Dr. Garrard notes that the science is known but action is missing, and that an ongoing cultural polarization—the inability to understand or communicate across differences—is a fundamental obstacle preventing that action from taking place.

As someone interested in the complexity of other humans’ perspectives, he doesn’t think of people who don’t believe in climate change as “wrong”—rather, he’s interested in their perspectives and where their opinions originate.

In the broadest sense, Dr. Garrard explores cultures of nature that include literary representations of wilderness, animals, wildfire, climate change and environmental issues. When Dr. Garrard first started in the area of environmental criticism of literature, there was no such field as ecocriticism.

A group of people standing next to a beautiful reflective pool, where reflections of the poeple can be seen

Dr. Greg Garrard (far left) with students learning in the field at the Bamfield Marine Centre. The course was called ‘In Pursuit of the Whale’ and focused on whaling literature, such as Moby Dick and A Whale for the Killing.

“As a joint honours student of philosophy and English literature, I studied environmental ethics, and I wondered if I might look to literary texts for insight into the quandaries discussed by philosophers,” he says.

Much of Dr. Garrard’s writing is in the realm of environmental literature and ecocriticism, but he is also heavily involved in working with people from other disciplines by contributing those humanistic perspectives. He helps translate between disciplines, pushing people to ask more questions and look at things from a different vantage point.

In addition to his climate change work, he’s also involved in projects like the Living with Wildfire in the BC Southern Interior research cluster with Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais from the Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences. Dr. Garrard feels that he and his students help bring the whole research group together, both organizationally and conceptually.

“It’s really important to be able to develop something so interdisciplinary in the digital and public humanities as a way to be involved in, and make a difference in, an area like fire research,” says Dr. Garrard.

In 2020, Dr. Garrard was awarded Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight funding to support “Kelownafornia”, the next phase in his research trajectory. This ambitious multi-disciplinary study of culture-nature interactions in the United States and Canada—specifically the Okanagan Valley—overlaps with the Living with Wildfire collaboration. Both projects are working with Indigenous partners to consider how culture and nature are interacting with each other in order to help address the ongoing wildfire challenges in the BC Interior.

While scientific aspects of climate change are well understood, this hasn’t yielded the kind of concerted political and social response that scientists might have hoped for. The Okanagan Valley is experiencing immense pressure from property development and agriculture, and this will only intensify as the population grows and the climate warms over the coming decades. The Kelownafornia project aims to improve citizens’ understanding of where they live, and to highlight the gap between the idyll and the biological and climatic reality.

“We hope the project will increase support for measures to enhance the environmental sustainability of our communities here in the valley for the future,” Dr. Garrard says.

In recognition of his ongoing work exploring how culture and nature interact, and his efforts to help people communicate and understand across their differences, Dr. Garrard was named UBC Okanagan’s 2023 Researcher of the Year for the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Bringing clarity to complex situations, he says, is always a great reward.

“As a literary critic, I feel empowered helping other disciplines understand what they don’t know, what they can’t know or what they aren’t able to see.”

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