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Stephen Foster

January 2009

Coming from York University as a Sessional Instructor for eight years, seeing opportunity and indulging in a little bit of nostalgia, Stephen Foster moved to Kelowna in 2000 to take on a Video and New Media position at Okanagan University College (now UBC-O). Stephen currently teaches video art, new media, interactive technologies, web based technologies, and audio, not to mention all the subsidiary programs that are necessary to work in the field. He confesses to having the best of both worlds at UBC-O with a relatively small program married to a larger institution.

Stephen has been making videos for over twenty years, along with other experimental work in audio and digital photography, and interactive web based projects. He began his artistic career in performance at Malaspina College (VI University), utilizing video technology in his pieces. “What interested me at the time was this entitlement of being broadcast and disseminated.” The idea of shooting, recording, and instant playback attracted Stephen, leading him away from performance and towards his current artistic endeavours in video art. He transferred from Malaspina to York University in Toronto to complete his BFA, and continued at York to complete his MFA.

“Still today, this is an interest that I have in digital media, especially with the web and dissemination. But also that ability to become self-reflexive … to shoot something and then be able to present it immediately; you can really react to it.”

His MFA thesis dealt with the illustration of indigeneity in the mass media. “When I did my MFA in 1993 this is just after Oka crisis, so there was this treatment ongoing in the news – you had films coming out like “Dances With Wolves” that showed one version – and then there was another version being shown which was very much about criminality, and a militant view of the contemporary native.” Stephen’s thesis dealt and dwelled on the demonizing effect of mass media, the imagery presented of the contemporary native, and the re-contextualization of this representation.

“With a non-linear interactive narrative you can have multiple narratives and it can be much more than just eighty minutes of footage; it allows for more inclusivity and also allows you to follow different themes and threads.”

Stephen continues to work with First Nations issues, creating several interactive DVD projects with local Métis groups. The format of these projects allow for more inclusivity and a lateral or non-linear approach. Without being constrained by a fixed sequential time-line like a traditional documentary, he can explore multiple narratives, delving into concepts, stories and people in a deeper way.


Interactivity has become a key word for Stephen, emerging and paralleling much of his own digital photography work. With more interactivity his work has become a reflection on the viewer’s position and in terms of interpretation - how one might read the images that they see.

“The way I teach new media, the way I use new media I tend to think along the lines that one shouldn’t work within one software package, [I think] that they should work between software packages and with multiple software packages.”


Depending on what Stephen wishes to achieve in his work he will jump around between different products. For instance, in his photo based work he will utilize Paint, Illustrator and Photoshop for the same image. He iterates that the reason why one should learn and work with multiple products is because new media is developed linearly. “What ends up happening if you work a lot in Photoshop, you tend to develop a creative process that accommodates Photoshop – and then their work tends to look Photoshop-ed all the time.” Depending on what one wants to achieve with their work this may be fine, but it may also be limiting creative vision by only being able to work with an image in ‘this way’.

Stephen comments that a new media artist may use a variety of processes from analog (traditional photography) techniques combined with digital photography techniques to achieve a final image.

When working as an artist in new media, Stephen comments that there are many theories that apply. As a visual artist one will be dealing with semiotics, the connotations and denotations of visual images and this holds an interest for him.

“An image has a texture in the way that it is presented. An image presented on a video screen has a texture or quality that makes us relate to it in a certain way – not just mood, but certain connotations.”

Stephen relates that, for example, when TV wants to do reality shows, they do it all on digital video to give it a low-grade look, and therefore an element of the documentation of reality. But when working within the fantasy genre, something that is illusionistic or escapist, creators turn to film because it has a ‘transparent’ quality. For Stephen these different modes have different effects on our consciousness - how we consume these images. And this has a profound effect on his work.

Referencing one of his prints, Stephen explains that images work upon our consciousness in different ways. A digital horizon projects a sky that is infinite because the digital space seems to replicate itself; it is identical pixel for pixel. Juxtapose the infinite sky with dirt which has been photographed with a macro lens. So, the dirt is actually a small pile - “a little scrap of earth with all its microscopic granuals” - but it looks as large as a mountain top; it has a hyper-real quality. And then juxtapose those with the image of a human being, whose images looks like it has been photographed from a video screen, scan lines and all. The level of mediation, the creation of different micro-realities, the distance or association with the image are all important to Stephen’s work.

For students thinking about a Visual Arts degree, or thinking about a career in New Media, Stephen suggests looking at several artists like Michael Snow, someone he continually references. Snow’s use of technology, his thought processes about images, and how they mediate reality is a constant source of fascination and learning. While this may seem outdated, Stephen relates that it’s good for students to critically think about, as opposed to the “that was then, this is now” attitude. Current music, film, and film theory owe a lot to artists like John Cage and Michael Snow, and because of this Stephen sees them as artists to look to for education and inspiration.


Stephen relates that if students are interested in working with new media and digital facilities, and if they’re interested in the Visual Arts, UBC-Okanagan probably has the best facility in all of BC, if not one of the best in Canada. Access to equipment is open 24/7, so if there is an interest in working with leading edge technology, and with instructors who have a wealth of experience like Stephen Foster, UBC-Okanagan is the place to be.

Article by Melissa Larkin

Last reviewed shim11/14/2014 4:11:59 PM