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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
“I like to think there are alternatives”: in conversation with Theo Jean Cuthand
Monday, June 10, 2024 | Gabrielle Willms

Theo Jean Cuthand’s videos are full of good lines, but there’s no time to dwell on them. They’re delivered without pause, almost matter-of-factly, in unhurried monologues that span the video’s run time. 

In Extractions (2019), he describes the terrifying lumber scrap incinerator in Merritt, where he spent four intolerable months as a teen, “like something in a Disney movie symbolizing death and anguish.” Earlier, over footage of a series of explosions in an open pit mine, he notes benignly, “I like to think there are alternatives.” In Less Lethal Fetishes (2019), he uses gas masks to meditate on kink culture and the art world’s toxic relationship with industry. As the video concludes, Cuthand laments the loss of a “simpler time” when he could just appreciate the “horny joy of watching a woman wearing a gas mask while in bondage” and not consider its political implications. 

After 10-15 minutes, the effect of this openness and subtle wit is cumulative. What seems like an unassuming riff takes shape as a nuanced critique or a rich personal history, often both, as Cuthand moves seamlessly between hyper-intimate details and broader social questions.

As he speaks, found and shot footage flow by – machines extract resources at disturbing scale, and Cuthand’s body appears in different proximity and poses, as it might to a doctor, a partner, or a mirror. Throughout each work, the verbal and visual reinforce or bump up against each other, making new meanings and cultivating a unique aesthetic sensibility. 

Whenever I watch one of Cuthand’s videos – usually in a program of short experimental films, seated amongst people with a healthy ambivalence about narrative and an appreciation for abstraction – his work is, for me, a little oasis, a welcoming invitation. He has a gift for building intimacy, but his use of the confessional format transcends its typical limitations. Somehow, his penchant for vulnerability never reads as solipsistic, and his relationship to identity feels expansive rather than rigid. His political questions probe his own complicity and skewer systems, mounting a challenge to white settler culture that’s never didactic but simply reveals its own absurdity. 

The generous nature of this work is paired with discernment about how certain bodies and topics are taken up. Cuthand’s films centre around queer love, identity, Indigeneity and mental health and by extension, the systems of colonialism, homophobia and resource extraction that threaten them. His work embodies an ethics of speaking to his own Indigenous, queer and trans communities and not about them, exhibiting an underlying restraint and thoughtful relationship to representation. 

Cuthand has made 32 short videos, written multiple feature film scripts and designed two video games. His work has screened extensively in national and international film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, Mix Brasil Festival of Sexual Diversity in Sao Paolo, ImagineNATIVE in Toronto, among others. He’s also exhibited at several galleries, including The National Gallery in Ottawa, the Whitney Museum of American Art (2019 Biennial) in New York, MoMA in New York, and The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Cuthand is a trans man and a member of the Little Pine First Nation, who grew up in Saskatoon, but now lives in Toronto. 

Cuthand and I chatted over zoom one mid-winter morning about his work and practice. We talked about how he became an artist, who he makes work for, how he negotiates trauma and pleasure, and the politicization of his work (with or without his consent). He shared a sense of responsibility to imagine alternative futures and some fun new projects on the horizon. 



Anytime Indigenous or queer and trans stuff comes up, it becomes political right away. And it isn’t always political. A lot of trans stuff is really just our identities and our lives. It’s politicized, but not necessarily consensually politicized.



You made your first video in 1995. What made you get into video and film initially?

When I was a teenager, it was like the mid-90s. And I was identifying as a lesbian, and there just wasn’t a lot of queer representation or good Indigenous representation at the time. So I wanted to represent my communities and myself. My parents are both visual artists, and I wanted to make art, but I didn't want to do that exact thing. Maybe I thought that was too competitive with my family? I don't know. So I got into film and video. My first video was part of a workshop with this Queer Film Festival in Saskatoon. This video artist, Maureen Bradley, taught me how to make a video. And then after high school, I went to art school at Emily Carr.

Your work often has a documentary-like quality, with scripted voiceovers over filmed or found footage, but you tend to deal with very personal and political subject matter, disrupting the pretense of objectivity we often find in documentaries. How do you engage with genre in your work? Are you playing with tropes of documentary or other genres? How did you settle on this format?

Documentary made sense, just because a lot of the stuff I was talking about was based on my real life. Although, I also do fiction. But the documentary format seems very accessible to people, and it can lend itself well to experimental work. There's also a very long tradition of documentary filmmaking in the Indigenous community, so I think it was partly that. But I always try to give an experimental bent to it.

Documentary can also be a very loaded genre, depending on who’s making it and consuming it, so it feels interesting to take that up in your own voice and style.

Telling my own stories was also really important. Partly because I felt like if I told other people's stories, I maybe wouldn't really understand them enough to get the nuances. I have made documentaries about other people, but I feel more comfortable talking about my own stories and what has happened to me in my communities.

I noticed that you have an interesting approach to handling tensions around representation in your films. You seem to be grappling, even explicitly in your voiceovers, with what to share and with whom. How do you think about your audience and the consumption of your work, especially in the context of extractive colonialism which your films often touch on? 

I made a conscious decision to focus on two-spirit Indigiqueer communities as my audience, because that's where I come from. Also because I noticed this thing sometimes with Indigenous artists – or really anyone from a marginalized identity – where they're talking to a larger group of people and they seem to direct it to cis white people. I wanted to specifically speak to two-spirit people, because I don't like it when you're watching something that’s about you, but not directed to you. It's like teaching other people about you. It feels kind of weird and gross. So I was always really conscious of that and wanting my community to feel like they're a part of the story and not just what the story is about.

I also noticed in Medicine Bundle (2020), you talk about a black bear skin but choose not to show it, instead showing stock footage of a black bear cub in a tree. Was that kind of part of the same negotiation around representation, especially beyond the Indigenous community?

 I guess I feel a responsibility to my ancestors as well. And I know there's a lot of sort of strong feelings around bears and protecting bears. They’re our animal for my family. And when you make a video, you're kind of profiting from the story, even if 's just an artist fee. I never wanted to profit from a story that involved actually killing a bear, so having that represented was not something I was comfortable with. I'm very cautious. For that story in particular, I was having discussions in my dreams with ancestors about what was okay, what was permitted, because there are also spiritual things you don’t talk about to the wider community.

What does it look like to research and put together a video? You often use a blend of your own original footage, with interesting historical imagery or sometimes weird Canadian propaganda about resource extraction industries. How do you go about gathering your research and putting it all together?

I read a lot of stuff when I'm making work about something, I read as much as I can. And then, with films like Extractions that have a lot of stock footage, I just kind of made a list of different forms of resource extraction and then look for those kinds of images on video sites. Sometimes I find propaganda films, which is interesting. So it’s just a mix of all that. I don't want to use a grant to go to a bunch of different resource extraction sites, especially when that footage is already out there.

You also often combine film and video. What’s your relationship to digital versus analog? Do you think of your work as collage?

I’ve always loved the way film looks, but to be honest it’s a very expensive medium, and things are just easier with video. I know some people think video and film is the same but it definitely isn’t. I love how easy to distribute a video is compared to a film. And how fast it can come together. But definitely I have continued to use Super 8 in some videos because of the aesthetic. I’m fairly comfortable with combining mediums. It does seem a bit more of a collage. I also like using animation sometimes. I just use anything I think looks good!

Something I also really like about your work is the tone. Your videos have this direct, frank quality, but with a refreshing kind of warmth and humour. I guess, it feels like you have a special empathic quality to your work. How do you think about tone? Is it a more deliberate creative choice? Or maybe just your personality?

Part of it is because I started out with this very diaristic style, where I would tell true stories about my life, personal stories that people don't usually share. (Although there are more people these days who are comfortable with oversharing on social media – I'm one of them). By letting people in, I think people feel like I'm more warm or empathic towards them. I also don't think of my audience as my enemy, even if I’m doing a big public screening. They’ve come to see me, and my films. So I feel like I can let my guard down, I guess.

Has it been interesting to see who connects with your work? You often show in contemporary art spaces, but also make work for communities and people who may not be part of the art world. 

Yes, because people connect to it for different reasons. Recently, I showed a bunch of videos in Buenos Aires and the people there really connected with it, and I wasn't quite sure why. But as I spent more time there, I realized they had this whole military dictatorship history that was very traumatizing. And it's sort of similar to colonization, the things they went through. So it’s kind of interesting: traumatized people speaking to traumatized people. Some people I talked to in Argentina weren’t even alive during that time, but they experienced these intergenerational impacts.

For some reason, a lot of people in German-speaking countries also like my work. I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that I used to go to Berlin all the time to these DIY film festivals, but also German people have this kind of obsession with Indigenous people. So I always wonder a bit why they're engaging with it. But it’s interesting because I've also heard people say, “Oh Indigenous work is only relevant to North Americans.” It’s not true. I've had my work screened internationally in lots of different countries, and there are Indigenous people all over the world. It’s more widely accessible than people might think at first. 



As hard as it is, we need to be honest about how the art world makes us complicit in all kinds of nefarious systems like resource extraction and war profiteering and clearing the names of rich people with blood on their hands. The money that comes into our industry is often getting art washed from more immediately violent industries.



It must be cool that your work resonates so widely, even internationally. 

Well, most people have been colonized when you look at it!

In some of your work, it feels like the video itself is kind of a process – of thinking through the tensions or explaining the difficult aspects of some unresolved political or personal question. Do you think of it that way, as a kind of processing or figuring out? 

I guess I do work through things when I make art about them. I made a film about doing IVF and how it didn't work out. And that was a long process, over 4 years. And it's very vulnerable. After I finished it and watched it for the first time, I cried, and then, for a few months, every time I thought about it, I cried. Now I can finally kind of sit with it, and it's distant enough that it doesn't make me cry anymore. I can even kind of see the humorous parts of it. And it did help me work through that, which is good. Because it's a very humbling experience to try to make life and then not be able to. Making films is healing sometimes. But there are other films I've made about mental illness that I find a bit raw. One time, I had a screening of all the mental illness films I’ve made, and it was a lot! I was like, “I don’t know if I’m better for this.”

I noticed that mental health is definitely a rich (and common) theme in your films. I loved your mom’s beadings of a manic brain in Neurotransmitting (2021) and your gentle conversation with her about how you managed your manic episodes together. It was an intimate mother-child conversation and also brought up questions around navigating mental health within these kinds of clinical, pathologizing systems. Can you say more about how your films explore this?

When I was growing up, I started dealing with depression. Then I had my first manic episode, when I was almost done my undergrad, and it was life-changing. So it took a really long time before I could make work about it. It’s such a weird experience to go through manic psychosis and not be able to trust your judgment. Reality is so skewed, and it’s hard to know which emotions are real. Because it was so hard for me to accept being bipolar, I wanted to make it easier for people faced with that diagnosis. I felt really stigmatizing towards it or stigmatized, and I resisted the diagnosis for a while, but it's just a health thing. It's not good or bad. It just is, and it can cause problems, but I’ve lived with it for a long time. So I wanted to take away the stigma and make people feel like they could talk about mental health more easily, especially in Indigenous communities. There are people who wonder if mental illness is like a white thing, which is always kind of weird to navigate. It’s just people. People have these things. Maybe there's some kind of intergenerational trauma that affects it, but it's just a medical condition. And I wanted people to feel comfortable getting help and to keep taking their medication, if that's what they need to be healthy. 

On a similar note, works like Extractions draw attention to intersections of the personal and political, and tie the body to larger questions around land, colonialism and Indigenous resistance. I’ve also heard you say elsewhere that being a queer Indigenous artist in Canada or anywhere means your work is inherently political. How do you think about the body as a site of politics or resistance in your work?

It's interesting because anytime Indigenous or queer and trans stuff comes up, it becomes political right away. And it isn’t always political. A lot of trans stuff is really just our identities and our lives. It’s politicized, but not necessarily consensually politicized. I mean, Indigenous people have always been tied to the land, and our history is political, because part of the foundation of Canada was the subjugation of my people. So you can't really get away from it. Same with being queer. It’s used by different people to oppress us as being a minority. I guess they think they don't understand or whatever, it's just very weird. 

I think that’s the reason I use my body so much in my work. It’s faced with so many different things, and it’s sort of an intersectional site of different identities so it made more sense to do that than hire actors for a lot of my films, although I am starting to work with actors now. I couldn't figure out who would stand in for me in these stories. But it is kind of complicated. Like, when I think about my body right now, I don’t think about where it sits politically in the world. I'm just interested in working out and getting stronger. I think my body's really very neutral, even though it’s a trans Indigenous body with mental health issues. So I don't know. People become politicized like that, though. 

Right, it can be this non-consensual external imposition, like you’re just trying to make your work without being read in a certain way. I’m kind of curious about how you think about pleasure or joy, in relation to that. Does it offer different kinds of possibilities? 

I think so. I've been working on this feature film, and it has a lot of like trauma in it, because it touches on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people. And it’s just really hard writing trauma and dealing with that all the time. And I felt kind of guilty for a while. I was like: What about joy? Isn't joy also a political thing? If it's coming from people who are not supposed to feel it? Because we're supposed to be miserable. I did this other installation that talks a lot about racism in Saskatchewan. And that was also traumatic for me to edit. I think joy is a good resistance tool, and I would like to explore it more. There’s still some work around sex and desire that I haven’t explored as much as I would like yet. I think this also comes out in the humor of my work. Some of my videos are quite funny. I'm working on another horror film script about trauma right now, but this one's got monsters in it. So it's a little bit more divorced from reality. Anyway, trauma’s hard. It's funny – you asked about joy and I started talking about trauma, but I think there's joy to be explored in the future.

What about pleasure or desire in your work? In Less Lethal Fetishes, sex and kink seemed like kind of a perfect entry point to thinking about like art world exploitation and complicity. I love your description of that film as “Not a sex video, maybe a sexy video? About a latent gas mask fetish, but maybe actually about a certain art world tear gas controversy the filmmaker was involved in? But also about Chemical Valley in Southern Ontario? But with like a dick and tits and vag and gas masks and smokebombs, lots of smoke bombs. A pretty film about weird shit.” It seems like this could be a useful lens to think about power and visibility, or, in that film, be more playful around fraught questions of participation in a super compromised art world? 

I’ve made a lot of work with my naked body so I’m sure I will never be allowed to run for office. But the reason I’ve used my naked body in my work is not like “Look at me I’m hot!” It’s more like, “Yes this is me, and I’m baring myself for you the same way I bared my soul in my writings.” It’s both vulnerable and confrontational. I think there’s something honest about nudity. As hard as it is, we need to be honest about how the art world makes us complicit in all kinds of nefarious systems like resource extraction and war profiteering and clearing the names of rich people with blood on their hands. The money that comes into our industry is often getting art washed from more immediately violent industries. But what do we do without the money? What will you be able to afford to turn down?

You also come from a lineage of artists and Indigenous leaders. How does connection to family and ancestors play into your work?

I think it's really important, and I don’t know if it’s privileged, but it's just really nice that I know who my ancestors are. I recognize that there's a lot of Indigenous people who were taken away from their families and don't necessarily know their history or family members. The fact that I do know my family history gives me some responsibility to reflect it in society and tell stories about it so people aren't forgotten. It also makes me a little bit sad that I wasn't able to have kids because then that lineage ends, although my cousins had kids. But I feel very responsible for telling the stories of my ancestors in an honest way. I'm actually starting to think about doing an epic feature film someday about what happened to my family during the late 1800s. There was a war and then somebody ran off to join a Wild West Show – I think it would make a good film. 

Another theme I’ve noticed in your work is imagining speculative futures, whether it’s thinking about the possibilities of parenthood in Extractions or 13 Eggs (2022) or the cautious optimism of a post-apocalyptic future in Reclamation (2018). How do you think about the future in your work, or maybe Indigenous futurism? Does it inform the kind of art you want to create? 

I think about the future a lot. Like, what's going to happen to Indigenous people in the future? Where are we going to fit in? Reclamation came out of a commission for documentaries on futurism, so that’s how I developed that idea of an Indigenous future. But I'm trying to do some work now that's about climate change and trans people and migration to different countries or territories that don't have as many climate emergencies. I guess I feel responsible for kind of guiding people to a happier, healthier future. It feels like a crucial time to be doing that work and making people aware of alternative futures – some positive, some negative. I’m interested in where we could go and what we could be as a people, if, for example, fossil fuel companies stopped operating. Indigenous people are always considered in terms of our past and where we come from, and people want us to stay there. So I think ideas of Indigenous futures are super important. Same with trans futures and queer futures.

You’ve written a few screenplays, and now you’re working on a horror film. How has it felt to work on longer scripts? Are you hoping to make these films soon?

I’m working on the one about evil fires and murdered and missing Indigenous women, two-spirit people and girls with Sera-Lys McArthur, who's an Indigenous actress and producer. The horror film is about a trans man who works in a potash mine that has monsters. I’m working with Jordan Wheeler, who’s a writer and my story editor, but it’s been very slow going. I like writing feature scripts, because it's so different – being able to tell a story with dialogue and actors and a longer narrative arc, and keep it interesting. It’s a totally different way of creating than the short documentaries I’ve done.

That’s exciting – we definitely need more niche prairie horror. You’ve also been making video games over the last while. How have you found writing stories with game logic compared to open-ended, experimental films?

I've made two video games so far. I don’t play video games that much, so with the first one, I was really just trying to learn how to tell a story. With my first game, Bipolar Journey (2020), in the first level, you fall into this pit of depression. And then you have to catch these antidepressants so you can float back out of the pit. So I was thinking about how game mechanics can talk about experiences in unique ways. The game I just made, Carmilla the Lonely (2023), is about a lesbian vampire who has to fall in love and get blood and get back to her crypt before the sun rises. I wanted to make it so that you had to have interactions to get certain things to happen. Like, you can only get blood from this one person if you have a conversation with them. And it ends with them saying, “you can feed off of me,” and you both negotiate consent, and then fall in love. In another interaction, you meet someone and start talking to them. Then, they ask to follow you and you say “yes.” And then you never have a conversation with them again, but you're in love. It’s really basic, but the conversations were really involved and fun to make. In the last scene, you’re trying to get to the crypt before the sun rises, and you have to go through this maze with a two-minute timer at the bottom. But it’s not just telling a story, people also have free will. Like, people can bite other characters and kill them, but there’s ramifications for that. Thinking through everything took me a long time, over a year. I have another idea for a game about repatriation, maybe more of a fighting game. It’s set in a museum, and you have to get repatriated back to your community. So you have to go through all the levels of the museum to get to the Director’s office. 

So you’re part of an exhibit but you’re demanding to go home?

Yes, you're human remains. There's a lot of human remains still being held by museums. I heard this story a long time ago about how an Inuit shaman’s spirit was walking around this museum at night trying to get home, because a bunch of his people were brought there by this anthropologist. It’s kind of based on that. In that situation, those human remains actually did go back to their community, so it kind of has a happy ending. I want to put that in a video game format, and do some research at actual museums that still hold human remains. Some of them are working on repatriation programs now.

I’m wondering how you’ll write the convo with the museum director.

We’ll see!

Who have been some of the major influences on your work?

When I first started looking at experimental films, I saw Shawna Dempsey and  Lorri Millan's work, and that was really influential. And I was like, “I can make this”. Not in the sense that “Oh, anyone can make this.” Just that I can imagine making something like this, and it made making videos seem more accessible. There’s also the work of Dana Claxton, who was really inspirational to me when I was in film school. Now, I’m friends with all these people. Todd Haynes is my favorite director. I think he just writes women in a really amazing way. I'm not sure if that comes out in my films, but he definitely inspires me. He’s so particular about the look of a film, and that's really fascinating to watch. Then, there’s just queer punk artists that I've seen make work over my lifetime. That kind of aesthetic always appeals to me, because it’s so DIY – like I’m going to make this film by any means necessary. 

The above conversation was conducted by Gabrielle Willms, who is based on Treaty One, Winnipeg, MB. 

Editorial support by Thomas Kohut

Special thank you to Theo Jean Cuthand for engaging so generously in the above conversation. 

Cover image: Egg video hands captioned "13 Eggs, video by Theo Cuthand, 2022"