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In 2015, Vancouver-based photographer Angela Fama travelled North America in her RV to collect portraits and quotes about what the word “love” meant to her subjects. The resulting gallery show, What Is Love, offered a mere glimpse into the stories she collected—now, she’s sharing her entire 300-person series online, through August 31. Think of it as a Valentine’s gift to all of us.
What is love? With all due respect to the efforts of mid-90s one-hit wonder Nestor Alexander Haddaway, it’s a question that still remains very much open to debate. It’s also a question that made Vancouver artist Angela Fama decide to buy a 1977 motorhome, pack her camera gear and an assistant inside it and drive more than 17,000 kilometres across and around North America between May and August of last year. In the process, she visited 20 communities and talked to 300 different people about what they thought love really was. The product of those travels is What Is Love, a show at the Burrard Arts Foundation that beings on April 7 and runs through May 14.Fama’s interest in the subject stems in part from her own background, one that didn’t include many positive demonstrations of the meaning of love. She didn’t get much help from popular culture, either, given that she went to high school in Zimbabwe without access to a television set, which forced her to rely on the contents of the Harlequin romance novels she could get her hands on. But her interest in the subject is also just garden-variety curiosity. “I wanted to ask that question,” she says, “and I assume others do too. So it’s less about what I know about love and what I think love is and more about what everybody thinks it is. If I’m asking this question, everybody else probably is too.” The actual execution of it, meanwhile, was a product of her own passion for travel and change. “I love travel, and I love change, and I love challenging things. I’ve always wanted an RV, and I needed to get out of Dodge anyways—I needed a break from life. So the two kind of combined.”But if spending the summer driving across the continent, meeting strangers, and asking them about their understanding of the meaning of love sounds like fun, well, don’t get too carried away. The RV—Debbie—broke down constantly, she says, even though she worked with a local mechanic to prepare it for the journey. The cost of gas, meanwhile, ended up being multiples of what she’d expected, and the trip took longer than she’d imagined possible. “It ended up costing me my life savings to do this project,” she says. In a way, the journey she took ended up being an unintentional metaphor for the subject she set out to understand. Like love, the trip began as a romantic adventure filled with excitement and ended up being a test of her strength, patience, and perseverance. “I don’t even know where up is down in it any more—I’m so lost in it, and it became so big. So yes, the motorhome most definitely is a metaphor for that naiveté.”Still, she says, the insight that she gained—from others, and about herself—was worth it in the end. It’s not like she has a definitive answer to the question she was asking people, though. “I’m still figuring it out, I think. But I think it changes. Part of my questioning was about asking people in that moment in time—not before, not after, and not what they project—what love is to them in that moment. And I think of everyone’s answer, since the project has come into me, as being the answer at different points in time. I feel like I have 300 answers and they’ve all been applicable.” But the experience of being able to ask that question and get those answers was a profound one, she says. “Everything in my life shifted on this trip. My feeling of any kind of grounding was gone, and when I was settling in with people in the studio, in the RV, it was like all of my presence was there with them—and it became really intense and really challenging.”The biggest challenge of all may have come in Regina, where she met someone who wasn’t afraid to tell her how he saw it. “This man came in and sat with me, and instantly I had all these preconceptions about what he was going to be like. But he so quickly, and so openly, and without any fear, went right in my heart and ripped it out and told me in a paragraph where I was at. He said, ‘You have to love yourself first. There’s no room for hate in the world.’ He just started spewing this beautiful wisdom, and from a place that I wasn’t expecting it. That started a snowball effect—everyone’s response was so intimate and sincere.”What Is Love isn’t the first interactive art project that Fama has produced. For her series How Are You?, which ran at the Capture Film Festival in 2013, she set up an old vintage Boler trailer (sensing a theme?) during Car Free Day on Main Street and invited people to join her for a chat and a photo. What draws her to that particular kind of art? “I learn from asking others,” she says. “I find it also helps break down perceived barriers between people.” And if there are echoes of Marina Abramović’s work in that, well, she’s flattered by the comparison. “She’s taught me, from people telling me about her, that half of what I do is performance art. So she’s like a great-grandmother I didn’t even know I had.”Fama says she hopes that her show encourages people to reflect upon their own definition of the word and what it means to them. “I hope they get inside themselves. If people keep hearing that question—what is love to you, in this moment—it’ll help to kind of open that conversation.” And as for Debbie’s fate? Despite the difficulties the van created for Fama during the course of her travels, she doesn’t sound like she’s quite ready to send it to the scrap heap just yet. “I think I owe it to her, even though she’s a machine, to see if we get to have a joy ride in the summer and just go off and do a residency and draw pictures for a month or something. I feel like she needs a bit of a joy ride before I pass her on to the next home.” Clearly, love can be a complicated thing.