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“I want to create media that matters,” likes to say Peter Walker, the current director of the digital media arts program at the University of New Mexico-Taos.

In recent years, Walker has brought this department to the fore at UNM-Taos. The program leads to an associate degree and its curriculum prepares students for their bachelor’s degree. The department’s relationships with media giants, Canon and SONY, have resulted in state-of-the-art equipment enabling Walker and his students to tackle ambitious projects, including the one they are currently engaged in.

“Río Grande Serenade” began as a traditional documentary but has evolved into a series since the pandemic began.

Walker spent much of her childhood growing up in Arroyo Hondo and later near Arroyo Seco. He remembers his late father setting up his 35 millimeter slide projector and “projecting images onto our wall. It was like magic to me,” he says.

“Saturday nights we’d pile into the back of the van with blankets and drive to the movie theater where Walmart is today. We saw ‘Watership Down’, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘ Bladerunner”. Pure magic! My friends and I would be electrified by the sights, the sounds from the metallic speakers and the super intense stories on the giant screen in front of us. Stars above our heads.

Fast forward to high school and his Spanish teacher gave him a group project – a Spanish horror movie. “Our Spanish was pretty bad and so was the short, but I was hooked,” he recalls.

“Years later, I decided I wanted a more formal education in film, so I bought a one-way ticket to the Asian Film and Television Academy in New Delhi, India.” An avid traveler and filmmaker, Walker continued to explore and work on film projects in Asia, including a documentary about Bhutan’s transition to democracy.

“After three years of independent media projects in Southeast Asia, I was ready to return to the mountains, to the changing seasons, to my friends and family,” he explained.

Tempo caught up with Walker by phone last week.

Tell us what you have been up to since the pandemic began – how it has impacted your department in all aspects, from teaching to the size of the classes themselves.

Honestly, it feels like another lifetime of us going about our daily routines in the pre-pandemic world. As for the college vibe around the University of New Mexico-Taos, we had a blast – doing and filming a mural on the Klauer campus, running Cañon workshops, doing portrait photography in the mountains, filming a documentary on the Río Grande, traveling all the way to Ski Valley (Taos) and filming a series about their B-Corp community efforts, trips to Santa Fe and Albuquerque for film talks and media in New Mexico, and taking advanced students to the annual Telluride Mountain Film Festival. This all came to an abrupt end in March 2020 and we have been teaching online ever since.

Fortunately, our Digital Media Arts program has more students than ever and this is partly due to online accessibility from anywhere. We just started our spring semester and we have nine courses taught by five instructors with over 100 students. Our animation and video production classes each have over 30 students. The other exciting news is that we are now part of the Department of Fine Art and Digital Media, unmtaosart.com. Due to the exceptional leadership of UNM-Taos, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to restructure and re-examine what is possible. Times of crisis seem to favor creative innovation and with nothing else to do and nowhere to go, we are riding that wave.

In the past you have always traveled a lot between teaching or film projects – you did an artist residency in Peru – can you talk about that and how you coped with the literal lockdown, as well as a tragedy personal: lose your father?

In 2018 I was accepted into the Arquetopia Artist in Residency in Urubamba, Peru. It was one of my childhood dreams to visit the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. I spent six weeks with artists from around the world and wandered the rugged landscape, feeling both awe and admiration for the complex cultural heritage of today’s Peru. At the end of my residency, if I had waited another hour to leave, I would have been trapped at 10,000 feet in a transportation strike where the drivers’ unions literally put stones and boulders on the roads until they get their demands met. They don’t mess around when it comes to protecting their livelihoods.

2020 has been a year of loss for me personally. I lost a partner and friend, Morgan Sanders, to the depths of depression and throat. His big smile and energetic personality are missed by so many in this community. I lost my father, Gary Walker, to aggressive stage four cancer. He had a good life here in Taos as a carpenter, softball player and artist. I know so many people who have lost loved ones and it almost feels like a miracle that we collectively survived such a tumultuous year. I really must salute Ted Wiard and the Golden Willow Retreat Center. Ted was there for me to light a candle for the people I love and lost. Thank you!

I am also deeply grateful for our Aikido Taos Kijon Dojo led by Craig Dunn Sensei who moved here after training in Japan over 35 years ago. Following state guidelines, staying open when we could, we were able to continue our Martial Arts Aikido training with weapons (sword and staff) to maintain social distancing. Training in this lineage has been my anchor through good times and bad and offers continuous exploration of body, mind and spirit.

Before this crazy time we live in, you were about to finish a documentary about the people who live along the Río Grande. It’s now a documentary series, and we’ll be featuring characters from the series here at Tempo, monthly. Can you tell us how this project has evolved due to the closures?

A series of web videos will be released this spring featuring the iconic leaders of our watershed here in northern New Mexico. We filmed most of the documentary during the great water year of 2019 and publishing these stories now seems like a good time as we collectively organize ways to preserve our cultures and our precious water resources.

You had a little time to get used to teaching online but for you, I imagine it was not as difficult as for some. You have just started a new semester – how are you approaching classes this time around?

Online teaching requires a lot of pre-production organization. I organized 16 weeks of media links, talks, book chapters and production assignments. Zoom connects face to face, but we still have a screen between us. I can’t wait to get back to live-action classes where we can laugh and make art together.

Since cutting-edge media is your job at UNM-Taos DMA, what new media trends do you see on the horizon?

This question makes me laugh because although we live in scary times, there is at least some dark humor to be found. For example, you know those annoying “prove you’re not a robot” pop-up screens before logging into various websites? The ones where you have to select traffic lights, buses or motorbikes. Well, guess who we prove our human authenticity to? Robots!

Going forward, what are you most excited about?

Rivers, mountains and live music!!!

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