Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Cement Mix

For the fourth issue of SAW Video's Cultural Engineering project, both Tim I. Smith and Meredith Snider bring their focus to bear on the deep pit that will soon provide the foundation for the new Arts Court tower. If you have been watching the videos from the previous issues, you will note that a lot has changed at this location at the corner of Daly and Waller. Cityscapes act as impressive records of history that appear to be cemented in place. Still, the fixed properties of concrete, stone and rock can also be made malleable through action and erosion. The artists in this issue overtly manipulate their source material, through time-lapses, cuts, jumps, and the addition of electronic sounds, suggesting that intervention in the course of history is always possible. You could say that the artists are remixing the events of the Arts Court reconstruction as it unfolds. Each remix has been constructed to draw your attention to the elements highlighted by the artists.

Timothy I. Smith, The Pit, November 28th, 2015, 2015, digital video.

In Tim I. Smith’s work, The Pit, November 28th, 2015, we witness the end of the excavation stage for the Arts Court redevelopment and the removal of the heavy machinery in preparation for the next stage. Smith has compressed the events of an entire workday into one two-minute video using long exposure photography to record the action. Smith has stated that the main theme in his work is photography, a medium that also once had the property of being fixed. In the digital era, new connotations for “fixed” arise in photography, both positive and pejorative. Smith’s composition reveals itself to be as constructed as the site that is his subject.

Meredith Snider’s Break Ground opens with a “ground breaking” party held in the offices of the Ottawa Art Gallery to celebrate the beginning of the redevelopment project. In her role as a Cultural Engineering artist, Snider has taken a fly-on-the-wall approach, often focusing on overlooked or seemingly peripheral elements of the project. At a training session to gain access to the construction site, she found that the dangerous nature of that environment was something she rarely considered. In response, Snider has created a music video in collaboration with Jésus Tovar to underscore the skillful choreography of the construction work as well as the risk in its undertaking. Her video ends by honoring an often unsung workforce.

Considering the artists’ contributions to this issue as remixes sees them participating in the history of music as well as the history of the Arts Court redevelopment. In the history of music, innovations have almost always at first been dissonant to the ear, only to be later accepted as customary. In that way, new music announces the future. Remixes at least keep the material up to date, reminding us that change is not only a constant but also a main component in the construction of the future. Link to the fourth issue here.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design

The exhibition Robert Tombs: Index. Graphic Works 1985-2015 is a retrospective survey of the design work of the Ottawa-based artist/graphic designer. Held at the Owens Art Gallery from 2 October to 18 November 2015 it will travel to the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery where it will be on display from 2 December 2015 to 21 February 2016. My essay, "The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design" appears in the exhibition catalogue, along with an essay by Marina Roy, a note about collaborating with Robert Tombs by Ingrid Jenkner, and a foreward by Gemey Kelly.

Looking through Index, one can quickly surmise that a good majority of the work that Tombs has done is designing exhibition catalogues for art galleries and their exhibitions, including the one at hand. [The catalogue for Index is listed as one of the items in the exhibition.] A closer look will reveal that he has also designed printed matter for exhibitions of his own work as an artist. As an artist and a graphic designer, he forcefully inhabits both roles and Index’s examination of his activity as a graphic designer, and its relation to his artistic practice, reveals a commitment to the notion of discourse within the public sphere and a continuation of the tradition and history of art. Sven Lütticken has asked some pertinent questions about the critical role that art plays in society. In his book Secret Publicity, he suggests that the contemporary art milieu has the potential to form a counter-public in opposition to the spectacle of an uncritical consumer society.[i] One could question this potential, and Lütticken does, but it is heartening to think of contemporary art as a kind of publicity that competes with everything else that is being marketed and is vying for our attention. It may not be a level playing field, but at least it’s the same field. Printed matter as elegant as Tombs’s should convince an audience that its subject matter is of central importance.

In her essay “Par-al-lel,” Diana Nemirof makes the related observation that it could be counterproductive to think of artist-run centres as alternative contemporary art galleries (or “parallel galleries” as they were once called), and by extension the kinds of art that they exhibit, since conceptualizing them that way serves to marginalize them from mainstream society, diminishing the impact they might have.[ii] Perhaps it would be better not to think of the history of most contemporary art in Canada as marginal history, but to think of it more potentially as overlooked history. As has been stated by AA Bronson, this was partly the rationale that led to General Idea’s creation of FILE magazine in the ’70s.[iii] It was a way to make a community visible to itself. The community was there, but it didn’t see its own reflection in the media. If no one was going to publish a magazine that was going to turn Canadian artists into celebrities, then they would have to do it themselves. Benedict Anderson’s theory, set out in Imagined Communities, about printed matter’s centrality in the construction, dissemination, and propagation of national identity [iv] is perfectly suited to the context of Canadian art history. An indexical approach to Tombs’s work in this exhibition serves to underscore his participation in, and construction of, an imagined community for contemporary Canadian art. My essay offered descriptions of some of the books that figure in Tombs’s production in order to define the contours of that community.

Copies of the catalogue are available from the Owens Art Gallery and Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.

[i] Sven Lütticken. Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2014.
[ii] Diana Nemiroff, “Par-al-lel,” in Sightlines: Reading Contemporary Canadian Art (Montreal: Artextes editions, 1994), 180-189.
[iii] AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums, in Museums by artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983), 29-37.
[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Reverse Engineering

The third issue of SAW Video's Cultural Engineering project is online. The artworks in this issue return to similar terrain in order to deepen their impact on it. Timothy Smith’s contribution, a video entitled Truck Route 95 Southbound, August 7th, 2015 offers a great view of the initial stages of the construction, but it also makes a pointed comment about the heavy traffic that is intractable to the area. Meredith Snider’s video, The Green Space, traverses a space that has now disappeared, which will also be the fate of the corridor she documented in her last installment. Though both videos reflect change, they also reveal perennial issues that face larger cities.

Timothy I. Smith, Truck Route 95 Southbound, August 7th, 2015, 2015, digital video

Also in this issue, the photographer and filmmaker Jackson Couse debuts a series of segmented interviews that will comprise an aggregate social portrait of Arts Court. Couse also presents ‘Scuse, a preliminary field recording of the environment at Arts Court.

Reverse engineering is the process of taking an object apart in order to see how it was made and then perhaps to discover ways to improve it. The intention of the Cultural Engineering project is not only to document this historic change to Ottawa’s cultural landscape from the ground up, but also to involve the community and their voices in the process of its transformation. The third issue is being launched as part of the event Desire Lines organized by SAW Video for Nuit Blanche Ottawa+Gatineau 2015. Link to the third issue here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

OSA Downtown Instructors' Exhibition

It was a pleasure to be invited in the Summer of 2015 to curate the annual Instructors' Exhibition for the Downtown campus of the Ottawa School of Art. The exhibition's dates run from August 6, 2015 to September 6, 2015.

Each instructor was asked to submit up to three works. It was up to me to choose one of their works to put in the show. Those who only submitted one work made the decision easy for me. Those who submitted three required a lot more of my deliberation. Some were selected simply on the strength of their proposal and with faith that the work would turn out as proposed. I am happy to say that I was pleased with the results.

As a whole, the exhibition is a concise portrait of the diversity and the talents of the instructors at the OSA. You could view it with an eye towards refining your artistic skills and potentially selecting a teacher to follow in the development of your own practice. Or, you could simply enjoy the show and let the teachers do all the work.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Desire Lines

The second issue of SAW Video’s Cultural Engineering project is online, appearing moments before the construction hoarding is scheduled to go up and the first stage of the physical transformation at Arts Court begins. Meredith Snider and Timothy I. Smith have each produced another installment in their ongoing investigation of the redevelopment process, and guest artist Rachel Kalpana James makes a unique contribution to the latest edition. 

Rachel Kalpana James, Meditations on Cultural Engineering, 2015. digital video

In the process of responding to the Arts Court redevelopment, the artists have added to a broader understanding of what the phrase “cultural engineering” might mean. If it is understood as a method of planning to increase public participation in cultural life, then one would hope for every success in the cultural engineering of Ottawa’s Arts Court. An analogy for a sympathetic type of cultural engineering might be found in the way that some urban planners take into account how people actually use public space before they lay down pathways. These paths can be guided by the “desire lines” cut into the earth by pedestrian traffic. Now that change is underway at Arts Court, the interventions of the artists in the Cultural Engineering project can be considered to be making visible the desire lines within the overarching redevelopment. Link to the second issue here.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Good Afternoon

On Saturday May 9, 2015, Carleton University Art Gallery presented Good Afternoon, a program of performances I curated as part of the National Arts Centre's Ontario Scene. The performers included Christof Migone, MORTIFIED (Camilla Singh and Jenn Goodwin), Bridget Moser, Lisa Myers, and Adam Saikaley.

Christof Migone, Mixer (Ottawa), 2015. Photo: J. Wonnacott - K. McGruer

Ontario Scene is one of a series of biennial festivals produced by the National Arts Centre that have showcased since 2003 the extraordinary diversity of  the artists and cultures of regions across Canada. For Ontario Scene, I selected a number of artists from across Ontario with "Medley" as my guiding theme in order to produce what I described as a "Stars on 45" of contemporary experimental performance.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

BioART: Collaborating with Life

I was invited to come up with the layout for the exhibition BioART: Collaborating with Life at the Karsh-Masson Gallery from April 28 to May 31, 2015. Curated by Jennifer Willet and co-presented by Artengine, the City of Ottawa, and the National Arts Centre's Ontario Scene, the exhibition featured works by Karen Abel, Alana Bartol, Philip Beesley, Cass Gardiner, Robert Hengeveld, Andrew Pelling, Johl Ringuette and Jennifer Willet.

Daniel Modulevsky and Andrew Pelling, Re-Purposed 46 (Table Installation), 2015. 
Apples, Human Epithelial and Fibroblast Cells, plastic Petri dishes and epoxy.

An excerpt from the exhibition catalogue reads: "The emerging field of bioart includes a diverse range of practices from the lab, the wilderness, and cities, which use cells, microbes, plants, and bodies (human and otherwise) in the production of art. BioART: Collaborating with Life embraces biological techniques throughout human history as media art and explores complex collaborations between artists and other life forms in the production of cultural expressions. Featuring Ontario artists whose diverse practices merge with life sciences and biotechnology, BioART engages viewers in an evaluation of bioethics that results from the manipulation of life for human and cultural ends."

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tragedy Plus Time / I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side

One of the books launched at the Publication Launch and Bad Art Night hosted by the Dunlop Art Gallery on March 28 was Tragedy Plus Time / I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side, which included an essay I had written for the exhibition I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side at the AKA Artist-Run Centre in Saskatoon.

Catalogue cover with Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed's Your Lupines or Your Life, 2012. 

The book was published in 2015 by Black Dog Publishing in partnership with the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina and AKA to document two exhibitions in Saskatchewan during the Summer of 2014 which coincidentally focused on similar subject matter. Tragedy Plus Time at the Dunlop explored the political dimensions of comedy in art while I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side explored the intersection where humour and horror meet.

I posted about my essay, "The Great Stone Face," when it was published as an e-text by AKA for their exhibition last summer. In the essay, I asserted that the artists in the exhibition I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side are not your garden variety comedians. They are different, as Dagmara Genda noted in her curatorial essay.  They are deadpan.

There is a void in the deadpan. As Genda notes, the artists in I Laughed, I Cried, I Split My Side can’t be trusted; they put you in an awkward position of indecision. It is disquieting because you can’t guess what they are up to. The deadpan is a mirror that doesn’t return your image or respond to your reflections. It establishes and exacerbates a non-reciprocal relationship. What’s worse, it greets you with indifference. Confronted with the deadpan, we overcompensate with nervous laughter.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

'Robert Tombs/L'Occupation' Book Launch

Robert Tombs/L'Occupation is a 48-page bilingual book available in softcover and hardcover editions which documents Robert Tombs's installation at ParisCONCRET, Paris, in January 2013. Published in 2014, it was officially launched on February 24, 2015 at Carleton University Art Gallery with a wine and cheese reception from 6 to 8 pm. Robert Tombs and I made opening remarks.

Image: Robert Tombs/L'Occupation, Ottawa: L'Arène 2014. Photo: Robert Tombs, 2015.

The book contains my essay "Painting ‘After Painting’: The Critical Occupations of Robert Tombs," and an afterword by Richard van der Aa, director of the ParisCONCRET gallery. The French translation is by Denis Lessard.

My essay considers Tomb's practice of painted installations, leading up to his exhibition at ParisCONCRET. In his painted installations, from his ‘marking’ of Brigus in 2007, to his ‘occupation’ of Paris in 2013, Tombs continues the process of formalism’s entrenchment of its own capabilities into an area of competence so that, as everything gets pared away, the surface becomes infra-thin and incontinent, letting everything that has been pared away seep back in. His painted installations infect/affect the spaces they touch, and doubt seeps into the picture.

By connecting his occupation of ParisCONCRET to both the Occupy movement and the Nazi Occupation of France, Tombs not only complicates the space, but also implicates it. Tombs engages in an abstract kind of institutional critique that marks every surface it touches and seeps past its parameters, suggesting that a critique of painting can lead to a critique of society.

The essay built upon my earlier review of the exhibition, published in C Magazine 118.

David Kaarsemaker at Gallery St. Laurent + Hill in Ottawa

In The Fragile Surface, an exhibition of recent work at Gallery St. Laurent + Hill, David Kaarsemaker adds to the dialogue between painting and photography. His pictures are surely about painting, representational while verging on abstraction, the canvasses rendered diaphanous through the application of colour and thinly layered images. They are also about photography in that they construct images that appear to be accurate depictions of the visible world while being faithful to the way that lens-based analogues can be blurred and out of focus. More directly, photographs are partly the subject of the paintings. The processes by which the works are made generate their dramatic interest, and though fully on view, as in the painting Cross-Section 1, they add to their mystery by bordering on the metaphysical. Inasmuch as paintings and photographs are about memory through their commemoration of people and places, Kaarsemaker’s process engages with space and architecture not unlike the “method of loci” of the immemorial rhetoricians.

David Kaarsemaker, Cross-Section 1, 2015, oil and charcoal on canvas 

The trick that memory plays transforms the spaces we remember over time. And just as these spaces are subject to change, so too are paintings, photographs, and people. Kaarsemaker’s biography reveals a peripatetic life, traversing the US, Burkina Faso, and many places in Canada, where the artist now makes a home in the Ottawa area. Kaarsemaker’s paintings are mobile in the manner of today’s digital technology. His paintings, such as Cross-Section 4, evoke the inner glow of networked flat screen monitors and equally ubiquitous hand-held tablets and phones. The paintings share the uprooted quality of a digital image that can be anywhere at any time, connected simultaneously to a global, dispersed social network, always at hand but ironically untouchable.

The complete text of my review of the exhibition was published here on the February 24 Akimblog. It is my last Akimblog post, as Akimbo will cease publishing reviews from its Ontario regional correspondents in March 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Investigative Media

Over the next two years, an extraordinary transformation will take place at Arts Court. The Ottawa Art Gallery will be pulling up stakes and moving into a brand new purpose-built high-rise in the lot next door. Arts Court will be renovated and connected with the new building, and a reconfigured interior will see SAW Video take up new digs, including a new media art gallery for the presentation of works. Though physical changes to the site have not yet gotten underway, numerous invested parties have been working towards this goal for a long period of time.

Timothy I. Smith, Daly Avenue And Nicholas Street, November 27th, 2014, 2015, digital  video

SAW Video has commissioned a number of artists to produce media artworks in order to chart, and at the same time contemplate, the progress of the Arts Court Redevelopment. The selected artists will be excavating the complex significance of the site. Though they are participants in the ambitious undertaking, they are at enough of a remove to provide a critical perspective on it. The title of the project, Cultural Engineering, makes reference to an exhibition of video, installations and texts by the artist Tom Sherman at the National Gallery of Canada in 1983. In the 1980s, Tom Sherman was also one of the founding editors of FUSE magazine, which published investigative journalism by artists. The artists in this project are conducting similar artistic research, and what their investigations unearth will be published here for your consideration.

On a regular basis, the Cultural Engineering artists will be publishing their new work on a specially designed website conceived of as a kind of on-line magazine. I am the Project Coordinator, and I will be contributing an introductory text for each issue. Link to the first issue here. Stay tuned for further reports from the field.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Jon Sasaki at the Ottawa Art Gallery

Jon Sasaki has followed the spirit of the letter in Two Roads Diverged in a Wood, the most recent of a series of exhibitions at the Ottawa Art Gallery that invites artists to make interventions in the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art. One of Sasaki’s works for the show literally interferes with items in the collection, placing, as in its title, Three Works by George Thomson 180 Degrees Out of Phase. With an ingenious set-up, Sasaki has projected a day-for-night filter onto three mid-century oil paintings by Tom Thomson’s less celebrated older brother, turning anodyne landscapes into brooding nocturnes. Sasaki’s disruptive conceit is configured to simulate daylight twelve hours out of sync with local clocks, enforcing an untimely consideration of the elder Thomson’s work.

Jon Sasaki, Three Works by George Thomson 180 Degrees Out Of Phase, 2015, three paintings from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, projected day-for-night masks, daylight fixture, timer

The two diverging roads in the title of the exhibition could be used to refer to the parallel fortunes of the Thomson brothers, but they could be equally applied to the marked difference in approach between Sasaki and his quarry. Instead of making the same painting over and over again, as George Thomson appears to have done, Sasaki takes the road less travelled, inventing new approaches with each undertaking to test the limits of representation.

The complete text of my review of the exhibition was published here on the January 27 Akimblog.