Friday, November 25, 2016

SKETCH Fundraiser for SAW Gallery 2016

I am happy to be participating in this year's SKETCH Fundraiser for SAW Gallery. I have donated one of the works from my Sticky Fingers series, "Hey Hey Now (Sway)," to the silent auction. It's the twelfth edition of SKETCH, Galerie SAW Gallery’s ever popular holiday fundraiser, with more than 150 participating artists. This year’s edition of SKETCH includes a spotlight on 1980s contemporary Inuit art, and signed photographic editions from Magnum Photos featuring artists from around the world.

Michael Davidge, Hey Hey Now (Sway), 2016, digital print.

All proceeds from this special edition of SKETCH will go toward Galerie SAW Gallery’s expansion within Arts Court in 2018. The new 15,000-square-foot SAW will include expanded galleries, a new international research and production space, a new archive and library, an expanded multidisciplinary venue and a renovated courtyard to accommodate festivals and screenings during the summer months. SKETCH is the first fundraiser that will kickstart the capital campaign for this transformative project. Since its inception in 1973, the artist-run centre Galerie SAW Gallery has supported politically and socially engaged art, focused on the performance and media arts. The expansion is an exciting new chapter in the gallery's long history as a catalyst for the arts in Ottawa. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cultural Engineering: Blank Slate

The title for Cultural Engineering’s seventh issue is inspired by the video contributed by the guest artists Adam Brown and Geneviève Cloutier, “Summerhill on Major’s Hill.” It documents the project they ran this summer out of the BLINK Gallery, which they modelled after the Summerhill School and other experimental education initiatives. That the Library of Parliament can be seen as a backdrop to their activities resonates with the fact that Summerhill is a democratic project, wherein the school’s curriculum is determined at meetings in which everyone, teacher and student included, has an equal vote. The “blank slate” or tabula rasa is a very old philosophical concept that is linked to education, but I would simply like to think of it as a kind of “reset” button that is forward thinking rather than fixated on the past. A surface on which you can write, erase what you’ve written, and write again, the blank slate provides an inclusive, permissive environment for everyone’s contributions since nothing is permanent. Over the course of two weeks, the participants in Brown and Cloutier’s project built a space marked by imagination and play, which is exactly what the Arts Court aspires to be.

Adam Brown and Geneviève Cloutier, Summerhill on Major’s Hill, 2016, digital video.

Other videos in the issue are also associated with the theme. The activities of the children in “Summerhill on Major’s Hill” are echoed in Timothy Smith’s video, “Vertical,” where the makeshift play structures are replaced by heavy duty construction equipment. With her video “The Courtyard,” Meredith Snider continues to look at spaces around Arts Court, gathering an informal history of places that will cease to exist or be transformed into something else over the course of the redevelopment. While the concept of the blank slate connotes erasure, I would rather it suggest revision, according to Alexander Sutherland Neill’s principle “Freedom, not Licence.” The founder of Summerhill, Neill intended for those at the school to be free to do as they pleased as long as they did no harm to others. The blank slate, while unable to deny its pre-existing conditions, allows for the necessary interventions in them. Link to the seventh issue here.

Cultural Engineering Book Launch and Panel Discussion

On September 29th, SAW Video is celebrating the launch of its new publication, Cultural Engineering, a limited edition art book which both documents and reflects upon the ongoing, long-term project of the same name. I have been excited to be involved not only as the project coordinator but also the publication coordinator, and I am happy to see this come to fruition. Since early 2015, Ottawa-based artists have been responding both critically and artistically to the Arts Court Redevelopment Project as it unfolds from 2015-2017, engaging the community in an open public dialogue and exchange of ideas. To date, six distinct issues have been published online, each featuring original media art produced by the artists with an accompanying essay by yours truly.

Cultural Engineering. Ottawa: SAW Video, 2016.

The launch event also marks the online publication of the project’s seventh issue. Meredith Snider and Tim I. Smith (the project’s resident artists) gave presentations on their work to date, and the guest artists for the seventh issue, Adam Brown and Genevieve Cloutier, also gave presentations on their work. After these presentations, I moderated a panel discussion with the artists, which was followed by a Q+A period.

The Cultural Engineering publication, designed by Simon Guibord, is an art book that features images and texts that engage with the project from a variety of vantage points. The publication includes an essay by me as well as engaging contributions by artist and writer Tom Sherman, writer Zoe Todd, a visual poem by poet Vera Wabegijig, images and texts by participating artists Tim I. Smith and Meredith Snider, and an introduction by SAW Video director Penny McCann.

The publication is available to purchase through SAW Video.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Promoting a Critical Regionalism

The 2016 Latitude 53 Writer-in-residence Riva Symko (@anecdotia) invited me, along with two other authors from different parts of the country, to respond to Amy Zion and Cora Fisher’s Momus article, Regionalism Vs. Provincialism: Agitating Against Critical Neglect in Artworld Peripheries. Our responses can be found on the Latitude 53 blog, grouped under the tag critical dialogue on regionalism.

Possible Worlds producer meetup in Ottawa, Ontario, March 2015

I agreed to respond to the article, since, in addition to my peripheral status, I’ve been acutely aware for at least a decade of regionalism as an ongoing concern in contemporary Canadian art. I sensed it when I went to art school in London, Ontario, when I was working at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre in Kingston, and now in Ottawa I am often confronted with the issue from a national perspective. In each place I have witnessed regional and so-called “extra-regional” concerns come into conflict. Zion and Fisher’s far-ranging conversation touched on many aspects that are reflected in my own experience in the peripheries, including the lack of (local, let alone national or international) press coverage for contemporary art, smaller audiences for contemporary art and fewer artists making it. Since it would be difficult and not really desirable to bring a universal standard of criteria to bear on the judgement of art in a wide range of differing circumstances, as the article shows, the notion of the development of a critical regionalism based on a sense of place seems like one of the most promising approaches the authors endorse.

It’s not that the practice of critical regionalism is unheard of in marginal places; it’s more likely that it’s gone unnoticed. In the course of my response I give a few examples of what I consider to be critical regionalism, touching on the work of Theaster Gates, Jayce Salloum, the Embassy Cultural House in London, Ontario, and the Possible Worlds shop in Ottawa, with A Tribe Called Red and Hugh Le Caine also making appearances. Regarding the import of Zion and Fisher’s article, I’m less concerned finally with acts of judgment than with speech acts, or interventions into the way that history gets recorded. Critical regionalism registers and broadcasts the activities specific to a place while making a progressive connection to broader concerns so that its signal might get picked up elsewhere. Read the complete response here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wanda Koop Near You

I wrote a short piece that focuses on the works of Wanda Koop in the Canada Council Art Bank for the Summer 2016 of The Hub Magazine in Winnipeg and it's now online. While Koop has traveled extensively for her work and has exhibited around the world, she continues to live, work and be highly involved in her hometown of Winnipeg. She began making art in the prairie city as a child when she took free art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in the 1950s. Since then, she has earned international acclaim, and in March 2016 she became a laureate of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.

Marroon Cloud (1979) by Wanda Koop

Koop’s career has developed in parallel with the Art Bank, and a wide range of her work from different periods is in the collection. Early works like Marroon Cloud, from 1979, shows that even then, Koop was working with an unorthodox colour scheme and a large scale, as it measures approximately 9 x 11 feet. In a 2010 interview with art critic Robin Laurence, Koop said that at art school in the 1970s one of her professors told her she was “taking up too much room.”

There are also smaller, more intimate works by Koop in the Art Bank collection, including sketches, and examples of her use of video as a compositional tool starting in the 1990s, as in Evening Without Angels/ Video Scroll Poem (1993). All of her work in the collection can be browsed online at the Art Bank’s website. You can read my full text here.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sticky Fingers

I was delighted to exhibit a new series of digital prints in an exhibition at the BLINK Gallery in Ottawa. Entitled Sticky Fingers, the prints are based on tracks from the legendary Rolling Stones record. Each print in the series is an unlikely collage juxtaposing images, colours and texts that I have sourced from internet searches using the title of each song on the Sticky Fingers album, from “Brown Sugar” to “Moonlight Mile.” The resulting compositions are fragmentary, displaying snatches of each song’s lyrics only to dislocate them from their original context and create artworks that are more abstract and ambiguous.

Michael Davidge, Cool Cool Hand (Sister Morphine), 2016, digital print.

The Rolling Stones copied the Blues to create their own music and I copied and pasted (digitally) from the Stones to create my own artworks, with knowing reference to the colloquial meaning of the phrase “Sticky Fingers.” The resulting series of prints participates in a long tradition of using popular music and pop culture to construct one’s identity. Each collage maker steals preexisting content and rearranges it to create something new that speaks with his or her own voice.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cultural Engineering: On the Level

If someone says they are being “on the level” with you, it means that they are being honest with you. The idiomatic expression implies more than mere honesty, however. It shows a kind of camaraderie. You can tell someone you’re on the level, you can ask if someone is on the level, and you can request someone to level with you: in each case you discard whatever differences there might be between the two of you and speak as equals. Apparently, the expression has its root in the Freemasons, an organization that takes the tools of the building trade for their symbols. In the Masonic Order, the level is a symbol for equality. Ironically, the Masons are known in popular culture for being secretive and conspiring for world domination. A parallel could be drawn between the Masons’ activities and the Arts Court redevelopment: the building is being engineered as an inclusive public space for cultural expression and yet the arts are often characterized as being esoteric and elitist. If arts organizations are seen to be operating in secret, it probably has more to do with their limited advertising budgets than with any orchestrated attempt to shut people out.

Guillermo Trejo, Eclipsing Justice, 2016, digital video.

The phrase “on the level” provides a lens through which to examine the contributions of the artists in Issue Six of the Cultural Engineering project. Timothy Smith once again brings his incisive focus to bear on the site of the OAG expansion and the actions of the construction workers therein. Another new video by Meredith Snider goes behind the scenes at Arts Court to get some candid reflections on the impact of the Arts Court redevelopment on the lives of the people who work there. And finally Guillermo Trejo, this issue’s guest artist, brings attention to level of a different kind, the balance scale of Justice. His video focuses on a detail of the Arts Court complex leftover from its previous incarnation as a courthouse: a bas-relief of the mythic figure of Justice (blindfolded, holding a sword and a balance scale) that was added as ornamentation to an architectural expansion of the courthouse in 1964. The artists in the Cultural Engineering project have been steadfastly producing work that takes steps to demystify at least some of the goings on at the Arts Court. Link to the sixth issue here.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cultural Engineering: Action Items

The contents of Issue 5, "Action Items," broaden the scope of the Cultural Engineering project beyond the walls of the Arts Court. However, their interconnectedness suggests that a pattern could be perceived no matter what level of magnification you took to look at this city. It is perhaps unsurprising that the exhortation to think globally and act locally is attributed to an urban planner. The artists in this issue are also thinking locally to act globally.

Meredith Snider, Acts of Decolonization in Space & Time, 2016, digital video.

Action items, in management lingo, are specific tasks assigned to individuals at the end of a meeting. These actions are intended to advance the cause of the group, whatever that may be, and each person is expected to report back about the end result. One video in this issue, Tim Smith’s “Scale,” astonishingly illustrates the manner in which large undertakings are actually the end result of many people accomplishing numerous particular tasks. One uninterrupted take zooms out from a single construction worker and shows his place in the larger construction site and its orchestrated activities. Meredith Snider's contributions reflect the ways that the dominant colonial culture is embedded in the very landscape of the country, down to the “micro-spaces” of the city. This issue’s guest artist, Eric Archambault, presents his video “Autopia,” a meditation on transportation infrastructure and the impact of private development.

As passersby, we tend to focus only on the outsized items, such as construction cranes, and lose sight of the specific part that individuals play. From a variety of perspectives, the artists in this issue reveal the singular actions that in varying degrees constitute the warp and weft of the city. Link to the fifth issue here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Life Vest

I have written a short piece for the Canada Council Art Bank blog about one the works in their collection. Wei (2001) by the artist Pao Quang Yeh, is comprised of a child’s shirt, like a traditional Asian embroidered silk garment, which has been adorned with 2,300 tiny Canadian flag lapel pins in the shape of a vest. The shirt hangs from the wall on a hook and hanger and conveys a palpable sense of the weight of history and cultural baggage.

Wei (2001) by Pao Quang Yeh

In Wei, two iconic artefacts merge together in a visceral way. The shirt roots the piece in Asian culture, but it is festooned with a symbol of Canadian patriotism. (In fact, the Department of Canadian Heritage donated most of the pins to Yeh, making it possible for him to realize the work.) By using everyday materials, Yeh’s art work is easily recognizable and relatable.

The piece was written to place the work within the context of the ongoing Syrian Refugee crisis. It obviously remains timely. Canadians are concerned not only for the Syrian refugees, but also for people from other places who are seeking asylum. Many have family members and loved ones who are trying to come to this country, and many more have gone through similar experiences in the long history of immigration to Canada. You can read the full text here.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Suzy Lake: Transformer

I have written a text for the Canada Council Art Bank to recognize the 2016 laureates of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts. The Art Bank has been acquiring excellent works by award-winning Canadian artists for decades, so it’s no surprise that almost all of the award-winning artists of 2016 are represented in the collection. Incredibly, one work in the collection, Suzy Lake as Bill Vazan (1974), conjures up images of two of this year’s laureates in one go! In a grid of six larger-than-life portraits, Lake takes on Vazan’s facial features, including his bushy mustache, in composite images that are the result of gradual photographic manipulation.

Suzy Lake as Bill Vazan (1974) by Suzy Lake

It is one work from a series entitled The Transformations which was inspired by Lake’s realization that she had picked up the speech mannerisms of a male co-worker she admired. She was exploring notions of role-playing and identity at a time of social and political change, and photography was another vehicle where, chameleon-like, she could adopt the mannerisms and likenesses of other people. Creating this work well in advance of Photoshop, she stenciled out and registered features from two different negatives and exposed them in the darkroom. Although the content of the series was not exclusively feminist, its import was. Speaking about the series when her work was exhibited at the Santa Monica Museum in 2007, Lake asked, “If women were looking for a different voice, were we conforming to an established voice to say something new?” Groundbreaking in its mixture of conceptual art practices with identity and social politics, Lake’s work has inspired and influenced artists such as Cindy Sherman who would later explore similar territory.

In a career that has spanned over four decades, Lake continues to produce forward-looking art that engages with identity while embracing new forms of expression. You can read my entire text by following this link.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Letters for Juliet" in There's Room at Gallery 101

I was invited by the curator Petra Halkes to participate in the group exhibition There's Room at Gallery 101 in Ottawa, from 23 January to 27 February 2016. Prompted by the Syrian refugee crisis, the exhibition provides a place where people are invited to empathize, listen and talk to artists and viewers with vastly different life stories that are nonetheless connected by a memory of displacement and resettlement. The other artists in the exhibition include Asal El-Rayes, Zainab Hussain, Maria Gomez, Rachel Kalpana James, Farouk Kaspaules, Jaime Koebel, Zivana Kostic, Stephanie Marton, Jessie Raymond, Laura Taler, Mohamad Thiam, and Tavi Weisz.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

The work that I contributed to the exhibition, Letters for Juliet, is a text-based installation that quotes Elvis Costello’s song “Who Do You Think You Are?” from his 1993 album The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. The quote “I kiss the air about the place that should be your face” is repurposed as graffiti for the context of the exhibition. A chain of associations, from global events to works of art like Romeo and Juliet, can be linked through the experiences of longing, loss and love that are meant to be underscored by the placement of the quote in the gallery.

I gave a speech on the occasion of the opening reception for the exhibition. The text for the speech ran approximately as follows:

Hello. I’m a little embarrassed to be standing before you right now, called up to give a performance at an opening for an exhibition of artworks made in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not that it wasn’t my idea, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But it’s not really a performance so much as a story that I want to tell, and the story isn’t really about the Syrian refugee crisis. It has more to do with me and my own experience, which is far from that of a refugee. And I don’t even play a large role in the story.

Nevertheless, I’m going to tell you that I was walking in Montreal recently, going from point A to point B, when I realized that if I walked one block over, not really going out of my way but just slightly changing the path I was taking, I would walk right by the location of the Café Sarajevo, which I hadn’t been to for years.

In the early ‘90s, I was studying English Literature in Montreal, and the Café Sarajevo had just opened up around that time. A friend of mine got a job there as a waitress, and so my circle of friends and I would hang out there. It was a great place, with low comfortable couches and lots of cushions to relax in. The drink that I habitually ordered at the Café Sarajevo was a Pernod with orange juice, but that is another story.

Of course, right at this time the Bosnian War was taking place. The proprietor of the café, Osman, was from Bosnia, and so it became a kind of community and cultural centre for Bosnian refugees. Osman owned the whole building and he made an apartment on the second floor available to those who needed it. At the time, the café offered a welcoming atmosphere not only for me and for the Bosnian refugees, but also, incredibly, for the singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who could be heard caterwauling and playing the piano in there on a weekly basis.

It was around this time that I saw the film Ulysses’ Gaze at the Montreal World Film Festival. In it, the American actor Harvey Keitel plays a Greek filmmaker who travels to Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in order to look for a lost film that was made by the first Greek filmmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century. His journey is a long one, and so is the movie. Its running time of three hours feels even longer because of its slow pace and dreamy atmosphere. It encouraged me to behave as if I were on a long journey, and so during the course of the film, I wondered around the theatre, I went to the bathroom and the concession stand, and I took several naps. I would often wake up at some point in the movie where Harvey Keitel was waking up at another stop along his way.

One striking image that remained with me from that film is from a scene that shows a cargo ship slowly leaving a harbor. The deck of the ship is entirely filled with the jumbled, disassembled parts of a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, his bald head facing and his index finger pointing onwards. It’s hard not to read this image as pointing to the break-up of the Soviet Union as being one of the causes of the Bosnian War.

I also remember seeing Harvey Keitel naked and crying in this film. Now, in the ’90s this was not a rare sight. You almost couldn’t go to see a film without having Harvey Keitel show up naked and crying. But it was always memorable, less so for his physique, which was formidable, but more so for the sounds that he made, which cannot be imitated. From the scene in Bad Lieutenant where he gently weeps, stoned and naked, to doo wop music, to other scenes with more fully throated keening. I cannot capture the quality myself. It is like the sound of a wounded animal. Harvey Keitel crying is actually now an internet meme, and there are many clips you can find online. You can even download an mp3 of Keitel crying and mix it into your Electronic Dance Music if you wish. Now, I tell you, Keitel’s tears are a wholly suitable response to the injustices of the era, if not those of today.

I felt like crying like Harvey Keitel when I arrived at the address of the Café Sarajevo. It was long gone. There were no visible signs that it had ever been there. The awning was gone and when I looked inside the door at the entrance, the space had been completely renovated and was now a shallow storefront where you might buy a cell phone. It was empty too. There were no cell phones. I began to doubt that I was even in the right place, but I scanned the street and my memories and I was sure of it. To my body it felt right. And it made me feel more deeply the sense that I had lost touch with most of the people that I knew from that time. Although a few had stayed in Montreal, most, like me, had moved on to other cities and are now scattered around the world.

I returned to Ottawa, and I was inspired to track down a DVD copy of Ulysses’ Gaze and watch it again. Although it was set in the present at the time, the film is a loose retelling of the Odyssey and Keitel’s character is supposed to be the mythic adventurer Ulysses or Odysseus. Though it was a complete coincidence, it was exactly 20 years since I had seen the film, the same length of time that it took Odysseus to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. It was also about the same amount of time since I had last been to the Café Sarajevo. Unlike Odysseus, who returned to find his wife Penelope still waiting for him after all that time, I had returned to the Café Sarajevo after twenty years to find it packed up and gone.

The odyssey that Harvey Keitel’s character undertakes has an even unhappier ending. Spoiler Alert: Everybody dies! He has returned to his homelands to find the lost film, and he does eventually find it in Sarajevo, but unfortunately, when he runs it through a projector, the image is lost. Just as I faced the façade of a building that was now unrecognizable to me, Keitel’s character, with tears streaming down his cheeks, watches a blank screen.

Seeing Ulysse’s Gaze again, another image is even more resonant for me now. When Keitel travels through the Balkans on his way to Sarajevo, he sees numerous refugees of the Bosnian war crossing the countryside. You could fade in to today’s news coverage of the refugees of the Syrian war traversing the same territory and the similarities would be strikingly uncanny. I suppose that one of the themes rehearsed by this story is that you can’t go back to the past, even though history seems to keep repeating itself. There is a slim ray of hope in the film however that suggests if the story were to be told again in a different way then it might have a different ending.

In a scene late in the film, the characters find that on a foggy day in Sarajevo, residents can come out in the streets without fear of being shot by a sniper. These days take on a festival-like atmosphere, with music and dancing. Local actors even put on a performance of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Keitel watches as they run through the famous Balcony Scene, and his voiceover repeats the line “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

There are so many memorable lines in the Balcony Scene, where the star-crossed youths first pledge their love to each other: “But soft what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”; “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?...That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”; “To be or not to be.” That is not the right quotation, but enough with the quotes already. They’re memorable. Perhaps the scene is so memorable because we want to remember the lovers this way, before they meet their tragic fate. And they keep talking in order to postpone the moment too. Finally they agree to meet the next morning at 9 o’clock. Juliet says she will not fail to do so “’tis twenty years till then” implying not only that it will feel like twenty years until that time but also that she would not fail to meet him even if the date set were twenty years later.

They meet and are secretly married by the Friar who hopes that by doing so he will end a long standing feud between Romeo and Juliet’s families. Of course, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end as they wish. Everybody dies! In a complicated turn of events Juliet takes a potion that makes it appear as if she is dead. The friar sends a letter to Romeo to tell him that Juliet is not really dead, but the letter never makes it to him. Of course, you know the rest of the story.

It is true that the fact that letters can go astray is responsible for the tragic end to Romeo and Juliet but it is also the reason why their story can be taken up and interpreted in so many different contexts across time, appearing in places that the author never imagined, like in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. It is also the reason why I can take a quotation from The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet and place it in the context of an exhibition about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

I’ve painted the line “I kiss the air about the place / that should be your face” on the gallery’s walls. [The break indicates that the line is split into two sections, which are painted on separate walls at a distance from each other.] The quote is taken from the song “Who Do You Think You Are?” which is meant to be a reading of a postcard written by a lover who suffers cruelly from the absence of his loved one.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” is one song from an entire suite that takes its inspiration from the real “Juliet Letters” of Verona. Each song can be interpreted as being one of the countless letters that the lovelorn have actually addressed to the fictional Juliet, which often end up stuck to the walls of a courtyard in Verona where the Balcony Scene purportedly took place. What is extraordinary is that people write these letters knowing full well that Juliet cannot really answer them. Still they do it, with faith that their entreaties and their pledges will reach their rightful destinations.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that although the space between us is what makes it possible for letters to get lost on the way, it is also what makes it possible for us not only to make but also to keep promises. Thank you.