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.