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.