Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Many-Sided Story

My article on "Our Masterpieces, Our Stories" at the National Gallery of Canada is on newsstands this winter, appearing in issue 144 of Border Crossings. The article gives an account of the gallery's most comprehensive attempt at telling the narrative of Canadian art: all of the Canadian art galleries, including the historical and the contemporary, as well as the temporary exhibition galleries and the Canadian Photography Institute were included. Extensive renovations to the Historical Canadian and Indigenous Galleries and other improvements throughout the building made it the biggest investment in the gallery since the new building opened in 1988. Any visitor to the National Gallery in the summer of 2017 then had the opportunity to get a crash course in Canadian Art and History from time immemorial to the present. There were many more opportunities for in-depth research, reflection and digression. One issue that is of crucial importance, and relevant to broader conversations happening in the country right now, is the display of Indigenous artworks in the gallery.

At the entrance to the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries: From Time Immemorial to 1967 the approach to the inclusion of work by Indigenous artists that will be taken throughout is established, and there are two main points that are reinforced: One, that there is a clear link or continuity of tradition between contemporary Indigenous artists and the Indigenous artists who have been practicing their art since time immemorial in this land; and two, there was a disruption in that continuity after the arrival of European colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. The clearest representation of these two ideas is expressed in the painting/sculptural installation by Luke Parnell, A Brief History of Northwest Coast Design (2007). Parnell’s work comprises a series of eleven wooden planks that feature a formline design that would be continuous if it were not for the gaps between the planks. Reading the image from left to right offers an encapsulation of a turbulent history and registers the negative impact of colonization on First Nations in Canada. Clearly delineated in the first plank, the design becomes increasingly distressed until finally completely obscured with whitewash in the centre panel, representative of the forced assimilation of colonial rule. Slowly the whitewash fades and the formline design reemerges clearly delineated again in the last panel, as distinct as in the first. On a visit to the exhibition, the strongest impact is made by works such as Parnell's that disrupt the placid proceedings from gallery to gallery.

For the complete article, check out Border Crossings 144, available at the finest bookstores, newsstands, and libraries near you.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

100 Years of Art in 100 Minutes

100 Years of Art was a collaborative celebration of the Agnes Etheringthon Art Centre and the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre and a combination of their milestone anniversaries. Taking place in the Agnes Atrium, the “100 Minutes for 100 Years” forum marked both galleries’ respective 60th and 40th anniversaries of championing visual art. Invited presenters represented each decade of both organization's existence and offered anecdotes and insights in ten dynamic 10-minute slots, conjuring the highlights and turning points within the history of each organization.

I was responsible for summarizing the years at Modern Fuel between 2007 and 2017. The text of my presentation, which I had to deliver quickly so that I could squeeze it all in, was as follows:

Modern Fuel : A Work in Progress, 2017.

It is a real honor for me to be here and to have been asked to speak about the last ten years of activity at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre. I was only there for the first five out of the ten, and though I’ve followed the gallery since I moved away from Kingston at the end of 2012, I can only speak more knowledgeably about the time I was here, and so there may be a number of gaps in my presentation.

Preparing for this talk, I was reminded of how the task of organizing a 30th Anniversary event and exhibition fell to me soon after I started working as the Artistic Director in 2007. The exhibition came to have the title Instances: 30 Years of Modern Fuel and the K.A.A.I. and it was based on the collection of KAAI/MFARC documents stored in the Queen’s University Archives. [Note: K.A.A.I. or the Kingston Artist’s Association, Incorporated, was the original name of the organization. I think staff changed it to Modern Fuel because they got tired of answering the phone, “Hello, K.A.A.I., how can I help you?”] The exhibition addressed the need to preserve and document the histories of alternative art practices and politics in Kingston at the same time that it questioned the accessibility of that past, the reliability of memory, and the very impossibility of presenting a total account, that any history will be partial, selective, and subjective. These themes were underscored by presenting an oral history of the centre with a memorable event from each year of its existence recalled by an individual involved with the gallery at that time. These memories were recorded for an audio guide and then were printed in Braille on white sheets and displayed at eye level in the white-walled gallery, giving it the appearance at first glance of being empty. (Of course, soon after we installed those sheets we had a sweaty dance party in the gallery and they all buckled from the humidity. The floor too was a disaster, scuffed and dirtied by the dancers). At that time, as I do now, I also thought it was important to stress that that gallery was a space of potential that generated the future as much as the past.

So with Instances in mind I feel obligated to stress that my account of the last decade will be partial, selective and subjective, especially since I have ten minutes to sum it all up. And in the course of doing so I won’t be able to name all the staff, board members, volunteers and community members who have made Modern Fuel such a special place. Instead I’ll have to cut to the chase: The single most important decision and outcome in that time, I think, has been the move to the Tett Centre, for better or for worse. Many of us who were involved with the decision and planning for it left town before it happened, so we didn’t have to deal with the consequences. But I do think that we made the right decision, not merely for the improvements to its infrastructure and most importantly its accessibility, but also because I think that in order for Modern Fuel to move forward it had to move.  It was literally stuck in the same place for over thirty years and its location was increasingly becoming a liability for the organization.

The move to the Tett is linked in my mind to a term that had great currency in artist-run culture at the time and probably still does: Professionalization. This word was often met with distrust if not hostility, but I don’t believe that it is a bad thing. I’ve been trying to become a professional my entire life and I’m still not there yet. And we have certainly made some advances in terms of professionalizing the gallery in the past few years, with additional staff positions, salaries and benefits. Of course the mandate of the gallery is the professional development of emerging artists (and you could also say curators). I sometimes wonder how long it can take for an artist to emerge. What I mean to say is that “professionalization” should be understood as an ongoing process. Indeed, it often felt like we were just making it up as we were going along.

I like to recall how the first cast members of the television show Saturday Night Live were called the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. The phrase suggested that there was an element of danger, or risk and uncertainty in their performances. It still retains a sense of the unaccomplished, of the yet to be accomplished, which I think is applicable to Modern Fuel.

This is not to say that Modern Fuel hasn’t accomplished some great things. We’ve had too many excellent exhibitions over the years to mention here, with many of the artists going on win or be nominated for the Sobey Awards or the Polaris awards (and some of them from previous decades have gone on to win Governor General’s Awards). [Catch ’em first at Modern Fuel folks, that’s my tip for you today.] For me the really memorable occasions are the ones where we collaborated with the community to make something happen, such as the time that we screened videos documenting the social practice of the Cuban artist René Francisco during the harvest celebration in what was then called the FRILL community garden (Friends Revitalizing Industrial Lands Lovingly) adjacent to the No Frills grocery store that was in the Swamp Ward neighbourhood (2008); or when Adrian Stimson in the guise of Buffalo Boy, wearing fishnet stockings, rode a coin-operated horse through the streets of Kingston in the Pride Parade in 2008. We’ve had so many successful and impactful collaborations with so many organizations: the Multicultural Arts Festival and the Film Festival and Cubafest. I haven’t even mentioned the Agnes and the Union Gallery. When we presented a series of Indigenous performance art called Acting Out, Claiming Space in 2011 we probably had our longest list of collaborators and sponsors for an event yet. This took place right after the repairs to damages from a second floor flood had been completed and the walls and the floor in the gallery had never looked better. Of course, right then the artist Jordan Bennett chose to present a durational skateboarding performance in the gallery, placing the floors in peril once again. Such is the way it goes. I just wanted to mention that Board Member Carla Taunton was instrumental to connecting us with many of the Indigenous artists and curators that we worked with over this time. One of my favourite memories is of the Voice Off workshops that we ran in 2009, where Indigenous video artists worked with youth at the Katarokwi Native Friendship Centre to produce videos which we screened in Market Square for one of the Art After Dark gallery crawls.

And another outstanding event was a performance that was part of an exhibition titled I Can Only Make It Up Once by the Kingston artist Lisa Figge. It was one of the last exhibitions at the gallery while I was still here. Exploring disability as a location of knowledge, Figge makes artworks in order to renegotiate the terms of living in a body that is no longer able-bodied. In a moving and powerful performance, Figge traversed the two flights of stairs that were necessary to get into the old Modern Fuel, flights of stairs which had curtailed her involvement with the gallery. I have looked at spaces in terms of their accessibility ever since.

Finally, I wanted to say that working at Modern Fuel was a very rewarding time for me and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be involved and be one of the many who have overseen this great project since its inception in 1977. I am heartened to see some of the initiatives I undertook as Artistic Director continuing to this day, such as the Vapours experimental music concerts, the Syphon newspaper, Square Pegs video art screenings, and even Your Own Grad School. (The Your Own Grad School proposal was a submission that was turned down by the selection committee (perhaps because it was too nebulous) but I brought it forward as a personal project.) It was hard to know what would come of it, but that is the nature of the unanticipated or the untested. This reminds me of the time in 2007 that the artist Jess MacCormack totally changed at the last minute the project she did in Kingston from the one that she had proposed. It was okay though because the new and unexpected project was better: in a residency with Modern Fuel Artist Run Centre at The Artel, she worked on an art project with the women in The Isabel MacNeil House (the only low security federal prison for women in Canada) that resulted in an animated film. I’m still astounded by this achievement. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Artel, where MacCormack was in residence for a month and where her exhibition was held.

Unfortunately there is no time to outline the vibrant and brief history of The Artel arts residence that was launched with Modern Fuel’s support during this time, but I did want to mention one of the Artel’s founding residents, Lisa Visser, who sadly passed away, much too young, in 2013. Lisa was the kind of artist (and curator) – critical, courageous and kind – that Modern Fuel needs, and of course she was involved. If people like her continue to be involved, Modern Fuel will remain relevant and alive, open to new ideas, new directions, the unknown, and the yet to be accomplished.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Writer-in-Residence at Est-Nord-Est

I was the Writer-in-Residence for the fall residency at Est-Nord-Est (ENE), an artist-run centre in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec that hosts an international community of artists and authors in contemporary art. Situated in a small village on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, the residency offers a great opportunity for artistic experimentation and research in a unique setting with a rich history.

ENE began with the idea of facilitating encounters between contemporary artists and the traditional artisans of the region, and now ENE welcomes contemporary visual-arts artists from all disciplines. It also encourages writing about contemporary art through its writer's residency. There are three residency periods, offered in the spring, summer, and fall, and they usually bring together four artists and one author in contemporary art. 

For my residency, the artists were: Jennifer Belair, a printmaker from Detroit; Sophie Jaillet, a conceptual artist from Montréal; Christoph Mügge, an installation artist from Malmö; and Céline Struger, a sculptor from Vienna. 

L-R: Sophie Jaillet, Jennifer Belair, Christoph Mügge, Céline Struger, Michael Davidge

During my time in Saint-Jean-Port Joli, I conducted studio visits with the artists-in-residence and prepared a text on the residency for a future issue of Est-Nord-Est's publication, Mémento. I was also working on my own research project, entitled “Further to an Aesthetic Education.” The project is an exploration of the relationship between aesthetics, education, and politics that takes Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man as a source of inspiration. My residency ran from October 9 to November 3, 2017, and I gave an artist talk during the open house on the night of October 26, 2017.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Herstory of Punk in Ottawa

As part of the She Wants an Output exhibition, I organized a series of events that included a panel discussion on October 5th and a night of performances on October 6th, 2017.

The panel discussion took place in the Alumni Association Reading Room at the MacOdrum Library on campus in conjunction with a reception for the exhibition. The panel was comprised of artist and musician Mary Anne Barkhouse, musician and arts administrator Keltie Duncan, and writer and curator Julia Pine, while I acted as a moderator. Prominently featured in the exhibition, Barkhouse and Pine spoke about their experiences in the punk rock scene in Ottawa in the late '70s and early '80s, while Duncan, who is currently in the band Bonnie Doon, brought the panel up to the present.

Similarly, on the following night, a series of performances established a continuity between the spirit of the past with today's practitioners. Setting the mood, DJ Jas Nasty played a selection of records featuring punk women throughout the night.

Steve Bates and jake moore presented Trilogy x:y:z, a performance consisting of three sound-based works drawing from their histories in punk and post-punk music, art, DIY culture, anarchist and leftist politics. Steve Bates is an artist and musician living in Montréal, His work has been exhibited and performed in Canada, the United States, Europe and Senegal. jake moore is an intermedia artist whose primary medium is space. She works at the intersections of material, text, and vocality to make exhibitions, events and other kinds of public interventions. She gained early art and life experience as the singer in the all-female punk rock band, The Ruggedy Annes, out of Winnipeg. The Ruggedy Annes are featured in the MATRAX compilation, a key document in the She Wants an Output exhibition.

Bonnie Doon closed the night with a fiery set. They are an Ottawa-based post-punk foursome drawing inspiration from spooky beaches and pizza joints. Dooner Nooner, their debut LP, is out now and available at finer record stores. Bonnie Doon melts faces with waves of controlled dissonance and unabashed wolf calls to the moon.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Past Forward 50th Anniversary Alumni Exhibition

In the fall of 2017, the Department of Visual Arts at Western University is celebrating its 50th anniversary. As part of the occasion, the Artlab Gallery organized Past Forward, an alumni exhibition that included over 300 images and texts submitted by former students from the department's studio and art history programs.

Michael Davidge, Scylla and Charybdis, digital image, 2017.

As a graduate of the MFA program, I was invited to submit an image or a text that reflected my experience or memory of my time at Western. The work Scylla and Charybdis was my response. The exhibition runs from September 5 to September 29th, 2017, with a gala reception on Saturday, September 16th from 7 to 9 pm.

Friday, September 1, 2017

She Wants an Output

For Carleton University Art Gallery's fall programming, I curated an exhibition running from September 1 to October 29, 2017 in Carleton University's MacOdrum Library entitled She Wants an Output. The exhibition looks back at the history of the 1980s punk music scene in Ottawa, through the work of two women who were involved in it: Mary Anne Barkhouse and Julia Pine. The oppositional shout of punk rock was sounding throughout the world at that time, including in Ottawa. A small but vibrant community sprang up here, inspired by the DIY attitude and political consciousness of the movement. Women were key players in the scene, but their story has seldom been told.

Mary Anne Barkhouse, pelage II, mixed media, 1999. 

Restless Virgins were a first-wave punk rock band active in the Ottawa music scene in the early ‘80s. Notably, its bass player, Mary Anne Barkhouse, went on to a celebrated career as an artist. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Barkhouse’s pelage (1999-2000), a work composed of four appliquéd blankets, reminiscent of the button blankets used by First Nations of the Northwest Coast for ceremonial purposes. Each blanket represents a stage in Barkhouse’s life and her development as an artist. Three of the four blankets are on display. The pelage II blanket makes reference to the ten years between 1975 and 1985 when she played, toured and recorded with bands like Restless Virgins.

A selection of items in the She Wants an Output exhibition.

Accompanying Barkhouse’s work is an eclectic selection from Julia Pine’s collection of zines, flyers, records and other ephemera from her “punk days,” when she was involved in the small but vibrant scene as a musician, producer, writer and community organizer, from about 1978 until 1985. The selection will include documents from a project that Pine co-produced with Colleen Howe in 1985: the MATRAX compilation cassette, which featured thirteen all-female bands from Canada, the US and the UK.

Pine’s collection points to the central role women played in the exceptionally diverse local scene and highlights their strong commitment to progressive ideas that were, and continue to be, far from the mainstream.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cultural Engineering: Flow Chart

The Cultural Engineering project was launched over two years ago, and each issue has showcased artworks that were commissioned by SAW Video as way to chart the Arts Court redevelopment and document its transformation. Each issue has also offered artists a chance look at the Arts Court from new perspectives. It’s easy to imagine that flow charts were used for project management on this ambitious infrastructure development. If a flow chart is a diagram of the sequence of actions in a complex activity that helps to illustrate a process, then one that traced the course of the Cultural Engineering project in retrospect would undoubtedly reveal a complicated and perhaps contradictory trajectory: one that might double back on itself just as much as it might pursue an oblique angle down an unfinished path. Like all endeavors that are meant to be democratic, Cultural Engineering has been subject to change, depending upon the individuals who have been invited to contribute to it.

Cara Tierney, Melt in. To Spring, digital video, 2017.

Going with the flow of the previous issues of Cultural Engineering, the final online installment features two new videos by Meredith Snider and Timothy Smith, as well as a third video by a guest artist. In her video for this issue, “Culture Lives Where?” Snider poses two questions to people in the vicinity of the Arts Court (“What is culture?” and “Where does culture live?”) and the results are as diverse as the people who participate. In “Past & Present,” Smith animates archival photographs in order to propel the viewer back to the earliest years of the building’s history, capturing the flow of time and offering fascinating glimpses of the transformation of the site, and you might say its political fortunes. The guest artist for the ninth issue, Cara Tierney, connects and mixes several separate events into one powerful montage that suggests positive change is going to come for transgender rights, but only because of persistent pressure. Tierney and the other artists in this issue offer evidence that we can effect change as much as we are affected by it. Link to the ninth issue here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Intimate World of Josef Sudek

My review of "The Intimate World of Joseph Sudek" at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from October 28, 2016 to February 26, 2017 is on newsstands this summer, appearing in issue 142 of Border Crossings. The exhibition offered a retrospective introduction to the entirety of Josef Sudek’s career: from his early photographs that are marked by the Romantic Pictorialism that was conventional at the beginning of the 20th century, to his later, more experimental and idiosyncratic works that he produced up until his death in 1976. The exhibition was divided thematically into nine sections and these, placed in a roughly chronological order, underscored Sudek’s individualistic pursuit of his artistic vision. An early photo (Veteran’s Home, c. 1922-1927) featuring a disabled war veteran absorbed in the contemplation of a bottle he is holding could act as a metonym for Sudek’s career: He cast himself as an outsider whose singular focus revealed worlds within worlds.

For the complete review, check out Border Crossings 142, available at the finest bookstores, newsstands, and libraries near you.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Research Residency at Artexte

In the spring of 2017 I am beginning a research residency at Artexte in Montreal on the work of Jayce Salloum as alternative media. Jayce Salloum has made a career out of interrogating the complicated nature of representation and the power of images and text. His career has also intersected in an extraordinary way with the history of artist-run centres and arts collectives. Salloum has continuously and ingeniously addressed the public through various channels, including performances, photographs, installations, postcards, stencils, mail art, bookworks, magazine projects, and videos.

A page of Jayce Salloum slides in the Artexte archives.

Considering Salloum’s work as a form of alternative media, I will be particularly interested in studying Salloum’s publishing activities in artist’s books and magazines, which offer a unique lens through which to bring the history of artist-run centres and artists’ publishing into focus. One goal of this residency is to underscore the manner in which Salloum’s work presents an alternative to the mainstream media’s representation of war, the nation state, and the nature of conflict, while highlighting the importance of artist-run centres as platforms for alternative views. Link to the Artexte page about my residency here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cultural Engineering: Wayfinding

Wayfinding is a term that is used to designate various architectural features or design elements within a building or a built environment that help people to navigate their way through a space. Such items, including signs that lead you to the washrooms or to an information kiosk or map, are especially important in large complicated environments like the Arts Court.  In the second issue of the Cultural Engineering project, Rachel Kalpana James humorously invoked through a series of guided meditations the labyrinthine nature of the Arts Court building and the myriad organizations it houses. The redevelopment will give everyone involved another crack at designing a wayfinding system.

Meredith Snider, Hard To Let Go: I Put My Blindfold Back On, 2017, digital video.

In their own way, the three videos in the eighth issue of the Cultural Engineering project offer signposts to the redevelopment of Arts Court. Meredith Snider’s video, “Hard to let go: I put my blindfold back on,” documents a performance by Lily Koltun that functions metaphorically as a guided tour of the Arts Court in the midst of its renovation.  Tim Smith’s video “SAW Video January 2017” provides a portrait of the physical space of SAW Video contemporaneous with the date in its title. In a different vein, guest artist Awar Obab’s video is an important reminder that with success artists can lose sight of their original intentions and ultimately lose their way. It also serves as a caveat that arts organizations can lose their way too, as they grow into institutions and become less flexible and less responsive to the immediate needs of their communities. Link to the eighth issue here.