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 RenĂ© 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.

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