Who the Pot? Why so Primitive? by Rosemary Heather

October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

Maura Doyle

Maura Doyle, Mons Pubis, barrel fired stoneware, 2014

The artifact preserved and cared for by the museum – the humble clay pot, for instance –
communicates a message to us through time about the circumstances of its use and how it got made in the first place.

The artifact re-created tells a different story. Maura Doyle’s smoke sealed clay pots are not re-creations exactly, but the artist confirms their point of reference comes directly from the pasteven for those works in the show modeled after things from the contemporary world, like a paper coffee cup. At first glance, precedents of the clay pot in history, examples of which go back to the Stone Age, are what make these works intelligible. Why they might exist in the present, and what decisions led Doyle to create them, is how we understand them as artworks. Writing about ceramics practice today, art critic Roberta Smith offers a helpful distinction, these works are to be understood as: art world, as opposed to ceramics world, ceramics. [1]

As Smith implies, Doyle’s works come with a built in conceptual dimension, and this distinguishes the work from clay pots understood to be straightforward executions of pottery as a craft. A nuanced understanding of how we exist in the present is a message the best artworks can bring to us. In Doyle’s case, the artist’s interest in mastering a centuries old technique sheds unexpected light on how we experience our contemporary world. Consider the words of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum: [h]uman history is told and written perhaps more in pots than in anything else [2] for viewers of Doyle’s exhibition this includes what these pots can tell us about the history of our own time.

Before making these works, Doyle thought it important she become a student of the craft of pottery in its earliest examples. Time spent at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and especially looking at the Jomon pottery [3] at Tokyo’s National Museum was the artist’s starting point for the endeavor of pot making itself. Doyle’s exhibition plays with the conventions of museological display to make this context explicit. Fidelity to this source material also extends to the surface of the works, but more about that later.

Up to this point Doyle’s art practice has not necessarily been craft-based. Instead the artist has embraced a range of strategies in which, more or less, form follows function for the projects she develops. For The Money Collection (2002-2003) Doyle collected money (donations welcome!) turning the necessity of financing her art practice into the substance of the practice itself. Existing mainly as an informational flyer and talking point, The Money Collection mined the humour of the humbled circumstances artists typically experience in the early stages of their career, the work proposing a way to make Doyle’s experience tangible for her audience.

Instead of a medium-specific engagement, working longterm with sculpture or painting or video, for instance, Doyle creates the context for shifts in perspective she can share with her audience. For The Chip Bag Project (2004), the artist collected empty potato chip bags (her goal was to collect 10,000) with the idea they could be dropped from a helicopter en masse into Toronto’s Sky Dome (today known as the Rogers Centre), which she rechristened the Sky Bowl for the project. Seeing, with the help of the artist, a city’s sports center as a receptacle for our culture’s trashiest elements (junk food being much more pure commodity than actual food) helps us to break free, if only temporarily, from a normalized view of our culture in all of its ridiculous excess.

The artist’s two Boulder projects take a similar approach to a wildly different topic: the erratic boulders that populate the urban landscape in Canadian cities. In short: erratics are rocks that have been transported by glaciers to wherever they have happened to come to rest. Launched by the artist in Toronto and Vancouver in 2004 and 2005, respectively [4], Doyle’s twin projects present two erratic boulders in their respective cities as sculpture. Positioning her boulders as artworks, Doyle then created booklets for each project that included a guide to where other boulders could be found throughout the two cities. Functioning incidentally or by design as elements in an urban landscape, these large rocks typically go unnoticed, blending in with their surroundings along with nearby squirrels and park benches. Doyle’s project asks us to look again. Contemplating how they got here suggests a glimpse into a geological timeframe that engulfs us, a corrective to a purely human and narrowly contemporary perspective on our everyday experience.

Of course a long tradition exists within art making for this type of corrective. It is called the momento mori (remember that you will die). While other works by Doyle directly partake of this tradition (Bone Dump (2011), for instance, a commission by Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, consisting of 8000 femur-like porcelain bones piled in a heap), Who the Pot? could be said to evince similar concerns, if less directly. Clay pots are among the earliest examples of human culture. Recent scientific studies have found a connection between the skills required for tool making and human speech. For this reason, the earliest toolslike a hand axe carved out of stone, for instanceare considered to mark the emergence of humans most like ourselves [5].

Sculpture makes society, in other words, and the works in Who the Pot? deliver this message in terms that are highly particular to the time we live in. Every potter, in practice, will make ceramics in a manner consistent with the craft’s prehistoric origins. Doyle’s pots reinforce this idea; through the similarity many of her works have to examples of the earliest ceramics (the pot, the jug and the pitcher), their method of display, and most important: choices the artist has made about what the surface of each pot looks like. She has opted not to work with the glazed finish familiar from contemporary ceramics, (the glaze makes ceramics usable, unlike Doyle’s works). Fired by the artist in a barrel, the surface of each pot is instead sealed by smoke, the tell tale signs of which are the surface flashing marks of smoke and flame. This simple choice marks Doyle’s pots as decorative, but within a register of the prehistoric world. In their textured and imperfect surface, in the absence of sheen, we can intuit a kind of withholding on the part of the artist. She resists allowing her artworks to appear seamless with the universal surface of contemporary life. This would be a universal surface as it is figuratively understood, which is experienced through the lens of the digital. Against that depthless continuum, Doyle asks us to, if momentarily, look away so we might understand our lives within a broader and much more human, expanse of the present.

NOTES

[1] Roberta Smith, PAUL CLAY’, New York Times, June 30, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/arts/design/paul-clay.html (accessed May 05, 2014)

[2] Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 55.

[3] Accepted as the oldest form of Japanese pottery, Jomon refers to the distinctive cord markings found on the surface of pots made during this Neolithic era of Japan’s history. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jomo/hd_jomo.htm (accessed May 5, 2014)

[4] Maura Doyle, There’s a New Boulder in Town, 2004, Toronto Sculpture Garden, Toronto; Monument to all Boulders in Vancouver and on Planet Earth, 2005, permanent public sculpture in conjunction with Or Gallery and City of Vancouver.

[5] Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 17.

This text originally commissioned on the occasion of Maura Doyle’s Who The Pot? at YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto, 2014.

More information about Maura Doyle’s work can be found here and here.

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In Visible Colours – Rosemary Heather In Conversation With Zainub Verjee

September 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

A groundbreaking film and video festival made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Vancouver stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics

Still from Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Canadian premiere at InVisible Colours. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The personal trajectory of Zainub Verjee over the past four decades intersects with cultural moments that continue to resonate.

Born in Kenya and educated in the UK, Verjee arrived in Canada in the 1970s to study economics at Simon Fraser University. A close collaborator with Ken Lum in the early years of Vancouver’s photoconceptualism movement, and with Sara Diamond on a history of women’s labour in British Columbia, Verjee also helped build the international profile of the Western Front throughout the 1990s. Her policy work on the BC Arts Board in the early 1990s helped produce the province’s Arts Council Act, leading to the formation of the BC Arts Council, and she later worked on early digital initiatives at the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

As a practicing artist in the 1980s and ’90s, Verjee was included in national and international group exhibitions, including “New Canadian Video” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994; “TransCulture,” a satellite exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995; “Traversing Territory, Part II: Road Movies in a Post-Colonial Landscape,” curated by Judith Mastai for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 1997; and “Tracing Cultures III,” curated by Karen Henry and installed at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby in 1997. (“A first when contemporary art was shown in a mosque in Canada,” says Verjee.)

 One of the defining legacies in Verjee’s career is In Visible Colours (IVC), an international festival in Vancouver dedicated to film and video by women of colour that she co-founded, with Lorraine Chan, in 1989. A landmark event of its time, IVC assembled works by then-emerging artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gurinder Chadha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita and Mona Hatoum. IVC and the issues it foregrounded is one reason why, from Verjee’s perspective, the identity politics of today is in large part a return to a conversation that started in the 1980s.

Rosemary Heather: It’s been almost 30 years since you staged In Visible Colours, with more than 100 films and videos by artists from 28 countries and 75 international delegates in attendance. The event focused on global issues around diversity and representation. What do you think has changed in the intervening time? Have we seen any progress?

Zainub Verjee: In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.

 IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker?

To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.

RH: So IVC was essentially informed by that era’s worldwide push for decolonialization, but with a stronger emphasis on discourse, correct?

ZV: IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval.

There were transatlantic responses in the art world: In New York, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” in 1984, can be read in context of the ascendancy of two generations of Black artists (this includes South Asians) in the UK in the early 1980s. Their contrasting relationship to modernism, and opposition to anticolonial and postcolonial politics, resulted in the making of the Black British Arts movement.

In Canada, the 1951 Massey Report frames this nation-building project, and despite its multiple flaws—primarily its Eurocentric orientation— remains well entrenched today. The failure of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to a flurry of counter-events with the emergence of second-wave feminism. Race also became a major element in this collective endeavour and shook the cultural institutional apparatus. IVC was a forerunner of these phenomena.

RH: You worked with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was a key inspiration for Black British Arts—the radical political art movement founded in the UK in 1982 and inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique. How did Black British Arts influence IVC?

ZV: Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.

Over that decade, artists and thinkers such as Hall, Sonia Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Kobena Mercer and Rasheed Araeen, and institutions like the Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Third Text, were other major influences. They informed me about the agency I had as a person of colour and how I could use that position to intervene on the racialized gender issues of cultural production and institutional discourse that had been unleashed by globalization and a new neoliberal order.

RH: Was this conversation also happening in Vancouver at the time?

ZV: Indeed. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, Chilean women in the exile community established themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles and left movements. Pinochet was, after all, the poster boy of the neoliberal regime!

In 1987, I started working at Women in Focus Society (WIF), a feminist, arts and media centre devoted to women’s cultural production in film, video and the visual arts in Vancouver. I recall the WIF exhibition “Mujer, arte y periferia” [Women, art and periphery], in 1987, raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship as well as the “placement” of women’s art.

It was within these larger contexts that I noticed there were no works by women of colour in WIF’s distribution collection. This overwhelming absence of the voice of women of colour in the Canadian context led to the first conversations that ultimately took the form of IVC.

RH:
 This sense of tumult at the end of the 1980s produced other exhibitions that were equally influential to the direction of IVC. Can you talk about that?

ZV: The two-year period leading to IVC in 1989 became coterminous with other exhibitions of equal critical import.

In Paris, in response to the colonial ethnography of MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition, Jean-Hubert Martin curated “Magiciens de la Terre,” presenting works by more than 100 Western and non-Western artists from 50 countries. In London, Araeen’s “The Other Story” invoked multiple modernities. And in Ottawa, Gerald McMaster’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” framed Indigenous contemporary expression without any apology, offering a definitive moment in the contemporary art history of Canada.

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2017 issue of Canadian Art.

Kent Monkman prepares to debut his largest painting yet

September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

On the heels of his popular U of T Art Museum show, the Cree artist is unveiling a 12 x 24-ft history painting based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER

Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman in his studio – photo credit: Samuel Engleking

Kent Monkman’s show at U of T Art Museum earlier this year might have been Toronto’s most important art exhibition of 2017.

Hugely popular, Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience presented the artists’ work along with a selection of historical paintings and artefacts. A much-needed corrective to the Canada 150 celebrations, the exhibition addressed topics including treaty signings, First Nations’ reserves, residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Whatever the event’s organizers had in mind when planning the sesquicentennial, it probably wasn’t this.

Now Monkman is back with Two Ships. The monumental painting will be presented for two days – September 26 and 27 – as part of 360: Bridges at 6 Degrees Citizen Space, an event that asks what citizenship looks like in the 21st century. This series of discussions at the Art Gallery of Ontario will be livestreamed via four Toronto Public Library branches. Monkman’s talk happens September 26 from 3:30-5 pm, and his piece will be shown in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre’s inaugural exhibition in May 2018.

At 12 x 24 ft, this is the largest painting you’ve made. Tell me about it.

This project has been ongoing for almost three years. I wanted to do a very large history painting. The scale has a certain impact. The story I wanted to tell is based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois called the Two Row Wampum Treaty. It was a belt with two purple rows of beads made by the Iroquois to talk about a peace alliance — one for the European vessel and one for the Indigenous vessel and the idea was that they would travel a parallel course and not interfere with one another.

This painting is, of course, that moment of interference. I was inspired by Delacroix’s Christ On The Sea Of Galilee (1854). The parable here was that Christ was asleep and everyone was freaking out because they thought the boat they were in was going to sink. And he was blissfully asleep. In my painting, because of the collision of two cultures, these two vessels are about to collide and Miss Chief, my alter ego, is asleep in the boat. The idea is she is going to wake up and calm the storm.

With your show at U of T’s Art Museum – the room about the residential schools, for instance – I saw that and thought, I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Well, that was part of my work as I cycle through Western art history looking for all these gaps – there are huge gaps in the narrative and how the story of North America is told through a very European lens. The other stuff never really made it into the art canon because no one wanted to show it or to expose it. These chapters of Indigenous history – the removal of children, the rate of incarceration, the dispossession of Indigenous people from our land – those never made it into art history. They never made it into our school curriculums. I never set out to be an educator, but when I went into art history, all this stuff just came to the surface and I had to deal with it.

A large part of what I do in the art world is bring people over to my perspective because they are so used to the dominant narrative, which is a whitewash. The incidences where this story does exist in art history is minor. The story North America tells itself about its own history and mythology is flawed.

Do you think there are different rates of progress between Canada and the U.S. on these issues?

[Americans] are at least a generation behind in terms of their awareness. It’s like slipping back in time when you go across the border, depending where you are. That’s my perception. I feel that they are 20, 25 years behind. They have never had a major biennial, like the Sakahàn, of Indigenous work. They don’t have Indigenous curators working in institutions as contemporary curators. We do. And those are major battles that took generations to secure.

There is the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., but that’s an ethnographic museum.

Exactly. That’s still how native people exist in the minds and imaginations of Americans, that they belong in the ethnological wing. Or the Indian Market. It’s either tourist art or they are ethnological specimens. That’s one of the biggest problems holding back Indigenous art from getting into the mainstream.

In Canada, the treaties haven’t been resolved. Is that the reason this history is not being dealt with?

Absolutely. It all goes back to the Indian Act and how the government has established a relationship with Indigenous people. It’s not nation-to-nation; we are wards of the state. We still have cards with numbers that identify us as wards of the state. This goes back to the signing of the treaties and the beginnings of colonial policies that began with incarcerating Indigenous people on reserves and then the institutionalization of Indigenous people through all these different policies.

This is why Indigenous people fill our prisons, because they were foster children. They were taken out with the Sixties Scoop and never had a chance. They never had a relationship with their parents or grandparents and they became institutionalized. They are in our prisons, they are in our foster care system. I could go on and on.

ORIGINALLY COMMISSIONED BY NOW MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 20, 2017 11:42 AM
https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/kent-monkman-debuts-largest-painting-yet/

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

Performance artist Dynasty Handbag is the opposite of correct behaviour

August 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dynasty_HandbagDynasty Handbag, photo: Charlie Gross

Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron on straddling the worlds of art and comedy, parodying The Handmaid’s Tale and making TV moves with Jack Black

BY 

2017 is bananas. Nazis are back – and they are not afraid to cry on the internet. It’s a white supremacist man-baby thing, one given free reign by that Whiner-in-Chief currently residing in the Oval Office. If that’s real life, how is art supposed to compete?

Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron, who performs under the name Dynasty Handbag, is one answer.

The queer performance artist and comedian’s videos and theatrical shows skirt the edges of what’s acceptable to the mainstream. Take her D-Bag’s Quick And Easy Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism (2017), for instance. Smearing her eyes in a black “accent” she calls “doom, capitalism and white supremacy” she crosses the line from humour to discomfort. It’s a literal black eye that reflects our troubled times back to us.

Always with her work, each manic moment is redeemed by humour. In Vague (2016), the artist vamps’ guttural noises to strains of the Madonna hit with the similar name. As with her video that parodies Beyoncé’s vanity doc Life Is But A Dream (both 2013), Cameron offers welcome relief from the dominant culture’s dictates of perfection. Called by one smart critic “a send-up of the current social id,” Cameron’s act has attracted the attention of comedy heavyweights like Jack Black and Community creator Dan Harmon.

Though she is often referenced in the same breath as profane talents like John Waters or Amy Sedaris, she also recalls Karen Finley, the performance artist whose work sits at an intersection between art and theatre. Its not a perfect analogy. Cameron is madcap while Finley is more about unadulterated catharsis. Yet there is something to the comparison. Both show us how fraught political moments give us the artists we need.

NOW caught up with Cameron ahead of the Toronto debut of her latest show I, An Moron.

Your work straddles the worlds of performance art and comedy. Would you say you feel more at home in one than the other?

I don’t feel at home anywhere, really. It depends. Neither the typical straightforward comedy world nor the typical straightforward art world feel like a cozy blanket to me. But there are facets within those worlds where I think people are open and they kind of get that the two things are not mutually exclusive, and there is room for going in and out of those two contexts. Ultimately, they are just frameworks.

I guess one art world precedent is the performance artist, Karen Finley.

She’s not very funny [laughter].

There are lots of artists I identify with. A precedent for me would be Andy Kaufman. I am also really influenced by the early 80s female comedians, like Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. All that wacky stand-up. But it is just kind of more blended together in my presentation rather than sectioned off into specific characters.

Ah, your work is not skit-based?

But it can be. I don’t think that any of it is really limiting. What I’m doing actively is not trying to think about those things, and just do whatever I want. I just shot this thing the other day, a spoof of The Handmaid’s Tale – The Handbag’s Tale – and because I have this persona in place alreadyI have something to work off of, but its not like high art. Its like, really, really, lowbrow. Real low. [laughter]

You should tweet it at Margaret Atwood.

I will. I think she’ll love it. I actually really did love that book, and I like the show, too. It was really campy. But it often surprises me that people are thinking about, wondering, you know: what are you doing?

That’s what’s good about your work. That you are able to provoke the question: what is this? Its very refreshing. There’s an obvious way in which Trump is the context within which everything is happening right now. And you refer to that in your Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism, but I also thought there is this other context. I just found out about “virtue signalling” do you know about that?

No, what is that?

It’s about political correctness. Like, everybody’s fiddling about correctness, and Rome is burning.

Oh right. Philosophy is for those with full bellies?

Yes, exactly. I feel your work responds to that as well, because its so the opposite of correct behaviour.

My work’s the opposite of correct behaviour?

Yes, I’d say so.

Well, if you say so. [laughter] The show I’m going to do in Toronto premiered at the Hammer Museum [in Los Angeles] in October last year. All that year I was writing it and I was really frustrated with North American white Liberals who are all talk no rock, or some rock but then the rock is like, so tied into capitalism – like, what kind of choices of gluten-free bread am I am going to buy and what company is the most moral? Choices we feel are moral and somehow making a difference, but what the fuck is actually going on? Nobody really knows. It’s hard not to be paranoid you are being led down some path that’s meant to distract you from some other terrible thing that’s happening.

Nobody knows what’s real and it is hard to grasp onto that, but I think what you’re doing is very real and its very effective for that reason. You are somehow channeling that or expressing that directly, which is a bit in short supply at the moment.

Well, thank you. I feel like I can express questions and outrage and naïveté. I know that I am naive. I just have feelings and I know where else to put them.

What’s next for you – and Dynasty Handbag?

Well, I’m trying to sell a television show right now with my writing partner Amanda Verwey. I’m having lots of meetings with enthusiastic, heterosexual, white gentlemen who nod and laugh a lot about how – well, they do say they will kill you with enthusiasm here – but I do have some really cool people that I am working with. Jack Black, who is just really awesome and a sweet guy that really loves art and wants to do fun projects. And also Dan Harmon, a producer and writer who has done a bunch of interesting stuff. He is an interesting guy who is in on the joke of the whole thing. And I am doing work on a new, live performance for the spring called Titanic that will premiere in New York. And, what else am I doing? Trying to finish all of Prime Suspect once again.

Oh, that’s a good show.

Yeah, I’m going to get through it for the sixth time. Some pretty big goals I’ve set up for myself.

I, AN MORON by Dynasty Handbag at DDL (209 Augusta) on August 24 at 9 pm. $12. torontomoron.bpt.me

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

This text commissioned for https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/dynasty-handbag-opposite-correct-behaviour/

 

The Crisis in Art

March 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Warhol-Campbell_Soup-1-screenprint-1968
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Can, 1962

I like the idea that Twitter and Andy Warhol are equivalent expressions of their eras. Both incarnate their respective cultural moments with illuminating simplicity. Warhol called his studio The Factory, made artworks using industrial processes, and tried to be robotic in his utterances. What the artist implies is how 1960s consumer culture made mass identities, but with the appearance of uniqueness. Update that and you get Twitter as an aphorism machine and automaton of self-promotion. Twitter fulfills the vision Warhol foresaw of today’s fame industrial complex – as the art critic Jerry Saltz recently quipped: “In the future everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” Most important: Twitter embodies our present era in a manner Warhol himself wouldn’t recognize.

History works like that. Epochal change happens in a way we don’t fully understand. Tweets have no value without an audience to read and respond to them. This tells us the transition we are now going through is one from not human to machine so much as individual to collective, from client-server relationship to a peer-to-peer universe. Art today places a lot of emphasis on group initiative, but the effect is relatively weak when compared to the awesome power social media and the blockchain puts into the hands of the collectivity.

twitter

While the end result is not art, the culture the net creates suggests a new role for art that the institution has yet to come to terms with. It’s a crisis that the current vogue for artworks as an asset class helps to obscure. But no matter the collusion that will continue to prop that market up, the cultural tendency of actual significance in our time is happening elsewhere with profound long-term effect.

Rosemary Heather

This text originally commissioned by MISC Magazine – a journal of  strategic insight and foresight, FALL 2015.

Q&A Interviews: How to make a magazine in 2015

February 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

1.        Q&A is an online interview project that sells longform interviews as ebooks through Amazon and other online outlets. I used to be a magazine editor and this is what I see as a viable contemporary format for the magazine. It’s inside the network, as it were.

2.        Q&A is a magazine, but one that is formed by the characteristics of the context it’s presented within. This means that each individual interview will function on its own and as part of the broader Q&A project. The challenge for the project is to create a context of intelligibility for the idea “Q&A”, an understanding about what this combination of letters means within the context created. This is also a question of establishing a context of trust — trust that the product has a certain consistency and quality, which is what all branding aspires to.

3.        Strictly speaking, calling Q&A a magazine is a misnomer. Rather it is a product of the network. Describing the project in this way points to how Q&A gets activated by the interests of its readers. Internet giants’ Google and Amazon are central to how it works. Search and social media organize the Internet today and as such they create specific opportunities for how journalism can be practiced – specifically: 1) through the development of in-depth niche content; 2) for the interest of a non-local (global) audience; 3) with longterm relevance.

4.        Q&A takes this form in part due to an understanding that it is very hard to maintain a front page on the Internet. Huge resources are required to keep up with the 24/7 global demand for fresh content it enables. News organizations like the Guardian and the New York Times can manage it; organizations like the Gawker blog network or the Huffington Post take a different approach of producing a lot of content quickly, often on the backs of the major news networks by editorializing on news items they produce and inviting their readers to join in, to create extended online conversations.

5.        A lot of the content typical of the latter approach tends towards the prurient or sensational. So, as I like to say, a publisher on the Internet is either a farmer or a troll — the former cultivates an audience through considered development of content, and the latter conjures its audience into existence through one form of provocation or another, in the hope that it provokes a response. My approach is farming with a focus on what I like to think of as the developing culture of the 21st century. This includes interviews with contemporary artists, because they are naturally prognosticators about what it means to live in the present (the edge of the future,) as well as trends that are under-the-radar of broad cultural awareness. The blockchain and its applications (including Ethereum) and the Occupy movement and natural life extension are some examples.

6.        Q&A takes advantage of the unique power of the Internet to create a backcatalog of all kinds of content with a high degree of specificity, and distribute it widely. On the Internet any kind of niche at all can be catered to, and is. Q&A proposes to take advantage of this by producing in-depth interviews about topics that might not otherwise be covered. The niche is what I see as an emerging culture of time; i.e., those topics that do not necessarily have a mainstream audience yet, but still is of interest to specific constituencies.

7.        The phrase “conversational thinking,” provides a good explanation for my interest in the interview format. I got it from Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think (2013). Thinking happens in conversation that wouldn’t happen otherwise, and I like the way the interview format helps formalize this process. I believe the popularity of the Q&A format is part of the participatory tendency now at work in the culture at large, one that has been fostered by the Internet. It’s interesting to think that the web answers a pent-up demand for collaboration and the active production of knowledge by all kinds of people that, before it was broadly adapted to, apparently wasn’t well-understood.

Rosemary Heather

This text originally published at qqqandaaa.com on JUNE 29, 2015.

Interview: Allison Hrabluik on the Unscripted Magic of “The Splits”

February 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

SFU Gallery - Allison Hrabluik - "The Splits"
Allison Hrabluik, video still from “The Splits,” 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

Studying the human body in movement is a constant in Allison Hrabluik’s work. Starting first with hand-drawn animations, then making more abstract films derived from tracing figures on YouTube, the artist has most recently worked with real people to make her short film, The Splits (2015). The beguiling piece that results suggests another constant in the artist’s practice: an intuitive ability to use the things she works with — often random, dissimilar — to tell a story wrapped up in the artwork’s process.

With The Splits, Hrabluik constructs an unlikely portrait of everyday life in British Columbia by focusing on people performing a skill or hobby they are passionate about — from sausage-making to Afghan Hound-grooming. The desire to practice and get better at something, whatever it may be, connects the film’s subjects, and this includes Hrabluik and her facility for filmmaking. The artist told me she followed no strong rule about who would be included in the work. Instead, she found participants through an organic process, one that combined on-the-ground research with referrals from friends. She pulls it all together according to an intuitive logic both enigmatic and highly persuasive that makes clear the skill the artist brings to the project.

Hrabluik beguiles through the trickery of cinema. The work’s greater subject is the idiosyncratic space the film constructs and the role viewer perception plays in its making. A tightly focused camera frame makes us aware of the film’s synthetic space. Reinforcing this impression is the location where Hrabluik shot The Splits, a community center in Surrey, British Columbia. A typical setting for many of the activities the artist depicts — a tap dancing rehearsal, for instance — by using it to bring together a disparate range of such activities Hrabluik creates an enhanced but denaturalized context for her subjects. This approach is made clear from the film’s opening frames when the viewer receives partial pieces of information that become more intelligible as the film progresses. Sound from each scene carries over into the next, helping to establish the broader coherence of the work.

The Splits takes place within the white space of a rehearsal hall, and also in the world Hrabluik creates. This opens her work up onto a wider conversation about the use of art as a tool for scripting reality, a contemporary preoccupation that extends from the lowest forms of pop culture to the high art aspirations of literary autofiction. In her method of using real-world performance to capture unexpected, composite effects, Hrabluik’s film shares a lot in common with these tendencies. I spoke with the Vancouver-based Hrabluik this March about her artistic process, the logistics of filming The Splits, and where her practice might lead next. Following a presentation at Kassel Dokfest, in Kassel, Germany, the film is currently on view at SFU Art Gallery, Burnaby, BC, with an upcoming screening at Images Festival, Toronto.

You’ve described movement as being a unifying factor in your works, can you distill what’s of interest to you there?

Prior to making The Splits, I had been making narrative video works, and found that I didn’t know what kind of story to tell anymore. When it came time to write a new script, I could focus on almost anything, so how should I make a selection?

I was also reading a lot of fiction, and began to notice the similarities between many of the books on my shelf. They were wildly different in content, but similar in that they all describe how we manage, or don’t manage, the situations we find ourselves in. I wondered if this internal struggle could be distilled into something visually. Perhaps through the ways we physically move through the world. I began creating movement-based scripts as alternatives to narrative scripts, in an attempt to reveal a character instead of telling a story. To do this, I worked with a composer and a choreographer and began to trace films, looking for different ways to make things move.

You also made works by tracing videos found on YouTube — taking a video and choosing it for its movement. You mentioned this was the provenance for The Splits?

Yes. I was looking for videos to work with, and came across a group of young gymnasts online who record themselves performing in their living rooms and backyards, and post the videos to Youtube. The footage was strangely captivating but because they were teenagers I knew I couldn’t ethically use their images. So I started meeting with gymnasts and dancers here in Vancouver. I began videotaping them, planning to use the footage to trace their forms, but soon realized that altering the images wasn’t necessary. There was instead something in the connection between performers that I wanted to follow.

I contacted as many people as I could find who I thought moved in interesting ways. I started with gymnasts, a hula hooper, and weightlifters — athletic ways of moving. To round this out, I considered other ways of performing, like opera and burlesque, amateur music, and how we move everyday at work and with animals. I also incorporated elements of our lives that lean towards the grotesque — the salami makers and the hotdog eater. The absurd is linked to our everyday as much as the transcendent, which is often what we look for in physical excellence.

And you knew all the people?

I know a few of them. Barbe Atwell, the hula hooper is a friend, the tap dancers I saw tap dancing on Granville Island, and the dog trainers I found online through the Afghan Hound Society. Others, like the skippers, gymnasts, and weightlifters I contacted through their coaches, who put me in touch with people they thought might be interested. Often friends recommended people.

I began to notice that if there’s an action people do, there’s a team around it. For instance, I was thinking about skipping, fencing, competitive eating, dog training, birding, etc., and found communities for all of them, each with their own language, skill set, and measures of success. In this project, art and filmmaking became only one activity among many, and I enjoyed that opening up.

That brings me to another question. I noticed in the bibliography that accompanies your show that it includes the category Scripted. What’s the connection?

Melanie O’Brian, the director of SFU Galleries and the curator of the exhibition, asked me to compile a bibliography of books that formed my thinking around The Splits. She knew that literature is often a starting point for my work. Scripted is a section of the bibliography, and includes The Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974/1997) by Georges Perec, who works with writing constraints, and also the catalogue Yvonne Rainer: Space, Body, Language (2012). Rainer uses a lot of annotated scores to direct movement in her choreography.

Okay. Because that brings up a whole world of ideas that are relevant to the current moment. For instance, the idea of autofiction associated with the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I’m not familiar with the term autofiction, but think I know what you mean. I read the first book of My Struggle (2012), and enjoyed it. Other books in the bibliography for the exhibition, like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984/1985), bill bissett’s work, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), I believe fall into that category. I’m also interested in nonfiction that has literary qualities, which for me begins to read in similar ways. Like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), and Sharon Butala’s Perfection of the Morning (1994).

What some of these works share is a thinly-veiled allegory of self-love and self-destruction as two sides of the same coin. Sometimes describing this in a cool voice, other times with unapologetic effervescence. It’s the effervescence that spills into The Splits.

This makes me wonder about how scripted your works is?  Is it scripted?  

The selection of the cast was carefully arranged, as was the location of filming. We filmed at Sullivan Hall in Surrey, a very active community center. The events that happen at Sullivan Hall on a weekly basis are not far off from what happens in The Splits. The weeks before we filmed, the hall hosted a wedding, a bird sale, a rock and mineral show, an auto show, yoga lessons, and dog training evenings.

Creating the situation became the script. I trusted that once the cast and location were in place, something interesting would happen. During filming, I asked the performers to perform whatever they wanted. We filmed everything, and I made a lot of decisions during the editing process.

The framing is so important. When the film starts, it’s the tap dancers. Then it’s the hula hoop woman, but the way you frame it, there’s some degree of ambiguity. You are suggesting there is an equivalence between the frame and the stage, and that creates the space of the film. Were you always trying emphasize this tight framing when shooting?  

I was interested in the similarities between the different actions performed. The motion in the close-up scenes of the hula-hooper is echoed in the close ups of the gymnasts and weightlifter. By initially hiding the particular activity involved, I could focus on their shared qualities. In the end, it’s curious to know that it’s a hula hoop, a dumb bell, and balancing exercises that create such erotically-charged motion, but it’s not really about the hula hoop.

Right. I guess that’s what you give to the viewer is this puzzle to work out about what’s going on. Why are these things together and what connects them all? I think you can intuitively understand that it’s pretty open but I think you are also very aware of the frame.

I needed a frame, I did. I tried not to have one. I tried to film in everyone’s individual spaces and it didn’t work. So the hall and the stage and the close cropping become devices that connect what might otherwise be a random grouping of people, isolating and highlighting their actions. The neutrality of the hall is important. While it has the character of a space that is well used for performance and celebration, it also shares the neutral characteristics of an exhibition space, allowing us to focus on movement over setting.

Obviously you are able to work with these people because you have that sensitivity to what they need to feel comfortable, and to perform. It’s very naturalistic, that was another point I was going to make …

The process was comfortable, and this was important. I met with everyone individually before we filmed, to describe the project and answer questions. Once they arrived at the hall, we spent several hours filming each group. This gave them time to become comfortable in front of the camera. A feeling of naturalness also happens through editing. I searched through hours of footage to find moments where the performers were unguarded. Much of the scripting you asked about earlier happens there.

It’s not a documentary.

I think it intersects documentary and fiction. The performers are performing themselves, but the situation that brings them together is constructed. I’ll continue to explore this intersection with other subjects, leaving movement behind for a while.

Do you think about directing? Will you be making a more scripted film in the future?  

Yes, I’ll certainly experiment with a more scripted approach. That might involve writing scripts while leaving room for improvisation.

Rosemary Heather

This interview originally appeared in Momus, MARCH 29, 2016.

More information about Allison Hrabluik here.