Melanie O’Brian, Director/Curator of Artspeak in Vancouver for the past six years, recently moved to Toronto to take up the post of Curator & Head of Programs at The Power Plant. With this appointment, O’Brian makes the shift from what’s known in Canada as the artist-run sector to one of the country’s major venues. We spoke over email in March, 2011.
RH: Your professional career up to now has been firmly rooted in Vancouver. How do you think this experience will translate to Toronto? Do you expect to shift your priorities, or will you continue with the type of programming you developed at Artspeak?
MO: My goal is to maintain a strong foundation in the local while intersecting with international practices and dialogues. My programming interests regarding site will undoubtedly shift at The Power Plant. At Artspeak I addressed the institution’s mandate to reflect a dialogue between language and contemporary visual art and I also extended the program outside of the limited confines of the gallery. Through the OFFSITE program (2008-2010), I took artists’ projects into various ‘public’ situations using the street, parks, print, large-scale advertising, building sites, the postal system, etc. While I certainly maintain a desire to do offsite projects in Toronto and address contextual specificities, the institutional spaces at The Power Plant will allow me to initiate projects that would never have been possible at Artspeak.
RH: Speaking about OFFSITE, why do you think art institutions feel the need to develop audiences beyond what you refer to as the “confines” of the gallery? Is this tendency artwork-driven or institutionally-led?
MO: Artists are engaging strategies that re-activate wide cultural, political, and economic discussions within the process of art production and its reception. Institutions are encouraging this activity, often arguing that the audience for contemporary art is wider than ever before. But only a select audience overtly sustains contemporary art’s dialogues. Contemporary art is intersecting with audiences on multiple levels from the gallery to the street, from the blockbuster to the festival, from the biennial to the incidental. Perhaps the spectacularization of contemporary art’s presentation is a point for discussion?
RH: Toronto has a wildly successful Nuit Blanche event, presenting public art works across the city for one night. It attracts an estimated audience of one million people. The number one criticism of the event is that it tends to feature spectacular artworks. This could be seen as pandering to the crowd, or it could simply reflect the changing nature of art. Any thoughts?
MO: These types of events are increasingly common, whether autonomous or embedded in the Olympics. They do not necessarily reflect the changing nature of art, but rather the changing nature of the art system.. Art fairs, biennials, and other large scale spectacles provide a point of comparison. They are formats that often request, if not demand, art that competes with or withstands the spectacle. I might add that in what could be touted as a post-relational aesthetics, post-participatory moment, artists and artworks must not just engage with the art system, but intervene in it and question it productively.
Interview by Rosemary Heather
This text originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Flash Art.
Melanie OBrian is the Editor of Vancouver Art and Economies, an anthology of writing about the Vancouver art scene, which can be purchased here.