What is a Public Art Master Plan?

October 19, 2020 § Leave a comment

Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather

Ken Lum, Monument to East Vancouver

This interview is part of a series, commissioned by Markham Public Art on the occasion of their virtual public art summit Becoming Public Art: Working Models & Case Studies for Art in Public.

In What is a Public Art Master Plan? Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather about her work with Markham to make a Public Art Master Plan for the city, providing insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public plays in the process.

Helena Grdadolnik is a Director at WORKSHOP Architecture, where she leads the studio’s urban design and cultural projects. In this interview, Grdadolnik talks about her work with Markham to draw up a Public Art Master Plan for the city, a process that involves extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders—including artists, the public, city officials and staff, and private developers. The Master Plan was approved in the Fall of 2019, with the followup Implementation Plan approved this past Winter. How public art gets made and who, in addition to the artist, makes decisions about where it gets built and the form it takes is often an opaque process. With experience that includes creating Public Art Master Plans for the cities of Kingston and Newmarket, Grdadolnik provides insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public can play in the process.

What is a Public Art Master Plan?

I think when people hear “Public Art Master Plan” they think members of the public would really be involved in its development—and you do want that input and feedback on the vision for the Public Art Master Plan. But really so much is tied to details of how a City works. There are three things in most Master Plans—they differ from one city to another—but basically they are: the goals of the program itself where public input is important, then there’s the rules which, in City terms, are usually called policies, and there are the processes, like how things work in the city, who does what, who’s responsible for what, where the money comes from, all that. So when you look through this kind of document, although it has a lot of nice pictures and diagrams, a lot of it is just kind of “city speak”—stuff the City needs to figure out for how it’s going to run the program that crosses a lot of different departments. The task is to try to ensure quality and integrity in the decision-making process and make sure that who they’re hiring is a professional artist who may challenge ways of thinking, not someone who is just decorating the landscape.

So much of a Public Art Master Plan is inaccessible, or hard to understand because it involves the nitty-gritty of City work. One thing a master plan can do is set locations and budgets for a work. It’s disappointing when a master plan stops there—e.g., x marks the spot in five different locations in the city, and we’re going to spend $200,000 here and $1,000,000 there—because I think that really limits the artistic process if you make all these decisions before you get an artist involved. In Markham, people in the city have helped us decide those locations. Another thing is to set out the main goals—like, what is the city trying to do, why even have public art? Also, you always have to figure out where the money’s going to come from for a program, especially in the first couple of years, otherwise it’s not going to happen.

You might have heard of the Percent for Art Program? This stipulates that if you build a new building, one percent of the budget of that project is invested in an artwork on that site. Now, it could be that a good artwork gets made, but it also means that the work has to be in the location of a new building. It tends to be that new artworks appear in these locations where there is all this new development, and not necessarily where artists and community members might want to see new works.

The typical process that many cities follow is to hire an artist through an open call asking for examples of their previous work. From there, three to five artists are shortlisted. At that point, the artists are each required to work out in detail a proposal for an artwork without getting a chance to have any meaningful dialogue with the communities, including with the public art curator for the City, and then one of the proposals is selected by a jury.

This process is codified in a lot of City’s master plans as the only way to commission art. We have tried to move away from that and bring in more options for how to work with artists that better follow artistic practice and give opportunity to involve members of the public. Sometimes, yes it might be that open call, but other times it could be a curated process. In some cases, its by invitation because it’s a very specific project. Other times, it could be you’re sending out a call where artists can propose what they’d like to do and where. I think Vancouver has a good example of that, with their artist-initiated program.

Can you describe who the Public Art Master Plan is for?

Ultimately, it should be for the people who live, work and go to school in Markham. That’s the ultimate goal of any of these City plans. It’s not for the politicians, it’s not for the people who work for the City and it’s not for the artists. In some ways, it should support quality art and fair practices, so it is for artists in some ways, but it really ultimately is for the people; particularly, the Plan’s vision says local residents and visitors. So if you work in Markham but you live in Toronto, this plan should still work for you because it’s making places that are interesting for you to go to, and which are free to see. At the same time, to make quality artworks, we need to make it work for artists and the way they work. I think many plans miss this element of understanding how artists work. That said, it is a different type of process for making a public art piece than in a gallery setting, different types of people will look at your work every day on their way to work, for instance. At the same time, why bother having a public art program if you have this process that just makes the resulting art super safe and you don’t take any risks and you don’t challenge people at all, and it’s just decorative?

Why would it be less desirable to have a public artwork that is just decorative?

In terms of public art, do you want it to make you think? And do you want it to be more than a one liner of, say, oh that looks pretty. You don’t need artists involved to make something that’s prettier or eye catching. You can do that in other ways, whether that’s through landscaping, or whether that’s through building design, or the decoration on the outside of the building. The purpose of having an artist is to make you think a bit differently, to make you notice things. There’s a term in public art called “plop art”, which has a negative connotation, and which is this idea of just putting a statue on the corner of a building site and calling it a day. It is put there with no attachment to the community, it doesn’t really talk about anything about the site, you could have picked it out of a catalogue and then placed it there. I personally go back and forth on whether we should expect public art to be a more socially engaged process? Not always. But you need different ways to engage with how artists work if you’re going to have a program that is not just about making visually appealing work. I think there’s nothing wrong with something that is visually appealing, but it’s not the only aim. If you have a lot of public art in the city, you’re not going to always love every piece, but hopefully you love some of them and they go beyond just looking good in an Instagram photo. And maybe some of them you don’t like at first, but then they grow on you over time.

Part of the goal of a Master Plan is to get urban planners, developers, artists, elected officials and staff to be in alignment on the role public art can play in a city. Did you have input from any or all of these stakeholders when making your Master Plan?

Yes. With a Master Plan, I might have personal ideas of what I think is best but my job is to work with all these different departments and stakeholders and listen and try to make sure that we are making a plan that’s flexible and responds to the place. We had engaged the local developers that play a major role in development in the city, and the City’s urban planners, public realm and facilities staff were part of that process. It can be really hard because this document needs to balance and create consensus between a multitude of stakeholders. Then we also need to bring the public into moulding the plan’s vision and that can be challenging. But we did weave all of those voices and then try to make a workable plan. The first chapter in the Master Plan is the public art vision, which describes what the vision is, I’m reading: “Innovative Public Art will highlight the city’s unique characteristics and create new experiences and destinations through which local residents and visitors can engage with each other and the rich surroundings in Markham.”

Basically we are saying that the public art will be specific to the city and will give people new experiences. Then you get into objectives, and you always have trouble crafting the exact wording to speak to so many different perspectives. Many of these professionals know planning policy and understand the ramifications of a single sentence in an official plan that could really make a difference to what is asked from a developer. We had a public workshop and we got people to literally cross out the words in the first draft that they didn’t like and then we took the next draft to a public art advisory committee, which is mostly made up of residents in Markham, some of whom have art knowledge and some of whom don’t. They again picked through words and we went through a few more revisions. The vision sentence is always going to be aspirational and hard to pin down. The objectives need to get more tangible, (and again, I’m reading) to: “Inspire people to live in, work in, visit and invest in Markham; Celebrate the diverse cultures and heritage in Markham from multiple points of view; and Connect residents to Markham’s built and natural environment.” The plan states that every public art project needs to meet at least two of these objectives—to inspire, celebrate or connect. A work is not going to do all of these things every time; every piece of public art does not need to celebrate the diverse cultures of Markham, for instance. If you try to say it has to do all of these things every time you are getting to a weird point where the work does nothing. We can judge what an artist is developing based on these three things, but they don’t have to hit every point in every work.

The last element in the Master Plan vision is the Guiding Principles. There are seven of them and that’s where you make sure, for instance, that there’s quality control. One of these is “artistic excellence and innovation”. You want to make sure that you’re not getting just any artists, but the best artists. Another one is “protecting artist integrity, copyright and fair pay”, which is needed to protect artists’ interests. This is needed because when budgets get tight, like they are right now, the City might be tempted to say “Well, we are using this artist we found who will do it for free”. Instead of paying an artist that is really well-respected, we’re going to have this other person. So 1) that’s not meeting artistic excellence, and 2) it’s not fairly compensating artists for their work. Other points of quality control are “meeting accessibility standards” or “geographic reach”—making sure that public artworks are not only located downtown. Those are the elements in the Master Plan that are probably the easiest for people to understand who are not in the art world or in the City policy world. This means that when a person is starting in the Public Art Curator position and starting a project with staff from other departments, it makes sure that there are standards and objectives that can be referred to, without this detail getting lost in a 50-page document.

Did you have artist input on the plan?

Yes. We worked with the York Region Arts Council and the Markham Arts Council. They had helped us circulate the invite to a public event, as well as working through the public art advisory. As well, we did get input from artists from Markham, but I would say the number of artists we spoke to wasn’t that large. I would say, it could be better. As part of our public workshop, we had local artists and other art patrons on a panel to talk about their perspective and give their thoughts as well as an artist who has worked a lot in public art and was commissioned for a piece in Toogood Pond Park, by Mary Anne Barkhouse. She gave a great presentation in which she just talks about her perspective working on these projects, including what a city gets wrong in the process and how they could improve. There were a lot of people who work in city departments in the audience, so I think for them this was really helpful. So we had some artists that were engaged, though I would say that’s where generally Master Plans could be better but, as I said, the plan is not for artists, so engaging them is not the primary focus. We were also really lucky to be working with the Varley Art Gallery, based in Markham, and Yan Wu, Markham’s Public Art Curator. They already work with artists and have a lot of processes in place for working with and commissioning artists.

In a talk you gave you defined the goal of public art as “Letting you know that you’re in Markham” I love this idea. Another way to say it is: You’re creating landmarks. Do you strategize in this way so that you have a project that’s created at such a scale that it is iconic for the city?

No, every public art project doesn’t have to be iconic, every project doesn’t need to do the same thing. At the same time, the City of Markham is pursuing a “gateway strategy” that means, for instance, you are driving on the highway and how do you know you’ve gotten to Markham? Their thinking is that public art is one of the ways that you can make this kind of gateway. The easiest way doesn’t involve art, you could just literally make a big sign that says “Markham”. So you could consciously have a public art project where part of the stated goal is that the work is a kind of signpost. But I don’t think every project has to do this and I do think that some projects can do this in a subtler way, or that they aren’t intended as a symbol of a place, but become this over time. Ken Lum’s East Van sculpture, for instance, is a place maker that was a result of Vancouver’s artist-initiated public art program. The program wasn’t saying “We want a marker for East Vancouver, can you make one?” Ken Lum said he wanted to make a marker for East Vancouver and he decided where to put it. With a lot of other pieces, it’s the other way around. I think of Angel of the North in Northern England at the edge of Newcastle, which is this Antony Gormley piece that was intentional in making a landmark. That’s one thing you could do but there are other projects that I like that are just kind of quiet and almost hidden and small that maybe make you stop and notice something, redirect your attention to look on the ground. I personally tend to be less interested in the iconic pieces. I think they’re easier to conceive but don’t always have the same level of depth or staying power.

Recent trends are favouring more temporary works or digital screen based works. In your plan, do you make a recommendation for a balance between the two types, more traditional and the latter, and do you think temporary events like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, for instance, could provide a model for Markham?

In the Master Plan, we included a few relevant case studies from similar-sized cities to get people to visualize what could actually happen within a public art program. Surrey B.C. has a lot of similarities to Markham. It’s a suburban community that is rapidly urbanizing but is close to a larger urban centre (in this case Vancouver) and it has a huge immigrant population who bring a different vision to the place and lots of good food. Surrey Urban Screens, for example, is a large screen on the side of a community centre featuring a rotating program of curated digital artworks. That was one suggestion we had for Markham as it bills itself as a “high tech capital”. The City has a lot of high-tech companies located there, which I hadn’t known before this project. So that was a question: Could they build on that branding? There were also many people we heard from living in the villages in Markham, who tend to want to mark the nineteenth century colonial heritage of the place. And we wanted to make sure that there’s some balance that that’s not the only thing that gets marked. We heard from other community members that they wanted to diversify the stories that are being told. And to tell the other stories that aren’t being told. There are segments that were very focussed on putting up monuments to the location’s heritage and see public art as only putting up these monuments. We also heard from people who were interested in looking at other aspects of the city. An example is the Rouge National Urban Park, it goes partially through Markham. National Park staff and non-profit Park People came to our meetings and brought the idea that, as the Trail Network is not complete, how do you make people know about the Park and when you are in it? Can you do something different that doesn’t involve a monument? In the Master Plan, we used the Münster Sculpture Project as a case study example. Could you have an event, like Münster, that would build up a program of public art overtime, that was more focussed on the wider national or international arts community coming to the place, but that also would be of interest to the local population and leave a legacy?

Thinking about the programming that Markham did over the summer, in a project called Delimit, people were invited to make a proposal for hypothetical artworks for sites in Markham, chosen partly by the public and partly by the curatorial team. There was no expectation that these would get built, which gave participants licence to dream big. Regardless, is there any chance that any of those projects could get made?

I was involved in the jury. Yes, some could be built, but I don’t think they will be. I’m probably not the right person to ask, and it wasn’t the intention that the City moves ahead with any of the projects. But I think the program was helpful, a lot of people have an idea about what public art looks like and this program had artists show people what different types of projects could look like, and the way artists think when considering a site. I think it was helpful in that respect, but I don’t think any of them went through a feasibility study determining if they could work on a site. For instance, is there a manhole underneath or will the proposed connections harm a healthy tree? To make artwork in public spaces there is a lot to consider. Many of the proposals would be doable, like the idea for temporary projections onto the Town Hall, but others would need more development and changes to make them work. There was a nice mix of artwork proposed, and I feel if you showed people the range that everyone would find one that they would really like, and also other things that they didn’t or that weren’t what they’re used to.

You’ve worked on the Public Art Master Plan for a number of cities, including Kingston, and Newmarket, what was different about Markham compared to these other jobs?

I would say the biggest difference is that Markham has someone, Yan Wu, who is the City’s Public Art Curator, and who is also working meaningfully in the art world. I think that’s really helpful for a real understanding and grounding in not just City processes but also art-making practices. An individual in that role can really be key to connecting all the different players and communities that have to be involved in a public art project. I think that really was helpful in the process of going through the Public Art Master Plan and also for what happens next and how the program is implemented. The other thing is that Markham is a really interesting mix of small-town, heritage sites and newly developed urban form. It has a really unique mix and differs in how people expect a suburban city to operate when compared with some of the other GTA cities around it, of a similar size. This creates interesting prospects for its future, which is why it’s important to make sure that the Master Plan makes recommendations to accommodate those different voices and perspectives.

Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather on September 24, 2020 as part of Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.

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.

 

The Real and How to Find It – An Interview with Ken Lum by Rosemary Heather

November 10, 2011 § 15 Comments

RH: Why is the Real so popular as a genre, though?

KL: Why is the Real so popular?

RH: In art, on TV, in popular culture…

KL: I have a theory on that. Our culture that has moved towards a fetish of the everyday, a fetish of drawing attention to yourself as an individual. It’s a trend towards an ultra narcissism, and the emphasis on the individual comes at the exclusion of being able to formulate a critique on a societal level, because it’s only about the individual, and that’s a problem.

I highlight the above quote from my 2011 interview with Ken Lum, because it so accurately identifies a contributing factor of the insurgent politics of the West in 2017 (Trump; Brexit). As if to underline this point, Lum’s analysis of the “fetish of the individual” is also the essential argument Adam Curtis makes in Hypernormalization, his 2016 BBC documentary. The interview is now available for purchase as an ebook on Amazon for .99 cents (click on the link below). The publication also includes, To Say or Not to Say, an essay Lum wrote in 2008 that we discuss in the interview. Both interview and essay showcase the incredible trenchancy of Lum’s thought, and his ability to translate his thinking into artworks – as relevant today as ever.

The Lum publication is part of a larger project, which either repackages existing interviews I have done as ebooks, or releases new interviews – by myself and others – all under the imprint, Q&A. A short blog post I wrote about the thinking that informs the Q&A project can be read here: How to Make a Magazine in 2015. Its a statement of purpose that attempts to think through the changed conditions of publishing in the 21st century – ideas I hope to expand on in the coming months.

Rosemary Heather

 

Evan Lee

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Evan Lee

Evan Lee, Ginseng #27, giclee print, 5 x 7 inches (2006)

Going one step beyond the film-less photography of the digital age, in this series of pictures Evan Lee eliminates the camera as well. The Vancouver artist presents images created with a flatbed scanner. Printed as photographs, the works do not immediately betray their provenance as so-called camera-less pictures. In the gap between their appearance and their origin resides the work’s conceptual dimension, one that has deep epistemological implications.

The centerpiece of the show is ‘Every Part From a Contaflex Camera Disassembled by the Artist During Winter, 1998’ (2006). Like a skeleton minus its musculature, the pieces of the camera lie on the surface of the picture as if collapsed in a pile. The image, which reveals the complexity of the mechanism and the surprising delicacy of its parts, also serves as an apt metaphor for the dismantled hierarchies of the digital age.

A suggestion of just how the digital realm is reorienting our relationship to time and space is the most compelling aspect of this show. Conceptually, the picture plane offers a view that is downward and horizontal. Except that it doesn’t, because the works are mounted vertically on the wall. It is a confusion that profoundly disorients cultural assumptions about what constitutes the space of looking. Whereas the picture plane used to open up onto the Quattro Centro, viewers now contemplate a terrifying vista of emptiness.

All works in the exhibition fall within the genre of the still life, the artist using cheap props like plastic fruit or the brightly colored lures used in fly-fishing. In each work’s title he specifies the paltry cost of the props, helping to emphasize an enduring aspect of the memento mori’s message that human’s are vain, time is empty and life is futile.

by Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Flash Art, Nov/Dec 2006.
Evan Lee is represented by the Monte Clark Gallery

Geoffrey Farmer

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Geoffrey Farmer, Artist, Vancouver

Geoffrey Farmer, For Every Jetliner Used In An Artwork…(2006)

Of late, the airplane has taken on inordinate symbolic weight. Its’ a 9/11 thing; passenger airlines repurposed for their destructive power seem to confirm what we previously had only suspected: that our culture contains within it the seeds of its own annihilation. The airplane then is a loaded symbol, not least when Geoffrey Farmer drags a fuselage into a gallery for use as a kind of art stage set. Yet the effect in his recent show at Catriona Jefferies’ is more melancholy than sinister. Although the prop is easily redolent of economy class claustrophobia, the stronger feelings the Vancouver artist evokes are of movie spoof hilarity, along the lines of Hollywood’s 1990s ‘Airplane’ franchise. But this is just to prove Farmer’s larger point that the art gallery is a place of no real consequence.

Like a fifth column, Framer has always lurked in the shadows of his own practice. His aim is, however, not to destroy but merely express ambivalence. One constant in his work is the use of video to make literal the idea that the exhibition space is the site of something that’s already happened. So the artist has used an art gallery to show a video of himself skateboarding there after hours, or another to show video documentation of himself making tin foil sculptures with his feet. For his Jeffries’ show, the installation evolved, the viewer encountering traces of the artist’s nocturnal actions: His drawings pinned to the wall; the fuselage covered with scraps of colored fabric; the artist seen on a monitor wearing a child’s skeleton outfit and climbing a ladder. Creating layers of time and space in the gallery, Farmer reflects on the role of the artist as presence and actor: and of conceptualism as a practice that is, of necessity, always reanimated.

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Flash Art, January/February 2007
Geoffrey Farmer is represented by the Catriona Jeffreis Gallery, Vancouver

Melanie O’Brian takes the helm at The Power Plant

August 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Melanie OBrian

Melanie OBrian (foreground), Elizabeth Milton (centre) and Colleen Brown.

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.

Althea Thauberger

July 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Althea Thauberger, A Memory Lasts Forever (2004)

If the observer effect describes the consequences of observation on the thing observed, the consternation effect is more specific: it refers to the feeling one gets watching video works by the Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger—what to make of them?

Thauberger’s art is capable of provoking the extreme discomfort of the sophisticated confronting the naive. This is especially true of Songstress (2001–02), the work that first brought the artist wide attention. Songstress has all the hallmarks of Thauberger’s art practice, which consists of creating portraits of social groups by initiating collaboration with them. The project began with an advertisement Thauberger placed in a Victoria newspaper seeking young female singer/songwriters.

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