Public Art on Campus – A Conversation with Emelie Chhangur and Lisa Myers

March 15, 2021 § Leave a comment

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

Koomuatuk (Kuzy) Curley and Ruben Komangapik, “Ahqahizu”, 2016. York University, Toronto. The 26-tonne granite boulder depicts the Inuit legend of a spirit playing soccer with a walrus skull. Photo: York University.

In this series of interviews, Markham Public Art looks at the topic of public art on campusWhat kind of a public does an artwork create or speak to in this context? How does it differ from works made for other parts of the public sphere? In these conversations, Yan Wu, Public Art Curator for the City of Markham, and art writer Rosemary Heather speak with four curators about the work they do in the context of university life. Emelie Chhangur and Lisa Myers talk about their work with Tania Williard on her commission for York University’s Glendon Campus; Barbara Cole speaks about being the Curator of Outdoor Art at the University of British Columbia’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, a rare position in the university context in Canada; and Barbara Fischer delves into her role as the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the University of Toronto’s Art Museum. Universities are highly complex institutions that serve multiple publics. Despite being dedicated to the production of knowledge, these conversations show how contemporary art finds ways to challenge and invigorate the production of the public sphere on campus.

Emelie Chhangur is an artist and writer, and Director and Curator, Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, ON) and, formerly, Senior Curator, Art Gallery of York University (Toronto).

Lisa Myers is an artist and independent curator, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (formerly the Faculty of Environmental Studies) at York University (Toronto). Myers is a member of Beausoleil First Nation and she is based in Port Severn and Toronto, Ontario.


Rosemary Heather: Can you give us a quick overview of the campus collection you are each associated with, its history and policies, who manages it, its current focus and your respective roles?

Emelie Chhangur: I can begin. In the context of a university gallery, I think it differs from institution to institution as the priorities of these institutions are different. The AGYU (Art Gallery of York University), for instance has quite a significant collection of public art on the campus, which came out of the purview of Loretta Yarlow, the first director of the AGYU. She established a commissioning project that was a collaboration between visiting international artists and the sculpture studio. Over the years, there were some gifts that felt more like they were driven by an agenda of “enlivening the campus” and that sort of sensibility, but also like so many public monument situations, the campus would replicate works seen in other campuses, the same way cities do. Nevertheless, we are talking about a project driven by campus redevelopment. The care and maintenance of that collection, of course, falls into the hands of the AGYU, but it’s slightly different than, say, how acquisitions would happen for the collection that sits in a more conventional vault scenario.

Lisa Myers: I work as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change (formerly the Faculty of Environmental Studies) and so I’m on the campus and I do experience those public pieces. My only knowledge of them is through my interaction or my walking by them as landmarks—you know, for example: there’s that orange sculpture in front of our building. As a curator I should be much more informed and interested in all the art all around me but that hasn’t been my focus since I’ve been at York. I’m really thankful for Emelie’s knowledge of this.

EC: I think this is very interesting. I felt compelled to answer this question in the context of production and protocol—as if the sculptures are contained units and this is certainly the case for the sculptures that we’re talking about. I don’t really like the word “landmark” on campus, but they’re very much contained and, if I think of Lisa’s work in the public sphere, it’s much more a fluid or discursive or ephemeral or performative engagement with the land or with artists in that way. So it’s very interesting to think about. I came out of the gates of talking about the most easily recognizable kinds of public art that are situated and very immobile—large steel works of a very particular time. My impulse wasn’t to talk about a program of what I would consider public art at the AGYU over the last 15 years or so that took place in the public sphere as social practice projects or street processions or civic ceremonials, and those other other parts of the program. I should have distinguished the permanent versus impermanent aspect of public art.

LM: I think what you said Emelie invites me a little more into a response, so I do have some more things to think about and say. Just thinking about more recent works of public art—and maybe you know more about how they connect to the permanent collection, or not—but thinking about the large Inuit carving that is outside of the Sports Center, the name of which I don’t remember…the thing about the campus is that it’s so huge that you can be there forever but you always know how to get your building and you know the name of that building so I’m being very transparent about my non-knowledge of this… But what was interesting to me is this work is coming out of a particular professor’s research area and inviting an opening up and trying to make visible a kind of presence of Inuit artists that we don’t see on the campus, or indigenous artists either really, except in some places, like in the first student Student Centre, where Maria Hupfield has some permanent work.

EC: This is super interesting to think about too because I’m realizing there’s also these other aspects of what public works are on York campus. They came out of a student fund to buy work, and of course Maria graduated with an MFA in 2003—I think—because I was just starting at the AGYU, so this could have come through that as well. Some of the works are not necessarily a part of the AGYU collection, but are part of an ongoing purchasing fund of student’s work that gets installed, which is awesome. And, if we’re talking about purviews and policies and who looks after things, this can start to become a bit of a nightmare as to who is responsible for what. Sometimes, the goodwill to have things in the public sphere and to support artists’ work goes without proper signage, or they are put in places that can be touched, which is sometimes cool and great, but sometimes it also destroys the work. Then there’s always a question of who is responsible for maintaining them, how did they come into the collection, etc. It offers up a way of thinking about this idea taking care of works in perpetuity.

LM: I love the layers that come out of this. Now that I’m talking about it, I realize I do have something more to say. I did look around the campus to look for Indigenous art, to look for Indigenous presence, in a visual kind of way, and we did this as a part of Jane’s Walk, a big group of us. Another piece that was brought up that we stopped at and talked about was the Gitxsan artist Ya’Ya (Charles) Heit’s carved and painted panels in Osgoode Hall, which I assume is also just part of Osgoode Hall’s collection, right? So that’s another interesting work that stands out to me, that I’ve noticed, and that means something to me, because I really think about the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en and the law, like Canadian law and how those are really important associations for me. Those are just more of my responses to these things I’ve encountered, rather than me being an expert on what these collections mean or how they are managed.

EC: I’m glad you brought up law schools. They are places on university campuses to look at. They tend to have a good collection. They tend to manage the collection well. They tend to get donations and they tend to purchase. I’m just thinking of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre right now at Queen’s University and I’m just thinking of this major donation that the Law School just had of a painting by Norval Morrisseau, right at the moment that Queen’s Law School is getting rid of its John A. Macdonald name. Law schools seem to be a progressive entity on a campus, in the sense of an engagement with art practices and an appreciation of the work of contemporary art.


Yan Wu: Does the Law School have a separate, not a public art curator, but someone who oversees and does the planning for the direction of their collection? If it’s progressive, is there a progressive mind behind it?

EC: I don’t personally think so, not to my knowledge anyway. I think it has something potentially to do with who alumni are, or potentially that the Law School has money. And maybe there is a kind of history in general of law firms or the milieu being engaged with collection building. York, for instance, has an artist-in-residence, so they are sort of engaged and thinking about artists thinking about law, which I would just offer as another public art practice. One doesn’t always default to thinking about artists participating in law and policy as falling into the realm of public art but it certainly does to my mind.


YW: Do you have any examples of work coming out of that?

LM: Yes, Anique Jordan. I think she was the last artist in residence at Osgoode, that I know of, and she did a public performance called Evidence about a legal case from the late 1880s involving racism and injustice experienced by a Black woman named Clara Ford, which responded to history law files. Do you know more about it, Emelie?

EC: I know some because this piece, Evidence used the story of Clara Ford, which started with the project that the AGYU commissioned for Migrating the Margins. I wasn’t able to attend the performance. I do believe that the performance overlapped with your Community Art for Social Change class that hosted the Young Indigenous Women’s Utopia collective from Saskatoon. I think Tanya Willard was in town at the time doing the site visits at Glendon, we visited some of your class and that was the weekend before COVID.


RH: I would just say maybe there’s a connection between the law and public space? Because they’re both concerned with the public sphere and maybe have more of a consciousness about the implications of legislating the public sphere. Maybe that accounts for this greater receptivity to art? Can you talk more about the commissioning process, and specifically about the Tania Willard piece?

Tania Willard, Surrounded/Surrounding, wood burning fire ring from the exhibition Soundings: An Exhibition in Five Parts at Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Photo: Tim Forbes.

EC: Lisa, do you want to talk about the Tania Willard piece proposed for the Glendon campus and the commissioning process?

LM: We were going to put out a posting or call for submissions. We were developing the call and having meetings. But through a discussion with our committee we decided that we wanted an artist who could engage with the community at Glendon campus and this conversation took in consideration recent works. Once we decided to work with Tania Willard, I did convey an experience I had with her work from the show Soundings that was at the Agnes Etherington Gallery, that has traveled across the country and continues to travel. My experience was, at the opening, a performance where Tania’s work Surrounded/Surroundings that she made in 2018 was used by another artist, Jeneen Frei Njootli, for a performance.

EC: There are aspects of that piece that, I gather, were quite private. I’ve seen images of the procession from the Agnes Etherington Gallery to Brant Street and the Four Directions Indigenous Centre at Queen’s, but then there were aspects of it that the artist didn’t want made public as image documentation. Which is another super interesting thing about public work that isn’t always just available for the public to see whenever they want, but actually is constituted through the experience of a public being there.

LM: This is in the installation at Agnes Etherington and you can see there are stumps that are seating and there is a laser-etched metal burning fire pit kind of thing. There are also words that were, I think, lasered into these logs, as well. So this work, yes you could sit on it, but it also, within the white cube, had the feeling of an artwork that you had a limited sense of interacting with, its an artwork therefore you might not touch it. The point of this performance, the two artists, Tania and Jeneen, both invited everybody to help them, to pick up a stump, take it outside. And so that was this moment of like rupture, of like okay, we can touch this thing and not only that we’re going to put them outside so people can sit on them outside. Then this pit was hauled outside on a cart. When we got outside, Jeneen Frei Njootli was doing a performance that I believe was an interpretation of a score, which also appeared on the wall of the gallery. It’s a print on paper and it’s a score that is a graphic notation of a wood pile, and this graphic notation manifested in a public space through the performance of Jeneen Frei Njootli(External link), which involves chopping wood with a large sound tool that she had created out of an axe that had copper leafing on it, and that also became a sound tool with a contact mic. The performance continued and she put the contact mic on the fire pit piece and it was on a cart and we all moved as a procession from the front of the gallery to the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre at Queens and there was food and refreshments for us to share. In the backyard of that space, there was a teepee setup and all of the stumps and this big fire pit were placed there inside the teepee. Then the artist started a fire inside of this fire pit and so there was this gifting of this fire pit, which offered not only a kind of functional place to warm yourself, but also invited everyone to gather around. It ended with this feast and a kind of gathering. To me there was a beautiful thing that kind of came from the gallery. The journey that this work took from the gallery to outside of the gallery engaging, with people and sound being part of that, and then that sound continuing as the thing was hauled down the street to this other building with this microphone attached to it, so you heard the sound and all the vibrations that came with it going over the pavement, resonating out of the speakers as we moved along and then becoming this place for us to gather and have a feast together. Now that piece is still there and that is part of the Student Center as a gift. The way that I saw Tania Willard work in this really community-engaged way, on a different territory from her own, and also with people from other nations, she’s Secwepemc from the interior Secwepemc territory in BC but the relationship building that happens in her practice, I think is so important. So as soon as we talked about doing something at Glendon I really thought about Tania, but I didn’t push for that because I knew that we were going through a group process to find an artist to make work. But I really loved the spirit of this work and the way that Tania works with community, so that was something very special that struck me about Tania’s work. When we did get to the point where the discussion came around to a few artists, I spoke to my experience with Tania’s work and the way that she worked across Nations and worked in a very engaged way. I didn’t see her practice as parachuting in and just sort of doing a very quick responsive, symbolic gesture. I knew that she would be engaged with the community, the campus, its history and the student body, the faculty and meeting everyone. So that’s what ended up happening is that when we invited her for a campus visit, Emelie took the lead in bringing her into the city and meeting many people and walking the Glendon campus, to really be able to respond to it. She very quickly came to this idea of creating this piece with the working title: “Ancient Country Seat”. Cast concrete is her chosen material for this work. It relates to the architectural features on the outside of the mansion, it was the original settlement on this land where Glendon campus is. That mansion has a lot of cast concrete features, on the fencing, around the back railings, and different things like this, so she wanted to be in conversation with those sorts of features and so these seats or benches she proposes to make would also create places for gathering. The designs will come from different workshops with students, so she’s setting this template of a kind of bench of some sort but the design and the nuance of that work will come from the process of connecting with the Indigenous students. Then these would be public spaces. I think Emelie and I did a really good job of communicating between the artist and the administration at Glendon, because they were like “Well, are people allowed to touch these things?” and we had to kind of advocate that these things needed to be used and that their value as artworks is that they offer spaces for students to be together.

EC: On the Agnes side of things, it was gifted to the Four Directions at Queen’s and it’s very much valued: a living entity at the Four Directions, where fire is kept every Monday. So, it still continues to have this incredible function for gathering and ceremony. That was an intentionality of Tania’s work for Soundings—this idea that it would be gifted, and there’s a number of works from Soundings that have been acquired by different entities at Queen’s and they proudly host these works on their buildings. It really was a moment of a public art awakening at Queen’s that has transformed the way that the campus is actually thinking about itself, and which might be a bit different than York. I mean I think it has a lot to do with geography, York being in the north of the city and it has developed over time from being basically in a field and really trying to create a sense of being its own city. And Queen’s being in the middle of Kingston, very very present in Kingston, at one point in its history Queens considered building a moat around itself to be separated from the rest of Kingston! Now it’s thinking about the permeability of the campus and the wider context in which it operates. Public art, contemporary art, and these kinds of works that lend themselves to participation, I think, are important for Queen’s in imagining its future. I was lucky to be the one with Tania at Glendon doing the site visit and just being able to experience how she observed everything, from these concrete colonial structures, to what the plantings were, where the trees came from, a sense of the incredible landscape that surrounds Glendon—Glendon is a really beautiful campus—and the way she quickly synthesized these things. I think it’s worth mentioning that this project represents the first presence of Indigenous people at Glendon. But there’s a lot at stake for this piece. The impulse toward creating a work that gathers people and that creates gathering spaces—and it’s not to say that there aren’t Indigenous students and faculty—is key. Often Glendon students and even faculty will go to the Keele campus for meetings, for the Indigenous Advisory Council, all of that stuff—so Tania’s work is tasked with creating these spaces at Glendon anew, and by invitation, and I think this was also part of Tania’s desire, also in general for all BIPOC students at Glendon, because they also don’t have a place to gather. There’s a real lack of spaces for students to convene, organize, hang out, so that was also a part of this. It really has become a catalyst for the involvement of many entities, from consultation, but also thinking about producing aspects of it: from sculpture studio with fourth-year students and bringing together the Keele and Glendon campuses, which don’t always work together to grounds and facilities staff. They’re in different parts of the city, so the project is like Tania’s curatorial way of bringing things together and putting things into relation and bringing new forms into the world, which I deeply believe is the role and function of the curatorial. I think it’s just worth mentioning this curatorial approach of the artist and which is used in all the aspects of the project’s making.


YW: I wonder, how did this project come about, who initiated it?

EC: It came about with some funding that was earmarked by York and set aside and it was given I guess—Lisa, correct me if I’m wrong— to the Indigenous Council at York.

LM: I think it was an initiative through Glendon. It was Yann Allard-Tremblay who is an Assistant Professor in Political Science and Sociology at Glendon, who knew that Glendon wanted to do something, or he may have even advocated for something to happen, I think that’s probably more accurate, he had advocated to create some visual presence, as a Wendat First Nation person, he was very much advocating for more activity for Indigenous students and making more of a visual presence at the Glendon campus. So he was chairing this committee that was working through the commissioning of things like this. That’s how it was first brought to my attention through Yann’s work.


YW: It was Yann’s advocacy and then you were brought on board, and then Emelie was brought on board, and that’s how the project was produced, shaped into the way it is. It’s a different curatorial approach, including the artist themselves to really shape the project.

LM: Yann brought it to the Indigenous Council. I’m on the Indigenous Council as well and so then he said he was putting together a committee and invited me to be on it, and then Emelie was also invited, which I was very thankful for because I think your expertise in commissioning artists, bringing together budgets, working with artists from an institutional positioning is really valuable. As an independent curator myself, I work with artists a lot and I know a lot, but when you are in an institution, from the position of a curator, there is so much knowledge and skills that you acquire from navigating that.

EC: We talked a lot about this at the committee level, of how this project is also instituting different practices and protocols around working with Indigenous artists and to commission public works or in general. How would this set the precedents of those processes and maybe do something different institutionally that didn’t replicate institutional structures—York didn’t really have these things in place, anyway, so it was the right opportunity to create them, from this point of view. Lisa, Tania and I took time to co-write a collaborative-style contract and to think about the contract as a document that was reflective of a kind of practice and process that was not entirely rooted in the bureaucracy or institutional framework of the University, but also from an artist point of view and being respectful of particular processes that need to take place, including community engagement and seeing this project happen over a longer period of time than parachuting something in, for instance, or something like that. So, this also was an opportunity to change or constitute the processes and protocols around this work for York’s wider systems.


YW: Part of the intention of this interview is to learn about the working models everywhere, and when moving forward, how we should do things, if we want to do something equally respectful in a beautiful way in the future and how to do it because I think that’s the question in everyone’s mind. You see something and you think, how can we do it?

EC: I mean it’s always on my mind. I think this way of thinking radically changed my curatorial practice. I was very interested in the temporality of making and of following the trajectory of a project and letting that lead the decision-making practices around it, rather than going into a project with an outcome in mind. Of course, at Glendon, there was a desire to have a public work, but actually the parameters of that were quite open. But to me it’s always been a dialogue between working with individuals and groups and communities and artists all in collaboration, often not necessarily having a natural affinity to begin with, but also how that process of working and how the different cultural protocols and social economies manifest in those projects have bearing on the institution’s practice—it’s a practice I’ve come to call “inreach”—but nevertheless, it is the ways in which the institution itself bends to meet the methodological demands of the people that the institution is working with, and really implicating the institution in that practice that matters. Even when you’re working with an artist from elsewhere over three years, the artist is obviously not going to live in situ—ha! it would be awesome to have that kind of budget—and besides, the artist has other things to do, but really the institution or actually the curator and the community members who are working on the project are the ones continually engaged in the locality and the specificity of the project for themselves. All of the projects I did in the social sphere of Toronto were always about how an artist’s practice lent itself to creating new allegiances and relationships between individuals who lived in Toronto as well as their renewed relationship with the official entities and institutional structures of the City of Toronto itself.


RH: Maybe you could say a little about Out There because it was quite important initiative from York and it encompasses all of these ideas about creating relationships; and I would just say everything that you and Lisa have been talking about is quite different, from there being a sculpture on campus that you walk by and maybe vaguely wonder who it’s by, who the artist is—or not—and that’s typically the experience we have of a lot of monumental public art. The kind of innovation that you are both engaged in represents a new and a different era in how we think about public art in public space.

EC: Out There was a cheeky response to the downtown art community being like, “All the way out there?” But it quickly became an operative concept and a vision. A vision not a brand because it was an operative concept of difference that differed from itself and so in doing so it was not differing from downtown, not thinking of “out there” as being geographically-related to a centre, but actually differing from itself, which mean the art institution and the transformation happening within the institution itself… The subject of Out There always was the institution and practice itself. But I think about one of the last big projects I did at AGYU was on the Line 1 Subway extension, with poets and rappers and dancers and singers from Jane-Finch and Scarborough, with Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. It was also part of a more than decade-long mentorship program for young poets and rappers. It brought two of Toronto suburbs together, the east and west ends, who don’t always hang together. But it took up the public sphere and I remember, Elder Duke Redbird said to us “Whatever you do on that new subway will determine its future use” so we went in with intention of this new subway extension that for me represented the geographical realignment of the City of Toronto after so many years of advocating from “out there”, and in fact that was the moment that we retired Out There—because we were like “We are so here” folks!—and really taking up that civic space as a place of performance and as a platform to showcase and frame the incredible talent that is the Jane-Finch community and finally finally ! driving in that final stake that Out There was always about: we value the artistic innovations of our locality! We are not peripheral to a center that determines the aesthetic criteria of a place! We are, in fact, the driving force behind it. Concepts of movement and migration and belonging, were taken up in part as a subject of that film but also as being in movement on a subway that was linking geographies of Toronto. The curatorial set to me is, of course, the artists and individuals with whom I am working, but also the entities, the city entities with whom we have to work to get the work done. So in Ring of Fire, which was the procession that I did in 2015, it was also the 52 Division of the Toronto Police that were, in my opinion, part of the curatorial set. What we’re bringing into relation in the curatorial as it pertains to the civic sphere is also the rappers from Jane-Finch and 52 Division of the Toronto Police. They sit side-by-side as equals in this project—only the rappers are way better artists, obviously. The curatorial for me is always about relations that are created.


YW: We talked about this new process, which is about maintenance. Normally with a stand alone piece there is a maintenance plan. When you are creating a gathering place, I think it’s a different level of maintenance and care. And the artist and the curators, you are the professionals you know how to mediate these gathering processes and make them become a gathering place. And when you are gone and the students and I think that they can take it over they can share it but how to think about this caring and the gathering as part of the maintenance plan of this new type of public art piece.

EC: Tania’s piece is an awesome example of this. This is because it is simultaneously about how one engages—even to include the Facilities Department at York—in the process of making this piece so that they have bearing on its development as an art work; so everybody feels a sense of ownership of it as a work and so they can care to take care of it. It is important for people to know a public work’s history, its story and what makes people care about work like this is anecdotes that come from being involved, of being able to tell us a story about it, of having an experience of its making and the more people you engage with that, the more people take up this concept of care in a real way that makes these pieces like living entities. I guess this takes us back to the beginning of our conversation. I’m interested in crafting the desire to know these works as living entities that persist through time, I think.

LM: And the expertise that those different facilities, or all the different people that we were in conversation with around this work—that hasn’t been made yet, let’s note—but like I think having the conversation about what’s this concrete going to be? How heavy is this thing going to be? The questions that were posed to us invited the facilities guy, invited his expertise into the making of the thing. And so I feel like that is part of its making, and so he feels an ownership or a kind of connection to it maybe is a better word and also an accountability to it, that you know he was part of that process and growing of that thing. So he has a relationship. There are a bunch of different relationships that have built around this making, and he also has the institutional memory that will be carried on because he was part of that, just as one person out of the whole. I think those are all very valuable and really interesting to reflect. This has really been an excellent reflection. It makes me clear on the things I have to keep in mind as I try to shepherd this work through the institution to its realization.


YW: When will it be done?

LM: I don’t know because COVID has pushed things off. And I think there is a kind of push—I’ve heard there is a bit of a push between Glendon and the artist to say “Let’s just fabricate this somewhere”. But I want to advocate for being true to that process that they agreed to, and so I would say it’s off by a year or so at least.


Interview conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 5, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s 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.

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