a publication of modern fuel artist-run centre, kingston, ontario // volume 2, issue 1 // winter 2013 // issn number: 1480-0306 distributed freely at select artist-run centres inside canada, by subscription, or online at www.modernfuel.org/syphon
Huffing that gasoline, making that sceneâ€” featuring broken city lab in Windsor; michael davidge in Ottawa; claire grady-smith in Kingston; ann jaeger in Peterborough; kevin rodgers in Kingston; and a centerfold artist project by billy mavreas in Montreal. syphon honours the etymology of the term "hoser," referring to those farmers who, on the Canadian prairies during the great depression of the 1930s, would syphon gas from their neighboursâ€™ vehicles with a hose. We reclaim the somewhat derogatory expression and apply it to all those trying to make ends meet in artist-run culture.
debriefing credit for cover justin a. langlois, Research Director of broken city lab "The photo is ... taken during the residency atop a parking garage in downtown Windsor. [It] was the morning of the second day of the residency, and the residents were embarking on their first mode of decision making by voting."
syphon is an arts and culture publication produced by Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre that is meant to act as a conduit between the arts community in Kingston and communities elsewhere. It was created in response to the lack of critical arts commentary and coverage in local publications, and seen as a way to increase exposure to experimental and non-commercial art practices. Syphon has a mandate to feature local arts coverage in conjunction with national and international projects, and an emphasis on arts scenes and activities that are seen as peripheral. It acts, in essence, as a record and communiqué for small regional arts communities throughout the country. modern fuel artist-run centre is a non-profit organization facilitating the production, presentation, and interpretation of contemporary visual, time-based and interdisciplinary arts. Modern Fuel aims to meet the professional development needs of emerging and mid-career local, national and international artists, from diverse cultural communities, through exhibition, discussion, and mentorship opportunities. Modern Fuel supports innovation and experimentation, and is committed to the education of interested publics and the diversification of its audiences. board of directors Melinda Richka, President Sunny Kerr, Vice President Phoebe Cohoe, Secretary Jenny Brown Kelly Bolen Julia Krolik Kate Yuksel Brent Nurse David Woodward, Student Representative staff & personnel Kevin Rodgers, Artistic Director Megan McNeil, Admin Director Modern Fuel would not be able to function without the generosity and spirit of its volunteers. 21 Queen Street Kingston, Ontario, Canada k7k 1a1 613 548 4883 email@example.com www.modernfuel.org Gallery Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 12 noon to 5pm editorial & publishing for syphon Kevin Rodgers, Editor-in-chief Vincent Perez, Editor-at-large & Art Director Megan McNeil, Advertising Printed at McLaren Press, Bracebridge, Ontario.
photo credit: justin a. langlois
Broken City Lab does its Homework: An overview of a residency and conference in Windsor
Talking at crosspurposes with Kevin Rodgers What is the limit of the social within the social itself? ¹
any years back I contributed to an article written by artist Emily Vey Duke, who at the time was Director of the Khyber Center for the Arts in Halifax. I was applying to graduate school, and Emily graciously suggested the article be co-written, ever conscious that a published article in a national magazine would be seen in a positive light. And so it appeared: Two Types of Sacred, 1970s Endurance Art Now.² The title was somewhat misleading, as the essay never really delved into issues of endurance art and its practice today. Instead it briefly addressed narcissism, ethics and responsibility—art and the social sphere. In our short period of crossover in Halifax, Emily and I talked a lot about art and what it could be; we also talked about what we were doing about it. In the seven years since, Emily and I have reversed roles of sorts: she is now a professor at Syracuse University in Upstate New York, and after spending six years in the academy (MFA, PhD), I have become Artistic Director of Modern Fuel Artist Run Centre. But those conversations I had with Emily and her partner Cooper Battersby still come back every once in a while, even if I haven’t spoken to either in years. We were relatively young and occasionally naïve, not to say a little self-righteous (I wouldn’t have had it any other way). Lately I’ve thought about the essay as well, less for its proclamations about spirituality than for the issues of collaboration, commitment and the “social good.” In the seven years since, there has been a wholesale adoption of “social practices” by artists and educators (it had been brewing since the late 1990s). When the essay was written, Relational Aesthetics was in the air, and we were interested in its potential and/or failure as a model for meaningful action. There were and remain articulate proponents like Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kestor, and adamant skeptics, most notably Claire Bishop.³ Yet, over time participation and “connectivity” have become tropes rapidly abused, leading many to reconsider the question of the studio practice and its role in an era of the poststudio practitioner. Artist and writer Greg Sholette has documented important aspects
of cultural activism through the past thirty years—he was a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988)—and recently offered an assessment of this apparent divide in his text OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social. “On one side is the singularity of artistic vision expressed as a commitment to a particular material or medium. On the other,” he continued, “is an ever-increasing pressure on students to work collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in a public context outside the white cube. One of the most common catchall terms for the latter tendency is social practice art.” This pedagogical shift to the latter model has led to the studio art classroom or seminar space becoming a place of contradiction, and the site of the ‘ontological crisis of artistic subjecthood.’ Instead of material or ‘medium’ commitment placed opposite ‘social practice art,’ the site of contradiction offers a way to see relations of reciprocal elucidation, and we should welcome the collapse of these two seemingly opposite pedagogical poles. It is this space of incongruity and paradox—of talking at cross purposes—that the next year of programming at Modern Fuel will engage with. SYPHON is an important vehicle for these discussions, and in this issue we focus on practices and events down the street, the 401 corridor and nearby in Peterborough. Michael Davidge, former director of Modern Fuel, has assembled the articles over the past year, and has contributed a response to the Broken City Lab conference that was held in late 2011. Without Michael’s conviction of the need for local discussion and critical reply, SYPHON would not exist; this issue is dedicated to him. ¹ Greg Sholette, “After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction and the Limits of the Social,” e-flux 31 (2012). http://www.e-flux. com/journal/after-ows-social-practice-artabstraction-and-the-limits-of-the-social/ ² Emily Vey Duke and Kevin Rodgers, “Two Types of Sacred: 1970s Endurance Art and Today,” C Magazine 86 (2005): 20-22. ³ See two new publications: Kester’s The One and the Many (2011), and Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012). kevin rodgers is an artist and currently the Artistic Director of Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre.
The Plan Homework: Infrastructures & Collaboration in Social Practices aimed to bring together a set of conversations that have been happening around the world, and most visibly in the US thanks to events like Open Engagement and the Creative Time Summit, to a new setting. A short-term artist residency and interdisciplinary conference, Homework unfolded over a week of messy, insightful, and (in)coherent discussions of what collaboration and socially-engaged practices can and should be doing in response to the realities in which we find ourselves. Temporally framed in October 2011 by the one-month marker of #Occupy, and spatially defined by the Canada-US border and Detroit, the ideas brought forward throughout the numerous exchanges, both informal and staged, offered a glimpse at the limits and possibilities of collaboration and social practice that seemed to so often get pushed to the peripheries of a much larger art world discourse. More immediately though, Homework was also a response to a sense of desperation. Over the course of four years, the practice that we developed through Broken City Lab seemed to operate in similar terrains as other sociallyengaged work, but it was also dependent on a series of incomplete and precarious models of collaboration. Further, our geographic realities -- that is, being at the edge of a country and disconnected from other centres of practice -- had begun to wear on us. Certainly, we had engaged in fleeting conversations, but we really wanted to create a concentration of activity and people to try to dig in deeper. Having hosted the Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation (SRSI) one year earlier in the the summer of 2010, our experience with bringing other artists, thinkers, and doers from outside of the region into a fairly specific social and economic frames revealed truly novel learning opportunities and exchanges, whether by design or by frustration. To attempt to recapture the direction and tone of those conversation, we planned to invite past collaborators, seek out new peers, and further assemble a group of people who seemed concerned with the wide range of ideas and problematics with which we were concerning ourselves. The Residency In the middle of October 2011, nineteen artists, architects, and curators gathered in the University of Windsor’s School of Visual Arts for the start of the Homework residency. Building from our experience with SRSI, where we observed collaborative potentialities crop up rather organically, but without the space, time, or resources to see those ideas through, we wanted to create a fast-track incubation of the same process. We had simply aimed to bring people together to get a sense of what happens when interesting strangers share time and space for the better part of a week, to try to recapture the spirit of unexpected collaboration of SRSI. However, in
so doing, we found that even the act of discussing collaboration drove the group to first work through the problematics embedded in making decisions, defining collaborative activity, and in fact, doing anything. The very structure of the residency itself seemed (at least from the sidelines) to generate frustration that oscillated day-to-day, hour-to-hour between an entirely productive and nearly catastrophic process. The interactions, decisions, and activities we observed throughout the residency complicated a set of assumptions we had made about the terms of engagement and willingness to experiment. We had not anticipated the kind of challenges that might occur in the process of the residents deciding to act, and yet, it was through their experimenting with collaborative exercises, tests, rules and boundaries that the most interesting things happened. While mostly unobservable and difficult to capture through coherent documentation or form, the work of the residents created a series of glimpses into what really is at stake when we think about doing collaborative or socially-engaged work. To try to put it simply, power dynamics exercised through language, action, diagrams, decisions, and repetition are fiercely important and arguably aesthetically unappreciated or ill-defined outside of the actors immediately participating. The residency seemed to capture a powerful question -- beyond reworking the role and form of flowcharts, decision making matrixes, or even the roll of a die, what might we, as artists have to offer to large, complex, and messy affairs? What do we assume that we bring to the table when trying to redo the things that already aren’t done by so many institutions and bureaucracies small and large? Why do we need to rehearse a process, rather than simply make due with an illogical organizational structure? It is our sense that we do these things because it is still worth attempting to create a different way to be in the world. We find that there is value in spending time trying to understand the best way to make a decision in order to take on the next step. It is entirely necessarily to rehearse a series of utopian democratic ideals and to then disrupt the imaginary democratic form altogether. The residency undoubtedly sent some participants home with a range of curatorially distressing reflections of how well the project turned out, but as evidenced during the discussion-performance enacted by the residents on day one of the conference, there were visibly dramatic lines in the sand, publicly drawn, that aggressively demonstrated what exactly is at stake when engaging in collaborative structures, socially-engaged practices, and publicly-visible processes. In short, the process of making decisions forms the ultimate rules, limits, and possibilities of power and engagement.
The Conference The form and shape of the conference packed numerous wide-ranging discussions into two short days. Bringing presenters and audience members to the Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) on Friday, October 21, the conference began with an ambitious line-up of panels attempting to cover the range of themes that Homework aimed to tackle -- Education, Collaboration, Artist-Run Infrastructure, Cities & Space, and Collaboration at Work. Consistently over-time, the panels sparked discussions that had to continually be cut short, and while we hoped they would be picked back up again on Day 2, we also knew there was going to be even more to cover. The idea to run panels sequentially rather than in parallel attempted to address our own frustrations with conferences in the past, specifically, the impossibility to see everything one would like to see. That we, collectively, wouldn’t be good moderators and timekeepers hadn’t entered the equation, and thus, we moved through a day of panels that ran together, covered a lot of messy terrain, and maybe even offered a compelling snapshot of the ideas and concerns of a generation of emerging sociallyengaged artists, educators, and curators. The day of panels led into the keynote discussion featuring Gregory Sholette, Marisa Jahn, and Salem Collo-Julin of Temporary Services. Together, our keynote presenters wove together an incredibly vital frame of contextualizing precedents, practices, and processes that informed our practice, to be sure, and the aims of the conference. From Sholette’s enlivening discussion of the dark matter of the art world to Jahn’s inspiring examples of work at the intersection of creative practice and social change to Collo-Julin’s thoughtful and powerful dissection of collaboration and organizing, the keynotes introduced the audience to a compelling landscape of values, complexities, and realities embedded in socially-engaged and collaborative practices that are all-too-often backgrounded to discussions aiming to reveal the “art” in a set of activities already attempting to elude that very definition. That the evening wrapped up with questions left unanswered, even after extending the closing time of the AGW, was perhaps a perfect fit leading into the outlined set of activities for Day Two. While Day One featured a more formally structured series of panelists and ended with a keynote panel discussion that most expertly defined the view of these practices from some distance, it was Day Two that captured the spirit of Homework as we imagined it. Sholette, Jahn, and Collo-Julin each led a one hour discussion initiated by a loose theme, respectively, practices that support infrastructures, practices that exist alongside infrastructures, and practices that invent their own infrastructures. These large room round-table style discussions created not just a synthesis of some of the overarching topics of the conference, but an incredibly dynamic
conversation where participants engaged in asking deep and rigorous questions of the ethical, aesthetic, and financial implications of socially-engaged and collaborative practices. The conversations engaged with a set of very real concerns that seem to so rarely have the opportunity to be addressed -- to publicly share concerns about the implications of one’s own practice and the decisions made therein was fulfilling, if challenging. While there were no resolutions, these discussions provided a way into a set of complex issues that inform these kinds of practices, perhaps, disproportionately. Partially a very frank discussion of the realities of professionalizing a practice and partially an exegesis of where sociallyengaged work may be going, these large-scale discussions during that afternoon marked an appropriate end to Homework. The Aftermath Over a year later, it’s interesting to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t, while also trying to remember the details of activities and conversations that happened over the course of the residency and conference. With another year’s editions of Open Engagement and the Creative Time Summit come and gone, and most recently, the Institutions by Artists conference held in Vancouver, it’s clear that the discourse around socially-engaged and collaborative practice is ever-widening and firmly entrenched in (at the very least, peripheries of) the art world, and most certainly in worlds beyond that as well. Artists are faced with the institutionalization of these practices in unprecedented ways and it’s more important than ever to try to tease out not only what is at stake in doing this work and what might be gained or lost through its institutionalization, but also what we want from this process. With more and more academic offerings, new exhibitions, a slew of publications, and wellfunded public programs, it’s no longer a matter of deciding to opt out of these structures or not. We are now, collectively, responsible for building the world in which we want to live and practice, and the infrastructures that shape it. The opportunities and insights that Homework offered us have undoubtedly influenced the scope and form of our practice in Broken City Lab (and hopefully other attendees and participants as well), but there is still more to be done -- more opportunities for emerging practitioners, more flexibility in the ways in which the work is presented and disseminated, and more sustained discussion on the pragmatic limits and utopian possibilities of collaboration and the role of social engagement in artistic practices, or perhaps more fitting, the role of art in an expansive practice of social engagement and everyday life. broken city lab is an artist-led interdisciplinary creative research collective and non-profit organization working to explore and unfold curiosities around locality, infrastructures, and creative practice leading towards civic change.
Michael Davidge walks in Windsor for Homework
he train pulled into the Windsor station late in the evening on Thursday, October 20, 2011. It was the end of an eight hour journey for me. I was traveling from Kingston to Windsor for the twoday conference entitled Homework: Infrastructures & Collaboration in Social Practices. Organized by Windsor’s own collaborative social practice collective, Broken City Lab, the conference was to begin early the next morning at nine o’ clock, necessitating my arrival the night before. It was cold and dark as I exited the station into what felt like a dusty dirt alley behind a factory. It seemed that the alley served as a parking lot for the train station and it was at this instant rapidly emptying of the few vehicles there to pick up the expected arrivals. I had entertained the thought of walking to my hotel from the station because the map I consulted made it seem possible, but now I was tired and disoriented and discouraged by my situation: a chill had taken hold of me. I brightened when the light of an unoccupied taxi cab appeared. Walking could wait for daylight. Nevertheless, I was excited about what lay before me. The conference had an ambitious scope and I hoped to gain a better appreciation of collaborative social practices through my attendance: not only through the scheduled panel presentations, but also by being introduced to the artists who were selected for a residency running concurrently with the conference. I also wanted to take the advertised opportunity to contribute to a collectively authored publication that was going to be produced after the conference. And finally, I wanted to have the opportunity to spend some time in Windsor and its border city Detroit, to walk around the core of the two cities and get a feel for them. Also, could it be possible that Duran Duran was playing at the Windsor casino that weekend? I glimpsed the announcement on the marquee as the taxi sped along, transporting me to my hotel. The next morning I walked a short distance along sunny streets to get to the Art Gallery of Windsor where the conference was just getting started. A long day of concentrated discussion passed, with four intensive panels each featuring a range from three to five speakers, artists’ performances throughout the day and then a presentation by the 20-odd artists participating in the residency that had begun earlier in the week; all of the preceding was topped off by not one but three keynote speakers. I overheard another attendee say, at the end of the day, “Wow. That was like summer school in one sitting.” Later, as I was decompressing, I began to gather some of the threads together and I singled out one of the many recurring themes in the various presentations, which was “Walking as an Artistic Practice.” On the first panel that morning, focusing on the artist’s role in education, Stephanie Springgay, (Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto) spoke of the pedagogical turn in recent contemporary art, and cited projects such as Diane Borsato’s
briefing The Chinatown Foray (2008-2010), where artists and non-artists produced lateral learning through a serendipitous expedition in an unconventional locale, and the Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Night Walks with Teenagers in Inverness, Cape Breton (2011), which took Parkdale kids from urban Toronto for nocturnal adventures on the East Coast. Springgay is working with the artists mentioned as part of a research project entitled “The Institute of Walking.” The study examines the ways artistic practices reflect the inventive processes at work within everyday life and proposes that walking can enact a number of interesting inter-personal, social, and pedagogic relationships. By mindfully walking together, it seems, participants can realize the Beuysian motto “Everyone is an artist” and minimize the distinction between artists and non-artists. The second panel of the day focused on collaboration, and again walking or hiking was a privileged mode of engaging with the environment and learning. Laura Mendes and John Loerchner (who work collaboratively under the name Labspace Studio) spoke about the East-End Expeditions Series that they ran in 2010. The series featured a number of artistled projects and research-based expeditions that undertook the investigation, navigation and re-contextualization of natural spaces in the east-end of Toronto. For example, their Hydro Hike led 15 artists from various disciplines through a green corridor of trails, tracks and hydro fields that began in Scarborough and finished 26.5 kilometres later at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. Exhibitions featuring materials gathered during or inspired by these expeditions were then organized after the event in order to build meaningful narratives from their experiences and create common bonds between the participants. According to Loerchner and Mendes, their most successful exhibitions are built around conversations as opposed to objects. Their main goal is to create dialogue and share experiences, and these adventures provided an effective fulcrum for the realization of that goal. The artist Catherine Campbell spoke most explicitly about walking as an artistic practice on the fourth panel presentation that day, the theme of which was “Cities and Space.” For Campbell, both walking art and storytelling are empowering activities that help one to find a sense of place and establish a connection to the land where one lives. A storyteller and artist engaging in walking as an artistic practice herself, Campbell often includes environmental teaching as a part of the process of her practice. Campbell is a teacher whose aim is to enable her students to find their own voices and articulate their own stories. During her presentation, she quoted Thomas King: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” Finding stories to tell that are linked to place, the landscape and walking, Campbell helps her audiences/participants establish a connection to a place in order to feel fully alive there. People’s physical connections to a place, as much as their psychological connections, play a strong part in their sense of engagement, ownership, and citizenship. A citizen’s physical engagement with place through walking as a potentially artistic practice was connected, implicitly if not explicitly, to another recurring thread at the conference: the Occupy Movement, which came up several times during discussions as an example of direct democracy revealing the collaborative nature of politics and consensus-building. Sarah Margolis-Pineo’s presentation on the third panel, themed “Artist-Run Infrastructures,” pointed out the echoes and the con-
tinued resonance of artistic practices of the ’60s and ’70s in today’s art, and cited as one example a parallel between the “Occupy Museums” movement and the Art Worker’s Coalition. The first keynote speaker, Gregory Sholette, embodied the continuum by speaking about his own experience working with the artists’collective PAD/D (or Political Art Documentation and Distribution) throughout the ’80s. As an aside, he related that he had taken a walk earlier through Windsor and noted that, though it was looking pretty empty, it still wasn’t as bad as the Lower East Side in New York in the ‘70s. One of the crucial points he made about his experience with PAD/D was that, generally, one must articulate one’s own position and be vigilant about it so that it is not lost to history. He also spoke for those not as articulate as he: “Not having a discourse doesn’t mean you should be excluded.” Of course, one of the main criticisms of the Occupy Movement has been that it did not have a clear agenda or message to communicate. Conference-goers, clearly sympathetic with the Occupy Movement’s being if not aims, were able to reflect on issues related to collaboration and the socially engaged practices that were highlighted by the conference, and during the next day’s work groups led by the keynote speakers, they were given the opportunity to articulate a future strategy for moving forward. After two days of serious debate and discussion, the hundred or so people who had attended the conference had earned a well deserved pint, and so at around five o’ clock on Saturday October 22, a large number of them retired to the Phog lounge to have one. While there, cogitating on the remnants of the day and mustering up the courage to talk to Salem Collo-Julin of Temporary Services (another one of the keynote speakers), I noticed the bartender turn, and putting down his telephone, call out to his patrons, “Does anyone want two tickets to see Duran Duran tonight?” I lost my train of thought and took him up on it. That night on the way to the concert, I kept noticing chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks of downtown Windsor, and the message was getting clearer each time I passed one, when, just as I was realizing that it had something to do with women’s victimization by male violence, a small parade of another hundred or so people rounded the corner, taking back the night and chanting “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! The Patriarchy has got to go!” Later, when the approximately 5,000 Duran Duran fans were let loose from the casino, I returned to my hotel, passing a tiny encampment I dimly perceived in a dark and quiet corner of Senator David Croll Park. “Could that be Occupy Windsor?” I wondered, before venturing into the drunken melee of Ouellette Avenue, where a strip filled with nightclubs is closed for pedestrians on weekends. The next day I caught a bus and headed over to Detroit to walk around for the afternoon. I had visited Windsor and Detroit on a school trip many years before, but I had been shuttled around from art institution to art institution so I didn’t get the sense of place or scale of the place or orientation in it that I get from walking in a city. The first thing I encountered when I arrived in Detroit was the much larger Occupy encampment, which took up a whole quadrant of Grand Circus Park. Occupy Detroit was probably outflanked, however, by the throngs of other people animating the downtown: A Lion’s game had just ended at Comerica Park and there were numerous tail gate parties happening in park-
ing lots throughout the core; A performance of “Carmina Burana” had also taken place at the Detroit Opera House that afternoon, and a wave of fancy-outfitted people had just hit the streets. I made my way over to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where a painting by Philip Guston was on view in a temporary exhibition featuring works donated by a Detroit collector. In Driver (1975), a lone motorist with a meaty hand on the wheel steers a vehicle on a barren roadway into a bloodstained horizon. After a weekend of walking in Windsor and Detroit, thinking and talking about social practices and artistic engagement, I felt that this painting summed up my experience. All the diverse groups I encountered seemed to be pursuing their goals in an autonomous and unconnected manner. Leaving Windsor, I did walk back to the train station. It took longer than I thought it would, but on the way I did discover that, yes, there was indeed an Occupy Windsor encampment in Senator David Croll Park. Passing a teachin session there, I overheard a man saying, “The odds are 99:1! Let’s Occupy the Streets!” My feeling is that the odds are going to have to get better than that. Maybe one to one is more like it. The last memorable thing I saw in Windsor was a dedication on a park bench overlooking the Detroit River: “Best Friends, Norm + Bev Marshall.” I thought of how, one day during the Homework residency, the participating artists stitched together a number of umbrellas to create an ambulatory canopy for them all to use to walk around Windsor together while it rained. Their canopy is a hopeful rejoinder to the grim outlook of Guston’s Driver. From walking in Windsor and Detroit, I took with me the following lesson: If you want to increase your numbers, and your chances, you’ll have to collaborate. michael davidge is an artist who lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario. His writing on art and culture has appeared in Parachute, Matrix, BlackFlash and C magazine, among other publications. He is the curator for Allumage, or How the Light Gets In for artignite 2013 in Kingston, Ontario.
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credit for centerfold billy mavreas is a Canadian cartoonist and artist living in Montreal, Quebec, whose mostly silent or wordless comics revolve around the themes of language, sexuality and spirituality. He is the co-founder of Expozine, one of Canada’s largest and most well respected small press fairs, as well as the curator and resident-at-large of Monastiraki, a shop and gallery of wonders in Mile End. billy mavreas, square stamps, 2012
Ann Jaeger asks are we there yet?
eterborough is a town that conjures up hockey jerseys, steaming cups of Tim Horton’s, Ram trucks with an ATV or maybe a dead deer in the back; cutting edge cultural innovation, maybe not so much.
Occupying land that had been First Nations territory since 11000 B.C., Peterborough made its fortune as a Victorian logging town, replete with an opera house. At one time it had a substantial canoe manufacturing industry. It was, and still is, home to the world’s highest hydraulic lift lock on the Trent Severn Waterway, and a railroad station, before it became a GE company town circa 1892. It was the first town in Canada to have electric streetlights, thus its nickname and possibly its alter ego, Electric City. In the 60’s Trent University was built, bringing a taste of modernity in both architecture and curriculum to the working class community - here baby boomers could dabble in cultural and political theory. How that informs Peterborough’s contemporary art scene is this: it’s a conservative town with a buoyant vein of anarchy embedded into its fabric. An early adopter of industrial innovation, a serially boom or bust city with a river running through it, it has evolved as an artistic micro climate for rare birds and hot house flowers, a species of anti-mainstream artists whose elbows are not sharp enough to hollow out a space in aggressive Hog Town. Some days it smells like manure from the surrounding farmlands; other days like cinnamon toast due to the Quaker Oats factory. For the last 50 years it has been alternately shanghaied by mall culture and gentrification; all the while the arts community has managed to survive in a largely parallel universe. Surrounded by classic Canadian landscapes, Peterborough has a burgeoning downtown core, some nicely unrenovated heritage architecture, exceptional bike trails, two post-secondary institutions, proximity to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and several brands of culture clash - all the fixin’s for a fine arts hub. But for some reason when I tell my Toronto friends about the eclectic art scene here, they don’t believe me. Public Energy breaks new ground in contemporary dance and performance art; ReFrame does a take-no-prisoners social justice film festival; Ode’min Giizis is a unique multidisciplinary indigenous arts festival. There is a symphony, several theatre companies, a charming folk festival reminiscent of early Mariposa, a world class Canoe Museum. One can expect the unexpected in the annual peer juried, city funded, week long arts festival, so aptly named Artsweek. We even have a fire-spinning circus. That, and a whole lot of really quirky individuals make up the cultural soup here. Early on during the heady 70’s, the official Art Gallery of Peterborough was built - an odd box glued to a heritage house perched on the river’s shore with a view of the ill-fitting fountain that inhabits Little Lake. Nobuo Kubota’s Hosukai Revisited is the only show I have seen there that truly owned the main gallery. Two narrow ramp galleries often display work from regional artists or the gallery’s rather nice permanent collection which includes drawings, paintings and prints by a primarily older, made in Canada generation, like Jack
findings Bush, Ronald Bloore, Jack Shadbolt and local legend David Bierk. Curator Carla Garnet is authoring a shift in the fare - often video or photography based with a feminist groove, in addition to a new triennial designed to present artists from the area. Artist run centre Artspace has garnered a lively place in Peterborough’s art ecology for almost 40 years - I always feel like a kid on a bedspring whenever I walk through its unassuming door. Former Director Iga Janik bravely brought a kind of techno rigor to its exhibitions; her successor, Fynn Leitch is more playful and a smart community builder. Artspace has recently invested in a media lab in the hopes of incubating some local forays into new media. More than an exciting and relevant contemporary gallery, it aims to facilitate and educate, and hosts community events like the excellent free weekly Trent Film Society series. One of my favourite shows of the year was their Adieu Chris Marker - a three day installation of 5 international non-narrative films projected simultaneously throughout the gallery: from Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first films of 1895-1900 to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil from1983. Elizabeth Fennell is a young commercial curator with a knack for creating fearless mashups of the local good, bad and the ugly - and I mean that as a compliment. I am a huge fan of her unflagging verve and genuine love for this arts community. Her homegrown galleries have appeared in private houses, a rented truck, and now in the 3rd floor Roy Studio, once home to Peterborough’s own dynasty of family portrait photographers since the Victorian era. The resulting Gallery in the Attic is a dynamic launching pad for the undiscovered as well as a showcase for accomplished artists like photographer Roz Hermant and painter Steppenwill - an essential engine for a healthy arts climate. Peterborough artists tend to fly under the radar but you’ll find some intriguing intersections of mixed media, music and other sidelines. John Climenhage is an accomplished painter who moonlights as a drummer with acid jazz/rock band The Burgess Shale in their Tom Thompson Multimedia Project. Consummate textile artist Dorothy Caldwell from nearby Hastings travels as far as Australia to offer master classes. Lester Alfonso - filmmaker, vj and writer - won the National Film Board of Canada’s Reel Diversity contest and has been broadcast on CBC Newsworld, Salon.com and TVOntario, and plays the ukelele. Paolo Fortin is a significant painter who recently opened another indie gallery in a house in the tony Avenues neighbourhood, Evans Contemporary. There was an art-hungry turnout for his inaugural exhibition of Jenine Marsh’s sculptural work. Printmaker Jane LowBeer formerly designed and constructed sets and puppets as artistic director of a multimedia theatre company. Wendy Trusler creates installations from found objects and video and is soon to publish a book on her experience as a cook on an Antarctic expedition. So what more could I want, you ask? Multicultural it’s not; exported, rarely. It’s on the tourism map as the gateway to cottage country more than a bad-to-the-bone art centre. There is no street art except for the boards and kiosks designed to display music posters for the local pubs. All in all, the art scene in Peterborough tends to be rather tidy. Heck, there’s hardly any graffiti. There are definite holes in the visual arts fabric here. Textiles, printmaking, book arts, industrial design and
new media are almost entirely absent from the current stage. What Peterborough could use is a dose of professional-grade arts education, a dash of internationalism, more critical dialogue, some 21st century communications, more community gathering spaces with access to art-making tools, and a bit of cross-pollination with other art centres. Sure, you can get some watercolour technique under your belt at several in house institutions, but what about the critical thinking component? Field trips to Montreal or New York? Where is the interface with other art hubs, large and small? What about continuing education for professional artists? And education isn’t just for young and mature artists - audience development and education are important components as well. Nor am I reconciled to the art-as-business model. Peterborough is no exception as economic generators in Southern Ontario go all Richard Florida while at the same time closing a downtown art-centric high school and paring down the mysterious Cultural Studies program at Trent, which already stays at arm’s length from the community. Artists tire of holding out their begging bowls despite the evidence that the arts are an economic driver. I’m not convinced it’s even realistic to hope we can build regional governments that grok and protect the value of Peterborough’s eccentric cultural assets. Ironically the outrider artists of Peterborough owe at least some of their originality to a history of necessary self-sufficiency. Not only dare we dream that government will listen we artists need to wake up to our significant contributions to the community and to our capacity for collective self-determination. There is the comfort of knowing that you can usually find the core of the arts community in one place on a Friday night and are guaranteed an audience for any unusual effort. There are the dangers of inbreeding, the slippery slope of a glut of Group of Seven-esque landscapes, giclée prints, repetitive studio tours and unchallenged art practices. It’s a region soggy with volunteerism. There is a particular difficulty in being an art critic in a small town - it’s like cutting down your only trees to start a fire. Has the art community of Peterborough gotten so good at re-inventing and mutually supporting itself that it doesn’t know when to stop? Is it Cinderella waiting for the train from Toronto to be rebuilt so we can go to the ball? Is its insularity a result of some long-festering internecine rivalry with nearby communities? Every time I think I have a handle on it, something I didn’t know about pops up. I can only offer a mere snapshot here. Peterborough has yet to discover its vision of itself but it continues to thrive as an unsolvable puzzle with extra pieces that don’t fit - and that is the part worth fighting for. ann jaeger is an honours graduate of OCAD, specializing in textiles, who lives and works in Peterborough. Her installation work often combines digitally manipulated photography, book design, textiles and writing. With a background in web design and arts administration, she currently writes an online journal about the Peterborough area arts and culture scene, called Trout in Plaid.
Claire GradySmith wonders WHAT CHEER is this? “The police...asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein." —jacques rancière, Ten Theses on Politics In the summer of 2012, a band called What Cheer? Brigade came to Kingston for the second time, playing a New Orleans’ style ‘second line’ from the Porch Jazz venues to the Skeleton Park Music Festival in McBurney Park. They came at the request of Kingston Arts Council Programming Coordinator, Greg Tilson, whose vision for the city of Kingston includes fostering just the kind of energy that the punky, Providence-based brass band provides. What Cheer? has been labeled an ‘activist street band’ by observers and festival organizers (see HONK! Pedagogy by Reebee Garofalo). They themselves are unsure of the moniker, although they have carried out more specifically activist actions in the past. What interested me about their appearance in Kingston was their second performance during the Skeleton Park Music Festival, at about midnight in downtown Kingston for an afterparty at The Sleepless Goat Cafe. A couple of bands played, and then What Cheer? members quietly informed Greg that they would be concluding the evening with an impromptu performance in the street outside The Goat, crossing Wellington to play in an alleyway beside the Golden Viet Thai. They came out thrashing, and the crowd was delighted. Passersby stopped to participate, local residents were leaning out of their windows to watch, and on every face there was a clear, striking expression of civic pride. “This is happening here“, seemed to be the predominant response, and many of us who have participated in protests and flash mobs were astonished that the police did not appear. We were not dispersed or coerced into more sensible Saturday night activities. Meanwhile, with their massive crowd of participants, the band shut down the street, played for an hour, broke noise-level bylaws, and trespassed on private property when they sent their horn section up a fire escape to play on the rooftops above the alley. A spirit of collective experience prevailed. Crammed together into the corridor, strangers exchanged grins and took out their cell phones so they could share the experience with absent friends. We were collectively engaged with refiguring the space of the city, albeit in a contingent and transitory fashion. Which returns me to the question, what cheer is this? Or, phrased differently, what kind of an aesthetic experience has the power to voluntarily incite civic subjects to disremember their tacit contract to police their peers and instead invest in a new experience of place? Following this explosive evening, it occurred to me that perhaps every city requires one element in particular for social cohesion to take place: the aesthetic experience of surprise. claire grady-smith is a writer in Kingston, ON.
MARCH 2, 2013 VAPOURS CONCERT Zach Clarke (Kingston), Buffalo7 (Toronto) and Michael Caffrey (Ottawa) OPENING MARCH 9, 2013 CLIFF EYLAND & JEANNE RANDOLPH in the Main Gallery NATASHA MAZURKA in the State of Flux 21 QUEEN ST. KINGSTON ON K7K 1A1 613.548.4883 INFO@MODERNFUEL.ORG WWW.MODERNFUEL.ORG