Aaron Paquette, “Everyone is Welcome”, photo by Chelsea Boos
Regular readers of these Writers in Residence posts (if such a thing exists) will have read my apoplectic outpouring on The Works and Art Walk in Part 1 of “What Art is For”. I would be one of those guys who seethed and complained without offering a solution but one was conveniently provided to me by the recent Dirt City: Dream City project.
DC: DC was an exceptional meeting and mixing of artists and organizers of varying backgrounds and experience. Inspired by transitory public art interventions in other cities, this project culminated in a public outdoor display that attempted to employ visual art as a tool or “weapon” (if we are to believe Picasso – See Part 1) for community transformation. Site specific works by 15 artists were presented in this project led by American artist and curator Kendal Henry. As one might expect of a project this size, some artists were more successful than others but all of their attempts were enough to get my attention and admiration. The work revealed artists and organizers visual and, in the best work, community sensitivity. This was evident in the artist’s steadfast refusal to back down from issues affecting life in the inner-city and the site specific placement of works in predominately empty city lots in The Quarters downtown (located from Jasper Avenue to 104 Avenue between 95 and 96 streets).
Holly Newman, “Crow’s Advice”, Photo courtesy of the artist
Holly Newman, “Crow’s Advice”, Photo courtesy of the artist
My one major criticism, that the display was planned for a ridiculously short ten day period, seems to have been recognized and remedied by organizers. It was recently announced that DC: DC works will remain on display until the end of August. That’s great though I’d still like to see some of these works with that first layer of winter snow on them (but, hey it’s Edmonton. That could be in two or three weeks!)
The project included online and virtual projects, radio, light and video projection, performance art, open houses and, one imagines, much behind-the-scenes negotiation and planning to keep all constituents happy. In focusing on the public exhibition, I realize that I describe but a small apart of this project. There are many other components to DC: DC and I urge you to check them out online.
Carly Greene, “Simulacrum”, photo by Chelsea Boos
Nickelas Johnson, “Ripped Off”, photo by Chelsea Boos
Attendance numbers for DC: DC will be no where near those of The Works or Art Walk. And it is perhaps revealing that more people would rather spend their time at concurrent events like A Taste of Edmonton, in Churchill Square (500,000 people, by their estimate) than take a short walk east to DC: DC. The numbers don’t really matter though. If we’ve learned anything from The Works and Art Walk it may be that no amount of carnival-esque tents and milling crowds will accelerate a process of personal self discovery made possible by meaningful art. Art can take hold of a viewer but it takes some skill on the part of artists, curators, arts event organizers and artistic directors to slyly coax, or sometimes shock, those summer-sunlight-opiated-masses out of their reverie. Go to Art Walk and The Works if you are looking for art to hide that place where you punched a hole in the drywall. Support projects like Dirt City: Dream City if you believe that art can help us understand “what it is to be a fucking human being”, as David Foster Wallace famously described writing.
Jes McCoy, “Futile Fancy”, photo by Chelsea Boos
Mackenzy Albright and Rachelle Liette Bowen, “Lonely Mountain”, photo by Chelsea Boos
A Rainy Day at Art Walk – Some day a real rain will come…
No, painting is not done in order to decorate apartments. It is an instrument
of war for attack and defense against the enemy. —Pablo Picasso, conversation on
Guernica as recorded by Jerome Seckler, 19451
Picasso was wrong. There are two kinds of art—art that decorates our homes and art that is a weapon that can change the way humans think. It is a confusing distinction for both art-makers and art-viewers because art can be profound or pleasing to the eye or both simultaneously. It becomes further complicated because an art work can start as one of these things and become the other and because artists may believe themselves to be creating socially or politically relevant art when their work is barely fit to decorate hotel rooms. Hundreds of art reviewers in local newspapers everywhere make matters worse by describing art work without ever telling you whether it has the potential to start (or win) wars or simply beautify your stark cold apartment. Lack of discourse about art contributes to the situation; however, the greatest offender in the confusion about the role of art comes from major summer visual arts festivals.
Edmonton hosts two regular summer arts events: The Works, a (predominantly) downtown-based visual arts festival and Art Walk, a south-side, Old Strathcona-based visual arts event. For some time now, I have tried to determine why these events make me anxious and, at times, angry. I’m fond of trying to express my own emotions with the thoughts of others and no quote comes out of my mouth as frequently as Jean Cocteau’s “Art is a priesthood not a pastime”. I use this a lot during our summer arts festivals because when visual art meets the festival format, it inevitably becomes trivialized. It appears a pleasant pastime rather than the tiny tip of an enormous sacred iceberg.
Summer arts festivals promise artists “exposure”. The larger the group of people you are in contact with, the logic goes, the more likely you are to find people who want to decorate their apartment with your art work or help you with the revolution that your art is going to facilitate. This is not a reflection of the relative intelligence of the viewers. It is simply numbers. For artists, this is the attraction of exhibitions (or art practices based) in larger cites, the potential of intelligent public art and public art interventions and the promise of the internet (though few in my acquaintance have realized this “promise”). It is also the raison d’être of the visual art festival in all its forms. Because the stated aim of most of these types of events is exposure for artists and educating and/or entertaining a broad public audience, debate about the usefulness of these events centers on the importance of public access to visual arts and the delivery of effective art education and interpretive programs rather than problems with the festival format itself.
The Works attempts to be more avant-garde and experimental in its programming. However, intelligent, socially and politically engaging work is often undermined by the dominance of home-decoration displayed in Edmonton’s central Churchill Square and further diluted by some truly shoddy presentation. This includes works or shows that are difficult to find, misrepresentations and mistakes in printed material along with a litany of display, lighting and presentation gaffes. Even the best visual art has limited defense against poor display. Deficiencies in presentation effectively silence any boundary-pushing potential in the art and give further prominence to art work that is more “market place” than “consciousness raising”.2
Art Walk makes no claim of presenting avant-garde and experimental art work. Most participants freely admit that this is a chance to sell some art. Hundreds of individual artist “market stalls” line Whyte Avenue and adjacent streets in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona district. Smiling art lovers stroll the Art Walk on the sunny days and some of them are willing to spend some money for original art work by local artists. What could be wrong with that? Local artists need support and encouragement and winters are long here. It is difficult to begrudge any one a few hours in the summer sun but clearly these events and the art work exhibited are not intended to raise difficult questions. This brings up the subtle and devious prospect that The Works, Art Walk and countless other community’s Art Strolls, Jaunts or Crawls are the contemporary “circuses” in an eternal succession of “bread and circuses”.
I don’t believe this duplicity is premeditated (I’m not that paranoid yet). Some intelligent and well meaning organizers and artists present work to some equally intelligent and well meaning viewers. However, despite everyone’s best intentions, these events reinforce the idea of artists as a class of contented amateurs with a parallel class of contented viewers – the whole affair, just another (small) cog in the producer/consumer machine. The artist as a Cocteau-like priest is nowhere to be found at these events because to be successful (i.e. to make participants, organizers and sponsors happy), these events require a lot of complacent viewers who are appeased with a superficial understanding and appreciation of the art work on display. However, viewers can’t be too passive. Occasionally, they have to pay admission to galleries, make donations, buy art and write or call City Hall or their MLA (or express, with their vote) how important these events are to their quality of life (maybe I am that paranoid). Large popular appeal is the most important criteria for the success of these events. In this respect, they are similar to major art galleries and museums. “We are in the entertainment business and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.”3 Ben Hartley, the Guggenheim’s director of corporate communications and sponsorships said some time ago in the New York Times, effectively summarizing everything you need to know about the current state of public art galleries and local arts festivals.4
“Don’t go to Art Walk or The Works if they bother you so much”. That is the sage counsel that I receive at home. “But”, I sputter to my wife “it misrepresents what I do!” I asked a colleague, another artist, what he thought. He did not think these events trivialized what we do though his comment was a more colorful “I don’t care what they do. They can shove it in a tent or they can shove it up their ass!” Equally funny was another artist friend’s comment: “If they want to show my work in a tent, that tent better be in Venice.” A tent in Edmonton’s Churchill Square is still a tent and even the best work is somehow made to look tawdry and inconsequential without a real wall behind it. A wall is commitment and a tent is only there until they need the space next week so the same sugary-fried-dough-eating-taxpayer can enjoy a guy on a unicycle juggling chainsaws.
My quibble with Picasso was merely a pedantic foreword to this whole discussion. There are obviously more than two kinds of art but Picasso’s “home decoration” vs. “weapon” will always be a major dichotomy in contemporary visual art. Picasso and countless others have said that you can expect more from visual art than decoration. At its best, art can seize even the least receptive viewer and encourage profound introspection but the major summer arts festivals like The Works and Art Walk do little to assist this basic form of self discovery. Despite “edgy” promotional campaigns, genuinely provocative art is seldom found or poorly supported at The Works. The amount (Art Walk) or public prominence (The Works) of art that is more couch-matching than incendiary gives the broad impression that this is all art has to offer or, worse, all that Edmonton audiences seek in their art.
Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1968), 487. ↩
Some disclosure is required. I’ve been in a number of The Works shows in the past. I’d like to say that The Works was better back when I participated more regularly but I probably overlooked the festival’s shortcomings for selfish reasons. I’ve agreed to be in The Works (and other exhibitions) because friends or curators that I respect have asked me to participate. I’ve exhibited because I respected the other artists involved; I was interested in the concept for the show and the “conversation” that emerged between the works on display. These are the “noble” motives. I have often participated in The Works with an “only game in town” attitude and that most selfish of reasons (shared by many artists at some stage in their career), CV padding. To be blunt, The Works, Art Walk and similar events in other communities rely heavily on exhibitions by artists who have few other exhibition opportunities — artists eager to add another show to their resume without too much concern about what or where that show might be. ↩
John Seabrook, “Nobrow Culture: Why it’s become so hard to know what you like,” New Yorker, September 20, 1989, (Page). ↩
Even though there isn’t a patio party this Thursday (remember that it’s moved to Friday night for this week only — 5-11 PM!) there’s still plenty in Edmonton to keep you busy on the visual arts front.
The Works Art & Design Festival kicks off Thursday night with a party at Churchill Square. The 13-day festival features art installations in various locations in downtown Edmonton, and the shows currently at Latitude are included in the programming as well. Get all the details about the Thursday night celebration, including a full list of musical guests, from the Facebook event.
As well, the FAB Gallery at the U of A is hosting a reception for a new show, Quotationalism. The exhibition features work from a variety of artists and Maria Whiteman’s 500-level Drawing and Intermedia class at the university. The show represents responses to objects in the show’s companion exhibit, China’s Imperial Modern: The Painter’s Craft, on display in the TELUS Centre on campus, and there’s also a symposium that goes along with the exhibit on Friday — check out all the info on the Facebook event.
We’re excited to see everyone back here at Latitude on Friday night! Last week’s turnout was absolutely fantastic, and we’re hoping to make this week even better. Make sure you don’t miss it!
This is one of several works still on display after The Works festival this year, part of the Downtown Banners Project. We spoke to artist and Latitude 53 board member Anya Tonkonogy about the Jasper Avenue banners she created along with Tim Rechner, Nickelas Johnson, Pearl Rachinsky. She was recruited to the project by our good friend Carolyn Jervis on behalf of The Works and then-Poet-Laureate Roland Pemberton, whose verse appears on the banners and who was “instrumental” in finding artists “who he thought would compliment his poetic vision”.
Tonkonogy says her greatest challenge was working within the terms of an unfinished poem:
“I had a few brief chats with Rollie about where he was going with his poems, but ultimately it was an abstract idea of a theme of ‘The city vs. the city’ that I had to work with, which was a bit of a blessing and a curse!
“Over the past few years I have been busy painting commissioned portraits in Edmonton. So, this idea of ‘publicly displayed work’ is slightly foreign territory for me, and was a challenge to visualize.
“We were asked to submit a minimum of 20 images, …[that] fit the theme of ‘The City vs the city’. I did create 8 or so new pieces for the Banner Project specifically, but some of the Banner images displayed around Edmonton are actually from work I’ve completed in the past. The work for this project was very individual, as each artist worked independently on their pieces. It was not until the banners were hung that I got to see [the other artists’] work for this!”
Anya had a little more to say about those other artists:
“I only know of Tim Rechner’s abstract painting work through visiting ArtsHab galleries, and attending an artist talk at the AGA a year or so ago (where Tim discussed the paintings that came out of his collaboration at the zoo with Lucy the Elephant). I find his paintings command attention. The scale he works with, and the rhythmic/geometric qualities of his mark making are very compelling.
“I am more familiar with the work of both Pearl Rachinsky and Nickelas Johnson, as we have been rolling in the same social and artistic circles in Edmonton for quite some time. I think they are both incredibly talented, and have a unique voice in the Edmonton Arts scene… I actually own a few pieces by Pearl, and look at them fondly every day! Nick and I had both had the pleasure of being involved in the National Portrait Gallery project” .
Anya says she is “endlessly proud to be in such good company with these artists”. You can go to see the Banners themselves on Jasper Avenue between 97 Street and 109 Street—a perfect stroll on the way to see the latest nearby at Latitude 53.
This weekend, the Edmonton Journal’s Elizabeth Withey wrote on some of her favourite pieces in The Works Art & Design Festival this year. What’s her top pick?
Perhaps my favourite piece of art at The Works is Trevor Anderson’s video, Absent Friends, at Latitude 53 Gallery on 106th Street (Site #21). Part of the cheekily titled The National Portrait Gallery, an excellent group show curated by Fish Griwkowsky, the video has a sarcastic tone and serious message that were totally up my alley. “This is the High Level Bridge,” a monotone, drippingly deadpan voice says at the start of the video. “It’s where people who live in Edmonton come when we’re finally ready to kill ourselves.” Provocative and succinct, the video uses humour to address the fact this architectural centrepiece is emblematic of suicide in Edmonton. “Everyone around here knows at least a couple of people who’ve jumped,” the narrator states. Given The Works’ tribute show in Churchill Square to arts writer Gilbert Bouchard, who took his own life in 2009 (his body was found in the North Saskatchewan River weeks after he disappeared), I’d call Absent Friends a well-timed, much-needed and refreshing comment on an issue that’s far too taboo. Thanks, Trevor.
The festival is over this Wednesday, but we’ll have the National Portrait Gallery, including Trevor’s fantastic video, for another week, until July 17th. Make sure you catch it before it’s too late!
This post is written by Latitude 53’s Writer In Residence, Carolyn Jervis. She will be writing critically about Latitude 53 programming, the community and more on a regular basis over a six month term. Read more about the Writer In Residence program.
Memorials have a finite quality to them – we go to services to celebrate the lives of friends and family members when they pass away, and to monuments in remembrance of the devastation caused by atrocities. When memorializing events, there is a need to hold on to the remembrance as a resolve to never let a similar event ever happen again.
The question of creating a permanent memorial to homelessness has been up for debate again in the chambers of City Hall. What does it mean to create a memorial to a problem faced by our city that, as far as I can tell, isn’t going away any time soon? Memorials have an element of celebration, or of relief that the horror is over. According to Scott McKeen’s Edmonton Journal article a couple weeks ago, it is estimated that 45 people died on Edmonton streets last year. We have a long way to go before we consider homelessness in our city a thing of the past.
On my way home from working downtown one day, I decided I wasn’t up to the 10 kilometre ride, so I hauled my bicycle into the elevator that goes to the LRT station below Enterprise Square. The slow descent downwards was accompanied by the distinct, pungent smell of urine. It would be easy to be angry for having my senses assaulted, but I don’t think that I am the one who suffered the real indignity. That lies with whomever it was that peed in the elevator.