Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The End is the Beginning is The End: Saskatchewan’s Offer of a Province-Wide International Art Project*

SASKATCHEWAN. One third of the “prairie pass over” zone buttressed by boom & bust Alberta and frigidly quirky Manitoba, Saskatchewan locates itself in the dead centre of Canada. With just under 1 million in population spread thinly over almost 600,000 sq. km, limitless open space and the always-present horizon are often the only company one keeps in the land of living skies. The province’s isolationist tendencies brews up nuggets of community with a large and vocal First Nations population; perhaps not unrelated is its notoriety for being the birthplace of Medicare and the New Democratic Party. Culture-wise, Saskatchewan was home to the first artist-run centre for photography, created the first arts board in Canada, and of course hosted the famed Emma Lake workshops in the 1950s. Attended by such notables as Clement Greenberg, Anthony Caro and Barnett Newman the workshops live on today as an extension of the University of Saskatchewan. Building on its legacy of resilience, key members of Saskatchewan’s arts scene are devising a large-scale project that seeks to resolve every facet of the Saskatchewan identity and launch it onto the international sphere.

Photo credit: Amy Fung, 2007

Entitled, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning, the massive project will take place in Saskatchewan’s three largest cities as well as rural sites throughout the province. The brainchild of Felipe Diaz, Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative and interdisciplinary artist Kim Morgan, the project stemmed from their graduate days at the University of Regina. One result of their seminal conference, Crossing Over: negotiating specialization in an interdisciplinary culture (2002) was the realization that major gaps existed in the construction and maintenance of Saskatchewan’s cultural community. Saskatchewan’s isolation from the rest of Canada’s cultural scene was one thing to overcome, but isolation within the province between communities and disciplines was also blatantly apparent. Up to now, the province has been short on the mounting of interdisciplinary and multiorganizational events. Fueled by the conference, Diaz and Morgan took on the task of creating a project that would break down Saskatchewan’s ingrained tendencies and help to launch a pan-arts community within Saskatchewan.
Staying true to the cooperative spirit of the province, Diaz and Morgan formed a curatorial collective consisting of academic and independent curator, Elizabeth Matheson; Director and curator for the Art Gallery of Prince Albert, Brenda Barry Byrne; and, interdisciplinary artist and curator, Adrian Stimson. As the first ever international project funded by the Saskatchewan Arts Board, there are high hopes and even higher obstacles for the projected August to October 2010 event. Although skeptics might balk at the idea of an international art project happening in the midst of the province’s characteristic emptiness, the curatorial collective is more than aware of Saskatchewan’s marginalized identity–and it plans on using it to their full advantage.

From her home in Saskatoon, Matheson explains that Beginning of the End -- End of the Beginning will not just be another international exhibit in the vein of the biennial, but a sustainable project for Saskatchewan that is being offered to the global art scene. Speaking about representing Saskatchewan and Canada on the international level, Matheson matter-of-factly says, “Canada is not known for any contemporary Canadian art scene. International artists don’t see Saskatchewan as marginalized in Canada, but simply a part of Canada. I remember attending a seminar in Sao Paulo in which most of the artists and curators from various countries meeting were not familiar with Canadian contemporary art, let alone defined in terms of specific regions. This experience led me to think about what happens when particular national art scenes–when left to focus on themselves for too long–end up defending geo-political positions they took up years ago. Delving into these types of issues may be an opportunity to bring forward new ideas and envisage other ways for contemporary art to unfold other than by separateness and regionalism.”

Essentially, the curators plan on removing contemporary Saskatchewan from its seclusion by framing it against a contemporary international community that does not root itself in regionalism, but transnationalism. Canada to many, is a country to be explored; and on an international scale, the micro-macro relationship of Saskatchewan to Canada holds more truth than may be commonly thought. With such a low population, Saskatchewan lacks (and the same can be said for Canada in relation to the world), the sheer numbers to stimulate a highly active internal art scene, sparsely populated it faces the constant threat of the brain drain. Like Canada, Saskatchewan is also perceived by outsiders to be more a land of resources than cultural production. Diaz, who remained in Regina after grad studies, believes in the importance of creating a sense of direction and purpose for the arts community and consequently changing the way Saskatchewanians perceive themselves.

“Art does not seem to be a priority for many people in our province,” Diaz declares. “It is seen as a luxury that distracts from the necessary goals of survival, but Art is not a luxury, Art is not a distraction, it is a necessary part of our survival and identification as a positive, forward moving community. Maybe this has something to do with our depression era ethics, maybe it has something to do with our ‘homesteader’ thinking, or maybe that wide open horizon makes us more cautious because we can see things coming from far away. Whatever the reason, the implication is that Art does not enter the psyche of Saskatchewan people, except as an imposition on the real work that needs to be done.”

At the present moment, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning remains in a research and community outreach phase. Plans are to invite 40 to 60 national and international artists to come to Saskatchewan to partake in residencies and the mounting of large-scale public works. Undeniably, there would be immense appeal for an artist from a densely populated city such as Mexico City or Mumbai to come to the Canadian prairies and be given an entire ghost town, stretches of highway or an abandoned hospital to mould at their whim. Echoes of the Münster Sculpture Project, a once in every 10 year occurrence, come to mind, with the promise of grandeur in site specific public projects and the event’s location away from a major urban centre. The curatorial collective also aims to have a positive effect on Saskatchewan’s arts community by offering working residencies between the international artists and local artists.

Stimson, perhaps the most widely known member of the curatorial collective for his famed performance character Buffalo Boy (2004 ongoing), in mock reference to the historical Buffalo Bill, who wrestles with dualities of colonialism and sexuality. Stimson, who has performed at festivals like Burning Man in Nevada, thinks of the Biennial project as experimental:

“While we have an idea of how we as a collective see the project, it will expand as the project evolves, leaving many opportunities to be realized,” contemplates Stimson. “The theme, Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning creates a space for the unknown and transition. Perhaps we in Saskatchewan are ready to explore these spaces. Saskatchewan is a little quirky, in a good way, meaning that its isolation has created a unique space where the social meets the realities of reliance, reliance on each other for survival. This project could create new templates for curatorial collaboration.”

Byrne, the last to come on board and representing northern Saskatchewan, is also one of the founding members of SCAM (Small City Art Museum) collective. Bringing that grassroots mentality to the curatorial mix, she refers to how SCAM members pool resources and raise profiles of their institutions through dissemination and advocacy. Consisting of six curators from across Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, SCAM participants are all from similar size institutions serving similar regionalized populations. Byrne describes the Biennial curatorial collective as a new hybrid, fostering new ideas, breaking the paradigms of curation and discourse, but ultimately she says, “Beginning of the End – End of the Beginning is not just about exhibits of art and art-practices, but the spirit of the province, uniting land and people.”

As a project that has the potential to critically contextualize the work of Saskatchewan arts centers and Saskatchewan artists on an international stage, the liminality suggested by the idea of the beginning and the end promises to play itself out on the massive extension of highways and dirt roads found throughout the province. Travel, specifically driving across the land, will be a huge part of the experience of the project, stretching out to the never-ending horizon that is so defining to the experience of Saskatchewan. The mentality innate to moving across the province will be as important a context as the works themselves. The muse of the project is this experience of openness, one that conjoins sensations of freedom and fear, comparable only to finding oneself in the middle of the ocean, inspired by a landscape unlike any other in the world. Even the title, Beginning of The End – End of the Beginning, connotes a continual flatness that is at once hypnotizing and enticing.

Morgan, who has lived in many major urban centers in different countries, contends that she returned simply because she grew up here. “There is something about Saskatchewan that stays with you, where ever you are,” says Morgan, whose current research focuses on New Genre Public Art. However, under a newly elected provincial government that does not yet have an arts policy–yet alone a public arts policy, she points to the writer, Carol Becker, who was the keynote speaker at the Crossing Over Conference in 2002, and who has recently been appointed the Dean of Arts at Columbia University. A major point of reference for the curatorial collective are Becker’s theories on interdisciplinary practice, the artist as public intellectual, the artist as catalyst and the desire to bring different people together to create dynamic environments or multidimensional public spaces. All ideas the collective hopes to expand upon and activate.

Banking on the diversity of voices and backgrounds to develop a deeper investigatory approach to curating, Matheson in particular does not believe that the contemporary art created for this project will be only relevant to Saskatchewan, but holds the ability to take on the complex issues of transnationalism and regionalism using Saskatchewan as a meeting ground for artists to locate themselves. Creating affinities between the people, land, and art, using geographical vastness to situate new spatial exhibition narratives, the project makes the most of what already exists and invites the world to re-imagine the province with them.

Saskatchewan breaks down into agriculture, oil and gas and mining as the top sectors with the world’s largest industries for potash and uranium. Promoting itself as a province of affordable real estate, world class spas with the lowest green fees for avid golfers, Saskatchewan’s cultural GDP has consistently ranked on the lower end on the nation wide spectrum. Whether this will be a destination spot for arts professionals remains to be seen, but what is evident is that Saskatchewan currently lacks the infrastructure for tourism at the international level. Funding from corporate and crown companies (which are still actually owned by the crown) will be essential to the project along with independent and private sources for a multi-tier and sustainable investment.

A factor for any arts initiative today, Diaz notes that funding has become a part of their programming, “If our programming is about developing community, then we should consider that actively seeking funding from the community can be a part of its development. We must start to develop a community of sponsors and donors in our province and we are developing this program as an opportunity for business interests to invest in the cultural industry.”

*First published in C Magazine, Spring Issue 2008.

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