Friday, June 27, 2008

Prairie Artsters - Shouldn't we be taking this seriously?*

After the last round of open studios for “Making Artistic Inquiry Visible” down in the Banff Centre for the Arts, the lot headed over to the nearby pub for burgers and beers and fractured conversations. Familiar talks circled the residency thus far, stories from the last time some of us saw each other and how some of us know each other. The conversation sparked though when the state, or non-state, of Canada’s art world ignited. Peter Hobbs, one of the resident artists working on exposing the queerness of the Rockies, stated flat out that Canada had no active art world and proposed the challenge of naming 200 contemporary Canadian artists. Hobbs, who splits his time between Canada and the United States, may have been flippant in his rhetorical challenge, but it was certainly taken on by a handful of us. With the team of Robin Lambert, Anthea Black, Nicole Burisch, Jennifer Bowes, Lucy Pullen and myself, and without our dependency on laptops and the internet readily handy, pen and paper appeared, and names started flying across the table. Criteria had to be living Canadian artists known nationally, if not internationally. Going from region to region, discipline to discipline, we rattled off people we knew, knew of, saw, wrote about, wished we could write about, exhibited alongside and anyone else at the forefront of our mental libraries.

Taking on the challenge because it didn’t seem that hard, the group quickly withered down to just a few of us still squeezing out names and repeatedly asking “Did we put down Attila Richard Lukacs yet?” Hobbs smirked on, his point readily made, as we ended up with 160 names spelled poorly and phonetically. Okay, so how can an art world exist in a country where its artists aren’t even known across its borders, whether due to regional isolation or to our lack of gumption in furthering ourselves beyond our own community circles. An artist known for his low brow camp aesthetic, Hobbs approaches his work with serious intentions. Eloquent and intelligent, he can talk about his work while maintaining both the integrity and humour in his work. The off-the-cuff challenge he proposed revealed some very serious subtexts that would appear again the next night.

Coming back for “Art Fight” confirmed some underlying assumptions about Edmonton’s emerging arts community. Not taking itself seriously at all, the evening itself was dismal: poorly organized, with injuries, locked keys, stubbed toes, fatigue and not even artist compensation for the 12 hours spent leading up to the fight. The most interesting part of the whole thing occurred afterwards, as the judges argued amongst themselves and grievances were aired online for further discussion. Many thought the judges, primarily myself and Todd Janes, Executive Director of Latitude 53, were too serious in our approach. In turn, I felt the event was disrespectful in its nonchalance and consequently whiny in being confronted with critique. Making work, exhibiting it and being able to qualify and contextualize it, whether for a small audience or for an international audience, is how an artistic community develops into an art world.

We can only hold up the size and location of Edmonton as our excuse for only so long, as sooner or later, we’ll have to start taking ourselves seriously before anyone else does.

*First published in Vue Weekly, June 26 - July 4, 2008

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