Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Special Feature: What's Really Wrong With Edmonton, BY ADAM WALDRON-BLAIN

Amy Fung has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of excitement and the apparent failure of the community to take up her project of constructing critical dialogue, especially since the end of 2008. Prairie Artsters, despite being essentially the only game in town, is almost never even able to get a real conversation going in the comments box. My own willingness to get into fights there was responsible for a significant animation of the site during its earlier day, and I recognize the reasons why I sometimes hesitate to jump in in the same way, but I have not stopped trying. Still, nothing happens aside from misguided but understandable random outrage against Sarah Hamilton on the Vue letters page. Even Ryan McCourt no longer seems interested in correcting Fung's grammar.

Fung's two recent columns, from the 1st and 16th of April, are statements of this new mindset. A recent trip elsewhere has persuaded her of Edmonton's enduring inadequacy. In Montreal, Fung laments,

You really can't walk without tripping over an artist of some sort, and most likely they're riding their bicycle to one of the many free or affordable cultural events that everyone from all ages seems to attend in passionate droves. Everyone is creative

Unlike here, apparently, but this is going too far. Fung is an art writer, going to see a festival. Of course everyone she meets is an artist — as an artist and writer living in Edmonton, my experience is not actually very different. If you spend time mostly among artists, then most everyone you meet will be one.

Amy is making hyperbole, of course. In her second article, after complaining about events that she didn't go to — a turnabout from her implied complaints about Edmontonians' unwillingness to participate — she tries to be more clear:

We don't think anyone wants to be challenged out of their comfort zones because we're never challenged out of our comfort zones

The problem is, then, that nobody does anything brave enough. But at the event Fung missed, was an example of something brave, in the form of K.O. Dance projects, whose performance was, incidentally, terrible. Justified only by a similar idea of fearless iconoclastic conceptualism, they performed the least site-specific site-specific dance imaginable (for which they had to rearrange the site), packed with pandering, over-literal movement and embarrassing metaphor. They challenged an audience who largely lacked the critical background, or, at the Mayor's Gala, the rudeness to address what they had seen. Notable local twitterer — but not art-critic — Mack Male described them as “interesting”, and that is undoubtably what someone similarly lacking a framework but trying to be open-minded would have described the feminist performance festival in Montreal as. This essay is not the place for an extensive discussion of their performance, but I think that many of us who claim to know what we are talking about might have made the same kind of noncommittal statement if pushed to it, and in any case Fung saved herself the trouble.

Overwhelmingly, we shy away from real discussions of the faults in our community, making only quick-and-easy statements that we can almost all agree on (often about how something is wrong with our city), and Fung's short and therefore inevitably simplistic articles are the best that we generally see. So what is wrong with Edmonton and why are we all so upset about it?

Edmonton's Aesthetic Legacy

Central to the crisis in confidence of Edmonton art is an idea of self-identity as expressed through aesthetics. Edmonton has a specific aesthetic history that needs to be addressed, and to their credit, the Art Gallery of Alberta has shown interest in exploring this history of late. The recent Sylvain Voyer show there is a useful starting point for an historical analysis of contemporary practices: the show presented an history of Voyer's own struggle to define a truly local aesthetic and we can broadly establish three categories from his work which provide a useful structure with which to discuss today's production and theory in Edmonton. In all three we can see the same internal conceptual struggles that describe today's Edmonton art practices.

Voyer's initial practice was as an abstract modernist, an aesthetic closely associated with Edmonton's institutional history. Voyer did not stay in his New York/Edmonton style for long, however finding it unsatisfying and not sufficiently specific to the place which he called home. Voyer was hardly the only local artist working in this style, however, as the history and collections at the AGA and the University of Alberta will quickly tell you. The other artists felt the limits of the style, too, although they did not abandon it as Voyer and mainstream international art tastes did.

Ironically then, what was once promoted as the international style has now become a regional art form with pockets of practice — or resistance, some would say — on the Prairies and elsewhere. Critical theorist, Caterina Pizanias...offers this opinion:

“...Relieved of the pressures of keeping up with New York, the reluctantly dispossessed Edmonton abstractionists began experimenting with less derivative styles....”

In other words, re-positioned as they now are on the margins, these Edmonton-based artists find their artwork looking more and more distinctive.... Some recent developments in contemporary art, like the use of metaphor and external references, have also rubbed off giving some of these practitioners the freedom to abandon the self-referential and strictly art for art's sake attitude. (Laviolette 191)

But this change is a curious one. At the University of Alberta, students of Graham Peacock see their professor and his ECAS cohorts pushing the boundaries of modernist abstraction. Peacock's work is, in his own words, “both abstract and representational” (Quoted by Ainslie & Laviolette 81) and due to his experiments in illusion his work is less able to be described by Greenberg-style theory than in his early days, but his lectures have not made this changeover with the same zeal. Similarly, ECAS's main representative as far as Prairie Artsters readers are concerned, Ryan McCourt, fills the shared Studiosavant blog with love for modernist theory, despite his own very referential work. Furthermore, despite claiming ignorance of what some cast as a deep divide between aesthetic and theoretical camps in the city's art community, McCourt revels in the battle, browbeating his adversaries and any unfortunate writers who happen to disagree with him.

The strengths and weaknesses of McCourt's arguments are seen most clearly when he feels most threatened. In a long, multi-part argument in the Studiosavant comment box following a 2008 talk by Anne Whitelaw about Edmonton's modernist history, regarding the changing role of the Edmonton Art Gallery/Art Gallery of Alberta, and some allegedly abrasive comments made there, it seems that McCourt (and presumably his “henchmen”) are angry with Whitelaw not only because she clearly belongs to the postmodernist team, but because she was unable to answer every question. She seems to be in a position of authority, as an Art History professor and curator, and it is critical for the would-be modernists to demonstrate that this is false: not only does she disagree with higher authorities (like Karen Wilkin and others who she is discussing and critiquing), but by her own admission her knowledge is not absolute, so her authority is suspect.

Reliance on authority is an explanation for the constant reassertion of modernist theory, as well as explaining for a simpler time in criticism, and Peacock's recurring comments to his classes about how the AGA is now afraid to show abstract work. The result is resistance to attempts, like Fung's, to construct a new critical discourse, which is met with disheartening attacks on the credibility of writers, or a passive lack of acknowledgement.

Edmonton's other groups don't necessarily do better, however. For the abstractionists, this kind of conflict is a survival mechanism to preserve their importance and keep their critics defensive, but the rest of the community has also taken up this discourse.

“Latitude Attitude”

After his abandonment of abstract painting, Voyer's practice is still split in a way that can be instructive for contemporary Edmonton art. His continuing attempt to construct a local art practice resulted in two dramatically different forms.

Voyer was of course involved in the creation of Latitude 53, an artist-run centre which was a clear alternative to the Edmonton Art Gallery. Latitude 53's historical mission is articulated in a “Latitude Attitude” pamphlet displayed in Voyer's retrospective. It was a challenge to the modernist status-quo in Edmonton, both in encouraging something truly local and as an appeal to a different model of internationalism than the New York-centered model of the modernists. The pamphlet exalts the visit of a Parisian critic and his high view of alternative Edmonton art.

Edmonton's ARCs continue to bring experimental art from abroad as well as showing some of what is produced here, and show much the same kinds of work, but the role of the centre has changed because of changes in other institutions. This is doubly true in the eyes of the artists who have grown up since Latitude's founding. The centre can no longer be defined against the public gallery because the Art Gallery of Alberta has significantly changed its curatorial and institutional strategies. In fact, to the young artists of today, these institutions do not seem terribly different: although the ARCs and the AGA show different artists and have different models of accessibility, they both show art from elsewhere and are primarily interested in connecting Edmonton to a larger art discourse. The art both show is clearly different from what is put up at the ARTery, a much younger alternative space, and not in merely in terms of quality. Young Edmonton artists, especially those seen at the ARTery, seem more concerned with the local, and their approach is again grounded in our history.

Voyer is most famous for his third and most enduring practice, and while I certainly do not wish to suggest that work at the ARTery resembles his canola landscapes, there is a philisophical similarity. Voyer's landscapes are his ultimate expression of the reality of Alberta, and young artists here seem very interesting in creating work which takes up the same kind of question of local identity. As with Voyer, this can include a retreat from the battling models of globalism, especially as young artists and writers are so used to the constant conflict of Edmonton's changing institutional and public taste.

In January of this year I wrote an overwhelmingly negative of The Advantaged at the ARTery, a show which aimed to talk about some ideas of local art in Edmonton and Calgary. What the show did right was to let the artists talk about the place instead of trying to suggest that the work summed up the practices of the place — plenty of shows about local scenes are easily criticized for trying to package things too neatly. Instead the opposite occurred and the works had too little curatorial oversight both in terms of quality and focus.

In some ways, Edmonton came out of The Advantaged looking good. I mostly wrote about the flashy, jokey tendency of the most visible, mostly Calgarian, art in the show, which I felt was ultimately uninteresting compared to humbler local works. But that humility is itself part of something at least as bad: the dangerous tendency among young artists here is to lose interest in not only the institutions but everyone, making work only for themselves. They can barely be bothered to pick up their artwork after the show, because it matters so little to them.

This is the dark twin of Fung's idea of bravery — that we do not care what anyone else thinks. We barely expect any public or critical response, and so we tell ourselves that we don't want it. We don't treat our work as a representation of our professional selves, and as a result are unconcerned with its quality and cohesiveness. It is then no surprise that our explorations of local identity are scattered and messy and lacking in quality.

Print Citations

* Ainslie, Patricia and Laviolette, Mary-Beth. Alberta Art and Artists. Calgary: Fifth House 2007. 81
* Laviolette, Mary-Beth. An Alberta Art Chronichle: Adventures in Recent & Contemporary Art. Canmore: Altitude Publishing 2006. 191

- A.W.B. Edmonton


MC said...

The only reason "Even Ryan McCourt no longer seems interested in correcting Fung's grammar" [sic] is that this shit is so fucking amateur... I honestly don't know whether to laugh or puke.

All this whiny hang-ringing about your bourgeois little "crisis in confidence" is pathetic. Boo-fucking-hoo. Suck it up, cry-babies. Nobody's interested in your constant moaning and complaining, already!

p.s. Nowhere in your link does Ryan McCourt claim "ignorance of what some cast as a deep divide between aesthetic and theoretical camps in the city's art community". Seriously, learn to fucking read, or learn to fucking write... either way, correct yourself.
Also, you should refrain from trying to characterize what you think to be other peoples' 'feelings' (especially people you've never even had the courage to speak to in real life!). You are obviously not qualified, and your attempt comes across as bad faith.

If you're really interested in spending so much time and energy on Ryan McCourt and his opinions, why not simply talk to him? What are you afraid of?

Or, is your speech as slurred as your writing?


You may not have noticed, Ryan, that most of this article is not about you and is in fact about the whining which you are accusing me of propagating. And since you apparently take so much exception to being grouped into an imaginary hegemony of modernist artists (as you do in that link), you should probably try to avoid doing the same to others - except that I guess you need that tactic to back up your favourite trick of accusing your opponents of projecting their own failings onto you.

Furthermore, you of all people should understand that I am interested in discussing objects. I don't know what you would say to me in person that you wouldn't say online, but whatever it is it wouldn't make for a very interesting subject for a piece of critical writing to me, because it wouldn't be an object as your blog and your comments here are. They are real things, and public. I don't care about your "real feelings" or whatever, only your performance.

I don't expect that you read past where your name stopped appearing, but at the end of this article I in fact ran into some walls because I didn't want to rely on anecdotal evidence for the other things that I was complaining about, but would rather talk about real shows and public gestures. Hopefully you won't notice them, but I sure did.

But speaking of public gestures, your "not qualified" comment above does really back up one of my major points, so thanks for that. Someone on facebook characterised your reaction as "taking the bait." Just saying.

Sarah said...

You bring up some interesting points Adam -- I'm curious about your thoughts on moving forward from here.

Do we hold art to a higher standard? Do we you think we can/should omit the politics of geography from our criticism?

Also, I appreciate your frank style of writing. I think you hit a new high.

A said...

To respond directly to "failure of the community to take up her project":

Quite simply, if the community fails to take you up, YOU are the one who have failed. You have failed to interest them, to engage them, to do something interesting at all.

To blame others for your failure (ie. to set up a situation where no matter the outcome, it is not you who has failed) is self-serving and self-satisfying but is not indicative of one who genuinely wants to engage.

In short, the onus of success is upon the initiator, not the community. Otherwise, any hack could (and apparently, did) claim that their personal project's failure is NOT their own failure.

Her project is boring. It fails due to its own faults, and its own faults alone.

An said...

A, what/who are you referring to?


Well, those were my words, A, not amy's. And while Amy is clearly frustrated, this site does accomplish some other related things which I didn't really talk about in that article. I mean: if it were my project it would look different, obviously, but despite some flaws I think you are too quick to write it off as a failure. It exists for more than just comments.

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

I've been investigating the arts dialogue scene in Edmonton lately and came upon this website. Altho' I agree with the creator (Amy Fung?) that the arts community in Edmonton lacks real discussion, I find that this site doesn't really help to remedy it. It's dry at best. If you want to be a writer, then at least make your reporting artistic and give it some flare. And like SEE and VUE it misses a significant portion of local art happenings. Nobody reports on what's really going on. No offense.

To Adam: There is nothing wrong with Edmonton; It is just different from Montreal and New York. Any goals set out from our artists that are meant to mimic or recreate another location's scene is, well, doomed, unoriginal and just plain dumb. Edmontonians usually (and I use the word 'usually' loosely) fall into two camps: those who don't really give a shit about art and those who will support it regardless of its quality. For the latter of the two, I think this is a unique asset to our arts community. We want people to succeed here even tho' more critique would undoubtably be beneficial. I know, for example, in my own art practices that INFORMED critique presented in fashion that demonstrates the critics desire to help me improve will always help and moreover, I appreciate it. For all those artists who like to bash the scene, they should just move elsewhere and see how much support they get. I know many who have defected and it's generally the same story, they don't have nearly the same amount of success that they previously enjoyed in Edmonton.

Oh and MC, you present yourself as a real ass. Someone who likes to hear the sound of their own voice a little too much, perhaps?!. Control yourself man.

Well, that's my two cents. You can take it or leave it.



I think you are misreading me, G.
The starting point for me is in fact an acknowledgement of the difference between Edmonton and other places, and in fact what makes this subject interesting to me is its relationship with artists' attempts to describe the specificities of our local, and the changes in our idea of what that is, which I tried to touch on in this article.
Ultimately, I think your description of camps of Edmontonians is not that useful, because those who are happy to support everything are to me functionally very similar to those who do not care. While they serve an economic purpose towards keeping things moving (not that that makes it very possible to make money off of this stuff), they do not contribute much in the long run. I think that one of the flaws of this site is an unwillingness to really commit to detailed critique, despite the fact that Amy and other writers here do sometimes talk about how great it would be. But for all of its flaws, I think that PA is much more successful and will have a more sustained impact on Edmonton than something like Notebook, which lacks essentially any editorial choice. Part of the reason that I hadn't already written for this site is that I don't agree with the entirety of Amy's approach to it, but I definitely don't think that it makes it a failure. This site does have some impact and I hope that AF and others will continue to improve it. Just like art, however, if you all feel that this site is crap, why have you put up with it so long? I don't necessarily expect you to all start your own (although you could), but just as it would be nice to have criticism of art it would be lovely to have criticism of criticism. That's part of the first point of this essay. Where are you all hiding?

Anonymous said...


I apologize if you think I was misreading your argument and it is may be the case that I was, but I shall try my best to address your response in order to clarify.

1) You say: “The starting point for me is in fact an acknowledgement of the difference between Edmonton and other places” yet you entitle your work “What’s Really Wrong with Edmonton.” I was trying to demonstrate the fallacy of such a bold statement if you were, as you say, comparing Edmonton to other places and arising at the conclusion that Edmonton was in some sense wrong or defective by ‘said’ comparison.

2) You say: “I think your description of camps of Edmontonians is not that useful”. I disagree. I believe in order to effectively and objectively acquire a sound knowledge base about any subject or situation that you are trying to engage then you need to understand the prevalent attitudes involved. These attitudes towards art exist whether or not they are helpful. And what’s really wrong with Edmontonians supporting art they don’t understand?! Let the professionals, or those who have endeavored to become educated in the specific art to be discussed, be the critics. People don’t improve without the support to do so.

3) You say: “I think that one of the flaws of this site is an unwillingness to really commit to detailed critique”. I agree. I did say in my response that more critique would be beneficial. I don’t really understand the point of this site. Again, I am not trying to step on any toes, but what exactly is the site trying to accomplish? Is it just a support system?

4) I don’t think the site is crap, per say. Amy and others have obviously put a significant amount of effort into this site and I applaud their effort in doing so. The site, I find, lacks direction. Perhaps, the contributors would benefit from following MC’s footsteps by learning not to care if one offends people (if you really believe in what you’re doing AND know what you‘re talking about) while critiquing in a manner that still merits recognition. However, I think that when a critic acts like a complete jackass in their critique they completely lose creditability. Ahem….MC.

5) I am critiquing the critic. Not hiding.

In any case, I hope I have clarified for you.



When I say that things are wrong, I don't mean that they are wrong compared to other places per se. I simply mean that it would be a good thing if we could improve them, or at least figure them out. These are issues that I'm sure other places deal with in their own ways too - and I tried to address this very point in my response to AF's article at the beginning.
Improving our community is not about other cities, it is about ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

Also, very clever insertion of 'per se'. 'Per say' is the english variant of 'per se'. It is often regarded as not as academic as the latin locution yet it still remains valid for everyday usage. I digress.

amy fung said...

this has been illuminating.

MC said...


Anonymous said...

And How!


ITEM said...

I've got enough faith in our scene to know that shit will happen. It's easy to get mad at someone who openly criticizes the scene as a whole, but be glad someone is willing to call us out on our work rather than sugar coat it and tell you how wonderful you are. I'll leave that bit to my Mom...(love you Mom!).

Anonymous said...

MC (aka Lawn ornament guy) you make my day.