Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sylvia Ziemann, Possible Worlds, Dunlop Art Gallery, May 22 - July 18, 2010

Click here or on the title to read the full review on Canadian Art Online.

Image credit: Sylvia Ziemann “Possible Worlds” Installation view (detail) 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Open letter to Lindsay Blackett*

Dear Lindsay Blackett,

My name is Amy Fung and I'm a cultural worker based in Edmonton, Alberta. You should know that your recent comments regarding the quality of Canadian film and television as "shit" will not be forgotten anytime soon, because their repercussions will be a problem for years to come.

Like your other actions, such as silencing opposers like Karen Lynch, bringing forward backwards bills like 44 and patronizingly describing major fiscal cuts as "haircuts," this move further suggests that you hold no respect for those working in your portfolio, grandstanding this mess until you can leapfrog into a far better cabinet position.

And I'm sure you will, which just means another unqualified Minister of Culture and Community Spirit will take a go at it. Perhaps he/she will even take a page from you, creating even greater headaches with the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and going toe-to-toe with naysayers at public events.

The thing that disappoints me the most is that not only have you reaffirmed our provincial government's general disrespect for cultural producers on a national stage, but you have given fire to the general lack of respect Canadians hold for arts and culture. For someone in your position to say those things, you have made it just that much harder for producers to secure private funds and for distributors to take Canadian content seriously.

As a Minister of Culture, you surely understand how little respect your portfolio already receives, how little funding cultural producers already have to work with, and yet you felt you could kick them in the teeth, fueling this notion that Canadian content is a waste of tax payer's money and suggesting, in your own language, that cultural workers need to start spinning shit into gold or get cut off.

Mr Blackett, your comments seem to completely ignore the fact that you and those who came before you have failed in their jobs, and what you are calling shit is the direct result of decades of negligence from people just like you. Unable to apply a successful business model to the arts, combined with a general lack of value building, the majority of culture in this country has slipped to nothing more than a hand out, unable to sustain itself, and a joke on the world stage. Completely outdated models for tax credits, production incentives, content regulation and even ideas of what Canadian culture could look like, has forced the hand of cultural producers to survive, rather than compete.

Your definition of what "shit" actually is remains unclear. As a rookie politician with no background in the arts, I am curious as to how you judge artistic value and merit? I wonder if you can even name 10 Canadian filmmakers off the top of your head, with at least one from Alberta? You have publicly said that you have no time for television, but you do enjoy the American reality-TV series The Bachelorette ...

No one expects you to know the insides and out of every cultural medium, or even have good taste, but your words have simplified a deeply rooted and complex situation that is doing no favours for anyone. You can stand by your comment, as I do not think this is a matter of being right or wrong. But if a child was doing mediocre work in school, would you also call her stupid for not doing as well as her peers? And then bicker about whether you were right or not? There are deeper issues here, and it is a matter of attitude and action.

I understand you may not have the financial means to spare aid, but not every problem needs money thrown at it as a resolution. If you took the time to listen—and I mean really listen without feeling your authority is being challenged—that would be a positive gesture in acknowledging you want to work together with mutual respect.

You are the bridge between the industry and government. You are supposed to help; and if you can be honest enough to admit you don't know how to help, then that's the first positive step in this whole mess.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sandra Bromley, FIRE, AGA, May 29 - August 2, 2010*

Stemming from a 2003 human security research visit to Sierra Leone just one year after a decade-long civil war, Sandra Bromley’s FIRE exhibition carries with it a certain weight in years and reflection. Processing through the years it takes to first hear the stories, live with them and then to try and understand how to exist with them, FIRE is first and foremost Bromley’s story of the boys and girls she visited who have already led lives as child soldiers and bush wives, and who held the right to share them with her.

Respectful of ethical issues surrounding estheticizing trauma in post-war countries, Bromley is unique in not cradling the subject matter in clouds of morality. Unlike many stories that divide the world into those who do good and those who do evil, there is no hint whatsoever of victimization in this exhibition, nor are there flavours of blame or notions of good and evil in dealing with child soldiers. There are simply the faces, bodies and stories captured that do not align with existing Western categorizations of war victims and perpetrators.

Image credit: Sandra Bromley's "Innocent," 2004, from FIRE / Sandra Bromley

In the front room, eight elongated and illuminated photography portraits of children lean and exist in equilibrium amidst a chain of deactivated rifles. They stand in restricted poses contained by the concept of the picture frame, harbouring layers of meaning from the difficulty in representing individuals out of context to restricting their likeness to reflect the barriers the real individuals live and work with every day. The austere atmosphere of the room exists in a delicate balance between the human subjects and the guns that exist between them, appearing as markers of time in anchoring the living present in direct relation with a formidable past.

Much like The Gun Sculpture, Bromley’s collaboration with Wallis Kendal, the very presence of these weapons that have been used to commit human atrocities contribute a layer of experience that immediately pulls you in, and at the same time exists as physical barriers to how we negotiate our experience of this visual information. In doing so, Bromley complicates the issue of representation in the aftermath of war, specifically the notion of bearing witness to human suffering.

Passing through this first room, which serves as an independent gateway into the second room within a room, viewers are then confronted with choices on how to engage, and how deeply to invest. Standing as a bare framed structure with four sides each bearing a door, viewers are aware that there are four videos playing behind each door. The choice whether to open a door and enter the structure, which then activates the sound of each video, is entirely up to the viewer. Be it hesitation or curiosity, the choice is preceded by a photo transfer of four women: Kadeer, Mohamed, Kamara and Celia, each with her own door and video that remains not translated, speaking then to the viewer with one less filter of comprehension.

Existing in early incarnations as photographs on a door with an accompanying video, now the door assumes the position of yet another gateway into the stories of the women whose image they bear, and in leaving the choice up to the viewer, Bromley makes a very conscious effort to not preach or lecture, but to intricately present her findings to those who actively pursue them.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monograph for National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Latitude 53, June 11 - July 17, 2010*

Just to clarify: The Portrait Gallery of Canada has not slipped off the face of this earth. When Edmonton bitterly lost both its bids to host a permanent site for the National Portrait Gallery, the city in typical defeatist fashion took it personally. The brooding resentment resulted in this contemporary exhibition reconfiguring the very medium of portraiture, but before we get ahead of ourselves, there very much remains an official Portrait Gallery of Canada.

A tiny fraction of its four million plus collection of historically deemed important faces remain accessible to the public via the wonders of the internet through Library and Archives Canada. Existing virtually as a series of highlights on a bare bones site, where by bare bones I mean under attended and barely designed, the official Portrait Gallery of Canada is alive, though not particularly so well.

Appearing to any dedicated viewer the resemblance of a site under construction, or perhaps more generously, as an internal filing system mistakenly made public, the Portrait Gallery certainly exists in a way that makes you wonder why they even bother. From international researchers to Canadian school children, those who do their homework can only assume Canada is comprised of soulless, serious, and anxiously displaced Europeans, and based on the resources made available by the current Canadian government, those assumptions are not wrong. 

The medium of portraiture is as old as humanity itself, and its execution and exhibition are crucial
steps toward identity forming. In a country such as Canada where we are simultaneously nationalists, separatists, regionalists, and more often than not, one generation or less into this sparsely populated landscape, portraiture functions as a means to literally show each other who we are.

The official Portrait Gallery of Canada does not show me. It does not show me anyone I know.  Fortunately, there is this ulterior exhibition of a Portrait Gallery project as organized by a humble group of Edmonton-based artists collectively legitimizing the voice of a Canadian art culture. Appropriately enough the intention may have brewed from rejection, exclusion, and a burning desire to stake a claim, as naturally the misfits of society have convened here in one way shape or form. In its first reincarnation, The Portrait Gallery project features Canadian artists exploring who we are, who we think we are, our communities comprised of friends, strangers, and icons in states of real and imaginary being. As a growing collection of works that will hopefully tour across this country and beyond, this Portrait Gallery does show me individuals I know, and in so doing prompts the necessary myth making and subsequent archiving of stories and identities that will carry this country along.

*Commissioned by organizers of the Portrait Gallery of Canada

Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Edmonton Artists. Enterprise Square. June 3 - 13, 2010*

The phrase "third time's the charm" comes to mind when speaking with Josée Aubin Ouellette, third-time curator for Nextfest's visual arts program.

Image credit: Still from Mandy Esepzel, "Paint Lick" 2010. 
Since taking over in 2008 as the sole applicant for the job of curator, Ouellette has transformed the standard for emerging visual artists in this city by leaps and bounds. Pushing beyond the model of working with community businesses who allowed work to be shown on their spare walls during the run of the festival in her first year on the job, Ouellette consciously began pairing solo exhibitions in conceptually interesting settings and seeking new venues to compliment the artworks she wanted to exhibit. By her second year, she actively sought out partnerships with independent galleries, and now in her third and last year as the Nextfest visual arts curator, Ouellette has achieved her original vision of having one grand show in a real gallery space that sets a professional standard for new Edmonton artists.

It'll be Ouellette's last Nextfest show before she heads off to complete her MFA at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art, where she'll return to her own artistic practice that will certainly continue to be informed by her curatorial practices.

"I felt like I was filling a void in Edmonton. I know I didn't get the support I needed, and I've been trying to fill the void for my peers," says Ouellette, who was first a Nextfest artist in 2007 before taking on the job of curating it herself.

Organizing 28 artists within one show, along with six other venues along 124 street, this year's exhibition is certainly the strongest display of contemporary art from Edmonton's emerging artists in recent memory. Taking place in the former AGA's interim gallery space that has since hosted a handful of silent art auctions, the 2010 Nextfest visual art show offers the capacity to show video-based works, along with more delicate works that strongly signal the clear move away from art on walls, which Nextfest's original and outdated model had clearly been set up for. While Ouellette has certainly been appreciative of showing work in businesses in the past, the opportunity to gather the works into their own official space is a clear and logical step.

"There's not a lot of opportunities out there for emerging artists as there's not a lot of expectations for artists in Edmonton," Ouellette says. "And I want to promote a culture that will support emerging artists and let audiences actively look out for talent."

With a strong contingent from the 2010 Visual Arts Student Association throughout the show, along with show highlights "Paint Lick" by Mandy Espezel, a thoughtful and surprisingly emotional stop-motion video and soundtrack on the process and evolution of one oil painting, and a series of extraordinary paired photographs from Emmanuel Ilagan, the show is one that is not to be missed as it marks a turning point in professionalism for emerging artists. And as the job of next year's curatorial duties is now up for grabs, it should be noted now where the bar has been set and how the forthcoming years will match, if not raise the standards more so.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Prairie Artsters: Know Your Rights*

Recently, I attended my first National Conference for Visual Artists as organized by CARFAC, the Canadian Artists' Representation/le Front des artistes canadiens. Up until then, I (and apparently many others) had only ever referred to CARFAC for their exhibition fee schedule, which provided a guideline for artist fees according to the type of exhibition. Even a day into the conference, when somebody asked me what the CARFAC acronym stood for, I blankly blinked at them without a clue. As a 42-year-old organization whose first president was Edmonton's own Sylvian Voyer, how did CARFAC completely slip my field of consciousness? As a national organization that champions the rights of professional artists through proactive lobbying for better legislation and bringing to the table up-to-date issues such as implementing resale rights for Canadian artists, CARFAC—at least in Alberta—has simply not been a factor for emerging arts professionals, and this is a problem for us all.

Especially in a province where arts and culture are continually disrespected by the ruling government, artists need to stand up for their rights and acknowledge that they do have the power to change their condition.

Only, post-conference, I get the strong sense that artists in Alberta seem to be perfectly content to keep taking the blows—or more commonly, to move away to somewhere seemingly easier and better to be an artist.

While an Alberta CARFAC branch did once upon a time exist, the most recent chapter folded in 2005. Existing in limbo for several years, CARFAC was given a reprieve in 2008 under Visual Arts Alberta Association. While the spirit of professionalization and arts lobbying is less than vivid in Alberta compared to other regional Provincial Arts Service Organizations (PASO) across Canada, VAAA has resuscitated CARFAC in Alberta as a project run by mostly volunteer hours. And while resources are limited everywhere, it's disappointing to learn that the current membership for CARFAC Alberta sits at less than 100.

As an organization devoted to offering professional services from providing information and education on everything from copyright laws, gallery rights, contract samples, legal referrals, taxes, etc, CARFAC in Alberta exists more as an idea than an actual resource. Talking to a range of artists during the conference and afterwards back in Edmonton, it was clear the majority of emerging and mid-level visual artists either did not know what CARFAC could do for them, or simply did not feel it was important enough to look into.

Chalk it up to the prevalent Alberta arts apathy, but the lack of attention paid by Alberta artists to their own rights is truly dismaying. Continuing bending over backwards to only give away our work and time for free, or worse, for exposure, while lamenting how all the power is with the institutions, funding bodies, developers, etc, you would think artists in this province were all living under an oppressive dictatorship that deprived them of the ability for action and education.

Speaking informally to Margaret Witschl, the Alberta CARFAC representative and former President of VAAA, and an active artist in her own right, I expressed my post-conference concerns, concerns that touched upon the void of professional artists (in comparison to a largely amateur crowd), the gaping lack of succession planning and the overall lack of presence CARFAC has within Alberta's visual arts scene. As one of the first graduates of the University's fine arts program, Witschl has seen the ebbs and flows of the arts scene for over three decades, and she is still doing her part. It's time for a next generation of arts professionals to step up, and lend our voice and energy towards strengthening an arts culture in Alberta.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Friday, June 4, 2010

Audio Interview with The Cedar Tavern Singers aka Les Phonoréalistes

Winning our hearts through our minds with catchy folk pop songs about contemporary art, The Cedar Tavern Singers AKA La Phonoréalistes (Mary Anne-McTrowe and Daniel Wong), chats with Amy Fung about their music, their name, and their appetite for rivalries.

Image credit: The Cedar Tavern Singers (AKA Les Phonoréalistes), Country Partners, 2009. Album cover photograph.


The Story Behind The Names

Our Imaginations Run Wild

Catch The Cedar Tavern Singers AKA Les Phonoréalistes on Friday, August 27, 7 p.m. for a full set to close out The 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art: Timeland. $10 / Free for AGA Members*

Audio with Josée Aubin Ouellette: New Edmonton Artists, Enterprise Square, June 3 - 13, 2010

Viewing the show on its opening day, Amy Fung caught up with artist and curator Josée Aubin Ouellette and chats about her third and final NextFest show. More to come in next week's issue of Vue Weekly, but for now, here is an audio excerpt from Ouellette speaking about the progression of standards for emerging artists in Edmonton.

Gallery hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 10230 Jasper Avenue.

(Still playing with audio, Josée didn't recite a monologue, but I guess I made her sound that way. But the sound quality is getting better!)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Interview with Ron Terada, May 2010

Click the title to read through "Ron Terada Conversation: Painting, Pathos and the Pictures Generation", Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff May 15 to Jul 25 2010, on Canadian Art Online.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Preview: Dancefest @ Nextfest 2010*

Featuring 13 new pieces by emerging dancers and choreographers from across Edmonton and beyond, Dancefest@Nextfest looks to showcase dance artists who are hungry to perform in a city with little to obsolete opportunities for professional development.

Curated by Cheryl Fontaine, a past graduate of the now defunct Grant MacEwan dance program and Simon Fraser University, this is the second year she's organizing the dance portion of Nextfest, incorporating mentorship opportunities through Victoria School of Performing & Visual Arts and Strathcona High School.

"From experience and from my friends, and knowing the community, there's not a lot of performing opportunities in Edmonton unless you're presenting yourself," says Fontaine, who teaches dance in St Albert and was one part of the troupe New Dance Collective. "The community is tight and feel we are quite supportive of each other, but if you want to continue performing, you have to do the festivals and present yourself or start a collective or start collaborating with other artists. A perfect example is the Good Women Collective, who are students coming back to Edmonton to work."

Offering a variety of styles, Fontaine says that there will be a range from works strictly about movement and appreciating dance for dance to works that will focus more on image.

"We're looking for interesting themes and creative movement," continues Fontaine. "We want something that can be developed. Nextfest is a stepping stone for artists to continue on further, so it's a good place to start and really important to support."

One of last year's Enbridge Nextfest Emerging Artists is Eryn Tempest, who will be premiering a brand new work-in-progress, Cellophane Sutures: Flooded As The Sea And Sinking.

Tempest, who just moved back from a year in Vancouver, has been working with video that she started making using ink in water during her stint out west, evoking tendrilly deep-sea creatures and shapes.

"It's the beginning of a process into something I'd like to do more work with. It's exploring the idea of traveling, inhabiting other new foreign spaces, uncharted land, and I think it has something to do with texture," she says.

As her third consecutive Nextfest experience, Tempest has channeled her time into creating lengthier, prepared works that stray from her experience in improvised movement.

"This year especially, I'm viewing it as a springboard into further research into things I have not done before. I guess I'm cashing in on the works in progress as a space to get feedback and trying out things."

Having danced for the past few years under choreographers Kathy Ochoa and Gerry Morita, Tempest is beginning to find her own voice, and this new work is a realization of that potential.

"Edmonton has a lot of opportunities for people who want to do whatever the hell they want to do without subscribing to a particular style," says Tempest, who found the Vancouver scene stifling. "I appreciate coming back and having the freedom to do the things I feel are important, and things that warrant further exploration—at least for myself."

Thu, Jun 3 – Sun, Jun 13
Featuring Dance First, Think Later, Dance or Die, Get Down and Dance
Roxy Theatre (10708 - 124 ST), $10 for full details

*First published in Vue Weekly