Consumption: Experiences from the Surrey Art Gallery, on exhibiting, and artists' residencies.
As the curator of the Surrey Art Gallery I’m responsible for artists – exhibitions, publications, the collection, and the initiation of our digital media programme which includes the media lab. Our operation is centred on bringing together the community and contemporary art, and we do this in fairly subversive ways.
I don’t know how many of you know about the Surrey Art Gallery. We’re not too small and not too big. We’re a city museum. This means we operate within the structure of a municipality – so we’re part of an interesting bureaucracy which has significant limitations and significant opportunities. The city of Surrey itself is quite an interesting place. It has only been a city since 1993 and with a huge geographical area, rapidly moving from a rural agricultural region to an urban community. Surrey is home for TECH-BC (a technical university, which has since been absorbed into Simon Fraser University), which is exclusively devoted to digital media practices including an interactive arts programme. We have partnered with them since they started programming. They are in their third year now.
Our new media programme grew out of a combination of needs. We needed new equipment, and we needed to increase our efficiency. As you know gallery funding continues to be strained – there isn’t enough money to do what we want to do – just basic operations – and we needed to broaden and increase our audiences and we had to respond to the art that was dependent on technology.
I believe that we need to serve art. That’s the foundation of what we do. We need to do that through and with artists and we need to meaningfully connect art and artists to audiences. How are we going to do that with new media? We’ve been learning together with artists and I think because of this we have been able to go forward.
We’re quite small – two full-time staff and three part-time staff. To undergo the process of even thinking about digital media, means to make a huge financial commitment. It’s not like when you buy a book and it’s done. It means buying, and buying and buying! Over and over again. It means that pie of resources, materials, people and money, has to be divided even more. The needs continue to grow as the media continues to grow. With the funding we have received, there have been strings attached. A lot of the time we do want we need to do for art, then apologise later for stretching the rules. We don’t have the privilege of a lot of museums within big cities. We have a general audience – an audience that may not necessarily have contemporary art sophistication. If you can imagine, our city is 340,000 people – there is no other exhibition venue. If an artist wanted to show work in Surrey, then their option would be putting work on an easel and putting it in the mall – there’s nothing else. Our existence is quite extraordinary. So there’s not always a lot of understanding when the exhibition isn’t visible, let along understandable. Imagine being responsible for a video exhibition and the projector breaks. With media exhibitions, there is an expectation of good technology. Events are the same, if the connections between hardware or to the Internet aren’t functioning, there’s not a lot of understanding. Who is going to do be responsible – take on that risk on top of all the other administration? Who is going to set it up – who has the knowledge? With new media, the artists are now coming with the artwork on a disc – and we have to provide everything else. That means that we have to learn about presenting it as well as acquiring the equipment. Or we have to hire technical specialists. One of our hopes is the development of more plug-in-and-play new media artworks – where it comes in a box and you just plug it in, and away it goes until we unplug it at the end of the exhibit, as opposed to having to baby-sit it all the time.
Being dependent upon people to run an exhibition presents new challenges. It’s not like putting a painting show up, and we are the experts. We have to partner – and partnering means we’re dependent upon people who are outside of the contemporary art community. It also affects who we hire. Artists have expectations – we’re a contemporary art museum so surely we could supply the equipment and have the resources to present their exhibit. But that’s not necessarily so. We had some interesting discussions about the fact that we say right up front, ‘we’re PC, we don’t have any Mac support – nothing!’ That’s caused some quite interesting conversations.
We have a lot of challenges with our audiences. If you polled the general public about the kind of art that they wanted to see – it’s landscape painting. So we have to build a big bridge from that to technology in art and as art as well as its content. Also, there’s quite a process of learning how to protect new media artwork. We have tens of thousands of children going through our exhibitions. Our new media artworks and kiosk setups have a lifespan of maybe five minutes before they have to be reprogrammed.
There have been some wonderful opportunities we’ve discovered. Our expectation that we would increase our efficiency was realised. All of the equipment we purchased for the presentation, production and research of new media is shared for other applications such as for updating Websites, for documentation, for our database and so on. We’ve also been able to use the equipment to publishing online, and net-casting, and receive statistics on users’ access to our Internet website. We are starting to learn about people who are using the Internet. Who are they? What kind of equipment are they using? How are they finding us? It has increased our ability to serve art.
Now I will talk a little bit about the digital media lab. What we set up was actually carved out a portion of our main gallery space because we had no other place to put it. We wanted to support an artist in their production – we wanted it to be a studio. We also wanted it to be a site where we could support types of events, and we wanted to have the equipment visible when we did net-casting. And we also wanted to be able to present new media art forms – CD-ROMs, Websites. So the lab was developed with the ability to serve all of those functions. It was planned in the Fall of 1998 and we opened it in June 1999.
It was literally a fish bowl, built with walls made of plexiglass sheets, which meant only some artists wanted to work because it was a very exposed space to the public. The funding for the lab was enabled by a grant from the City of Surrey’s Millennium Fund; and capital support from the Surrey Art Gallery Association, which is an independent society that raises funds for us; and a significant portion of our annual operating grant from the Canada Council. The total cost of setting up the lab was about fifty thousand dollars, which is a lot of money. If you also run a gallery, you’ll know the choices we had to make.
We’ve had three residencies and supported different kinds of exhibitions. We upgrade the equipment as different needs arise.
These are the terms for our artists-in-residence. They agree to work within this very public space. If someone came up and pressed their nose up against the glass of the studio, they would welcome them in and talk with them. Artists in residence agreed to share with us their experiences in the lab: what members of the public were asking them; what they wanted to see. The artists were also learning about work in the museum, so they could help us with our program planning.
Our first artist-in-residence was Paul Williams. We hired him to work over a five-month period. We had applications for this opportunity from all over the world – it was really exciting to see the network out there for new media. We ended up hiring Paul for a couple of reasons; he’s part of the Net generation – he grew up with a computer – and he was working online – that was his medium. His work was about the translation between real world and the digital world and he was incredibly friendly and charismatic. This is a typical scene of kids hanging out with Paul. His project was called Untold Tales: virtually reality! He created online interactive collages. Paul helped seniors touch a computer for the first time, and at other times he was hanging out with children playing Lego and talking about computer games. We documented his exhibition in the catalogue Escape to Cyberbia!
Around the time we completed our project with Paul, the Canada Council came out with the new media artist in residency programme, where the artists could apply for funding in partnership with an industry or institution. We submitted our application for Archer Pechawis and Carlos Vela-Martinez – and we were fortunate to get funding for both artists – who ended up working in the lab at the same time.
Archer is involved in Cyber PowWow and worked with Skawennati. He is a Vancouver-based, media integrated performing artist. He also works as a curator and on the Web as an author. His current practice investigates the intersection of Plains Cree culture and digital technology. He chose to work with us at Surrey, not because of our equipment – he actually has better equipment than we did, but because of the work that we had done with the First Nation’s Community in Surrey. His research was the development of a video sampler that would allow him to modify a drum so when he hit it, it would generate different images in a performance.
Carlos Vela-Martinez researched tele-robotic sculpture. Some of you may know Carlos. He helped develop the technology used by Thecla Schiphorst for her artworks. His project was to redirect and reapply commercial and industrial electronics. He was learning to make modules that could power sculpture with human behaviours. Ultimately he wanted to build sculptures that will respond to the visitor in the gallery. One model was mirroring body movement of the visitor; another was recording and replaying the sound of the visitor. He was able, through the research process, to get the tools he needed to start work on those actual forms.
During their residencies there was a lot of cross research between the artists. Some of the work that Carlos was doing with the electronics – building circuitry – was informing what Archie was doing and vice versa. The lab was very active with sound and video and soldering iron smoke.
The lab and equipment continue to support artists We have lent out our equipment – projectors and cameras and so on – which I don’t think most galleries are able to do. But because of our own struggles with getting the equipment and knowing how precious it is, we’ve shared it.
What next? We’re committed to maintaining a dedicated space for ongoing new media programming, and we’re looking at ways of funding that. When our facility is rebuilt it will be a permanent room. As part of the work planning our facility redevelopment, all staff had to argue for the priority of new spaces – as we didn’t have funding for everything. At the beginning, I think the priority the lab was assigned was number eight, with number 1 being the highest. They guaranteed that only number one priorities would be built. It was an interesting process negotiating its importance, and up the ranks to level one. We found talking to those holding the purse strings, about Star Trek was more effective than talking about art, and saying that without the lab we’d never be able to exhibit the Holodeck, made all the difference.
Because of our work with digital media, we affected the redesign of the whole Surrey Arts Centre, where the Gallery is located. Every room throughout the facility is connected by raceways built for fibre – almost every space can be connected to the Internet. Digital media has taught us that we have to be prepared for the unknown that technology will make real. We’ve built all the spaces in our building (theatres, classrooms etc), so that they are all flexible to support art that we may not have imagined, and all are friendly to digital media. We’ll see what happens.