Discussion with all the presenters and audience questions, plus Concluding Remarks.
Sarah Cook: I would like to invite questions to our speakers and then we should have time for some concluding comments.
Catherine Richards: Just something that Liane mentioned and also a little query for Jean. Liane, in regards to your plug-and-play comment, and I think it came up indirectly several times today so I thought I could follow up: one is that in production most of us take this kind of [attitude that] if we think about it rationally then we’ll never do it. We just get enough money to make the prototype and then we put it in the gallery and then it’s opened to the public and it’s supposed to run and be accessible – it’s totally nuts! Nobody in industry would ever do it. So the dilemma is that you never have… or, there’s no elasticity where you could then go back and say, ‘okay, let’s make it reliable’ – like a plug and play, which is possible even with Charged Hearts. We thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have to ship this; how are we going to do this?’ It’s actually become fairly plug-and-play. You can actually monitor it even though it’s a very complex system, so you can go on the internet and watch all your gauges, there is probably someone on your team at home, if you have a team, that is watching it. So there’s all sorts of kinds of ways to do that. I think Sarah has mentioned some of these earlier about how you would do that and whether it’s a combination of the galleries or the Canada council or the artists, or building something into the grants that if it is touring – there’s so much work in Canada that doesn’t go anywhere because it just doesn’t have that kind of touring support which isn’t, I don’t think, that complex.
Liane Davison: I think it limits galleries considering the work. They can’t deal with complicated works.
Catherine Richards: And the query I have for Jean is I wondered if you could expand on point about the archives that you are developing, and I believe in a Fellowship Programme; how can that be used?
Jean Gagnon: Yes, I probably explained a bit earlier the intention that is behind the creation of the centre for documentation. I think, as I said, it’s out of consultation – there’s no real place devoted to documenting that field, that large field of activity that we are talking about today. So we are in a sort of privileged position because each year we are receiving a lot of requests for funding internationally, and so all this documentation comes to us every year and we keep it. By documentation I mean the supporting material from other artists who send us tapes or whatever in support of their requests and so we keep that material and catalogue it and make it available for students and researchers. But this is like the current sort of activity, because we fund artists to create new works. But this would mean nothing if you don’t put it in a certain historical perspective, so that’s why we decided to acquire the EAT archive as well as the Vasulka archive and we’re on the case for some other archives or collections and hopefully we will be able to have the archive grow. By the way, we also have the ISEA archive – the inter-society for electronic arts. so that the covers quite a bit in the eighties and nineties.
Anyway, there’s no point of this centre in Montreal if nobody comes obviously, so we’ve made a lot of effort to make it of use to professors, and to make college and CEGEP professors aware of this centre and after a year – it’s been open a year – and after that year we’ve seen almost already students there or researchers, so it’s pretty encouraging. We also created a researcher-in-residence programme, which was launched last year and we are about to announce our two first researchers – one is Paul Grady who will work on the Vasulka archives. Professor Grady is an old man now, he retired from Harvard, but he created in the late sixties or early seventies, one of the first media art departments in an American university at SUNY, Buffalo where people like Vasulka were teaching, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharitz - Those were big names in the history of so-called experimental media. The other one is Professor Jeff Rothenburg from the Rand Corporation, who is a specialist of digital archives and who is going to work on the Guggenheim project with us.
I should say that one personal sort of thing that urged me to push for the creation of the centre, is that we need to educate the younger generation – those who do stuff for the Web today or indeed are involved in digital technologies – they have to know about some precedents in order not reinvent the wheel every time. Recently in Montreal The Festival of New Cinema and New Media did a sort of homage to the Vasulkas (Steina and Woody), and Steina did a performance one night. And you know the media lounge of the festival – you go there and see all the media jockeys, but it’s very boring in fact, the visuals are boring, the music was okay. The amusing thing is that the night of Steina’s performance, it was at the Musee d’Art Contemporain – the room was packed. There were people sitting on the floor everywhere and a lot of the younger crowd, you know like twenty years old, were there. And it was silence – they were just there discovering a great artist and someone who had mastered their technologies and someone who does very much what a video jockey does, but in a manner that is much more rich. So that was just an example. I think we’ve got to educate the younger generation and obviously you who are in the universities try to do that and we hope that our resources in Montreal, and part of it is also accessible online, is useful. You can also research our database online, so you can see for instance, web-based works. It’s not finished yet, but a great deal of the Vasulka archives is and you can do research on-line and see what there is. One last comment is that recently I was doing research in the Vasulka archive and I found a piece of paper and there was a written description of a dance project and it dated from the Kitchen’s time in 1971. I thought, ‘I don’t think so’. I was astounded because I went to see my programme officer who receives all the requests each year and I said to her, ‘look at this and read this and tell me in which year was this proposed.’ I told her that the description of that type of work is exactly what artists may present nowadays. So you see even if the technology has evolved, even if the practice has evolved, there are still a lot of things to be seen in the early experiments.
Sarah Cook: I have a question and a comment for Liane; you have indicated an interesting cycle in terms of audience perception of exhibitions: that you have to go from art, be it a landscape painting, to technology, to technology with content and then to make that leap to that being art and then and back again. I’m going to pick on Cathy because she said something to me earlier outside about asking for a similar leap of faith, or a trajectory. Cathy if you could reiterate to me what that was you said earlier…
Cathy Busby: Well I was responding to the comment that Nicola made this morning about being positioned as charity project working with industry and thinking about the leap that it takes to go from there to being R&D, doing pure research within industry and thinking about what kinds of relationships – and I’m speaking in generalisations; I know that there are some artists within the industry – but in any case, what I was thinking about was whether we actually associate with industry and I was thinking maybe about paintings in boardrooms and in the corridors of industrial places, and this is the understanding of art. So what I was talking about with Sarah, there’s a long way to go from these kind of understandings of art, through performance art, conceptual art and understanding – well you don’t necessarily have to understand all those things, but to get from a very traditional populist understanding of what art is, to art as research, seems like quite an ambitious move. I was hoping that Nicola would be able to speak about that a little bit more. Anyway, maybe there’s some thoughts from you two on that subject?
Sarah Cook: Well, maybe in particularly in relation to your media lab having these glass walls and people coming in and seeing artists as they’re working and how they do their research and interact with the public.
Liane Davison: It was really important. Artists are a mystery to most people who are not part of the art community, and its like ‘well what do they do?’ Well it was astonishing for a lot of people was to see what the artists were capable of doing, that the technology that they were working on – the invention that they were actually creating some new technology. It wasn’t creating a game. It wasn’t creating a video – it was actually creating the tools. But that was really interesting for them. Many people went in thinking they could help them figure out how to use their computer and how to use Word or something, and then they were captured in that process of having a technical question to talking more about what artists are capable of doing and what role that they served. I think that was a very important thing that they did. A lot of galleries when you go in, it is really hard if you don’t have a background in contemporary art to feel comfortable and go make that next step.
Cathy Busby: I think that’s a really important role that public institutions can play, but then you think what’s in it for industry?
Jean Gagnon: I’m not sure that I can answer that. It’s a good question. Since I left the gallery – well at the gallery, as I explained with Catherine’s project, for a while they were in the height of the high-tech industry in Ottawa and they were very excited because the market was good. And in the end, they didn’t deliver the goods. She was working with specific teams of researchers in the university mostly, plus one company and because the founder of the company was retiring, he just wanted to help Catherine. But as a formal approach? Nothing. Since I arrived in Montreal I don’t know how many times I went to conferences and gatherings talking about the art and the industry. This I don’t believe it. Its one thing for Apple to give a couple of computers to an art gallery or centre or whatever, but it’s something else for that same company to have artists in residence to do fundamental research. I think it’s partly to do with the sociological difference in the milieus. Basically scientists work for very specific ends. They may do pure research, but in the end they have to focus on some sort of deliverable product, in particular in industry. The National Research Council may be a bit different, but if you are talking a company, unless you have very enlightened people at the top of the company for the most part, these companies are wanting their research to end up as a product. So the artists in that framework – it doesn’t fit really. So I am afraid a great believer of the art and industry marriage.
Question from the floor: I was wondering, I guess it is addressed to these two speakers but to every one in this room. What brings on this comment is Jean Gagnon talking about Steina Vasulka’s performance that everyone enjoyed – something that hasn’t been addressed at all by anyone, is the trope of innovation that new media in entrapped in. Which means that there’s no room for maturing, anywhere. And I think Steina is an amazing example of someone who has been working in the media arts for a lifetime and this is what we saw – we saw a lifetime of work. But because we’re entrapped in this innovation, I find, in the international new media art world at large, there’s always an emphasis on the very newest software, the newest thing, so we’re always seeing younger and younger generations – first there’s flash, then it’s this and then it’s that. So we’ve spoken about preservation, but what about room for maturity – in music you get that – you get virtuoso violinists that people come and listen to. But Woody and Steina are still alive and well and producing virtuosic things, but in the meantime, young people who come and see their performances and say ‘video isn’t even a new media anymore….’, although its only twenty-five years old and whereas, the butcher just down the street probably doesn’t even think its art yet! So I find that in curating – and this is also in media – only media art is stuck in this trope because in contemporary art, there’s somehow more room to mature for artists and I think that it’s a problem that should somehow be addressed by new media curating – even the possibilities of video are far from being explored – even the possibilities of film are far from explored on experimental levels. So it’s how to leave room for artists to grow and not change and re-learn all the time. Is anyone able to comment on that?
Jean Gagnon: I think it’s a very interesting question and I think in some ways when I was at the Gallery, I did a few shows of what we called mid-career artists like Paul Wong and some others, and so I think institutions – small or big – are those that can in a way help the artists to continue their work because there’s a legitimising process that happens. One of the problems is that – and a good example of that – is Bill Viola. Bill Viola was already a master back in 1982, but it took the art world another ten years to discover him really and put him at the pinnacle of what video art is. So I don’t really have an answer in terms of how to help the artists to mature, but one of the problems is that once you’ve done all the Ars Electronica festivals and a few other things, where do you go from there? So I guess the artist is stuck with the strategy of the newness because that’s the only way to fund, to show. Because after a couple of years you’re stuck with your piece – nobody has bought it, and if you’re not in a big catalogue then you’re not noticed - if you show in Venice you probably won’t even be noticed really. So what is the solution for the artist?
Sarah Cook: The question of artists maturing is an important one, but I also think that as curators we don’t necessarily have to follow that hype and the continual novelty, and what’s really interesting about Liane’s programming too is that there is a maturation almost of an audience as well. It reminds me of the comment that Steve Dietz made when he was last at Banff, he said, “As a curator if you’re interested in a medium, then one show about that medium doesn’t represent a commitment to it, whereas if you’re interested in a particular theme in contemporary art or contemporary culture, then including one new media piece in that theme doesn’t necessarily signify a commitment to that either.” So with the case of Liane [what is significant is that she has done a series of exhibitions in new media, building that up along the way. Also I think the shows that Jean curated at the National Gallery – these pieces were not necessarily the newest of the new – Char Davies work had been seen at Siggraph and so on and so forth. So if the work is already recognised in that festival circuit, and they’ve already won awards and they’ve already been exhibited to that newest-of-the-new-seeking crowd, then to put it into a museum – which is the contemplative space, which tries to contextualise through history of themes and ideas in art – is worth thinking about. Then I think that we, as curators, need to recognise the strength that institutions give us and curate accordingly.
Liane Davison: Talking about the avant-garde technology assumes that that is the most important thing and that that’s why we choose to show what we do. It certainly isn’t, well in my case, it has to do with content. It has to do with the story that the work tells and how successful the medium is to tell that story. I think Jo Weiling is a really interesting case in point – a painter using new media to create a website as a tool to communicate an idea. And we’re seeing it in other ways too. For example, ceramic artists wanting a website kiosk setup in the gallery in order that people can learn more about other things. We can’t present a full library of books, but the chance of somebody surfing websites to learn is there. There are other applications within exhibitions that aren’t even a medium – artists aren’t even using it, it is a tool. It doesn’t exclude the avant-garde of new technology.
Renee Baert: Nina and Sarah have done so much work organising this conference and we have heard every once in a while a comment from them and I would actually like to invite both of them to take the microphone for a few minutes just to make some concluding comments, because we do have to leave this space soon. I also want to mention that downstairs in the basement in the SAW Gallery there’s a an exhibition called Bulldozer that Cathy Busby has curated, and although the gallery is formally closed, she will make that space open and available if you just descend the elevators to the basement. Similarly, our exhibition Localities is in the main galleries and they are being kept open a little bit later to enable you to visit that.
Sarah Cook: Nina and I have been thinking about how we can continue these conversations. As you probably know by now we have this website called ‘CRUMB: The Curatorial Resource for Upstart Bliss’. There is a mailing list with a few hundred people on it now and we change the theme every month. We changed it yesterday to coincide with this conference and have asked people who have spoken today to contribute further thoughts and to allow you to ask more direct questions that you didn’t get to ask. So I’m just going to very basically show you how you can sign up onto the list. [navigating website].
Nina Czegledy: I would like to take this opportunity to say that Critical Media is a team effort; I’ve been working with Michelle Kasprzak in Toronto. We were just talking about the fact that it is important to have more connections in Canada. So with Michelle we will be creating an email list later. Till then feel free to just email me and I can forward it.
It will be very interesting and important because this is the first step of discussions – this is one short day and we try to compress in as much as possible which was a tall order and maybe too much. But nevertheless, it’s the first step and we have to continue with it and keep in contact online, on-site – sometimes in the dirty realities of everyday life and sometimes online with a little distance, but nevertheless, it’s very important that we keep the momentum. I say this, realising that I have been to many conferences and events and everybody is very excited when the events are on and everybody says, “yes, yes, yes – we’ll do it!” But then two weeks later everything just peters out and it’s finished. But we really do have to do this for our professional work as well, so I really hope that this is the first step and that we will be meeting each other again either on the ground or in the ether.
Sarah Cook: I just wanted to point out that I organised a seminar in England last May and so there is some documentation up online and the proceedings will also be published as a book. So look out for the continued proceedings of this event as well so you can try and accumulate that as well. And I’d like to invite you to suggest places that you find useful as curators, as producers, as artists who engage with these questions of technology. Also, you’ve got presents here – CDs and catalogues – and if you wanted to leave thoughts with us, you can just put a piece of paper by the door with comments about things that were raised today – just short requests like “you didn’t talk about this….”, or “what about that….”. I would be really happy to receive those and then we could use that to generate some of the initial discussion on the list – things that were missed. Because while we did try and cover a lot of ground, there are definitely people in this room with a lot of experience that I would like to hear from certainly. And so I would like to open the floor if there are any other concluding comments at this point.
Cathy Busby: I just wanted to say as someone based in Ottawa, we went to the “Shifting Curatorial practices conference” back in April in Montreal, which was a very exciting and interesting conference. It’s really exciting to have this happen in Ottawa and I’m really grateful for you two for taking the initiative and I think I speak on behalf of a lot of people who live in Ottawa and like to make Ottawa their home and their centre, and to feel that there’s exciting things being generated in our community as well, both on the ground and virtually. So thank you so much.
Sarah Cook: Thank you to Renee and the Ottawa Art Gallery. Please join us across the street at the e-lounge to see some work and have a drink!