Ivory Tower Meets the Mainstreeters

On Saturday, I had the chance to participate in a 3-for-1 in terms of the downtown Vancouver art scene. The Contemporary Art Gallery, Audain Gallery, and Satellite Gallery teamed up to provide 3 tours within 3 hours, all walking distance within one another. I love it when galleries join forces like this and you get an afternoon of taking in a wide variety of art.

The schedule was as follows:

1pm: Audain Gallery, 149 W Hastings Street. Join a tour of Geometry of Knowing Part 2 led by curators Amy Kazymerchyk and Melanie O’Brian.

2pm: Satellite Gallery, 560 Seymour Street, 2nd floor. Join a tour of Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage, 1972-1982 led by curators Allison Collins and Michael Turner.

3pm: Contemporary Art Gallery, 555 Nelson Street. Join a tour of the current exhibitions by Grace Schwindt and Krista Belle Stewart led by CAG Director Nigel Prince.

It was a fabulous turnout—I would say at least 150 people, and it just seemed to grow from one tour to the next. I did the first 2 tours as those were the ones I was particularly interested in and had never visited those galleries.

Audain Gallery

The Audain Gallery is a bright, spacious gallery in SFU Woodward’s location. Simon Fraser University follows a decentralized university model with 3 campus: the original Burnaby mountain location (the “ivory tower” setting) and then 2 more on-the-ground, in-the-city sites at Surrey City Centre and downtown Vancouver, which coincides with the university’s vision to be Canada’s leading community-engaged research university.

The Geometry of Knowing exhibition asks the question, “What does it mean for a gallery to exist within a university? What is our role in shaping how we come to know ourselves and the world we live in?” A visual theme in the exhibit was the presence of triangles that echo the shape of Burnaby Mountain and the connotation of a university as an ivory tower of learning, situated high up and far away from everybody else and the conversations happening on the ground.

SFU Burnaby Mountain

SFU Burnaby Mountain

Untitled by Brent Wadden.

Untitled by Brent Wadden

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You have that idea paired with a video like Smashing where Jimmie Durham sits at a bureaucratic desk in a suit, smashing objects with a large stone brought to him by his art students who are taking part in an artist residency. You see Durham smashing/”deconstructing” coffee beans, a bag of flour, shaving cream, & countless other objects as a statement about how art is made and the role of critique. And then Durham stamps a piece of paper and gives it to the students as their official “pass.” The tour guide also talked about the idea of a stone being this ancient and simple material that still has so much weight in our digitized 21st century world, whether to build or to destroy. Smashing is a 90-minute video but here’s a 4-minute version I found on YouTube:

Satellite Gallery

The Satellite Gallery is a little harder to spot if you don’t know where you’re going. On the second floor of a slightly run-down building on Seymour Street, it is noticeably darker and smaller-feeling with low ceilings and less light which is a little unexpected in modern art galleries these days.

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Satellite Gallery. Image from their website.

Nevertheless, I was really excited to see their Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage exhibit, partly because I love Main Street myself, but also because I like learning about the local Vancouver art scene back in the days when I wasn’t alive. The exhibit spans the decade 1972-1982 and yes, the Mainstreeters were actually a self-titled “art gang”.

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This is what the description on their website reads:

The Mainstreeters—Kenneth Fletcher, Deborah Fong, Carol Hackett, Marlene MacGregor, Annastacia McDonald, Charles Rea, Jeanette Reinhardt and Paul Wong—were an “art gang” who took advantage of the times, a new medium (video), and each other. Emerging from the end-stage hippie era, the gang drew from glam, punk and a thriving gay scene to become an important node in the local art scene. Their activities connect the influential interdisciplinary salon of Vancouver’s Roy Kiyooka in the early 1960s with the collective-oriented social practices that have emerged worldwide in the early years of the 21st century. Like the current “digital natives” generation, the Mainstreeters were the first generation to grow up with video cameras. The resulting documents focus on a decade of their lives, including forays into sex, love, drugs and art.

Check out this introductory panel to the exhibit that discusses how they’re all connected (if you can read it, that is! I apologize for the bad picture):

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Clear as mud, right? Doesn’t it have the makings of a soap opera? And I guess that’s the impression I was left with after viewing the exhibit. Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage is primarily archival photographs of the group—where they lived, hung out, and partied. I saw more about them than I did their art, which was a little disappointing. The curators were very upfront about this, stating that it was more a documentary-style exhibit on the group, but that that was also part of the point—that their art & their lives (socially, politically, etc) all bled together and informed one another.

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The art that was on view was their homemade videos, which was interesting insofar as the video camera was new technology back then and they used it like people first used facebook or twitter when it came out (& maybe some people still do!): documenting absolutely everything about their lives, even the not-so-interesting-to-everybody-else bits. The 70s-style grainy look to their videos is now back in fashion with all the old-school instagram filters available, so it’s funny how things have come around to that again with our modern technology.

My favourite part of the exhibit was reading the notes they left one another. I felt I got to know the Mainstreeters as much through their words as their images.

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All in all, what a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and what a contrast—going from the academia-infused Geometry of Knowing to the hippie drug & love era of Mainstreeters; Taking Advantage, 1972-1982! I hope these galleries offer more joint events in the future. It’s nice to explore the smaller and lesser-known downtown galleries in addition to the behemoth of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

A Window Story

Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun

A woman with broom

cleans the dirt behind the shelves

and the dust off

books she hasn’t read

or written.

She threads her way

between the stacks,

the volumes and tomes

imprinting an education

by osmosis on her

uneducated mind,

so they say.

She cleans the most famous

repository of Western knowledge,

a learned space

a sacred space —

but the spines are blank,

there are unrecognized books in this collection.

She is one of them.

             . . .

I wrote this poem after reading this article in The Vancouver Sun talking about the new public art installation in the windows of SFU’s Woodward Campus. The installation is called The Primary Education of the Autodidact. “Autodidact” means “self-taught.” This two-story exhibit fills the windows of the Audain Gallery and was created by Raqs Media Collective, a 3-person artist group from New Delhi.

I would recommend reading the article and window-gazing at the work yourself if you happen to be in the area. It’s at 149 West Hastings Street in Vancouver.

Raqs Media Collective, The Primary Education of the Autodidact

If I were a teacher getting my students to discuss this textual space, I would ask them to think about the following questions:

  • what does this installation say about the way we learn in Western society?
  • what’s the significance of the art being displayed on the windows of a university?
  • what do the artists challenge in this depiction of an education?
  • what are some ways we “self-learn”? Are we encouraged to do this? What does this even look like – oral means of communicating, or not even with words at all? As I alluded to in my poem, do people recognize – and appreciate – non-traditional methods of knowledge acquiring and sharing?
  • why is the silhouette figure a woman, and presumably ethnic? What type of knowledge does she possess?
  • why are the spines and pages of the books empty? Who writes them?

Last question is for you, my readers: What “books” are you reading? What does your education consist of?