Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Letters for Juliet" in There's Room at Gallery 101

I was invited by the curator Petra Halkes to participate in the group exhibition There's Room at Gallery 101 in Ottawa, from 23 January to 27 February 2016. Prompted by the Syrian refugee crisis, the exhibition provides a place where people are invited to empathize, listen and talk to artists and viewers with vastly different life stories that are nonetheless connected by a memory of displacement and resettlement. The other artists in the exhibition include Asal El-Rayes, Zainab Hussain, Maria Gomez, Rachel Kalpana James, Farouk Kaspaules, Jaime Koebel, Zivana Kostic, Stephanie Marton, Jessie Raymond, Laura Taler, Mohamad Thiam, and Tavi Weisz.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

The work that I contributed to the exhibition, Letters for Juliet, is a text-based installation that quotes Elvis Costello’s song “Who Do You Think You Are?” from his 1993 album The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet. The quote “I kiss the air about the place that should be your face” is repurposed as graffiti for the context of the exhibition. A chain of associations, from global events to works of art like Romeo and Juliet, can be linked through the experiences of longing, loss and love that are meant to be underscored by the placement of the quote in the gallery.

I gave a speech on the occasion of the opening reception for the exhibition. The text for the speech ran approximately as follows:

Hello. I’m a little embarrassed to be standing before you right now, called up to give a performance at an opening for an exhibition of artworks made in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not that it wasn’t my idea, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. But it’s not really a performance so much as a story that I want to tell, and the story isn’t really about the Syrian refugee crisis. It has more to do with me and my own experience, which is far from that of a refugee. And I don’t even play a large role in the story.

Nevertheless, I’m going to tell you that I was walking in Montreal recently, going from point A to point B, when I realized that if I walked one block over, not really going out of my way but just slightly changing the path I was taking, I would walk right by the location of the Café Sarajevo, which I hadn’t been to for years.

In the early ‘90s, I was studying English Literature in Montreal, and the Café Sarajevo had just opened up around that time. A friend of mine got a job there as a waitress, and so my circle of friends and I would hang out there. It was a great place, with low comfortable couches and lots of cushions to relax in. The drink that I habitually ordered at the Café Sarajevo was a Pernod with orange juice, but that is another story.

Of course, right at this time the Bosnian War was taking place. The proprietor of the café, Osman, was from Bosnia, and so it became a kind of community and cultural centre for Bosnian refugees. Osman owned the whole building and he made an apartment on the second floor available to those who needed it. At the time, the café offered a welcoming atmosphere not only for me and for the Bosnian refugees, but also, incredibly, for the singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who could be heard caterwauling and playing the piano in there on a weekly basis.

It was around this time that I saw the film Ulysses’ Gaze at the Montreal World Film Festival. In it, the American actor Harvey Keitel plays a Greek filmmaker who travels to Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in order to look for a lost film that was made by the first Greek filmmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century. His journey is a long one, and so is the movie. Its running time of three hours feels even longer because of its slow pace and dreamy atmosphere. It encouraged me to behave as if I were on a long journey, and so during the course of the film, I wondered around the theatre, I went to the bathroom and the concession stand, and I took several naps. I would often wake up at some point in the movie where Harvey Keitel was waking up at another stop along his way.

One striking image that remained with me from that film is from a scene that shows a cargo ship slowly leaving a harbor. The deck of the ship is entirely filled with the jumbled, disassembled parts of a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin, his bald head facing and his index finger pointing onwards. It’s hard not to read this image as pointing to the break-up of the Soviet Union as being one of the causes of the Bosnian War.

I also remember seeing Harvey Keitel naked and crying in this film. Now, in the ’90s this was not a rare sight. You almost couldn’t go to see a film without having Harvey Keitel show up naked and crying. But it was always memorable, less so for his physique, which was formidable, but more so for the sounds that he made, which cannot be imitated. From the scene in Bad Lieutenant where he gently weeps, stoned and naked, to doo wop music, to other scenes with more fully throated keening. I cannot capture the quality myself. It is like the sound of a wounded animal. Harvey Keitel crying is actually now an internet meme, and there are many clips you can find online. You can even download an mp3 of Keitel crying and mix it into your Electronic Dance Music if you wish. Now, I tell you, Keitel’s tears are a wholly suitable response to the injustices of the era, if not those of today.

I felt like crying like Harvey Keitel when I arrived at the address of the Café Sarajevo. It was long gone. There were no visible signs that it had ever been there. The awning was gone and when I looked inside the door at the entrance, the space had been completely renovated and was now a shallow storefront where you might buy a cell phone. It was empty too. There were no cell phones. I began to doubt that I was even in the right place, but I scanned the street and my memories and I was sure of it. To my body it felt right. And it made me feel more deeply the sense that I had lost touch with most of the people that I knew from that time. Although a few had stayed in Montreal, most, like me, had moved on to other cities and are now scattered around the world.

I returned to Ottawa, and I was inspired to track down a DVD copy of Ulysses’ Gaze and watch it again. Although it was set in the present at the time, the film is a loose retelling of the Odyssey and Keitel’s character is supposed to be the mythic adventurer Ulysses or Odysseus. Though it was a complete coincidence, it was exactly 20 years since I had seen the film, the same length of time that it took Odysseus to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars. It was also about the same amount of time since I had last been to the Café Sarajevo. Unlike Odysseus, who returned to find his wife Penelope still waiting for him after all that time, I had returned to the Café Sarajevo after twenty years to find it packed up and gone.

The odyssey that Harvey Keitel’s character undertakes has an even unhappier ending. Spoiler Alert: Everybody dies! He has returned to his homelands to find the lost film, and he does eventually find it in Sarajevo, but unfortunately, when he runs it through a projector, the image is lost. Just as I faced the façade of a building that was now unrecognizable to me, Keitel’s character, with tears streaming down his cheeks, watches a blank screen.

Seeing Ulysse’s Gaze again, another image is even more resonant for me now. When Keitel travels through the Balkans on his way to Sarajevo, he sees numerous refugees of the Bosnian war crossing the countryside. You could fade in to today’s news coverage of the refugees of the Syrian war traversing the same territory and the similarities would be strikingly uncanny. I suppose that one of the themes rehearsed by this story is that you can’t go back to the past, even though history seems to keep repeating itself. There is a slim ray of hope in the film however that suggests if the story were to be told again in a different way then it might have a different ending.

In a scene late in the film, the characters find that on a foggy day in Sarajevo, residents can come out in the streets without fear of being shot by a sniper. These days take on a festival-like atmosphere, with music and dancing. Local actors even put on a performance of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Keitel watches as they run through the famous Balcony Scene, and his voiceover repeats the line “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

There are so many memorable lines in the Balcony Scene, where the star-crossed youths first pledge their love to each other: “But soft what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”; “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?...That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”; “To be or not to be.” That is not the right quotation, but enough with the quotes already. They’re memorable. Perhaps the scene is so memorable because we want to remember the lovers this way, before they meet their tragic fate. And they keep talking in order to postpone the moment too. Finally they agree to meet the next morning at 9 o’clock. Juliet says she will not fail to do so “’tis twenty years till then” implying not only that it will feel like twenty years until that time but also that she would not fail to meet him even if the date set were twenty years later.

They meet and are secretly married by the Friar who hopes that by doing so he will end a long standing feud between Romeo and Juliet’s families. Of course, spoiler alert, it doesn’t end as they wish. Everybody dies! In a complicated turn of events Juliet takes a potion that makes it appear as if she is dead. The friar sends a letter to Romeo to tell him that Juliet is not really dead, but the letter never makes it to him. Of course, you know the rest of the story.

It is true that the fact that letters can go astray is responsible for the tragic end to Romeo and Juliet but it is also the reason why their story can be taken up and interpreted in so many different contexts across time, appearing in places that the author never imagined, like in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. It is also the reason why I can take a quotation from The Juliet Letters by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet and place it in the context of an exhibition about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Letters for Juliet (detail), Installation view, Gallery 101, 2016. Photo: Jennifer Covert

I’ve painted the line “I kiss the air about the place / that should be your face” on the gallery’s walls. [The break indicates that the line is split into two sections, which are painted on separate walls at a distance from each other.] The quote is taken from the song “Who Do You Think You Are?” which is meant to be a reading of a postcard written by a lover who suffers cruelly from the absence of his loved one.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” is one song from an entire suite that takes its inspiration from the real “Juliet Letters” of Verona. Each song can be interpreted as being one of the countless letters that the lovelorn have actually addressed to the fictional Juliet, which often end up stuck to the walls of a courtyard in Verona where the Balcony Scene purportedly took place. What is extraordinary is that people write these letters knowing full well that Juliet cannot really answer them. Still they do it, with faith that their entreaties and their pledges will reach their rightful destinations.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that although the space between us is what makes it possible for letters to get lost on the way, it is also what makes it possible for us not only to make but also to keep promises. Thank you.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Cement Mix

For the fourth issue of SAW Video's Cultural Engineering project, both Tim I. Smith and Meredith Snider bring their focus to bear on the deep pit that will soon provide the foundation for the new Arts Court tower. If you have been watching the videos from the previous issues, you will note that a lot has changed at this location at the corner of Daly and Waller. Cityscapes act as impressive records of history that appear to be cemented in place. Still, the fixed properties of concrete, stone and rock can also be made malleable through action and erosion. The artists in this issue overtly manipulate their source material, through time-lapses, cuts, jumps, and the addition of electronic sounds, suggesting that intervention in the course of history is always possible. You could say that the artists are remixing the events of the Arts Court reconstruction as it unfolds. Each remix has been constructed to draw your attention to the elements highlighted by the artists.

Timothy I. Smith, The Pit, November 28th, 2015, 2015, digital video.

In Tim I. Smith’s work, The Pit, November 28th, 2015, we witness the end of the excavation stage for the Arts Court redevelopment and the removal of the heavy machinery in preparation for the next stage. Smith has compressed the events of an entire workday into one two-minute video using long exposure photography to record the action. Smith has stated that the main theme in his work is photography, a medium that also once had the property of being fixed. In the digital era, new connotations for “fixed” arise in photography, both positive and pejorative. Smith’s composition reveals itself to be as constructed as the site that is his subject.

Meredith Snider’s Break Ground opens with a “ground breaking” party held in the offices of the Ottawa Art Gallery to celebrate the beginning of the redevelopment project. In her role as a Cultural Engineering artist, Snider has taken a fly-on-the-wall approach, often focusing on overlooked or seemingly peripheral elements of the project. At a training session to gain access to the construction site, she found that the dangerous nature of that environment was something she rarely considered. In response, Snider has created a music video in collaboration with Jésus Tovar to underscore the skillful choreography of the construction work as well as the risk in its undertaking. Her video ends by honoring an often unsung workforce.

Considering the artists’ contributions to this issue as remixes sees them participating in the history of music as well as the history of the Arts Court redevelopment. In the history of music, innovations have almost always at first been dissonant to the ear, only to be later accepted as customary. In that way, new music announces the future. Remixes at least keep the material up to date, reminding us that change is not only a constant but also a main component in the construction of the future. Link to the fourth issue here.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design

The exhibition Robert Tombs: Index. Graphic Works 1985-2015 is a retrospective survey of the design work of the Ottawa-based artist/graphic designer. Held at the Owens Art Gallery from 2 October to 18 November 2015 it will travel to the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery where it will be on display from 2 December 2015 to 21 February 2016. My essay, "The Telling Detail: Robert Tombs by Design" appears in the exhibition catalogue, along with an essay by Marina Roy, a note about collaborating with Robert Tombs by Ingrid Jenkner, and a foreward by Gemey Kelly.

Looking through Index, one can quickly surmise that a good majority of the work that Tombs has done is designing exhibition catalogues for art galleries and their exhibitions, including the one at hand. [The catalogue for Index is listed as one of the items in the exhibition.] A closer look will reveal that he has also designed printed matter for exhibitions of his own work as an artist. As an artist and a graphic designer, he forcefully inhabits both roles and Index’s examination of his activity as a graphic designer, and its relation to his artistic practice, reveals a commitment to the notion of discourse within the public sphere and a continuation of the tradition and history of art. Sven Lütticken has asked some pertinent questions about the critical role that art plays in society. In his book Secret Publicity, he suggests that the contemporary art milieu has the potential to form a counter-public in opposition to the spectacle of an uncritical consumer society.[i] One could question this potential, and Lütticken does, but it is heartening to think of contemporary art as a kind of publicity that competes with everything else that is being marketed and is vying for our attention. It may not be a level playing field, but at least it’s the same field. Printed matter as elegant as Tombs’s should convince an audience that its subject matter is of central importance.

In her essay “Par-al-lel,” Diana Nemirof makes the related observation that it could be counterproductive to think of artist-run centres as alternative contemporary art galleries (or “parallel galleries” as they were once called), and by extension the kinds of art that they exhibit, since conceptualizing them that way serves to marginalize them from mainstream society, diminishing the impact they might have.[ii] Perhaps it would be better not to think of the history of most contemporary art in Canada as marginal history, but to think of it more potentially as overlooked history. As has been stated by AA Bronson, this was partly the rationale that led to General Idea’s creation of FILE magazine in the ’70s.[iii] It was a way to make a community visible to itself. The community was there, but it didn’t see its own reflection in the media. If no one was going to publish a magazine that was going to turn Canadian artists into celebrities, then they would have to do it themselves. Benedict Anderson’s theory, set out in Imagined Communities, about printed matter’s centrality in the construction, dissemination, and propagation of national identity [iv] is perfectly suited to the context of Canadian art history. An indexical approach to Tombs’s work in this exhibition serves to underscore his participation in, and construction of, an imagined community for contemporary Canadian art. My essay offered descriptions of some of the books that figure in Tombs’s production in order to define the contours of that community.

Copies of the catalogue are available from the Owens Art Gallery and Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.

[i] Sven Lütticken. Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2014.
[ii] Diana Nemiroff, “Par-al-lel,” in Sightlines: Reading Contemporary Canadian Art (Montreal: Artextes editions, 1994), 180-189.
[iii] AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums, in Museums by artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983), 29-37.
[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 2006.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Reverse Engineering

The third issue of SAW Video's Cultural Engineering project is online. The artworks in this issue return to similar terrain in order to deepen their impact on it. Timothy Smith’s contribution, a video entitled Truck Route 95 Southbound, August 7th, 2015 offers a great view of the initial stages of the construction, but it also makes a pointed comment about the heavy traffic that is intractable to the area. Meredith Snider’s video, The Green Space, traverses a space that has now disappeared, which will also be the fate of the corridor she documented in her last installment. Though both videos reflect change, they also reveal perennial issues that face larger cities.

Timothy I. Smith, Truck Route 95 Southbound, August 7th, 2015, 2015, digital video

Also in this issue, the photographer and filmmaker Jackson Couse debuts a series of segmented interviews that will comprise an aggregate social portrait of Arts Court. Couse also presents ‘Scuse, a preliminary field recording of the environment at Arts Court.

Reverse engineering is the process of taking an object apart in order to see how it was made and then perhaps to discover ways to improve it. The intention of the Cultural Engineering project is not only to document this historic change to Ottawa’s cultural landscape from the ground up, but also to involve the community and their voices in the process of its transformation. The third issue is being launched as part of the event Desire Lines organized by SAW Video for Nuit Blanche Ottawa+Gatineau 2015. Link to the third issue here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

OSA Downtown Instructors' Exhibition

It was a pleasure to be invited in the Summer of 2015 to curate the annual Instructors' Exhibition for the Downtown campus of the Ottawa School of Art. The exhibition's dates run from August 6, 2015 to September 6, 2015.

Each instructor was asked to submit up to three works. It was up to me to choose one of their works to put in the show. Those who only submitted one work made the decision easy for me. Those who submitted three required a lot more of my deliberation. Some were selected simply on the strength of their proposal and with faith that the work would turn out as proposed. I am happy to say that I was pleased with the results.

As a whole, the exhibition is a concise portrait of the diversity and the talents of the instructors at the OSA. You could view it with an eye towards refining your artistic skills and potentially selecting a teacher to follow in the development of your own practice. Or, you could simply enjoy the show and let the teachers do all the work.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Cultural Engineering: Desire Lines

The second issue of SAW Video’s Cultural Engineering project is online, appearing moments before the construction hoarding is scheduled to go up and the first stage of the physical transformation at Arts Court begins. Meredith Snider and Timothy I. Smith have each produced another installment in their ongoing investigation of the redevelopment process, and guest artist Rachel Kalpana James makes a unique contribution to the latest edition. 

Rachel Kalpana James, Meditations on Cultural Engineering, 2015. digital video

In the process of responding to the Arts Court redevelopment, the artists have added to a broader understanding of what the phrase “cultural engineering” might mean. If it is understood as a method of planning to increase public participation in cultural life, then one would hope for every success in the cultural engineering of Ottawa’s Arts Court. An analogy for a sympathetic type of cultural engineering might be found in the way that some urban planners take into account how people actually use public space before they lay down pathways. These paths can be guided by the “desire lines” cut into the earth by pedestrian traffic. Now that change is underway at Arts Court, the interventions of the artists in the Cultural Engineering project can be considered to be making visible the desire lines within the overarching redevelopment. Link to the second issue here.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Good Afternoon

On Saturday May 9, 2015, Carleton University Art Gallery presented Good Afternoon, a program of performances I curated as part of the National Arts Centre's Ontario Scene. The performers included Christof Migone, MORTIFIED (Camilla Singh and Jenn Goodwin), Bridget Moser, Lisa Myers, and Adam Saikaley.

Christof Migone, Mixer (Ottawa), 2015. Photo: J. Wonnacott - K. McGruer

Ontario Scene is one of a series of biennial festivals produced by the National Arts Centre that have showcased since 2003 the extraordinary diversity of  the artists and cultures of regions across Canada. For Ontario Scene, I selected a number of artists from across Ontario with "Medley" as my guiding theme in order to produce what I described as a "Stars on 45" of contemporary experimental performance.