Objects of Displacement: Keg de Souza’s Installation in Vancouver’s Chinatown

Artist in Residence Keg de Souza has been working on a project entitled Appetite for Construction since September 10th of this year. She created a unique physical structure, inside an abandoned dim sum restaurant, in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown, using found and collected items placed inside vacuum-sealed bags.

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The items were submitted by members of the local community, and they range from discarded Starbucks cups to a dried octopus and take out menus. Together these objects create a collective exploration of themes of displacement and urban change in relation to food culture in the Chinatown area. All of these materials in some way mark or represent the urban and cultural reality of the area.

I arrived early to 544 Main St. on Saturday October 15th, excited to witness Keg’s process during one of her open workshop days, and I decided to walk around the block, to get a feel for the area. I found myself observing Vancouver’s Chinatown in a new light.

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I noticed the differences between the older family owned stores and the newer food localities like Starbucks on busy Main Street. The presence of food permeated the architecture of the old buildings and the smells wafted from the piles of spices in shop entrances.

I was struck by the contrast between this feeling of a deeply rooted cultural presence around the block, and the hustle and bustle of Main Street shops selling tourist items like large Canadian flags.

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As I assisted Keg in placing various items into vacuum-sealed bags, I was struck by the presence of discarded homeless signs that had been created and used to solicit money, and shelter pamphlets detailing food schedules for people in need. This experience was an important reminder that food culture also encompasses the lack of access to food that certain populations face. From the signs, to pamphlets and discarded materials, this network of items creates a unique visual map of the food culture of the area.

– Michele Davey

Engaging Communities in Conversations: Keg de Souza’s Installation in Vancouver’s China Town

During my visit to artist Keg de Souza’s Appetite for Construction,  I overheard various conversations surrounding her site-specific project. Some of the themes touched upon in these discussions were; the utility of artist spaces and the ways in which people interact with the local community at large and with public spaces.

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In the middle of the room was a large map, without street names or landmarks, visitors were invited to identify locations and add personal stories and knowledge about the neighbourhood and food culture in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside.

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I was impressed by the ideas that Keg shared with visitors in the space. She often expressed her desire as an artist to explore the creation of spaces that give people the opportunity to discuss the realities they actively inhabit, and to visualize and think about this reality in new ways.

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I also enjoyed hearing the thoughts of visitors as they examined and interacted with the work in progress. In my own conversation with a visitor, we reflected on how themes of class, gentrification, waste, politics of space and community engagement are present in Keg’s work.

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One visitor pointed out the relationship between our perceived notions of “old” and “new” culture. He remarked that in many ways it seemed that the “old” and more traditional notions of culture in Chinatown were being represented in items that still have utility, such as dried animals that could be used for food, while “new” culture was represented in discarded items such as coffee cups. This comment highlighted the theme of human waste and our current relationship to food consumption as a society that throws many containers away.

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I left feeling grateful to have witnessed the positive responses of community members to the project that Keg has created. One man remarked at how necessary these spaces are, and how important it is to support the efforts of artists creating them.

– Michele Davey

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‘Appetite for Construction’ Keg de Souza’s Final Presentation

On Friday, November 4, Australian artist Keg de Souza presented the completed structure for her project Appetite for Construction at a public opening. This project began on September 10 and engaged various members of the community in and around Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood.

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I am happy to have witnessed the transformation of this structure. The collection of objects over the past two months culminated in a luminescent, transparent cube-like structure, inside of which people were able to gather around a table wrapped in a map of Vancouver. The map was covered in personal memories and notations about the local food culture in the area.

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Inside the structure, visitors could enjoy hot tea and dim sum while taking in the various objects suspended inside the vacuum-sealed bags. Providing dim sum to guests was an especially nice nod to the previous reality of the location 544 Main Street having been a dim sum restaurant.

While at the exhibition I spent some time in conversation with the public and asked them to share with me some of their thoughts and reactions to the project and final exhibition. One person remarked that Keg’s structure is a mark of revitalization. Another person commented on the importance of having the chance to see the neighbourhood from a different point of view, reconstructing the familiar into something new. It was also noted that the structure renegotiates the urban, by bringing the street inside.

Further comments reflected on the elements of nostalgia and memory, that this project embodied. The structure was thought to have created a unique texture from different aspects of the community and with entry points for conversation spanning from food to consumption, waste, consumerism, and poverty.

The objects, illuminated and showcased within transparent bags, reminded me of evidence, the collection of which created a snapshot and mosaic that made space for the community to come together, recognize and reflect on themes of displacement, gentrification, and food culture.

– Michele Davey

Skawennati, Skins and Second Life

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A screenshot from Th’owxeya: The Mosquito Story, created during the Skins Machinima Workshop in Vancouver

A group of new avatars are learning how to fly. We’re on AbTeC Island, the virtual headquarters for Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a research network based at Concordia University of academics, artists and technologists whose aim is to encourage the creation of self-determined Indigenous spaces online. In 2015, AbTeC launched the Initiative for Indigenous Futures <abtec.org/iif>. One of their major efforts is to teach various computational technologies to First Nations youth, through the Skins Workshops on Aboriginal Storytelling and Digital Media.

Six participants of the Museum of Anthropology’s Native Youth Program are learning to maneuver the virtual realm of Second Life as part of the Skins Machinima Workshop. Hence, the flying.  They are led by Skawennati , a co-director, with Jason Edward Lewis, of AbTeC, and CAG’s artist-in-residence for August. Assistants Erica Perreault and Darian Jacobs (a Skins “alumni”) also joined us. The workshop, held in Vancouver for the first time, was their longest machinima workshop yet, boasting four days of instruction and production. The word “machinima” is a portmanteau of machine and cinema and describes a technique of making movies in video games. It has been around for several years, and the participants were shown examples of machinima created in Halo, Minecraft and the Sims. In past iterations of the Skins workshop, participants re-created scenes from Star Trek and even a poetic “nature” documentary of alien plant forms.

“We [talk] about Indigenous self-representation in media,” said Skawennati, who has led previous Skins workshops in Kahnawake and Montreal. “An important part of that discussion is to underscore the richness of our traditional stories.  However, AbTeC decided long ago that the participants can tell any respectful story that they want to.”

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The artist Skawennati with participants of the Skins workshop in Vancouver. Photo Credit: Mackenzie Reid Rostad

The participants decided to split into two teams, each focusing on a story special to one of their nations. After deciding on the narrative, they worked on storyboarding and character development. A part of the workshop focuses on animating the characters to “act” and also build the set pieces needed for their stories. The NYP participants created sets that reflected their traditional culture, such as a painted big house and carved posts.

Skawennati chose to begin her artist talk at the CAG with her own avatar introducing the concept of using Second Life as a communicative medium. The clip was originally created to serve in the place of the artist herself, as she was unable to attend a conference and decided instead to send her representative avatar to speak for her. Skawennati also screened episodes of TimeTraveller™, a machinima series that follows a man as he uses a virtual time traveling device to re-visit specific moments in history.

In the Vancouver workshop, each team was given a budget of 2,500 Linden dollars or about $10 in Canadian. The money was spent purchasing clothing, set elements and specific modifiers for key characters. A perk of digital production is the high level of customization, as well as the boundless potential for creative expression.

The machinimas created by the Native Youth Participants will premiere on the CAG website in September.  

–Ines

Interview with Diane Borsato, Part 2

This is Part 2 of an interview with Toronto-based artist Diane Borsato. Click here to read Part 1.

There’s such a range of tensions and contrasts in your work. In particular, I find it striking that although a particular project could take years of research, learning and networking, it might only be up for a day or a single occurrence.

Sometimes there’s no immediate audience, too. Like Terrestrial/Celestial (2009-2010) was just astronomers, mushroomers, and a couple people from the gallery, which is all we needed. We can’t have an audience to something like that, it would interfere. For me they’re conceptual—it was an event, a story for art history, an idea that was enacted. They’re not always performative, like for an audience.

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Terrestial/Celestial, 2009-2010

There’s something very special in that moment when everything comes together and then is gone.

I guess it’s like a dance. Sometimes I think of myself as a choreographer. I can’t control what everyone does, but for that work, I basically said “Mushroomers you do this in the morning and astronomers you do this at night. We’re going to do this in the same day and we’re going to go look down and look up.” It’s a gesture. We’re going to think with our senses and think with our imaginations and do that in one day, so it’s a kind of composition or choreography. But there’s a lot of agency on behalf of the participants. And I learn more about the work while it unfolds, and after looking at the documentation.

Like with the beekeeping, I realized the comportment of beekeepers and their ability to affect the temper of other creatures and vice versa. The more I got into it, tried to explain it and re-enact it as a performance, the more it became clear that this was meditating. This was just meditation. And I’m not a meditator in a formal way, so I couldn’t really do it without the support of a guide.

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Nuit Blanche 2013. Your Temper, My Weather, 2013

But what was interesting was that beekeepers were just so good at it. You can’t just ask anyone to do silent performance art for five hours and stay still. I mean, there was meditative walking in it too, but the beekeepers kind of just got it instantly, which was really amazing. And together, 100 of them sitting silently (for Your Temper, My Weather at the AGO in 2013), focused and calm, breathing slowly—that was a very moving thing.

I was curious about your work Cemetery (2015), in which you eat an entire ice cream cone while standing in a graveyard. What brought that piece about and what were your thoughts while making it?

I sometimes make these huge pieces with a hundred people and it’s really stressful; a year of emailing and establishing trust and practicing, which is exhausting and stressful. And then I have to make these little impulsive pieces that are done in a day, that I have control over. This work was actually made in a few days, but it was one of those impulsive, Ì-just-need-to-make-something pieces because all the flowers were blooming in Toronto in the spring and it’s so short. I made that piece and I sent it to a former professor, a really interesting scholar and an expert in Japanese gardens, zen landscape aesthetics, ceramics, and so many other things like radio and French astronomy, Allen Weiss. And he told me it was the most surprising expression of mono no aware that he’s ever seen.

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Still from Cemetery, 2015

Mono no aware is what the Japanese invoke with cherry blossoms, an awareness of the ephemerality of life. An awareness that death comes, that this is brief, that time is passing. I think it’s something that blossoms will always evoke. I’m not easily in this moment. I’m kind of like “it’s almost over” as soon as it’s the most beautiful. It’s so brief and so wonderful, and the brevity is part of the beauty. As I understand it, mono no aware is a feeling that you get when you have that experience, when you see the cherry blossoms falling like snow. That sad and poignant feeling. And I think that’s what the ice cream was about. The feeling of your body and the pleasure of this sensuous sweetness, creaminess, and cold. Ice cream is such an immediate, almost basic bodily pleasure. And the cemetery is, well, the end of all those things.

In a past interview, the writer mentioned your work Boquet (2006-ongoing), where you steal flowers from a neighbor’s yard. I remember they called your work very gentle, which was surprising to me, because you were still stealing.

Yeah, exactly. I do worry when the work is described as sweet, or dismissed as trite. Though indeed the gestures are very small. I did a piece a long time ago when I was a grad student called Touching 1000 People (2003). I had read this study about how people can be touched really insignificantly, like when you’re getting change from somebody and you don’t even remember being touched, but it actually affects your experience of the situation and how you feel about that person. I was curious about gesture at its most minimal. What is the tiniest gesture that has an effect in the world. I think I’m at a threshold of sensitivity, where I’m really curious about small gestures and the reverberations. So sometimes they seem like small gestures, but when you focus, there’s a lot to explore. It’s almost like a minimalist approach. It’s a unique place for visual art to explore.

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Touching 1000 People, 2003

But in terms of gentleness, it’s actually a mode of moving, of touch—that I do aspire to in work, and study in my pieces, I think. A combination of lightness in an act—that moves and feels, that knows, or cares, that pushes forward or through…Maybe it’s an antidote to aggression, a proposal for an alternative mode of exacting influence or power. It shows how much is possible, and visible—with small openings and discreet rearrangements.

 

Tea at Gallery Gachet

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Gallery Gachet will be offering tea and conversation on August 25 from 1 to 3pm.

The atmosphere is animated with lively, comfortable conversation as the gallery fills with the subtle aromas of tea. For the duration of Dylan Miner’s solo exhibition, Michif – Michin (the people, the medicine), Gallery Gachet is hosting a public gathering once a week for visitors to sit and share. Tomorrow (August 25) will be the last session before the exhibition closes.

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Pine needle and horsetail tea. Photo credit: Kay Slater

The teas are loose leaf, contained in leather containers that might hold a combination of pine needle and horsetail, dried mushrooms or another deeply aromatic selection. With a hot mug in hand, I join the table placed at the center of the gallery; the heart of the exhibition. The conversation flows easily from Star Trek to horror films, sleepwalking to lucid dreaming, indigenous representation to arts initiatives and Pokémon GO.

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Printmaking at Gallery Gachet in early August

The discussion is framed by the prints of medicinal plants created by Dylan and a group of participants in his printmaking shop, held in the gallery earlier this month. Dylan hand-carved images of birch, salmonberry, dandelions and more, then created a natural dye with blackberries harvested from the DTES. The prints stand vivid against the white walls, the rich splashes of pulpy dye lending a near-haptic quality. Some of the plants featured echo the varieties Cease Wyss described during a plant walk through Stanley Park organized with Dylan.

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Prints made by Dylan Miner. Photo credit: Holly Schmidt

The exhibition runs through August 28. For more on Dylan Miner’s activities in Vancouver, click here.

–Ines

Interview with Diane Borsato, Part 1

Diane Borsato is an artist who often works with naturalists, hobbyists, and amateur organizations—including mycologists, astronomers, and beekeepers in projects that examine social and sensorial modes of knowing. She is currently working on a new project, The Moon Is Often Referred To As a Dead, Barren World, But I Think This Is Not Necessarily The Case, which will culminate in an exhibition at the CAG. For the work, Diane will invite several Ikebana masters from the modern Sogetsu school to participate in a collaborative workshop and installation. The practitioners will work with seasonal materials, and the materials and space of the CAG. She will also provide a conceptual framework for materializing a dialogue between the worlds of Ikebana—often a highly technical, rule-based traditional cultural practice, and contemporary art—with its own unmistakable tropes and cultural specificities

The work is part of an ongoing series that examines aspects of learning, practicing, and exhibiting arrangements of flowers. The title is from a statement made the modern sculptor and Sogetsu founder Teshigahara Sofu in Kadensho: Book of Flowers. Diane has been studying Sogetsu ikebana for several years. The artist sat down to answer questions about her work.

You began university as a theater major. Can you tell me about your early career and how you made the change to art?

I was always looking longingly into the sculpture studio at York University through the glass. In some ways I felt like I didn’t want to work with people, the way I did in theater school. I loved this romantic idea about artists—which I recognize now is a mythology—of being alone with materials and using my hands, being covered with clay and plaster, and having this really physical experience. And the idea of studio work satisfied my more introverted side, wanting to have a private, reflective practice. But I started making sculpture and very quickly I was interested in using ephemeral materials like food and plants. Making these kinds of sculptures with these ephemeral materials meant they were time-based, and that led naturally into making video and even performance. I was interested in artworks that were alive, that changed, that were not entirely predictable or under my control, that grew, or died, or dissipated. And then a more time-based practice also led into, ironically, a more social practice.

I like learning from other people and I like learning together with other people. It’s a kind of educational project; I’m really curious and I like experts. Sometimes I find it comforting that somebody might know everything, that everything could be known! And that I might know everything if I had the tenacity and discipline to practice as much as they do, which I never do. So I try to stand near them and ask a lot of questions. I’m especially attracted to people who have a deep curiosity and investment in something that has nothing to do with their job or money. They do it for love, they do it not just as some extreme obsession, but as a way to be in the world. Like people who spend decades memorizing Latin species names, I find really fascinating. What do they know with that level of literacy in a subject? They are the ones who have dug in really deep.

Often in my pieces, I’m not the expert, I’m not teaching anybody else to do anything. I can just be in the crowd and let people do what they normally do, except with a conceptual twist. I have this piece called The Chinatown Foray (2008-2010), where I asked the mycological society in Toronto if we could do a foray—which is what we do every Sunday. We go in the woods, collect species and bring them all back. But could we do a foray in Chinatown, could we do it where there are medicinal shops and grocery stores and markets?

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The Chinatown Foray, 2008-2010

They really liked the idea, a lot of the members are Chinese and they were translating and creating species lists. Some of the women knew how to cook stinkhorns, cauliflower fungus and stuff we weren’t finding in the forest, but that are also species of Ontario and eastern Canada. We brought our guidebooks into the supermarkets, we brought the same tools, our baskets, our magnifying glasses. There were species in our books that were said to be inedible, but they were for sale in Chinatown. They were edible. Guidebooks and the history of naming plants and animals has always been problematic and exclusive, so it was interesting to bring into collision the market and these traditions of naturalist foraging and natural history practices. Also to mix up expertise and important knowledge in ways we hadn’t experienced in the woods.

What is your process like in developing a new work? At what point does a hobby become something that you’re interested in developing into a piece?

I dislike the word hobby, I have to think of a better word. I call them my preoccupations, because they all have their own history and established culture around them, and they’re serious pursuits for people. I guess when they’re not your job, which is the case for most of the practitioners, it’s called a hobby, but it sounds trivial. Like it has no significance, it’s just a pastime. I mean it’s the kind of thing people do for love and with tremendous commitment. If you think about astronomy, and in many pursuits, there are amateurs who are also making significant contributions to a professional field.

My whole life I’ve been interested in learning things. We go to Nova Scotia every year, [my partner] Amish is from there. He wants to run up mountains, which I can’t do. But I was overwhelmed by the moss and the colorful mushrooms everywhere, so I picked up a field guide. It was something I could do when I went. I could learn it, enjoy it, and not get poisoned. Learning the names of things and reading field guides is a special pleasure, it feels like belonging where you are when you know things by name. I love to be in the woods and know the names of plants and mushrooms. I like to stand under the Vancouver sky and know those clouds are cumulus and up there it’s altostratus.

I don’t do these things so I can secretly make them into art, I do them because I’m really invested and I’m curious. I know there will be great insights, tremendous and moving experiences.  I took a beekeeping class with my dad. We have two hives in Mississauga that we keep together. I didn’t intend for it to become a work, but I’m at the point now where when I feel something coming on, I go with it. Just recently it’s been apples. This year I’m into amateur pomology and I’m reading apple books and I’m grafting my apple tree and I’m meeting apple community experts like specialty Arborists and Urban Orchardists. And that’s it, I expect it’s going to be art for sure. I’m doing these things increasingly intensely, with increasing enthusiasm, kind of like a serial obsessive, and I can’t help but be an artist in them as I participate. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of responding, it’s a way of knowing, it’s a way of being in the world. I can’t help it.

We have a tradition in Western art universities in this moment, teaching students with an emphasis on art historical references, and contemporary artist affinities, and much of my students’ work have these things as their core references. Art is the subject of their works. I’m encouraging my students to gain broader knowledge and interest, to join clubs on campus, like join a horticulture club, tag birds, go on a mushroom foray, work at an insect collection – do something other than looking at art, so you know about something else. So you have a subject, you have an investment in something outside of this self-referential bubble. For me, I trust that if I’m curious and enthusiastic about something, even as an amateur, I bring a new perspective and then I can bring some of the insights from that field back to my home of contemporary art, school and teaching. There’s a meaningful exchange that can happen. And life is the subject.