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The Atlantic Symposium: Art Crit as Nowhere… or Everywhere?

Various locations, Halifax April 19 to 21, 2013

If the Atlantic region—through NSCAD and otherwise—has produced or been connected to some of Canada’s top artists, why is the region underrepresented in the national media? How can this change? And what general conditions in art crit or the art world might hamper this effort?

These were some of the questions raised this past weekend at The Atlantic Symposium: New Directions for Art Writing, an event that took place at NSCAD University and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

I was an invited panellist at the symposium, which was organized by C The Visual Arts Foundation (publisher of C Magazine) and Visual Arts Nova Scotia. I felt lucky to participate; I hadn’t been back to Halifax since graduating from NSCAD in 2005, and the city has continued to exert a powerful—and often nostalgic—pull on my imagination.

The symposium kicked off with an April 19 keynote by Sylvie Fortin, former editor-in-chief of Art Papers and current curator of contemporary art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Four panels on April 20 examined reasons for writing art criticism; existing models for art publications; professional practice for writers; and alternative models for art writing and publishing. Finally, a gallery tour on April 21 brought participants to some of Halifax’s key art venues.

In the interests of sharing some of the symposium’s insights with a wider public, this post intends to provide a recap of some of the themes that have stayed with me in the days following the event. Some of my language likely reflects the difficulty of assessing an entire region (the Atlantic) by visiting its largest city (Halifax). Those seeking a more objective or comprehensive view may wish to keep an eye on the C Magazine website, as its staff recorded the proceedings and is currently evaluating the possibility of posting those recordings online.

Art Crit as Everywhere, Not Nowhere

Fortin—who also works as an independent curator and writer—started off her keynote at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia by observing that criticism has, in many international symposia and publishing projects of late, been identified as being in crisis.

She also expressed some exasperation with this assessment, stating, “I don’t know who it serves or what it serves to be painting ourselves into a corner.”

Fortin struck back against dire predictions (or outright proclamations) of the death of criticism in two ways.

First, Fortin argued that criticism and crisis are inherently intertwined. She noted that the words “crisis,” “criterion,” and “criticism” share the same etymological root–krei–which means “to sieve, to discriminate and to distinguish.” Citing Paul De Man, she reminded us that without crisis, there can, in fact, be no criticism. In the end, she asserted that the very task of criticism is to produce crisis.

Second, Fortin noted that while many like to despair of cogent criticism being nowhere to be found, the opposite is actually true: it is everywhere. Instead of begin limited to the realm of the self-designated professional critic, criticism and criticality has diffused into curatorial practice, museum practice, and popular culture, not to mention artmaking itself.

In other words, whether it’s an artist restaging a colonial-artifact collection, a curator reflecting on problematic aspects of an artist’s work in their exhibition catalogue, or a gallery visitor tweeting their opinions about an artwork, criticism is alive and well—even though (or perhaps because) it is no longer limited to a circumscribed field of specialists.

“Criticism has not disappeared; it has changed form,” Fortin surmised, describing its condition of “total ubiquity” whereby “criticism has managed,” despite its challenges, “to insinuate itself everywhere.”

(I should note that Fortin also covered many other topics in her talk, including a recap of changes in art criticism from the 1700s to the present day—I’ve highlighted the points that resonated most strongly with me.)

Interestingly, Fortin also implied that no one is a critic per se. Rather, she argued, criticism is an activity carried out through a series of critical acts, each act being singular.

The Challenges of Writing Frank Criticism

The next morning, during the symposium’s first panel at NSCAD University’s Bell Auditorium, Richard Hill—assistant professor of art history at York University and an independent critic and curator—touched upon the themes Fortin had raised in her keynote while speaking from his own experience in the indigenous-art context.

“I feel that, as a curator, I have a critical practice,” Hill said. “And now we see the critical impulse everywhere except as informed art criticism.”

This is actually part of the reason, Hill said, that he has recently returned to writing criticism, in particular criticism focused on indigenous art. The spring issue of Fuse Magazine features the debut of a new column by Hill (available online as well) that aims to provide “frank reviews of recent exhibitions of contemporary Indigenous art.” His first column focuses on Alex Janvier’s survey at the Art Gallery of Alberta, saying that it “could easily be divided into two distinct exhibitions: one a brilliant tour de force of energetic, lyrical abstraction, the other a dreadful series of experiments with figuration bordering on the stereotypical.”

“There are a lot of resources that have been put into the curatorial side” of First Nations art in the past decade or two, Hill said, “but there has been no evaluation” of these efforts.

Hill indicated that now that the battles of establishing a healthy critical mass for First Nations artmaking and curating has been achieved, he wants to address not only its activities but also “class differences in the indigenous community,” which he feels have been difficult to speak about publicly.

“We have created a situation where we don’t allow people to disagree with us,” he said. “We say we want it, but when we get it, there’s always a big dogpile.”

This latter comment seemed to me to be applicable to the art world in general, just as some of Hill’s other observations did.

Reflecting on his experience as an editor, for instance, Hill said that he was “surprised… how much people hold back on the main point they want to say.” Yet at the same time “the more you can just say what is on your mind, the more likely you are to engage people.”

It’s possible, he noted, that the tendency to hide one’s honest views derives from fear of losing social and professional connections.

“If you want to write criticism and you don’t want to offend friends and colleagues, then you find things you like and you write about them” rather than writing about things you don’t like, he observed.

On Low Pay and the Culture of Self-Exploitation

Another obstacle identified to the profession and growth of art writing—and other aspects of art—was the low-to-nonexistent pay levels involved.

After helpfully enumerating the various reasons that she writes about art—including to contextualize art for an audience who might not see it via exhibition reviews, contribute to or participate in a debate or conversation through critical essays and curatorial texts, and work through ideas about an issue or artist in a blog or personal notes—independent writer and curator Gabrielle Moser said, “I want to figure out why I work in a system of overwork and underpayment.”

As illustration for patterns of overwork and underpayment in the art realm—and expectation of same—Moser described a curatorial project for Access Gallery in which she funnelled the curatorial fee designated for subsistence into a publication so that she should pay the writer and artist she wanted to contribute.

Fortin also took up the point about the conflict between the art realm’s utopian values and real-world practices: “You can’t be socially engaged if you are perpetuating exploitation,” she said, “it’s impossible.”

Fortin also pondered “the debilitating contradiction that forecloses the possibility of art’s social impact: the complicity of writers (and artists) with exploitation (their own and that of others). How can social engagement be premised on exploitation and self-exploitation?”

The notion of being “special” also contributes to the situation, in Fortin’s view: “Deep down, this genius-myth redux leads to something like ‘I can afford to work for free because I have a cause and ultimately others will realize that I am special,’” she suggested.

C Magazine editor Amish Morrell, reporting on arts-magazine budgets across Canada, noted that the cost of producing such a magazine well outpaces its newsstand price—a industry-wide factor which (in my mind, at least) no doubt contributes to downward pressure on writers’ fees.

“The national average cost per copy [of an arts magazine] is $27,” Morrell indicated, while newsstand price is usually less than $10. “So,” he joked, “art magazines are an incredible deal!”

Morrell said that thanks to increased fundraising efforts by his board of directors and other measures, C has been able to slowly increase its fees in recent years, as well as overcome a structural deficit. While writers are currently paid 15 cents a word, he aims to increase it a bit every year.

As part of my presentations, I also shared our standard flat-rate writer’s fee for articles of various lengths on Canadian Art’s website: $200, the same as is paid for a 400-word review in our magazine. (There is some discretionary variation that can occurr in this fee, but that remains our standard web rate.)

I also indicated that low pay is not merely an art-media problem, but a media problem in general: writers everywhere are concerned that pay rates have not increased since the 1980s; that an annual flood of new writers onto the market from various schools continues to exert downward pressure on fees; and that the advent of the online medium, which has not yet been effectively monetized, has driven down fees even further. Nearly every writer I’m aware of in Canada—folks like Margaret Atwood excepted!—has some kind of alternate income stream, be it teaching, editing, doing PR or selling cupcakes.

Mike Landry, arts and culture editor of the Telegraph-Journal in St. John, New Brunswick, founder of the art blog Things of Desire and a freelancer for various publications, noted that he often thinks of how writer’s fees break down into hours.

“If something pays $100, I know I can spend 5 hours on it, and no more,” he said. Landry said he also tries to budget a freelancer’s time this way when he is assigning articles to them.

NSCAD art history professor and curator Jayne Wark, who attended the symposium, at one point asked whether setting CARFAC fees for writers might be one way to stabilize pay levels—at least in the realm of gallery- and museum-based publications.

Newspaper Nostalgia and the Need to Reach Non-Art Audiences

One theme that resounded with a few speakers, myself included, was an affection for the glory days of newspapers and the potential they held (or continue to hold, as one speaker argued) for reaching non-traditional art audiences.

Ray Cronin, now director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, recalled how he started writing about art as a NSCAD student because he was youthfully enraged about the jargon and “fake intellectualism” he found in the magazines at the campus library.

After graduation, Cronin became art critic for a New Brunswick newspaper, filing a 1,500-word column (pay: $75) that ran every Saturday for several years.

“I was interested in venues for art writing that received the broadest possible audience,” Cronin said. “Academic research is important, but I chose early on to point my writing past the community that already existed for art into the community beyond.”

He added, “I thought I did my job when a gallery said that a few new people actually did come to the show.”

Cronin noted that Halifax was fortunate the local daily newspaper, the Chronicle-Herald, still made the commitment to cover visual arts on a weekly basis.

Landry—who insistently defined himself as a “writer” and “journalist” rather than an “art writer” or “critic”—also provided an engaging presentation on newspapers and their coverage of the art realm.

“Newspapers exist because of communities,” he stated, and argued that success in this realm “is about understanding your audience as a community.”

For instance, as head of the Telegraph-Journal’s attractively designed weekly arts and culture section Salon, Landry says he aims to highlight contributions New Brunswickers are making to the arts—not just review all the latest Hollywood releases.

Landry also said he is lucky to work for a publisher who is supportive of covering local arts initiatives, and who recognized the value it brings to the publication.

“And this is the real problem with newspapers isn’t it?” Landry said. “All surface and no substance. I believe arts writing can reinsert that substance back into the newspaper. ”

Cronin was somewhat less optimistic regarding the future of newspapers, saying that he “would like to have an extra zero on the end” of the circulation numbers at many art magazines, as “it’s the only hope for reaching more of an audience.”

The Resurgence of Print as an “Alternative” Format

Interestingly, though print seems to be going out of style (or out of budget) in the newspaper industry, several speakers reflected a resurgent interest in print as an “alternative” format for art writing and publishing.

Winnipeg-based curator, writer and author (and also director/curator of Platform) Kegan McFadden quoted from AA Bronson’s recent essay “The Transfiguration of the Bureaucrat” in describing this phenomenon.

Writes Bronson, “Publishing has been changing very quickly … Why, at the very moment when bookshops and publishers are dying, has there been such an interest in DIY books, zines, and periodicals? Marshall McLuhan used to say that when a medium dies, it becomes an art form, and that is what is happening now. The young have taken over books, and transformed them into something immediate, energetic, and engaging.”

Bronson continues, “While museums are indulging in their moribund ‘deals,’ and at the same time siphoning off talent from the DIY explosion, the independent publishers have a life of their own, with their own gathering places, distribution nodes, and style of celebration. While the museums use books to talk about culture, the independent publishing scene is culture, actively creating culture.”

In his talk, McFadden also pointed out that print publications don’t have to be elaborate, referencing White Columns’ publication The WC, which is simply a stack of photocopied and stapled letter-sized paper.

Lizzy Hill—the Halifax-based editor of Visual Arts News (Atlantic Canada’s only dedicated regional art magazine) and an Akimblog correspondent—said that the “alternative” publication models she most admires are publications-as-exhibitions like Palimpsest and Aspen. These, she argued, hearken back to the root word for magazine, which means “something that is stored up,” or “warehouse, depot, or store.”

Hill also praised zine culture and highlighted two newer Halifax art publications—The Periodical Project and CRIT—both of which are produced as broadsheets on newsprint.

Funded by a Halifax Regional Municipality project grant, and curated and produced by Chris Foster and Natalie Slater, The Periodical Project is a free quarterly publication promotion Halifax-based artists—mainly via the reproduction of artist projects. It can also be viewed online for free at http://issuu.com/theperiodicalproject.

Funded by the NSCAD Student Union, and founded by students Merray Gerges and Anne Dahl, CRIT is a free biannual publication that welcomes reviews, notes on artist lectures and artist projects from students and alumni alike. It also has a website at http://critnscad.wordpress.com/, though that does not include all the content from the magazine.

Moser focused on print publications as “alternative” forms as well—albeit ones that she sees as being connected to events programming, as well as a more self-reflexive sense of production: Vancouver’s Fillip, which is involved in creating symposia like Institutions by Artists; defunct artist-run magazine Hunter & Cook, which ran an exhibition space and put artist projects at the forefront; and If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution, an international reading-group-cum-publication that also comprises exhibitions, talks and performances.

Printed Matter Momentum as Atlantic Advantage

If print is indeed on the rise in the art world as a form of innovation, the Halifax region is certainly well poised to benefit.

While other art schools in Canada like OCAD have touted a growing digital direction in their offerings, NSCAD’s Port Campus expansion project of recent years—initiated by former president Paul Greenhalgh, who came from a craft history background—has focused on giving more space to the largely analog realms of ceramics and sculpture. (Note: I do understand that these practices can incorporate digital techniques like 3-D printing and much more, but the fact that these modes of creation were the prime choice for expansion seems notable in my mind in terms of the college’s orientation.)

NSCAD is also home to one of Canada’s largest collections of letterpress equipment, and its printmaking studios remain expansive and well-used. There is a historical legacy providing momentum to print media at the college: The NSCAD Press, founded by Kasper Koenig in 1973, published Lawrence Weiner’s first book, and the press continued to produce publications by world-renowned artists into the 1980s. NSCAD’s Lithography Workshop did the same, resulting in John Baldessari’s iconic I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art print. Even after he retired as NSCAD president in 1990, Garry Neill Kennedy (who propelled much of that 1970s and 80s print activity at the college) continued to teach a printed matter course at the college, encouraging students to make zines, posters and other paper-based multiples as a vital form of contemporary art.

This legacy of print orientation can also be seen in other parts of the city with the artist-run Roberts Street Social Centre, which houses a zine library, community screenprinting studio, and (until recently) a device called “the people’s photocopier.” Eyelevel Gallery recently reorganized its own print archive for permanent display and at the time of our visit was seeking submissions for a printed-matter residency. A symposium reception at the Khyber Centre for the Arts introduced me to the work of Emily Davison, a local print-based artist and NSCAD graduate who had pasted her letterpress-printed wallpaper into all the available rooms of the building during her most recent exhibition there. (Though much of the wallpaper was gone during our visit, the Khyber had retained it in its bar area.)

Encountering the Digital Reality

However—much as the art world (myself included) loves a beautiful, well-made object and has continued to embrace print catalogues in the 21st century—I wondered whether Halifax’s orientation towards print might be detrimental to the dissemination of information about art and exhibitions in the Atlantic region.

Such wonderings reflect my own biases and experiences; as an online editor, my work week is devoted to posting information about art online, or converting print content to online, because of a personal and organizational belief that online is where many readers are these days. This belief is borne out by evidence—as our media kit indicates, we have 19,000 print copies in paid circulation per issue, while we have 32,000 unique visitors to our website every month. Online is also much easier to distribute internationally.

Granted, there is an existing openness to electronic formats in the Halifax region: artist and Dalhousie Art Gallery director/curator Peter Dykhuis, who attended the symposium, said that for a group show last year (on the topic of the demise of print, actually) he created a PDF of the catalogue essay and emailed it to all the artists in the show, who emailed it to their contacts. “Three days later, I was getting emails from Berlin about what a great show it looked like,” Dykhuis said. Also, as I already noted, both The Periodical Project and CRIT do distribute online.

My point is that perhaps these electronic initiatives could expand. Would it be possible to pay writers more if the curatorial essay appeared on a free WordPress blog? Or at least if printing fees were lower? Could a PDF be circulated with every exhibition, not just a few? How can digital complement what is being offered in print?

Unfortunately, it’s not just tradition or object lust that may be keeping print-only front and centre in the art world—at least in Canada. We were also told by locals that the Canada Council was encouraging them to do print publications, even when little money existed for them; when I followed up with a program officer, he disagreed somewhat, saying that there was a “preference” for print, but that the council didn’t want to see galleries going into debt to finance publications. He said that the council is in a “transition” in their perspective towards digital and is open to seeing online publications as well. So maybe it’s a miscommunication worth clearing up.

Other Obstacles in the Atlantic Region

Canada Council catalogue preferences aside, funding remains a challenge in the Halifax region.

The Nova Scotia Arts Council was liquidated in 2002; though a new type of provincial arts funding board, Arts Nova Scotia, launched in 2012, one Haligonian we met described it as an “elbow’s length” funding body rather than an “arm’s length” one. While the Halifax Regional Municipality does fund some arts and craft projects, it is part of a wider community grants initiative pooled with environment, housing, and neighbourhood safety. (That is, there is no dedicated municipal arts funding board.)

Also, art markets are generally weak; there are a few commercial galleries that keep it going, but the state of the market means that it’s difficult even for nonprofits to do private fundraising—a point I was reminded of when I saw how many Garry Neill Kennedy canvases, created as a fundraiser for the Khyber in 2009, still hung in the building.

NSCAD being in financial crisis hasn’t helped the situation either, throwing the teaching incomes of many artists into precarity. During our visit, there was continuing speculation about whether the institution would be absorbed into Dalhousie University—a possibility that artists expressed opposing viewpoints about. Some suggested that the well-oiled financial organization and fundraising leadership at Dal could be just what NSCAD (long led by experts in art rather than finance) needed. Others sporting “I AM NSCAD” buttons and posting “Nova Scotia Needs NSCAD” prints (both of which I loved, by the way) worried that it would erase all that is innovative and distinctive about the college.

Beyond these financial difficulties, there may also be cultural barriers to wider dissemination about art of the Atlantic region; this much is suggested by CRIT’s first-issue manifesto, which opines, “There’s a ton of good shit going on at NSCAD and ‘round town ol’ Hali. Not everybody hears about it because our romantic east-coast utopian insularity is hard to see let alone break away from…. We need to surpass our bubble and open up a give-and-take of ideas with local, national, and international artistic thinkers, thirsty learners, acute observers…”

A younger artist I met echoed this notion, saying that “a lot of people come here [to Halifax] to retreat” from art-world pressures like publications, PR and the like. Also, she observed, “it would be really great if there was more writing about art being made here… but it’s usually more fun to make the art.”

Indeed. I could hear where she was coming from. The very things that have made Halifax a great place to be an art student or artist—the space, the cheap(er) rent, the lack of pressure to keep up with the rest of the world’s trends and tribulations—might also contribute to a tendency to look inwards rather than outwards, or (in media parlance, perhaps) to focus on print rather than online.

On balance, I believe effective strategies in both are needed to have a strong presence in the contemporary art realm.

I know artists, curators and critics in the Atlantic region work as hard as ones anywhere else, making work that is just as interesting as work made anywhere else, and often facing challenges that are as hard (if not harder) than those faced by others anywhere else. I have benefited from much of that hard work as a student and otherwise. I just would like more people to know about their work, and am hoping these observations around print, digital and other factors might make a little push towards that.

Evidence of a Maker Culture

The fact that Halifax artists, curators and critics are indeed hard at work was on view during the gallery tours on April 21.

A highlight was Steve Higgins’s show at MSVU Art Gallery. In it, Higgins (best known for prints and drawings) brought a sketch to life in 3-D, filling the gallery with lines rendered in two-by-fours rather than 2B. Looking at the exhibition, I was struck by the gallery’s commitment to large-scale work—this is also where Kim Morgan’s latex cast of a lighthouse, recently featured in MASS MoCA’s “Oh, Canada,” was shown in 2010.

At NSCAD’s Seeds Gallery, which focuses on work by students and alumni, I also enjoyed Kate Walchuk’s paintings and sculptures. In these colourful works—which had some whispers of Lynda Barry about them, at least for me—Walchuk offered anecdotes and scenes from her post-graduation road trips and travels. Among them: getting a drive-thru daiquiri in Shreveport, Louisiana, and seeing David Byrne on a bicycle in New York City. Some of her paintings also documented openings at NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery and Toronto’s QueenSpecific, picturing her peeps in a warm and eccentric way.

While I didn’t have time to fully absorb the David Askevold survey at the AGNS, I felt good that the gallery had received rave reviews for the show when it was on in Los Angeles. I also learned some new things about the late NSCAD instructor, like his collaborations with Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler. (To the latter, he wrote a note about a joint project being “logic and nonsense shaken up in the same bag.”) I also saw how much his work incorporated aspects of the occult and the beautiful—aspects, curator David Diviney indicated, that may have dampened his international profile as his long-term career refused to fit snugly into the conceptualist-art category he had actually helped pioneer. (Diviney also noted that Askevold’s base in Halifax may have also exacerbated this situation.)

Other things briefly seen, but enjoyed, included: Eyelevel Gallery’s new archive (open to use by writers and researchers, so get in touch if you want details) and miniature bookstore; prints by my former classmate Paul Hammond (one half of Yo Rodeo) at the publications table of the fair; Emily Davison’s wallpaper at the Khyber, which pictured key moments in feminist history; and (peered at through a locked door after the panel sessions) Goody B. Wiseman’s small bronzes at Page and Strange.

Though none of these exhibitions happened at NSCAD per se, all were connected to it by exhibiting current or past faculty, alumni or students. When I asked a local amateur painter—never been to art school—whether he found there was too much of a NSCAD focus on the local scene, he expressed concern that if the college wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be any galleries to go to, period. I agree. If the college did change in any significant way, it is likely Halifax’s art scene—the largest in the Atlantic region—would see major impacts.

Art Crit as Nowhere, or Everywhere, Part Two

I often have a desire to close the loop at the end of an article—to bring the end back to the beginning. This tendency is likely at work as I think through to the conclusion of this Halifax experience.

And I so reflected, as the gallery tour wrapped up, on Sylvie Fortin’s ideas about art criticism being ubiquitous rather than absent. In the Halifax context, I could see that art writing, criticism and publishing is, perhaps to the contrary of the symposium’s premise, actually quite alive and well. As new publications like The Periodical Project and CRIT—not to mention Landry’s Salon section—show, there is a real drive to create new critical formats and publication formats in the Atlantic region, to distribute information and writing about art made in the area more widely.

Also, it’s clear that many of the problems the Atlantic region is facing on the art-publications front are ones faced by galleries across the country. By this I mean that I still do not see enough dissemination of curatorial essays or gallery publications online; I (like some others at the conference) remain puzzled about the predominance of printed-book catalogues as a means of “helping people learn about an artist” when such formats really only reach a very small number of people.

A problem also shared by the Atlantic region and much of the rest of Canada is the tendency to silo art away from other disciplines. Sure, we have our cross-disciplinary programs and festivals and artists; but when we talk about “art writing” internally (in my limited experience, and siloed experience too) we usually mean “writing by art specialists” rather than “writing about art.”

What if art communities seeking more “art writers” made pains to reach out to, you know, people who write even about things that are not art? People at local journalism schools, writing associations, or small presses? NSCAD has recently initiated a partnership with King’s College, which has a strong journalism program, to train more art students in journalistic endeavours—a good start. But how about holding joint events? Sending show invites to J-school faculty? Inviting them to write an (online) catalogue essay or two? Offering to present to J-school students or writer’s associations about how to cover art, since outsiders are often alienated by the language and history of the discipline?

Other recommendations made at the end of the symposium were also applicable beyond the Halifax context.

McFadden suggested that Halifax galleries band together to fund an international writers’ residency, noting that a good way to get international exposure is to bring external experts to you. He also noted that in publications he had organized, he had hired architects and filmmakers to write about art—experiments that went well, in his opinion.

Hill urged the development of new writers and outlets so that media-coverage responsibilities for the region didn’t fall on just a few people.

And Moser urged galleries to send information about new and upcoming shows and works to existing publications and writers; sometimes this simple step is what can get lost in the process of running a gallery.

Final Thoughts by the Water

My weekend seemed to end with consideration of two works, both by NSCAD graduates.

The first was Mark Kasumovic’s An Ideal Composition. After the gallery tour wrapped up at the AGNS on Sunday, I strolled into a small exhibition there called “Peggy’s Cove Syndrome.” Based on Eyelevel’s inaugural exhibition of the same name in the 1970s, the show included works on the theme of the iconic Nova Scotia tourist site.

Kasumovic’s contribution—a video titled An Ideal Composition—showed the cove’s idyllic rock-and-sea-scape infiltrated by people all looking for the best shot to encapsulate the experience.

Watching the video, I felt like one of the people depicted; someone looking for the perfect shot of the Halifax or Atlantic art scene, which of course is impossible. I felt a sense of relief in acknowledging this impossibility—as well as amusement in watching Kasumovic’s photographers.

The second was Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg’s installation Got Drunk, Fell Down on the Halifax waterfront. In this installation, three life-sized light poles are sculpted in 3-a.m.-Saturday-morning-post-bar poses: one is lying on the ground; one is peering at the one lying on the ground; and one is poised to take a piss in public.

I had already seen this work at Nuit Blanche 2012 in Toronto—its own kind of 3-a.m.-Saturday-morning-post-bar scene. Installed here on the wooden boardwalk, on the lovely waterfront, and seen on clear, sunny day, the effect was more jarring or absurd than it had been in Toronto.

There was also a lot of space around the work in which to consider it, as I heard the waves lap and the birds chirp nearby.


Comments

Clive Robertson says:

Thanks for the good read Leah.

Gary Wilson says:

Great overview. Thank you.

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Clive and Gary,

Thanks for the positive feedback.

Just wanted to emphasize to readers that I am open to negative feedback as well!

I totally and completely failed to acknowledge the ways in which Toronto-based national media of all kinds (CBC, national papers, national magazines, etc.) tend to be in a pattern of not being able to see very well beyond the boundaries of the GTA… or sometimes, as is often joked about, even seeing stuff north of Bloor Street.

I did allude to this phenomenon during my talks at the symposium, but not in this text that resulted.

Speaking absolutely and completely for myself, I feel that this “blinders on” phenomenon also contributes to underrepresentation of the Atlantic (and other non-GTA places) in the national media.

I wanted to make sure I posted about this omission in a comment, because I realized in retrospect this text could come off as too much of “blaming the victim” otherwise.

Steven Rhude says:

When I asked a local amateur painter—never been to art school—whether he found there was too much of a NSCAD focus on the local scene, he expressed concern that if the college wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be any galleries to go to, period.
LS

I find this is a sad observation and very debatable. It reflects the big fish in the small pond side of the NSCAD equation. Some would say hubris. There are commercial galleries in NS and Halifax that don’t rely on a NSCAD line up for recognition. There are numerous artists living, painting and showing in NS who have no affiliation with NSCAD, yet contribute to the cultural landscape – both through the public and commercial scene.

NSCAD is a silo unto itself presumably dominating the art scene in NS – sometime to its detriment. Its quest for sustained autonomy has forced it financially out into the national scene in an unpleasant political light, and may be an underlying factor encumbering the true and deserved recognition of the (small by national standards)college’s value.

Launching Atlantic art more effectively onto the national scene would more than open up the gate if it were more pluralistic orientated.

We need to look beyond credentialism to a broader appreciation of what is artistically produced in order to reach the non – art audiences. Many of them, sorry to say, have never heard of NSCAD.

Leah Sandals says:

Hi Steven,

Thanks for your comment. I’m intrigued by similar issues, which is why I asked this one person (who may be representative of no one other than himself) how he personally felt.

When I say “never went to art school” I don’t just mean “never went to NSCAD” – I mean someone who never studied art at the post-secondary level and who doesn’t often seem to connect with people who have, or is not part of that community.

I agree that there are many people (like the very man I interviewed) who are not connected to the college (or any college!) and obviously play a part in the local (or national) cultural scene.

However, I think it is worth considering how the scene might differ if NSCAD or other art colleges were not present in Canada. I do think the Halifax scene would be quite different, and have less of a critical mass of people predisposed to being interested in an invested in art and its venues.

Steven Rhude says:

I have no fear of NSCAD losing its presence in the city. If it remains independent (which I hope it can) or works with Dalhousie in some capacity, it will always have a strong influence over Atlantic Canadian creativity and hopefully the important area of art criticism. But there have been many gaps in the evolution of art produced here because NSCAD seemed to move from a traditional school to a conceptualist one so quickly.

As a result it’s history has been both beneficial and troubling when the art produced in Atlantic Canada continues to be joined at the ‘college hip’ when ever it gets discussed or tries to engage that elusive non-art audience. My sense is a lot of artists here would like to be assessed on the merits of their art they produce today, and not so much on the reverence applied to the art school they once studied at.

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