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Diane Borsato: Building on the Ephemeral

A white beekeeping outfit, complete with netted veil and hood. A pair of bright red Coleman coolers next to silver sachets of tea. Well-thumbed copies of Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. Grow lights shining on rows of tiny tomato seedlings; a table overflowing with spider plants; some multi-sided dice resting on a high shelf; and a half-moon bedroom doubling as a wood-fired sauna.

These are just a few of the treats tucked into Walking Studio, the centrepiece work in Diane Borsato’s current solo show at the Art Gallery of York University.

“I was interested in field laboratories as a model for a way of working as an artist,” Borsato explains during a tour of the show. The 11-foot-by-18-foot structure, designed by the artist in collaboration with Adrian Blackwell and Jane Hutton, is “a mobile building that functions as a studio-slash-field-lab” to accommodate practices that are social, site-responsive, peripatetic and relational.

Beyond its immediate appeal as a cute, rustic, cabin-like getaway, Walking Studio may well read as a significant material marker of the way Borsato’s many ephemeral works—from 2001’s Touching 1000 People to 2011’s revolving Walking Studio residencies at Don Blanche—have gelled into a very concrete art career.

In 2010, Borsato was nominated the Sobey Art Award. In 2008, the Canada Council gave her the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for outstanding achievement as a mid-career artist. And since 2001, when she graduated from Concordia’s MFA program, her work has been presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery, MAC VAL and the Power Plant, among other venues.

Interestingly, Borsato says that the seeds of her increasingly well-regarded practice were sown nearby some 20 years ago, when she was a York University undergrad.

“I was a theatre major when I started,” Borsato recalls, “and I changed to visual art in third year because I wanted to carve stone.” She chuckles at the memory. “We actually forged our own chisels—this sounds like 200 years ago!—we forged our own chisels on an anvil.”

“I was always enchanted by working with materials,” she continues, noting that she didn’t study 2-D practices such as painting or photography. “I think the theatrical background as well as this material background informs all of this work in the show.”

Indeed, the recent relational projects in Borsato’s AGYU show resound with references to these longtime interests.

On the one hand, she’s compelled to develop literacies that engage all the senses, including touch, smell, taste and sound—not a far cry from certain concerns of sculpture.

On the other, she’s engaged in scripting, organizing and acting out proposals that explore the way we relate to each other—a zone where the logistical skills of a stage manager are often called for, not to mention the warmth and extroversion of an actor.

In Italian Lessons, conducted between 2007 and 2011, Borsato attempted to learn the romance language of her forebears not through multiple-choice tests and repetitive drills, but via Italian-only instruction of ping-pong, first aid, salsa dancing, astrophysics and beekeeping.

For 2008’s The Chinatown Foray, she invited the Mycological Society of Toronto to forsake the outdoors for one of its regular identification trips and head instead to Markham’s Chinatown, cross-referencing forest-set field guides with plastic-wrapped, barcode-stickered species.

And in 2010’s Terrestrial/Celestial, she brought members of the Vancouver Mycological Society together with members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Vancouver Centre) to learn from each other—a work “about practicing two ways of knowing in one gesture—from everything below to everything above, learning everything in one day.”

“I know in much of the history of social practices and interventionist artworks, artists are often teaching others ‘how to do things in a nicer way.’” Borsato says.

“While there are ideas that I hope I’m proposing [in my work], it’s very much about the fact that I’m really curious about a subject and I’d like to learn about it. So I negotiate a scenario where we can all learn something in a surprising way.”

Borsato is serious about her curiosities driving her artworks; she’s been a member of the Toronto Mycological Society for 5 years, and the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative for one.

“I go into these things as leisure activities separate from my work, and inevitably I can’t leave my artist mind at home,” she says, smiling. “The negotiation for a proposal just ends up occurring.”

So how thin is the line between art and life for Borsato?

“I’m very conscious of the ideas I’m exploring and the questions I’d like to provoke,” she says, noting substantial research and editing goes into every finished work. “The frame around the works is clear for me, even though the sites, people, and materials may come very much from my every day life.”

One of the most striking things about Borsato’s practice—whether reviewed in this exhibition, on her comprehensive website, or in her first monograph, released this spring by the AGYU—is its extreme gentleness. (It’s telling that she says Bouquet—a project where she stole flowers from Toronto gardens to create lovely arrangements—was “torture” to execute. As transgressive gestures go, it’s delicate, to say the least.)

When I mention this feeling that her work is exceedingly gentle in nature, Borsato responds, “I hope so.” When I ask why, she says, “I’m almost like a minimalist; I’m interested in what’s the smallest gesture you could make that has an effect. There’s so much if you just start there; for me, that’s stimulating and enough.”

OISE professor Stephanie Springgay, who co-received a major SSHRC grant with Borsato in 2009 to research relational and interventionist practices, and who co-organizing a related symposium for April 26 to 28 at Hart House, notes that Borsato’s quiet gestures can still speak loudly.

“Something I’ve been thinking about a lot with Diane’s work is how we often think of these everyday gestures that she engages with as something that’s really benign,” says Springgay. “What I’m really interested in is the way she highly politicizes these gestures. She does this in ways that are really subtle but really evocative. In the future, I want to write about her work as a politics of touch.”

Of course, as with any relational work, there are other political questions that come up: those connected to the power dynamic between the artist and their participants.

When I ask how she considers ethics in her collaborations, Borsato says that “a lot of general friendliness, respect, consideration and hospitality” goes a long way to making the exchange equitable. She tells potential participants upfront about her intentions, advises them the results could one day be in a gallery or book, and always sends them photographs afterwards. When professional performers are engaged—like in 2010’s Falling Piece, where contemporary dancers infiltrated a museum benefit gala to stage a range of “accidental” falls—they are paid for their work.

It’s not hard to imagine an ethics of friendship working well for Borsato—she comes across as an upbeat, generous personality.

Yet, returning to the Walking Studio one more time before ending the tour, I wondered how much Borsato herself may remain part of her works in the future. While the Walking Studio is a delightful space, it also strikes me as having the potential to function as a kind of proxy for the artist—a “frame” for everyday life that can exist permanently outside of Borsato, and thus allow her to fulfill the many other tasks in the busy life of a new mother and University of Guelph assistant professor.

(To be fair, and to extend the relational process into this article, however, I’m well aware that sensitivities around physical absence, and around objects standing in for absent people, are ones I often bring to art and life given that I lost a parent at a young age.)

Borsato reassures me later that in terms of her future actions, the sky may actually be the limit.

“I’ve been learning about the weather, mainly to identify clouds and optical effects, “ she writes me afterwards via email.

“Again, it’s a kind of literacy. Clouds are even more evasive than mushrooms, though; they change ‘species’ every time I blink. I’m thinking about some interventions with meteorologists, to see what we might have to offer each other.”

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