With the World Cup prompting many Canadians to give up regional allegiances for international loyalties and the G20 and G8 summits reshaping domestic landscapes for far-flung visitors, it seems the time is right for “Dig Up My Heart,” a group exhibition that mines the connections between local sites and global changes. Currently on view at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre Art Gallery, the show features projects by eight artists and collectives (including Brenda Whiteway, Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell, Rural Psychogeography and Matthew Moore) and trades big-city art centres for small-town and rural landscapes, underscoring the artists’ direct engagements with their hometowns. In an email interview with Canadian Art’s Gabrielle Moser, exhibition curator Shauna McCabe reflects on the origins of the exhibition and its unique blend of politics and poetics.
Gabrielle Moser: How did the theme for “Dig Up My Heart” develop?
Shauna McCabe: “Dig Up My Heart” came out of the work I’ve been doing with artists whose creative practices are very much forms of engaged social practice. Our art discourses tend to lag behind artistic practices, so a second impetus was my sense that a spectrum of this creative work was being overlooked in a curatorial focus on just the urban, contemporary projects coming out of the legacy of environmental practices and land art (such as that of Robert Smithson and Hans Haacke) and the lineage of interdisciplinary and participatory practices (like Black Mountain College or the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys). I had encountered a striking range of work deftly maneuvering within these art histories in an effort to offer alternative imaginings of specific [non-urban] landscapes, works that persistently connected the local back to the global.
The title comes from a collection by poet Milton Acorn whose writing often began from his rich imaginative connections to the environment and landscape of Prince Edward Island where the show is presented. It captured for me the blend of emotional, poetic and political concerns in these contemporary practices.
GM: As well as working as an artist, curator and writer, you currently conduct research at Mount Allison University as the Canada Research Chair in critical theory in the interpretation of culture. And later this summer, you will become executive director of the Textile Museum of Canada. How do you see your academic and artistic work relating to one another?
SM: The key idea for me has always been that critical thought and creative practice are inseparable. Creative expression actually shows that quite clearly—that it is investigation, it is research. This has been at the core of pretty much everything I do. The task, to my mind, across arts and academic contexts, is to consider what our institutions become when we seriously consider the implications of practices that are about the social, about processes, about engagement. Our models for exhibitions and research no longer hold. In this way, the work I do as an arts administrator or curator is continuous with the work I’ve been doing at Mount Allison where I started CHARTS, the Centre for Humanities and Arts Research in Transdisciplinary Space: the aim is to be a catalyst for these kinds of practices. Throughout, it has been about moving beyond art as something to be talked about or presented and focusing instead on the kinds of knowledge that can be built through co-creative, collaborative processes.
GM: Which projects in the show are you most excited about presenting?
SM: I think the most striking element of the exhibition is the dialogue created among the constellation of projects. Precise perspectives arising from specific places speak together with compelling volume about the importance of art and design in negotiating broader pressures. Take, for example, the efforts of Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama, to reimagine an architectural practice infused with the personal and vernacular, which is also a strategy for responsible environmental and social changes. The work of Matthew Moore similarly documents the transformation of his family farm into Phoenix suburbs through earthwork architectures created in sorghum and wheat that map planned development lots.
There is also a sense of local and global interdependency that recurs. This emerges in the interconnected drawings of Alice Angus, who has been working between the UK and Canada, that give a sense of the spatial and historical continuities between social, cultural and natural environments. It also shows up in the work of Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell of Oakland, whose Meadow Network reflects how individuals retain values and practices associated with rural settings as they move in international circuits. Then there are also accidental convergences. They are all quite political and all deeply personal—heartfelt is the best word. Ultimately, I think all of the works show a heartfelt conviction in artistic agency, and in the creative capacity and urgency to represent what is possible.