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Plug In ICA: Turning Point

All of Winnipeg now seems to rotate around Plug In’s new downtown premises, and—years from now—other Canadian art institutions may come to orbit around its innovations. Plug In’s programming quietly proffers new ideas about how to show, promote and provoke art, and the shiny white building will advance an agenda that differs from both artist-run centres and public galleries, while maintaining components of both. Accordingly, the gallery has branded itself the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). This is the story of the building and the brand.

The new Plug In gives itself away with a wink and a twinkle. Coming up Osborne Street over the Assiniboine River and past the governmental zone overseen by the Golden Boy, one meets a gridded array set around a minimalist box. Projecting out from Plug In’s pearlescent white walls are flat metal tabs—like those that bulge out from hanging files—covered with a reflective, prismatic film, the sort used on snowmobiling trail signs. By day, these tabs set the rhythm and texture of the building’s walls, generating sharp-angled shadows. Sometimes, they catch shaking red brake-light reflections, as cars turn from Portage onto Memorial Boulevard; at other hours, they capture the winter dawn’s fade from fiery magenta to pastel pink.

No matter what the time or season, Plug In’s fringe of tabs stands out, set proudly against the prairie grain, like the city’s stalwart artists. The tabs provide scale to the outer walls, which are constructed from white commercial-freezer wall panels. Come to think of it, the walk-in freezer might be a useful metaphor for the mission of this institute of contemporary art—a storehouse of artistic ingredients, a source for many a fine meal.

Plug In is the hub of Winnipeg’s thriving visual-arts scene, which lacks the usual support matrix of a top-level art school and significant contemporary galleries. These absences have an unexpected benefit: Winnipeg art making is saved from pandering to collectors’ tastes, gallerists’ expectations and art-school fashions. Edmonton-born and Winnipeg-educated, Marshall McLuhan spoke of the virtues of prairie cities’ isolation—places of conscious media consumption uncontaminated by the burdens and pretenses of media production. The line of thought that led to McLuhan’s 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy commenced in flatland bookstores and cinemas. When Plug In launched as an artist-run centre in 1972, its name was a nod to that era’s reigning “McLuhanacy.”

While nearly always called Plug In by Winnipeggers, the new 15-million-dollar building has oversized red letters up top that declaim it the “Buhler Centre,” in honour of Bonnie and John Buhler, who donated four million dollars to the joint project between the University of Winnipeg and Plug In. The university’s faculty of business and economics shares the premises, with its classrooms and faculty offices on the upper floors. Even including the soft exhibition spaces that line academic hallways, Plug In occupies only 6,500 of the building’s 50,000 square feet. Commenting on this fusion of business school and cultural zone, Wayne Baerwaldt, the director and curator of Calgary’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery—who was Plug In’s director and adjunct curator for nearly half its history—says, “Don’t knock it—that deal brings in 1,200 potential collectors and members past artworks every day.” Still, I was surprised at the small size of the building’s galleries.

Portage Avenue has a deserved reputation as Canada’s windiest street, and Plug In’s front door is protected by a breezeway. Indicative of Plug In’s multitasking ingenuity, that breezeway is also an outdoor exhibition space for sculpture and video; sliding glass walls extend out to shelter it from blizzard lashings in winter. Inside, an atrium allows glimpses of the university classrooms and offices above—the space is so tall and narrow that the building’s co-designers—Neil Minuk, David Penner and Peter Sampson—referred to it as “The Crack.” This edginess is amplified and buffered by a transfixing colour palette devised by the Winnipeg- and Berlin-based artist, designer and curator Rodney LaTourelle and the designer and curator Louise Witthöft.

The Plug In building was produced by that grandest of prairie corporate modes, a self-proclaimed “collective” comprised of three architectural firms, which went by the logarithm-esque moniker DPA+PSA+DIN Collective. Minuk, the owner of DIN Projects, is a University of Manitoba architecture professor who formerly served as the Plug In board president. He and fellow designer Penner were both students of Gustavo da Roza at the University of Manitoba, and the new Plug In building—which sits next door to da Roza’s 1971 Winnipeg Art Gallery—is that rarest of intergenerational architectural dialogues: neither harangue nor eulogy.

The day after last November’s boisterous building opening, I am given a tour by Anthony Kiendl, Plug In’s director since 2006. The main exhibition space, Gallery One, is a modestly sized room set mid-building; during our walk-through, it is amply filled with the aggressive mid-career work of the Winnipeg and Montreal artist Eleanor Bond, who held her first major exhibition at Plug In in the 1980s. In order to take on touring shows—especially exhibitions of fine art objects—Plug In needed to construct an exhibition space in line with class AA museum environmental standards; this necessitates adding humidification for Winnipeg’s dry winters and removing it in wet summers, while maintaining constant exhibition-area temperatures. As the cost of technologically outfitting an environmentally sound gallery space matches that of building it, Plug In opted to erect only one such gallery and surround it with a double wall, which both helps with humidity and temperature control and yields a concealed perimeter zone. “We can set A/V installations anywhere on any of our walls,” says a clearly proud Kiendl.

Kiendl has the distracted air of a cultural studies professor hurrying to prepare a theory seminar. His career began with gigs at Saskatchewan artist-run centres, and was given a boost by his involvement in the Dunlop Art Gallery’s 2001 “Godzilla vs. Skateboarders: Skateboarding as a critique of social spaces,” a succès de scandale that echoed similar buzzed-about shows at the Baerwaldt-era Plug In, such as an exhibition of explicit Bruce La Bruce tapes and a presentation of art by the rock star Beck and his grandfather, Al Hansen. As we walk around, Kiendl’s enthusiasms wax and wane almost randomly. In one impassioned speech, he describes how several of the building’s spaces—the main gallery; a rooftop terrace that will feature a permanent installation by his frequent collaborator Dan Graham; a two-storey video and installation project room; and a windowed gallery facing the Hudson’s Bay Company flagship store—can be used as workshop and studio spaces for the summertime curatorial institute he founded. This program is an extension of Kiendl’s work at the Banff Centre.

Though Kiendl’s skills were crucial to the construction of the new building, Plug In’s inventive institutional character was dreamed up by his predecessors. Plug In was co-founded by Lorraine Raboud, Suzanne Gillies and Doug Sigurdson (who later went on to a long stint at the Canada Council) and was expanded in scope by Jon Tupper, now the director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. But the charismatic figure who set the template for what Plug In has become is Wayne Baerwaldt. His 14-year, on-and-off directorship pushed Plug In to international prominence; notably, he co-commissioned and curated Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “The Paradise Institute,” which won two prestigious prizes at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Reflecting on Baerwaldt’s directorship, Minuk explains that “Wayne was interested in Fluxus and Dada, performance-based art movements that questioned what art is”; he adds that these movements “were non-capital-based, which is important for Winnipeg,” referring to the city’s relative dearth of rich collectors and the galleries that feed them. Of the controversial exhibitions that made headlines and raised the gallery’s profile, Minuk says, “Wayne played the media in a wonderful way, doing things on an international level, aiming to be the best in the world.”

According to Minuk, Baerwaldt (who is now thriving at the Illingworth Kerr after a sojourn as the director of Toronto’s Power Plant) set Plug In’s current mission in motion, pushing for the gallery to develop a street presence, to expand its showcasing of musical and media-art presentations, to start a line of fundraising products and artworks, and generally to open up to communities broader than those that clubhouse-like artist-run centres usually attract. On this last count, Plug In has certainly succeeded; there is no other Canadian art institution that so successfully walks the line between being an artist-run centre, a private commercial gallery, a public museum, and even an art-school-cum-multimedia-publisher. This is Plug In’s place.

As Art Gallery of Alberta executive director Gilles Hébert, whose CV includes two years as Plug In’s director, suggests, “Plug In is a service centre for an important arts community and it also maintains ongoing links with important artists—it punches way above its weight.” Coming to admire the bold new Plug In building and seeing the diverse ages, disciplines and creative axes of those who gathered for its opening, I can’t help but think that Vancouverites (like me) were not ambitious enough when planning and building the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG)’s current premises (full disclosure: I was a board member through its planning and building process). The CAG’s design and programming now seem conventional and beaux-artsy in comparison. But Vancouver is not Winnipeg, and Plug In’s generosity of scope and bluntness of ambition might not be tolerated by the clashing micro-communities that constitute larger art centres.

The new building’s crowning glory is the magic that LaTourelle and Witthöft have achieved with simple wall paint: upstairs, they have permanently installed several dozen shades of three signature hues—turquoise, blue and red—enlivening each floor in subtle ways. Along one of the business school’s corridors, two pointedly different values of the same colour adorn each side of the hallway; the varying hues prompt a double take, then a frisson of pleasure. Some of the pair’s most subtle effects are the flashes of low-angle winter light that bleed or bounce from coloured surfaces onto white walls, and the pastel mélanges that second-hand light form on other painted surfaces.

Mere wall paint as powerful permanent art installation? Shiny metal tabs as architectonic form-givers? Commercial-freezer walls as exterior cladding? We are clearly no longer in the faux-sculptural garden that defined art-gallery architecture in the rapidly fading era of the starchitect; we have evolved into a leaner, more original and, frankly, more exciting realm. Putting the Winnipeggers’ accomplishment in context, they have delivered the Buhler Centre building for an amazing $210 per square foot, a fraction of the cost associated with starchitect-designed buildings.

Due to a generosity of spirit, ingenious design and showpiece locale, this most plugged-in of art institutions finds itself the centre of Winnipeg’s orbit. The DPA+PSA+DIN Collective–produced building is a breath of fresh air in the chary world of contemporary Canadian architecture, where a safe, almost archeological neo-modernism rules the land. There is nothing revivalist about the new design; Minuk, Penner, Sampson, LaTourelle, Witthöft, Kiendl and the others are innovators in form on the barest of budgets. In design, financing partnerships, construction management and sheer chutzpah, the innovative new Plug In building leads the way for the rest of the Canadian art world.

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