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Features / July 25, 2014

Meet VSVSVS, Another Group of Seven

Stephen McLeod, a member of the seven-person VSVSVS artist collective, lifts the end of a kitchen table and reveals a three-burner stovetop. The light switch is hidden under the table’s rim. A bookcase, when pushed, opens into a tiny bedroom. Outside this industrial building is the desolate Port Lands area in east-end Toronto. Cement silos loom. Hopping onto the loading dock moments earlier, I had been ushered into this labyrinthine cave that the members of VSVSVS have carved out of a nondescript warehouse. A city bus trundles down nearby Commissioners Street. The wind blows off the lake, yet these rabbit-warren studios are snug and warm. Just don’t use the table saw at the same time as the microwave—and a computer may die if you switch on the toaster.

Climb up a ladder and you will find a crawl space fitted with a mattress, a music system and a fan—a sort of urban tree house. The fan is necessary, for this ingenious live-workspace has been fashioned out of a near-windowless building. Ventilation is pretty much nil.

The collage of workspaces press against living areas with ever-mutable walls. Trapdoors lead to mysterious storage/music rooms in a nimble use of space. I start the interview in the kitchen with the group of seven: two women and five men, all recent University of Guelph BA graduates. “Doing this cooperative venture is more valuable than getting an MFA,” claims Anthony Cooper. At least I think it is Anthony’s voice. I can’t hope to keep track of who is speaking, voices streaming in from all sides.

The young artists all have BAs in studio art, except for Ryan Clayton, who majored in psychology. Laura Simon dismisses the need to acquire an MFA: “I don’t feel I should have to legitimize myself; I sort of resent it.”

Most members worked closely with their instructors James Carl and the FASTWURMS duo, who also helped them to get internships after graduation. Carl was “charismatic, with challenging behaviour,” says Anthony. “He showed us Minimalism and Conceptualism, let us know what the hell happened.”

Carl emails: “There’s been a conspicuously high turnout of great young artists from the U of Guelph. Maybe it’s hindsight, but I think it’s usually pretty clear which ones are doomed to a life in art. At the best of times, they cluster in gangly packs. Each of the VSVSVS people seemed either super committed or super bright or just eccentric and inconsolably tenacious.”

FASTWURMS, a duo since the late 1970s comprised of artists Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse, know a thing or two about collaboration. “VSVSVS has created a uniquely intelligent and productive microtopia,” they write via email. “They initiated a social adventure. The collective adventure became a generative strategy for making critically engaging art and cultural projects. The VSVSVS group mind is fluid, flexible, optimistic and open to unlimited creative possibilities.”

All seven artists work day jobs, most to pay off student loans, and are in no hurry to rack up more debt by re-entering academe. The do-it-yourself mode fits in with the zeitgeist. Want to be part of the art scene in Toronto? Rent space together; work on collaborative projects as well as solo investigations; embed a formal gallery space; create a residency program; invite artists to exhibit. Make sure the openings are fun events.

I have rarely felt such a sense of buoyancy around a group of artists. Their collaboration is the motor that gets them up in the morning. They are learning to live together and this is a key element of their art practice: “We’re working on ourselves, as people, learning how to deal with conflict by discussing it in an open but kind way, letting go of annoyances because it’s the larger thing that matters—the collaboration. We don’t let ourselves stay annoyed with little things like unwashed dishes.” This statement is corroborated by several voices.

They do have a chore sheet: I note the typed list pinned to a board. “But it tends to work out organically,” a voice pipes up. “We’ve refined the system so we don’t lay blame; the point is to keep things positive.” Really? I look around at their faces, searching for a frown, for a sniff of discontent, but it isn’t there. I can’t help but feel a pang, remembering my own 20-something years living in co-op houses and how most such arrangements splintered because of wrangling around food and chores.

Does their solo work get in the way of collaboration? Not at all. They make individual work and support each other in their forays into one-person shows. Maybe it’s my novelist’s brain, but I keep picking away for hints of conflict and jealousy—I find nothing. Not a trace.

They laugh at being likened to hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, working together, yet branching off to assume solo projects.

We huddle around the windowless kitchen, shower to one side, toilet to the other, and drink Campari and soda while I get the lowdown on their origin story. The experience of answering questions and offering explanations becomes a performance of their collaborative dynamic. I note that while there are interruptions and clarifications, these are usually accompanied by apologies. Each person is allowed his or her space, although, inevitably, some speak more than others. There is no leader—“Who would want the job?”—though they do take turns being on top of a particular project.

How do they envision their future? There is an immediate future: the rent has been jacked up and they may not be able to stay here. One member dreams of a farm, another of buying a warehouse, and these dreams all involve sticking together as an artistic and emotional family.

Wallis Cheung, one of the two women in the collective, shows me a group game she has devised: she began by drawing a calligraphic symbol that looked like it might belong to some ancient alphabet, and the next person responded with another invented symbol. And on to the next, until a sort of elvish alphabet appeared. This typifies their way of working—both individually and together. Singular voices knit to create a whole.

The group has built an open-grid shelving unit with a conceptual system determining the artist and materials used to create the tiny totems that go into each seven-inch-cube cubby. One refers to the next via rules and parameters, which establish a formal aspect but nonetheless leave room for each artist to do as she or he wishes within the framework. In this way they maintain an individual voice within the group vision—“though this might not be the model tomorrow”—Anthony adds.

James Gardner brings out a project called Psychogeographic Group Therapy (2012): each member has earned a personalized, mapped-out island drawn by the entire group, reflecting his or her strong and weak points (for example, Wallis: short temper). Playfulness meshes with the underlay of personal investigation.

They claim to operate by a “sort of consensus” as to how they will embark on a project, and agree that as the work progresses they feel free to “jettison rules if that seems right.” These projects entail video, sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, multiples and curatorial work. Their art practice mirrors the mode of living, one space and form bleeding into the next.

“We’ve burned ourselves out at times and are learning to say no to some projects,” Miles Stemp says. There is one shared studio within the labyrinth of individual studios, and it is stuffed full of collaborative works-in-progress. In 2013 they participated in Toronto’s Nuit Blanche (offering a hotline where members would answer the public’s question: “Is this art?”); Micah Lexier’s Power Plant show of Toronto artists (they gathered small, white objects and placed them, simultaneously, on a black surface, remixing and editing as they discovered moments of “aesthetic bliss”) and their first “white-cube” gallery show (“Space Mods,” curated by Chérie Fawcett) at the Cambridge Galleries’ Preston location. Public sculpture proposals and experimental drawings fill the cramped room.

Temporary artists-in-residence Elinor Whidden and Julie René de Cotret, graduates of NSCAD University, have been invited to use the front gallery space to work and exhibit. They are fashioning a buffalo creature constructed from a pulled-apart vintage loveseat. Elinor attaches the horns while Julie stands back, appraising. Behind her is an animal skin splayed in a frame, looking very Plains Indians, except the skin is made from couch upholstery. An easy chair has been torn apart and reconfigured. Why did they seek this residency? Elinor answers: “We sought the creative firecracker that can come with collaboration—with no preconceived endpoint.”

The buffalo, with its whiff of colonialism and the death of the animal herds, twins with the slow death of the Ontario manufacturing sector.

I visit each VSVSVS artist in her or his lair, curious as to what goes on in these spaces whose walls and ceilings move according to changing needs.

Stephen McLeod, with his mustache and Beatles haircut, uses composed sound and music in his sculpture. Three stones hook up to a soundtrack, evoking an interior life of stones. His work straddles experimental sound-art with a sidelong affection for do-it-yourself technologies and instruments. We squeeze into his recording space, past a piano and keyboard, and I climb the ladder to peek into his sleeping loft, surrounded by insulation foam. A fan bats at the air. I ask him to talk about what he’s up to, but he balks. Only later, via email, does he write: “The art I make is all just a misguided attempt to understand the strangeness of existence. The world seems pretty bleak at times, so I try and make these hopeful questioning gestures using whatever is at my disposal. As an attempt to fight back, this often feels inadequate, but at the same time stubbornly optimistic and cheeky, like learning to hear music in the rhythm of a loud washing machine.”

Laura Simon, a slight, serious woman, works in a newly devised hall space that leads into the kitchen. She favours labour-intensive work and shows me a small spring that she is winding from copper wire. “Most of my work is a spinoff from what I’ve read—science for the non-scientist, with a special lure towards ideas of Time and the Infinite.” This might sound high-flown, but the work is more earthbound, with images of cartoon figures from Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. She likes “handmade and layered work that mimics how we build identity and character.” Coming from a family that has suffered a great deal of mental illness, it’s not surprising that she pursues ideas of changing one’s mental landscape and neuronic pathways through repetitive gestures. Drawing, for Laura, is a way of pulling ideas from “the ether into a physical manifestation.”

The bearded Miles Stemp works in a studio that branches off from Laura’s, and I confess that I didn’t notice it at first. He invites me to peek into a box that contains a fake rock surrounded by Styrofoam packing pellets. Propped against a nearby wall, a rod impales a dozen kitchen sponges twisted every which way. Why sponges? “They are cheap and available and create a gradient from clean to dirty.” Pulling open a drawer, Miles lifts out zip-lock bags that contain more of the yellow-and-green sponges, some of which look very nasty indeed. “I don’t dare open this bag,” he confesses. He hands me a clean sponge with a neat hole drilled through its middle. “My business card.” Elsewhere, a pair of “traces of traces of graph paper” act as an homage or “apology” to Agnes Martin. Another piece investigates the blind spot in our vision by poking hundreds of holes in a grid on heavy paper, but leaving one intersection intact. Could I see it? No, I could not. My blind spot.

The studio most extravagantly full of new work belongs to James Gardner. Sculptural paintings cling to the walls while complex foam sculptures take over much of the floor. “The paintings start out flat,” he tells me, “then I start pulling them apart and reattaching them in different ways.” Some parts detach and become independent pieces. One feels the action of a whole body acting on the work. He often works with reference to horizon line and sky/ground and moves into something more abstract. The sculptures, made of insulation foam and deflated balloons, curl into each other and evoke complex three-dimensional drawings. The material is “gross and visceral, like taboo bodily excretions,” and when it hardens, the surface colour is affected by ultraviolet light. The pieces have an anthropomorphic feeling, creature-like, as if they might soon hobble away.

Wallis Cheung is the only member of the VSVSVS tribe who didn’t grow up in Ontario. Arriving from Hong Kong at age 18, she had no idea that she would end up making art. Entering the University of Guelph in the social sciences, her path was diverted by a studio course. She shows me a set of three tiny landscapes that appear to be melting. Are they buildings—or something found in a dreamed-of place? She likes to work in miniature so that “people can get close and project themselves inside.” As a child, she played with Plasticine and Play-Doh. “Colours and textures are what interest me most.” These days she is experimenting in the wood shop, and a piece of wood for a future work shows a little difficulty with the saw, a mistake that she has “fixed” and incorporated to create something obviously flawed. “I like making mistakes and working with them,” she says.

Ryan Clayton, the one member of the collective who did not formally study art at the University of Guelph, pulls out foam moulds that he has painted shades of pink and green. He calls these “proposal organs,” and holds one up to his abdomen. “We ornament the outsides of our bodies, so why not add extra organs?” Teaching himself to paint, he borrowed brushes and pigments from his colleagues. Another piece involves taking vinyl records and cleaning the grooves with Elmer’s glue. This is not as crazy as it sounds; turns out it actually works. He is left with a shiny, thin disc of the dried white glue that, as he demonstrates, can be played on the turntable. We watch as the arm bobs around, needle flipping through the glue-moulded grooves, and a kind of music emerges, a groaning symphony that is, he tells me, the “opposite of the original record.”

Anthony Cooper may have the grandest space, with a complete upper level: a crawl space squished between a dropped ceiling and the real ceiling. A ladder leads to his mattress, music system and laundry hanging from an old sprinkler system. He works on the ground-floor level. Beside a couple of abstract paintings (painting was his first love) is a collection of fasteners and connectors, tiny coloured objects that make me think of Lego pieces. Anthony “obsessively collects” and lets what he has found lie around until he decides what to do with it all, creating a sort of “sketchbook of potentially useful objects.” The fasteners and collectors gradually get attached in small stacks related by colour, scale and material. “I love little things,” he says. “They are direct and evocative but easily overlooked.” He sees himself as creating “tiny human families” displayed in a row. Shifts in scale attract his eye, where “things that should be small are big, and vice versa.” He has no desire to make larger sculptures of his own. “They make me want to kick them.”

“VSVSVS knows the difference between the art and the party,” says Carl. “They’re good at both, but they understand that even if art and life might occasionally shack up, marriage is not on the agenda. It’s really significant that the first space you enter at the compound is a conventional gallery. The only thing I might be credited with was making them do their homework. Specifically the [Dave] Hickey/[Peter] Schjeldahl notes on how to be an artist, namely: move to the city, form a gang, make people look, call it something—and when mainstream institutions start to pay attention: abandon ship.”

This is an article from the Summer 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more articles from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store until September 14.

A clarification was added to this article on September 2, 2014, to the effect that VSVSVS’s first “white-cube” gallery show, titled “Space Mods,” was curated by Chérie Fawcett.