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May we suggest

Interviews / September 5, 2013

Q&A: Melanie O’Brian’s View on Vancouver

Having spawned artists from Jeff Wall to Geoffrey Farmer, it’s fair to say that Vancouver remains Canada’s best-known art city worldwide. The city is also home to some of the country’s leading art thinkers and curators. This includes Melanie O’Brian, director of Simon Fraser University’s three galleries, which spread from downtown to the suburbs. In this email interview with critic Michael Turner, O’Brian ponders the links between art markets and artmaking, examines the challenges of melding the university and the gallery, and discusses how she intends to forge stronger links between Terminal City’s creative past and present.

Michael Turner: Your October 2012 appointment as director of Simon Fraser University’s Audain, Teck and SFU (Burnaby) galleries has put you in a unique position among your peers. For example, I can’t think of anyone in this country who has worked at a commercial gallery (Catriona Jeffries), a collecting public gallery (the Vancouver Art Gallery), an artist-run centre (Artspeak), a non-collecting contemporary art gallery (the Power Plant), and now a university gallery, at least not at the levels you have. While the better part of me is interested in the range of that experience (the whole being greater than the sum of its parts), I wonder if you might indulge my more particular self and, in a line or two, speak of what you have learned at each of these spaces—not necessarily these specific spaces, but the particular cultures (private, public, artist-run, pedagogical) that each of these spaces is identified with.

Melanie O’Brian: Of course, the whole is definitely more interesting than the sum of its parts, and as we know, the cultures of the spaces are intertwined, so I cannot speak in absolutes; it’s a soup in which I cannot distinguish where one culture begins and ends.

One of many shared aspects of the institutions to which you refer is that they are young and not overly fixed in their identities—meaning that my experience of them has been less of carrying out rote agendas than being part of an investigative process. For example, the VAG, being the oldest institution on the list at 82 years, is unlike the Frankfurt’s Städel Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago in their wide-ranging encyclopedic collections and programs. Instead, it focuses on constructing a history of art in and for Vancouver that is relatively recent. All of the places I have worked, save for the Power Plant, are working to define art in Vancouver.

Vancouver is a young city, its Western culture is young, and there is a lot of coming-into-being here, a place where many things seem possible. SFU is about to turn 50, Artspeak is 26, Catriona Jeffries’s gallery is 19. All of these organizations share an intellectual responsibility to art history and to supporting artists and innovative practices.

But the institutions are really about the people in them and what aspects of an art dialogue they are in conversation with. I have learned a lot from individuals at these institutions and their commitment to a level of discourse and ambition, not only for Vancouver artists, but for artists internationally—to bring Vancouver artists, curators, writers, and others into a dialogue with a larger artistically and intellectually connected art community. I think my experiences are also about place: an investment in place and its connection to an international dialogue or zeitgeists (or poltergeists).

Undertaking research on the N.E. Thing Co. at Catriona Jeffries (which returns me to where I am now, as IAIN BAXTER& of NETCO was responsible for the first exhibitions at SFU, including bringing Seth Siegelaub, Lucy Lippard and others to Vancouver) was part of driving a history of pedagogy and influence that drew a line through generations of Jeffries’s gallery artists (Iain taught Ian Wallace, who taught Brian Jungen and Geoffrey Farmer at Emily Carr, who in turn have influenced Julia Feyrer, etc.). This work indicated to me that the space of a private gallery had intellectual responsibilities, responsibilities to artists and was crucial in its contribution to histories (including the marketplace, as you know from your text in Vancouver Art & Economies, “ Whose Business Is It?: Vancouver’s Commercial Galleries and the Production of Art”).

The public institution always has a responsibility to a public—as well as to history, place, and artists. The VAG and the Power Plant taught me about the balance between artists, art, the public (in not underestimating an audience and giving them enough tools to engage with the work), and the structures of support and power (boards, donors, funders, etc.). These places taught me about systems, administration and institutional realities.

Artist-run culture offered the most intellectual and artistic freedom, with smaller audiences and an existence largely outside the funding demands of larger institutions. And now, at SFU, I feel that SFU Galleries’ program could include aspects of the ARC, albeit with greater bureaucracy and a multifaceted university agenda. This also comes from being in a director position, where, although part of a team, one has greater agency.

The pedagogical space, as you characterize it, feels full of potential, but it also suffers from a kind of conservatism in response to wider pressures. What I see as exciting at SFU Galleries is the intersection with a wide diversity of thinkers, students, experts and publics, and the opportunity to rethink how art functions and can be critical within this context. The gallery is a space of intellectual exploration that is unparalleled. We’ve talked about not bringing the gallery to the university but bringing the university into gallery—opening up a space of intellectual freedom in the gallery that is greatly needed to address political, aesthetic and philosophical issues not taken up elsewhere.

Ultimately, in the ever-changing moving target that is the art world, I’ve learned to be responsive to various contexts and to work with art, artists and ideas to respond to these conditions.

MT: In an interview shortly after your SFU appointmentThe Peak‘s David Kloepfer reminds us that SFU’s three galleries have “individual and different objectives,” before asking: “How do you intend to influence each gallery with your own personal style and sensibility?” In response, you call for a “dialogue between the spaces” and state that “different objectives open up the possibility for cross-pollination, collaboration and multi-part projects, while allowing the specificities of each space to remain strong.” Ten months have passed since that interview. Could you give us an example of that “dialogue” with respect to your upcoming program?

MO: I expect that the dialogue will become more apparent over a longer period of time, like programming an institution that has multiple exhibitions running concurrently. I am looking for synergies between simultaneous projects so that audiences can make connections between the exhibitions and spaces, and ultimately between the different SFU campus sites, with each carrying their own histories, architectures, politics and contentions.

Geography is an issue between the SFU Galleries, so we are holding talks and screenings that relate to programming in Burnaby and in Vancouver, planning events to draw visitors up the mountain and working toward projects that will have components in all three spaces and perhaps even along Hastings Street—the main artery between the Burnaby and Vancouver campuses. I want the lines between the galleries to be navigable physically, psychically and intellectually.

This coming fall, SFU Galleries presents three exhibitions that consider the institutional conditions of the gallery and the university as sites of knowledge production. The first, at SFU Gallery, is a new installation, a large-scale model for an imaginary museum by Vancouver artist Samuel Roy-Bois that will not only function as sculpture and furniture, but also house works from the SFU collection. At Audain Gallery, Berlin-based artist Hito Steyerl’s work examines the site of the university where Adorno taught: conservators scrape the walls, looking for the legendary layer of grey that Adorno had his classroom painted in order to promote student concentration. Through Steyerl’s videos, timelines and photographs, the work pulls together histories of student protests, nude protests, monochrome painting and Adorno’s biography that share the frame of modernism. At Teck Gallery—a very public lounge–type space—the collective Instant Coffee’s yearlong installation operates as a theatrical stage, allowing for everyday social and university activities to play out within its framework.

Alongside the exhibitions program, I am developing discursive and publishing programs (a new publication series will launch in 2014). At Artspeak and the Power Plant, these aspects of curatorial practice were critical to my thinking, and I think at SFU Galleries we can capitalize on public programming and publications to connect audiences locally and internationally.

MT: In preparing for this interview, I re-read your introduction to Vancouver Art & Economies, curious to see what has changed since its publication in 2007. What I found had less to do with change than with continuity: the interrelationship between art and the market continues apace, enabled by the emergence of cultural brokerage houses like The Cheaper Show and Cause + Affect. At the same time, the “alternatives” you anticipated have also emerged—what we have come to call “social practices” (in all its critical, affirmative and object-anxious forms). You have worked with artists attentive to these practices (Althea Thauberger at Artspeak, Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber at the Power Plant and, most recently, Instant Coffee at Teck Gallery). Is it fair to say that your interest in social practices has grown since you began the Vancouver Art & Economies project? And if so, would it also be fair to say that your interest in these practices is based on their resistance to this interrelationship between art and the market?

MO: I do think it is fair to say that my interest in social practices has grown, but I think the practices themselves have grown in response to wider conditions, particularly in Vancouver. I always put the artist first and I follow the practices. I am not seeking out something that is not there, so when my interest in these types of practices grows, it is led by an activity or set of activities by artists.

Since Vancouver Art & Economies, Richard-Floridian language around the creative class and the instrumentalization of art has proliferated. It is something I remain very wary of, and I think it is a larger market and a neoliberal agenda that is being taken up or critiqued in much of the work I am interested in.

In giving space to these practices, I turned from “exhibition making” at Artspeak to two years of offsite programming (2008 to 2010) in order to relieve myself and artists from the strictures and tiny space of the four walls of the gallery, and to give room to other modes of working. Some of these practices were more social, such as Althea Thauberger’s Carrall Street (2008) or Norma’s Brawl (2010). Others used outdoor advertising structures to present work, such as Aaron Carpenter’s text work Finnegan Swake (2008). We also took projects to Hamburg, London and Chilliwack and tested what it meant to work “offsite”—being dislocated from a grounded locale and having to often respond to challenging conditions.

Resistance or critique is always of interest to me—staking a position. Because we keep our eyes on the underlying drivers and power desires within any system, exposing these drivers offers an important position. Art is important for its response to the world around us, to rethink or reassess economies.

MT: SFU is approaching its fiftieth anniversary; no doubt its galleries will be involved in the festivities. In reviewing the history of the gallery program, I see that it is a rich one. Same with the visual arts faculty, with teaching positions held by artists and scholars such as Jeff Wall and Kaja Silverman, respectively. I am also aware that the university is no stranger to conflict, particularly the campus protests and faculty firings of the late 1960s and early 1970s; as well as, more recently, with the increased presence of public-private partnerships like the establishment of the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, situations that bring to mind the interrelationship between art and the market that you discuss in Vancouver Art & Economies. In constructing a program to mark these 50 years, I wonder if you might give us a preview of what we might expect.

MO: The project that will line up with SFU’s fiftieth—but one that I would have done regardless—is an examination and documentation of the visual arts at SFU. As you note, there is a rich history of artists at SFU who have shown, taught, studied and produced work here, but one that is spottily documented.

In 2015, we will be undertaking a series of exhibitions across all SFU Galleries that look at the history (which includes political and institutional histories as well) using works from the collection, borrowed works, and recreations and new commissions. The program will also include performances, speaker series and public art projects.

The Arthur Erickson/George Massey–designed Burnaby campus is a locale we will take advantage of, both in showing works and in exploring what took place there over the last half-century. Works from the collection may range from BC art history, particularly of a West Coast Modernism (Gordon Smith, Takao Tanabe, Jack Shadbolt), Conceptual projects of the late 60s and early 70s, the Young Romantics of the 80s, First Nations practices, and more recent works. NETCO, ephemeral works done on campus in the 70s by Sol LeWitt, Lawrence Weiner and others, are of strong interest, as is Rodney Graham’s Illuminated Ravine (1979), which took place on the mountain. Downtown, the history of Woodward’s is rich, even if SFU is a relatively recent presence, and we certainly want to examine that and the diversity of practices that have approached the contested context.

Importantly, we will also be undertaking a book project to expand upon the exhibition series, document visual art activity at SFU, offer space for divergent histories and artist projects, and lay the historical groundwork for future programming at SFU Galleries. It won’t aim to be comprehensive, and it will be less from the faculty perspective and more from an art history perspective (note that the interdisciplinary School for Communication and the Arts—what is now the School for the Contemporary Arts—is where IAIN BAXTER& and R. Murray Schafer located themselves, until an upheaval in the early 70s). It’s important to SFU Galleries’ program to establish our history, the remarkable and key things that have taken place at SFU, and to build from there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Michael Turner

Michael Turner is a writer of fiction, criticism and song based in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh people. His most recent book, 9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven, is published by New Star Books.