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Reviews / September 25, 2013

Swarm Celebrates Vancouver’s Artist-Run Autumn

Various locations, Vancouver September 12 and 13, 2013

Despite forays into performance and sculpture, biennialism has yet to take hold in Vancouver. Instead, we have an annual, Swarm, which according to its organizer the Pacific Association of Artist-Run Centres “marks the launch of Vancouver’s artist-run centre programming season.”

Now in its 14th year, Swarm continues to mark time, though any suggestion that summer was a low season for artist-run initiatives was challenged by Dan Starling’s long-running The Part of No Part at 221A, Arvo Leo’s informal plein air residency near the Burrard Street Bridge (from where the Kitsilano were “relocated” in 1913), and the “Crystal Tongue” group exhibition at Exercise. Also worth noting is that Swarm mainstays grunt and Or had already opened their exhibitions a week earlier, making Swarm less about the specificity of the mark than the duration of the gesture.

To say that we are living at a time when the gesture has supplanted the mark is a progressive-modern idea that the gesture never had much time for. Indeed, if we have learned anything from last October’s Institutions by Artists conference, it is that artist-run centres, as compositional forms in their own right, have more in common with emergent social practices than they do as spaces for object display. And if these centres are open to object display, it is not merely the well-made object, but the object’s material vibrancy (and agency) that demands our consideration.

While social practices and a reconsideration of the object featured strongly in last year’s artist-run-centre season, this year’s Swarm, held over two nights at more than 20 venues, included a number of exhibitions by First Nations artists at grunt gallery, Malaspina Printmakers, ECUAD’s Concourse Gallery and, to a certain extent, UNIT/PITT. It also featured content provision by the digitally oriented New Forms Festival of contemporary art and music at artist-run gallery On Main, private gallery Equinox and educational institute ECUAD’s Centre for Digital Media. That the “NET-ETH: Going out of the Darkness” exhibition—showing prints, sculpture and video by artists including survivors of residential schools and their descendants—was located at the most westerly edge of the Swarm landscape on Granville Island, while Equinox’s Scenes from an Unsound Mind (a multimedia exploration that begins with the “Western as…an excursion into the unknown and…an encounter with an alterity”) appeared at its most easterly aspect in the newly branded False Creek Flats provided this viewer with his propositional point of departure: Are identity-based works and works derived from “state of the art” technologies two distinct marks on the landscape, or does the distance between them (both in space and in time) assume a continuum?

How appropriate, then, that Western Front opened with Sylvain Sailly’s “Continuum Model,” where the Vancouver-based French artist provides viewers with a series of animated monitor works, sculptures, sounds and architectural interventions that, in the words of Western Front’s website, unite in “bringing form to otherwise intangible socio-economic realities.” But are these forms recognizable to those who suffer under the realities that inspire them? And are they so “intangible”? Indeed, these forms, based as they are on “diagrams and schematics often employed by technological industries and advertising,” feel more internal than external, making a case for how the “realities” they are based on get under our skin, re-wire us, remind us how the capitalist mode of production (for example) is naturalized through body analogies, as those and other modes were by another Frenchman, the structural functionalist Émile Durkheim.

Whether Sailly’s examination of technology and its drivers was matched by anything in the New Forms Festival’s program is hard to say, as I did not attend everything New Forms had to offer. But what I did see of its Swarm events felt more decorative than dialogical: a historical display of Donald Buchla’s synthesizers at On Main, an hour of Detroit-born DJ Jeff Mills’s 200-beats-per-minute techno mix supplemented by poorly scaled visual projections of de-peopled landscapes at ECUAD’s Centre for Digital Media, and, because of an error concerning its starting time on the Swarm website, a locked door at Equinox. Had New Forms included within its program an exhibition such as Access Gallery guest curator Mohammad Salemy’s inventive display of historic screen-based devices (televisions, flatscreen monitors and smartphones) arranged at odd angles to present videos by emerging Iranian artists, I might have been more forgiving of On Main’s shop-like presentation. As it is, I remain skeptical of New Forms’ ability to add to, not subtract from, the critical rigour that has come to characterize Vancouver’s artist-run scene.

If Salemy’s exhibition approximates a closed circuit in the identity/technology continuum, perhaps it makes better sense to consider the work of Swarm’s First Nations artists within a concentric model that relates to the larger cultural field, one that includes the Mike Nelson exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery (which was listed in the “Off Swarm” program), the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery‘s “Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools,” and the arrival of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Such a model would hold particularly true for the Malaspina Printmakers component of “NET-ETH,” whose colourful though underwhelming pop-art prints and homespun dioramas only gain strength when viewed in relation to Nelson’s Eurocentric landscape slideshow and rustic maritime assemblages, the tidy intensity of “Witnesses,” and the catch-and-release self-examination that is Truth and Reconciliation. (The same could be said of exhibitions at grunt and the palatial new site of UNIT/PITT.) More successful are certain “NET-ETH” works at ECUAD’s Concourse Gallery; in particular, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun‘s human-scale crucifix made up of red-dotted boy’s underwear (Residential School Dirty Laundry, 2013) and, though unrepresented in the exhibition catalogue, Lacie Burning‘s chilling mixed-media shed where an approaching nun is projected onto a wall of styrofoam heads covered by a translucent plastic sheet (Story Time, 2013).

Although this year’s Swarm lacked the energy and numbers of past annuals, there were some notable exhibitions. One was at Gropp’s Gallery Collective, a funky 1880s Victorian Italianate boarding house just west of Main Street that has been converted into an immersive life-as-art production and display site by its under-40 residents. Houses like these were once common to Vancouver, and could be found from Kitsilano to Commercial Drive; but with real-estate prices the way they are, it is their land that is valued, not what stands upon it.

Another worthwhile exhibition is Jayce Salloum‘s “location/dis-location(s): reprise” (2013) at CSA Space, a private artist-run gallery that prefers not to participate in Swarm, but is open to its audience nonetheless. I have always admired Salloum’s work, though have often felt intimidated by the density of his installations (which I believe is the point). However, what I found this time was not a room overdosing on postcards and newspaper cuttings, but a relatively spare right-angled array of well-composed and well-printed pictures whose continuum runs the gamut from monument to ruin.

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.