“Maybe the Internet is for me what Paris in the 20s was for Joyce, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein or New York in 50s was for Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.” — Jon Rafman
Canadian new media artist Jon Rafman may be best known for his Google Street View project and his clever and poignant web art series Brand New Paint Job, in which recognizable 3D objects (and entire rooms and scenes more recently) appear to be wrapped in famous paintings as though the paintings themselves were wrapping paper. Because of the easy, crude techniques used to produce some web art, along with its reproducibility and disregard for the original copy (but we’ll leave that Pandora’s box for another post!), web or net art is still finding its sea legs in the fine art world. However, as a conversation with Rafman maintains, and as his live virtual tour project Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (see promo video here) in particular reveals, these conceptual works are as relevant as art gets today: they arise from our decentralized Internet age and draw attention to how contemporary subject formation is increasingly co-constitutive of the virtual, the actual, and the real.
I caught Rafman’s presentation of a live virtual tour of Second Life as it was delivered to an audience at Montreal performance venue, Il Motore. The presentation, which has happened in numerous cities now (and received much press), entails Rafman’s live navigation of Second Life with his avatar, Kool-Aid Man, as in The Kool-Aid Man — that exaggeratedly large jug of toxic-colored “drink” whose weird deep-voiced proclamations of oh yeah! and penchant for jumping through brick walls you may remember from marking commercial breaks on Saturday morning cartoons in the eighties. According to Rafman, Kool-Aid Man is identified with a specific demographic, one which grew up before the Internet age. Kool-Aid Man also represents an empty signifier from the decade that defined excess: “you can inscribe whatever you want onto Kool-Aid Man.” Much like Second Life itself, the reappropriation of Kool-Aid Man here, is both a source of ironic humor and a place for self-conscious critique: what is he and what does he represent, if anything?
In 1913, Marcel Duchamp created a ruckus with an assembled inverted bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. The provocateur stirred controversy soon after with more found objects, most famously a urinal entitled Fountain (1917). Duchamp’s witty play with gallerists and major art shows did more than question what constitutes art; it shone a light on the fabrication of the art world itself – a commercial construct defined somewhat arbitrarily by elites. It’s a tough pill for any institution to admit to, but today many major museums make deliberate attempts to dismiss distinctions between high and low art, decrying elitism in art. But one such line seems to be drawn in vanishing chalk – endorsing private companies in public institutions. At major Québec museum Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, an exhibition celebrating local fashion designer Denis Gagnon’s tenth anniversary features designs from his latest collections. Almost across the street, at luxury department store Holt Renfrew one can purchase some of said designs where they hang in a much more user-friendly context: on regular hangers and clothing racks, with price tags in the vicinity of “too-damn-expensive-for-me-to-even-THINK-of-trying-these-on!” So there you have it: in one place these “sculptures” float esoterically in a white cube and are sold as art; in another, they’re sold as clothes. Semantics and context are everything in art; they can be called upon to strategically craft meaning in the most inconspicuous of ways. Perhaps it is because of these reasons that the museum decidedly chose to steer clear of the “is fashion art?” debate for this exhibition. Instead, a markedly Montreal show unabashedly does more to celebrate local work than it provokes.
As a fashion stylist and an arts journalist, it would be tempting to say that I attended the Denis Shows All exhibition wearing two hats; but I didn’t. For me, both of these seemingly worlds apart spheres inform one another. I like to think that I approach fashion with a critical mind and that I approach art criticism from a productively experiential standpoint as an artist myself who constantly experiments with materials for costume and clothing. When I interviewed the exhibition’s curator Stéphane Aquin, he echoed a similar disdain for the application of airtight categories, citing architecture as an example of (public) art and paintings as design in so far that they also serve a function in covering wall space. Despite our best efforts to champion the theoretical transgression of categories, practically speaking, we often end up enforcing them. Aquin makes the point by having invited acclaimed architect and Governor General medal recipient, Gilles Saucier, to collaborate on the show, allowing Gagnon’s clothing to more justifiably call the gallery walls “home.”
When I visit an exhibition for the first time, my attention is foremost on the work and how it has been curated. Soon after, I come to think about its peripheral framing, or how this exhibition fits into its broader surroundings. I blame this on my vocation as a radio host of arts segments. At work, I have to produce programming for a specific target audience while also being responsible for providing context for potential regional listeners too. When I report on the arts, I do extensive research combing through a multitude of stories; this leads to interviewing artists, musicians, and filmmakers, and finally editing segments before I select the most interesting stories worthy for broadcast to the public. Is curating similar in some ways? On a smaller scale, in my independent curating projects, I see parallels between my radio work and selecting art for a specific space. It leads me to wonder how ideas about exhibiting art trickle down to a broader museum-going public, one that may not necessarily have an art critique background.
One such way is when curators take on the responsibility of translating an exhibition for a local audience by interpreting its significance through “home grown” parallels of political and historical experiences that resonate locally. So when Vancouver Art Gallery launched the first Canadian solo exhibit of Art21 artist Kerry James Marshall, I was curious to see how the curators (director Kathleen S. Bartels and artist Jeff Wall) might relate the show to Vancouverites, people whose city has a relatively very small black population. Marshall himself shared his awareness of this fact in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, citing that there are very few black-identifying artists getting attention in Vancouver. Of course, it is important that locals understand the significance of Marshall’s profound work completely on its own merit, but I wonder if Bartels and Wall could have ventured to tie the exhibition in with Vancouver’s uniquely diverse ethnic population.
I won’t go so far as to suggest what Bartels and Wall could have considered adding to their already fine show. It is a well-known fact that curators often deal with incredible limitations in putting together exhibitions, especially of this magnitude. However, the creative and ambitious proactivity of so many curators today to help draw surprising and interesting local connections is exciting. It’s a way for an incredible survey of works, like Marshall’s, to really live differently, breathing new life into each environment beyond the gallery’s walls.
The Great White North, as Canada is affectionately known, could be called something altogether different in the heated summer months. Try “Huge Hot Land” or “Expansive Land Mass Connected by Intermittent Places That Matter to Tourists.” The latter statement is definitely a bit crude, but every country is guilty of defining a nation’s arts and culture industries through a few select cities. And tourists help reaffirm the notion as they flock here when temperatures are more tolerable. In my following posts in this column, I will look at exhibitions in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver and provide an entry point to begin to talk about art in Canada and how it shapes the nation’s identity and cultural landscape. For a country that normally gets treated like the kid sister across the border, the arts are surprisingly vibrant in Canada, with many of its artistic exports doing well internationally. And this deserves some attention. Let’s start things off with Montréal.
One of the great things about summer in Montréal is that the laissez-faire attitude which the French-Canadian city is best known for explodes to its greatest heights. As it stands now, bicycles have taken over the city, café patios (until yesterday) brimmed with boisterous World Cup watchers, and picnic real estate is at a premium in public parks. Background is critical here: Montréal’s financial situation has been on a permanent hiatus since the economically disastrous 1976 Summer Olympics pummeled it into debt. This has inadvertently contributed to a thriving arts scene and a bohemian café culture to support it. Like Berliners, Montréalers appreciate affordable housing and the leisure time to enjoy it.
Summer boasts Montréal’s submission to major international music festivals (International Jazz Festival, MUTEK, Osheaga, Fringe etc.), while major art galleries’ and museums’ stab at summer programming represents something more modest with lower-profile exhibitions.
We are pleased to announce another new column this month, Calling from Canada.
Calling from Canada chronicles the burgeoning art scene across the border. The column will deliver the goods on exhibitions taking place in cities like Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver, and will look at how art shapes and contributes to a changing Canadian cultural landscape.
Calling from Canada is written by Raji Sohal, a CBC Radio One host, arts journalist, independent curator, fashion stylist, and pop culture fiend. Her work has been featured in the Globe and Mail, XLR8R, and on CBC Television. Research from her Master’s on Janet Cardiff and sound installation art will be published later this year. She lives in Montréal.