C Magazine and Visual Arts Nova Scotia held the Atlantic Symposium on Art Writing in Halifax from April 19th to 21st. I briefly considered going early and bringing my bicycle so that I could ride up to Antigonish – a small-ish town about 180 km away from Halifax, where’s an interesting confluence of artists, rural culture, and academics – before the symposium began. As it turned out, at the symposium there were people from all over the Atlantic region and a few from Antigonish, which more than made up for this foregone adventure.
When I arrived, I saw this map of “Professional Arts and Cultural Activities” at Visual Arts Nova Scotia. Squares are museums, triangles are festivals, circles are artists, musicians or writers. Some of these places are pretty obscure in really interesting ways. And there’s a lot that’s simply not on this map. It provides an outline for a really fantastic bike trip and more-or-less represents the idea that inspired this blog; to cycle around to places like this and write about artistic and cultural practices in a way that also consciously embraces the physical experience of getting there; and that gives such practices some broader context, whatever that might be.
At least in the arts, not many people are writing from these places, especially for national or international audiences. It doesn’t need to be said that being part of broader cultural conversations and critical debate is necessary to advance artistic practices, for artists to receive funding, and for their work to circulate beyond a local or regional context. Writing and publishing is an essential part of this process, so it was with this in mind that the symposium was organized.
Held at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and at NSCAD University, the symposium began with a talk by Sylvie Fortin, former Editor-in-Chief of the Atlanta-based quarterly, Art Papers, and interim Director at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston. This was followed by a day of panel discussions with Gabrielle Moser, independent curator and critic; Richard William Hill, Professor of Art History at York University; Leah Sandals, online Editor at Canadian Art; Ray Cronin, Director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; Mike Landry, Arts & Culture Editor at the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick; JJ Kegan McFadden, independent curator from Winnipeg; and Lizzy Hill, Editor of Visual Arts News. Speakers addressed the function and purpose of art writing, what it means to write critically (and why sometimes we don’t write criticism), different models for art writing and publishing, and how publications themselves work. The broader purpose of the symposium was to try to break down some of the barriers between writers working in Atlantic Canada, and some of the nationally and internationally focused art magazines like Canadian Art, Filip, Bordercrossings and C Magazine, and elicit more content from this part of the country.
The symposium covered a lot of ground, often circling around the question of what is criticism, where it can happen, and is whether there is a “crisis” in criticism – a question that is perhaps too-often repeated, but which typically arises in response to the glut of promotional writing in the form of press releases, catalog essays and other texts commissioned by galleries, which often reach only a fairly limited audience. However, as Fortin pointed out, the nature of criticism is to incite crisis, and that despite claims to the contrary, criticism is not dead. As the symposium unfolded, it became clear that criticism happens in a lot of different places – in publications as well as through people’s art practices – a point that Leah Sandals addresses in an article for Canadian Art Online, where she draws out some of the themes of weekend and highlights some of the interesting projects happening in Halifax. Her article can be seen here: http://www.canadianart.ca/features/2013/04/25/atlantic-symposium-new-directions-for-art-writing/. In particular, she notes a journal started by a group of NSCAD students, called CRIT, but also the previous publication projects of Eyelevel Gallery. At the symposium Eyelevel launched a catalogue for the World Portable Galleries Convention, that they held in 2012 (http://eyelevel-gallery.tumblr.com/galleries), reflecting a rich body of body of publications coming out of Atlantic Canada (It should also be noted that Halifax INK, a consortium of publishers including different Halifax-based artist-run centres and galleries had a table at last year’s New York Art Book Fair).
However, the issue that keeps affecting magazines is that it’s difficult to get content from Atlantic Canada. Conversely, artists and art organizations feel they’re not adequately represented in magazines outside the region. It’s difficult for most editors to get content from anywhere outside of major Canadian cities, simply because there is such a disproportion of writers in larger urban centres relative to smaller cities or rural areas. This creates a huge void in terms of what gets represented nationally and internationally, with publications ignoring vast and complex dimensions of aesthetic and cultural experience.
In Atlantic Canada there’s a lot going on in terms of not only contemporary art venues and organizations, but also artist-run culture. And historically, countercultures have taken root in the region in tandem with the rise of movements such as conceptualism. Organizations across the region include Struts Gallery and residency in Sackville, which hosts a number of different artists each year; Eastern Edge in St. John’s Newfoundland, Gallery Connexion in Fredericton, and the University College of Cape Breton Art Gallery, recently transformed under a new Director. As part of the symposium Visual Arts Nova Scotia led a tour of Halifax galleries; Mary Black, SEEDS Gallery, Eyelevel, Mount St. Vincent Gallery, Dalhousie Art Gallery, St. Mary’s University Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Eyelevel, an artist-run centre that’s been around since 1972, houses an archive of artist publications, and documents of Atlantic artist-run centres, in a back room. They’ve initiated a writer’s residency as part of this project, for anyone who wants to mine the history of artist-run culture in the Atlantic region.
During the tour Robert Hengeveld’s Agency was on view, two installations consisting of topiary that automatically receives regulated amounts of light and shearing, as such to maintain a sense of homeostasis (the grass is cut at the same pace that it grows).