Ac­ces­si­bil­ity in artis­tic spa­ces

Art Mat­ters de­con­structs how we un­der­stand art

The McGill Daily - - Culture - Tay­lor Mitchell This in­ter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.

Con­tent warn­ing: men­tion of sui­cide

Around this time in 2012, Con­cor­dia’s an­nual Art Mat­ters fes­ti­val in­cluded a per­for­mance piece en­ti­tled Hey, Um, I’m Sorry that I Killed You: A Per­for­mance Piece of Mourn­ing, Guilt and Dis­re­gard, in which Caleb Fei­gin sub­merged him­self in a pool of ev­ery­day ob­jects that he’d col­lected. “I’m per­form­ing my feel­ings of guilt,” said Fei­gin in a 2013 in­ter­view with The Daily. “The per­for­mance is about mourn­ing [...] a friend who [had] com­mit­ted sui­cide.” Fei­gin’s piece, as part of the larger ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled “Ci­ta­tion,” asks the ques­tion of how one can look at the body given the com­pli­ca­tions of vis­ual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Five years later, Art Mat­ters con­tin­ues to ex­plore the bound­aries be­tween art and pol­i­tics within a space that aims to sub­vert our un­der­stand­ings of the two.

Since 2000, Art Mat­ters has pro­vided a space for artists to sub­vert nor­ma­tive nar­ra­tives around iden­tity through cun­ningly in­no­va­tive artis­tic tech­niques. The stu­dent-cu­rated fes­ti­val be­gan with five Con­cor­dia Fine Arts stu­dents who were dis­en­chanted with the lack of recog­ni­tion their work had re­ceived in main­stream fes­ti­vals. Now, Art Mat­ters is the largest stu­dent-run art fes­ti­val in North Amer­ica. The fo­cus of the fes­ti­val has shifted over time, es­tab­lish­ing not only di­a­logues be­tween stu­dent artists and pro­fes­sion­als but also wider con­ver­sa­tions about art it­self in re­la­tion to such themes as on­tol­ogy, fetishiza­tion, and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism.

Art Mat­ters is back at it again with a 2017 edi­tion, fea­tur­ing a highly-an­tic­i­pated lineup of events. From in­stal­la­tions to fi­bres to elec­troa­cous­tics, the ma­jor­ity of the ex­hi­bi­tions jux­ta­pose dif­fer­ent medi­ums within the same space to com­pli­cate how we ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand art. This year, the fes­ti­val has re­vamped its struc­ture for an anti-op­pres­sion fo­cus, both within the ex­hibits them­selves and among fes­ti­val staff and vol­un­teers.

The Daily sat down with Michael Mar­tini, out­reach co­or­di­na­tor of Art Mat­ters, to dis­cuss ac­ces­si­bil­ity in the arts, the fes­ti­val’s man­date, and the value of art.

The Mcgill Daily (MD): Did you find any dom­i­nant themes, medi­ums, or con­cepts in the submissions this year?

Michael Mar­tini (MM): Over­all there was a big­ger push to di­ver­sify the artis­tic medi­ums in the fes­ti­val. Last year, there was a lot […] more tra­di­tional stu­dio art. This year, we as a co­or­di­nat­ing team really made an ef­fort to reach out to other stu­dents – to mu­sic stu­dents, to per­form­ing stu­dents, to dance stu­dents – and to really en­cour­age peo­ple to think out­side the box [...] We got nearly dou­ble the submissions from last year. In terms of themes, Art Mat­ters’ man­date is in­clu­siv­ity, di­ver­sity, and ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and these are what we’re con­stantly striv­ing to­ward. So when peo­ple sub­mit­ted pro­pos­als for ex­hi­bi­tions, we really did take ex­tra con­sid­er­a­tion when look­ing at themes of fem­i­nism, queer iden­tity, queer sex­u­al­ity, race, is­sues of marginal­iza­tion [...] We’ll see a lot of in­ter­est­ing queer per­for­mance art this year. In terms of other themes that had a sur­pris­ing amount of in­ter­est be­hind them, a lot of peo­ple are really into kitsch and retro. A lot of peo­ple are look­ing at [these themes], es­pe­cially in the con­text of Que­bec.

MD: You men­tioned the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of ac­ces­si­bil­ity – how will the fes­ti­val be work­ing to achieve this goal?

MM: Un­for­tu­nately, it’s very dif­fi­cult for ev­ery space to be wheel­chair ac­ces­si­ble, but it’s some­thing we def­i­nitely took into con­sid­er­a­tion for event plan­ning, and all our big par­ties will def­i­nitely be in an ac­ces­si­ble space. We’re also fea­tur­ing di­verse, ac­ces­si­ble con­tent at our par­ties. [...] But we’ll def­i­nitely make [ac­ces­si­bil­ity] in­for­ma­tion avail­able on­line. Ex­tend­ing be­yond wheel­chair ac­ces­si­bil­ity, for ex­am­ple, we have a speaker series where peo­ple come and talk about var­i­ous topics at Con­cor­dia. Some­thing else we’re ex­cited about in our col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Fine Arts Stu­dent Al­liance is to make those events more ac­ces­si­ble by find­ing ways to of­fer whis­per trans­la­tion, or find­ing ways to record the events for peo­ple who can­not ar­rive at them, so we’re in that brain­storm­ing phase right now. I think the big­gest step taken to­ward ac­ces­si­bil­ity, which was ac­tu­ally ini­ti­ated last year, was mak­ing the art submissions anony­mous, so that the peo­ple ju­ry­ing the art – whom are all peers – can’t be play­ing favourites, or dis­cour­ag­ing cer­tain peo­ple for ap­ply­ing. I think that’s an­other rea­son we have so much turn out this year.

MD: What pieces are shap­ing up to be this sea­son’s high­lights?

MM: At this point we know what the shows are look­ing like. We had our call for submissions over the break, and this week we’re go­ing to be ju­ry­ing with the cu­ra­tors to de­ter­mine what art­works will be fea­tured in the fes­ti­val. There will be about 100 [pieces]. But we do have a good idea about some of the shows and how they’re look­ing. There’s go­ing to be a show on Con­cor­dia cam­pus that specif­i­cally features artists of colour at the VAV Gallery, which is some­thing that’s really im­por­tant to us be­cause there’s been a huge de­mand on our board of di­rec­tors and peo­ple con­nected with the fes­ti­val who want to see more of their work rep­re­sented on cam­pus. There’s also go­ing to be a really cool un­der­ground queer per­for­mance zine ex­change night [...] that we’re really ex­cited for.

MD: When you’re in the process of se­lect­ing pieces and de­cid­ing which work goes in what space, what do you look for in a valu­able work of art?

MM: Within my job as the out­reach co­or­di­na­tor, I would say that [...] it’s not im­por­tant that the art pieces fea­tured in the fes­ti­val are su­per pol­ished or com­plete. What we’re try­ing to do is to foster op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple, whether it’s putting their art in a space they wouldn’t have ac­cess to oth­er­wise, or putting their art in a space that other stu­dents from dif­fer­ent departments will see, and giv­ing peo­ple a chance to talk. I think Art Mat­ters has a huge learn­ing curve for ev­ery­one in­volved – from those be­hind the scenes on the board, etcetera, to the peo­ple putting their art out there. It’s of­ten about a chance for peo­ple to talk to oth­ers. In terms of suc­cess­ful pieces, we really value risk-tak­ing, and art­works that are in di­a­logue with other stu­dents’ in­ter­ests and pol­i­tics.

MD: How have you seen stu­dents us­ing the fes­ti­val and the spa­ces it pro­vides as a bridge in their ca­reers?

MM: I’ll speak on be­half of my own ex­pe­ri­ence, as I have cu­rated with the fes­ti­val in the past. Art Mat­ters is about bring­ing to­gether peo­ple from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines – with video in the same space as sculpture, for ex­am­ple. Learn­ing the lan­guage of other dis­ci­plines is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant in mov­ing for­ward with your own prac­tice. Of­ten when you’re study­ing one dis­ci­pline, you can get tun­nel vi­sion and only un­der­stand that vo­cab­u­lary, but when you start to see what other peo­ple are do­ing, it’s a great re­minder that you can be bor­row­ing from other tech­niques and look­ing at the way other peo­ple are think­ing. In terms of suc­cess sto­ries, there have too many to men­tion. A lot of peo­ple in the fes­ti­val met some­one they were show­cased with, talked, and went on to col­lab­o­rate. And many peo­ple who de­vel­oped con­nec­tions, for ex­am­ple, to peo­ple run­ning the space, and they de­vel­oped a great re­la­tion­ship, and are able to do some­thing again in that space. For ex­am­ple, we had a show called “We, ‘Other’” last year [...] and POP Mon­treal took in­ter­est in that show and ac­tu­ally re­mounted it [...] the next year.

MD: Con­sid­er­ing our read­er­ship largely per­tains to Mcgill stu­dents, why do you think it’s im­por­tant that they at­tend?

MM: My un­der­stand­ing is that Mcgill doesn’t have an op­por­tu­nity like Art Mat­ters [for Mcgill stu­dents] to dis­play their work, [which has ob­tained] such a great level of at­ten­tion [...] But even though the op­por­tu­nity isn’t there to ex­hibit art­work, there’s still op­por­tu­nity to go and meet in­ter­ested peo­ple, and talk to [the artists] about what they learned from their ex­pe­ri­ence ex­hibit­ing art­work. There’s no doubt that there are peo­ple at Mcgill who have art­work that they want to get out there, and who want to talk and ex­change ideas be­tween peo­ple of dif­fer­ent artis­tic back­grounds. In that sense, the more the mer­rier. Mcgill stu­dents can also vol­un­teer [...] Our events ex­tend be­yond Art Mat­ters, like our speaker series, where we bring in artists and schol­ars to speak about art, or our fes­ti­val par­ties – fun filled with mu­sic and danc­ing – are the events that peo­ple don’t really know about. You just show up!

Pho­tos Courtesy of Art Mat­ters


Things re­peated

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