Doing Horizontal Work in Vertical Structures

FEAR thumbnail
 The Mural Project thumbnail
Helping Young People Excel (H.Y.P.E)  thumbnail
Pride Celebrations 2011 thumbnail
Screen This thumbnail
ShiftChange thumbnail
ShiftChange thumbnail
Sound of Art thumbnail
The Living Room Project thumbnail
Underground Sasquatch Protection Network (USPN) thumbnail
The SEED production studio thumbnail
The SEED production studio thumbnail
The Mural Project
Helping Young People Excel (H.Y.P.E)
Pride Celebrations 2011
Screen This
Sound of Art
The Living Room Project
Underground Sasquatch Protection Network (USPN)
The SEED production studio
The SEED production studio

FEAR, a project by the AGO Youth Coun­cil & Peter King­stone, 2010, movie still.

The Mur­al Project, a project by the AGO Youth Coun­cil & Francesca Nocera, 2008, aerosol art

Help­ing Young Peo­ple Excel (H.Y.P.E) was a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the AGO Youth Coun­cil and The fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ed hip hop as an art form, and paved the way for groups like Man­i­festo and UNITY

Pride Cel­e­bra­tions 2011, Dancers Ill Nana per­form­ing at the AGO

Screen This, a silk screen and activism work­shop by Ken­ji Tokawa for the AGO’s Free After Three pro­gram, 2009

ShiftChange, a project by the AGO Youth Coun­cil and Dan Berg­eron, 2008, Street Art. The project explored trans­for­ma­tion and gen­der and cel­e­brat­ed the re-list­ing of SRS under OHIP after a 10 year fight by trans com­mu­ni­ties. 2 shots are : prep­ping paste-up pan­els; instal­la­tion of paste-ups on front of AGO

ShiftChange, a project by the AGO Youth Coun­cil and Dan Berg­eron, 2008, Street Art. The project explored trans­for­ma­tion and gen­der and cel­e­brat­ed the re-list­ing of SRS under OHIP after a 10 year fight by trans com­mu­ni­ties. 2 shots are : prep­ping paste-up pan­els; instal­la­tion of paste-ups on front of AGO

Sound of Art, a project by the AGO Youth Coun­cil & Nobuo Kub­o­ta, 2008, sound art & instal­la­tion. Work­ing with one of Canada’s great sound artists, the group explored inter­gen­er­a­tional exchange and perception/our senses

The Liv­ing Room Project, a project of the AGO Youth Coun­cil & Swin­tak, 2005, instal­la­tion & per­for­mance. The group part­nered with oth­er youth in the city and formed “The Uphol­stery Mili­tia”. Image is of their ID badges for per­for­mance as ‘cer­ti­fied out­door uphol­stery specialists’

Under­ground Sasquatch Pro­tec­tion Net­work (USPN), a project of the AGO YC and Rebe­ka Tabobon­dung & John Hup­field, 2010, video.

The SEED pro­duc­tion stu­dio. Pho­to cred­it Pami­la Math­aru 2012–2013.

The SEED pro­duc­tion stu­dio. Pho­to cred­it Pami­la Math­aru 2012–2013.

Han­nah Jick­ling and Helen Reed in con­ver­sa­tion with Loree Lawrence, Syrus Mar­cus Ware, and Pami­la Matharu.

Han­nah Jick­ling: Helen and I want­ed to get the three of you togeth­er because we all work using sim­i­lar frame­works in the city of Toron­to. We have been think­ing about the three of you as points of ref­er­ence, over the past year dur­ing our res­i­den­cy projects, and we have been lucky enough to have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss these projects with you. You are all artists, you all work with youth, and you all work for major pub­lic insti­tu­tions. We thought that get­ting all five of us in a room for a con­ver­sa­tion could be fruit­ful, par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of recent con­ver­sa­tions we have had about redefin­ing com­mu­ni­ty arts prac­tices. Per­haps we could begin with a round of intro­duc­tions – your names, your art prac­tice and sig­nif­i­cant projects, and your insti­tu­tion­al affiliations.

Syrus Mar­cus Ware: My name is Syrus Mar­cus Ware, and I’m an artist, and I pri­mar­i­ly work with paint­ing, mixed media and per­for­mance art. I’m a par­ent and that seems like more and more of an excit­ing project too. I have worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for 10 years run­ning all of the youth pro­gram­ming. I also work doing com­mu­ni­ty research relat­ed to HIV, pris­ons, and black/trans queer communities.

Loree Lawrence: I’m Loree Lawrence. I am cur­rent­ly the Com­mu­ni­ty and Mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Offi­cer at the Ontario Arts Coun­cil (OAC). Before that I worked for numer­ous years, per­haps 20, doing col­lab­o­ra­tive the­atre devel­op­ment with street-involved youth. Dur­ing that time, I was the artis­tic direc­tor at a pro­gram called KYTES (Kens­ing­ton Youth The­atre Employ­ment Ser­vices). Until 2003, KYTES oper­at­ed as a satel­lite pro­gram of OASIS, a Toron­to Dis­trict School Board (TDSB) alter­na­tive sec­ondary school. It was a very cool project; one of the best mod­els of edu­ca­tion I have ever par­tic­i­pat­ed in. My inter­est has always been in work­ing in infor­mal edu­ca­tion­al set­tings and out­side of insti­tu­tions, thus one of my cur­rent focus­es, in my job at the OAC, is to facil­i­tate and devel­op com­mu­ni­ty-engaged prac­tices in areas out­side of Toronto.

Pami­la Math­aru: I’m Pami­la Math­aru. I’m a prac­tis­ing artist and a teach­ing artist. I teach at SEED Alter­na­tive School, in the TDSB. Estab­lished in 1968, SEED was the first pub­licly fund­ed alter­na­tive school in Cana­da and we are based on the Sum­mer­hill School mod­el. SEED was the first school to intro­duce cat­a­lyst mod­els into edu­ca­tion, where artists were invit­ed to come teach at night, in the sum­mer, or on week­ends. And not just artists, but sci­en­tists and lawyers and philoso­phers too. What­ev­er young peo­ple want­ed to learn in those pre-inter­net days, the teacher would find a cat­a­lyst and learn­ing would be facil­i­tat­ed by these pro­fes­sion­als. I’m just start­ing my third year at SEED and I was brought in to revise and reshape the visu­al arts pro­gram. I don’t try to sep­a­rate my artist iden­ti­ty and my teach­ing artist iden­ti­ty, but rather my artis­tic prac­tice informs what I am doing at SEED. Pri­or to SEED I did a lot of instal­la­tion-based work, pho­to-based work, and a lot of cura­to­r­i­al projects such as TAAFI (Toron­to Alter­na­tive Art Fair Inter­na­tion­al) and “Come Up to My Room” at the Glad­stone Hotel in Toronto.

Helen Reed: Loree, some­thing that we’ve been inter­est­ed in are your efforts to rede­fine com­mu­ni­ty arts prac­tice and to expand the term com­mu­ni­ty arts. Com­mu­ni­ty arts comes loaded with all kinds of asso­ci­a­tions – such as mur­al paint­ing, mosaics, com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens – and these kinds of art prac­tices have typ­i­cal­ly been under val­ued in the art world. We have always been reluc­tant to have any kind of affil­i­a­tion with com­mu­ni­ty arts, as it is gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with art­work that does not seek an audi­ence beyond the com­mu­ni­ty in which it was gen­er­at­ed. It’s impor­tant for us to cre­ate work that can have rel­e­vance in mul­ti­ple con­texts. There are so many exam­ples of process-based art­works that have the abil­i­ty to trans­mit beyond the ‘event.’ Can you talk about how you per­ceive the stig­ma of com­mu­ni­ty arts and also what kind of poten­tial you think the term holds?

LL: Trac­ing back my own his­to­ry, as a prac­tis­ing the­atre artist, I involved the com­mu­ni­ty in the work that I did. And at that time, in the mid 80s, we referred to our­selves as ‘pop­u­lar the­atre artists.’ All of a sud­den, in the 90s the term ‘com­mu­ni­ty arts’ emerged to describe the work of artists of all dis­ci­plines who were co-cre­at­ing art with peo­ple who did­n’t iden­ti­fy as artists. It was impor­tant at the time because the prac­tice of mov­ing beyond the arts world to engage with oth­er peo­ple need­ed an iden­ti­ty and it also need­ed a way to be fund­ed in the art world. OAC played a pret­ty key role in earn­ing a place for engaged arts prac­tice by estab­lish­ing the fund­ing pro­gram Artists in the Community/Workplace in 1998.

In my role at the OAC I’m inter­est­ed in refram­ing the def­i­n­i­tions of com­mu­ni­ty arts prac­tice and the assump­tions that accom­pa­ny them, and move toward cre­at­ing more open notions of what the prac­tice embod­ies. In my mind there should be no dis­cernible aes­thet­ics to com­mu­ni­ty arts prac­tice if the work is tru­ly co-cre­at­ed. You know, colours and shapes and all sorts of images come to mind in ref­er­ence to com­mu­ni­ty arts when there is absolute­ly no basis for that, oth­er than the fact that a par­tic­u­lar group of artists have dom­i­nat­ed the field. How­ev­er, that is chang­ing now with a new gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple inter­est­ed in doing sim­i­lar work. For exam­ple, I have pro­posed to rework the OAC’s Artist in the Community/Workplace pro­gram to iden­ti­fy the core prin­ci­ples of com­mu­ni­ty-engaged prac­tice. Fur­ther­more the OAC needs to be more respon­sive to the myr­i­ad ways artists work out­side of the con­ven­tion­al art world and its asso­ci­at­ed insti­tu­tions. For exam­ple, artists might be using a com­mu­ni­ty arts mod­el, but don’t iden­ti­fy as com­mu­ni­ty artists, or they don’t know what com­mu­ni­ty arts is, and there­fore expand­ed terms and def­i­n­i­tions are need­ed. There are a lot of mis­con­cep­tions about com­mu­ni­ty arts that I hope to address in my posi­tion at the OAC.

PM: Can I just make a quick com­ment to that? Because I won­der why it is that what I do with youth col­lab­o­ra­tors, even before I got into teach­ing, was mis­rep­re­sent­ed as ‘com­mu­ni­ty arts?’ I use the term ‘mis­rep­re­sent­ed’ because when artists work with non-artists to cre­ate a work of art (and we see this a lot now), their work is under­stood as con­tem­po­rary art, but when an artist of colour works with young peo­ple, it is typ­i­cal­ly labeled ‘com­mu­ni­ty art.’ Judith Thomp­son is an award win­ning Cana­di­an play­wright, who often works with non-pro­fes­sion­al actors. On Kawara is a Japan­ese-Amer­i­can artist, known for his date paint­ing series enti­tled “Today.” In 1997 he installed sev­en pieces from the series in kinder­garten class­rooms around the world as a social exper­i­ment project, which he called “Pure Con­scious­ness.” Their works cir­cu­late as con­tem­po­rary art, while my prac­tice has often been mis­rep­re­sent­ed as com­mu­ni­ty art.

LL: And there is the hier­ar­chy with­in the art world around what is legit­i­mate art.  Cur­rent­ly com­mu­ni­ty arts are not con­sid­ered to be a legit­i­mate form of con­tem­po­rary art.

SMW: It’s about prin­ci­ples of work­ing. When the AGO was under­go­ing a ren­o­va­tion to cre­ate the West­on Fam­i­ly Learn­ing Cen­tre, one of the issues, for those of us in the edu­ca­tion depart­ment, was what to call our com­mu­ni­ty gallery space. Over­all we were on board with the idea of a ‘com­mu­ni­ty’ gallery. How­ev­er, ini­tial­ly the staff per­son who came on to do the pro­gram­ming in that space was con­cerned about the term. She had a real­ly ter­rif­ic vision and great ideas, but she was caught up in what it meant to call a space a ‘com­mu­ni­ty’ gallery. She want­ed to take the word com­mu­ni­ty out of the title, because hav­ing the word com­mu­ni­ty in front of the gallery would pos­si­bly con­jure up images of spray paint and mac­a­roni; a cer­tain a kind of aes­thet­ic. There were many of us there who real­ly fought for the word to be includ­ed, argu­ing for its impor­tance. We felt that using the term was quite sig­nif­i­cant. In a large insti­tu­tion that has maybe been per­ceived as being an elite art space, maybe even per­ceived as unwel­com­ing to diverse and non-art com­mu­ni­ties over its long his­to­ry, hav­ing a space called a ‘com­mu­ni­ty gallery’ helps to make our walls per­me­able and sit­u­ates the insti­tu­tion as being in/part of the com­mu­ni­ty – maybe even an essen­tial part of it.

LL: We are see­ing the need with­in insti­tu­tions to expand, increase and diver­si­fy their rev­enue base. To do this, insti­tu­tions need to become more open to the pub­lic. At the same time there is a grow­ing expec­ta­tion that because the insti­tu­tions are pub­li­cal­ly fund­ed, the pub­lic should have greater access to these insti­tu­tions. Cur­rent­ly the push with­in insti­tu­tions for pub­lic engage­ment is dri­ven by get­ting as many peo­ple in the door by pro­gram­ming what is pop­u­lar rather than what is both com­pelling and complex.

SMW: I always thought that my role at the AGO was to make some change and to try to use the phys­i­cal space and the resources there to sup­port some amaz­ing youth-based com­mu­ni­ty projects. How­ev­er, when the insti­tu­tion makes a deci­sion to sup­port ini­tia­tives based on par­tic­u­lar pri­or­i­ties, but those pri­or­i­ties are posi­tioned with­in a rhetoric of con­sump­tion, which often rein­forces dom­i­nant stereo­types and norms, it can be dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate the insti­tu­tion­al author­i­ty with com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tives and rela­tion­ships. So what does it mean for those of us doing work with­in the insti­tu­tion that is geared to non-nor­ma­tive forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, such as part­ner­ing with the Reel Asian Film Fes­ti­val, invit­ing and pay­ing artists to cre­ate stop ani­ma­tion films with youth, or col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Deaf Film Fes­ti­val? It is chal­leng­ing when the insti­tu­tion con­tin­ues to repro­duce edu­ca­tion­al and pro­mo­tion­al mate­ri­als that par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties find prob­lem­at­ic and which under­mine the work that I, and oth­ers, do. It’s one of the ten­sions of work­ing with diverse com­mu­ni­ties from with­in the institution.

HR: So how do you nav­i­gate insti­tu­tions, while work­ing from with­in one that may not reflect your ideals? How do you work with them and try to change them from the inside?

LL: In many ways I think I’ve changed OAC more than it’s changed me. I nev­er thought that was pos­si­ble. I’ve brought my pri­or­i­ties and val­ues with me and this is what has made a dif­fer­ence in the cul­ture and pri­or­i­ties of the insti­tu­tion. These days I think of myself as a rela­tion­al artist, part­ner­ing with the province of Ontario to pro­duce and dis­sem­i­nate com­mu­ni­ty-engaged prac­tice beyond Toronto.

SMW: That’s true, and I would say that the AGO is very dif­fer­ent from when I start­ed work­ing there. For exam­ple, the Youth Coun­cil was made up of most­ly kids from pri­vate school; there was not a lot of rep­re­sen­ta­tion out­side of that. I worked hard to change these demo­graph­ics and to open up the pro­gram for youth going through tran­si­tions and who may not be in school at all. A lot of peo­ple in the cur­rent youth pro­gram have dropped out of school, some are in school, and all have vast­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al and com­mu­ni­ty expe­ri­ences. These major dif­fer­ences are what make our project more respon­sive and mean­ing­ful to the youths’ lives, and not sim­ply an insti­tu­tion­al pro­gram cre­at­ed to attract diverse audiences.

PM: His­tor­i­cal­ly SEED was also a very white space, very upper to mid­dle class. Today there are a num­ber of street youth at the school. These stu­dents pre­vi­ous­ly didn’t have access to this form of education.

SMW: I also think the cat­e­go­ry of youth is arbi­trary because the mean­ing of the term youth changes with each orga­ni­za­tion that works with youth. Some orga­ni­za­tions say youth starts at age 13, some say 15. Some say it ends at 19 and oth­ers at 29. So it’s clear­ly not an essen­tial cat­e­go­ry. It is also a con­tem­po­rary way of look­ing at age, which is not fixed or sta­ble. If these iden­ti­ty cat­e­gories are blurred then it is pos­si­ble to imag­ine more approach­es to work­ing with youth, more pos­si­bil­i­ties for them. 15 years ago the term ‘youth’ was rarely used. Peo­ple often used ‘teen.’

So instead of ‘youth,’ maybe I’ll say I work with peo­ple who are going through a time of tran­si­tion in their life. Tran­si­tion­ing from not being able to make a lot of choic­es to being able to make more choic­es. In any art project that you are doing, in any kind of cre­ative endeav­our, your life is also hap­pen­ing. In one of our pro­grams for indi­vid­u­als in an age of tran­si­tion, one of our par­tic­i­pants has only been in Cana­da for two months. He came here as a refugee claimant and had to leave his fam­i­ly of ori­gin and home coun­try because his fam­i­ly found out that he was gay. So he jammed what­ev­er he could into a bag and was on a plane at 6 am. So of course I spend maybe anoth­er hour and half of my day talk­ing to him because he does­n’t know any­one here. It’s part of the work I do. For some rea­son we have devel­oped a rela­tion­ship where he feels like he can talk to me about some of the strug­gles. Peo­ple don’t see what it means to do work with par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties; they don’t see the addi­tion­al com­po­nent that is total­ly part of the work.

LL: When we talk about vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions I think what we are talk­ing about are peo­ple who are in tran­si­tion­al times in their lives. Often, peo­ple involved in com­mu­ni­ty-engaged projects are extend­ing them­selves beyond the assump­tions and expec­ta­tions they have of them­selves for a vari­ety of rea­sons. There is an asso­ci­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ty arts with per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. It doesn’t mean the art is ther­a­py but we do acknowl­edge all of the ten­sions and con­flicts sur­round­ing change in the process of art making.

HJ: And I think to bring it back to the idea of nego­ti­at­ing insti­tu­tions, for all of their evils, what I hear each of you say­ing is that you are able to have these kinds of rela­tion­ships because you are bring­ing your prac­tice into the institution.

LL: Doing hor­i­zon­tal work in ver­ti­cal structures.

HJ: The insti­tu­tion enables some­thing that would­n’t hap­pen out­side of the institution.

HR: Do you think that queer pol­i­tics inform the way that you inhab­it the institution?

SMW: The activism that I’ve been involved with has always informed my art prac­tice and has been very much root­ed in try­ing to work towards a world where we all get the right to self-deter­mi­na­tion. And I think my desire to do that work comes from the fact that as a racial­ized queer and trans per­son I did­n’t feel the right to self-deter­mi­na­tion. So that informed my desire to make some change in the world.

PM: As an artist I strug­gle with ques­tions like: Am I a queer artist? Am I a South Asian artist? Am I just work­ing through fem­i­nist pol­i­tics? What am I? I think I’m all the above but it is about nego­ti­at­ing these iden­ti­ties. They are all inter­re­lat­ed to me. My prac­tice is con­nect­ed to race; it is also con­nect­ed to class. I’m con­stant­ly work­ing through these inter­sec­tion­al­i­ties inside and out­side of the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, as both an artist and as a teacher. It’s all these selves that are con­tin­u­al­ly strug­gling with a pol­i­tics that exists on a day-to-day basis. I’d say I’ve always been part of the mar­gins and I work from the mar­gins. I use the qual­i­ties of grass­roots activism in the class­room. So you want to make a sound pro­duc­tion, what tools do you have? Just a cell phone? But it has a recorder on it! So just try­ing to show stu­dents how to work with­in their means with what­ev­er they have.

LL: Com­ing from the mar­gins and being in school­ing sit­u­a­tions where per­haps we weren’t being served our­selves, we try to address those gaps in the ways that we work with oth­er people.

SMW: And that is also par­ent­ing. I just saw this inter­view with “Far From the Tree” author, Andrew Solomon. He is a queer dad, and he has a gigan­tic fam­i­ly; there are many dif­fer­ent peo­ple who had roles in rais­ing his chil­dren. You can par­ent in a dif­fer­ent way than how your par­ents par­ent­ed, but then his cau­tion was: are you par­ent­ing the way that would have been best for you as a child? The way you wish you had been par­ent­ed? But is this how your child wants/needs to be par­ent­ed? So then his ques­tion was: “how do you par­ent the per­son who is in front of you?” This relates to my work with youth, where I have to con­sid­er: “is this pro­gram the best fit/program for the youth who are in front of me?” And how do I make those eval­u­a­tions? Who gets to decide what is the best fit?

The Youth Coun­cil decides what projects they want to do. I can give them infor­ma­tion about what artists are out there and then they can pick which artist they want to work with and how they want to work togeth­er. If we did­n’t do it that way, they would­n’t come. If you are not going to be inter­est­ed or engaged with the project why would you go? You could be going swim­ming or doing some­thing else. To keep engag­ing the par­tic­i­pants and to make projects that are reflex­ive of and root­ed in youth com­mu­ni­ties, our projects require that the youth direct them. The Youth Coun­cil has own­er­ship from the plan­ning to the out­come or else they would­n’t want to come.

HJ: So we are talk­ing about repar­a­tive work, about cre­at­ing expe­ri­ences for oth­er peo­ple that might have been absent or miss­ing in our own expe­ri­ence com­ing to be artists? The idea of repar­a­tive work implies that art has an oblig­a­tion to ‘do good,’ or to cre­ate some kind of pos­i­tive social change. Syrus, I’m inter­est­ed in what you said about being a par­ent: mak­ing assump­tions about what you think is best for that oth­er per­son based on your own expe­ri­ence. And that leads into a con­ver­sa­tion about per­form­ing social hero­ics, around the assump­tion that art is trans­for­ma­tive, and that art can save peo­ple. Can each of you offer thoughts about what could pos­si­bly be mis­di­rect­ed about these concepts?

LL: Com­mu­ni­ty arts are deeply inscribed with this repar­a­tive work. It was very much part of the way that KYTES got fund­ed, and the way that com­mu­ni­ty artists and orga­ni­za­tions con­tin­ue to get fund­ed to this day: for repar­a­tive work, to help peo­ple to become employ­able, to pre­vent crime, do harm reduc­tion, etcetera.

One of the rea­sons I want­ed to do my Mas­ters degree was because I was so tired of the overuse of lan­guage like ‘empow­er­ment’ to describe what we were doing. I real­ly want­ed to go back to the youth that I had worked with 6 or 7 years ago, to talk about what the hell we were doing. How we eval­u­ate what we are doing and mea­sure the suc­cess of these kinds of pro­grams is fun­da­men­tal. You cer­tain­ly can’t mea­sure empow­er­ment; that’s a com­plete­ly false premise for doing this kind of work, which is much more nuanced.

HR: I’m inter­est­ed in the reflec­tions that the KYTES par­tic­i­pants had about the project. You men­tioned to us that the reflec­tions were noth­ing like you imag­ined they would be: that they remem­bered things like the qual­i­ty of light in the room, things that are not quan­tifi­able, but were very mean­ing­ful to them. So it goes back to a ques­tion of nec­es­sary evils: how does this work get fund­ed? How can you con­vince peo­ple to fund art pro­grams with immea­sur­able outcomes?

LL: Well the pro­gram lost its fund­ing. We were known for being a pret­ty rad­i­cal crew; we were orga­niz­ing a pro­gram that ran 5 days a week for 4 months, for 16–24 year old street-youth. It kept us on our feet lit­er­al­ly try­ing to keep the doors open and deliv­er process-ori­ent­ed pro­gram­ming with results ori­ent­ed fund­ing. We did every­thing we could includ­ing enlist politi­cians like Jack Lay­ton and Olivia Chow who were huge sup­port­ers, but the rela­tion­ship was prob­lem­at­ic and even­tu­al­ly we, includ­ing the youth, lost out.

SMW: That’s very inter­est­ing, because if you try to look up Regent Park Focus in the phone book, it’s Regent Park Drugs Pre­ven­tion Arts Pro­gram or some­thing like that, and it had to be named accord­ing­ly so that they could access these kinds of grants. In fact they are a youth video/media arts pro­gram that I’m sure indi­rect­ly pro­motes drug pre­ven­tion, but that is not their main focus. Rather than this deficit mod­el, their goal is to empow­er youth as cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers, teach­ing them skills relat­ed to media arts. Cer­tain­ly a lot of the part­ners that I work with get a lot of fund­ing that’s either HIV pre­ven­tion fund­ing or some sort of project that some­how teach­es peo­ple about HIV. The Grif­fin Cen­tre gets HIV and new­com­er set­tle­ment fund­ing and does great art pro­gram­ming with youth. So many pro­grams have to tai­lor or tweak their pro­gram focus to fit fund­ing that is avail­able. And it is very inter­est­ing when these cer­tain pots of fund­ing come up because so many places are on a shoe­string bud­get and often have to repack­age what they are doing, even if they don’t intend it to be that way. And the way the pro­gram appears on paper can real­ly can effect it in practice.

LL: It’s impor­tant to involve all of the stake­hold­ers in con­ver­sa­tions about the impact of the work. The par­tic­i­pants in the pro­gram need to be at the table as stake­hold­ers, talk­ing to the fun­ders about what is going on and why the pro­gram is important.

HJ: Helen and I strug­gle with the stig­ma of com­mu­ni­ty arts but then we don’t want to be under­stood as teach­ing artists either. We want to col­lab­o­rate with youth. In addi­tion, we think about what it means to enable par­tic­u­lar learn­ing expe­ri­ences for the peo­ple we col­lab­o­rate with, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ques­tion the sense of author­ship, that we as artists desire.

SMW: I haven’t resolved the issue of how to ini­ti­ate col­lab­o­ra­tion and yet still have an author­ship role with­in the project. How do you hon­our the youth you work with but also under­stand the project as your own art prac­tice? It’s a very famil­iar ten­sion in activist prac­tice too, it’s very com­pli­cat­ed. Nat­u­ral­ly, dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties are there and peo­ple have dif­fer­ent skill sets and there are peo­ple who are like, “no I’m actu­al­ly going to make sure that this project gets finished.”

HJ: I have joined col­lab­o­ra­tive projects because there is an amaz­ing leader who I want­ed to learn from. It is very com­pli­cat­ed when we con­sid­er how author­i­ty or exper­tise plays a role in such col­lec­tive sit­u­a­tions. Per­haps what we need to think about are the ten­sions between author­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion, and that at the same time it is real­ly prob­lem­at­ic to make assump­tions about what is transformative.

LL: If you are not being respon­sive and allow­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors to come for­ward and be part of the design then that becomes prob­lem­at­ic for everyone.

SMW: It’s tricky because there is a pow­er dynam­ic. Even when you are try­ing for there not to be, there is. I do a lot of con­tracts for artists to come in short term, and it’s some­thing like, “You have to work with the par­tic­i­pants in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way and make it through con­sen­sus deci­sion-mak­ing, and you have to make sure the project is fin­ished and is beau­ti­ful.” Because at the end of the day the insti­tu­tion needs there to be an out­come, and that respon­si­bil­i­ty has to fall on some­one. So let’s say that there is a project, and there are all these tan­gents, and it is a real­ly amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, but time is run­ning out, and there are two weeks left: it is the artist who is going to have to be doing the 24-hour days to make sure the project fin­ish­es. Even when you are doing a col­lab­o­ra­tion, some­one is going to have to fin­ish the project. It’s less than ideal.

LL: And what is fin­ished? Why can’t it be a doc­u­ment of the process?

HR: It is an inter­est­ing prob­lem, and it seems to depend on the inten­tion of the work. Is the inten­tion to have the work move out­side of the com­mu­ni­ty in which it was gen­er­at­ed? There is a lot of process in what we do and it means a lot to the folks that par­tic­i­pate in that process, but some­times these things are hard to trans­mit to anoth­er audience—like anoth­er art audience.

SMW: The artists who work with the youth coun­cil typ­i­cal­ly have a show at the end in the com­mu­ni­ty gallery. There must be a sort of exhi­bi­tion at the end that accounts for the time they spent in res­i­dence. You have to show how you used the mon­ey or that some­thing has come out of it, it can’t just be feel­ing or thoughts. There is this unwrit­ten les­son that because we are teach­ing the youth there always has to be some sort of out­come. I recent­ly gave a pre­sen­ta­tion In Switzer­land about the Youth Coun­cil and the audi­ence had a num­ber of valid cri­tiques of the pro­gram. They asked, “What if the what the youth want­ed to do was not a project? Or if it was to change some­thing about the AGO?” The audi­ence cri­tiqued the premise of the pro­gram that sug­gests that the youth have the pow­er to deter­mine what they want to do with an artist, that it is total­ly open, but that at the end of the day the insti­tu­tion con­trols the outcomes.

HR: The issue is not objects. The art world sup­ports a work that is essen­tial­ly an email to a cura­tor, but when we work with kids, there is a feel­ing that it is not seri­ous, that it is not rig­or­ous and there is a demand that the work trans­late out of the classroom.

PM: It is real­ly hard to nego­ti­ate pow­er around col­lab­o­ra­tive prac­tice. Also, the feed­back you are get­ting from peers and col­leagues who are so rigid in their own expec­ta­tions of art. You have talked about the strug­gle between cre­ative process and com­ing out with a prod­uct, and I think it real­ly comes back to the cap­i­tal­ist struc­ture and who the stake­hold­ers are. Who is look­ing for some­thing that can be attached to a fund­ing agency report?

HJ: But we all do that with our jobs, with all the insti­tu­tions that we nego­ti­ate. For exam­ple, how do you get that cred­it for that one stu­dent who wants to build a record­ing booth? How do I think of the final prod­uct because it sat­is­fies this expec­ta­tion, but also reflects the com­plex process?

PM: We con­stant­ly nego­ti­ate pow­er struc­tures with­in these rela­tion­ships; decide what we can do and what our lim­i­ta­tions are.

SMW: Over my past 10 years of work­ing with artists and these very large scale projects that the Youth Coun­cil does, no two artists have han­dled it the same way in how they under­stood what we asked for in a col­lab­o­ra­tive expe­ri­ence, nor in what they thought about cred­it. It is very telling that they are all so dif­fer­ent in their approach. I worked with artists who said it was col­lab­o­ra­tion but then at the end of the project did­n’t want the Youth Coun­cil’s name attached to the work that the youth had co-cre­at­ed and co-devel­oped with them.

HR: But maybe what is at stake is the issue of pow­er that is often not dis­cussed in col­lab­o­ra­tive projects. Even if you work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly there could still be a hier­ar­chy. There is this expec­ta­tion that every­one is equal but that is not the case. When you work with younger par­tic­i­pants, of course there is a pow­er dynam­ic, but how do we name it while also nam­ing the process­es of col­lab­o­ra­tion? That is some­thing we have been think­ing about—the dis­com­fort of nam­ing the work as a collaboration.

LL: You know some­times the only ingre­di­ent is time. If your project is two years ver­sus two weeks you are going to see peo­ple take up dif­fer­ent roles. Dur­ing the KYTES troupe I wit­nessed a lot of change in the par­tic­i­pants. In par­tic­u­lar I remem­ber a guy who was the most resis­tant to par­tic­i­pat­ing at the begin­ning of the process say, near the end, “Lis­ten to her, she knows what she is talk­ing about.” It was unbe­liev­able at the time.

HJ: Syrus, you were say­ing that the one tru­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive project at AGO took the longest time.

SMW: Many of the projects that have worked the best have been the longest. There was this project that we did with Rebec­ca Tabobon­dung and John Hup­field: it was a video project called USPN (the Under­ground Sasquatch Pro­tec­tion Net­work) and we took 7 or 8 months to cre­ate it. It was a project with Indige­nous artists talk­ing about Toron­to hav­ing an unset­tled land claim. We cre­at­ed a fic­ti­tious TV sta­tion, USPN to talk about this. I think it is one thing to say we are going to col­lab­o­rate, but then if the group is new to each oth­er or new to you, it is very dif­fi­cult for every­one to put them­selves out there and to col­lab­o­rate on ideas. To allow them to have a voice and pow­er requires time and we don’t have a lot of that at the AGO. The Youth Coun­cil works togeth­er for about a year, so near the end of their time togeth­er, they push back with the artist and share their ideas and how the project should go—but at the begin­ning they typ­i­cal­ly just say “ok” to what the artists want to do, because they are ner­vous and just get­ting their con­fi­dence as they get to know each oth­er. So tim­ing is everything.

HR: Hav­ing more time can often cre­ate bet­ter work­ing rela­tion­ships, and allow for roles and dynam­ics to shift and be exam­ined over the course of the project. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, the mean­ing and inten­si­ty of the process, in many cas­es, exists only because there is a col­lec­tive goal – the pro­duc­tion of a fin­ished work or some type of outcome.

It seems that the ten­sions that exist between expe­ri­ence and out­comes per­sists. This was one of the per­ceived weak­ness­es of the com­mu­ni­ty arts movement—that, at the end of the day, the aes­thet­ic qual­i­ties of the work were sec­ondary to the expe­ri­ence of par­tic­i­pat­ing in its cre­ation. Yet, the dilem­ma of par­tic­i­pa­tion is that most par­tic­i­pa­to­ry prac­tices are a strat­e­gy for audi­ences to con­sume work in a hands-on way. In the end par­tic­i­pants don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to change the work or their expe­ri­ences work­ing with­in a col­lab­o­ra­tive process. It is already deter­mined for them. As artists work­ing in edu­ca­tion, we expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar chal­lenges. The mea­sur­able out­comes of learn­ing trump both the expe­ri­ence of col­lab­o­ra­tion, and the for­mal qual­i­ties of the art­work. But it is this for­mal con­sid­er­a­tion that might engage an audi­ence beyond those involved in its cre­ation. This is where a dif­fer­ent kind of learn­ing might come into play a learn­ing about the slip­pery and illu­sive qual­i­ties of art—those things that are not so eas­i­ly quan­tifi­able, that make us curi­ous, delight­ed, or disoriented.

HANNA JICKLING exper­i­ments with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of form, par­tic­i­pa­tion and mean­ing-mak­ing across dis­ci­plines and publics. Her projects often take shape as site-spe­cif­ic sculp­tures, pub­lic instal­la­tions, events, exchanges, pho­tographs, mul­ti­ples, print­ed mat­ter and oth­er ephemera. Atyp­i­cal forms of dis­tri­b­u­tion, entre­pre­neur­ial schem­ing and audi­ence-seek­ing are impor­tant strate­gies for sup­port­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing her work. Han­nah has recent­ly com­plet­ed artist res­i­den­cies at Out­door School (Mult­nom­ah Edu­ca­tion Ser­vice Dis­trict), The Ped­a­gog­i­cal Impulse (Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to), Becom­ing Ped­a­gog­i­cal (Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia) and the Rau­mars Artist-in-Res­i­dence Pro­gramme (Rau­ma, Fin­land). Her work is held in pri­vate col­lec­tions across North Amer­i­ca and can be tast­ed in the form of sour­dough pan­cakes, an ongo­ing work host­ed at Bubby’s in Man­hat­tan. She holds a BFA from the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and Design and an MFA from Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She fre­quent­ly col­lab­o­rates with Helen Reed.

HELEN REED works with spe­cif­ic groups of peo­ple such as Twin Peaks fans, les­bian sep­a­ratists, and high school art teacher can­di­dates. In each project, col­lab­o­ra­tion is a work­ing process from which the art­work emerges. Reed favors col­lab­o­ra­tors that reflect her inter­est in par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cul­ture, affin­i­ty groups, and fan­ta­sy-based sub­cul­tures. Her projects take ver­nac­u­lar form such as tele­vi­sion shows, pub­li­ca­tions, post­cards and oth­er forms of eas­i­ly trans­mit­table and dis­persed media, so as to cir­cu­late back into the com­mu­ni­ties from which they are generated.

Reed has exhib­it­ed work at Pre­fix Insti­tute for Con­tem­po­rary Art (Toron­to), apexart (New York), Smack Mel­lon (New York), Port­land Art Muse­um, Seat­tle Art Muse­um and La Cen­trale Galerie Pow­er­house (Mon­tréal). She holds a BFA from the Emi­ly Carr Uni­ver­si­ty of Art and Design (Van­cou­ver), an MFA in Art and Social Prac­tice from Port­land State University.

LOREE LAWRENCE is the Com­mu­ni­ty and Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Offi­cer at the Ontario Arts Coun­cil and a co-active coach for orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als. Pri­or to join­ing the OAC, Lawrence worked as a con­sul­tant, co-cre­at­ed the­atre per­for­mances, media arts projects, instal­la­tions, arts-based research projects with com­mu­ni­ties in Toron­to and Van­cou­ver, and found­ed Red Wag­on Col­lec­tive, a com­mu­ni­ty-engaged arts ini­tia­tive that is active in the Junc­tion neighbourhood.

Lawrence’s cur­rent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is spread­ing the art of col­lab­o­ra­tion and com­mu­ni­ty-engaged prac­tices across the province through what­ev­er means pos­si­ble and with some success.

PAMILA MATHARU is a visu­al artist, teach­ing artist, and cul­tur­al pro­duc­er.  Her prac­tice is root­ed in the ‘oth­er’ experience—from the ‘mar­gins to the cen­ter’ by inter­sect­ing crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy and con­tem­po­rary art. For the past 19 years, Math­aru has worked in Toronto’s diverse visu­al arts com­mu­ni­ty. In 2003, she co-found­ed and co-curat­ed with artist Christi­na Zei­dler, Come Up To My Room: Glad­stone Hotel’s Alter­na­tive Design Event. As a teach­ing-artist, she col­lab­o­rates with youth artists and teach­es sec­ondary school lev­el Visu­al and Media Arts, and Social Sci­ences in the Toron­to Dis­trict School Board. She holds a BFA in Visu­al Arts and B.Ed in Fine Arts Edu­ca­tion, both from York Uni­ver­si­ty, Toronto.

SYRUS MARCUS WARE is a visu­al artist, com­mu­ni­ty activist, researcher, youth-advo­cate and edu­ca­tor. He is the Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor of the AGO Youth Pro­gram, Art Gallery of Ontario. Ware’s work explores the spaces between and around iden­ti­ties, act­ing as provo­ca­tions to our under­stand­ings of gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty and race. His paint­ings, instal­la­tion, and per­for­mance work has been exhib­it­ed at the Art Gallery of York Uni­ver­si­ty (AGYU), Glad­stone Hotel, A Space Gallery, Har­bourfront Cen­tre, and SPIN Gallery and has been pub­lished in FUSE Mag­a­zine, The Globe and Mail, THIS Mag­a­zine, and Black­ness and Sex­u­al­i­ties. Ware’s pub­li­ca­tions include: co-edit­ing an issue of the Jour­nal of Muse­um Edu­ca­tion enti­tled “Build­ing Diver­si­ty in Muse­ums;” “Going Bold­ly Where Few Men Have Gone Before: One Trans Man’s Expe­ri­ence of Fer­til­i­ty Clin­ics;” “How Dis­abil­i­ty Stud­ies Stays White and What Kind of White it Stays;” and a forth­com­ing chap­ter with Zack Mar­shall about dis­abil­i­ty, Deaf cul­ture and trans identities.