Wish You Were Here / review by Bart Gazzola

Wish You Were Here: 23 Days at Sea
Review by Bart Gazzola for The Sound STC
December 2016

Many artworks employ an aesthetic of experience: intending to communicate the understanding of an event or occurrence that the artist has undergone / endured, or alternately that is worthy of recounting in a space of examination and consideration, like a collaborative act of remembrance. The current show at the Niagara Artists Centre, Chapter 1: Twenty-Three Days at Sea, is of that ilk.

The four artists that occupy the gallery space (Nour Bishouty, Christopher Boyne, Elisa Ferrari and Amaara Raheem) have a starting point that’s communal, but each brings their own understanding and history to this unique residency project. “Time stands still in travel” and thus we have slim vignettes of multiple intersecting experiences. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes not.

Twenty-Three is a unique project. Its relevant not just for considering how a cultural space can continue to foster creativity amid the madness of late capitalist frenzies of Vancouver real estate. Access Gallery in that city is the genesis of not solely this exhibition, but several “chapters” to come.

It also disrupts assumptions about “place.” In the Canadian “narrative”, place taints everything conceptually. In the post colonial / post modernist / post factual world, it’s yet another means by which we de / construct experience…

The descriptor: “In December 2014, Access Gallery….issued a call for…a highly unconventional artist residency, offering selected emergent and experimental artists passage aboard cargo ships sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific Ocean takes approximately twenty-three days, during which time artists will be considered “in residence” aboard the vessel…two candidates [would] inaugurate this multi-year project by setting sail in late summer 2015. [What] we had initiated was not simply an artist residency, but a powerful framework through which to address the complexity of our contemporary condition. The cargo ship — sailing across a vast and “empty” space of the sea, nearly always invisible to those on shore and yet inextricably threaded through all our lives — seemed to offer a near bottomless container for the imagination, for narrative and for cultural critique.”

The gallery is divided foursquare with the artists’ respective works separated (almost like a map). Boyne’s delightful installation Geneva, immediately to your left as you enter the Showroom space, mirrors a far table of photographs (gloves are provided for your perusal of the stacks of  glossy, large prints) and objects, immersed in an overpowering, almost unpleasant audio fog, at the far end of the room, from Ferrari. Her works is Untitled (“To stay in the hold of the ship, despite my fantasies of flight”).

Boyne’s work has a guileless quality. Partly because his many “ships” and “nautical” objects, like a child’s field of toy soldiers, have a playful nature that invites handling. There’s a simplicity, a starkness, to Geneva (wood, paint, brass) that evokes a long trip across a vast expanse, the isolation and loneliness of this, the emptiness and the understandable joy when you recognize a fellow traveller, in another ship, that passes you on the waters. Some of the “ships” are delicate and detailed, others are rough facsimiles of “boat”, like with any act of travel or movement that is so vastly abstract that we need to incorporate it into our imagination to understand it. Colour is sparse here (blocks of orange, cones of dark blue) as most of the pieces are beige with a touch of detail, some easily fitting in your hand. Others are tiny and could be lost on the floor, like a drop in a wider ocean.

This minutiae, this construction of meaning through repetitions of small “pieces” (a visual diary) connects to the personal narratives of Amaara Raheem, from lists of items (titled Time, Body, Things) or her soft, watery video (titled submerged) that seems as self reflective as it is oddly ambiguous (is it swimming or drowning? Leaving or arriving, or simply in an interstitial space in between?).

The video projections of Nour Bishouty also engage in first person narratives, tales told. Her inkjet prints from the series Shifting Surfaces, however, are more immediately engaging: the monochromatic images are vague and abstracted, but lovely in their delicate white frames.
These are all “practices defined by a perceptible and sustained state of “seeking” bodies of work produced in response to their voyages, along with published reproductions of their logbooks kept while at sea.” These are interesting enough to peruse separate from the exhibition, or to skim before / after the gallery space.

The excessive, almost aurilly abusive pulse of noise in the back of the gallery, in Ferrari’s work, is an honest replication of her experience. It has the veracity of repeated violence: perhaps in that respect its most successful in small doses, and like much audio art, plays with pushing the comfort of the “listener,” but regrettably I’ve little desire to sift the images or handle the objects on the table while I also gain a headache.

Twenty-Three is an interesting response to an immediate reality: whether the displacement of cultural spaces in Vancouver, or a site that is often “outside” artistic consideration (Mandy Barber, a U.K. based artist once produced an entire series about “public spaces that are owned by no one”, and many of these were / are spaces of travelling). But as the first “chapter”, I look forward to future work produced through these residencies that evoke more interest and engagement.

<< This review first appeared in The Sound STC >>

konkreet vizual pome : bill bissett / Review by Bart Gazzola

konkreet vizual pome : bill bissett
Review by Bart Gazzola

There’s a dearth of self-congratulatory rhetoric in cultural communities about being uniquely “different”: but I favour Theodor Adorno, whom acerbically observed that when confronted with something genuinely groundbreaking, most people fall back on the shameless assertion that they “don’t understand”. Look at the accolades filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is garnering, internationally, and the silence he endures, in his native Canada, to see this illustrated.

I suspect this attitude – a virulent discourse in Canada, where academic groupthink is more subtle, and quieter, but insidiously pervasive – is why bill bissett is not widely proclaimed as an odd, difficult genius, though he clearly is one. His collections of poetry include Th influenza uv logik, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, narrativ enigma, and northern wild roses. Many cultural historians are obsessed with labeling and compartmentalizing artists: bissett breaks and defies that sloth.   

bissett treats language and speech as a mutable, protean thing, writing phonetically / frankly. The idea (or certainty) that language is surely a virus (perhaps you saw Eric Schmaltz’s Babeltech Industries™ presents The Assembly Line of Babel last year at NAC that explored this “disease” beautifully), a form that confines more than it communicates, and must be treated with creative skepticism, is a stream in bissett’s work.

First, praise to Greg Betts, the Director of the Festival of Readers here in St. Catharines, whom had a major role in mounting bill’s exhibition. We chatted at the opening reception for lunarian life (at NAC) amid “paintings n drawings in konkreet vizual pomes.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery space is filled with bissett’s works: they’re grouped together loosely by formal distinctions, but these aren’t excluding. The hand of the artist, in the free and focused marks made in the paintings, are echoed in the smaller black and white drawings, and even in pieces where the “typewriter” text builds layers letter on letter like architecture or blended voices that fight and focus and reform into something else. A square work, black text amassed and a mess on white is nearly illegible in rich dark typeset; a line at the bottom clearly says if we find ourselvs missing weul find each othr aftr all.

The larger paintings are bright in flat rich colour (yellow dominates) with simplicity of form and mark: figures gaze out of at us, and the circular “sun” motif repeats. I associate the latter with Barbelith from The Invisibles (“the name of the “placenta” for humanity…a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and benign..it connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of ‘self’…”)

This isn’t overtly projective on my part. bill’s words: “bill bissett originalee from lunaria ovr 300 yeers ago in lunarian timesent by shuttul thru halifax nova scotia originalee wantid 2b dansr n figur skatr became a poet n paintr in my longings after 12 operaysyuns reelee preventid me from following thinishul direksyuns – bill bissett garnered international attention in the 1960s as a preeminent figure of the counterculture movement in Canada and the United Kingdom.”

There’s a more symbolic than “realistic”quality here. bissett influenced one of my favourite poets, bpnichol (author of The Martyrology, so perhaps bill’s the patron saint of concrete poetry? nichol’s ABC: The Aleph Beth Book impressed me greatly, as a teenager). bissett explores the same fluid interactions between letter and shape, word and form.

The smaller black and white drawings are a separate body of work, and the textual pieces, that seem to be the detritus (or evidence) of a typewriter gone mad, aroused and angry in its repeated “striking” of the “keyboard keys”,  could be described as a third. The monochromatic drawings have a playful quality, and sometimes seem like growths, as though bodies have sprouted new and different organs, and other times the same figures that look out, or embrace, or kiss or otherwise entangle with each other, reappear.

Let’s step away from the artworks and return to bissett, who in “1964…founded blewointment press, which published the works of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, among others. bissett’s charged readings, which never fail to amaze his audiences, incorporate sound poetry, chanting and singing, the verve of which is only matched by his prolific writing career-more than seventy books of bissett’s poetry have been published. A pioneer of sound, visual and performance poetry – eschewing the artificial hierarchies of meaning and the privileging of things (“proper” nouns) over actions imposed on language by capital letters; the metric limitations imposed on the possibilities of expression by punctuation; and the illusion of formal transparency imposed on the written word by standard (rather than phonetic) spelling-bissett composes his poems as scripts for pure performance and has consistently worked to extend the boundaries of language and visual image, honing a synthesis of the two in the medium of concrete poetry…exercising his native tongue dissent, bissett continues to dance upon upon the cutting edge of poetics and performance works.”

This exhibition closes Saturday, October 15th, and bissett will be performing the last evening of the show.

I want to make one final point, using bissett as a means to an end, here: in the 1970s, bissett was maligned and slandered by several politicians, whom targeted the funding he and his publications received. This was the same ignorant mantra we saw with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and in other examples I’m too tired to cite (does this happen once a decade, like a recurrence of herpes?). I won’t name the deservedly forgotten politicians that abused bissett. I will echo what I said to someone recently about Voice of Fire: its value has only skyrocketed, financially and artistically, since some overpaid, ignorant and hideously expensive (with their salaries and gold plated pensions) politicians failed to make political hay of what “offended” them. The ardent queerness (as in gay) of bissett’s work surely offended many: and as lunarian life at NAC demonstrates, he continues to contribute to the larger cultural dialogue, pushing boundaries and causing (appropriate) trouble.

Living in Scenes of Late Capitalism / Review by Bart Gazzola

Living in Scenes of Late Capitalism
Review by Bart Gazzola

The Show Room Gallery at NAC is spacious and stark: a sliding garage door and a red EXIT sign are along the back wall, and this compliments Nathan Heuer’s aesthetic. The sterility of the “white cube” of the room argues with that door’s ridges, the concrete floor and other industrial markers: but contested elements are at the core of the work in Scenes from Late Capitalism.

The works are large and minimalist: framed in white, the large sheets of paper are affixed by multiple small round magnets (unpainted. Their gleam catches the lights, but they don’t detract). There’s almost an element of camouflage in how the paper, frames and walls all seem to share the same tonality. Scenes emerge outward from the walls.  

It’s smart, engaging work: I spoke with Heuer at the opening, and his commentary was invaluable. We picked up this conversation recently:

Your exhibition is titled “Scenes of Late Capitalism.” That’s a popular phrase currently; but there’s also an insinuation of an “ending” (late as in deceased) and a funerary quality to the works at NAC.

I’d agree with you that criticism of capitalism is in resurgence. Too often, however, that criticism is directed at easy targets – banks, Wall Street, etc. These entities are loud, visible, and easy to blame for the problems associated with capitalism. Doing so, however, is a simplification of complex socio-economic forces that ignores influential choices that we make on a daily basis.  Consider the drawing This Year’s Remodel, which depicts a chain hotel that was demolished after only a decade of operation. Structurally there was nothing wrong with the hotel. Aesthetically it had become outdated, and consumers quietly made the choice – an act akin to natural selection – to go elsewhere. The hotel chain had to respond to what we might call a selection pressure by constructing a new building. Most of my drawings are designed to illuminate such subtle instances of our complicity in a wasteful system.

For me it’s sobering to recognize the elusiveness of this problem. As the Western brand of consumerism spreads globally, it seems that little can be done to curb the sheer wastefulness of such an outlook. It also seems futile to ask consumers to make choices whose benefits are not obvious for them in the short term. I hope that the drawings will provoke questions from the viewer about the long-term consequences of everyday decisions. If not, then the works will indeed have a funerary quality.

Several “Scenes” are real places, with real stories behind them: others have a universal quality that connects with places like STC, with its own economic history. Tell us about some of the individual places you’ve depicted, and how important is that to your ideas / artwork?

I’ll discuss two drawings. The New Rural Economy depicts an abandoned Ohio farm. While there’s a stark Andrew Wyeth-like beauty in such a scene, the striking feature of this site was the barn’s repurposing as a billboard announcing “GUNS! EXIT 215”. I was immediately struck by the potential to portray two intersecting narratives: the death of the family farm and the rising popularity of firearms, especially military-style firearms, in rural America. Local farms are particularly threatened by capitalism and globalism. Consumers desire a variety of crops year round, which is unrealistic in places like Ohio. While small changes were made for compositional purposes, the scene that was the inspiration for this drawing required little adjustment. This was true of some of the simplest details, such as the font used for the advertisement. It seems, in my observation, that most advertisements for firearms require exclamation marks and bold fonts like Impact (the visual equivalent of yelling).

The drawing Signs required a dramatically different approach. Also set in Ohio, it depicts the demise of a town built around a freeway stop, again due to shifts in consumer preference. In Signs, I wondered how I could reduce the story of a town’s collapse to a singular image without losing the significance of the event. In the end, I used defunct freeway signs as a symbol of former prosperity. The shapes of the signs, whose lettering is long gone, remind the viewer that they have been heavily branded by familiar franchises. The actual site that inspired this drawing is quite different from what’s depicted. The signs are much farther apart, and far less variable in height. In the finished drawing, all of the elements are compressed together, so that the viewer may take in the totality

of the town’s demise quickly. A large chunk of empty space was added to the right, creating a sense of movement. In this way the viewer becomes an indifferent observer, simply passing by in a vehicle.

Your process (graphite / watercolour) is traditional, and very disciplined. There’s a photo realist quality here. How does your work fit into the history of these sites, and how do you see your work fitting into the larger dialogue about small towns, industry and the economy? I’m thinking of the book Methland, for example, and what that says about the rural economy and how communities cope (positively, negatively) with the economic decline?

Filmmakers and psychologists often discuss the phenomena of transportation, a term that describes how immersed the viewer has become in the narrative. For me, working realistically is the most logical means to aid the viewer in entering the depicted spaces. All of the drawings are in some way inspired by a real place, even if they are carefully rearranged to most effectively tell the narrative. They’re the kinds of places that result from the shortsighted consumer decisions that I mentioned earlier.  

In the end I’m closely connected with communities that have experienced economic decline. I grew up in Michigan, a state that’s struggled to redefine itself in the post-industrial, Late Capitalist era. My home state embodies many of the issues that I am addressing in my work.  It is, for example, defined by massive contrasts between urban and rural areas. What has been clear, however, is that that there’s an intrinsic relationship between urban and rural areas, and when one area is struggling, so is the other. For me, this is indicative of the trickle down of globalization.

Nate Heuer’s Scenes From Late Capitalism is on display until September 30th, 2016.

Universal Remote: An Interview with Donna Akrey

Donna Akrey is an interdisciplinary artist who creates installations, sculpture, video, photography, book works, and collaborations. Her installation/performance, Universal Remote, opens in the NAC’s Show Room Gallery on Saturday, February 21, with a reception at 3pm. In this interview, Donna discusses Universal Remote and universal remotes, the importance of artist-run centres, and making “real change, if only in the back room at the NAC.”


Tell us about your installation at the NAC, Universal Remote.

I think about landscape a lot — the “natural” or urban matrix and how they merge. I also look at design-architecture, products etc. I am always looking at how we succeed in living on the planet and also how we fail (ok — mostly how we fail). I often make work that the viewer can take part in and that grows over the length of the show, and I liked the idea of making moving sculptures that might make us consider borders, progress, destruction and the changes in the environment — in our direct environment. I have been making some RC sculptures for awhile and am happy the NAC picked this up so I can experiment with different ways of presenting it.


Universal Remote asks for public collaboration. What can people expect to do when they step into the NAC’s Show Room Gallery?

The installation is made up of many parts that can be moved and recombined by the viewer either manually or using radio control. The installation will change over the duration of the show. There will be times during the show’s run that I will be in attendance building parts and viewers can lend a hand using materials provided and following certain parameters. Or they can just sit in the recliners provided and take a load off — if they don’t mind being then part of the installation and possibly theorized by any curators on the loose.


The materials you work with aren’t necessarily ones you’d find in an art supply store, but are often materials that make up the fabric of our daily lives, such as stones, toys, plywood, and so forth. How do you find this affects the public’s involvement with your work?

Lots of artists and makers use materials other than those deemed for art production. Maybe even most artists. But still everyone uses them differently. Materials speak a language and each maker can speak differently. I tend to use surplus materials I find or have around. I like the “sentences” or references that can be made by combining materials. Another strong impulse is the compulsion to use up things — to not waste and to reassign the things we throw away, shapes the work made.


The title Universal Remote is a nice play on the technology that supposedly brings us all together yet keeps us apart and alienated from one another. How does your work’s conception and use of technology differ?

A Universal Remote (from the olden days when we watched TV and used remote controls to change channels) is the name for a remote control that supposedly would work with all monitors. It often did not. Futility is built into technology it seems. I think this installation is sparked by the idea that we can “save” the rainforest by clicking on a button between cat videos watched on the internet. In this installation viewers can take an “armchair” stance and make real change, if only in the back room at the NAC.


You’re on the board for Hamilton Artists Inc and you’re involved with the NAC. Why do you think it’s important to support artist-run centres?

Artist-run centres can really tap into a local community — its creative ideas, how it sees itself, its plans for the future and how to make the places we live better. They are also connected to Canada and beyond — ARCs help fuse the local with the global. I hope we never loose these.