Please enjoy this deep, but short chat between Director/Curator Glenn Aleen (GA) and Curator Vanessa Kwan (VK) presented in short form.
For our first blog, we thought it was crucial to set up the site lines for both the beginning of grunt and where it currently stands today. These views are differently expressed through two generations of curatorial practice here at our artist-run centre and are the focus of this back and forth email conversation between our two curators.
VK: I think this is a nice opportunity to talk about the curatorial priorities/ thoughts about grunt, and how it has evolved and continues to evolve. Maybe that’s a good place to start.
First question: Every time I introduce to a tour group or someone who has never visited the gallery before, I always start with the historical details: the gallery was founded in 1984, and the impetus at that time was to be a place for artists who were not, for whatever reason, being shown or recognized in Vancouver. This led to an emphasis on many practices and subjectivities being represented here – many from traditionally marginalized communities; artists of colour, queer artists, Indigenous artists and performance artists all found a place to show their work and build community. Does this work with your own thoughts/recollections of those foundational years?
VK: And as a follow-up question – how do you see this mandate having evolved?
GA: I understand the introduction we give but these days it often gets read solely through the lens of identity politics which doesn’t really tell the whole story. Not to say that identity politics wasn’t there at the time, it was, but it also included other marginal practices that get left by the wayside in the retelling sometimes. The art scene was a lot more siloed then in all kinds of ways and galleries and artist centres fit inside of these silos in ways that don’t happen so much now or at least not like that. And that marginality back then wasn’t just Indigenous, queer, feminist, or POC artists’ communities but included outsider artists, graffiti artists, comic artists, performance artists, etc. Also, contemporary artists doing serious work in ceramics or printmaking or textile work. grunt was really about breaking down the silos or working across them in many ways. I guess intersectional really–though that word wasn’t used at the time. Because of this plurality, people had a hard time categorizing what we were doing because it didn’t fit any of the reductive lenses they were looking at us through. They thought of us as all over the place, scattered and maybe a bit unfocused. In hindsight, I think that was really the point, but it took a while before some people got it.
The nature of the community that got created was really based in diversity. You knew going to grunt that you would have conversations with people who weren’t like you and see art that wasn’t like yours. The people who felt the most comfortable were the ones who didn’t feel that comfortable anywhere else. It was a community of loners in many ways. I remember Aiyyana Maracle saying after she made her transition that without grunt it would have been a much harder experience. It was the one place she felt normal and nobody was judging her.
How did the mandate evolve? I think mostly in response to the art world itself. It changed and we changed in response. In the 1990s few galleries would show Indigenous contemporary art. There were places to show if you were doing traditional work but it was much harder for contemporary work. Especially if you were an emerging artist. So, many would apply at grunt because they had so few other choices and we had to respond. You would show one and six more would apply. This is no longer the situation. Indigenous emerging artists are everywhere now – as they should be. As you know the last part of our curatorial process is asking if we didn’t show a certain artist or body of work would it get shown in Vancouver? That question we have been asking since the beginning but the nature of what work fits that category is always changing. But it wasn’t just oppositional though. I think grunt’s success is that the larger art world recognizes how important that mandate has been to a healthier art community.
In your court!
VK: I like this clarification of how things took shape in the early years. I think my tendency is to put a lens on what grunt did back then so it aligns with a particular cultural or political context, but you’re right – it was about a true (and uncategorizable) diversity of forms and personalities coming together. Paul Wong once said to me that he thought grunt was the “gangly nerd” of the Vancouver arts community, and that phrase has stuck with me ever since – maybe because the idea of a nerd is that there’s a weirdness there that resists a clear picture of what the future holds: the archetype (can you say a nerd is archetypal??) of the nerd is that they grow up to be something you probably didn’t expect, and possibly underestimated.
Now we say in our “About” blurb that grunt focusses on practices “that challenge and problematize existing hierarchies of cultural value” which is another way of saying we try to remain responsive to what’s happening culturally. I really appreciate this aspect of how grunt works. I think it’s typical in the art world to look at what has currency and try to get ahead of that curve (it is a speculative market economy after all) and I would say grunt has another kind of investment philosophy. You and I have talked a bit about non-proprietary approaches to cultural capital, and also about what it might mean to disseminate rather than accrue resources. This is ranging dangerously close to navel-gazing, but I wonder what you think about capital and how it has been disseminated over the years through the gallery and what it does. I say this knowing that grunt has also engaged wholeheartedly in financial capital expansion (we own the space we’re in, we have worked and continue to work with for-profit developers to gain stability, etc), and it’s important to be clear that a flexible approach to cultural capital comes from the privileges of having a sustainable place to be and operate.
And then, with all this in mind, how do you see the new things on the horizon playing into these ideas? The Blue Cabin, the Mount Pleasant Community Art Screen are all big new projects for grunt, and represent unknown directions for the gallery. How do you think these new projects will expand or evolve our mandate? Will they?
GA: Paul is right we were the gangly nerd on the scene and in some ways we still are. We certainly weren’t hip or happening or trying to be. The real reason we called it grunt was because it wasn’t cool or clever. It was basic, base and a little repugnant. And despite the fact there was incredible diversity among us in hindsight it wasn’t very politically correct back then; people didn’t watch their tongues and got called out on it all the time. That said in hindsight, also those were gentler times before social media and there was a sense of humour about it that there isn’t now (and I’m not suggesting there should be now!). But in that flux, a lot of things could happen and did. So instead of a highly negotiated space, it was more like a barely negotiated space and lots of alliances, friendships, and collaborations emerged, some still continuing. And the clashes weren’t hostile – they were enjoyed for the most part. They took us places no one else was headed. When you throw personalities into the mix things happened. And there were some big personalities all who left their marks. And they formed and informed what we were doing.
I appreciate what you’re saying about our cultural capital approach. It is non-proprietary but that’s only part of it. Our ability to take cultural capital from one place and move it into a different arena is essential to grunt’s history and something it still uniquely does. We have been very successful in taking our credibility in one area and using it to open up opportunities in a completely unrelated area where frankly we should have no credibility at all. This plays out in all kinds of ways. One of the reasons we were able to purchase our space 20 years ago was we had done the Mount Pleasant Community Fence the year before and worked pretty much with the entire community, so we had incredible word-of-mouth in the community at that moment. That paid out directly with the development company we eventually worked within a marketing deal that enabled us to purchase the space. They were looking for the community credibility we had, but it was definitely a big part of that project. The year before it probably wouldn’t have worked. Recognizing that opportunity was a big part of it though.
Those shifts have been essential to our growth. I notice we change modes every 6 or 7 years. In 1999 we started LIVE and left it in 2005, We spent the next six years producing websites and then in 2011 started into grunt archives. Now in 2018, we are taking on Residencies and the Urban Screen. Again though, we are using our credibility in certain areas to move into other areas. It always means we are moving into areas where we have no expertise and we need to learn new skills and best practices. In many ways, the work we have done in the last few years around institutional structures and how we look at them has made us more resilient and able to take on these challenges, but it’s still a tall order. But we were ready to expand. We paid off our mortgage so had very cheap facility costs so The Blue Cabin didn’t look so onerous. It’s an exciting project that mixes cultural production and heritage in ways we haven’t seen before and I think it will open up space for artists and create a unique public monument. The Mount Pleasant Community Art Screen was really more opportunistic. We were offered an urban screen to program media art and in many ways to take it at face value would have been problematic. By turning the curatorial focus for the screen on the community we have an opportunity to take this to places urban screens have never really gone before.
What ties our work together, though, is working out of a sense of a larger community, and that word “community” has evolved in meaning over the past 35 years. Along with collaboration, these two really have been present through all the stages. Also what has evolved, I think, is grunt understands its role in the ecology now more then we did at the beginning, how we fit in and what we need to do. Will these projects live up to their potential or our vision for them? I hope so, but they are both important to do even if we fall flat on our faces. What they become will be interesting to watch and develop. I think looking for successes and failures is not as interesting as watching the paths they will take us on. The work is the reward. I’m not sure they expand our mandate as much as evolve it. They will definitely give artists opportunities they never had before. That’s always good. ⃢