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BLOG: Beyond basic, base and a little repugnant: the evolution of grunt gallery

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. 

Please come back for the next blog to be released soon at
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Azadeh Emadi: Motion Within Motion

Medium Photo for Web

Video Still from Motion Within Motion (2017)


Exhibition: May 2 – 12, 2018

Opening Reception 

Artist Talk: Azadeh Emadi

Lecture:“Creative Algorithms: From Islamic Art to Digital Media”, Dr Laura U. Marks

  • Date/Time: Wednesday, May 23, 20187– 9 PM
  • Location: SFU Harbour Centre, Rm 7000

Azadeh Emadi – Motion Within Motion

grunt gallery, in conjunction with SFU School for Contemporary Arts and Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies, presents the first Canadian exhibition by Glasgow-based artist Azadeh Emadi.

Motion Within Motion, a two-channel video installation with immersive sound, is inspired by Persian-Islamic philosophy of change. Using the theory of ‘substantial motion’ (al-harakat al-jawhariyya) by philosopher Mulla Sadrā Shirazi (1571-1641) as a starting point, Emadi employs digital video and installation technologies to challenge human-centric assumptions of change, time and motion. The work engages two distinct points of view: a non-narrative documentary filmed in Iran and an altered variation that magnifies the footage to the pixel-level. The resulting installation is both synchronized and perceptually disjointed, demanding a simultaneous reading of both cinematic time/movement and the largely abstracted constituent parts of the digital image. Zooming in and out of focus, splitting images into units and using different modalities of time and motion, Emadi’s installation reveals the inner activities of the frame – and provides experience “from a pixel’s point of view.”

Motion Within Motion will be presented in the Main Gallery, and is accompanied by Floating Tiles, a related work in the Media Lab. Floating Tiles continues the artist’s exploration of time and perception via the juxtaposition of classical Islamic tilework – themselves the product of algorithmic pattern creation – and the digital manipulation of the pixel.

The exhibition corresponds with Dr. Emadi’s research residency with Dr. Laura U. Marks at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts until early June 2018.

Programs include an artist talk and conversation with Dr. Marks on May 10th at the gallery, and a special presentation of Dr. Marks’ popular lecture “Creative Algorithms: From Islamic Art to Digital Media” on May 23rd at SFU Harbour Centre, Room 7000.


Azadeh Emadi is a video maker and media artist who experiments with alternative approaches to image making process and technologies of perception. In applying and developing aspects of classical Persian-Islamic culture and concepts, her work aims to stimulate dialogue between Western and Middle Eastern cultures. Her videos and installations explore the intersection between reality, perception, technology and time, as an investigation for finding new ways of seeing that innovatively address some of the current socio-cultural and environmental issues. She is also a lecturer and researcher at the School of Culture and Creative Arts (Film and Television Studies Department), The University of Glasgow.

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Pink Noise Pop Up

pink noise- start

“Pink noise” is a specialized frequency with a specific relationship to human biorhythms that is said to increase focus and productivity. This concept provides the aesthetic criteria and an instigator for interaction in Pink Noise Pop Up—a research project initiated by Instant Coffee that embraces colour and sound as conduits for emotional connection.

grunt gallery presents the upcoming exhibition by Instant Coffee with four Canadian artists showing in South Korea for the first time: Jeneen Frei NjootliKrista Belle StewartRon Tran and Casey Wei. Installations and performances by Korean artists will also be featured. Pink Noise Pop Up is curated by Vanessa Kwan (Curator of grunt gallery) and Inyoung Yeo (Director of Space One)

Pink Noise Pop Up will unfold simultaneously at Space One, an artist-run center, and ONE AND J. Gallery +1, a commercial space for emerging artists. Working within the context of both mainstream and alternative sites (in addition to the neighourhoods they occupy), the exhibition combines the aesthetics of consumer display with the improvisational play of social interaction.

Check back here for updates on Pink Noise Pop Up.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Province of British Columbia.

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The Making of an Archive

Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s The Making of an Archive is a project that seeks to collect images of everyday life photographed by Canadian immigrants, in a direct, collective and exploratory approach.

The Making of an Archive

Book Launch and Artist Talk with Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn

A collaboration with grunt gallery
Thursday, June 21, 2018 at 5 PM

In collaboration with grunt gallery and in conjunction with the opening reception for Beginning with the Seventies: Radial Change, the Belkin is pleased to present a book launch and artist talk with Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn. The main catalyst for the initiation of Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s project The Making of an Archive was the photo albums of the artist’s father, an amateur photographer who took countless photographs of his daily life when he first immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. However, while doing research for previous works, the lack of representation of the immigrant’s daily life in state narratives seemed paradoxical for a country that is internationally known as the instigator of multiculturalism. Due to this visual deficiency and threat of photographic disintegration, Nguyễn initiated The Making of an Archive, a project that seeks to collect images of everyday life photographed by migrants, particularly of people of colour, in a direct, collective and exploratory approach. One of the salient themes of the work is how to make visible the rich histories of activism and solidarity that complicate the pervasive myth of the agreeable “model minority.” The publication The Making of an Archive serves as a critical document of Nguyễn’s research and the project’s relevance to larger conversations around Canadian vernacular photography by people of colour, the role of the artist-initiated archive, and how an expansion of the archival record relates to political and social change. As part of the book launch, the artist will ask, what is the process of building a collective archive and how do we come to understand our own pictures, together?

Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn is a research-based artist and uses a broad range of media, often relying on archival material to investigate issues of historicity, collectivity, Utopian politics and multiculturalism within the framework of feminist theory. Currently based in Stockholm, she completed the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, New York, in 2011, having obtained her MFA and a post-graduate diploma in Critical Studies from the Malmö Art Academy, Sweden, in 2005, and a BFA from Concordia University, Montreal, in 2003. Nguyễn’s work has been shown internationally in institutions including SAVVY, Berlin (2017); EFA Project Space, New York (2016); Mercer Union, Toronto (2015); MTL BNL at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal (2014); Kunstverein Braunschweig, Germany (2013); Apexart, New York (2013); and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2011). She has also been awarded a number of grants for her research-based practice from the Canada Council for the Arts; The Banff Centre’s Brenda and Jamie Mackie Fellowship for Visual Artists; and The Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s International Program for Visual Arts. Nguyễn was the 2017 Audain Visual Artist In Residence at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and participated in the fourth cycle of NTU Center for Contemporary Art Singapore’s Residencies Program. In 2018, Nguyễn was nominated as one of the five finalists for the third MNBAQ Contemporary Art Award by The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

The Making of an Archive is edited by Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, grunt gallery’s Curator Vanessa Kwan and Archives Manager Dan Pon, with contributions by Liz Park, Gabrielle Moser, Fatima Jaffer, Dan Pon and Tara Robertson, Maiko Tanaka and an introduction by Vanessa Kwan. The publication is designed by Chris Lee.

For more information go to the Belkin Gallery

The Making of an Archive book will be available in our online book store soon.

For further information please contact: Jana Tyner at,
tel: (604) 822-1389, or fax: (604) 822-6689



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