Wrapping up Art Matters 2017

Interview with Art Matters festival coordinator, and three curators about the 17th edition of this student-run art festival

Performance by Santiago Tamayo Soler at Eastern Bloc. Photo by Laura Mongollon.

This year’s Art Matters, now in its 17th edition, featured an impressive diversity of exhibits. As usual, it didn’t disappoint: the curators and artists – all Concordia undergraduate students – came together to contribute fresh and dynamic points of view to Montreal’s art scene. Out of this year’s 12 shows, I’ve checked out two so far. I got a chance to ask the curators and Art Matters coordinator, Michael Martini, about their shows and the festival in general.

When selecting curators this year, Martini explained, “we were joined by a jury of students, artists, and curators who envisioned a diverse and exciting festival. We had our eye out for proposals of shows that would open the festival up to practices that might have previously felt excluded from the festival, like dance or theatre, as well as proposals that were addressing questions of representation and accessibility for marginalized students at Concordia.” The festival’s final show, xxxxxxxx*8 (finissage on March 23), actually came together through a random selection process rather than the peer-reviewed jury process that usually occurs.

Curators at the Art Matters Curatorial Workshop at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery. Photo by Laura Mongollon

Importantly, Martini said that this year’s focus was “on an open line of communication with students.” He explained: “We’ve aimed to have our eyes and ears open on campus, to listen to the questions, concerns, and desires of students in order to re-shape the festival and improve its sustainability as a student organization and as a staple in the Montreal arts network.”

So why is it still going strong after these 17 years? “Art Matters keeps growing,” said Martini, “because the festival provides students access to exciting spaces otherwise difficult to get a foot into the door into. When Art Matters began in the early 2000s, the organizers would take over spaces on Concordia campus in order to showcase student artwork- the cafeterias, the co-op cafes, the auditoriums, places like that. In the course of nearly two decades, Art Matters has mustered the visibility and the recognition to showcase students in spaces like Studio XX and Eastern Bloc to name only a couple of the exciting venues students are welcomed into. There’s an idea of reclaiming spaces to be run by students, on- and off- campus, that I think moves the festival forward.” Not only an exciting opportunity for students to curate and exhibit, Art Matters is also important for Montreal, as viewers are exposed to new and up-and-coming voices.

Ontology, curated by Xan Shian, an exhibit that ran from March 6-19, was an important artistic exploration and deconstruction of the experience of anxiety. Islands, running from March 12-21, features sculpture, print media and video installation. Curated by Jordan Beaulieu and Zeke Best Rothfels, this exhibit brings together various interpretations of the symbolic, metaphorical, and physical qualities of islands.

Cassandra: I usually like to start with a brief description of the exhibit – just a couple of words or a few key phrases for our readers.

Xan Shian: Ontology is literally the study of the nature of being – so to describe it I think I’d have to say ‘being’ – as in the nature of who/what/how/why we are, ‘anxiety’ since the show centers around the anxious experience and the different layers of interaction – from relief to subjection – we have with it, and, I suppose, ‘experience’ because, on a more visceral level, I tried to create a show that opened viewers/participants up to a myriad of experiences – both through different mediums and different emotive qualities.

Installation by Aya Avalon. Photo by Laura Mongollon

Jordan Beaulieu and Zeke Best Rothfels: Place, Perception, Discovery.

Cassandra: What sparked the idea for your exhibits? And why is it important to you?

Shian: I’ve actually been playing with projects around anxiety for the better part of a year now. I went through a period that held a lot of anxiety for me and decided to try and confront my feelings around it through art. In the Fall I made a book of photographs and poems also titled Ontology, which I thought was the culmination of this work, but then Art Matters came along and I thought it could be interesting to let go of this level of control I’d regained by giving it over to other artists. It’s such a universal experience so it makes sense to do it and redo it in as many forms as possible. It’s important to me because it’s both deeply personal and inherently relatable, and something people really seem to keep to themselves.

Beaulieu and Best Rothfels: We have both lived on Islands for our entire lives — Zeke came to Montreal from Toronto Island and Jordan from Prince Edward Island — and these settings were recurring frequently in the work we’d been doing individually. Ending up on an island (Montreal) once again, we were both interested in what these three very distinct locals shared by virtue of their islandhood. The Art Matters festival put out the call for curatorial proposals this autumn and it seemed like the right way to open the conversation up to other artists. Our focus has always been on the physical and metaphorical representations, as place and perception are inseparable from one another. It’s a theme that we find fun and fascinating, and hadn’t found it extensively explored.

Expedition Phase 1 by Pépite and Josèphe

Cassandra: Could you describe the selection process? How and why did the pieces you chose inspire you?

Shian: The selection process was interesting! Overall the festival had some 400 submissions which we had to go through during the few weeks over Christmas. The exhibition had so many incarnations depending on which artworks I was engaging with; it could have been so many things… and there is always this sense of responsibility to the artist, to not force your context onto their work, so I tried to choose works that engaged with the subject matter without explicitly labelling them as doing so. The pieces I ended up with were really the ones that stuck in my head. The ones I kept coming back to and lingering on even after looking at so many other submissions… they evoked something and fit together to create this diaphanous mood – the interplay of dark and light and the many spaces between the extremes, which is where I think anxiety often finds itself. For instance, Aya Avalon’s The Garden provides a bizarre but meditative reprieve from the outside world, while Subliminal – Maxime Saint Jean’s photographs – have this dark, subdued, and mysterious quality. Hea Kim’s Indecisive Valley really engages the notion of social constructs (for me) – of the chasm between who we are and how we represent ourselves, particularly in such a ‘plugged in’ society. Marie Ségolène’s 50 Pomegranates for Persephone engages the historical narrative of the myth of Persephone – a thread which weaves between the creation of seasons, separation anxiety, rape and death, which encompasses many of the elements of Ontology. Camille Durand Gauthier’s Deconstruction Game moves in an entirely different direction where she posits pastel colours and soft objects against violent outcomes (of their dismantling) embodying an experience of tension; Danil Ulmashev’s electroacoustic piece travels many layers of experience, and adds an auditory element to something, which by its very nature seems as though it should be imbued with sound. Finally, Zoe Baranek’s FOAM works as a subtle refraction of light, playing with shape and shadow, which appealed to me in a very metaphorical sense.

Beaulieu and Best Rothfels: Although there were almost 400 artist applications to the festival this year, our selection process was fairly rapid. We have similar sensibilities in terms of which art we like and don’t, and our shared sense of what worked best for the show made the process pretty smooth. The works we chose stood out to us because they presented a strong engagement with the theme and were outstanding artworks in of themselves. It’s unusual to curate works for themed shows from a body of general submissions which aren’t necessarily intended to be categorized so particularly. But we don’t think any of the works sit uneasily in relation to our ideas, nor were any of the artists surprised to be curated into an islands themed show when we first invited them to participate. One of the most interesting things about making this show happen has been observing the artworks develop these symbiotic associations with one another. When we first conceived of organizing an islands themed show we assumed we would to have to really stretch our notion of ‘island’ in order to accommodate enough work in the show. We were shocked by the number of submissions to the festival that engaged with the theme of islands both aesthetically and conceptually.

Cassandra: What senses will viewers engage with?

Shian: I think I mostly answered this above (whoops), but the show has several visual pieces, a video installation, a performance with both sound and video installation, an electroacoustics sound piece, sculpture, and of course an immersive meditative experience. So that covers sound, visuals and touch. Probably best to not include smell or taste when it comes to shows about anxiety (these also weren’t options)!

Jordan Beaulieu and Zeke Best Rothfels: Both being visual artists and devout drawers, our show is very visual. However, this visual quality is distributed across a myriad of media: video, collage, photography, poetry, sculpture, and more. There is also a tactile aspect, in that there are six different book works to turn through, as well as interactive map of Montreal for viewers to play with. And beer and wine by donation!

The Attempt by Eve Roy

Cassandra: Do you have prior experience curating?

Xan Shian: Not specifically. I’m an artist so I am always curating my own work – putting together series, in both writing and photography, editing, moving things around, etc. But this was a first for me in terms of bringing other people’s works together in a common space to tie (roughly) into a common theme.

Beaulieu and Best Rothfels: Neither of us had any curatorial experience prior to this show! We had a lot of help in organizing from this year’s Art Matters staff, from the staff at Espace Cercle Carré, and from student technician Alexis Gagnon, without whom we would’ve been hopelessly screwed, and all of the artists in the show who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.

Cassandra: How do these pieces approach the theme in different ways?

Shian: I think I also answered this in number 3! I will say, generally, though that they create tensions between them – some working to represent the anxious experience, and others actively trying to undo it, or subdue it. I think in any conversation – and this show is meant to be a conversation – there have to be many different vantage points. Not just pointing to the issues, but creating empathy through shared experience and also actively trying to find solutions, counterpoints to these things.

Sculpture by Hea Kim. Photo by Laura Mongollon

Beaulieu and Best Rothfels: All of the works vary in their approach to the theme, though it might be more appropriate to say that the theme varies relative to each of the works. Some of the pieces are more grounded in geography and use specific islands as their subject matter, Iceland and Newfoundland for instance. Two of the works focus on exploring the Island of Montreal in depth. Others interpret a community or an individual as an island. Some pieces are simply relate to the idea visually. Honestly, we are still amazed that there was so much strong work about islands among this year’s Art Matters submissions.

With only a couple days left of the festival, I asked Martini what his top picks are for those looking to catch some last minute shows:

“With only the final stretch left, I’d say our one-night exhibition The View From Here at Espace Cercle Carré is not to be missed. The exhibition represents queer and womxn artists talking frankly, subtly, and intimately about sexuality. The event features performances, and will also offer some safe-sex resources so that the conversation can be brought home. The event is on the 27th. Another event everyone is welcome to is the Art Matters closing party, the night of the 31st at the Ritz. It will be our staple dance party for the year.”

Check out the Art Matters website for more details.