Independent curator and writer Joni Low really feels that artists are living in a transitional time. In a Zoom call with Pancouver, she says that creators recognize various challenges facing humanity but they’re still figuring out new ways to respond.
Moreover, she believes that the pandemic has given people time to realize what’s not functioning. In addition, it’s enabled artistic communities to identify gaps in support structures.
“We’re still working through a lot of issues—like exhaustion, isolation, burnout—and then, you know, the increased stressors of everyday survival: affordability, recession [and} war,” Low says. “How are we going to embody the changes that we would like to see in that new world?”
A new anthology that she’s co-edited with art historian Jeff O’Brien, What Are Our Supports?, attempts to offer some answers. It includes essays, poems, and visual examples to advance understanding of how how artists and marginalized communities can adapt and respond creatively to build networks of mutual support.
O’Brien is also on the same Zoom call from his new home in Santa Barbara where he’s teaching at the University of California. He says that these issues have become increasingly important in the wake of the pandemic and uprisings in the United States.
On top of that, there’s the climate crisis, which recently hit California especially hard in the form of catastrophic floods.
“Last night we were kind of on warning for the possibility of evacuation,” O’Brien says. “They did evacuate a few areas in Montecito, just a few miles east of here.”
Home Made Home Boothy inspired creators
Low explains that the anthology emerged from a project of the same name that she curated in 2018 in partnership with Or Gallery and Richmond Art Gallery. It offered five artist groups a chance to work with a telephone-booth-sized platform, Home Made Home Boothy. It was created by multidisciplinary artist Germaine Koh and placed in Cathedral Square Park.
The artist groups transformed Boothy into a breathtaking array of uses. In the process, they demonstrated how public space can be re-imagined to form connections, foster mutual support, and generate awareness of the natural world.
In the book’s evocative introduction, Low discusses the park’s visitors, suggesting that they “range from students to the unhoused, office workers and drug users, who cross and spend time there daily”.
However, she notes that this park at the corner of Dunsmuir and Richards streets is “not a site of protest so much of leisure, intermediary, and pause”.
“It is a park that time forgot: slightly decrepit, outdated in design from its origins during Expo ’86, in a sort of neighbourhood between the identities that was, at the time of the projects, a zone on the crest of gentrification,” Low writes. “It is situated within the triangle between the original 1887 City Hall site in present-day Gastown, the former downtown intersection of Main and Hastings Streets in the 1960s (now the Downtown Eastside), and the present-day business district at Burrard and Dunsmuir.”
In the Zoom call, Low states that as a curator and writer, she’s inspired by how artists create and sustain spaces outside of institutional art-gallery contexts.
Friendship serves as artistic medium
Low and O’Brien have been friends for about a decade and he was brought on in the fall of 2020 to help create the book.
In fact, she suggests that parts of the anthology explore how friendship can actually serve as an artistic medium between cultural workers.
“I think our foundation of friendship and trust—and corresponding over the years—really helped with the chemistry and dynamic,” Low adds. “Jeff was really involved. He’s an excellent editor.”
O’Brien helped choose contributions to the anthology to supplement pieces by some of the original artists. The additions include texts by cultural commentators such as scholars Céline Condorelli and Jeff Derksen, poet and scholar Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, and Ojibwe artist Charlene Vickers.
Meanwhile, Low says that one essayist, Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg scholar and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, explains how colonialism acts like a series of processes to dispossess Indigenous populations in complex ways. Furthermore, Low adds, those involved in an Indigenous resurgence can respond, in turn, through a series of their own processes.
Simpson’s essay, along with the 2018 What Are Our Supports? series in Cathedral Square, speak to Low’s keen interest in how artists expose invisible things and invisible relational webs.
“That became really resonant during the pandemic,” she says, “because we weren’t allowed to come together in the ways that we did in this project.”
What Are Our Supports? will be launched at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Saturday (January 21). It was designed by Information Office, and co-published by Information Office, Doryphore Independent Curators Society, Richmond Art Gallery and Art Metropole. Pre-orders are at i-o.cc/books/supports for $45.