Many visual artists toil on their own for long periods before completing a work of art.
That’s not Vanessa Kwan’s way.
In an interview on the plaza of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the Vancouver artist talks about their enthusiasm for working collectively and collaboratively since being a student at the old Granville Island campus.
“For me, the feeling of working with people and the feeling of achieving something as a unit was totally intoxicating,” Kwan tells Pancouver. “That was the highlight of my student life here—where I learned that collaboration was something I was just really, really attracted to.”
Kwan, who prefers the pronouns they and them, began a new job as Director + Curator, Gallery + Exhibitions at Emily Carr University on October 17.
Kwan never anticipated being in this position two decades ago when they and other students cofounded Norma, an installation and performance-art collective.
Norma was known for its unpredictability, producing works until early 2014 that employed “absurdity, physical endurance and repetition in an exploration of collective identity and cultural anxiety”, according to its website. This included Brawl, a staged event at Andy Livingstone Park during the 2010 Olympics. It demonstrated, among other things, how sport and violence could intersect.
Kwan’s passion for collaboration was also evident in the City of Vancouver’s 2012 public art project Geyser for Hillcrest Park. They jointly created this with Erica Stocking, who was also part of Norma.
“Their public monument for Hillcrest Park harnesses water in the form of a geyser that sends an impressive plume of spray 12–18 feet in the air,” the city states in a brochure. “It is an artwork that weaves together all these elements in the park—oral and geological histories, civic function and environmental concerns—in the form of a ‘man-made’ ‘natural wonder’.”
It also serves as a reminder of hidden infrastructure systems underneath the surface, delivering water to the local swimming pool and ice rink. And kids in the park love it when it suddenly gushes forth to show when the infrastructure is functioning.
“The geyser had to work with what was on-site and was not there to draw water,” Kwan says. “It wasn’t there to put pressure on those resources; it was merely to make it visible.”
Gallery is a place for exploration
Pancouver spoke to Kwan on their third day on the job at the helm of the university’s Libby Leshgold Gallery.
They were reluctant to articulate a clear vision until they learn more about the team and the institution. But they acknowledge that they have a history of asking questions, inviting artists to engage, and forging collaborations and partnerships in previous work at the grunt gallery, on public-art installations, and in performance art. And this will continue in the new position.
“That’s the stuff that I’m good at and I’m really passionate about,” Kwan says, describing the gallery as a “place for exploration”
“To me, the gallery has a capacity to act as a sort of lens or prism that is attached to the university, but kind of broadcasts outward and then brings thing inward,” they add. “That would be the best-case scenario: to have this kind of prismatic effect for the university and for the students and the faculty inside—and the community outside.”
In addition, Kwan foresees opportunities to bring different artforms inside the gallery, including spoken word, poetry, text, design, performance, and dance.
“We just have to figure out how to make it shine.”
Kwan challenges status quo
Kwan grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a family that expected them to attend school and go into medicine or some other profession.
“Being an artist was not what I thought I was going to do,” Kwan says.
But when their mom passed away in 1999, Kwan realized that there was a chance to reconsider the future. They decided to enroll at Emily Carr University of Art + Design—and Kwan maintains that it was one of the best choices that they ever made in life.
“I graduated with a bachelor of media arts, but I was actually doing a lot of performance at that time,” Kwan says.
Kwan has a keen interest in challenging prevailing beliefs about what society appreciates, as well as what is given time, space, and resources. They believe in the potential for a gallery and artists to have a truly revolutionary impact on the world. Along with that comes an awareness of the impact of privileging different kinds of artists.
“I’ve always been curious about expanding what people think about when they think about a gallery, and what people assume when they think about artists who are showing their work,” Kwan says.
“That’s parcel of the work I hope to do in every place that I work, which is to really question what we assume has value,” they continue. “Start questioning what we assume is going to change the world, because we need new solutions. Do you know what I mean? I’m just here for that. I’m here for the gallery to start exploring that.”