whitehot | March 2009, Interview with Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh
Installation view. 2008. Courtesy Western Front, Vancouver
Amarie Bergman interviews the curators of Between Us, Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh
Three pairs of artists synchronized their creativity in Between Us, A Toronto / Vancouver Exchange, to make three double-sided posters. In each instance, two artists collaboratively conceptualised and crafted one poster in a long distance dialogue. Commissioned for the project were: Luis Jacob + Paul de Guzman, Will Kwan + Kristina Lee Podesva and Fedora Romita + Sara Mameni. The exhibition had its inception at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto this past summer and moved to Western Front in Vancouver, 4 – 18 September 2008. Between Us was curated by Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh.
Amarie Bergman: Let’s begin with the conceptual premise of the project, shall we? Can you talk about the key points you were tapping into?
Alissa Firth-Eagland and Johan Lundh: We wanted to collaborate with each other and with artists. Johan is from Stockholm, Sweden, and Alissa is from Toronto, Canada. After we met, we lived and worked together in Toronto for about six months, and then moved together to Vancouver in June 2007. Vancouver provided us with a specific perspective on the vastness of Canada, and the possibilities for exchange across the country. All the great distances in Canada act as a metaphor for the world - there are nodes of activity and a desire for communication and dialogue between these nodes. Primarily, we hoped to create a bridge between Vancouver and Toronto.
AB: Your statement emphasized rivalry between Vancouver and Toronto, yet – from what we see revealed by the artists in this exhibition – this was not the case. Were you surprised that differences were either not addressed or overtly evident in the work? Would you admit that both cities are not so much Canada-centric but consider themselves as metropolitan entities in the global network, linked with all cities by the physical and electronic space between them?
AFE and JL: The antagonism that people perceive between Toronto and Vancouver is largely based on stereotypes. By connecting two artists we wanted to break down the rivalry by making it a person to person contact. This worked to varying degrees. The artists had complete autonomy over the content and tone of their collaboration. We elaborate below.
AB: What was the overarching criterion in your selection of each of the artists? I’m curious if any of the artists were born in either Vancouver or Toronto and if you think that made – or might have made – a difference in how they communicated with each other and what they produced?
AFE and JL: An interdisciplinary practice and an openness to experimentation was key in our selection of the artists. When we approached them, we asked whether they had previously collaborated, and this informed our selection of the pairs. None of the artists were born in Toronto or Vancouver and this was a conscious choice on our part. They were born in Canada, China, Peru, the Philippines, and the US and come from a range of experiences and backgrounds which we feel accurately reflects the complex makeup of these metropolitan zones.
AB: In Tim Lee’s essay in Vancouver Art & Economies he points out that much of the art produced in Vancouver is “Meticulously thought out, schematically planned, and then farmed out for fabrication … with a keen sense of formal and intellectual rigor.” He goes on to say that the work, “is not only seen as emblematic of a standard, but accepted as a classic orthodoxy.”  Would you agree with this notion in your observations about how all the artists approached the project and produced their respective work or was it possibly limited to the Vancouver-based artists: de Guzman, Podesva and Mameni?
AFE and JL: Based on the intrinsic need for trust, risk, and generosity between the artist pairs, Tim Lee’s description of his vision of Vancouver-produced art is not a mode of production that would have worked well for this project. His is a particular view of a particular production style taken up by some Vancouver-based artists at this specific point in time.
AB: OK. Other than stipulating the size and format of the finished work, what was your role in the production process? Did you give the artists complete autonomy?
AFE and JL: The feel, form and quality of the artists’ collaborations was determined by each pair – they could choose to work together on both sides of their poster, they could choose to work on separate sides while informing one another of their own separate processes, or they could choose not to work together at all. Through this curatorial model, the participating artists maintained total creative autonomy over the content of the posters.
AB: Since this project is part of Western Front’s New Media program, I’m curious why you decided to limit the work to digital medium in the form of graphic art software and not include any electronic technologies, other than e-mail, with what I think Randy Lee Cutler terms, “post-medium practices.” Would you care to comment?
AFE: This project is actually part of a program at Western Front called Western Front Media Arts, which is an important distinction from ‘New Media’.
AB: My mistake! So, would you tell me more about this program then and how Between Us fits into it?
AFE: Western Front Media Arts holds an important place within the Western Front as an instigator of interdisciplinary projects organization-wide. Key components of our activities are connecting artists to technologies, and presenting emergent, new, cross-disciplinary and fringe media art practices to diverse communities. As such, Western Front Media Arts maintains activities in residencies, co-productions, research, mentorships, archival projects and dissemination projects.
In leading this program of the organization, I have undertaken a broad and expansive approach to what 'media arts' means. The scope of Western Front Media Arts is elastic and dynamic, and includes video production, net art, interactive installations, robotics, live web casting, sound art, publication, research, curation, interdisciplinary exploration and innovative experiments. The long distance, highly mediated research and collaborative methodologies of Between Us fits snugly into our new programming trajectory as a self-reflective form of production and dissemination. Indeed, posters are a medium.
AB: Alissa, in an interview with Michelle Kasprzak last year, she asked about your practice of incorporating elements of both curating and commissioning. You mentioned your preference for commissioning because it supports the creation of new work and has the most open structure for the artist-to-curator relationship (with the curator acting as a moderator, facilitator and producer). You also reveal that there is far more trust, even intimacy, involved and so the critical variable is the shape of the relationship.
You and Johan compounded the complexity of the project by co-curating it. Is there any one thing that you would obviously repeat or avoid next time?
AFE and JL: We obtained some valuable insight from this project, and we are taking the collaboration to the next level with our forthcoming co-curated project The Set Up: Vanessa Kwan and Eric Metcalfe which will be presented at the Helen Pitt Gallery November 7 - December 19, 2008. Vanessa Kwan is a Vancouver-based artist and writer, originally from New Foundland She is a founding member of Norma: a group of seven artists whose performance and installation works have been exhibited locally, nationally and internationally since 2002. Eric Metcalfe was born in Vancouver but grew up in Victoria. Since 1970, he has crossed and merged disciplines: painting, drawing, installation, printmaking, performance, video and film. In 2008, his practice was recognized with a Governor General’s Award. Together Kwan and Metcalfe will create a mural work for the gallery throughout the duration of the exhibition, and like Between Us, will reflect upon the dialogues involved in creative exchange. This project will bring collaborative production further to the fore.
AB: Thank you, Alissa and Johan.
According to a recent call for proposals by Wooloo, NEW LIFE COPENHAGEN 2099, “new power structures based upon constantly migrative groups and their long-distance professional networks are emerging everywhere. In this future, a city is no longer a physical place but a mindset or ideology that its global citizens has chosen to follow from wherever they live on the planet. The citizens of each city are divided into smaller, interest-specific communities and all products and services are being developed by such community groups consisting of both consumers and producers in online collaboration.” 
This is exactly what curators Firth-Eagland and Lundh have accomplished with this commissioned project. The synchronized on-line collaborations for Between Us are avant-garde and an important contribution to what is happening now, what happens next: between us - as individuals collectively in the world.
Alissa Firth-Eagland is an interdisciplinary artist and curator who works between video, publication, research, performance, installation and exhibition. She has curated projects for organizations such as Fado Performance Inc. in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto, Canada), Walter Phillips Gallery (Banff, Canada), Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art (Helsinki, Finland), and Images Festival (Toronto, Canada). Her publication projects have exhibited at Invisible Reading Room (Melbourne, Australia), Botkyrka Konsthall (Stockholm, Sweden), Taxi Gallery (Cambridge, United Kingdom), RAM Foundation for the Arts (Rotterdam, the Netherlands), eyelevel Gallery (Halifax, Canada), and YYZ Artists Outlet (Toronto, Canada). Her media works have exhibited at Cinémathèque québécoise (Montréal, Canada), Harbourfront Centre (Toronto, Canada), Kassel Film & Video Festival (Kassel, Germany), and Oberhausen International Short Film Festival (Oberhausen, Germany). She is Director/Curator of Western Front Media Arts in Vancouver, Canada.
Johan Lundh is an independent curator and writer, dividing his time between Stockholm, Sweden, and Vancouver, Canada. The past few years, he has focused on engineering frameworks for social, intellectual and artistic exchange. He has curated exhibitions and projects for Index - The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation (Stockholm, Sweden), Kulturhuset (Stockholm, Sweden), Western Front Exhibitions and Performance Art (Vancouver, Canada), and YYZ Artists’ Outlet (Toronto, Canada). His writing has appeared in C Magazine, The Fillip Review, Konstperspektiv, Paletten and Site Magazine. Throughout November 2008, he is a researcher-in-residence at the Baltic Art Centre (Visby, Sweden).
 http://www.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/singular_forms/highlights_13a.html, Guggenheim Museum - Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated) Art from 1951 to the Present, 5 March - 19 May 2004.
 Lee, Tim. "Specific Objects and Social Subjects: Industrial Facture and the Production of Polemics in Vancouver." Vancouver Art & Economies. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press / Artspeak 2007.
 Cutler, Randy Lee. "Vancouver Singular Plural: Art in the Age of Post Medium Practice." Vancouver Art & Economies. Vancouver Arsenal Pulp Press/ Artspeak, 2007.
 http://www.wooloo.org/newlifecopenhagen/, New Life Copenhagen, 2008.
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