New Departures : Organizations and Arrival histories

Moderator: Steven Tong
Panelists: Heather Keung, Tyler Russell, Indu Vashist

One of the first questions I want to ask, is not as much for the panelists, but I was thinking about this question beforehand, considering Paul Wong’s comment that it has been 20 years since Yellow Peril and then he talked about change. So, my question is for Paul as well as the panel: what do you think has changed in the last 20 years or even the last 10 years?

Well I think a lot of things have changed — I think the climate of this country has completely changed in the last 20 years. I think it has been becoming far more conservative; or maybe it has been becoming more outwardly conservative. Secondly, as an institution that has been around for as long as we have at SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre), and going through the process of moving from a collective to an institution, we see things ossify in some ways. There have been many conversations today about a place for identity politics and a vibrancy around conversations of race, ethnicity, identity, etc. — so, I wouldn’t say that these conversations don’t exist; they exist in very different forms. But I think that through the process of institutionalization, the fierceness has been dulled in the name of being more complex in some sense. At least some of the problem is the decreased funding available to people of colour to make works, and this funding decreased in some ways because the conversation is not at the forefront as much. I think about the Juno Diaz quote earlier where she said something like, “making stuff about identity is somehow political and that’s not cool” — I think that’s something that’s happening right now.












Panel 2 Discussion, photo by Kwantlen Polytechnic University

The agenda is very different for artists today from what sparked Yellow Peril and a lot of this conversation in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think now artists are not necessarily interested in their own representation; hey are more interested in commercial success, or an industry focus. It could be that organizations are putting on a lot of pressure to be all these things, such as “educational,” but also for a film festival, the pressure is on to help “professionalize” the artists and the filmmakers, and that means to secure private funding, to gain private support from individual donors and from corporations, to have commercial success and to have recognition within mainstream media.

Not long ago, maybe within the last two years, a Facebook friend, an artist I know a little bit, Kevin Lee Burton, asked me, “What happened to the Asian Canadians? The avant-garde Asian thing. Why aren’t you as interesting and as high profile as the current contemporary Aboriginal artists, considering your trajectories started at the same time?”

We’re not sexy. The Aboriginal community has somehow managed to galvanize and it’s particularly this kind of a spiritual practice or a historical thing, but I think a lot of it had to do with that they were angry, hungry, desperate, more radical and I think more experimental. We ended up kind of discussing the problem and made comparisons about how every commercial gallery now has to have a contemporary Aboriginal artist if they’re “hip.” Commodification is another trajectory that we were talking about. I think that the whole international scene around the avant-garde Chinese artists in China has also played a key part in suppressing and not recognizing these other kinds of more localized, “non-sexy” Canadian avant-garde practices. Artists are very conservative now I think. There was all that anger, when we started doing this stuff 25 years ago and that anger has been institutionalized, problematized and formulized through education and curatorial practices, cataloging and through writing.

My question is for Indu Vashist about the funding models and in response to what Paul Wong was saying as well. How is that lexicon of “graduating” a creative form of censorship? And what about the radicalness of certain projects that your organization is working on? As an organization and as an activist, how do we feed into capitalist models that censor the art that people are trying to make? And are there alternatives to the grant writing process or private sector funding? Are there possibilities to create a new system or model for artists?

You bring up a lot of important questions. To date SAVAC hasn’t taken any corporate money, and that has been a political stance of ours. I don’t know how sustainable it is. I am a huge advocate of public funding. We need to fight for increased public funding for the arts from every level: municipal, provincial and federal. So, when I think about grant writing, the grants being developed in the current phase are following certain kinds of corporate models; they want “performance indicators.” It’s based on a capitalist model of productivity, production and consumption. That is fundamentally a problem, because it doesn’t make art for art’s sake, and I think artist-run culture should be able to exist without having to compete within a commercial market, but that is becoming much more difficult.












Panel 2 Discussion, photo by Kwantlen Polytechnic University

I think of audience numbers and fundraising. It’s pressure from the arts funding bodies.

One thing that we have done recently, was a complete experiment. I come from an activist background and was like, “What?! I have a budget of $150,000! Woohoo!” I thought it was so much money, but then I realized that we need to engage communities. I do think we need to increase numbers, but we need to increase numbers of an engaged community. We need to build community around us. Recently I started holding a monthly pop-up bar in our space and we would make innovative South Asian themed drinks and snacks. We worked with this chef, we created these things and that approach created a scene. People wanted to come and hangout and it brought in a bit of money. So, it was a fundraising model that was based in community outreach and engaging the community. I think that it is an exciting way of going about it. It’s not that financially successful —you can’t keep tapping your community for money; you have to go find it elsewhere. We need to advocate with our representational bodies. We pay dues to these bodies and we need to push them. Most arts organizations right now are not willing to advocate because they are trying to avoid the chopping block. But I do feel there are umbrella organizations that can advocate for more money for the arts and I think as member organizations of those umbrella bodies we need to push them to push for us to have more money.