Interviews with Three Edmonton Art Collectives Issue Competition / Collaboration 2018.3 by Carolyn Jervis A significant way in which artists collaborate is forming collectives. I interviewed three local groups to learn more about what working together meant for their creative practices. These three groups—Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective, Tennis Club, and aiya合作社—represent both the breadth of collaboration in Edmonton’s art community and the importance of relationality, capacity and accountability in making art and exhibitions together. Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, Erin Sutherland, Becca Taylor, Kristy Trinier, and Missy LeBlanc. (Responses by Erin Sutherland and Becca Taylor) 1. What led to the creation of Ociciwan? Kristy Trinier sent out an invite to a number of people in the beginning of 2015 asking the question if the city was ready for an Indigenous Artist Run Centre. Several people went to the meeting expressing positive interest to the idea. Thereafter many meetings and community dinners were held where others were asked and reached out to join in the discussion. After a while it became clear there was a consistent group of people meeting at which time people began to identify an organized commitment to the idea of finding more ways for Indigenous artists to be supported and be exhibited in the city. The group gathered and discussed a name, vision and mandate and from there the group formalized officially in at the end of 2015 as Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective. 2. What has working collaboratively made possible for you as artists/writers/curators/creative practitioners that you couldn’t have accomplished, or would have been unthinkable, on your own? Allows us to do more shows working collectively versus independently. Be innovative, because we share ideas, we brainstorm to create stronger concepts. More capacity to create shows, write, outreach and be involved within the community locally, provincially and nationally. Personal and emotional support. Community connections, each of us bring our own community connects and relationships to the collective, creating a larger support community. We each have different skill sets we bring to the group, utilizing our independant strengths to strengthen the collective. 3. Has working collaboratively informed your individual artistic practice? In what ways? We each have different strengths and connections to the arts community. Individually we become connected to a larger community through each other. We have learnt so much about new artists, how to strengthen our writing and editing skills, positively engage with community connections, while actively listening to our peers. 4. What have been the major challenges of working as a collective? We work slow, because we work by census. We are often making space and re-negotiating the space for that. 5. What do you see as the future of your work together? Sky’s the limit. We are constantly growing and adapting to our changing and evolving communities. Tennis Club Megan Gnanasihamany, Morgan Melenka, Marie Winters, Alyson Davies, and Renée Perrott 1. What led you to start Tennis Club together? Morgan: We were classmates and friends at the University of Alberta during our BFA, and all very involved with VASA (Visual Arts Student Association). Working with a student organization taught us to work as a team and gave structure to how we organized ourselves, and was an education in how organization of many people can get huge tasks done. In January, about 6 months after most of us graduated the 5 of us were hanging out in this weird common room in my mom’s building, complete with floor to ceiling mirrors and shuffleboard tables, and we got to talking about being a collective. We all were searching for a sense of community in artmaking, for encouragement and support, and we were discussing methods to successfully do large projects through collaboration. It felt good, and in a very short time we had rapid-fire decided on Tennis Club as our moniker. It was all very fun. Shortly after we all moved into a studio together at Ficus, an artist space on the south side. I think that by sharing a space from the very start made us energized by each others material interests and permitted us to work on small projects as a team. It was too small for 5 people, but learning how to navigate that many supplies and make the space useful was a good team building exercise. The community of other artists and craftspersons in that space was an exciting place to begin. Alyson: I think we wanted an excuse to hang out together. After finishing my BFA I felt paralyzed in the conquest of making work again, TC allowed me to stretch artistic muscles in a community where I felt safe and free of judgement. Renée: I think we wanted to create our own community to support each other during the post graduation weird-time and in the process make some cool and fun art. Also we were already good pals and definitely just wanted to hang out and do art. I’m so glad we did. Megan: In the winter of our final year of art school, there was a call for submissions that asked for artists of up to 5. Knowing each other’s practices through sharing studios and knowing our collaborative capability as an organizing team through VASA, creating a team of the 5 us was an easy decision. When the project ended up getting deferred for a year, it’s return after we had graduated gave us a space to start working as a collective, hate our name, and start over as Tennis Club. 2. What has working collaboratively made possible for you as an artist that you couldn’t have accomplished, or would have been unthinkable, on your own? Renée: Working with Tennis Club gave us the opportunity to complete larger scale projects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. For example, building a parade float and taking it on a tour of Alberta definitely requires a team. Working on that project and seeing it come to life was a dream to me – going on those road trips with our float and being out Tennis Club selves was so fun. I really miss those times! By collaborating we were able to share the workload as well as create something bigger and more awesome. Collaboration was always at the core of our projects, so it was integral to the meaning of our work. We made a very cool artist book for Publication Studio that just would not have existed without all of our individual work. Being a member of Tennis Club allowed me to connect more closely with fellow artists whose work I really admire. Coming together to discuss and make art while sharing our time and energy in the studio was really wonderful. We spent a lot of time together! I loved getting excited about a project as a group because each of us has a different perspective and approach to art; there was a lot to learn from each other. Even though we aren’t working together right now and some of the Tennis Club is living far away I still feel very connected to everyone because of the relationships we formed during our time as a collective. Alyson: Our project’s were so large that I would have never been able to dream them on my own, nor have the logistics to bring them into the world. I went to art school coming from a theatre background, I felt a longing through university to work collaboratively again, as being an artist is often lonesome. I couldn’t imagine trying to mount a musical on my own, as much as I’d like to think I could sing all the parts, I wouldn’t also be able to run the lights. The projects we made, such as the parade piece, had so many moving parts. It was important for us to delegate tasks in order for the piece to be a success. Morgan: Our projects, identity, and ethos were thoroughly a 5 person task of collective dreaming, I don’t think any one of us could have come up with TC’s practice on our own. Having the support of the team made me feel that we could reach out to galleries and artist centres to let people know who we are, something in my own practice I still find terrifying. As Tennis Club I found it easy to tell people about all the exciting projects we’ve done, yet in my own practice I have more doubt and uncertainty. I will say that TC has helped me in this regard, I think it taught me that if I’m excited about something other people can catch that infection. I think one of the most beautiful qualities of TC was our enthusiasm. Why wouldn’t we be enthusiastic when making art with dear friends? Megan: No work that is really collaborative could be possible individually, since every turn, iteration, and shift in projects and ideas is made in meeting and sharing. So none of the projects we created as TC would have come to be in the same way, shape, form, and scale without all 5 of us. I do think though my ability to call myself an artist was hugely influenced by our collaborative work – as Morgan said, there’s a softer entry point into artistic spaces when you have a team to hold onto. 3. Has working collaboratively informed your individual artistic practice? In what ways? Megan: So much of the work I’ve done since TC has been collaborative, and the practice we built in communication, planning, collaborating, and compromising has been invaluable. I am a better writer, artist, and community member because of working with TC and my interest in collaborative work as a medium itself draws so fully from the time with the Club. I think the effect of collaboration is so much wider than an artistic practice though, as I trust myself to work with other artists in a way I didn’t know how to before, to be kind in critique, to give space when it’s needed, to not see myself and others as tools of productivity when we’re so much more than that when we collaborate. Alyson: In Tennis Club we would take quick ideas and run with them, It’s this ability that I’ve taken to my practice. Allowing myself to be less judgmental of my ideas at the start, I now let the work run its course, trusting the process. Also I am so excited for collaborative projects, relationships and shows. I love how other’s practice’s can inform my work, and I theirs. Morgan: Yes, greatly. I learned a lot from Marie, Megan, Alyson and Renée and I’ve come out of the experience with better writing, communication and planning skills. Because we typically focused on larger projects I’m more comfortable working with many moving parts and knowing that things resolve themselves at different speeds. Also Tennis Club’s dedication to fun has trickled into my own practice, I am comfortable letting myself enjoy artmaking in a way I didn’t before. We met anywhere from once a week to once a month and this kind of regular discussion was so critical in continuing to develop my skills in talking and thinking about art, it was regular practice and I am so grateful for it. Also holy heck did we do a lot of projects and work our butts off. I feel that kind of pressure to create is still very much with me, it taught me that I was capable of working on many things at once. Renée: Feeling really supported by the collective and having their input on my ideas and the things I was working through at that time had a positive affect on me. Through our meetings and studio work I was constantly practicing my artistic voice, which I think has been really beneficial to me as a creative. 4. What have been the major challenges of working as a collective? Alyson: Difficulties come with disorganization and break in communication. Also we were pushing TC very hard and not really allowing for the natural ebbs of all our lives to dictate moments of quietness and rest. We took every opportunity that came our way, they were great, but saying “no” is something hard learnt. Morgan: I agree with Alyson, we did too much, which at first was exhilarating, but near the end lead to burnout. This was a very important lesson to learn, it’s hard to know when to be ambitious and when to rest. When we first became a collective someone told us to only do one large project and year, and while we didn’t heed it at the time, I now see how the wisdom in it. I think we needed those 2.5 years of intense work however, I think we’ve all come out of the experience much stronger and more ambitious artists. Renée: I agree with that too! It was a lot in a short amount of time and our lives were all very busy. Working in a close group on multiple projects requires constant communication which sometimes was difficult. Fortunately we found something that worked well for us and I think we all came out of it better communicators and team players because of it. Megan: It’s hard too when you’re friends first and collaborators seconds, since that order is easy to forget. There are times when you would tell your friend to step back, take breaks, take care and that’s harder to prioritize when you’re swept into the motion of working on something bigger than yourself. That’s probably one of the areas I’m most grateful to TC for, giving us an opportunity to build the network of care, encouragement, and critique that a really strong friendship and collaboration needs. 5. What do you see as the future of your work together? Or, if you are no longer collaborating, how has (or will) your experience with Tennis Club impact how you collaborate with other artists in the future? Alyson: Haha, this is a question in part that I get often. First as much as I’d like to be, I’m no diviner of future moments. I usually tell people we’re on hiatus. As a whole entire TC I’m not aware of any plans to work on team projects just now. (As much as I’d fucking love to) Life has us living life spread out and with varying priorities. However I will leak that Marie and I have talked at length about making work in stream with other projects we’ve done together. Who knows! As for other collaborations, I’m currently completing a collab mural with Borys Tarasenko. I’m constantly looking out for presenting opportunities. 🙂 Morgan: I would like to work together again, maybe in a couple years and on longer-term projects. I am amazed by my peers all the time and am so grateful to have worked with them, and I am not done with it yet! I think as we each focus and grow into our own practices now, the conversations between us will become even richer and the points of collaboration can become even more meaningful. I look forward to what the future will bring. I am currently taking a bit of a break from collaboration to focus on my studies. Renée: I’m so curious about what the future holds for us! I’d love to work on a project together again after we’ve taken a few years to focus on our individual work. I think what we would make then would look quite different than in the past. One thing I know for sure is that if/when that happens it will be real fun, because that’s just what Tennis Club does best. I haven’t done any collaborations recently but I like Alyson I’m very open to it. I remember in university collaborating was sometimes stressful and daunting but after working with TC, it’s something I feel pretty excited about. Megan: A lot of the work I’ve been excited about since Tennis Club has been collaborative, and that’s become such an important part of my practice I don’t think I could ever say no if we found the space to work together again. Taking time to be individual artists is so important though, and I’m incredibly proud of how much brilliant, beautiful work all 5 of us have done. It’s such an honour to collaborate with people and then see them flourish on their own, like we all get a tiny share of each other’s brightness. Life is long and we’re only far away for now and even from across the country, we’ll always be Edmonton’s greatest sporting sensation. aiya合作社 Jinzhe Cui, Marcus Fung, Paul Giang, Daniel Hackborn, Grace Law, Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon, Wai Ling Lennon, Lan Chan Marples, and Shawn Tse Grace: Aiyah! is what Chinese people use to express “oh shit!” or “oh crap!” It can express a variety of feelings and the meaning of the interjection is dependent on the tone and context. It can also be used to express happiness, surprise, sarcasm, speechlessness, and sadness. 1. aiya – What led to the creation of your collective? Grace: I believe we have formed out of necessity for two reasons. The first is to respond to the obvious signs of slum clearing/gentrification in Edmonton’s Chinatown. Likely, out of everyone in the collective, I am the most motivated by this reason. I don’t think it is an accident that we formed shortly after the removal of the Harbin Gate. Anger was a big reason why I wanted to be part of this collective. Secondly, there is a need to create space for radical dialogue in the Asian diaspora. Within the Edmonton Chinese community, there are organizations devoted to preserving traditional Chinese arts forms; however, there is nothing for Chinese contemporary artists. Making a safe space in Edmonton for Chinese artists, we come together to gather, to honour our heritage, to challenge perceptions and stereotypes, to heal, to acknowledge and work to understand our role as racialized settlers, and to collaborate for the purpose of conditioning space for the development of dialogue centered around Chinese Canadian/Asian diaspora concerns. Shawn: In late 2017, I began leading an Edmonton Heritage Council granted art heritage project focused around the history of our Chinatown. As a result of learning more and connecting with Chinatown I discovered a supportive community of traditional cultural and art practices/programs. I soon realized there were no groups focused on contemporary practices of Chinese Canadians, even though it something frequently discussed in the community and my friends. I then reached out to people who I thought would be interested with this idea of a collective- creating a safe space for Edmonton Chinese artists and leaders to gather, discuss, collaborate, and create art with focus around cultural identity and place. We have had three fruitful gatherings (or I like to call Cultural Art Parties) hosted in pairs by different members each time. The hosts usually share a cultural practice and art practice for the collective to engage and learn about. Marcus and I co-hosted the first party. The collective experienced tea ceremony, Qigong (Tai Chi), and we began vision planning for the group’s future. Paul: The collective provides a forum for in-cultural feedback on our individual work from peers who are familiar with the Chinese Canadian experience. Fostering dialogue to further develop our ideas, learn from others, and give opportunity to collaborate on projects relating to Chinatown and the Chinese community has been a major motivator. Kathryn: Shawn invited us to get together! The who, what, where, when, why and how of the collective are a work in progress. Which is exciting! I see the collective as a way to build community and hold reflective, nourishing space for those who are interested in exploring Chinese culture and cultural identity through our artistic practices. 2. What has working collaboratively made possible for you as artists/writers/curators/creative practitioners that you couldn’t have accomplished, or would have been unthinkable, on your own? Grace: This work is impossible without collaboration because if this is going to work then it’s not about the individual artist, it’s about a movement. It goes beyond the bounds of the modernist individual artistic practice where western art history tells us self expression is priority and the illusion of the character of the artistic genius is held high. For so long we have advocated for the public to come to the artist, to step into the gallery. Now it’s time for the artist to prove our work is relevant and contributes to action. Our Edmonton Chinatown, like all Chinatowns across North America, is going through a profound shift, a kind of existential crisis. We need new stories to tell us why Chinatowns should still exist when we are no longer racially segregated to live in Chinatown. The continued existence and success of Chinatown is not about economics or politics, it’s about our belief in new stories and the honoring of our old stories. This is the work of artists. So, what are those new stories? There is no way I can figure this out on my own. Also, nothing will get done if I did it on my own. It’ll just be ideas and half hearted attempts. Shawn: For most in the collective, the Chinese Canadian identity has always been a private interest or curiosity. For me, giving space and attention to share my thoughts and learn from others has deepened my understanding of self, place, and where I want to take my work. As an artist, I often work independently and so my experience is limited to what I have access to. In the collective, inclusive knowledge and ideas have expanded my world view and has helped enrich my approach and process to art making. Besides art, this collective to me is like family. Paul: Because of our groups’ focus on working with the Chinatown and Chinese communities in Edmonton, collaboration is essential for us as artists and cultural practitioners. The networks we collectively have expanded our relations and opportunities to explore options around creative spaces, intergenerational interactions, and community events. Kathryn: The collective gives me a place to develop ideas, by relating, discussing, and debating with other collective members. It is also a place where I draw inspiration. This spring, Grace and I organized a cultural art party for our group. Grace suggested focusing the gathering on a theme of “Care and 湯Tong/Soup”. We invited my mother to teach us how to make a Chinese medicinal soup, and then invited the group to have conversation, and to create, based on the experience of making and drinking soup together. The experience inspired me to create a linocut block print with the 9 ingredients, illustrating the recipe, and translating cultural knowledge and experience into art. 3. Has working collaboratively informed your individual artistic practice? In what ways? Shawn: I am fortunate now to focus most of my work around cultural identity, so the collective has greatly influenced my art practice consciously and subconsciously. Consciously, by working intergenerationally and cross disciplinary I can apply others’ practices to optimize my own creation processes. Subconsciously, well I guess you can tell me when you meet the collective. All in all, the collective is an energy source that I must acknowledge in my current artistic work. Paul: Our group come from diverse experiences and helps challenge our community’s understanding of what defines Chinese Canadian or even Chinese identity(ies): we can be a combination of Buddhist, Daoist, Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Capitalist, Communist, Colonizers, the Colonized, Refugees, Eastern or Western (whatever that means), etc. There are many aspects of Chinese/Chinese-Canadian culture that we, individually, do know and do not know, and have been able to inform each others’ practice based on shared information. This helps my artwork to either avoid misunderstandings of our cultural heritage or highlight diverse perspectives. Kathryn: Not yet in Edmonton, but I look forward to how it will! I lived in Vancouver for 2.5 years, and found it really inspiring and nourishing to be able to plug into Asian arts communities. Edmonton’s creative scenes can be a lonely place for diasporic artists, and being able to work collaboratively with this group provides something of a safer space for creating and testing ideas. Grace: My own individualistic practice for a long time has been non-existent. It still is. I’ve always been more motivated to work in community. However, I feel the work of the collective is asking me to make time for a rebirth for my own artistic practice. I’ve been wanting to make things just for me and not for anyone else. Even if it’s 10 min a day. It will be a way for me to listen and check in. The personal feeds into the collective. The stronger I am with my practice, the stronger I can contribute in a group. 4. What have been the major challenges of working as a collective? Grace: I think we’re still honeymooning, so we’re riding on a high now. I’m really treasuring this time as we get to know each other. Each person is a gem. For me, the ongoing life challenge is to have healthy boundaries because there is so much good work! I’m scared of burning out <again>! I don’t want it to happen here. I can get myself into works of obligation. I’m learning to keep true to the work that is speaking to me. By doing this faithfully, I trust that somehow it will all energetically align. Each of us comes with our own life’s purpose that calls and compels us to act and create. Somehow, it has led us to journey together in this time. What would it look like if we all did things that excited us? Can I trust this way of living? Shawn: Deciding on a good name for the collective. As of now, the ‘Edmonton Chinese Artistic Collective’ seems to define who we are just enough, but we’re not an institution and hopefully our work comes across more interesting than our boring name. Paul: Our diversity in background and disciplines also means that we need to spend more time focusing. We all have awesome big and different ideas but it becomes harder to make sense of it at times. That said, we’ve had great communication and discussions as we refine our collective’s goals, objectives, and projects. Kathryn: I find that doing work grounded in culture and cultural identity is challenging, when many of us carry the weight of conscious or unconscious shame/lack of pride over our Chinese identity, and have experienced pressure to assimilate throughout our lives. There is a part of me that still resists celebrating Chinese culture because of this experience of internalized racism that comes from growing up non-white in Canada. There is also part of me that is wary of auto-exoticization, and fetishizing/tokenizing our experiences to produce art that may be received by audiences wearing an orientalist gaze. Finding the balance, or points of convergence/divergence between each of our own individual perspectives, and this nascent collective. We are just getting to know each other. We don’t really have “one voice”, and maybe that’s ok. How do we create a container or platform that allows all our members to express themselves authentically? How we find that sweet spot? 5. What do you see as the future of your work together? Shawn: We want to be better listeners and advocates for the disenfranchised groups in our city. Our hopes are to be publicly active and engaged and use our art as a platform to address the social needs of the community. Although it may seem unrelated, the focus to explore our cultural identity helps foster better practices and understandings of our role within society. Paul: We definitely want to work with the Chinatown and Chinese community in the future. Art has the potential to be therapeutic to help people gain a sense of belonging, gain connections, and combat against social isolation. Kathryn: I hope our work will build bridges and relationships – between the members of our collective, and between our collective and other artists and artists’ collectives. We need more ways to connect in this time of racism, borders, silos and isolation – and art is a really amazing, powerful tool for working with head and heart to grow connections. Grace: I want our work to be driven by the fundamental belief that collaboration with and accountability to the communities in Chinatown, which are impacted by racial, social, and economic inequities to be central to our cultural and art making process. Chinatown is not just an ethnic enclave of Chinese, but is made of a diverse group of racial and class groups. It is a neighbourhood where our City’s most tragic, heartening, and resilient stories are made. In many ways, this place is a reflection of our humanity. We are racialized settlers living on traditional Indigenous land, so what is our role in this time of truth & reconciliation? There is conflict and tension between groups and I want our work to contribute to healing and understanding. I liked what Shawn said about being better listeners, what Paul said about art as a way of belonging, and what Kathryn said about building bridges and relationships. I also want us to be okay with being uncomfortable and use art to ask those hard questions. Productive frictions can make powerful transformative change. I also want us to give the artists tools we have to the community, so if they wanted to – they could make their own art and actions! Also, I hope we’re going to have a lot of fun! Making spaces for parties, celebration, and joy are powerful acts of resistance!