Ocula Conversation

A conversation with Tyler Russell - Part II

Executive director and curator, Centre A, Vancouver
Elliat Albrecht Vancouver 8 March 2017

Tyler Russell, executive director and curator, Centre A, Vancouver. Courtesy Centre A | Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

In Part One of this conversation, Tyler Russell, executive director and curator of Centre A | Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, outlined Vancouver's problematic colonial history and the early history of the non-profit that aimed to nurture Asian art. Below, he discusses the marginalisation of non-English speaking communities in Vancouver, gentrification, art centres' responsibilities for public outreach and the Hong Kong diaspora.

Do you think that Vancouverites engage enough with Asian culture, which nearly half of the city identifies with?

In short: no. There is an expectation that if someone moves to Canada they should learn either French or English, and if they move to Vancouver, English. That expectation, in part a function of both the white supremacy and the official language policy I mentioned earlier, causes lopsided social circumstances where even the city's founding cultures and languages—like hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ or Cantonese—are deemed necessarily subservient and secondary to English. Until policies undoing these structures are conceived of and executed, sites of non-English language use will be marginalised and made lesser.

Saturday School (26 April—7 June 2014). Part of M'goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude, Centre A, Vancouver (24 April—14 June 2014). Courtesy Centre A: Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

In my personal opinion, in addition to instilling a deep respect for local First Nations languages and cultures, I think elementary school students should be made thoroughly aware of the foundational place in British Columbia history of Cantonese languages and cultures. Additionally, it might make sense to teach, however loosely, all 500+ words of the Chinook Wawa, a pidgin trade language made up of several First Nations languages, a smattering of European languages and a pinch of Cantonese, that—in the days before English was made dominant—facilitated communication among British Columbia's diverse communities. While still indicative of a colonial circumstance, the polyglot, place-rooted, exchange-based, pragmatic nature of that language reflected a very different inter-cultural power balance from that of an imperially imposed English. I think emphasising its role in British Columbian history would open minds to healthier, more balanced experiences of pluralism and interesting polyglot possibilities; at least better than an insistence that French and English are Canada's two official languages.

While I think this sort of educational and structural approach is key to creating the sort of power balance that would lead to better intercultural engagement, with specific reference to Chinatown, I think there are possibilities for all kinds of interesting interventions and provocations.

As art makers and cultural workers, I think it is our job to get to know the places and communities within which we are working and to ask what sort of artistic interventions, if any, are appropriate to inject into our given circumstances; to investigate through a cultural dance of sorts, find points of resistance, engage playfully, endeavour towards transformative impact, or decide to leave them alone.

One of my first curatorial acts at Centre A, as part of the 2014 exhibition M'goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude (24 April—14 June 2014), was to engage spoken word poet, urban planner, social activist, word-nerd, and up-and-coming Chinatown change-maker Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon. For the exhibition, she put together a space that welcomed others to join her on a quest to learn Cantonese while, in an expression of a younger-to-elder sort of gratitude, deepening her appreciation for the neighbourhood's history and vibrant, present-day community.

Kathryn Gwun Yeen Lennon, Living Language Studio (2014). Courtesy Centre A | Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Vancouver. Photo: Sora Park.

Part of her socially engaged installation was a weekly Cantonese language class. It was a brilliant, very well-attended success. Lennon made the classes neighbourhood specific and included field trips to various local businesses and cultural sites. Mysteries were dispelled and longtime questions were answered. For instance, one long-time non-Chinese speaking/reading Chinatown resident asked, 'Every morning, walking through my neighbourhood, I hear grandmothers yelling at each other, 'joe-san, joe-san' what does this mean?' 'Jou-san', the teacher explained, means 'good morning!' For years, the questioner thought the elderly women might have been arguing. Now he knew they were heartily greeting one another and finally, he could participate, too. Now, more than two years after that initiative, a local youth group has revitalised these classes, situating them in the old Mon Keang School of the Wong Benevolent Association, one of Vancouver's oldest sites of Chinese language learning.

In Centre A's recent exhibition, Dead Water Convulsion-Hong Kong-1980s (6—23 July 2016), Josh Hon looks back at the art and political scene of Hong Kong in the 1980s. What do you find most interesting about the show?

First, I was really curious about Leung Chi Wo's interest to investigate figures like Josh who, after making a big impact on the 1980s art scene, had all but vanished from it. From a linguistic angle, I wondered about the continuity of artistic language. Suddenly, just as younger artists were starting to understand what their mentors were doing, they were gone.

Second, I find the continuity between Josh's earlier painting-based practice to his later multimedia installations and performance-based work to be particularly engaging. And I was inspired to see young Vancouver artists, in particular the multi-disciplinary Hong Kong Exile gang, engaging with his work and seeing deep connections to some of what they are currently doing.

Hon left Hong Kong at the peak of his career to move to Canada after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. A steady flow of Hong Kong citizens left during this time, too. What do you think this migration meant for the art scene in Hong Kong?

There is a discontinuity in artistic languages. In Hong Kong, as I understand it, the student-teacher relationship is really important. So just as young people, through various forms of apprenticeship, shadowing and study, are starting to understand their teachers' method of articulation so as to then develop their own, their teachers disappear from the scene. This disrupts continuity, breaks language, and causes younger artists like Leung Chi Wo to have to find a language of their own before fully being able to appreciate that of their senior.

Institutionally, welcoming Hon's show, I hope to articulate the potential role of Centre A or British Columbia more generally as an optional space of sorts, where voices from across the Pacific can find an alternative, perhaps safer, space from which to articulate themselves; where otherwise broken continuities can be stitched or woven together, and where Asia's many inter-generational and transnational conversations can be given form.

Installation view: Josh Hon, Dead Water Convulsion—Hong Kong—1980s, Centre A, Vancouver (6—23 July 2016). Courtesy of Centre A.

Centre A takes its responsibility to the public very seriously. What are your goals with public outreach and do you think other institutions in Vancouver or Canada are doing their part, particularly in regards to Asian art?

When I first started the job at Centre A in January 2014, I knew Centre A had recently relocated itself to Vancouver's Chinatown, and I realised that it might be seen as a bit of a gentrifier, but I really didn't realise to what extent. The area was, not without accordance to urban plans, quickly becoming a bit of an artists' district, ideal for welcoming the contemporary gentry. But who are these gentry, and what does their influx mean to the neighbourhood? In a Vancouver context, how does this process relate to the city's long story of white supremacy? Along with other artists and art workers, was I being set up as an unwitting tool? Was I a part of Vancouver's Cantonese, Toisan, Hoiping and other Southern Chinese language-speaking communities being finally and completely chased out of their long-time Chinatown home? Was I participating in the long tale of white supremacist violence? I certainly hoped not.

I would like to preface with a bit of a defense of artists, as I don't think scapegoating artists as the villains in the process of urban hipsterisation and whitewashing is helpful. Artistic pursuits are granted limited resources in our society. As a result, in Vancouver at least, artists will go wherever they can find the right combination of low-rent, passable safety, passable coffee, and car-less accessibility. Vancouver's Chinatown has had one of the best aggregate scores with regards to these criteria. Being a highly walkable place where the public-realm use of Cantonese languages has been dominant for over a century and where the architecture and use of space still somewhat reflects non-European, even non-capitalist cultural inclinations, the neighbourhood has a unique character. This may be attractive to people like artists, who appreciate that culture, rather than being an inevitability, is a thing that involves agency and is produced over time.

As aforementioned, initially I didn't realise the extent to which Centre A and the other arts organisations of the neighbourhood were being seen as, not to mention functioning as, gentrifiers. But I was quickly informed. Being the newest gallery on the block, elders would come in and literally scold my co-worker Natalie Tan for our role in culturally insensitive neighbourhood change. Since the gallery moved to its Chinatown home in 2013 there hadn't been even a single drop of programming that acknowledged our cultural-geography. Natalie was understandably embarrassed. What was she doing propping up this organisation that was participating in the cultural destruction of such an important historical neighbourhood? And who was this white guy?

For a bit of background, in early 2014 the neighbourhood was undergoing some unprecedented change, along with a couple of smaller residential development projects, three major condos were going up, and a number of white hipster businesses were starting to take hold. One of the most poignant symbols of change at the time was a big development site wrap-billboard that read 'NI HAO!' In a Cantonese-speaking neighbourhood—a local developer opted to greet the community with a massive Mandarin 'hello'. In Cantonese, it was explained to me, 'hello' isn't 'Ni hao', it is 'Nei hou' or 'Lei hou'! Further, thanks to my co-worker Natalie and the likes of Zoe Lam, a University of British Columbia (UBC) linguist who taught Kathryn's Cantonese classes, I was, over time, brought up to speed about the Guangdong National Language Regulations, Moral and National Education, Hong Kong's general anxiety around cultural-linguistic autonomy, the looming endangerment of Cantonese languages and thus how these anxieties were being combined and compounded in Vancouver's Chinatown.

Gaining this appreciation of context, I came to understand that the developer's big hello ominously meant goodbye. Was it true that, in my new position, I was not only being made an unwitting agent of white supremacy in Vancouver, but also, in the dismantling of one of the world's dwindling public realm sites for Cantonese language and culture, playing a part in the PRC's global Mandarinisation strategy as well!? Not okay.

Through our programming, I have tried to engage in a performance of sorts, where Centre A, as an arts organisation, acts in a manner that subverts our instrumentalisation as a Floridian tool (referring to Richard Florida's theories of urban social and economic development). I chose to use a very vernacular language and actively prioritise general publics over specific publics with arts training or a knowledge of contemporary artistic expression. Art education in Canada, or at least in British Columbia, leaves huge room for improvement. As a result, in Vancouver, it cannot be assumed that audiences will be comfortable interpreting art.

So with a discourse strategy that sought to prioritise context over self, vernacular over sophistry, my first couple of exhibitions approached the neighbourhood's language, culture and history with the curious deference of an outsider hoping to learn and hear. The first of these, as mentioned previously, was M'goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude (24 April—14 June 2014). In addition to Kathryn's project and a series of prints by author and artist Lydia Kwa, we invited Mrs. Chang, a then-96-year-old woman from the neighbourhood and one of the elders who had scolded us, to install her proposal for our gallery signage. That has become an important permanent installation. Mrs. Chang, now cracking 100, continues to be one of our most valued critics.

For our second exhibition, we invited long time man-about-Chinatown and founder of the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop and Ricepaper magazine, Jim Wong-Chu, to exhibit a series of photographs he took in the neighbourhood throughout the 1970s; a time when Chinatown was vibrant and activism was at its peak. In the wake of a circa 1960s proposal to raze much of the neighbourhood, displace its population and build public housing, there was a new proposal to drive a freeway right through the middle of the neighbourhood, and thereby displace its current residents. Another racist proposal sought to outlaw BBQ meats. That show pulled all kinds of people out of the woodwork and, in combination with the public programming that accompanied it, facilitated rich conversations that have had real impacts on local activism and city planning.

Installation view: Jim Wong-Chu, Jim Wong-Chu Photographs 1973—1981: People, Place, Politics, Centre A, Vancouver (25 September—18 October 2014). Photo: Centre A.

Now, about your dangerous question of how I think others are doing. The title for Jim's show was Jim Wong-Chu Photographs 1973-1981: People, Place, Politics (25 September—18 October 2014). We were playfully engaging with the contemporaneous exhibition at UBC's Belkin Art Gallery, Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993 (5 September—30 November 2014). Sure, while one could criticise the Belkin's sleek presentation of Ai Weiwei's well circulated photographs, and name, as an attempt to signal status and feign criticality in a manner that prioritises the status of New York and foreign fame over local relevance, the role of the Belkin is very different from Centre A's. As the gallery of an academic institution, their role is to keep people up to date with international trends and engage in the production of the art historical canon. Ours is more to ask questions about Vancouver as an Asian city, create space for artistic production that liberates or struggles to liberate itself from the need to depend on Euro-centric, or market-centric, art histories for its legitimacy, facilitate transpacific conversations or participate more broadly in processes of Asian cultural development, making history in the process. So, while I think it is good and helpful to tweak programming in a manner that playfully engages in this sort of inter-institutional sparring, I don't think the Belkin should necessarily do what we do. Showing Ai Weiwei photos was a fine and efficient way to introduce students to a significant figure in Chinese contemporary art. Recent shows of work by Beau Dick, Tom Burrows, or Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson, for instance, have added important depth to the community's understanding of these artists and their contribution to recent local, regional and national art history. The work the Belkin does in crafting a somewhat canonical version of Vancouver's art history is tremendously important.

The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), however, did something I was a little more seriously critical of. With the exhibition The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China's Emperors (18 October 2014—11 January 2015), they welcomed sponsorship from the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to host an exhibition that was clearly decorative embellishments of a political and economic program; inter-civilisation exchange aimed at clearing rights of way, securing access to, and exploitation of, Canadian natural resources, predominantly oil and gas. The use of barely arms-length entities to highlight, in the minds of Canadians, 5,000 years of glorious Chinese civilisation with the bonus of articulating the cultural normalcy of centralised, authoritarian state rule, was, to say the least, not cool. The parallel exhibition, Unscrolled: Reframing Tradition in Chinese Contemporary Art (15 November 20146 April 6 2015)—a perfectly fine exhibition in its own right—further functioned to craft uncritical acceptance of the centrality of particular ethno-linguistic norms in Chinese culture, given the context set by the show downstairs. Ai Weiwei's work was included, and while I understand his inclusion in the project caused a bit of a stir, it seemed that in the context of that pair of shows, his work was being instrumentalised and employed as the spoonful of critical sugar meant to help the medicine of propaganda go down.

I am not against an engagement with Chinese state cultural diplomacy aims. To the contrary, I am quite excited by it. I just think we need to be smart with it, employ criticality, and have serious curatorial discussions that consider both local and non-local contexts and consequences.

Coinciding with the opening of this exhibition, the VAG was busy launching an Institute for Asian Art (IAA) that expressly stated it would be dedicated to bringing in contemporary art from four specific nation-states. The same nation-states the provincial overnment had named as its primary Asia-Pacific trade and investment targets. But with this show, it went beyond the aims of domestic jurisdictions by uncritically allowing itself to be employed as a tool for the soft power—or more bluntly, propaganda—of the particular authoritarian regime that was not only instrumental in forcing a significant portion of Vancouver's post-World War II Chinese immigrants to seek Vancouver and surrounding communities as a site of refuge, but was, to the negation of other Chinese languages and cultures, engaged in efforts to consolidate power around a particular ethno-linguistic centre. This was, to say the least, disturbing. There were all kinds of other issues, too, surrounding CNOOC funding, or the simultaneous Enbridge, a North American oil and gas pipeline builder, funding of an exhibition on another floor.

Installation view: Hong Kong Exile, 越界/粵界 (transgression/cantosphere), Centre A, Vancouver (22 January—28 March 2015). Photo: Candice Yee.

In response, we organised a quick emergency two-day exhibition called Thunder in Our Voices: Considering Communication Techniques Emerging from the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry Experience (24—25 October 2014). Organised in collaboration with Drew Ann Wake, and relating to our Chinatown engagements, the show raised questions about state-stakeholder communication and engaged with international conversations about the relationship between oil corporation sponsorship and the institutional presentations of art. In the months following, working with Natalie Gan, Milton Lim and Remy Siu of multi-disciplinary artist collective Hong Kong Exile, Hong Kong-born Canadian artist Howie Tsui, and linguist Zoe Lam, we mounted 越界/粵界 (TRANSGRESSION/CANTOSPHERE) (22 January—28 March 2015). Emerging more out of the events of September 2014, namely, the Umbrella Revolution, and the locally significant circulation of a film that painted a fatalistic tale of Chinatown's decline at the time, 越界/粵界 intersected Vancouver, Hong Kong and Guangdong's existential anxieties surrounding language and culture. The exhibition also functioned to critique the blatantly pro-Beijing, pro-authoritarian, pro-colonial initiative of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

While I make no bones about my critique of the VAG's Institute of Asian Art's 2014 debut, not only do I appreciate the big institutional context from which the abovementioned exhibitions emerged, but I also have the highest respect for IAA curator Diana Freundl and eagerly anticipate her 2017 curatorial initiatives. First there is Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy (4 March—28 May 2017), for which this Hong Kong-born artist will debut a major animation project that draws from the comics and martial arts fantasies of his youth to engage acts of narrative resistance and dissent. The other, Pacific Crossings (4 March—28 May 2017), looks at the work of Hong Kong artists who moved to Canada between the 1960s and 1990s. I think with these well-timed shows Freundl will do a lot to pick up the jaws that were left on the floor after the IAA's first pair of shows.

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