It’s a rare time that I like an art show so much that I’ll buy a catalogue — I find the writing in them does nothing for me. They’re as bad as artist’s statements, usually, which (along with the obligatory reading for authors) I consider to be a cultural convention that is deeply broken. But despite the fact that A Beginner’s Guide to Quantal Strife is a catalogue for a show that I hadn’t even seen yet, I read it cover to cover. It’s a thought-provoking and breezy read.
Sally McKay, past editor of arts magazine Lola and an artist herself, is responsible for bringing together Quantal Strife. I know her and two of the three artists personally but I was still left with lots of questions as to how she managed to pull this off.
Your approach to the layout, design and flow of the work is much more magazine than book. And you have a different relationship with the artists as curator rather than journalist. How was it different from your work with Lola?
I’m so glad you like our little book! Like Lola, it was a collaborative effort. All three of the artists were involved in the conception. Marc and I worked closely on the design, with help from Magda Wojtyra. I took care of the layout and production, like I did with Lola. Most layout and design projects feel pretty easy after doing the magazine (ads! fonts! image retrieval! captions! arg!). The main difference of course is my relationship to the content. Very different from journalism, part of the curator’s job is to watch out for the well-being of the artists. I can imagine a different scenario in which different artists might demand something more traditional, afraid that a book like this would misrepresent their work. In the role of curator I had to be sure that everyone was going to get what they needed out of the project. Luckily in this case Scott and Crystal and Marc were all really into making the book more than just a document of the show, and everyone gave it extra energy. That made the whole process totally fun.
It feels like you were given a lot of autonomy and actually knew what to do with it. The way you’ve made the most of it makes me hope that people start looking as catalogue making as a sideways entry into indie book publishing. At what point did you realize this was an opportunity to make a weird and interesting book rather than a offshoot of the show?
Ann MacDonald, Director/Curator at the gallery, was one hundred percent behind the project from the very beginning. She and I wrote two really successful grant applications to the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. The Toronto Arts Council also supports the gallery, and so does the University of Toronto at Scarborough. That’s four levels of funding! Nobody is getting rich off the project, but we haven’t been scrimping for resources. Autonomy and cash rarely go hand in hand, and the combination is very sweet! I’ll be shocked if I ever get an opportunity like that again, and I owe a great deal to Ann for putting so much faith in a first-time curator.
Like you, I’ve always been irritated by exhibition catalogues. They have valid but limited uses: promotion, pedagogy and historical document. Right from the start we all wanted to do something that could stand on its own, independent from the exhibition. It’s more fun for everyone when you make a book that non-art-professionals will also enjoy. To be honest, I suspect our ambition for the catalogue — that it present an engaging, entry-level discussion on contemporary art — is the main reason we were successful at getting grants.
One of the artists says at one point that another artist’s diagrams “baffle” him, but this is the basis for constructive feedback rather than confrontation. You ask one of the artists why he draws so much. There’s a fair amount of frank talk here, but it leads somewhere interesting rather than obsession over technical minutia. Did the fact that everyone’s comfortable with each other–and many of you are friends–have a lot to do with this?
I knew each of the artists pretty well beforehand, but they didn’t really know each other that well. The weird and cool thing about this project is how much they actually do have in common. Everyone has a kind of meta-level interest in investigation, in perception, in the function of sharing knowledge. Everyone works really hard, with an open-ended curiosity, and all of the artists get excited, rather than threatened, by other people’s ideas. We held a round table discussion, which I transcribed for the catalogue, and it was one of the most stimulating art conversations I’ve had the privilege to take part in. This connection, for me, is the best thing about the project. It comes through very strongly in the exhibition and I’m really glad it is there in the catalogue as well.
Note: I couldn’t agree with you more about the broken tradition of artists statements. They are painful painful things for most people to write. R.M. Vaughan gave me permission to put his prose poem about artists statements online. Everyone should read it, it’s hilarious.
A Beginner’s Guide to Quantal Strife is available at The Doris McCarthy Gallery UTSC, Art Metropole, The Beguiling, Paul Petro Multiples and YYZ Artists’ Outlet or order online. The show Quantal Strife is up at DMG until March 5th.