Profile of artist Karen Elaine Spencer, winner of La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse prize By John Pohl, Visual Arts Columnist September 7, 2012
September 8, 2012
MONTREAL – She has rented a room in a poor neighbourhood to find out “how we look at things based on where they are.” She has hired and paid people to loiter in public places to discover who gets hassled for lingering.
Karen Elaine Spencer has won the $5,000 Prix Powerhouse for these actions and others that use a variety of art strategies — including conceptual art, performance, writing and drawing — to focus on daily life as it is lived, particularly in the spaces where it happens.
Spencer’s art is to immerse her physical body into experiences that deepen her intellectual and emotional understanding of a societal wrong.
Knowing is not the same as experiencing, she wrote in an email. “An embodied knowledge through being there is quite radically different than knowledge that is passed by word of mouth, by reading the news.”
Spencer’s life is her art as she explores relationships based on power, vulnerability, marginalization and self-determination, jury member Catherine Bodmer wrote in explanation of why she won the award given by La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, the feminist artist-run centre.
“With great perseverance, she goes deeply into things, without compromise,” Bodmer wrote. “Karen takes risks, not only artistically, but in exposing herself to precarious situations.”
Situations like loitering in Cabot Square, where police keep watch over a park where doctors cross paths with the homeless. Spencer’s street projects, which usually include a sign that evokes the block-lettered placards used by beggars, can be confused with political acts.
“When I loiter, I take ownership of a space,” she said in an interview. “A lot of my work raises hackles, but I think I must keep doing it.”
But loitering is also a tonic for the soul. Loitering, she wrote, “is also about countering the busy, preoccupied nature of daily life with a deliberate slowing and paying attention.
“Loitering focuses on the mundane rather than the newsworthy, the near instead of the faraway, the concrete beneath one’s feet, the sunny side of the street vs. the shady side, the architecture that surrounds, the people who pass.”
Spencer came out of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1986 as a painter, but felt that painting was of little value. She said she didn’t really get engaged in art until she went to UQAM, where she got an MFA in 2001, and got involved with artist-run centres. For her master’s project, she rented a room in St-Henri, to “find out what happens in places you don’t go.”
Not many people visited her project, she admitted with a laugh, but she spent time in her small room, reflecting on her neighbours “who can no longer work.” She laid out on the floor slices of cheap day-old white bread — “in contrast to the $5 organic bread up the hill in Westmount.” Mattresses made of piled-up slices of white bread have since become a staple of her street performances.
She observed that “if you’re a youth, the wrong colour, your clothes not right,” loitering will be less tolerated.
I asked Spencer why she expends energy as an artist to rediscover things that are so well known, like racial profiling by police.
“Even if (racial) profiling is not a revelation, one has to wonder why it continues,” she said. “Why is racial profiling so systematically prevalent in our culture, in our métros, on our streets, if indeed (in the words of Leonard Cohen), ‘everybody knows?’ ”
Spencer has just started a six-month residency in New York, courtesy of the Canada Council’s international studio and curatorial program.
“I’m sure my family thinks I’m wacko,” she said. “My father said: ‘You’re getting paid to do what?’ ”
More information can be found at Karen Elaine Spencer’s website: likewritingwithwater.wordpress.com, and on the website of La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse: lacentrale.org.
Nicole Gingras has been named director of the Centre international d’art contemporain, which puts on the Montreal Biennale.
Gingras, who curated last May’s Quebec Biennale, takes over from Claude Gosselin, who has been with CIAC since 1985 and has directed the Montreal Biennale since its founding in 1996.
For Montreal’s next biennial in fall 2013, two Toronto art world figures have been selected as co-curators: Peggy Gale, a critic, writer and independent curator; and Gregory Burke, a former director of the Power Plant artist-run centre.
The theme of the 2013 biennale is Looking Forward. Burke discussed it in terms of the environment, “looking at the future as a way of thinking about the present.”
Gale said she expects to put on an event that includes big works by a relatively few artists — 20 to 30, she said. Not all the work will be big, she said, but it will be “pungent.”
Ryoji Ikeda, whose visual interpretations of the data that permeates our world is wowing visitors to his exhibition at DHC/ART, will present a live performance on Sept. 15 at the gallery’s sister operation in Old Montreal, the new PHI Centre.
Ikeda, a composer and visual artist, has developed a system that converts any type of data — text, sounds, photos and movies — into bar-code patterns and binary patterns of 0s and 1s.
At the PHI Centre, Ikeda will perform Test Pattern, converting a soundtrack to flickering patterns on a large screen. The images, changing at hundreds of frames per second, will test the audience’s threshold of perception, if his related installation at DHC is any indication.
Ryoji Ikeda performs Test Pattern live at 8 p.m. on Sept. 15 at the PHI Centre, 407 St. Pierre St. Information: phi-centre.com. Ikeda’s work is on display until Nov. 18 at DHC/ART, 451 and 465 St. Jean St. Information: dhc-art.org and ryojiikeda.com.