Beryl Graham: Surrey Art Gallery is a mixed-artform contemporary art gallery in a publicly funded arts centre, which is very similar to a lot of situations in Britain. You said at the Curating New Media Symposium in Ottawa that it was not too big and not too small, and I wondered if you could say a bit more about working in that particular context?
Liane Davison: The Surrey Art Gallery is within the Surrey Arts Centre. A venue of our size has money to make things happen, yet small enough for a good idea to be heard by those who make decisions. We have flexibility. We don’t just dream about ideas – we actually realise them. We have proper environments for presenting artwork, tools and staff with the knowledge and commitment to create visual art experiences for people. With the redevelopment of the Surrey Art Centre (completed in 2002) a network of accessible cabling was installed in open cable trays throughout the entire building. Every room in our building has network portals that can be connected to the Internet. We have a “smart” building.
BG: And you share the building with a theatrical area?
LD: The Surrey Arts Centre has two theatres - a regular theatre with an orchestra pit, and a studio black box theatre with removable seating. The theatres are rental facilities, with a staff of skilled theatre technicians. The Gallery often borrows expertise from them, and from time to time, when we need a venue that’s not a white box, we can book one of the theatres.
BG: Is your programme affected by the performance nature of some of the works?
LD: We have employed, for certain projects, consultants from the theatre world – set designers, lighting designers, and playwrights to partner with us on productions. This has been enlightening – how they work, and their thinking is different from those in the visual art world. We’ll also open our exhibitions in the evenings for theatre audiences. We have hosted a number of performance art events, but have yet to explore programs of new media performances. That will come in the future.
BG: You mentioned partners, and there’s quite a lot of rhetoric at the moment around new media and that you need to do partner projects or collaborative projects more. Can you say a little bit about your experience of that in particular; what does work in partnering and what doesn’t?
LD: Every new media project has involved partners and collaboration. We begin all projects by talking with the artist about their intentions and expectations. We are pretty clear about our limitations and have those conversations before we get into a commitment situation. This prevents many potential problems. We get very detailed about timing, tools, technology and other resources. Usually artists are in the door because of a good idea and a track record of completing projections. Through our planning and development process we both get a sense of the scale of a project they’re working on, how their exhibit might best be installed here, and how to anticipate the audience. We put on the table how much money we have - for the fee, the marketing and funds for new equipment, so there are no surprises. Artists often push us towards improvements – faster, brighter, more power tools and technology to withstand whatever project they are building. We also discuss funds for consultation for technical specialists such as programmers or hardware people. We anticipate possible failure of the technology, and work out in advance the steps we will take to remedy it. We learn from our mistakes and work hard to offer a successful experience for the artist. We also share our learning with other institutions and artists – like addressing in advance the issue of copyright and ownership. We also partner with other institutions for presentations; sometimes artist talks will be at another space. Surrey is not downtown Vancouver and residents generally resist, at first, making the trip out to Surrey, so we often schedule our events on weekends rather than evenings given the traffic. We’re interested in audiences as well as exhibitions, so we look at projects and partners that make sense for us.
BG: Let’s talk about the residencies, although galleries are mostly thought of as being just about presentation work rather than production. In this building you do have the ceramic workshops, which you said started off very much from the original arts and crafts 50s idea of people in the producing things – pots in that case. But has it been difficult to make that argument for production with new media?
LD: The gallery encourages artists in residence for a range of exhibits. But new media presents issues other art practices don’t have to the same degree, such as the labour costs involved in programming or the financial investment in equipment. It’s one thing to buy a hammer and it’s another thing to maintain a computer. We look at the residency program as a means to address not only the challenge of our institution staying current, just like media artists. If we can assist artists producing work, there’s a positive reciprocal for us.
In a residency, we ask the artist to do three things: make art on site; help build audiences for new media; and third, assist the Gallery to anticipate media art and artists’ needs in the future. We carefully choose the artists we invite for residencies. Their personality as well as their art practice matters – not everyone is a fit. With every project the artists and the staff go through a steep learning curve, regularly pushing our limitations in all ways. We’ve acquired new equipment, learned how to operate it in the process of sustaining either the residency of an exhibition, and we end up with a legacy of new audiences and capacities. We don’t believe we can ever achieve expertise; because the technology changes so fast – but maybe we have learned to work well with that, and can help artists achieve their goals. Every artist gives us feedback on what has worked and what hasn’t and we use this knowledge.
We have a responsibility to help people have a positive experience of art. Having artists available and onsite, is effective – people like talking with them. We’ve also had feedback from the artists that their most positive experience was talking with kids on tours. We all have families and friends who are puzzled by the artworld. We don’t get a really good education in our Grade Schools about art. The artists in residence always give fabulous answers to questions.
BG: Can you give me some examples of practical ways in which artists have advised on future developments, including the building?
LD: Consultation with the artists is essential. If we don’t know what the art is going to be in the future, how do we know what shape it should be or what tools it needs, or what facilities should be offered? We have had great advice from artists. They said ‘don’t invest in the equipment – invest in flexibility’ and ‘make it easy so that you can change your mind’, and ‘make it so that any space can support media art.’ They said ‘if you want to make a space inviting to artists, so they will overcome the commute from the city, make the space comfortable, welcoming and well equipped.’ The TechLab has both the ability to be very dark, yet if artists use it as a studio they can set it up to see outside into the courtyard and some natural light. We listened to them when it was designed. The artists were very practical in their suggestions; they knew our context – again a benefit from being in residence. We still follow that original advice - we buy equipment for a project maybe two weeks before we actually implement it. We share with artists ideas about projects we’re considering for the future. There aren’t a lot of closed doors between the artists and the Gallery staff.
BG: What have you learned from watching the audience use the artwork? What is the main thing that’s coming up there?
LD: We still need a methodology of guaranteeing that a computer-based artwork will still be presenting the artwork, once visitors get their hands on it. They usually want to check it out, and end up shutting it down, or they want to check their email. We still need more work on audience development. If you ask, the general public will rank landscape paintings as their first exhibition preference, and computer based art last. Yet if you follow them in the gallery, they might look at a painting for 3 seconds and yet spend half an hour in the TechLab. That says something.
We start with projects we know we can accomplish, and inevitably the artists pushes them from there. We do a lot of testing in advance of the exhibit. We also prepare projects in phases so that we can take it a step at a time. At a recent event, Julie Andreyev said, ‘technology is always kind of disappointing.’ She’s right. We try to make the exhibitions not about the technology – but keep them art centred. We need to keep that focus, amid all the bells and whistles of new technology. We get loads of proposals for flashy, dazzling tools and toys, but that’s not what we’re about. We’re not a science museum – we work in partnership with living artists. Part of what we aim to provide as an institution is bridging - between peoples’ lives and the critical thought that the artwork usually embodies.
We’re interested in serving our local audience – if we do that well, it will be important nationally and internationally. For example, Surrey has an extraordinarily young demographic. We’re looking at the second generation who have grown up with computers – what programs do we offer that would be meaningful to them. The other characteristic of Surrey’s community is its high demographic of people whose families have come from India or other parts of Asia. These Canadians maintain contact with their families through technology – even if it’s getting online New Delhi papers. Technology is not the exclusive domain of western culture, as has been the canon of contemporary art. Technology’s international language is seen in the profile of those who attend the new media conferences. I’m interested in the strategies that might be developed by other cultures using technology to create artforms. What might happen in India, in the Diaspora, by the net generation?
BG: Just to go back to audience studies, you said that there was a big difference between just watching people and questionnaires, but have there been any formal studies involving observing?
LD: We’ve just received funding through Canadian Heritage to hire an Intern to produce audience studies. We want to know more about what we have done well, and where we could improve in our new media programming. We also want to know more about our audiences – we’ll do surveys and focus groups. We held a youth focus group last year. We heard ‘Wow! I didn’t know that art could be like this…’ as well as an unexpected response to our video exhibit. They were unsatisfied by our didactic panels. They wanted to look at video and learn about it in the same way that they do at home with a DVD – to interact with the video – choose to hear the director’s voice-over for example. They wanted to interact. Why is it that domestic product offers that kind of learning, but we don’t offer it as a museum?
BG: I’d like to ask about art-science relationships, because you mentioned that you had a background in science as well as visual art, has that helped? You do meet a lot of curators who are basically frightened of technology, so do you think your science background has helped in approaching work?
LD: Part of my interest in art came out of science and a curiosity of how things work – not mechanically, but rather how systems are organised and their interrelationships. Everything is relative. For example, higher-level mathematics is a language that’s relative and interpretable. Science is driven by curiosity: it asks why? That is the connection between the two for me. Ideas are interesting. I totally value experiences of beauty, but also the experiences that change us. We all have the capacity to think critically, to think better and live better – and contemporary art invites us to use this capacity. Often an exhibit presents the mundane, the ordinary and the obvious, and by putting it in a Gallery, we look at it again and think about it. For example the exhibition that’s up right now is about walking. It’s an everyday thoughtless experience, but on the other hand it’s everything and it can hold that idea. Within walking, is wonder.
BG: In the Walk Ways show you’re combining traditional photographs on the wall with new media work by Jim Campbell, for example. The combination of new media and non-new media in the same show, does that feel natural now, and do the audience have any problem with it?
LD: The exhibit has only been up a day, but I think people are enjoying the work. It’s not unusual for us to offer diverse combinations of media. We are in a curious time right now. It’s as peculiar for us to have a dedicated media gallery now, given our context, yet it will likely become unusual for us to have a media gallery in a few more years as media becomes more and more pervasive. We’ve exhibited ceramics influenced by computers, the same with textile exhibitions. While the TechLab always hosts new media whether an exhibit or serving as a studio for a digital media artist, it doesn’t mean we can’t show media anywhere else. And we do.
BG: Is there anything else that you’re boiling to say about things that have worked really well?
LD: Trusting artists. Once they know our context and the things we’re afraid of, like our funding limits, and our political context – real things, they are really helpful in imagining solutions to challenges. Their solutions usually work over and over again. It’s humbling. I remember when the bus company managers came to look at the database project Sylvia Grace Borda produced here. They were really impressed with how she imagined the system, and commented on how they hadn’t considered databases the same way. It was exciting witnessing business appreciate the artist’s imagination. Yes, it is important to trust artists and the power of their imagination, to value it and to honour it. Listening to artists has been key to our past success, and is critical to the Gallery’s future direction.