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Q&A: Peter Gazendam on Coffee News & Valérie Blass @ Artspeak

by Stéphane Bernard

Artspeak is a Vancouver artist-run centre established in 1986 with the mandate to explore art at the intersection of text and language. Co-founded by Cate Rimmer and Keith Higgins at the invitation of Jeff Derksen, a writer and instructor at the Kootenay School of Writing, the centre’s early activities were invariably an extension of those of the school itself, until a move to Hastings Street prompted a redefinition of the organization. The gallery is now situated in its own space at 233 Carrall Street and continues to produce and exhibit work that crosses the boundaries between visual art and writing.

In May of 2014, the centre began publishing a broadsheet titled simply Coffee News, which is to appear three times a year. In anticipation of the upcoming issues of this, Project Space spent some time with Associate Director Peter Gazendam to talk about the project, as well as the exhibition of work by Montreal-based artist Valérie Blass that is presently on display in the gallery space.

Project Space: Could you explain how the Coffee News project came about?

Peter Gazendam: The idea for the project started with our designers Julie Peeters and Scott Ponik in conjunction with us wanting to revamp our communications and website from scratch. We were looking to transpose 27 years of artist-run activities and archives into a new and sustainable WordPress-based posting system, while also dealing with the physical archives. We have a history of producing artist catalogues, theory and criticism, as well as artist publications and artist books, and have been reassessing our own library and publication mandate over the past few years.

Working with the designers, who went through our archives and library together with us, this process included a redesign of our invitations, letterhead, email, Postscripts, etc. as well. So, while discussing this with them, we were also talking about creating a sustainable publication, that is not expensive off set printing, fetishized by being risographed, or other trends we keep seeing in artist publishing (with art publishing itself becoming a trend). And we wanted to be able to produce this in house without creating another standard exhibition catalogue or art publication, so the idea came up to collaborate with other organizations.

The concept was to invite another organization to produce content in some way, which is not generated by artwork, documentation or shows specifically, but rather about projects that they’re working on, or material from their own archive.

PS: Then Coffee News would be an archive-based publication?

PG: I wouldn’t say archive-based… it is more ‘current project’–based material, so things that are in the works. For example, the first issue of Coffee News featured images selected by New York–based Justin Luke, who runs a gallery called Audio Visual Arts, and artist Seth Cluett. Chosen over the course of several hours from Cluett’s extensive archive of materials related to “Sound art,” the grouping of images and sketches presented ranges from historical pieces to his own contemporary art practice.

PS: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I had noticed that the content of the first issue wasn’t very didactic. You were simply invited to look at visual offerings without necessarily knowing the context. In other words, there didn’t seem to be much theory involved…

PG: Visually based content can still be theory-based content; they are not mutually exclusive.

The interesting thing about Audio Visual Arts is that, in the same way that Artspeak has a history with contemporary art in conjunction with writing or language—which had gone through various iterations and trends just as contemporary theory had changed—they are a relatively new, small organization that is also dealing with the boundaries between the visual arts and audio. So, they are faced with the same problem of trying to represent those conjunctions between different media.

Cluett and Luke were given free reign in the selection process, but they also collaborated with the designers when editing the images for publication.

PS: That’s interesting too: When I first saw the broadsheet, the arrangement of the images on the page reminded me of certain types of concrete poetry typical of the 60s Vancouver scene. The design of the layout was intentional then?

PG: Some of the impetus for the look comes from the Canadian Coffee News broadsheet you can find at your local coffee shop here in Vancouver. I believe they started as a Winnipeg paper: Same size, same format, broadsheet sort of thing that is not super precious or uptight.

We were also looking to work with organizations that are not necessarily associated with the print format per se, and who are not within North America either. For the upcoming issues, we are collaborating with an organization from the library or archival world, so with someone that handles books for circulation. There is then an organization from Europe, and finally an organization from Asia, to round off the three being published this year.

Another idea for the project is the fact that it is not just about bringing their content to Artspeak, but the contributors also get a portion of the print run so that they can distribute it to their own network. This way, a new audience in New York might pick it up, and then visit our website to discover, I don’t know… Valérie Blass for instance.

PS: Right! I haven’t seen these pieces before, so I’m assuming that they are new works… Will you be producing a catalogue or publication done for the show?

The work is brand new, yes. And this is the first time she is showing her work in Vancouver. But she also has two recent catalogues circulating that were published by other institutions, so we won’t be producing another one with Valérie. These other books are part of our library collection though, so visitors can consult them when they come through.

The next issue of Coffee News should appear around the month of April, and the exhibition Valérie Blass: My Life is on until March 7, 2015.

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Images: Photographs and illustrations are courtesy of their respective artists; Publication design by Julie Peeters and Scott Ponik; Scans/GIF by Stéphane Bernard.