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Accessibility in artistic spaces

Art Matters deconstructs how we understand art

Content warning: mention of suicide

Around this time in 2012, Concordia’s annual Art Matters festival included a performance piece entitled Hey, Um, I’m Sorry that I Killed You: A Performance Piece of Mourning, Guilt and Disregard, in which Caleb Feigin submerged himself in a pool of everyday objects that he’d collected. “I’m performing my feelings of guilt,” said Feigin in a 2013 interview with The Daily. “The performance is about mourning […] a friend who [had] committed suicide.” Feigin’s piece, as part of the larger exhibition entitled “Citation,” asks the question of how one can look at the body given the complications of visual identification. Five years later, Art Matters continues to explore the boundaries between art and politics within a space that aims to subvert our understandings of the two.

Since 2000, Art Matters has provided a space for artists to subvert normative narratives around identity through cunningly innovative artistic techniques. The student-curated festival began with five Concordia Fine Arts students who were disenchanted with the lack of recognition their work had received in mainstream festivals. Now, Art Matters is the largest student-run art festival in North America. The focus of the festival has shifted over time, establishing not only dialogues between student artists and professionals but also wider conversations about art itself in relation to such themes as ontology, fetishization, and environmentalism.

Art Matters is back at it again with a 2017 edition, featuring a highly-anticipated lineup of events. From installations to fibres to electroacoustics, the majority of the exhibitions juxtapose different mediums within the same space to complicate how we experience and understand art. This year, the festival has revamped its structure for an anti-oppression focus, both within the exhibits themselves and among festival staff and volunteers.

The Daily sat down with Michael Martini, outreach coordinator of Art Matters, to discuss accessibility in the arts, the festival’s mandate, and the value of art.

The McGill Daily (MD): Did you find any dominant themes, mediums, or concepts in the submissions this year?
Michael Martini (MM): Overall there was a bigger push to diversify the artistic mediums in the festival. Last year, there was a lot […] more traditional studio art. This year, we as a coordinating team really made an effort to reach out to other students – to music students, to performing students, to dance students – and to really encourage people to think outside the box […] We got nearly double the submissions from last year. In terms of themes, Art Matters’ mandate is inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility, and these are what we’re constantly striving toward. So when people submitted proposals for exhibitions, we really did take extra consideration when looking at themes of feminism, queer identity, queer sexuality, race, issues of marginalization […] We’ll see a lot of interesting queer performance art this year. In terms of other themes that had a surprising amount of interest behind them, a lot of people are really into kitsch and retro. A lot of people are looking at [these themes], especially in the context of Quebec.

MD: You mentioned the prioritization of accessibility – how will the festival be working to achieve this goal?
MM: Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for every space to be wheelchair accessible, but it’s something we definitely took into consideration for event planning, and all our big parties will definitely be in an accessible space. We’re also featuring diverse, accessible content at our parties. […] But we’ll definitely make [accessibility] information available online. Extending beyond wheelchair accessibility, for example, we have a speaker series where people come and talk about various topics at Concordia. Something else we’re excited about in our collaboration with the Fine Arts Student Alliance is to make those events more accessible by finding ways to offer whisper translation, or finding ways to record the events for people who cannot arrive at them, so we’re in that brainstorming phase right now. I think the biggest step taken toward accessibility, which was actually initiated last year, was making the art submissions anonymous, so that the people jurying the art – whom are all peers – can’t be playing favourites, or discouraging certain people for applying. I think that’s another reason we have so much turn out this year.

MD: What pieces are shaping up to be this season’s highlights?
MM: At this point we know what the shows are looking like. We had our call for submissions over the break, and this week we’re going to be jurying with the curators to determine what artworks will be featured in the festival. There will be about 100 [pieces]. But we do have a good idea about some of the shows and how they’re looking. There’s going to be a show on Concordia campus that specifically features artists of colour at the VAV Gallery, which is something that’s really important to us because there’s been a huge demand on our board of directors and people connected with the festival who want to see more of their work represented on campus. There’s also going to be a really cool underground queer performance zine exchange night […] that we’re really excited for.

MD: When you’re in the process of selecting pieces and deciding which work goes in what space, what do you look for in a valuable work of art?
MM: Within my job as the outreach coordinator, I would say that […] it’s not important that the art pieces featured in the festival are super polished or complete. What we’re trying to do is to foster opportunities for people, whether it’s putting their art in a space they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, or putting their art in a space that other students from different departments will see, and giving people a chance to talk. I think Art Matters has a huge learning curve for everyone involved – from those behind the scenes on the board, etcetera, to the people putting their art out there. It’s often about a chance for people to talk to others. In terms of successful pieces, we really value risk-taking, and artworks that are in dialogue with other students’ interests and politics.

MD: How have you seen students using the festival and the spaces it provides as a bridge in their careers?
MM: I’ll speak on behalf of my own experience, as I have curated with the festival in the past. Art Matters is about bringing together people from different disciplines – with video in the same space as sculpture, for example. Learning the language of other disciplines is incredibly important in moving forward with your own practice. Often when you’re studying one discipline, you can get tunnel vision and only understand that vocabulary, but when you start to see what other people are doing, it’s a great reminder that you can be borrowing from other techniques and looking at the way other people are thinking. In terms of success stories, there have too many to mention. A lot of people in the festival met someone they were showcased with, talked, and went on to collaborate. And many people who developed connections, for example, to people running the space, and they developed a great relationship, and are able to do something again in that space. For example, we had a show called “We, ‘Other’” last year […] and POP Montreal took interest in that show and actually remounted it […] the next year.

MD: Considering our readership largely pertains to McGill students, why do you think it’s important that they attend?
MM: My understanding is that McGill doesn’t have an opportunity like Art Matters [for McGill students] to display their work, [which has obtained] such a great level of attention […] But even though the opportunity isn’t there to exhibit artwork, there’s still opportunity to go and meet interested people, and talk to [the artists] about what they learned from their experience exhibiting artwork. There’s no doubt that there are people at McGill who have artwork that they want to get out there, and who want to talk and exchange ideas between people of different artistic backgrounds. In that sense, the more the merrier. McGill students can also volunteer […] Our events extend beyond Art Matters, like our speaker series, where we bring in artists and scholars to speak about art, or our festival parties – fun filled with music and dancing – are the events that people don’t really know about. You just show up!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Exhibitions are located throughout Montreal until March 31. Free admissions. Check here for the full events schedule and accessibility info.