William Morris Rolling in His Grave: An Interview with Lexie Owen
Breach: Could you discuss the themes you primarily deal with in your practice—specifically, issues of labour—and how do you plan to approach these subjects over the next two years of the Burrard View Park Fieldhouse residency?
Lexie Owen: I am a cultural producer interested in sculpture, craft in the expanded field, social practice initiatives and curatorial projects. I’m interested in how we produce and consume objects, ideas, and, in some ways, place. Lately, my research interests have coalesced into a focus on the role of formal and informal structures in the cognitive processes of perception and understanding. In my sculptural practice this interest is focused on how aesthetic regimes inform the ways in which we categorize and understand the function and origins of an object. In my more ephemeral practice I am focused primarily on the role of codified language in the interpretation of space, the limits language places on which types of information are archivable, and how discursive spaces are recognized and constituted.
Put simply, I am interested in form. What form tells us about an object. How we form ideas. How we form perceptions. How we form communities. How we gather disparate pieces of information together to form an archive. The process that brings us to a form, physical or otherwise, requires a complicated system of recognition, a gathering together of like parts into what becomes perceived as a discrete whole. Our understanding of the world, both macro and micro, is filtered through these systems of recognition. The brain decodes in an instant the difference between a mass manufactured and homemade object; the difference between an urban space and a wild one; the difference between “the domestic” and “the academic”; but rarely do we take the time to consider the associated assumptions about value and use that come hand-in-hand with the act of recognition.
These interests are informed by my education. I started studying towards my BFA at Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, BC. There, I took a two-year diploma in Jewellery and Small Object Design. I I found my way into art through materials—I loved working with metal, and the immaculate detail work associated with jewellery satisfied my drive towards perfectionism. From there I transferred to Emily Carr. I made a couple of conceptual jewellery works when I first started classes, but then quickly moved away from working in a media-specific manner. I started to engage with “big C” Craft, with the idea of what it means to make something. The concept of craft, often expressed through ideas of “authenticity,” gets taken up so often in this late-capitalist moment—the bagel shops hire “bagel artisans” and Starbucks serves “hand-crafted” coffee. Even the latest condo development on Kingsway at Main is branded as “artisanal.” What the fuck is an “artisanal” condo? This kind of craft-washing would have William Morris rolling in his grave. This is what I mean by “craft in the expanded field.” I’m interested in what happens when the notion of craft is taken up by the capitalist machine; what happens when we privilege a certain type of labour performed by a certain type of individual and call that (and only that) “hand-making”; and most importantly, what aspects of the global capitalist system are rendered invisible in this equation.
I find that these concepts are primarily expressed in my object-making practice, which seems conceptually fitting. In this instance “the notion of craft” is the aesthetic regime I referred to above. For All the Boys... and Arc'teryx Jacket / Tjusig Hat Rack were both developed out of the same line of inquiry—I was interested it making an object that was about the act of making, that displayed the act of labour very clearly on its surface. I started buying second hand garments, taking them apart and tracing the pattern out onto a new piece of fabric and then making a replica of the original garment, complete with logos and the like. This process was satisfying in some ways, but I was still making something new, ending up with a new thing. From here I decided to try to collapse this process even farther—unmaking and remaking a garment. These objects are the result.
Jam Exchange was interested again in similar questions about labour, and how it is recognized and valued. The project was perhaps more a social experiment than an art work per se. Over the course of a two week period I left jars of homemade jam out in a specified location with the instructions "take a jar of jam, leave an object of equal value." Every day I would document what exchanges had taken place, tracking perceptions of value. Once the jam was gone I left the objects in place and documented the subsequent exchanges as well. After a week I replaced the jars of jam and changed the request slightly, asking people to fill out a form justifying their chosen exchange. I was curious if the act of having to justify the exchange would change the type of items left, which incidentally it seemed not to.
In my more ephemeral practice, I focus on the role of language in the interpretation of use and function. I’m thinking about language and aesthetics as fulfilling the same sort of “filtering” function. We talk about a space in a specific manner, and that informs what we perceive the function of that space to be. Perhaps the best example of this is an in-development project, The Laneway Interpretive Society. This project has been on the back-burner, but I’m hoping to work on it more intensively soon. It sprung from a realization that I formed over many years of working in “wilderness” spaces along the coast of BC. We talk about wilderness very differently from the way we speak about urban space or industrial space. However, in the eyes of both our federal and provincial governments, wilderness spaces are areas of intense industrial interest, and always have been. Historically through mining, fishing, and logging, and now more recently as roadways for pipelines and tankers. This industrial history goes even further back, as the population of Coastal British Columbia has never been denser than it was in the pre-contact period. It’s estimated that 90-95% of the Indigenous population died through various attempts at social and physical genocide, be it small-pox or residential schools. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in these “remote wildernesses” in the not-so distant past, and they had an incredibly complex economic system. These realizations made me curious to explore what it would mean to address urban spaces as if they were wildernesses. With the help of some biologist friends I am working on developing guided “natural history” tours of laneways.
For the Burrard View Park Fieldhouse residency, I’m working on a number of things that are mostly just starting to come out of the development stage. The Burrard View Department of Information Services is a performance intervention that also functions as research for further projects. I’ve created a portable information kiosk that pops up in various places around the community, but instead of giving information, it will only collect information.
Odd Jobs is a maintenance art project where I offer my services as a labourer to members of the neighbourhood for free. I’m interested in the privileged nature of artistic labour, and why artists are viewed as being better at “engaging” a community than, say, the caretakers who resided in the fieldhouses before us artists.
B: Can you talk about your relationship with the parks maintenance staff? Is it a contentious one, considering your privileged position as an artist contracted to work in the park, while the caretakers are practically invisible to the general public? The disproportionate ratio of value associated with artistic labour as opposed to maintenance work seems fitting for your practice.
LO: It’s definitely not contentious (towards me), but there are two different types of parks maintenance staff—the remaining caretakers and the COV (City of Vancouver) workers. COV workers tend to be excited and interested in what’s going on in the space, but these workers, unlike the caretakers, never lived onsite in the parks. They are city employees who work 9–5 (or 7–3, it seems) and head home at the end of the day. To be honest, I feel like they are my main audience at the moment; they are definitely far more aware of my presence than the average park user. This will change as I move out of the development stage of the residency and start taking up a more active role in the community, but I’d like to do some work that interacts with them directly.
I’ve had one, very brief, interaction with the other type of maintenance staff, the remaining caretakers. This is something I want to actively pursue in the next few months. My interaction wasn’t contentious at all, but it definitely seems like the old caretakers are in a bit of a nebulous holding pattern—in his view, they are like that one line item on a budget that gets passed on from year to year and never gets dealt with. The old caretakers are basically aging out. George, who was the caretaker at Burrard View, passed away while still occupying the position, and this seems to be a common sentiment. Parks isn’t dislodging them, and they aren’t going anywhere, but they also aren’t being replaced with caretakers, they’re being replaced with artists instead.
My interest in this situation is twofold. Firstly, as you point out, the perception of artistic labour as privileged over maintenance labour, and the parallel perception that an artist is able to create a more meaningful engagement with community than a maintenance worker. Secondly, the broader societal implications that have brought this situation about. I think some of this move away from the caretaker-as-parks-maintenance model has to do with the litigious nature of society. Parks is essentially covering their asses in a legal sense by moving maintenance “in-house.” I think a lot of the changes have to do with this situation. As a culture worker, I am always happy when programs like the field house residencies are dreamt up by city staff, and the city does a great job of supporting the arts though these programs, but their existence is part of a broader social trend to value and support Florida’s creative class above all else. As an artist I benefit from this trend, but as a person interested in social justice, I find some of its byproducts very troubling (with rampant gentrification being at the top of the list). I don’t think this is part of some great machiavellian plot on the part of the city to devalue its workers, but rather part of a global trend that has some complicated and challenging implications.
B: Growing up, your father was a lawyer involved with labour unions. Has this had an influence on your practice, particularly in regards to how you deal with themes of labour and value?
LO: Growing up in a house with Marx and Engels on the bookshelf has to have some effect I think, and yes, my father spend a huge portion of his career representing a number of labour unions in Nanaimo, including the pulp and paper workers at Harmac (the local pulp and paper mill) who organized to buy out the mill when it was going under. As a kid, I remember my household as always being very politically savvy—we talked frankly about politics at the dinner table, and I was expected to have opinions, and more importantly those opinions were treated as being valid, even if they amounted to wanting to vote for Chretien because I thought he had a funny accent (what do you expect really, when you ask an 8 year old their opinion on politics). My Dad was really good at explaining nuance, and never making things too cut and dry. He also exposed us to protest culture; I remember him taking us to the Peace Camp at the “black hole” during the Clayoquat protests when I was about 11, which was pretty inspirational considering that those protests “worked.” These factors definitely fostered my teenage-radical protest tendencies, and still inform my interests today.
B: There is often an expectation that social practices do things, and create some sort of positive change within a community or group. Is the COV expecting to see a kind of result-based work? Particularly in regards to social practices, words like "efficacy" and "success" are often thrown around, which exposes an urge to assign a value to socially-engaged works, in regards to their ability to affect change. It’s a language that is difficult to step outside of, and speaks to the still-popular expectation that these practice must do something to improve some perceived problem.
LO: I’m working with a really great team at the parks board, mostly with Cyndy Chewlos, and also Marie Lopes. They both are arts programmers with the city, and are the main points of contact for me. They are really open to anything, but there are certain sticking points that have to be met—mostly time and documentation. I haven’t felt pressure to make a certain type of work that has a certain type of outcome, but it is really important that I document my work and make it public though my blog. The programmers want to be able to show that the space is being used, and that the field house program as a whole is a worthwhile investment. It seems that success to them is having a variety of artists and culture workers using the sites in the park and being visible to their surrounding neighbourhoods, which doesn’t seem to necessitate a certain type of work or a certain result. Some field houses are home to collectives (like Iris Film Collective for example) that are planning big film screenings, others have dance collectives, comic book collectives, musicians or solo artists like me. The various engagements with social practice are broad and diverse.
I think this expectation that social practice should “do” something, as you say, comes out of a specific discourse that is focused on social practices in the U.S. When I read articles and criticism about socially engaged work from outside the U.S., this focus seems to diminish, and the concept of Social Practice outside this sphere leans towards a critical engagement with the institutions and forces that shape a society, and often has a more antagonistic approach. In the U.S., many Social Practice artists have slipped into a position leveraging their privilege as artists to provide social services where they don’t exist or there are is no available funding. We are in a different context to both the well established social democracies of Europe and the social service desert of America, an interstitial space between the two.
The thing about anything political, be it protests or artworks, is that it is never working alone; there is always a complicated network of concepts and ideas that are being circulated via numerous pathways. I think radical environmental groups are a great example of this. You could argue that an organization like Earth First! “achieved” very little in its early years, but by occupying a space on the fringe they pushed other groups into the centre, and made their demands seem reasonable. Greenpeace and the Sierra Group started achieving great successes in terms of protecting lands in the US after Earth First! came on the scene. When other groups would ask to protect 500 hectares, EF! Would ask for 5,000.
I like to think about my work it this way, although I’m aware this is a grandiose comparison. Does my work “do” anything in the real world? Perhaps not, but it is a part of a larger conversation pushing these issues forward. I’m not so concerned with efficacy or success. A project is interesting and thought provoking, or it’s not. If it’s interesting, it will lead me somewhere new. If it isn’t, it will also lead me somewhere new. I’m wary of placing demands on art (and protests for that matter). They are what they are, and will grow into what they should be. I think demands and expectations can stifle this process, because they indicate that there is a perceived “finished” project, which can foreclose the opportunities that develop along the way.
Lexie Owen is is an Vancouver based interdisciplinary cultural producer interested in sculpture, craft in the expanded field, social practice initiatives and curatorial projects. She is the current artist-in-residence at Burrard View Fieldhouse for the 2015-2017 term. Owen was awarded a BFA in Critical + Cultural Practice from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2014.