In 2009, I rented an artist studio in downtown Victoria. During my work-day my attention would invariably shift from my work table to one of the walls in the space. Drawn to the wall, I would inch away from my work table and become absorbed by a complex of lines, paper, pencil, wood. Like scabs, the most recent white paint over the wall covered layers of paper at different thicknesses across the space.
In the centre, where artists had worked the most, the paint, paper and irregularity was the thickest. In the thrall of potential, of the ability to uncover earlier forms hidden behind the paint, I would find myself carefully picking at the paint. The attraction stayed with me, the work on my table, abandoned, I was obsessed with the density and presence of the wall, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I began talking to my friend Lynda Gammon about the wall. She told me that the wall is very special.
Intervening in artist spaces
562 Fisgard is a project by Lynda Gammon and Trudi Lynn Smith. We bring photography and the artist studio into relationship through a close study of one wall. Drawing on photography’s relationship to indexicality we engaged in an exploration of the wall, the studio, and the building. For thirty years, the space has been inhabited consecutively by artists, and at present Smith occupies part of the same space that Gammon once did. Gammon occupied the space in the moment it was transformed into an artist studio space.
While much of the basic structure and interior of the space remains discernible through time, interventions and modifications by those working in the space have made an impression. The repurposing of the space not only has a strong relationship to the original purpose of the building and the transformation of use but also can be understood in the context of the history of art and a relationship to the space of the gallery: The smoothness of drywall has been added and mimics the modernist gallery wall that presumes its invisibility, a place one might hang paintings upon.
However, one wall in the studio remains in a rawer form, showing a longer history of mark making and collage by individuals: layers of paint, old newspapers, pieces of doorskin, and architectural mouldings. This wall tells of a different history of place and of art and it is this wall that is of interest to Gammon and Smith. The Chinese Benevolent Association constructed the building in 1889, in resistance to racism in Victoria. It bears the traces of people who have passed through the space since its building for the Association in 1884 by architect John Teague.
Gammon: photography, sculpture and the archive
The wall is particularly important to Gammon’s works in the 1980s that were constructions in the studio that she photographed. These installations, interventions or sculptural forms were attached to the very same wall. Now existing as photographic works, book works, and an archive that presently Gammon draws upon to construct her sculptural works (Salvaged ) they also form a photographic archive of practice and place and offer a view into a place in time.
Gammon’s photographic images are a starting point for conversation about studio, practice, feminist archives and places. Her encounter with the old rooming house as a raw form (as she was the first to inhabit in the space with the purpose of making art) and her transformations as it became repurposed provide a rich starting point to move backwards and forwards in the social and material history of the wall. Gammon’s work, in part address the often invisible movement between studio and gallery and the ongoing influence that they have upon one another.
Our first work together was to create 4×5” glass plate negatives of the wall and of the building. Smith intervened on a colonial photograph of the outside of the building taken by E.G. Deville in the 1880s (later the Surveyor General of Canada), and Gammon recorded the interior of the studio. The laborious darkroom process provided space to work together and talk about the role of the artist, collaboration, and anthropology/social research into places and material practices.
We explored our working processes as individuals and together, and the intersection of art practice, and visual research.
Conference and book: 562 Fisgard
This work resulted in a two-volume set of books published by flask, and a paper presentation at the International Visual Sociology Association in summer 2009. The paper/performance by Smith explored the ethnographic possibilities for creative research in relation to the study of archives and historical photographs offered by the engagement of an anthropologist-artist in the production of artwork.
1:1 representation: a 16 x 20″ large format camera
The wall acts as a palimpsest, a play with visibility and invisibility, inside and outside, and unseen and overlooked archives. We built a 16 x 20” camera in the studio to record the wall at a 1:1 ratio. Along with the camera, we are using video, peeling, rubbing, and building and rebuilding sculptural objects on the wall to create a place-specific installation and a lively archive.
Building on Smith’s scholarly and artistic work to ground her study of the photograph as an event, Smith and Gammon invited artists into the space to have conversations, to be infolded into the back of the camera and to perform a “wall peel”. This conversational drift guided subsequent text and photography.
Affect, community and conversation
People are attracted to the wall and the artist studio space overall. What is the meaning of these spaces? What way can photographic explorations of the wall — like looking through the back of a giant camera — provide points of friction to explore how emotions and the affectual realm play into our ideas about artist studios and analogue technologies like large-format cameras?
In not only compiling the social history of the wall, but creating installations that provoke feeling we seek to build on feminist archives, and create space for the exploration of feeling. By generating a social history of a wall, this work begins with a scholarly and artistic investigation into traces, and impressions and broadens to consider more generally the artist studio, the role of the artist, the gallery, contemporary notions of community, and the production of space.
The final installation remains in the studio. Over the past year we have engaged the place as exhibition and over time we have hosted over 200 people in the studio.