In this interview, Maya Livio, PhD Candidate at University of Colorado Boulder and Curator of MediaLive and the Media Archaeology Lab speaks with Erandy Vergara, Program Coordinator of Studio XX in Montreal, Canada. The interview was conducted via Skype on April 6, 2017, and edited for clarity.
Maya Livio: Thanks again for speaking with me, Erandy. Tell me about Studio XX, its mission, and how it came to be.
Erandy Vergara: The studio was created twenty years ago, its anniversary was last April 2016, by four women artists working in academia and in art and technology. Their idea was to create a space where they could learn how to use different media and also share what they knew. So the idea came from sharing knowledge, sharing space, sharing technologies, and sharing the resources they had—you know, at the time not everyone had a computer. So the basis was this idea of a lab. They didn’t have a gallery in mind, it was more about creating a space where things could happen, where projects could be developed. They started at a public library which let them hide away, and they brought their own computers and gave workshops to the community which could be as basic as how to navigate the internet.
EV: This is how it started and eventually the project started taking shape. It was always a feminist organization because they believed there wasn’t enough space for women to raise their hand and say “I want to know how to use this, I don’t want to feel stupid, I want to know.” It was clear to them that if women did not have a foot in cyberspace from the beginning, the gaps that were already very present in society in general and in art in particular were only going to get larger. This is how it started.
So it’s a feminist art and technology space. Eventually—you know, in Canada we have organizations which are called artist-run centres—so eventually they got funding to create an artist-run centre with the mission to support women artists in the development and production of art and technology. It all started as a lab—as having computers that people could play with, and eventually they got a gallery space. And, you know, as technology has changed the lab has changed. The equipment and the practices have always been changing based on new technologies and their new uses.
ML: I didn’t know about this distinction of artist-run centres. So that’s a funding category like a non-profit organization, but a specific type of non-profit?
EV: What it means is that in the 1960s in Montreal, many artists rebelled against the power and inaccessibility of big institutions like museums. Of course, emerging artists didn’t have places where they could show their work. So spaces began to emerge with the idea of providing opportunities for artists to create and exhibit their work. It was always about disseminating the work but also about producing new work. It was a coincidence that this was also at the time of the emergence of new technologies, so many of these spaces were focused specifically on technology. Artist-run centres have public funding from Canada, and also from the provinces in which they are located, and oftentimes from the cities where they are located. So usually you have three main sources of secure funding, and you usually you ask for funding every four years.
ML: Amazing. That’s…very different from how funding works in the U.S.!
EV: I know! And, you know, as long as you demonstrate that you’re still relevant, that you serve a community—a condition for artist-run centres is that the majority of board members and staff members are artists themselves, because nobody wanted to have these people who did not have any idea about the practice itself ruling the art world. You know, as with every kind of system, it has eventually shown its flaws, and some people have abused it. But the spirit of the 60s is still pretty much there, and there are some artist-run-centres that are just fantastic and that have kept alive this tradition of trying to support emerging artists at the production level and at the dissemination level and tried to place them in the international scene but also within local communities. Many of these spaces are very local, some of them work really closely with their neighborhoods.
ML: That’s fantastic. I saw Studio XX’s partners listed on the website, and it seemed that the majority of them are governmental or other public-funding bodies. Would you say that the vast majority of your funding comes from that, then? I saw that you also have memberships and ask for donations and other forms of financial support, but is the majority of the funding coming from tiers of government?
EV: Absolutely. Ninety to ninety-five percent. And you mentioned members—that’s a very important thing to show that you’re still relevant. The members choose the board members, and the board chooses the staff. And again, the majority of the board members have to be artists themselves—and practicing-artists, you know, not “I was an artist once.” That happens too, but there are emerging artists especially.
ML: I see. So maybe you could tell me a little more about the kinds of projects and activities that form the core of Studio XX’s work because it seems very diverse with these different components such as residencies, workshops, a radio show…
EV: I think that easiest way to divide our projects is into categories. First, dissemination projects. We have exhibitions and conferences. One thing I forgot to say earlier is that for the studio it was always important to become a space where there is a reflection about technology. Not only can you learn how to use the software but can you think about it—can we think about relationships with technology and art critically, from a feminist perspective? For that reason, an important part of the programming of the studio is conferences and artist talks and roundtables. So that’s one branch, the discursive events, and then we also have exhibitions. So that’s dissemination.
Then we have production. For production, we have artist-in-residency projects. We have three six-week residencies per year. The artists get a little bit of money, they don’t get funding for travel or accommodations but they are funded to develop a project, and they have a studio in a shared space. For that there is a call and people submit and we select work based quality of the project and the novelty, we try to support emerging artists. Especially we ask ourselves, if we would not support this project—would she be able to do it? Are the resources and space we have suited to support this project? That’s basically what happens.
The other part is what I would call it the education aspect. As I mentioned, it was very important for the founders to have a space where artists could learn, a safe space. So having more instruction has been at the core of the Studio because there is a way, again, not only to learn new tools but also learn from feminist methods, or to just be taught by women artists who are working in the field and who have a practical perspectives on the uses of technology. But it was always.. the core of the workshop was how can you use the technology critically in your practice to develop a project. Usually the workshops are general, but each artist has their own time, and the idea is that each one develops a project while they workshop.
The last component, which is also part of the education area, is—in order to reach out to younger generations, and especially to incite young girls to engage with technologies in active and confident ways, we have created a series of workshops called Media Art for Families. Those workshops are free, one-day, 3 or 4 hour workshops. Female artists teach these workshops, and it’s for families, they just need to bring a snack to share. They range from, let’s say kinetic art or sound art. The kids develop one piece, and when they leave they can take whatever they produced in the workshop.
And we have a radio show, and that was founded almost at the same time that the Studio began, because one of the members was also a founder of the radio show, and they realized that both were actually doing the same thing. The connection is less strong that it might seem, but it’s a feminist radio show that’s also been on the air for 20 years. It runs once a week on the local community radio, so the content… they’re free to do whatever they want, and that’s great. And then the .dpi journal was a feminist website of internet culture and technology in general. It wasn’t about art, specifically, and it wasn’t an academic journal. However, because we realized that it in itself was a project that needed its own staff and resources, at a certain point we decided that it was not a sustainable project so we stopped it.
ML: As far as who uses the lab, if you had to characterize your core audiences—it sounds like you have a lot of them, you have community members, families, children. Are there university students that come in? Are there people who you would say are more engaged with traditional research? Or is it mostly on the art side?
EV: It’s mostly on the art side. We have some people that support the studio just to support the cause—there are those kinds of members. I would say that there are basically two kinds of people who come to use the lab. There are these young, emerging artists, who are in school and need extra equipment, because we loan the equipment we own to members for very cheap or for free, depending on the type of technology. We renew our equipment every year, so we try to keep up with what’s going on. There are also older or established artists, who do not necessarily have the means to buy a good camera, or to buy or rent a studio set for shooting with a green screen, or to buy a 3D printer. So we have young, emerging artists but we also have more established artists or just older artists who are not in school and therefore cannot borrow equipment at all.
ML: Can you tell me a little bit more about the space itself and how you see the infrastructure supporting the kind of work that’s being produced. How are things set up?
EV: That’s a great question. So there is a gallery space, right now we have an exhibition, but it is also the lab space. It’s relatively large, and we have make this space accommodate everything we do. We have tables at the back, an office space behind a curtain, and then we have tables and chairs and computers and a lot of equipment. When we need the lab, we set up tables and let’s say six iMac computers if we have a workshop, for instance. The lab is a space that isn’t… I would say that it’s not necessarily a physical space, it’s not a fixed space. It’s a space that is constantly rotating because this is what we have, and we have to adapt it as often as we can. We have workshops on Monday, so Monday, we set up the lab. Tuesday, we have to bring stuff back into the office again because then we have the gallery open from Tuesday to Friday. At the beginning, not everyone had a computer, so the lab was mostly used for computers with special or expensive software. Now—though that’s still the case, people come to hold meetings with coworkers and friends—the computers are used less. But let’s say, we have MadMapper, which is this software for video mapping which is expensive for some people, so they’ll write an email to say “Can I reserve a computer with MadMapper for this afternoon?,” and then they will come and and work.
ML: Do you give them access to use the computers and equipment even while the gallery is open?
EV: What we did now is install a table with two computers in the office space, for members. So it’s a shared space, it’s always a shared space.
ML: That’s great, though. What about collaborations with other institutions? I saw that as part of the current exhibition you have a collaboration with McGill. How you see the work that happens at Studio XX interfacing with larger institutions, especially in the academic world? How often do you do these kinds of collaborations, and do you ever receive support from universities?
EV: I think that collaboration with universities depends on who the programming coordinator is. Because that the way we work is through selecting projects from open calls, we usually have enough resources to produce our own projects and exhibitions. But well, you know I’m a scholar, an academic, so I usually partner up with any of the four different universities in Montreal for different kinds of projects. Sometimes it’s to share expenses, but it’s always about sharing resources of some kind. Sometimes I can lend the space for free, or for pay half of an artist’s fees, or “I have this artist, do you want her to come give a talk to your students?”
It’s also based on the idea that the more the merrier, especially when we’re talking about the place of women in media arts. There is still this idea that there are so few, and there are so few included in the big events produced in Montreal so we want to—I personally want to push this side to make more noise, to be more aggressive, to insist on presence. If we were to do it only at the Studio, we would only reach out to a small community. The more we go out, the more we make these women known, the more people get to know us, and then find out about other women artists through us. It’s also because it’s productive, it’s useful, to use what we have with others, you know? We partnered with the Goethe Institute last year to bring Cornelia Sollfrank. She’s a big shot! She’s one of the cyberfeminism founders! She’s a legend. So, I thought we should partner with someone else to host her. We could do all of the activities here. We have the space, but well, why? That would be boring.
Oh I forgot to state—and this is very important—we also have a media art festival.
ML: Oh yeah, HTMLLES!
EV: The collaboration with universities started before me—I’ve been here for a year and a half, and the collaboration with McGill especially started with HTMLLES two editions ago, so in 2012. The festival took place in different venues, at other artist-run centres in Montreal, and there was an academic conference at McGill. The festival is thematic, and so the theme of the conference was the theme of the festival. This was a space where artists could meet and discuss the ideas that the artworks and performances and exhibitions and events of the festival addressed.
ML: I’ve been following the festival and would love to go to the next one!
EV: Yeah! And you should! We’re thinking about a theme for next year now.
ML: You said you came on about a year and a half ago—are there set durations for which people hold positions at artist-run centres, or at the the Studio specifically?
EV: I could stay here for as long as I wanted, but I wouldn’t do that to the institution. It would be the worst thing, I think.
ML: So you think turnover is good for the organization?
EV: Well, you know, I like the spirit of the ‘60s that we’ve got, and if artists are really against institutions, well, people also become institutions. Labor conditions are precarious in this time, and it’s difficult to find a job, but I do think that this specific kind of work should allow different energies, different ideas, different perspectives, different orientations to infuse the space. The founders, they stepped down, and I always admired them for that. We brought in an activist artist from India, who is amazing, and we had this talk at Concordia University, and one of the founders is a faculty member there. So we were talking and she was saying to the artist: “What you’re doing is so great, it’s what we dreamt twenty years ago and didn’t know that’s what we wanted.” We started talking about the spirit when they founded the Studio and the need for feminist perspectives, and I said to her “you know, I’ve always admired the fact that you—all of you—did not want the power and just left this to whomever would take it,” and she said to me “I always knew that if this was meant to last, if it were to have any relevance to the world, it had to be bigger than myself.” And… I like that!
ML: I admire that and totally agree. Though, it does also make me think about what sometimes happens these days, especially in spaces of technology… People can become so concerned with keeping up with the latest technologies and the latest discourse, and it’s moving so quickly, that I think ageism can easily come into play. People start to say—and not just in the arts, but you know in the technology sector in general—there’s this rhetoric that “the old people need to get out of the way and let the young people who know what’s happening now do this.” And while I completely agree with you that there’s a need for fresh perspectives and a need to remain relevant, I worry about that sometimes in terms excluding older people from those conversations and treating them as irrelevant.
EV: I agree, but I don’t think the problem is that someone will age with the institution. It’s that there are different voices and that’s a totally different story.
ML: You’re absolutely right. The way that the plurality of voices can come is by encouraging older people to also be involved in the conversation as new and fresh voices. Sadly it often doesn’t happen that way.
EV: Yes. It’s not about the group’s ages, especially if you think about art, technology, and feminism. I mean, you know, we have Cornelia Sollfrank closing up the yearly programming of the twentieth anniversary, we have younger artists, we have all kinds… It’s really, especially with Cornelia, trying to bridge trans-generational understandings, and to see how each one informs different uses of technologies and different perspectives on society as well. Cornelia has a different perspective, someone who is 22 years old has a different perspective, and all of them are important.
ML: Yes, exactly. Bringing it back to what you were saying earlier about speaking with the Studio XX founder at Concordia, was that Kim Sawchuk?
ML: Maybe I could ask you more about her. Obviously you can’t speak for her, and I don’t know if she’s told you more about the initial ideas behind the space, but I’m interested in her specifically because she’s also one of the first to write about—in the U.S. it’s usually called practice-based research, she called it research-creation. Has there been any dialogue with her or at Studio XX in general about how you envision research and practice coming together in the space? If not, perhaps you have thoughts on how you see practice-based research or research-creation fitting into the Studio?
EV: I think it’s best to tell you my own take on that, as this is something I’ve never talked about or discussed with Kim. Basically, what I think, is maybe some of the basis of that research-creation thinking were grounded in what she was doing with the other three founders and also in what she saw happening at the Studio. They didn’t just want people to have access to technology, because that was part of the problem. They were saying that, you know, access is… it’s an important point, but it’s not the only point. And what does access mean anyway? Who gets access? And, you know, as good feminists they always were aware… they were four white women, but they were aware that there were issues of class, gender, sexuality that come into play in the mix of who has access and who doesn’t. So, what I would say is that at least she had this playground where these things were happening, where research informed the creation of new works of art, and vice versa, to draw from.
ML: I saw that the current Cornelia Sollfrank exhibit has the theme of a lab running through it, called the Commons Lab. Can you talk a little bit about that specifically, and how the show engages with the concept of lab?
EV: When I wanted Cornelia to do this show, it was an exhibit, and I wanted to see where she was and what she was working on. She’s working on big questions about what artists can bring to discussions of ‘the commons’, and what all discourses around the commons can bring to art. The more she thought about this format—the exhibition—the less it looked like an exhibition, it looked like a lab, in the most basic sense. It was a trial-and-error space where she was testing, and everything she did was with all the freedom to just… try. She has this strong research about the commons in general, looking at free software, looking at uses of resources in different times in history and different countries and different regions. So the idea of the Commons Lab was to create a space where she could instigate a series of discussions about what the commons means, how it can inform art, and how art can inform the commons. She set up a work-in-process space, basically, a space where different people can engage with ideas about the commons. There’s an area where she’s been holding different workshops throughout the time she’s been here, and she’s been interviewing people—Gabriella Coleman just came to talk to her and she’ll upload the audio and comment about it on the project website. So, the commons lab will continue to nourish the exhibition, but also the project in general. And yes, it’s a place where she will activate different conversations about the commons.
ML: That sounds great. So what would you say are the biggest challenges that the studio currently faces?
EV: I think the biggest challenge is to keep up, to keep itself relevant, to reach out to a larger community. As you know, our subject in general is a tiny little world of media arts—it’s the tiniest world, and feminist art and media is the tiniest range of that. But let’s say with the HTMLLES, there were so many people and such a spirit. We still have people writing about how they loved it and it’s been what, six months? So I think the challenge is to be able to continue to produce discourses and projects and events that are relevant, and reach out to a community so they feel connected, inspired by, or disconnected and still inspired by, this work. I think it’s really about how to keep connecting—keep relevant not only to more people but in more meaningful ways, whatever that means.
ML: I definitely hear you on the challenge of the tiniest, tiniest… art can intimidating to people in general, media art especially so. Trying to keep it accessible is always a challenge because you want the discussion to be on a high level, but at the same time not have it feel insular and academic, or be intimidating to broader audiences. I feel like that is a big challenge and I admire the efforts that you’re making there.
EV: Exactly, yeah.
ML: So the last question I have is how do you see Studio XX evolving or changing over time? Do you have something like a 5 year plan or a vision for where you’d like it to go?
EV: Since I started working here, my idea has been to push in a different direction which I thought was needed. This has included connecting to the public, reaching out to younger generations, and reaching out to people of older generations who are still relevant but who have just lost interest or lost connection. To support women artists, and also to hear trans and gender-fluid artists who have so few spaces in Montreal and in the world. So to disseminate the work of more diverse artists based in Montreal so that they can exhibit their work, get to know each other, and expand their networks. That’s what I envision—to connect locally and to connect globally.
ML: I wish you all the best with that, yeah. I’m so in awe, still, of the government funding you get to do that work. I guess as one last follow up, have you seen arts funding decline over the years, as has been the case in other countries ? Or do you still feel that funding is relatively stable for the arts in Canada?
EV: Ah, we are very lucky, and that is bad and good. It gets some people very comfortable, but it is also, for me, a very good reason to keep relevant. We did not have any cuts, and you know there were major economic crashes in the past years, but we did not have funding cuts, and there was actually major arts investment earlier this year. We did not have a particular increase in our budget, but art and culture in general had a funding increase, and I think that’s the reason why we should keep working and do more. Return the favor, and support the artists.
ML: Oh no, you’re making me consider the move to Canada that everybody keeps talking about in the U.S… Thanks so much for your time and I’m so glad we were able to connect. I hope I get to see the space in person at some point, and if you’re ever in Colorado, let me know!
EV: Great! Maybe I’ll come see your festival next year and you can come see ours.