Instances of a creative history

Modern Fuel celebrates its 30th anniversary by looking back and moving forward

Modern Fuel’s administrative director Jessica Rovito listens to the oral history of the gallery and watches the sign-language translation that is set as part of the show Instances.
Modern Fuel’s administrative director Jessica Rovito listens to the oral history of the gallery and watches the sign-language translation that is set as part of the show Instances.

Looking back at the last 30 years and mining for definitive moments that have turned into blurry memories seems a little daunting. To then take that fog of detail and render it into a historical work of conceptual art is no easy feat. The Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre and Kingston Artist Association Inc. (KAAI) have seen, since their twin births in 1977, artists and board members of diverse opinion and vision come and show in the gallery. The space, located downtown on Queen Street, has been privy to the ebbs and flows of contemporary art, encompassing trends and artists at the local and international levels. At times the gallery has been community-based, while other times it has adopted a competitive art-for-art’s-sake edge. Always planning and looking forward, Modern Fuel, until recently, wasn’t invested in its past, but instead focused on its progressive tendencies, showcasing the evolving world of conceptual and artistic work.

The gallery’s latest show, titled Instances, is a celebration of its 30th anniversary. The inspiration for the show arose when Modern Fuel challenged its interns to pitch project ideas. The centre was reminded it had a long and rich history full of artistic achievements and political controversy. Modern Fuel interns Amy Uyeda, ArtSci ’08, and Talie Shalmon, ArtSci ’07, were among the interns who rifled through the centre’s archives and collections and realized the potential for documenting and displaying the artistic history the centre and the Queen’s Archives possessed. Uyeda conceived the idea of an oral history, for multiple interviews to be conducted with the artists who have passed through the gallery and were active in the KAAI.

This past summer the gallery’s Special Projects Co-ordinator, Brittany Wray, ArtSci ’08, set out on the task of interviewing 15 artists involved in Modern Fuel’s history at some point in the last thirty years.

Making sense of the interviews that contained memories to various degrees of coherence and piecing together the abundance of material, Wray composed an audio patchwork of voices to exemplify artists’ memories of works or attitudes from when they were involved with the centre.

As a student, Wray hadn’t met many of her interviewees but had heard rumours of the artists or seen their work in the archives.

“The actual process was pretty positive all around. It was like a mystery person comes to meet you every day, like a blind date. I knew them through their art, which is an interesting way to meet people. … There was the diversity you expect to see from a random group of people, different takes … a panoply of people used to make this one cohesive project, which makes for an all encompassing history,” Wray said.

The result of the extensive interviews are contained in 30 tracks, all ranging from one to one and a half minutes, arranged as if to represent each year of the Modern Fuel and KAAI’s existence.

The sound bites feel as though they were sewn together, voices weave in and out and the listener is left with little context, depending on the speaker to arbitrarily mention a year or whose art they’re talking about. The pauses in speech and utterances of “I don’t know” demonstrate the gaps in memory. The oral history is more than a little disorderly and information is hazy, but that’s partly the point.

Artistic director Michael Davidge produced and arranged this audio history in the gallery, adding a few more conceptual layers to it. Focusing on accessibility, Davidge had the final 30 audio clips translated into Braille and sign language. The Braille translations are white and blend into the gallery walls they’re mounted on. In the corner sits a television screen with a woman communicating a direct translation of the audio history that’s available for listening on a tiny Discman sitting on a bench. The effect is disorienting.

There is texture, visual cues and audio, and yet each is separated from the other. Upon entering the space, the audience member is confronted with three methods of communication—one becomes a listener, a viewer and a feeler—and yet not all sentations of information are immediately understandable. The Braille text, white on white is easily damageable “I wanted the quality of the materials to suggest a fragility that would be associated with both the desire and need to preserve one’s memory and account of the past but at the same time it would point to the impossibility, the difficult nature of that task,” Davidge said.

The oral history is less of an ode to Modern Fuel and more of a comment on memory and perception—on how moments get remembered by different people over time.

Despite the disorienting effect, the history not only highlights the many artists who have come and gone and maybe still remain; it also draws attention to critical moments in art for the centre and pieces and exhibits that were challenging or exciting. The memories extend to both the beginning and the more recent past. Jeffrey Childs, a founding member, recalls a giant welding sculpture he made in the shape of a whale. People had to sit in the piece to complete it, watching projected clips of sunsets he had filmed. Meanwhile Tory Leaman, the gallery’s current chair of media, recalls in 2006 a sculptural work composed of many multi-coloured origami rocking chairs set beside a fan so it appeared as though invisible creatures were rocking them.

Trends like the rise of performance art in the ’80s aren’t so much documented as recalled, and those pivotal moments for artists, such as when they took on a new form of art, don’t come across as statement of fact but rather an expression of emotion as the interviewees piece together what happened. This disorienting and conceptual take on history demonstrates Modern Fuel’s readiness to challenge its audience and again, is representative of the centre’s current vision. The audio patchwork just grazes the top layer of the centre’s history but hints that the past isn’t that easy to hold on to.

Instances: 30 Years of Modern Fuel and the KAAI runs until Dec. 15 at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre. Modern Fuel is at 21A Queen St.

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