Unconventional Craft, Surveillance and Humour: In Conversation with Vanessa Vanughan

Vaugh installing CanTel’s Speak Easy: How Privacy Matters

Saint John based artist and Third Space Gallery president, Christiana Myers in conversation with Vanessa Vaughn about unconventional craft, surveillance and the role of humour in contemporary art. Vaughan’s installation, CanTel’s Speak Easy: How Privacy Matters is now showing at 87 Germain Street.

CM: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your art practice?

VV: I am from Wallaceburg, Ontario – a very small town and a first generation Canadian so I had no extended family on this continent. My parents are from the UK; my father is British by way of India. They raised us very traditionally, with a lot of restrictions and an emphasis on proper etiquette! I spent a lot of my life traveling and have lived in Australia, the UK and the USA. My art practice is multi-disciplinary, using video, performance, sculpture and installation. My work examines personal and collective mythologies, transformation and the absurd nature of reality. At the core I am interested in people from all walks of life and I use stories, personas, humour and interventions to make connections with others and reveal hidden tendencies and complex emotional states.

CM: Your artwork often covers very complex and emotionally intense subject matter yet there is always a sense of humour and even absurdity in it. From your perspective, what role does humour play in your work?

VV: Well, it is true humour and the absurd play an immense role in my work. I think it’s difficult with artwork because “the art world” and “academia” tend to take themselves very seriously and will not always engage in artworks that present otherwise. I believe quite deeply in art and its ability to reach people and I am certain it is possible to be incredibly thoughtful yet simultaneously light-hearted. This straddling of the line between meaningful content and humour is something I aim for in my work. I’m not sure if I’m there yet but a majority of my inspiration comes from artists, musicians and writers who embody this. For me, that line between contemplation/reflection and absurd hilarity, is beautiful and brings me great joy. I think humour has the ability to shed light on uncomfortable subjects in very complex ways.

CM: You use ceramics in what most people would consider fairly unconventional ways. What draws you to the material? Does the long history of the medium ever affect the way you approach your work?

VV: I am drawn to clay because it is such an amazing and versatile material. I love that you can see the mark of the hand in pots that may be thousands of years old. It is also a material that can be worked with raw or fired and so initially I was interested in it through the work I do with stop-motion animation. But after firing it with glazes I wanted to create frozen narratives as well as creating pieces to perform with. Its long history is something that fascinates me and it blows me away when I consider that Palaeolithic humans were making objects with the same raw clay and firing processes and not very much has changed since. I am reminded of ceramics rich craft history and materiality especially when I am around other ceramicists, which I greatly respect. But I think I approach ceramics very differently because I am coming from a background in video, animation and performance. So for me this is an advantage because I don’t feel bogged down by that history. I am not so concerned about the typical ceramic considerations such as clay type, surface glazes, building processes and firing techniques. This is not because they aren’t important, it is just that I consider it one component of a larger piece such as an installation, where the end result is not one ceramic object but a series of parts where ceramics may constitute one cog of many other materials.

CM: The project series, Cold Calling, which your project is part of, addresses the vulnerability we feel as a result of technologically based communication and surveillance. Why do you feel this is a common theme that artists are considering?

VV: I read an article in The Guardian last year that said that the more connected we are virtually, the more isolated we become in reality. In fact it called this current time we live in, “The Age of Loneliness”. That struck a cord with me, as I definitely feel vulnerable navigating this technologically advanced world we live in. I also became more aware of the loss of privacy and freedoms that we are expected to give up in order to be “secure” as a society. This is a very timely issue that I think many artists, writers and musicians contemplate because it is changing how we relate to others and prioritizes what we are willing to give up in order to feel safe. The rise of right wing nationalism both in America most recently with the election of Trump and over the past 5 years in Europe in countries like France, Sweden and the UK has served to escalate fear and division. The future is a little scary to me right now so I think it is important to talk about it and expose what we are accepting as societies. Surveillance is so hidden and concealed, just like many of our privacies that we freely give up online. I think many artists want to engage in discussions and dialogues that shed light on what is not always tangible or visible.

CM: What led you to create CanTel’s Speak Easy: How Privacy Matters? Does this project align itself with your other current projects?

VV: I am a private person generally, I never post anything personal on Facebook and I started to feel more and more uncomfortable as I read about the anti-terror legislation of Bill C-51 in Canada. Then I started researching various corporate companies like Google who collect loads of personal data on everyone who uses the Internet and realized how much they know about us as individuals. So I decided to create a project that responded to Bill C-51 in Canada and the anxiety around privacy and surveillance that is prevalent worldwide. I always approach my work with a concept or idea first and then I use whatever mediums I think will best illustrate it. Usually, it involves some performance, sculpture, video or animation. Animation is quite performative, it’s just that the frames with my hand and gestures are absent in the final pieces. And because a lot of my work is collaborative and tries to reach people, I enjoyed going out and about with this ridiculous phone in public, people were interested and found it strange and funny. So even in the process of making this work I had plenty of conversations with people randomly about privacy and surveillance and almost everyone had something to say about it. I think it definitely aligns itself well with my other works, even though it tackles a very specific issue, those complex emotions and vulnerabilities that I uncover in previous works are very much a part of Cantel’s Speak Easy. It’s also very absurd and (hopefully) humourous! The core thesis of this project is really that privacy is absurd, that it is nearly impossible for it to exist anymore unless you use two cans connected with a cord to speak at a distance!

CM: You’ve recently moved to the Maritimes from Montreal. Do you think your work has changed or has been interpreted differently in this region? Do you think CanTel’s Speak Easy: How Privacy Matters might operate differently in Saint John vs. a larger metropolitan centre?

VV: This is an interesting question. I think the Maritimes is a great place because people are very open and friendly and the art scene is still emerging. There is a strong history of craft in the Maritimes and there are lots of venues where this work is very much appreciated and held in high regard. However, at the same time at least in Halifax, it can also lead to very “purist” ideals and so when you do things differently or transform a craft into a conceptual art form, there can be a mixed response because the history is so important here. I definitely think my sense of humour within my artwork is more appreciated in the Maritimes in general which is refreshing to me. I think Saint John is a fantastic city, because there is a wealth of talent and innovation within the younger generations that seems to be infused into the more traditional demographic which gives it a remarkable energy. I am curious to know how this project will be received but I do think Saint John is the right starting place for it because of this curious mix of people in a very historic city. I don’t know if I’ll have the same engagement level in a larger city because people tend to be in such a rush. I would probably need to alter it a bit and push the anxiety and absurdity volume way up!

Cold Calling is an ongoing interdisciplinary series of performance and public installation projects with visiting artists Vanessa Vaughan, Annie Wong, and Brandon Vickerd. This series examines cultural and personal investment in communication technology, and the positions of vulnerability and power stemming from faith in the promises of technological advancement. With empathy as a guiding perspective for audience engagement, Vaughan, Wong and Vickerd identify respective anxieties surrounding privacy, interpretation and progress. Follow this page for feature interviews with the artists and accompanying essays.