Imagination Tool for Institutional Operations: A Long Project Between Gudskul & 7 Toronto Collectives
by Vince Rozario
In 2016, during a dinner at the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya, Japan, Emelie Chhangur met Leonhard Bartolomeus (Barto) of the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa. “That’s how most projects begin—by having some sort of social interaction that leaves questions unanswered to investigate later,” she tells me. The collective’s project for the triennial was an early iteration of the then-unknown pedagogical platform Gudskul, comprising a “collective of collectives” which included ruangrupa, Grafis Huru Hara, and Serrum. The following year, Chhangur, then curator and assistant director at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), invited ruangrupa to put the institution itself into residency with Gudskul. Over a series of email exchanges, it evolved into, in Chhangur’s words, “a longer-term engagement not beholden to institutional programming cycles and deadlines,” an “imagination tool for institutional operations.”
Over the course of two month-long visits in March and October 2019, Gudskul members met a range of Toronto collectives in the hopes of fostering a knowledge ecology. Collectives included Unit 2 (run by the electronic music duo LAL), Tea Base, Younger Than Beyoncé Gallery (YTB), Sister CoResister, Department of Public Memory, Gentrification Tax Action, and Ruben Esguerra and his Mobile Recording Studio, among others. “I wasn’t so much interested in making something about the connections between collectives around the world and those in Toronto,” Chhangur tells me. Rather, she says, “[W]hat I think was more needed was communication between folks who were already working alongside each other in a city for a very long time, that didn’t necessarily connect, to hang out […] and hold space for each other. I recognized that immediately at that dinner with Barto in Japan, so totally out of the context, in a totally different sphere.”
Initially, the plan was for all the stakeholders gathered over three years to form a temporary collective that would co-design a pedagogical framework. Halted by the global catastrophe that would soon follow, the collective turned to creating a workbook: a knowledge-sharing and -mapping module that addresses the complex concepts and tasks involved in creating sustainable collective platforms. “I am mostly interested in the self-organizing potential of relationality over choreographing outcomes,” Chhangur tells me. Adapting some of the prompts from this workbook, I met virtually with the curator, as well as Barto, Farid Rakun, and Gesyada Siregar of Gudskul, along with Geneviève Wallen and Marsya Maharani of YTB, Rosina Kazi of Unit 2, and Ruben Esguerra of the Mobile Recording Studio. Together, we discussed the transformative potential of being, sharing, and working together, and its importance at a time when the role of creative labour is rapidly shifting.
Note: this conversation has been significantly edited down from its (even more) abundant original form.
VINCE ROZARIO: Collectives often come about through necessity. To our collectives present today, what conditions brought you together? What projects define your work, and how is it shaped by the space you inhabit?
GENEVIÈVE WALLEN: Younger Than Beyoncé started with Humboldt [Magnussen] and Marianne [Verstappen] who were responding to their frustration with the gallery system, the lack of exhibition outlets for emerging artists, and the gaps that existed in terms of representation. The initial cohort consisted of six board members who were loosely affiliated through their studies at OCAD U. I joined maybe about eight months in, a little while before Marsya [Maharani]. We were initially nomadic. Our first program was at Revue Cinema in spring 2015. Subsequently, we made a deal with Daniels Corporation, who had an empty space which we acquired for a year and a half in summer 2015.
VR: Which is where I think I met you for the first time and we’ve been in community ever since. Building on this idea of nomadism, Ruben—I wonder if you wanted to talk about the specific needs that led to the creation of the Mobile Recording Studio.
RUBEN ESGUERRA: I’ve been working and living in the Jane and Finch community for a long time, in different youth-led organizations, like Casa Maíz at Keele and Finch, which is a cultural hub for Latinx artists, then at the Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples. In 2011, I started working at the San Romanoway Revitalization Association at a studio called Youth ‘N’ Charge, and began to develop programs there. We gave young artists access to equipment, mentorship, and a recording booth. Many of them were writing their lyrics on top of industry instrumentals, which meant they didn’t own the music. So, we created a program to teach them fundamentals of creating an album—making their beats, writing lyrics, designing an album, putting together a press release, and so on. It culminated in a graduation-slash-CD release.
The program was supposed to happen for three years, but in year two there was a labour action by the staff, because of unfair working conditions. This was a non-profit organization led by a Toronto District School Board trustee and a board of directors who were wealthy property owners. They decided to terminate the organizers’ jobs, and then we were drawn into a prolonged struggle with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. This left the youth unable to complete the program, and many organized rallies in response.
We started to see other issues with organizations at that level: space and longevity were obstacles, and programs were cancelled whenever the managers decided, so we weren’t always able to serve the community properly. On a street level, there are historical tensions between different neighbourhoods. This means that artists from one neighbourhood are anxious to go to another where there’s conflict. This led us to put together the Mobile Studio in 2018 because it gets the whole issue of space out of the equation. We’re pretty much able to set up anywhere […] bringing the studio to the artist. We’ve been really successful, also partnering with the Boys and Girls Club—at Driftwood on the north side and Grandravine on the south side (the main two neighbourhoods that are at odds with each other). Every year, we put out an album with original music at the end of the program.
We even managed to put together a physically distanced recording kit during the lockdown: I deliver the equipment, and then we get together on Zoom or FaceTime and instruct the artists on how to set it up and record, share the files digitally, mix and master, and sanitize kits between uses.
ROSINA KAZI: As artists and musicians of colour in Canada, it’s very difficult to move in the industry unless you’re associated with whiteness and power in a particular way. At Unit 2, our hearts have always been around resource sharing and supporting each other in an industry that is toxic to Two-Spirit people, as well as queer and trans people of colour. We were not finding that support in the music scene at the time [we started], and most of us weren’t in control of our destinies.
We found a space [on Sterling Road] 12 years ago, and we took it immediately, even though we knew that we really couldn’t afford it. Slowly over all this time, we have been building this alternative space. We’re anti-capitalist and we’re political, but it’s not about simply knowing and talking in political jargon; we can work with you if you can show up—even if your sh*t’s f*cked.
Having worked in different collectives, we began to realize that they often lapsed into ways of controlling or holding power, and we didn’t want that. We wanted to give people space and a platform and support. Unit 2 has evolved over the years based on the people in the space. As soon as a new group comes in, we note how the energy has changed, and try to adapt. We also don’t feel the need to curate something—let’s just help you with your vision. We didn’t want to become a non-profit either, in order to avoid mimicking capitalist structures that didn’t fit our way of working.
So much of what people talk about in terms of institutions and artistic practice—it’s just about the art itself, right? But within queer and trans communities, our needs go beyond that. Safety has been an issue for most of our lives— though of course Black and Indigenous folks have a distinct experience within that. We forget that people, even established artists, need to be held, and that’s part of our creative practices. We can’t just show up to the world being great artists if we’re not doing well emotionally. So, a lot of the work that we do is not even art, it’s about holding people when they need help. In the last year, for example, we took care of so many people, and even started a food-sharing program.
I used to think, “Do bigger things for community.” Now my work looks like actually helping one or two people at a time, to really impact their lives, instead of trying to impact the whole sector. If we can start with one or two people at a time and then teach other people how to make care collectives, how to make art together, we can build a different world.
VR: Speaking of relationality and the auspices under which we come together, are there differences between Toronto and Jakarta? Barto, Farid, and Gesya, what are your impressions of the collectives you’ve worked with here? What common ground do you share, and where do you differ?
GESYA SIREGAR: I’ve been to Toronto two times for this project. Maybe we can start from the differences. Of course, the seasons, the weather [Emelie laughs] influence the way we commune here. At Gudskul in Jakarta, we can hang out[side] most of the year. If it’s only rain, we can always move to a more sheltered place and still hang out. I think that’s also one of the stark differences: the hang-out culture, the way you can spend time. We can spend time up until 3am and not be affected by the cold winter.
Issue-wise, in terms of necessity and the drive, I think it’s the same spirit—providing space for young artists, minorities, people who don’t get a lot of exposure and facilitation from the main infrastructure. We are so grateful that we get to see the similarities and differences in our approach and how we can complement each other.
BARTO: We had a lot of overlapping interests, though there were differences in terms of how the culture was being built—which Marsya can speak to from her research trip to Indonesia. But we also felt the necessity to create safe space, whether it’s actually occupying a building or making a platform for people and artists to gather. In terms of differences, there are still blurred lines where we’re trying to understand what is considered proper in Toronto. We sometimes wonder whether our jokes are acceptable there because humour takes a big role in our collective practice. Otherwise, it’s difficult to maintain this friction between individuals—especially artists and curators with creative minds and big egos.
MARSYA MAHARANI: That […] is what stood out most to me when going to Jakarta and visiting Gudskul; I just didn’t realize this could be a way of doing things. It was really inspiring—especially compared to my own experience working for institutions.
This project with the AGYU and Gudskul, and just meeting everyone and thinking about the potentiality of relationship-building—I think that rejuvenated YTB. If I can speak for the collective, we were at that point kind of burned out. We weren’t sure how long we were going to get to keep the space, so we were doing things dictated by the space and its limited availability. We were always programming, and programming, and programming, and then burned out. Thinking with you all, I’m also realizing that the exhibitions we mounted weren’t really the culmination. It was all the process, and that long-term relationship building, bringing together people with similar desires for gathering.
VR: Speaking of cultural differences, and the contrasts between working within and outside institutions, I think we’re circling a question about cultural inheritances. How are your collectives shaped by the cultural legacies you inherit? How do they shape your modes of collaboration and labour?
RK: My father came in the ’60s, before there was a big community here. Between working their jobs and dealing with adversity, [he and some others] got together every weekend and eventually started the first Bangladeshi Association. It was created out of the sheer need for survival and the love of art, which is exactly what we [at Unit 2] do, but in our own way. Events took place in people’s homes, community centres, and schools. They created sets, wrote plays, made us dance; they shared space, ate together. It wasn’t just about artistic practice in the Western sense, and I think that is the main difference.
As someone who’s born here, you get stuck in this Western concept of art. For a long time, I had to, and still am, unlearning those concepts. Now, I’m much more rooted in this idea that our lives are our creative practices. I’m not interested in hierarchy, in being the star, or having all kinds of power and money. I am interested in people feeling good together—and not feeling good together—and trying to create something out of that. There are many parallels between what we’re trying to create and queer and activist communities, but it always feels like the Western concept of art and people’s egos get in the way. There’s not enough mentorship. There’s self-care, but self-care can’t happen without community care. What I often see is people falling into the idea of what academics tell us, or what the art scene tells us, versus looking internally into see what our bodies are telling us.
EMELIE CHHANGUR: I think sometimes we feel burned out because we’re engaging in cultural practices that aren’t embodied. Personally, I walk a fine line, and I’m the first one to admit it, around these practices of in-reach. The systems that we follow in the arts industry perpetuate very specific kinds of practices. Why do we make exhibitions at galleries? [shrugs] I don’t know. These are rhythms that we inherit from certain Western structures. We can propose otherwise, but in those propositions, how do we also resist assimilating them, instrumentalizing them, and rearticulating them in a Western way? I’m always trying to hold this tension, and I think this is why I continue to stay committed to institutions. In my practice I’ve always had to negotiate between polar entities, and unfortunately, make choices. Inevitably, one will reign supreme and often it’s proximity to whiteness which somehow takes over. Over time, I got so burned out by this negotiation that I wanted to find other ways that are more liminal.
Ruben, this is why I’ve always been so interested in your practice of movement. It’s not settling in one location that insists on bringing things together; it is the movement between places—in this case communities in Jane-Finch.
RE: Moving and adaptation has always been a part of my work. I came to Canada, fleeing Colombia with my parents who were artists and activists, in the late ’80s. It was the Colombian Canadian activist community who took us in. We survived through culture and cultural expressions, and by sticking to our community and our inner traditions, or musical traditions.
Colombia as well. That’s where I learned about the power of art in building communities, and I just continued doing that. Learning about yourself, your traditions, your ancestral past, and how to maintain them is important—but at the same time, understanding that change was a part of those traditions. There is always reinterpretation and new forms of expression, and you can continue traditions while also contributing your own perspective. All those teachings are things that I applied to my work at the Mobile Studio. We have artists in Jane and Finch that come from all kinds of different musical traditions. A big part of the project is to incorporate those voices and musical ideas and, out of all those different expressions, try to create a sound that’s unique to the project.
For me, having to leave Colombia the way I did, the idea of home has always been something in motion. It has to do with the people that you’re connected with and with whom you’re building something new.
VR: What are the biggest challenges to your sustainability as a collective? What kinds of tangible and intangible resources do you draw upon, and how do you balance administrative and creative labour?
GW: When we started, there was this sense of urgency and we were kind of in perpetual survival mode. Marsya mentioned burnout—it’s not normal to burn out in your 20s! But, going through these crises together has also strengthened our friendships and we’ve emerged with a greater sense of what YTB could be.
At a certain point, we weren’t sure if we wanted to continue because the only model we had in mind was an unsustainable one, to be constantly visible and working. We had to learn not to be afraid of retreating for a little while and focusing on individual projects. Now we’re thinking of ways in which YTB, once it comes back, can be nourishing and sustainable.
EC: A part of the reason for my coming here [to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON,] was to commit to a modality of retreat in my practice. Incidentally, one of the meanings of “Cataraqui”—the French derivation of the Mohawk word “Ka’tarohkwi,” the Iroquois name for Kingston—translates to “retreat.” I think transformative things can happen in retreat, when one is taking stock.
GS: We think of sustainability not only in economic or financial terms, but also [… in terms] of our ideas and how we can expand them through friends and connections. We want to understand, first and foremost, what kinds of questions do we have, and who can we work with to answer those questions? For example, the emergence of Ruru Kids, where we shifted our focus to working with children because our members started to have kids and we wanted to introduce them to our practices. Another example is the Remedial program at Serrum, which focuses on high-school students because so many of their members are highschool students. Because our members are from different parts of Indonesia,right now we are also learning about cooperative working models or koperasi with invite[d] specialists. We haven’t found all the answers yet.
FARID RAKUN: Of course, not every part of the work is enjoyable and a lot of it is invisible—especially when you want to address problems within institutions. But I want to resist this binary between creative labour and bureaucracy. I don’t even like the term really, because bureaucracy is a form of mistrust. I think organizational and administrative labour is inseparable from the creative in our work. We used to ask ourselves every year whether we needed to keep going. But as Gesya said, we haven’t found all the answers to our questions, so we’ve kept going.
RK: I’d like to add, too—often, we think people can’t do admin because their skills are not immediately obvious. If we slow down, if we take the time to teach each other, I’ve found that people actually can do it. It comes down to how we’re taught, and the ways in which we actually then apply those teachings. I think it’s also about giving people the permission and compassion to do this kind of work.
MM: I think of administrative work like watering your plants, where you’re creating the conditions where your projects can grow and be nurtured. For me, administrative labour can be a way of affirming intentionality. When you’re doing budgets and balancing your books you’re assessing what you value in your projects, and you can think through that process creatively.
With Gendai Gallery, which I’m a part of, we run an MA MBA (Mastering the Art of Misguided Business Administration) program, where we meet every month to really think about creatively working through the administrative labour in running an organization or a collective. Everyone’s paid to do it, and I think having the time and money to think together in a space around these questions is valuable. I think that everybody carries some form of knowledge that is relevant.
VR: Moving from the challenges of continuing your work to the question of endings: how long do you plan to continue this work? How will you know once you’ve accomplished what you set out to do? Can disbanding or not needing to exist anymore be proof of the fact that you’ve done what you set out to do? Or is this work just continuous, because many of the challenges that you’ve described are endless?
GW: There are always going to be unmet needs for emerging artists, but it the same time there are always new collectives. We are not, by any means, saviours or the definitive platform for emerging artists. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all in an ecosystem working together, but of course that doesn’t always happen because we work in silos. I think coming together for this project has made us realize that it’s not just on [YTB’s] shoulders alone.
EC: I think that one of the beautiful things of working collectively and with other people is that your role or influence or energies never ends. So even if you leave, what you’ve contributed remains in the social imaginary of the people that you’ve worked with [and] within what you’ve created. So, it’s an interesting thing to think about endings, because I always think of them as spaces in between beginnings—you know?—and that, to me, is the most important thing about working together. You share the sensibility. And because you share that […] it’s never really going to end.
GS: The successes happen every day, every hour. Like when you finally send that email hanging on the back of your mind, or you finally finish that thing you’re making, or you’re finally done with the report that you have to send to the funding bodies. I also think it’s really important to see the microcosm or dreams and goals within every member of a collective. Often, we talk about the collective in the abstract and forget that this is so many human beings with independent trajectories. The idea is to figure out how the collective can accommodate each of the members’ needs, and also to think of the small successes that happen every day.
RE: The Mobile Studio has been around for two and a half years, and already we’ve had so many success stories. It’s incredible how we’ve been able to impact even one person or two people coming together where they wouldn’t normally have collaborated—or made peace. For example, Zak’isha Brown recorded the track “Went to Ghana” with us. Now she’s in Ghana because so many opportunities have opened up there. Those successes trickle down and create their own ripples. So yeah, I definitely see it as something that is eternal. We’re leaving blueprints behind, little footsteps for others to pick up when we’re no longer there.
RK: For me, the idea of success has always been about joy. In smaller spaces like Unit 2 we can clock people’s spirits, and their needs, because you can see it and feel it. Joy can also be painful, or rather pain and joy can feel very similar, and holding space for that is what success has always meant to me. Right now, we’re considering moving out of Unit 2 to pass it on to the next generation. Personally, I like not having to know everything in advance. I like inhabiting this uncertain space of fear, excitement, and emotion.
EC: I think with this project I see no particular end. To me, it’s just really beautiful that this invitation to be together, over time […] has created new relationships. To me, that is the project and there’s no other desire going on, beyond this deep sense of relationality, intergenerationally, across cultures, across geographies. It starts to make the curatorial into something else. It’s more of a methodology than it is a strategy toward something concrete. I don’t see anything concrete on the horizon. But I see the potential of what being in relation with people and places over time can manifest.