Steven Tong, co-director of CSA Space in Vancouver

STEVEN TONGSteven Tong is an independent curator. In 2005, he co-founded the CSA Space, a project space on the first floor of a library in Vancouver’s Main Street. In this interview, he discusses his engagement in the local art community, the definition of “zombie abstraction,” and the role of multiculturalism in Canadian art.





A conversation about multiculturalism and local art in Vancouver, Canada

Conversation transcription below

Michela Alessandrini: Hello Steven Tong!
Steven Tong: Hi Michela!

MA: Could you please introduce us the CSA Space in Vancouver and its engagement to the local art community?
ST: The CSA Space is a project started by Christopher Brayshaw, Adam Harrison and myself, Steven Tong. We started almost ten years ago, actually it’ll be ten years in September, and it’s a very small space, maybe 9 meters long by 3.5 meters wide. It’s not a very large space but it’s a good for one idea, one project. We work with emerging artists, established artists; sometimes we curate together, sometimes we curate independently. We have always put independence at the forefront of our practice as a collective. Our simple curatorial thesis is that we show works that are representative of the curators’ own aesthetic judgments. Often a space such as ours, which has been around for ten years, would have maybe become a commercial gallery or a governmental-funded gallery. We decided to stay autonomous. For me, personally, a commercial space, an autonomous space, a funded space, everybody has limitations. It’s just about the trade off of what kind of limitations you like. There is certainly less bureaucracy for us, we don’t have to worry about writing a grant; we don’t have to worry about selling our works, how much work you have to sell every month, but the trade-off is that we have less money to work with.
And, so that means that we are focused on a very traditional idea of making an exhibition. Maybe for some people that’s very boring… Actually, recently we’ve worked with more guest curators. That has been nice because actually for an upcoming project in November we will be working with four other government-funded gallery each, so one gallery will be doing a publication; another gallery will be helping to re-digitizing very old video works from the 1980s; another gallery will be helping to build the website. In a way it’s nice that we don’t necessarily need to do everything. We make the exhibition and then other galleries can also contribute to this project and also they can get the funding for it.

MA: And what about your program and your engagement in the art community?
ST: I think that when we started off, it was really the idea that we wanted to show that you could do a very interesting program of artists, without necessarily having to have a heavy administration. I am not too sure if you are familiar with what the artist-run culture is. Artist-run culture in Vancouver is very strong. There is more artist-run galleries than there are commercial galleries in Vancouver. And of course all of them do a good work, but also they do a particular kind of work. They allow for some more freedom from the market than commercial galleries but they also have their own constraints. I wanted to kind of provide an alternative, and also it was nice to see — and it’s not just because of the things we have done, which were certainly done by many people before us and there will be many people after us — but now there are four-five young artists groups who have also started to have galleries and who said “We don’t want to do that in the traditional way and to become an artist-run center. We already are an artist-run center even without the government’s money.” And I guess the other unusual thing about the gallery is that people who want to come to the gallery we never actually are there. They came to the bookstore — because the gallery is located upstairs of a bookstore, so people come to the bookstore, a very good used-bookstore and then they ask for the keys from the staff of the bookstore, they go up and spend as much time as they want, or maybe as little time to stay with the works. In some exhibitions people can spend one hour, two hours up there, or maybe just spend five minutes, two minutes and they don’t have to worry about been judged or talking to anyone, that’s the spirit of the work.

MA: How Canadian multiculturalism is reflected in the arts?
ST: In Canada?

MA: Yes.
ST: I think that, as we have spoke earlier, this is a very hard question and I would like to acknowledge that there are many others that could speak in a much more inform manner I will provide you some links. My own experience is that this is better reflected for artists than it is for arts administration. There is probably not enough people administratively, whether it’s curators, directors in the art system in Canada. There is an actual policy at the Canada Council level and actually at all funding levels to provide diversity. That means, reflects diversity, people of colour and also there is a separate programme for First Nations Aboriginal as well. That happens at the national level, at the provincial level, and at the city level. Those are all mandates and always across Canada you will find programs to help that. Living in Vancouver, which is actually a fairly Asian city, whether you are talking about East Asia (Japan, China) or South Asia (India), I still don’t see it reflected in the practitioners. And even sometimes I have to question whether it is enough to have somebody who looks Chinese or Aboriginal. It’s a difficult question because you can’t say “OK you are Chinese or East Indian and you should be interested in Aboriginal art or Chinese art”. But I am thinking to the failure of some of these grants to address or to bring in… It’s not just a question of whether or not you have enough grants or whether or not you have these programs. In Vancouver I am constantly asking to South Asian community whenever I bump into someone “Why I don’t see more people who are East Indians in the arts and culture here in Vancouver?”. There is a large population here, and they tell me times and times again “Many people here are lower caste, many people are Punjabi, many people here come from peasants so we don’t aspire to such things, we don’t aspire for our children to be artists.” So for me that experience really points out that these programs fail to address the ways in which class intersect with race and ethinicty. And I don’t know what to do to address that but in my experience it is not addressed, even when I look at other curator of colour or aboriginal — I grew up in Vancouver’s downtown eastside at a time when it was poor neighourhood — sometimes I can feel there is a class differences my colleagues and myself.

MA: If you had to describe the art tendencies in Vancouver, for example, like from the artistic point of view, what would you say?
ST: Vancouver is known for being the home of photo conceptual artists like Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and it’s changing towards a more material practice, sculpture and painting and it is actually that somebody has called the “zombie abstraction.”

MA: Can you say something about the “zombie abstraction”? It is the first time I hear it!
ST: You’ve never heard this term?

MA: No…
ST: It applies to the works that younger artists are making in Vancouver, it applies to artists that are making a kind of work that looks like the work from the 1970s and of course there is some criticism that they lack a kind of content, of political meaning, they copy somebody else’s forms and ideas. That’s how I understand “zombie abstraction.” I’ve heard this term… It applies to younger generations, they are making these abstraction works. I think of course in the 1950s if you asked many of the many of the artists of that time “Why are you doing this?” they would have said “Because it’s about aesthetics!” and why it is not valid for young artists of this time to be making these kinds of works? Because they are interested in aesthetics. But that’s interesting that this called “zombie abstraction”!
Vancouver is also such a young city and as such it appears to lack a history. I say “It appears” because for someone who has grown up in Vancouver who has kept most of his life in Vancouver, I’ve come to know that there are many stories and histories and artists’ works that we would get taught . It’s not surprising that Vancouver has produced so many international artists. Because there are so many artists here! It is a very rich city in that way. I think I have posted something on Facebook four days ago. I was given a box of old magazines and in these magazines there were some posters from the 1970s, photocopies of different events in some spaces I’ve heard about for many years from older people in the community. The moment I put these posters online, suddenly all of my friends, especially the older ones, were super excited and started talking about the stories, and posted some messages like, “Oh I remember this show, I remember this.” Of course, when you try to look at on the web this space, which was so important during the late 70s to 80s, has no official history. But this apparent lack of history is also what lends the city this feeling that anything is possible, that you can do anything. And this is also why so many people have turned away from making photographs: the space for making photographs is all taken up.

MA: Why?
ST: Many of my younger friends who have studies photography said that it’s hard to make photography here when you have Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham… It’s an hard place to make photography.

MA: Yeah, it’s like being an architect in Rome! Something like that…
ST: Something like that…

MA: Thank you Steven.

Steven Tong provides some links.