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Sheridan in the News

The Pulse: Making art inclusive

December 03, 2019

Accessible Media Inc.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation between The Pulse's host Joeita Gupta and guest, Sheridan's Director of Creative Campus, Dr. Catherine Hale.

Listen to the podcast.

Joeita Gupta: I’m Joeita Gupta and this is The Pulse.

Art galleries can be intimidated. People worry that they don’t know how to behave or what to think. In fact, art galleries serve as incubators for big ideas and allow us to engage them at our own pace. Be it the environment or urbanization, modernity or industrialization, discrimination or inclusion, art can hold up a mirror to real-world problems and offer provocative solutions. Increasingly interdisciplinary and interactive, galleries are trying to ensure that patrons can engage with exhibits through visuals, sound, touch and all their senses.

Art galleries, apart from offering a platform for new and established artists, provide an opportunity for public dialogue, bringing together people of all abilities.

Today we discuss a new, interactive and accessible exhibit called Ground. It’s time to put your finger on The Pulse.

Welcome to The Pulse on AMI Audio, you’re here with Joeita Gupta. It’s a pleasure to have you today as we discuss a topic near and dear to my heart. I’ll start by talking about my mother, who in addition to having a fondness for travel, happens to be extremely fond of art galleries. The fact that her daughter is visually impaired didn’t deter her from taking me along with her. So I can say that I’ve been quite privileged visiting some of the most famous galleries around the world.

The Tate or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Rex Museum in Amsterdam or the Louvre in Paris.

My mom made sure I had insight into the world of art. I did feel out of place. I’m blind, there’s no way of getting around it. Can I ask questions or was I disrupting other patrons if my mother described the art to me? How close can I get without getting too close? Of course, art galleries have come a long way to ensure that people of all abilities including visually impaired patrons can get the most out of their time. It’s something I enjoy doing whether a rainy Wednesday afternoon or a leisurely weekend stroll into my local art gallery. It’s a fun, interactive opportunity to delve into some of the big ideas that we must think about today. Climate change, urbanization or the environment, artists have a creative way to investigate the world.

My guest today is Dr. Catherine Hale, Director, Creative Campus at Sheridan College. She oversees curation and gallery programming at the college including its latest interactive accessible exhibition called Ground.

Catherine, welcome to The Pulse.

Dr. Catherine Hale: Thank you for having me, I’m so pleased to be here.

Joeita Gupta: It’s delightful to have you with us. I love going to art galleries. I was a reluctant hanger-on to my mother but as an adult I’ve really grown into enjoying my time at galleries. Tell us more about Ground.

Dr. Catherine Hale: The exhibition itself was curated by our assistant curator, Valentyna Onisko. It was presented with support from the Embassy of France and ArtEngine in Ottawa. One of the things you should know about the work we do at the Galleries, is that we’re deeply committed to collaborating with our community. I’ve been at Sheridan for about three years and part of the excitement for me of coming to Sheridan was the opportunity to build a gallery from the ground up…to ask questions like what would we like this space to look like? How might we do things different? How do we keep the best parts of a traditional art gallery and open up an expand them to really serve our community? The Ground exhibition developed from our work with our Centre for Equity and Inclusion. We work with them on accessibility, how we create space that people can navigate, how are we developing labels with different ways of interreacting, whether that’s through sound or larger fonts. But the Centre really pushed us and challenged us with this exhibition. So often when we think of galleries we think of visual creativity or vocabulary – people looking at works of art. Our Manager of CEI, Margaret Sanderson, challenged us to re-think how we look at exhibitions and develop something that can be experienced with multiple senses. How do we bring in scent, sound, touch in the exhibition? That’s what prompted Ground – the larger exhibition explores the exhibition between humans and nature and how technology mediates that relationship.

Joeita Gupta: And Ground is made up of three interrelated exhibits? Tell us about those.

Dr. Catherine Hale: Sure, I’ll start with the installation that has been tremendously popular. A duo called Scenecosme from France created an installation called Akousmaflore – the installation itself involves live plants - think of large plants with vines that come down into the space, hanging from the ceiling. The artists connect the plants to digital technologies. The plants respond to your touch by making sound. The installation highlights the relationships with plants and asks, how does this art installation reinforce our relationship with them? As our gallery assistants have said, each plant has its own personality as each makes different sounds. A quick touch will yield a different response than aa gentle touch. It prioritizes sound and touch as part of the art installation.

Joeita Gupta: And that’s just one of the three, what are some of the others? I understand there are some Toronto artists involved?

Dr. Catherine Hale: We have some fantastic Toronto artists in the exhibition – one is Jessica Karuhanga – and her work is a two-channel video installation. It invites us to explore the pervasive and historical representation of the Canadian wilderness. It has a video component and an original soundtrack that you can listen to with headphones as part of the immersive experience. Part of what her work asks of us is – who gets to revel in the landscapes? From an equity and inclusion lens – how are we thinking about our collective history and how can we re-imagine that in the landscape? Its interactive elements adds another dimension to it.

Then there’s Melanie Billark’s work. She travels around the city of Toronto and collects found objects. Soil, rocks or plastics from the beaches or alleys or laneways and creates microcosms that evolve and change over the course of the installation. Depending on how light and temperature and different things factor into the gallery, they change over the course of the exhibition.

Joeita Gupta: I’m curious about the curatorial process. Do you start out thinking that this needs to be accessible or was this a happy coincidence?

Dr. Catherine Hale: This exhibition was intentionally set out to address, how are we creating an exhibition for the widest possible audience so that they can experience and enjoy it? At Sheridan, we look at how do we actively embed inclusion and equity into our spheres of influence? It wasn’t just a happy coincidence. We were intentionally making choices to develop and make it more accessible for our broader learning community.

Joeita Gupta: Getting into questions of climate change, deforestation – these conversations can get quite acrimonious. Do you find that Ground also offers commentary not just about the relationship between man and nature but gives a glimpse of a more intimate relationship with nature so that discussions we can have following the exhibition are less acrimonious?

Dr. Catherine Hale: One of the things that I found interesting about how Valentyna Onisko approached curating the exhibition is that it was developed in collaboration with our community, with our Centre for Equity and Inclusion, Wellness and Counselling team, the Sheridan Student Union and our Centre for Student Success. We got input from our different communities and asked what are the conversations we need to have? Discussions around climate change and our relationships with nature are really coming to the fore across a lot of sectors. What we really felt in shaping this exhibition was exactly what you pointed out – an intimate, personal relationship, an opportunity to reflect on our own role and thinking about your connections in community to nature, but it’s not necessary that you have to have a particular perspective, but explore the wider questions from multiple vantage points.

Joeita Gupta: What is the social mission of a gallery?

Dr. Catherine Hale: One of the things I stress with our team is that each institution is unique and it’s important to getting to know your community and recognizing how we best serve them. A gallery at Sheridan may function differently than the Art Gallery of Ontario – different kinds of opportunities, ways in which it’s important to think of the immediacy of the community and bring them into the space to co-create projects together and challenge.

Joeita Gupta: From an intellectual standpoint, what is the relationship of a space that’s accessible and fulfilling that larger social mission?

Dr. Catherine Hale: I think the two go hand in hand. When you’re thinking about an art gallery space, with our team, if a curator wanted to see a project but it doesn’t resonate with our community then it wouldn’t have an impact. The social world of the gallery and accessibility – you can’t have one without the other. It’s vital to think of how we connect with the broader community. Think of the ways that we develop projects.

Joeita Gupta: Galleries just about everywhere have free evenings, stage talks and panels – how much about this is the need to refashion art galleries so that it’s welcoming to new audiences, people who have been excluded and how much is furthering the mission of the gallery?

Dr. Catherine Hale: There’s often a stereotype of galleries that are unique spaces that not everyone has had access to – the majority of institutions are trying to break away from that and recognize we have incredibly diverse communities with diverse perspectives – have community members help with the development of an exhibition and see how we reflect them back their own perspectives or ways of knowing in a gallery space.

Joeita Gupta: With co-creating with members of the community – people with disabilities often face barriers with art galleries – how do you make the space welcoming for people with disabilities?

Dr. Catherine Hale: it’s important to facilitate artists’ leadership – bring them into the conversation and give them the support and opportunities to help shape it. I see in my role at Sheridan and my previous experience in curation as a facilitator to provide pathways or points of access to members of our community with unique viewpoints to build broader relationships.

Joeita Gupta: It’s an exhibit that interrogates the relationships between man and their environment. When you bring in people with diverse perspectives, do we change the stories we tell and have a more fulsome discussion?

Dr. Catherine Hale: I think that’s a unique opportunity that we can embrace and think, what is the role of art galleries? It’s a space where we can bring together people from multiple perspectives. A work of art can be a jumping off point for robust and dynamic dialogue on a topic. How can we embrace that opportunity of bringing people together for a more fulsome discussion? How can we use the gallery to dig deeper into exploring multiple different perspectives?

Joeita Gupta: How do we invite a conversation to move art away from a visual medium?

Dr. Catherine Hale: That’s a vital conversation to have – in history, art is largely centered around visual culture. In the last decade, artists are pushing the boundaries of what art is with a capital A. With co-creation, when you’re bringing people together with multiple perspectives, you’re able to bring out a new definition of what Art is.

Joeita Gupta: Is there a place for public art? How do street performances, organic art jive with what happens in galleries?

Dr. Catherine Hale: At Sheridan, we have the 2000-square foot gallery space where Ground is located but most of our programming happens across our campuses in public spaces. I want people to bump up against art as they’re running to a meeting or standing in line getting a coffee. At Sheridan, and part of my larger mandate, is how do we create healthy and creative communities? We have introduced an art lending library, we have a public art program that includes Temporary Contemporary to create art works that are installed in our public spaces each year.

Joeita Gupta: What about other related forms or art like film or radio or podcasting? You can’t get more removed from the visual with podcasting.

Dr. Catherine Hale: One of the things we’re finding interesting as well, in thinking about how do we activate a broader range of the senses in art – and what Ground explores is the technology piece, are what are the ways in which we can break down the dichotomy between nature and technology ? In the same way, how do digital modes of engagement change the gallery experience? How do we have a multisensory experience in the gallery?

Joeita Gupta: That’s a post-modern perspective! Are you saying the dichotomy between nature and technology is a false dichotomy?

Dr. Catherine Hale: I find dichotomies like creativity and robotics and nature and technology -the ways in which if we are thinking, the way they intersect, particularly around the question of accessibility – it can really change the conversation. I get excited around galleries of the excitement of inviting different viewpoints. Is that the case? What is the relationship?

Joeita Gupta: This could be its own conversation! When can people attend Ground at the gallery?

Dr. Catherine Hale: It’s free to attend and we are open Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibition runs through our fall semester, until December 13. But if there’s anyone who would like to come and visit outside of those times, you can reach out to us at galleries-sheridan.ca and we’ll be happy to make an appointment with you.