BELIEVE at the new MOCA

May 25 – August 12, 2018

Kendell Geers, BE:LIE:VIE, 2002. Courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, UK.

BELIEVE curated by David Liss
Can Altay / Matilda Aslizadeh / Carl Beam / Dineo Seshee Bopape / Awol Erizku / Meschac Gaba / Kendell Geers / Barbara Kruger / Nicolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen Tuan / Andrew Nguyen / Jeneen Frei Njootli / Rajni Perera / Jeremy Shaw / Nep Sidhu / Maya Stovall / Tim White

Interview with David Liss (DL) Curator @ MOCA on the inaugural exhibition of the new centre and Phil Anderson (PA)

PA: Congratulations, first of all, on your upcoming exhibition, BELIEVE. It has been a long journey for you and you have had to believe.

DL: Thanks Phil. Yes, it has been a long journey from North York to Queen West to Sterling Rd. And yes, the very reason that Toronto now has a permanent home for a contemporary art museum is because so many people believed it could happen.

PA: Why did you feel it important to address this first theme in your exhibit BELIEVE in the inaugural exhibit for MOCA?

DL: It took quite a while and a lot of research and looking and thinking to come up with the exhibition theme. It’s the opening of a new and expanded facility so I wanted something that was powerful and positive and celebratory that as many people as possible could relate to. So in that brainstorming process of thinking of a title I went back to the very reason and motivation of why I moved from Montreal to take this job in the first place, was because I believed in the idea of establishing a contemporary art museum in Canada’s largest city. Despite the odds – starting with a minimal budget, no staff and a disadvantageous location – I believed that I could make this happen. And of course the reason it was able to evolve and happen is because of all of the people along the way that also believed in a contemporary art museum for Toronto – people within the City; the advisory board that hired me; the many staff and board members that have contributed along the way; a small army of volunteers and members, the art community here in Toronto – and in fact across the country – and of course the artists that believed. So on one level the exhibition is a tribute to all of those who believed in the MOC(C)A project.
But with all of my exhibition titles, especially for thematic group exhibitions, I want the titles to be broad, poetic and layered with possible meanings and understandings, so it’s also about belief in general. It occurred to me that almost everything we do as humans is driven by belief – in ourselves, in others, in systems and processes. And there’s a paradox in that, as much as we demand physical and material evidence of something – “seeing is believing” – we equally rely upon ephemeral beliefs; beliefs that are uncertain or that cannot be verified. And often we believe in things – in systems, structures, rules and regulations – even when they seem arbitrary or irrational. One of the most fundamental characteristics of being human is that we seem to need to believe in something or anything to get us through a day or get us through our lives. And just as much as we’re driven by the need to believe, it is equally necessary for us to question our beliefs. What happens when belief systems clash? Our beliefs can bind us together or they can drive us apart. We all hold beliefs and doubts so it’s a concept that everyone can relate to.

PA: In a world of fake news, scandal and uncertainty how does BELIEVE fit in reflecting the times?

DL: Well, another thing that occurred to me as I was playing around with ideas and words and language was that the three middle letters of ‘believe’ spell ‘lie’, so the word and the idea itself embody a duality. Of course given the importance of this as an inaugural show, once I decided to go with the title, naturally I started second-guessing its relevancy but suddenly some of the things that were happening in the world began to reinforce the importance of belief; of lies and doubt, which of course are also related to the theme. And so things like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ came along that – much to my horror about the world that we live in – but much to my selfish delight about my exhibition theme, it seemed that notions around belief were possibly more relevant than ever. Ha, ha!

PA: What were the challenges and hurtles in putting together such an exhibition?

DL: Well, first there’s the challenge of finding thematically relevant work but as a curator you learn so much, even if the research ends up following ideas that turn out to be dead ends. And with the Internet of course you can waste a lot of time getting lost down a rabbit hole. As much as I do enjoy the process – going to galleries, studios, travelling, and surfing the ‘Net’- I admit that it can be frustrating if you end up spending a lot of time looking and thinking and researching and writing about something that turns out to be irrelevant to the project. But that’s inevitable and to me it’s an interesting challenge and an enjoyable aspect of the gig. Less “interesting” are some of the practical challenges and obstacles, especially with a project that’s global in scope. Limitations of space and human and financial resources, of course, but these exist with any project. Also not unusual is that some works that I wanted for the show were unavailable for various reasons or the artist was unavailable to participate. Somewhat interesting with this project is that some of artists have become really ‘hot’ since I initially contacted them and suddenly they’re busy and overwhelmed with projects and opportunities, so it can be a challenge to keep them focussed on our project, which is now only one of many that they’re trying to juggle. But it’s exciting for MOCA to be presenting them within the context of an inaugural exhibition, and in some cases showing their work in Toronto for the first time.

PA: Can you describe your selection of artists for this exhibition and why you felt their work addressed the theme of the exhibition?

DL: I’d rather not get too detailed or specific here about each of the artists but I will say that whether the works are addressing something very personal, or culturally specific, or referring to specific mythologies or historical events, or speculating upon the future, ‘belief’ is a lens to view some of the fundamental issues of our times. Some of the works relate to ‘belief’ or belief systems directly and with others notions of belief are more deeply embedded or maybe less direct. A theme like ‘believe’ can be pretty wide open, and it’s intended to be more poetic than didactic, so that approach requires pretty intensive and extensive research because I don’t know what I’m looking for until I discover something. But my approach to curating group exhibitions is to identify a theme or an idea or a set of ideas that I think relate to important or interesting human issues and to find artists whose works might relate to or embody those issues, and then try and create a multi-faceted conversation amongst works that will hopefully examine different aspects or contribute to the conversation. So for me – and hopefully for those who experience the show – it’s about discovery or insight into some new idea or looking at something in new and different ways. I don’t establish a theory and then look for artworks to illustrate my theory. I try not to lock down or have it too pre-determined. I want the exhibition to be a living form. The exhibition itself is where the juice is. I’m more fascinated by art and artists and exhibitions than I am by my own theories or opinions. Of course as curator it’s my job to set the conversation in motion but I want to learn or discover things through the experience of the exhibition. I have a lot of confidence in the ability of artists and art works to speak for themselves.

David Liss (DL) Curator @ MOCA

PA: How do you feel the art works will fit in the new exhibition space? How does it differ, say, from the former space on Queen St. West?

DL: Good question! Ha, ha! I don’t know. I haven’t worked in the space yet and the renovation still isn’t finished. And so I guess this is another challenge. Of course I’ve been in the space many, many times over the last three or four years, and there are drawings and renderings, but those can only take you so far, or at least for me. I really need to “feel” a space to understand it properly. At the risk of sounding all ‘new-age-y’, the space and the architecture need to speak to me. Architects might understand this or I guess we can all relate to relationships between people and space. And this space has lots of character. The space on Queen was fairly straightforward: a lobby entrance, a main space and a project space. The space on Sterling is more interesting than that. Its 5 floors, and about 5 times the space that we had on Queen, and it has these wide columns, which I think are quite beautiful and are historically reflective of the industrial architecture of Toronto at the time. But they will potentially interfere with sightlines and obviously they have to be taken into account when thinking about exhibitions and display in ways that you might not have to if they weren’t there. But this forces your thinking to be more imaginative about the way art works function in space and in relation to viewers. I like that the space is not a generic white cube. It’s a charged space already and it offers opportunities to think beyond the Modernist white cube. And of course never underestimate the power of artists to see opportunities where others see obstacles or challenges.
Another point is that there are exhibition and display opportunities across five floors so it’s really ‘apples and oranges’ if you’re comparing to the Queen St. space. So it’s a complex space and for sure it’ll take time for us to fully understand the opportunities and limitations.

PA: Is there any one artist that you are particularly excited about including in BELIEVE, and if so, why?

DL: You trying to get me in trouble with this one? Ha, ha! I’m damn excited about each and every artist and work in the show! But I will say that I almost jumped out of my chair in excitement when, after months of research, and convinced that I had identified every art work in the world possibly related to the theme, I stumbled upon Kendell Geer’s neon work from 2002, titled, BE:LIE:VE. Like I was saying earlier about the three middle letters of ‘believe’ – lie – being an important aspect of the title and the theme, I actually found a work that does exactly that. The circuitry of the neon is designed for the LIE to flicker, calling attention to the lie, and of course, by extension, introducing the notion of doubt and scepticism, cautioning against some of the potentially negative aspects of believing without evidence. It succinctly nails the dualistic essence of the show. Belief is a potent human force; it can be used or abused. It’s a permanently installed outdoor work but he’s making an indoor version especially for our show, so that’s pretty exciting.

PA: You have 16 artists from 8 countries including Canada. How important do you think it is to showcase international artists with Canadian artists? Is it to reflect a global point of view?

DL: This goes back to my initial negotiations when I was hired for the job. The Art Gallery of North York and then the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art were originally intended to showcase Canadian art primarily to theatre-goers in the Toronto Centre for the Arts, which was fine within that context. But if the intention was to create an important local and national institution, it makes no sense to me to limit the program to any one nationality in the global world of the 21st Century. What’s most interesting to me about Canadian art is where it fits into global or international discourse. Furthermore, coming into the job my experience as a curator was international and although I’m most familiar with art in Canada, it wasn’t my area of expertise. Nevertheless, I did respect the name of the institution. I didn’t think it should be ignored. Names have meaning. And I didn’t think that the time was right for a name change so soon after it had already been re-named, before my time, from Art Gallery of North York to Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. But I insisted from the outset that the mandate be shifted to include Canadian art within an international or global context, and that notion was readily accepted by the advisory board. And I’ve always been conscious to refer to ‘Canadian and other international artists.’ Canadian artists are international artists. That’s why we had group exhibitions that included Canadian and other international artists. But with all of that said, our focus was on artists from Canada and Toronto because that’s where we live, and its common knowledge that contemporary art here is on par with anyplace else. To me, under the conditions of the 21st Century, the local and the global are intrinsically connected. I really don’t like the attitude that somehow we need validation from somewhere else to bestow global relevancy or prestige upon us. Not in Toronto, especially the way this city has evolved over the last 20 years. To me an art or cultural institution with global aspirations needs to be connected to the local community in meaningful ways. This is absolutely not a parochial attitude. To me what’s parochial is the insecurity of thinking that we need outside attention or validation to be considered global.

We occasionally discussed changing the name over the years but decided that we’d leave it for the 10 years that we had the lease on Queen St. and re-visit the conversation once we had a permanent home. So we did re-visit the discussion after we signed onto the building on Sterling and felt that there was too much of a misunderstanding that MOCCA only showed Canadian art, which was never the case since I became director in 2001.

I think a global exhibition reflecting global issues is appropriate for the launch of a cultural institution in Toronto and in Canada, in 2018, and of course artists from Toronto and Canada reflect a global point of view.

PA: How does BELIEVE fit within the general direction of the programming for MOCA?

DL: Maybe not unrelated to the previous question, I think the fact that BELIEVE includes artists from Toronto; from other parts of Canada; Canadian artists not currently living in Canada, and other international artists should give some indication of the direction of the program.
Of course exhibitions are just one part of the program. What we’re hoping to do in an expanded, multi-storey facility is develop other types of programming that we were unable to within the confines of our two rooms on Queen St. We delved into other activities, as I’m sure you know. Live music, performance, dance, screenings, talks and panel discussions, readings, fashion shows, learning and education, parties, etc., but for the most part we had to work all of that around our core exhibitions program, which wasn’t always easy with such limited space. Of course it’ll remain to be seen how this will all play out and how the building will function until we occupy it for a while, but the vision and plans are quite ambitious and dynamic. I can’t really provide too many details now but aside from two main exhibition floors, the ground floor will be a ‘live’ space with a café and bar and performances, talks, screenings and programs on a regular basis. We’re hoping to create an active and inviting space that people will want to visit frequently, even just to hang out. The 4th floor will have artist studios and programs related to that, and there’ll be space on the 5th floor for events and other types of programs. Some of this will be revealed in more detail once we open and some of how it functions will take time to really find a groove. I guess it goes back to what I was saying earlier about relationships between people and space and function. Understanding the space will take a bit of time, and maybe even like on Queen St., some trial and error. But I can guarantee you: boring it won’t be!

PA: How will MOCA elevate the profile of Canadian artists on the world stage? Does MOCA have any plans to travel exhibitions outside of Canada?

DL: This goes back to one of your previous questions, and something that MOCA and MOCCA has aspired to all along, and that is to elevate the profile of art, artists and culture – Canadians and otherwise – to as wide an audience as possible, within and outside of Toronto and Canada. There are any number of ways and strategies and challenges related to this. Between 2002 and around 2008, MOCCA travelled exhibitions and produced projects, mostly with Toronto and Canadian artists, in New York, Taiwan, Shanghai, Spain, Italy, France and Germany. Interestingly though, despite the attention some of these projects garnered in those places, I was never able to get Canadian media interested, which kind of confounded me. Anytime I did international projects in Montreal the media was all over it. I know at least part of it was because we didn’t really have the proper marketing and communication resources but what I do know is that there are many challenges to ‘elevating the profile’ of artists on the world stage. First, we have to be excited about those artists ourselves. If artists don’t have opportunities here, or nobody is writing about them or profiling them here or collecting or investing in them here, why should anyone from outside care? And I think you’d have to work within the industry to understand just how much time, money and labour it takes to produce projects or travel exhibitions internationally. If it was easier, more people would be doing it. Some of those travelling shows that we sent to Shanghai, Germany and France, almost killed us. But we’re a different organization now and also there are different and smarter and even more exciting and imaginative ways and strategies to engage nationally and internationally beyond the standard resource-heavy travelling exhibition format. Certainly we’ll be exploring these as part of our dynamic engagement and working relationships with artists as we go forward but, as you might imagine, our focus since our lease on Queen St. started running down; since at least 2012 or 2013, has been about finding the next location, and since leaving Queen, in getting the operation up and running on Sterling. Elevating profile and participation of Canadian art and culture is definitely one of our objectives – as it always been – but I think we’ll be in a better position to be more effective in doing so.

PA: What other exhibitions can we expect from MOCA following believe?

DL: You can expect some of the most interesting and exciting exhibitions and projects from MOCA that Toronto has ever seen! But I can’t give all of that away here Phil. We’ll be announcing more details at some point soon and we want it to be a surprise.

*Exhibition information: BELIEVE, May 25 – August 12, 2018, MOCA, 158 Sterling Road, Toronto.

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