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How Ottawa’s Nordic Lab is creating new opportunities for Northern art

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For creators living in under-served Northern communities, geographic isolation and a lack of resources present a barrier to success. But the Nordic Lab — a new initiative at the SAW Gallery in downtown Ottawa — is hoping to empower these artists by offering them a mainstage platform to showcase their craft.

The newly expanded space in downtown Ottawa now hosts artists in residence, showcases Nordic art and provides educational programs geared toward Inuit youth — all the while promoting cultural exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, Norway and other circumpolar nations.

The SAW Gallery’s curator, Jason St-Laurent, says the Nordic Lab is both a program and a set of physical spaces, though the public will have to wait until the spring of 2020 to view it. St-Laurent says the physical spaces will consist of “screen printing spaces and an artist residency space, which we’re naming after Annie Pootoogook,” the legendary Inuk artist who passed away in 2016.

“We’re all about being the social lubricant of the art world,” says St-Laurent. “We’re not your grandmother’s art institution.”

Tam-Ca Vo-Van stands in her bright, document-arrayed office during our interview. (Joshua Soucie)

Tam-Ca Vo-Van, the SAW Gallery’s director, says the Nordic Lab has been a long time in the making: “We have collaborated often with different Nordic embassies on special presentations. Things just came together, and our curator, Jason St-Laurent, thought of putting in place this Nordic Lab, which would bring together artists from Nordic countries and the North of Canada, and also from Ottawa, in a sort of triangular zone of collaboration.”

“We were involved, for about two years, in major renovations — an expansion of our space,” says Vo-Van, referring to the tripling of the gallery’s space to its current 15,000 square foot home in Arts Court. “We didn’t have our programming spaces for about two years, so we relaunched our facilities at the end of July, but the Nordic Lab wasn’t ready at that time, so we delayed the opening.”

The director describes the Nordic Lab as a research and production space that SAW is making available to its visiting artists. The program is also an educational space that the gallery hopes will invite artists-in-residence to get involved with the local community through initiatives such as community art projects or workshops.

The gallery’s curator and director allowed us to get a shot of the Nordic Lab’s contemporary artist-in-residence studio space while it is still under construction. (Joshua Soucie)

“At the moment, we’re working on a collaboration with an Inuit children’s centre as well as the City of Ottawa, more specifically the Community Arts and Social Engagement program, to put together workshops [for various age groups] that are coming up in November,” says Vo-Van. “With the Nordic Lab, we really wanted to involve the local Inuit community. The Nordic Lab initiative has an artistic mandate but also an educational one. We want to involve youth in artmaking. We really want to contribute to the well-being of the community in which we live, and we really believe the transfer of traditional knowledge is beneficial, especially for youth that are marginalized.”

For its Nordic Lab, the SAW Gallery will be installing semi-automated screen printing presses, which St-Laurent describes as “octopus presses” because their many arms make it simple to accomplish large-scale editions of projects, such as the simultaneous production of T-shirts, bags or prints: “Normally, when you’re hand-making it, it can take forever, but with this semi-automated press, you can do 500 no problem.”

“We’re launching a project called the SAW Art and Protest Initiative,” says St-Laurent, explaining that the project will help elevate the visual impact of political actions or protests by pairing organized social movements with artists to devise visual campaigns through merchandise that will be funded and produced by the SAW Gallery. “SAW, in its beginnings in ’73, was a bunch of activists, feminists and queers coming together to create something where people can see themselves reflected all across the gallery. We kind of wanted to go back to our activist roots, and normally, we can’t apply for funding for political anything, so now we’re using the profits from the bar to invest in our projects.”

SAW Gallery curator Jason St-Laurent. (Joshua Soucie)

The bar to which St-Laurent is referring is known as Club SAW, where gallery-goers are invited to grab a drink to sip on as they view the pieces laid out throughout the gallery. 

Despite the delay in the launch of the Nordic Lab’s physical spaces, the program is well underway. In the fall of 2018, they welcomed their first artist-in-residence, Sobey Art Award-shortlisted artist Joi T. Arcand. Club SAW therefore features a neon sign that was commissioned by the gallery over the course of Arcand’s residency. 

During her residency, Arcand took on a hybrid role with the gallery, becoming the Nordic Lab’s first program director. Arcand says she looks forward to seeing some of the international partnerships she has helped foster come to life as she moves on to her next residency at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Joi Arcand’s neon signs hang on the wall of Club SAW. (Joshua Soucie)

On November 7, SAW will be hosting an afterparty in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada for the launch of the Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel exhibition, which will be showcasing the works of over 70 Indigenous artists from around the world. At their afterparty, the Nordic Lab’s second artist-in-residence, Norwegian Sámi artist Elle Márjá Eira, will be performing Joiks, which the artist describes as Europe’s oldest singing tradition.

“Joik is still a living art, and I always say that Joik is my heart language,” says Márjá Eira. “I will perform a Joik, a piece from the Norwegian feature film The 12th Man,directed by Harald Zwart. I composed that piece together with film music composer Christophe Beck. […] I hope that the audience is able to capture my feelings and stories, and that they somehow come into my world. My universe is completely different from yours.”

With its emphasis on community building and spotlight on Northern art, the Nordic Lab’s programming is sure to give its event participants chills.

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Record one million job losses in March: StatCan

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OTTAWA — More than one million Canadians lost their jobs in the month of March, Statistics Canada is reporting. The unemployment rate has also climbed to 7.8 per cent, up from 2.2 percentage points since February.

Canada’s national statistics agency released its monthly Labour Force Survey on Thursday, using March 15 to 21 as the sample week – a time when the government began enforcing strict guidelines around social gatherings and called on non-essential businesses to close up shop.

The first snapshot of job loss since COVID-19 began taking a toll on the Canadian economy shows 1.1 million out of work since the prior sample period and a consequent decrease in the employment rate – the lowest since April 1997. The most job losses occurred in the private sector and among people aged 15-24.

The number of people who were unemployed increased by 413,000, resulting in the largest one-month increase in Canada’s unemployment rate on record and takes the economy back to a state last seen in October, 2010.

“Almost all of the increase in unemployment was due to temporary layoffs, meaning that workers expected to return to their job within six months,” reads the findings.

The agency included three new indicators, on top of the usual criteria, to better reflect the impact of COVID-19 on employment across the country.

The survey, for example, excludes the more commonly observed reasons for absent workers — such as vacation, weather, parental leave or a strike or lockout — to better isolate the pandemic’s effect.

They looked at: people who are employed but were out of a job during the reference week, people who are employed but worked less than half their usual hours, and people who are unemployed but would like a job.

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Employee at Ottawa’s Amazon Fulfillment Centre tests positive for COVID-19

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OTTAWA — An employee who works at Amazon’s fulfillment centre on Boundary Road in Ottawa’s east-end has tested positive for COVID-19.

Amazon says it learned on April 3 that an associate tested positive for novel coronavirus and is currently in isolation. The employee last worked at the fulfillment centre on March 19.

Two employees told CTV News Ottawa that management informed all employees about the positive test in a text message over the weekend.

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Amazon spokesperson Jen Crowcroft wrote “we are supporting the individual who is recovering. We are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our site.”

The statement also says that Amazon has taken steps to further protect their employees.

“We have also implemented proactive measures at our facilities to protect employees including increased cleaning at all facilities, maintaining social distance in the FC.”

CTV News Ottawa asked Amazon about the timeline between when the company found out about the positive COVID-19 case and when employees were notified.

In a separate email to CTV News Ottawa, Crowcroft said “all associates of our Boundary Road fulfillment centre in Ottawa were notified within 24 hours of learning of the positive COVID-19 case.”

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Ottawa facing silent spring as festivals, events cancelled

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This is shaping up to be Ottawa’s silent spring — and summer’s sounding pretty bleak, too — as more and more concerts, festivals and other annual events are cancelled in the wake of measures meant to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The province has already banned gatherings of more than five people, and on Monday officials announced city parks, facilities and services will remain shut down until the end of June, nor will any event permits be issued until at least that time.

“This leaves us with no choice but to cancel the festival this year,” Ottawa Jazz Festival artistic director Petr Cancura confirmed Monday.

This was to be the festival’s 40th anniversary, and organizers announced the lineup for the June 19-July 1 event the day after Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

The Toronto and Montreal jazz festivals had already pulled the plug because of similar restrictions in their cities, so Cancura said the writing was on the wall.

“We have a few contingency plans to keep connecting with our audience and working with our artists,” Cancura said.

People holding tickets to the 2020 festival can ask for a refund or exchange for a 2021 pass.

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