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Ross Birdwise: On Doing Art

james hörner

ross Birdwise is currently the President of Artengine and on the board of Gallery 101, a non-profit artist-run centre in Ottawa. He is also a member (keyboards, pedals, samples, sounds, processing, mouth harp) of the band if then do.

what's your background?

Ross Birdwise
My background....hmm....

I'm currently in my 3rd of visual arts at Ottawa U and I have a photography diploma from Algonquin College.

I've been fairly involved in the arts for the past 3 years and I also did some fairly ridiculous performance art in high school.

Along with my friends Mark Molnar and Nathan Medema I curated a series of concerts at Gallery 101 last spring. The series was called "Pleasure Through Sound" and its purpose was to showcase a wide variety of local and not-so local experimental musicians. The idea was to pair a local artist with a relatively well-known non-local artist for an evening concert. The musical styles ran from folky electronica to ambient, glitch, industrial, free improv, and contemporary classical composition.

I've been involved in doing group shows (visual) with other Ottawa U students and have also been co-running the Ottawa U Art Gallery, Gallery 115, with my friend Darsha Hewitt. My preferred mediums are photography and video right now, but I have been dabbling in new media of other kinds as well.

I'm also on the boards of Artengine and Gallery 101.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I play in a band. We are called if then do and we have been around for about 3 years. We are currently working on our first ep.

I cannot really pigeon-hole us into a style although we frequently do fairly beatless music and tend to use a lot of electronic sounds and very processed samples in addition to live instruments.

before moving forward i have to know what this "ridiculous performance art in high school" entailed.

Ross Birdwise
I was involved in a very loose ad hoc performance art group called "The Kitten Ling Foundation", it was somewhere between an absurdist play, a parody of performance art and an improvised jam. We would often perform with little or no preparation wearing ridiculous outfits made out of garbage, most of which were created by a fellow named Rob Nelms.

what elements from your experience doing performance art did you bring to music? a lot of people who work in the electronic/ambient/glitch area seem to be people calmly sitting behind laptops (not very visually interesting) - do you shake things up a bit?

Ross Birdwise
In most cases when I'm doing music I don't think about how I look or how I perform it. I don't normally draw on my experience of being a performance artist. When I do music I usually focus on the sounds themselves. But I'm not your average laptop performer however. I don't even use a laptop. I create sequences of electronic sounds and samples and then I burn them onto a cd. When I play live I play the cd and I accompany the music in a semi-improvised way with my keyboard and some effects pedals. I also never play alone. I work on all of my electronic sequences with a bassplayer who also plays live through a number of varied effects. In this sense we have a lot more in common with a traditional musical performance because you can watch us play our instruments.

I tend to rock back and forth during rhythmic sections and my bassplayer tends to sway around. People sometimes get confused by our performances because our keyboard and bass sounds are quite abnormal. People sometimes think that I'm playing the bass part or that the bassist is playing the keyboard part or that we are both playing what is burned onto the cd backing track. I find it amusing when this happens. I find this interesting from the perspective of what one usually expects from a performance because we often confound expectations of how a specific instrument should sound or what its role in the music should be.

On some occasions I have been concerned with creating a performance. The 'performance' outlined above isn't a conscious decision that we made, it is a byproduct of playing live.

When I have been concerned with performance in music I have used slide projections and I have used lighting devices such as fluorescent tubes and candles (or have played in total darkness).

I had a one-off side project called "the readymades" where I had created some electroacoustic music entirely from samples of pop love songs. The music was entirely pre-recorded so my job was only to ensure it had a good mix upon its presentation. I didn't play in front of the audience, instead I played in the middle of the audience so that I too was facing the speakers. When I entered the performance space with my bandmate we were both wearing hoodies with the word 'readymade' on them. We then dimmed the lights and performed more or less in the dark. We thought that it was funny that we wore hoodies labeled 'readymade' and that the work we were presenting was entirely readymade. We were also trying to make an ironic reference to the 'readymade' aspects of the lovesong.

yeah, the lovesong does feel pretty readymade. it's depressing, like when you first learn about plot curves in novels and realize how most popular media follows such simple structures - makes television almost unbearable. but all this leaves a lot of room for fun in reacting to these things, as you seem to have found in your music. what sorts of influences do you find make their way into your visual art?

Ross Birdwise
In my visual art I tend to be influenced by music that I like, such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Vladislav Delay or Fennesz. I get formal and conceptual ideas from listening to music. I was inspired quite heavily by Philip Glass and laptop music for one video piece I did. I had about 2 seconds of video/audio footage of a friend of mine playing the mandolin. I cut this footage into really short sequences, less than a second each and then made the footage transparent so that I could layer it on top of itself. I made the footage into multiple loops and layered the images (and their related sounds) into a minimalist piece that resembled some of Glass's earlier music in its constant pulsation and in its austerity.

At one point my photography was really influenced by other photographers such as Pierre Boogaerts and Donigan Cumming. These days I don't my work resembles their work too much at all. I might compare some of what I do now to Tina Frank, who designs album covers for Mego. These days my work is very collage oriented.

I find many other things influence my work as well, such as my feelings about my friends and my family, my own body or readings I do in philosophy.

what have you learned from curating?

Ross Birdwise
Curating and organizing shows has made me feel more confident about doing larger scale projects. I also find that curating or being heavily involved in a scene makes socializing much easier because it gives you a purpose, which I find good for an introverted person like myself.

I also find that curating other people's work has made me more critical of my own work in both visual art and in music. It makes me think more carefully about the context in which my own work occurs.

Curating also puts you in a position where you really need to understand many different facets of an artwork or a piece of music in order to give it a better showing.

When you curate, you become an artist in a way too. The act of curating, planning, and organizing requires that you be creative and that you have a vision for the event(s) you are trying to hold. I find this similar to making an artwork in some ways.

how does one get started in this kind of thing? you wake up one day and decide it's high time to curate?

Ross Birdwise
I was in the right place at the right time. When I was in college I liked to play music. The music that I was doing was in a style that rarely found a venue. A friend of mine was already doing shows at a local art gallery called Gallery 101. When the gallery wasn't exhibiting its regular programming we would organize our own shows, usually centered around music, but occasionally with visuals or elements of performance art. These events drew a small but dedicated crowd, usually about 40 to 50 people who mostly knew one another. We rarely made any money at all, usually breaking even and losing money several times. We did this for about 2 years and we gradually built up a relationship with the gallery. It turned out that some of the programming that we were doing fit into their mandate. A time came when the gallery asked us to curate a series of shows mostly funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. At first I was scared, the word 'curate' sounded heavy, it sounded serious. Could I do it? It turned out that what I had already been doing was curating, although I never gave it such an official title myself.

Because I study art and read about music almost constantly I figure that there is no reason why I shouldn't curate. I enjoy putting events together and I think I know a reasonable amount about art and music. I also find that I learn best by doing things, by getting involved directly. In some cases you learn the most by being the initiator of an event.....although I do stress out occasionally. At school I find there is only so much that I can do or be involved in. Because I'm in art I also find my future uncertain. I'm also interested in curating because I see it connected to my survival in some ways...It could become one possible way to live in the future and I like being close to art and culture in that way.

Since then I have became involved in several shows, some organized by art students and others organized by Recently I put together an idea for a show with one of my professors (and a visual artist), Alexandre Castonguay. The show is tentatively called 'SENSORY DEPRIVATION'. We are going to co-curate this show in the summertime.

I think that more people could curate or throw shows if they wanted to. Of course it isn't easy and you might have to compromise on your venue, or work with little to no funding, but it is possible. After awhile you might get offers from other people or build up a budget for something larger. You may not make money but you can gain experience. It isn't really that difficult to do, it's kind of like being in a punk band or throwing punk shows, its really the same thing.

what has your work taught you about arts funding in canada?

Ross Birdwise
My work has taught me that arts funding in Canada is a sort of game where you have to translate the description of what you do into the language you think you need to use to get the funding. I think it requires you to situate your work in a context, otherwise, you probably won't get the funding.

I found putting together a grant proposal to be a lot of work and the type of work that one would want to put off. Its hard to get started on writing a grant. As I got more into writing my grant I started to enjoy it more however. I also found that by having to justify my programming I had to think about what I wanted to do more critically, but at the same time I felt as though I was making appeals that I thought would sound good to the authorities in charge of the grants.

Its a strange situation because on the one hand you learn more about the discourses that surround you and it makes you engage with something larger than you are, but on the other hand you feel as though you might be making your work or its description fit into a particular discourse. I suppose this might be necessary, to think about your work or describe it in terms of a discourse because it makes you engage in a dialogue with others, and possibly effect some changes or contribute to the culture. I'm not fully convinced that this is always a good thing, however, because the discourse you might have to argue against or place your work within might be limiting.

On a another note, my experience with grants has taught me that there are grants most people have never heard of and that it might be wise to find out what is out there.

do you feel you're on a solid path to a career in the canadian art establishment? would you want to be?

Ross Birdwise
I feel more like I'm on a rickety bridge to a career in the canadian art establishment. I don't think it's going to be easy. As for whether or not I want that career:

I think that the canadian art establishment is not perfect but that some of the dialogues that I would be engaged in would be relevant nonetheless. I also believe that some good work has come out of it. I wouldn't want to be solely dependent upon that establishment as an artist and I would want to maintain a practice outside of it, free from its pressures, its bureaucratic structure, and the amount of time it could eat up.

I don't think I'd want to work at an ARC either, whether or not you count that as part of the canadian art establishment. ARC's seem to become the lives of their underpaid employees and I think it would likely hinder my artistic production. I might do it fulltime for a little while or part-time if possible, but full-time employment for an extended period (a year or more) would be out of the question.

you seem to have escaped any romantic illusions about your career in art. where does this practicality come from?

Ross Birdwise
My sense of practicality comes from meeting other artists and doing volunteer and paid work for ARC's. I used to document exhibitions for the SAW Gallery and Gallery 101, I'm on the board of directors at Artengine and Gallery 101. I hear alot about the financial difficulties that face artists, centres, and their staff. I have also attended several conferences where these issues were raised. It seems to be a widespread problem.

Although I'm still a student, I think I am way more involved than most students in affairs outside of school.

what are some of the proposed solutions you've heard about, or considered, for the financial problems in the visual arts?

Ross Birdwise
One thing that I've been thinking about is to convince City Councilors, local governments, etc. that the arts are good for the economy and that they should invest in the arts because of this. The arts attract tourism and actually put more money back into the local economy than they take out in terms of tax dollars.

I've also read that prosperous cities tend to be the ones with that are the most tolerant, i.e. they have largest numbers of bohemian and ethnically diverse people. This tolerance alone isn't what makes these cities prosperous, but it is one of three factors including skilled workers and technology. If we can persuade the different levels government of our role in a city's prosperity we might be able to justify greater funding.

I think that that artists are sometimes regarded as useless or suspicious and that we need to dispel these myths in order gain greater support.

any kind of advice would you share with other emerging artists on the canadian scene (or anywhere, for that matter)?

Ross Birdwise
I recommend getting to know the people involved in your local arts community and to read about what is going on both a national and an international level.

I'd also recommend doing volunteer work at local galleries and artist-run centres, in addition to putting on shows of one's own, no matter how minuscule one's budget is. Its simply good experience to put on one's own shows and I think it can build up confidence and a feeling of self-reliance.

On the other hand, I'd also recommend keeping a healthy distance from these things I have listed above, by being involved but still being detached. In this way I think that you can be influenced by your surroundings but still retain some autonomy in your practice. I think its important for young artists to experiment, and an art scene can sometimes be too full of other people's expectations so I think its wise to be somewhat independent but still know and be involved in what is going on.

what's one question you've always wanted to be asked?

Ross Birdwise
I can't think of one question i have always wanted to be asked, but i can think of a good one, "why do you do art?

james hörner edits canadian content.

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