Joshua Vettivelu is a Toronto-based artist working within sculpture, installation, performance, video, and drawing. In addition to their studio practice, Vettivelu currently sits on the Board of Directors of CARFAC National and is the Manager of Ryerson Artspace. Here, they talk to Kerry Manders about happy accidents, interrogating the institution, and collaborative world building.
Your studio practice includes a combination of sculpture, installation, performance, video, and drawing. How do these different areas of your practice overlap or influence the other?
It’s really funny because I’ve always thought of myself as “everything but photography,” and now I’m running a photography gallery. I went to York University and earned my BFA. I wanted to be a photo-realistic painter. I was 17 when I started university and really caught up in what “good art” was to a broad spectrum of people. Like any large institution, York was administratively difficult, and I didn’t always get the classes I wanted. I got “stuck” in some sculpture and video classes, and now I can say that was the best thing that could have happened to me.
My very first sculpture class was a mold-making class and I the first thing I made was a cast of the inside of my mouth! And in this moment, I realized that something physical could come from something internal, from a place that you don’t really understand and can’t really see. That moment broke down a lot of what I thought I was supposed to aspire to. From that moment, sculpture started to reveal to me that I was interested in the material world, yes, but also that the lubricant between my interior psyche and physical world was called “language.”
Sculpture allowed me to play with “real world” applications of what I was learning in, say, my Sexuality Studies class. I could translate language – theory – into something physical and material. What is the materiality of gender? Of race? The sculpture program was good for reminding me that words exist in a matrix of associations. Sculpture was a way to pick apart – and put back together! – my experiences. I could use it as a different vocabulary.
Administration is a language. Relationships are a language. Family is a language. Community building is a language. I’m not inventing this: we all participate in multiple languages. Presenting an image as a drawing versus a sculpture versus a video all mean different things. Communication is a difficult pursuit! How can I bring ideas and materials together to convey something that begins as a pre-verbal utterance to eventually form words in sentences? How can I ensure my references and referents become somehow communal? These questions come up in my studio practice, but they apply to everything from administration to budgets. It all overlaps.
What are some ways you think about photographic work in the context of installation?
I ask students all the time: why is this a photo and not something else? Why must this be a photo? Why is this printed on photo paper and not something else? Why isn’t this printed on metal or etched on something? I want them to remember not to take their choices for granted, not to do something a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done. I want them to make conscious – and conscientious – choices for specific reasons that are integral to their work.
I understand that students are concerned with doing things “correctly” and having the “correct” answers. But I want them constantly and continually to question themselves. What does “correct” even mean? To or for whom? Maybe if they aren’t so concerned about having or finding “correct,” pre-existing answers, they can come up with new ones. And maybe if they worry less about “right” answers, they’ll also craft new questions, and new questions beget new questions. Just as you have to ask yourself questions about the art, you have to ask yourself similar questions about its installation. Why choose the language of a gallery exhibition when there are billboards right outside! There’s the internet! There are magazines! I want them to understand that a gallery show is not their only option.
At the same time, I get it: there’s an incentivization to landing the gallery show. It looks good on your artist CV. But why do we buy into the hierarchies of institutions – institutions that are rooted in colonial power structures? Those are power structures we need to try to recognize, discuss, and dismantle. When I’m teaching, I always ask my students where they want to show their work. Everyone says the AGO! And I say, “Okay, let’s assume this can happen for you. When you show at the AGO, you’re going to be exhausted, you’re going to end up in debt, because it’s an extractive place. It cannot be your end goal. The AGO might be one path, one mode of validation and professionalization. But don’t concentrate all of your hopes and dreams there, because it’s not going to make you feel good.”
These institutions are inherently extractive. Institutions have their own desires, and those desires are rooted in capitalism and revenue. And we get caught up in these systems whether we like it or not. Without even realizing it, we start adjusting our practices to fit with the institution’s commercial desires. What I know from being on the board of CARFAC is that we have to fight for even minimum payments from places like the National Gallery of Canada. Tiny, unknown galleries are paying their artists better rates than the National Gallery! And that makes me sad for the world of visual arts. I encourage young artists to look to other venues and alternate ways to present their work. We need to be aware of what we’re choosing, and the implications of our choices.
What are your thoughts about art in everyday life? What are some ways we can bring sculpture and installation into our personal spaces?
Okay, weird answer for you: languages of resistance can only develop socially, but before that can happen, they need to happen internally. I’ve learned that my practice is a constant reorientation with the objects around me. As you can see [via our Zoom call], I have little gatherings of objects in my apartment…
I’m intrigued by the Blundstones on top of your door frame.
Those are my “art school” Blundstones! I’m really utilitarian about shoes. We were really poor growing up, so I only ever had one pair of shoes at a time. I still only have one pair of shoes at a time. So those Blundstones represent years of my life – literally all the walking I did for a given period. And maybe this is just me being sentimental, but the ordinariness of sentimentality is the point here.
Let’s think about this lily [points to wall]: my Mom grew it and I cast it in resin in 2007. I thought: how long will this keep? How long can I keep this? And that’s an art project right there. It’s not for anyone but me. Maybe part of the point is not everything has to be “Art.” So that’s my answer for what sculpture can do. Because that’s what it’s done for me: never letting an object simply “be.”
Like language, objects always signify in many directions.
One thing I’m noticing is that the younger generation is more politically astute than their predecessors, even though they’re often being taught by instructors regurgitating the same neoliberal agenda they inherited. It’s exciting to meet them because they’re already doing important work. One of the things I want to help teach them is that they can conduct themselves and their careers in a politically savvy manner, but “Politics” need not always be front and centre in their artwork. The politics must be everywhere else, if that makes sense. Perhaps the best way to support Muslim women isn’t by taking a photo of one in a hijab with tears rolling down her face. I want students to think about their own work in relation to all those images that already exist. What will your intervention look like? You don’t want it to be extractive. How are you going to make honest, non-exploitative work? There’s a difference between “putting” politics into your work and making work that is political – living a politicized life
What are some key elements that you look for when selecting an exhibition space? How does the criteria differ based on each work?
In the past five years of my career, I’ve been getting larger, more visible opportunities, which always means more research. I have this relational artwork that amplifies heartbeats called Pulse. Every heart beats differently and it’s very musical. Two strangers sit across from each other and we turn up the bass. Eventually, you can’t tell the heartbeats apart. It’s rather anxiety-producing, in a way – this dissolution of the boundary between self and other. I thought this could be an interesting political tool!
I was invited to present a project at the AGO for a First Thursdays event called Land Rights Now. Thinking about the history of images of Canada, I chose Pulse to amplify the heartbeats of five Indigenous performers in front of a Group of Seven painting. The Group of Seven created a visual narrative around Canada that was intentionally devoid of the people who had connections to this land, facilitating the ideology that Canada was an untouched resource, prime for exploitation. It was important to me to amplify the real-time heartbeats of my Indigenous colleagues, in that gallery, in front of that painting.
And I want to be clear here: I learned about this critique of the Group of Seven from the conversations being had by Indigenous and Black scholars around me like Deanna Bowen, Lisa Myers, and Wanda Nanibush.
Are your installation pieces inspired by concepts and ideas or are they developed in response to a physical space?
It’s a bit of both, depending. Lately, the work I’m making is predicated on invitations – on me being invited to create work for certain spaces. These invitations emerge from pre-existing relationships, on people being familiar with my work, knowing what I’m interested in, and believing I might be a fit. Either way, it’s all about the right fit. Earlier in my career, I’d search out spaces and contexts where I thought my work would be a good fit. In those cases, the work, the ideas, came first, and I had to figure out where to present them. Of course, sometimes I made mistakes! Seeing your work in a space that is not a good fit is a useful, if painful, learning opportunity.
What are some of the roadblocks you’ve faced when trying to realize an idea or vision?
When I was younger, I’d get ideas for pieces that I didn’t have the skills to pull off (yet!) or the maturity to follow through to completion – a case of biting off more than I could chew. Again, these were learning opportunities! I have a solo exhibition coming up in November 2021, and I’ve been working on and through the ideas since 2014. Sometimes, ideas take time to realize, and that’s okay. I needed the right venue for this work, and that took time. Conceptually, I had to exhibit this work in a place that used to be a site of material production in the industrial age but is now used for cultural production. That was key. So, I’ll be exhibiting at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington in Bowmanville, Ontario, which used to be a functioning mill.
Who inspires you in your practice?
I’ll name a few people here. Deanna Bowen’s research practices helped me to understand the linguistic reference point in relation to the ambiguous art object. Tobaran Waxman is the Artistic Director of The Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency, which I was a part of and where I met Syrus Marcus Ware. I was on the young end of the intergenerational spectrum, and it was the first time I heard the term “intergenerational” used with intention. It really made me think that, as queer people, we must create our own avenues of knowledge inheritance. Otherwise, cycles of oppression continue, and we find ourselves constantly reinventing the same wheel. I was only 23 when I participated in the Residency, and it was a huge learning experience. I understood for the first time that the worlds I build need to be inheritable.
What piece of advice would you give to Image Arts students as they launch their careers and enter the industry in today’s climate?
Regardless of how you think you’re living your life, know that the way that you live your life is world building. If we accept things the way they are, if we leave objects alone, we’re affirming the world as it is. Do you want to change the world? If the answer to that question is yes, you must challenge the world as it is and help to build a new one. I’m talking about your work, your art, sure: but I’m also talking more generally about how you live your life. Who are your relationships with? Who are you collaborating with? That’s where world building happens. Because of course no one can do it alone. We actually have a lot more agency than we think we do. After all, institutions are, at their core, relationships between sets of people. And those relationships can change, and so the institutions can change. You need to find the right people and keep working, keep pushing. But I also think it’s equally important to know when to call it quits, to stop pouring energy into an institution that has no will to reform and put your energy and intentions elsewhere. Refusal is just as much a part of world-building as saying yes to new opportunities.