Emelie Chhangur

Emelie Chhangur (Interim Director/Curator, AGYU) is an award-winning curator, writer and artist. Employing a socially-engaged curatorial practice with Toronto as its subject, she creates new civic ceremonies as collaborative artworks. Questioning the contemporary art gallery’s civic role, her concept of “in-reach” has transformed institutional practice in the arts across Canada.

We asked Emelie Chhangur, interim director/curator at the Art Gallery of York University, to tell us more about her role at the gallery and how AGYU sees its place within the local art ecosystem.

You’ve invented the concept of “in-reach” for engaging with communities. Can you tell us more about this idea, and why a bottom-up approach is so important?

“In-reach” is actually about engaging with the art institution as a concept and context (of power, privilege, and singular perspectives) and not necessarily about community engagement—though, of course, engagement is a core operative principle of “in-reach” as a practice. In-reach is a practice that arises from my engagement with an art institution in collaboration with individuals, groups, and communities with whom I work over long periods of time: our relationships also have bearing on the way in which the gallery operates in the long term.

“In-reach” is an organic process that I started to think formally about only after making long-term projects that, by their very nature, were putting pressure on the art institution’s processes and protocols. Instead of the art gallery going out to communities or to deliver programs in other locales, I became more interested in the ways in which different social economies, different modes of cultural production, and different cultural protocols could come into the institution to transform it from within.

I wanted the cultural institution I worked at to reflect—not just on its walls as display—the real culture that I found myself immersed in in Toronto and to refract alternative principles of exchange that were beyond contractual. But “in-reach” is more than that, too. In this sense, I don’t really think about it in relation to the “bottom versus the top” because this seems to suggest a binary, with the institution at the top and community or “other cultural practices” (i.e., practices outside the Western mainstream artistic traditions) at the bottom.

I want to completely re-imagine the art institution as a poly-vocal place of practices where differing principles and protocols can combine and become mixed, where we have more resources to draw upon in order to innovate new cultural forms of production and display, where timelines and deadlines don’t kill relationships, where the trajectory is not a projectile (out), but something more internal and feminist (inner). I believe this is what will manifest in the future of Toronto’s visual culture.

Perhaps this is also why I often work with individuals and groups with no natural affinity to each other over long periods of time where the brokering of divergent viewpoints, perspectives, and modes of artistic production is a central part of the curatorial work undertaken. I took this curatorial ethos and then I applied it to the AGYU as an institutional practice.

Can you talk about some of the long-term collaborative projects you’re currently involved in and how that affects your curatorial process?

For me, the two are completely reciprocal and entwined. In many ways, the very process of making a project always must perform the ideas contained within it. I learn from each unique situation and adapt my curatorial approach to meet its methodological demands. I am personally changed by my projects, too. (Imagine: three years with 150 core collaborators = no life outside the project). Every time I work on a long-term collaboration, my entire social life changes. How can one expect people to dedicate themselves and their time to a project without you dedicating yourself and your time to what they do in their day-to-day lives (I often work with people who do not identify as artists, so their context is quite different from mine). I have been to parkour meets, capoeira workshops, poetry slams, mas camps, pipe ceremonies, and the list goes on and on. So maybe my long-term projects have changed my life, actually.

It certainly has changed who is in my life, and why. An artist becomes a family member after you spend three years working closely with them. Every time I embark on a new project, especially when it is with an artist from elsewhere working in Toronto, I insist that we spend at least a month together in Toronto going to places I haven’t been (as well as places I love), meeting with people I don’t know (or hanging out with friends I’ve met working on past projects), and being vulnerable together. I think this is what keeps my love affair with Toronto alive and builds trust with communities I continue to engage long after the projects are completed.

I make a practice out of collaborating with this city: its people, its places, and, many times, actual city structures and bureaucracies (Toronto Police Services, City Hall, TTC, etc.). As I often create new civic ceremonials as collaborative artworks, I get a lot of pleasure working across these scales with Torontonians, many of whom do not belong to the social and civic centres of their city. My projects bring together international artists, local people, and official “Toronto.” I love that by the end, the international artists basically become Torontonians! I think this is the most rewarding experience curatorially because it means that I have a responsibility to all, as a connector and bridge.

In Toronto, the local is always in dialogue with the global. I like to perform this complex conversation as a curatorial strategy in my projects, particularly those that take place in the public sphere.

I just finished a very special project with two artists from the northeast of Brazil, Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. We shot a film on the TTC’s new subway extension with spoken-word poets, rappers, and singers from across the GTA. It was conceived and produced in collaboration with Truth be Told, a spoken-word mentorship program co-conceived by AGYU and Scarborough’s R.I.S.E. The film is called RISE and it just won an award at the Berlinale: Toronto is all over the world right now!

I currently have a number of members of the Jakarta collective ruangrupa in Toronto on their very first research residency. Research residencies often precede a production residency, which might be followed by a commissioning residency (which happen over years). Projects have culminated in civic ceremonials, street processions, films, exhibitions, etc. – the form usually comes out of the process. Research residencies are about hanging in Toronto and getting to know people and what can be done – with no strings attached. I can’t say how the ruangrupa project will culminate, but right now, it’s pretty fun in the making!

Residencies have become the basis of the work that we do at AGYU. In the past year, we’ve hosted ten artists and curators in residence in preparation for projects coming up in the next few years. It’s what drives our research, our projects, our collaborations, and our processual way of thinking. And it’s super intense, unpredictable, and chaotic – which is good!

How has your professional practice evolved since you started with AGYU back in 2003?

For me, context is the driving force behind my curatorial work. Working for the past 15 years in Toronto’s suburbs, in the neighbourhood of Jane-Finch – and within a pedagogical institution that has a history of social justice – has had a tremendous influence on my curatorial thinking and my approach to institutional practice. In many ways, the real project of the past 15 years has been the AGYU itself.

If anything, my professional practice as an artist has evolved at AGYU: my art project since 2003 has been the transformation of the contemporary art gallery! Working in the suburbs has also made me fully committed to proliferating differences in the discourse of Toronto art by extending the geographical and cultural scope of what has traditionally defined its limits. No longer interested in being in relation to a “centre” (i.e., downtown), I have discovered that the peripheries make their own centres. My suburb-to-suburb work across the GTA exemplifies what I call Toronto’s political place-full-ness: of being at home with an elsewhere.

Over time, my practice has also changed in tandem with the transformation of the AGYU as a cultural institution and with the people we have brought into it through our long-term collaborations. For instance, we have worked with spoken-word poets and rappers from the Jane-Finch community for over 12 years through an ongoing spoken-word mentorship program. I have also worked with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation for a decade over three very different kinds of projects. All these individuals are now part of AGYU.

If my work has been to bring individuals and groups with no perceived natural affinity together into meaningful relation, then AGYU has become fertile ground for enacting this. For instance, my colleague Allyson Adley and I have brought spoken-word poets from Jane-Finch together with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (Ring of Fire, 2013-15). Or we have conceived projects that bring together our various streams of activity into single projects: the entanglement of our spoken-word mentorship program with our residency program produced the socially-engaged, quasi-documentary film RISE, 2017-18. This means that we also collaborate as a team at AGYU to work across different platforms of institutional practice (i.e. “education” and “exhibition-making”).

Importantly, in 2015, after completing Ring of Fire, I began to make a distinction for myself between what I was calling a socially-engaged curatorial practice and what was becoming a curatorially-engaged social and civic approach to cultural work. For me, this distinction makes engagement the subject of curating rather than simply work done by a curator. In the latter, one engages curatorially in the social and civic sphere – the cultural environment as a whole, alongside and with its other protagonists – rather than developing “socially engaged” curatorial projects that derive their content from individuals and groups. Re-orienting the terms of engagement made the civic and social context of Toronto – not the socially-engaged process – the subject of my work.

Where does an on-campus gallery like AGYU fit into the local visual art ecosystem? Does programming for a university gallery require a different approach than other art spaces?

I am fully committed to hybridity. I am a mixed-raced, first-generation Canadian born in Toronto, after all! In the context of the AGYU, this means that I am driven by the need to think of AGYU as a hybrid public-university-affiliated art gallery (note the hyphens!). My positionality is not singular. I am very fortunate to work at a gallery that isn’t, either. This means that AGYU must serve a civic and pedagogical role. But in the realm of hybrid identity, this doesn’t mean that the civic is separate from the pedagogic – both are fully entangled, complex, and negotiated.

It means that everything I do at AGYU is at once both civic and pedagogic. Collapsing the silos of institutional practice is at the core of what I do – both in my projects and in the way in which staff inside the institution work as a team. To my mind, AGYU is a manifestation of an ecosystem that treats every function and operation of the art institution as an ecology of practice that requires us to think about third spaces of production, which means innovating at the interstices of identity that is not about difference “other than,” but difference from.

In many ways, this is what AGYU’s “Out There” vision (2006-17) was all about. We started with a cheeky slogan in response to the downtown art community who kept saying, “all the way out there?” Soon it became more than a slogan – it became a vision. As an operative concept, “Out There” was no longer about the distance from downtown. AGYU began to transform by differing from itself, becoming more “out there” in the process. This began the transformation of the gallery – we no longer were interested in differing ourselves from the downtown art community, but to change the very nature and function of the art gallery itself. So I suppose it’s not about fitting in at all!

What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Margo Bindhardt and Rita Davies Award?

I am honoured that my curatorial work has been recognized as a form of cultural leadership. My curatorial practice has evolved in dialogue with this city. So I am extremely proud to have my projects recognized as important contributions to Toronto’s culture – especially because so many of them appropriate the existing dramaturgical forms of civic celebration (but with a twist, of course).  I have spent many years making work that is dedicated to the future visual culture of this city. Somehow this nomination makes me feel like the future is now. Some say curatorial work is autobiographical – if this is the case, I have been making these experimental, participatory curatorial projects as way to explore what might constitute aesthetics of cultural mixing. My curatorial work is a form of belonging with this place, Toronto.