Joshua Vettivelu, 2019 Recipient
We asked visual artist Joshua Vettivelu about their work as a curator, arts educator, and how their body of work continues to evolve.
Joshua Vettivelu is an artist, programmer and educator working within sculpture, video, installation and performance. Their works explore how larger frameworks of power manifest within intimate relationships. Recently their practice examines the tensions that emerge when personal experiences are mined for art production, and how this allows institutions to posture and position themselves as self-reflexive. Currently, Vettivelu teaches in the faculty of Art and Continuing Education at OCADU and is the previous Director of Programming of Whippersnapper Gallery.
You were previously the Director of Programming at Whippersnapper Gallery. How did that role help influence your current work?
Programming for Whippersnapper put me in a position of authority that was very new to me. From this vantage point, I developed a much more informed language around the ways institutions made optical maneuvers within neoliberal funding structures. It became important to me to program in a way that could share some of the things I was experiencing and learning. Through programming and public conversations, I was able to do a kind of trial-by-fire research into how different people receive complicated information, ideas and histories.
Since Whippersnapper, endeavours like public conversations and student engagements have become enfolded into part of my practice because languages of resistance can only develop socially through the labour of translation and dissemination. I consider the process of building relationships to be as important as the fabrication of physical art objects. This process of discursive engagement often reaffirms that there is poetry and healing in being able to share our frustrations, limits and longings.
What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
In short, that I’m still alive and even have a career. No art career is made in isolation and all my successes have been accomplished through the support of so many wonderful people who, for some reason, believe in my practice and push me forward. To be able to build a career out of something I do for psychic survival is one of biggest surprises and blessings of my life so far.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an arts educator?
I think when I was a student, I took what my peers and instructors said to heart because I needed validation and guidance to see if the steps I was taking to pursue this ridiculous career were ‘correct.’ Just like with Whippersnapper, I had a bit of a learning curve understanding that I now was positioned with that same authority in relation to my students. I try to be aware of the weight of my words, tone of delivery, posture, etc., especially when sharing difficult information.
I also try to be conscious of the fact that that being a student now is a lot more difficult than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Students are often working multiple jobs in the face of full course loads, high tuition fees and rising rental costs. The real challenge to being an arts educator (aside from the precarious contract work) is figuring out how to talk to my students about a life after school when we now have provincial legislation that works to make it as hard as possible for students, who experience structural barriers to wealth, to survive the debt of receiving an education.
You mentioned in an interview about your exhibition Perishable Bodies that you “don’t consciously think about having a cohesive body of work.” Do you feel that is still true of your work or has it evolved over the past few years?
I think some of that still holds true. Medium specificity has never made sense for me. I usually think through complicated ideas through materials, images and sense experiences to arrive at words. Whether it be sound, dirt or sunlight, each space and context will require a different approach.
However, if I could point to a theme that’s been developing over the years, it’s that all my work seems to explore the relationship between desire, language and power – specifically how the accumulation of seemingly innocuous individual desires can aggregate to create larger social orders, like empire or nation.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for the Emerging Artist Award?
My practice is a product of what it means to be hyper-aware of your surroundings. Whether through queerness, race or citizenship, I am always scripted before I arrive. Survival meant learning to narrate the differences between what I was imagined to be against the expansiveness of what I felt.
This has helped me pull healing from scraps, helping me develop an internal language to survive the world and an external (public) language to recognize how power works on a moment-to-moment basis.
Being nominated for this award means that there is a willingness to engage with the things I create to assert my humanity and the humanity of those I hold with me. I’m an advocate for the importance of the arts because it has allowed me a way to speak to the world and have the world speak back to me.