Michelle Jacques: [...] I know that most of you, most of the advisory, have had conversations with Emily and have a sense of the digital strategy fund grant that we're working with, to explore the potential of moving the AGGV more effectively into the digital realm. So I won't talk too much about that at this moment. I would like to acknowledge that I'm working from, and I think both of my colleagues, thinking about where you live, are working from the territory of the Lkwungen People today known as the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, and it certainly makes things complicated not to be together in physical space, to think about territory and to think about everybody being on Indigenous lands, and to think about what a privilege it is to have access to these digital tools, and to think through the complexity of what it means to have easy access to this privilege. So, I thought we would move directly into introductions, because I realize we’re sort of two communities coming together here and maybe Emily and I are the link between everybody, but some of you don’t know everybody else that's on your screen. [...] Emily, would you start?
Emily Luce: Sure. I'm Emily, and I'm here in Port Alberni, also known as Hupač̓asatḥ territory. I’m an artist and a designer, and was very privileged to be in the room when this conversation first started with Michelle, Noya and Deb at a dinner party a couple of years ago, and it's very exciting to be on a screen with you all and seeing this come into form. I see my role as being someone who can listen and be a kind of a lightning rod, and someone who is able to parse all of the points of view. So that's what I’m working towards. I'm going to be really listening, with all my might.
Michelle: Maybe we'll go through and ask the advisory members to introduce themselves, before moving over to the AGGV staff. So Noya, I wonder if you would go next?
Noya Kohavi: Sure, yeah. Hi everybody. I'm Noya, I am in my studio in New York City. I’m a technologist and a writer. I know Emily and Michelle through DesignInquiry, and that's how we all got to hang out and discuss this in October, two years ago. My work as it relates to this project is around computer vision algorithms and the ways in which we can explore and discover visual collections, art collections, and visual culture collections in innovative ways and in ways that serve our particular purposes, as opposed to re-utilizing what is readily available in the world of computer vision and artificial intelligence, which mostly comes from surveillance, both government surveillance and surveillance capitalism. So, I'm super interested in bringing new perspectives on how to approach an idea of a digital archive, how to build something that inherently encompasses our goals and ethics, and how to build a structure that represents that. And yeah, I'm super excited that this is happening, and I look forward to working with you all.
Dr. Deborah (Deb) Saucier: Okay, well I'm coming to you today from the traditional and unseated territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nations. My name, to formally introduce myself, would be ᓰᐱᐦᑯ- ᐱᐦᐁᓯᐤ ᐃᐢᑫᐧᐤ (sîpihko pihêsiw iskwew). My mother is Marilyn Wilkinson, and my father is Henry Saucier. My grandparents are Yvonne and Efron Saucier and Helen and Charlie Wilkinson, and I come from both Métis and English backgrounds. I'm the President and Vice Chancellor of the Vancouver Island University, out here in beautiful Nanaimo, it's a beautiful day today, and my area of research expertise is Cognitive Neuroscience. I study how people think. So, there you go.
Dr. Gabrielle Esperdy: Hi everyone, I’m Gabrielle. I’m based in New York, but I’m currently in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Both of my abodes are on the traditional lands of the Munsee Lenape, and I'm happy to have joined this group. My connection initially is through DesignInquiry, where I've known Emily for many, many years, and Rod as a result — not that you’re merely a result Rod, but in that context. And that's how I met Michelle and Noya, etc. I'm an Architectural and Urban Historian, I teach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and I think my interests in the project, and what claims to expertise I can offer, are from the perspective of Digital Humanities and a number of projects that I’ve been involved with for the past decade or so, which I'm sure I can talk more about at another time, but I'm really happy to to be joining this group. While one might dread another Zoom call, it’s really nice to be joining a group to be thinking big and strategically, rather than being lost in the weeds of converged learning, versus remote, versus face to face. So I'm seeing this as a really exciting creative intellectual outlet. So, thank you.
Mark Sanders: Hey everyone. I'm Mark Sanders. I am in Baltimore, Maryland. I teach at the Maryland Institute College of Arts. I teach graphic design, all phases of it. I’m a practicing designer, also. I do a very diverse array of work from front-end development, to systems administration, to identity systems, and I’ve done outdoor advertising. Pretty much anything that comes my way that has an interesting client and an interesting story, we will find a way to get it done. Currently a lot of my work is with cultural institutions, performing arts, and fine arts, are a lot of what I do, but we expand and contract as we need to as a studio. I'm also an author. I have written two editions, or co-author, two editions of Typographic Design Form and Communication, and I am now, with my partner, contracted to do a new edition of the Meggs History of Graphic Design, which is a large 700 page tome that was written in 1983, which tried for the first time to make a comprehensive history out of a very disparate kind of young industry. It has become in the last five to ten years, seen as the canon, and so we were hired to find a new way to think about history — what it is, how we write about it, and how we have inclusive processes, and look at alternative points of view within this really, really storied and old book at this point now. It's a three-year process. We just began and it's coinciding very nicely with this effort here where we're taking stock of what's in this book. We use design as authorship. And so one of the things you'll learn about me is I build tools, I build a lot of tools. I think that's why I'm on this project. Through Design Inquiry we have created a couple of highly experimental sites, we’ll call them interfaces for exploration of existing collections, and then processing them, synthesizing them, and figuring out ways of getting them out of just being local property. So we've done the Index of Design Inquiry. I'm also working on a very ambitious and I'll call sculptural front page for Design Inquiry. At this point I haven't shared it with anybody in this group yet, but it's going very well. I would say that my strengths are in interface, and by interface I don't mean just visual interface. I believe that what we do best and the process that I work through is through discovery. So what I build is part of the process of somebody understanding who they are, what they're dealing with, what their collective memory is. And everything is custom, but I'm able to really rapidly prototype ideas and through that we get very meaningful, I hope, to the organization and to outside audiences, and challenging actually. We aren’t looking for easy ways of representing, but inclusive ways of exploring any collection that we can find at this point here. And I say we, because I am a director of a studio here in Baltimore. I bring on people, work with them as we do, so this is in my wheelhouse, and as Gabrielle was saying it's something I desperately need right now to get out of academia and those conversations. So I'm very excited to work with this group and learn, that's the best part for me is learning, as we all are learning. I'm new to everything here and it's a great process that I've been through before and I'm excited to really utilize and learn about each of you and finding ways to make a meaningful way of representing and a meaningful process for going through this journey together.
Rodney Sayers: ʔuukłaama Klehwetua, Hupač̓asatḥah. Naniiqsu Yułuuwiłaqsupuqwitaḥ Hakuum Annie Watts. Naniiqsu Hupač̓asatḥuqwitah Hawił Dan Watts. Čitikah nacuuʔał suwah. I’m happy to see all of you. My name is Klehwetua. My christian name, as we like to say, is Rodney, Rod like in Stewart. And I'm here on the lost Island of Salt Spring, which is the unceded territories of our sworn enemies, the Salishan people. And I have been privy to this conversation, as I have been an unwilling conscript to Design Inquiry and thankless dot painter in the past. I am an artist, which encompasses all the other things that I do. I’m an Amateur Linguist of the Nuu-chah-nulth Barkley Dialect. I am a Historian, a witness, a chronicle, and being a Historian and a witness that's what encompasses my art practice, which is what I would like to bring to the table, because a lot of the work that I've worked with and the challenges that I have in my daily practice and in the daily ongoing political state of the Nuu-chah-nulth people — which there are 17 sovereign nations of the Nuu-chah-nulth, a number of them have broken off into the Maanuł, but that's another story. It's this idea of intellectual property, which is how we would say it in English. It is basically the property of the chiefs, which I have been tasked with preserving, maintaining and continuing. It’s this idea that there's a right of legitimation, which used to exist, which we struggle with maintaining, which meant that the things that we interacted with in our daily lives, historically, had a place, had ownership, had a meaning, and it encompassed thousands of years of oral history. We also have a visual history, which is embedded in our artwork. There is no word for “art” in our language, there is no word for “culture” in our language, which meant that all those things were societally integrated. We didn't think of them separately, they were integrated societally. So having said all of that I like this idea of what Mark was saying about the computer vision, and that's something that I struggle with, trying to engage with this postcode, or whatever, interacting visually over the computer, what our goals and ethics are in creating this digital archive. I think it's really interesting and exciting work, so it is going to be a challenge for me being a luddite at heart. So, I’m really happy to be in distinguished company and I'm certainly happy to answer any questions that you might have regarding the protocols or backgrounds of my people. I don't claim to speak on behalf of all First Nations People or Native Americans, that’s something that we don't do, which is also part of protocols, but there you go. Well, I’m positive that I can bring something to the table and as we move forward I'm really excited to see the outcomes of these meetings. That's it. And also, I'm told I need to bring my boyish charms, which just come out naturally, I can’t stop.
Michelle: Absolutely. I hope this project goes on long enough so that we actually do get to meet together so that you can also cook for us Rod. Deb, did you want to say a few words about Roy [Eagelson], or should we just wait for a subsequent meeting when he can tell us about himself?
Deb: Well, I can tell you a little bit about his background, but then maybe we can wait. Roy is an engineer and his work typically involves him and his wife. Together they develop simulation tools for neurosurgeons. Turns out, you don't really want somebody doing brain surgery on real people the first time, so they do a lot of simulation work and use that work to train neurosurgeons. But Roy has also worked under the auspices of Zenon Pylyshyn who is a very famous Canadian cognitive scientist who studies attention and philosophy. So he has a very interesting background, he’s not the average electrical engineer. Does he have a doctorate? I think he has a doctorate, in cognitive science actually. It's very unusual for those two things to go together — where folks are actually software designers plus cognitive scientists. So, I think that's it. I could tell you a lot more about him, we went to graduate school together, and when Emily, Michelle and I started talking about this project I said, “I actually know somebody, he may or may not participate, he might if I ask him, but it might be up his alley.” And turns out, he was interested in trying something a little bit different than simulating aneurysms. So, there you go.
Michelle: Thank you. So I think that's everybody other than the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria staff. So, why don't we introduce ourselves quickly, maybe I'll start with you Ellen.
Ellen Manning: Hi, nice to meet everyone. My name is Ellen Manning and I'm the Marketing Specialist at the Art Gallery. So, I'm responsible for the voice of the Gallery and the public-facing platforms, which are growing as we speak. And I’m really delighted to be here to listen and learn and share with you all. I’ve been with the gallery for about four years and I've spent a lot of time building up our infrastructure for more digital platforms, as we evolve and as museum culture evolves, to add more platforms for delivery. So I've been really building that up, and I've also been learning a lot as well, certainly with the pandemic. I’d never used Zoom before, and what I've been noticing is that a lot of people are sort of fumbling their way through this, and we're all in it together, and I just appreciate a lot of the compassion that I'm seeing out there as we explore this new digital age. So yeah, thanks for having me.
Marina DiMaio: Hello everyone, my name is Marina. Like Michelle, Ellen and Nicole, I’m also coming to you today from the traditional lands of the Lkwungen speaking peoples. I've been with the Gallery, in different capacities or different roles, for the last year and a half. Currently I'm working as a Gallery Representative and also with Ellen in a Marketing Assistant capacity, and I was just very recently invited to come on board to this project, to assist in an administrative capacity. So yeah, I'm looking forward to getting to know all of you and the work that you do, and supporting this project however I can.
Nicole Stanbridge: Hello everyone. So my name is Nicole, I'm the Curator of Engagement at the Art Gallery. I've been with the gallery for 15 years in various capacities. So yeah, that might say something about me. I find a place that I like, and I stay there it seems like. I'm very local, I’ve lived on the Lkwungen territory for 99% of my life, and I’m very grateful for that. I'm really excited for the potential of this project and for all the people around this virtual table. In my role so much of what excites me and is essential is face to face human interaction and I really miss that. I was really looking forward to the gathering of us all, but this is great, I think we're all navigating what this shift will look like, and doing it in real time, so it's exciting. And I'm always curious, I think that's what I'm so excited about for this project. I'm always curious about the potential of things and how we engage with different aspects of our society. Working in a cultural institution, accessibility and how people are engaging with our collection and our programs, and how we can be of service to our communities is a huge part of how I channel the work I do. So our collection, the database, the information within that database, how people can engage it as a research tool, how we can look more deeply at the objects in the collection as living things, with stories, with histories, I think there's so much potential there that is not being fully used or engaged with. So, I'm excited to see where all this goes, and yeah, that's me.
Michelle: And I'm Michelle. I'm the Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and I've been thinking about how to best introduce myself and I'm not sure why this is my inclination — as Nicole knows, I've been complaining for weeks about the extra layer of work that I have to do as cultural institutions in Canada confront their legacies of systemic racism — but for some reason what occurs to me to share with you is the fact that before coming to to Victoria, and I've been at the Gallery here for almost eight years, I worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the better part of 20 years. Like Nicole, I tend to over commit. I've been writing a lot, I’ve been asked to write a lot, I’ve been interviewed and asked to talk a lot about my experience at the AGO and it’s resistance to the ideas brought forward by its racialized employees. So not to dwell on all of the problems that I've been talking about there, but to think about what I have been able to do at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, thinking through the restrictions of the AGO has really made me appreciate the possibilities of the institution in Victoria. And you know, it's not to say that I haven’t hit a bit of resistance with some of these things, but as well as thinking about the individual objects in the collection expansively it's been an opportunity to really think about art history and art historical narratives, and how the objects fit within those really creatively. I think that if some of the curators that I knew back east saw the projects that we were doing here, they would lose their minds, because we take a lot of liberties with the way we tell the art histories of this place, but the resistance has only come from people who are incredibly conservative and want to hang on to those narratives that put them in the place of privilege. So I think all of that is to say that I'm thinking about this project not just in terms of using digital technology to create better tools of access, but to engage people in more flexible ideas about art history and how it's told. So I don't know that I've ever articulated that in that way to Emily, but it seems like she’s helped pull together the perfect group of people to address that interest. So I am incredibly grateful to all of you for being here and a special thanks to Emily, Deb, and Noya for being there at the beginning. [...] So, I think the next thing that we wanted to do was share a little bit of a presentation that I put together, just to give you a sense of what you’re not seeing, because you're not here in Victoria, you're not seeing the Gallery, I can't show you the collections, or the way we work with our current digital tools. So this is about a twelve minute video that will hopefully work and share some ideas about where we are and what we do here with you.
Michelle’s Presentation (35:12 video): We had really hoped that we’d be doing this work with you face to face here in Victoria, but since that's not possible I've put together a little presentation to tell you a little bit about our city, our art gallery, our collection, and the digital tools that we're currently using. Founded as a fort city in 1843 after 1846, Victoria became the grand depot and headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company's trade in the British territory west of the Rocky Mountains. While there are still lots of moments and places where it feels like we can't escape Victoria's British heritage, the face of Victoria is increasingly diversifying in both quiet ways — this is an image of recently arrived Syrian refugees at the local mosque writing in Arabic as a demonstration for neighbours at a community event — and it's changing in more assertive ways. These three young women recently led two very powerful justice for Black Lives rallies and are initiating a Victoria Black Lives Matter chapter. Even though Victoria tends to emphasize its British heritage it has long been a destination for non-European immigration and is home to the second oldest Chinatown in North America. Of course Victoria, and Vancouver Island as the land mass on which it is located is now known, had been diverse long before colonization and immigration brought people here from Europe and other parts of the world. This map shows the fifty distinct First Nations that have long called this region home. We aim to be respectful and mindful of the Indigenous legacy of the place where the AGGV is located, and increasingly we are looking to find ways to work with Indigenous artists and communities. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is a local public art museum located on the traditional territory of the Lkwungen people. Our mandate is focused on the preservation of collections held in trust for the public, creating a receptive field for artists and their work, providing public programs to engage people in art, and managing a facility for the appreciation and study of the visual arts. In our drive to be more community relevant and engaged, it's probably safe to say that we've become more focused on points two and three of our mandate — supporting artists and creating connections between artists and audiences and providing public and educational programs — even if it has meant becoming more processed than object oriented and moving a lot of our work far outside of the facility. The previous two images documented a project called “The Ground Above Us” carried out by local artists Farheen HaQ, Charles Campbell, and Bradley Dick (Yuxwelupton Qwal’qaxala), and this image shows a mentorship program at Cedar Hill Middle School where local tattoo artist and muralist, Andréa Searle, worked with girls in a group called “Melanin Magic”, which is not to say that radical things don't happen on-site as well. Take for instance, Emily and Rodney installing their sauna smokehouse (Paƛšiʔaƛma) in the drawing room of the mansion after they had smoked forty pounds of salmon in it. Part of the challenge for the programming team at the gallery is figuring out how to work with the colonial legacies of our particular museum and museums in general. If our city and building are rife with the legacies of colonialism, so is the collection. This image shows a number of works donated by the Sisters of Saint Ann, an order of nuns who came to the Victoria region in the mid-19th century in order to establish residential schools. The AGGV’s collection of Indigenous art is limited to works made for the market. The Asian collection however, contains lots of controversial works, like this oracle bone, part of a collection amassed by the Reverend, Dr. James Menzies. Oracle bones date from the BCE period and it's uncertain how Menzies came to be in possession of so many of them. There are aspects of our collection that are not just controversial, they are ever-present and impossible to escape. Like the work of Emily Carr, a Victoria-based artist who has taken on cult-status in the city and with fans from around the world. In the early part of her career, Carr traveled around British Columbia and Alaska visiting Indigenous communities and painting totems and other carvings. Even in her own day fellow artist Lauren Harris warned her against choosing these subjects, saying that she could never paint them well, because she could never truly understand them. Carr would turn her attention to painting the forests, whether untouched or ravaged by industry. She also focused her attention on working with a group of people to establish an art gallery in the City of Victoria. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria didn't open until six years after Emily Carr's death and as a result the bulk of her estate, over 200 paintings, went to the Vancouver Art Gallery instead of coming to the gallery in her home city. As a result we only have about 40 works by Emily Carr, some combination of them are usually up on view because of visitor demand. There are more than 20,000 objects in the AGGV collection, about half of those are Asian art. We have strong holdings of work by Euro-Canadian artists and a small collection of work by European artists. Twelve percent of the collection is contemporary art with an emphasis on artists from BC, although we only have about 300 objects by Indigenous artists. We also have a decorative arts collection focused on modern and contemporary ceramics. On the surface the collection is stored in vaults that seem fairly typical, but if we pull back for a wider view we’ll see that our vaults are actually a rabbit warren of little rooms. When they built the addition to the gallery, they didn’t bother blasting out the rock, and this was the best way to create space in a very constricted situation. The rabbit warren of vaults, in a way, reflects the hodgepodge collection that we've amassed over the last 70 years quite well. It ranges from quite large contemporary paintings to tiny objects ranging in date from prehistoric times to the contemporary. For some reason we even have the waste basket and its contents, which seem to be empty liquor bottles and rolling pins, from Maxwell Bates studio. Maxwell Bates was a quite famous Canadian artist who retired to Victoria. We access and manage this weird collection through The Museum System, TMS, a relational database application that was created specifically for museum collections management. The most basic function of TMS is to collect all of the information related to each work in the collection. So, here we're looking at a record for a work in the Asian collection. You can see the name of the artist, the culture, the title of the work, etc., and then there are other tabs and drop down menus where we go deeper in the kind of information filed with each record. If we were looking for a particular object in TMS we would probably search for it by its object number. TMS also includes a number of query functions including this basic query assistant where we can cross utilize different fields to search for selections of objects in the collection. Once you complete a search and you have your selection you can save it as a query or as an object package and then utilize the reports function of TMS to run all different kinds of reports, whether you’re producing exhibition lists with images, or a packing slip, or label information. So here for example, is an image of a report just showing the basic information of a group of objects that we selected with images. We work with these a lot when we're producing exhibitions. TMS is quite a complicated database so it's primarily an internal use piece of software, but it does support the development of public facing digital interfaces through an additional application called eMuseum. So we're looking at the front page of eMuseum as you would find it on the AGGV website. Using eMuseum on our website people can search for particular works of art in our collection. They can look at the entire holdings of an individual artist and they can even look at your object list for particular exhibitions. And there is an advanced search function that allows people to do slightly more complicated searches, whether they want to look for contemporary decorative art, or artists of a particular culture, that’s all possible with this interface on our website. The AGGV is an institution that wants to be relevant to the full diversity of its communities, and to a certain extent we figured out how to do that in our education programs, our events, our special exhibitions, but when it comes to the collection we really feel the weight of the colonial legacy that is at the foundation of all museum collections. So one of the motivations for working with you, the Digital Potentials Advisory, is to think through how to be more relevant, creative, expansive, and critical about how we give our communities access to our collection using digital tools. The world is changing and the museum world is changing with it. Not long ago we may have looked to larger institutions for guidance and how to be more engaged in the digital realm. Now, our small size, our regional location, and the flexibility that comes with them, seems like a gift. We are looking to you all for inspiration and guidance and how to be limitless in our thinking through this digital challenge.
Michelle: Okay, that presentation seems so basic now, because the conversation has already gotten kind of intense in terms of the direction that we really hope the conversation will go, but I suppose it serves a purpose to understand where we’re coming from. I think that we all, the AGGV staff here, have been figuring out ways of grappling with this physical and philosophical space that we work in, and in many ways we're really happy with the directions that the programming is going, in terms of breaking out of the restrictions of a conservative western art museum, but when we start thinking about the collection, we do realize that there’s a lot there that you have to figure out how to address more directly, because when we’re being radical with our programming arm, but then putting up Sophie Pemberton works in one of the main public spaces that people come to — and Sophie Pemberton was a 19th century academic painter who was born in Victoria — we're sort of presenting ourselves as having a split personality, but I think even though we started talking about this project so long ago, the timing is perfect for us to make the argument that we can be as — what’s the word I'm looking for — direct in our criticism of that colonial legacy as we need to be.
Noya: Can I ask a technical question before we move forward? Do you know the percentage of objects with images in the collection?
Michelle:[...] We had a database that was built in house, and I do know that at that time the intention was to have an image of everything online in that database, so much so, that even if a work was an installation or a sculpture with different parts, rather than actually putting it together for a photograph they would just pile up all of the parts and take the picture and then put it online. We were so desirous of having an image for everything. I think now if there isn't an image of something on the public version of eMuseum it's probably because of copyright restrictions, or because the image is of such poor quality that we decided not to put it up, because really I would say that probably 90% of the collection is photographed. That sounds about right.
Gabrielle: Michelle, can I also ask a follow-up question? The original database, which I assume was just something that was kind of put together in house, was that used as the foundation for TMS or did you start from scratch and build and customize TMS with a specific set of needs in mind?
Michelle: I think, and I'm not sure if I'm skirting the question by responding in this way, but I think what happened is that TMS is a database that they try to make as comprehensive as possible, and then people sort of slot themselves into the database. It's probably the kind of software where maybe the Smithsonian is using the full capability of TMS. So I know that we did basically do a transfer of information directly from the old database to the new database, maybe that was five or six years ago, that was within my time, and I think that we're only starting to feed in the new information that TMS allows that the old database didn’t. I know how to use it a little bit, because we also used it at the Art Gallery of Ontario and we've had Registrars who have gone to New York for the one on one training on TMS, but really it's a difficult enough software that not many people in the building know how to use it well.
Gabrielle: And then I actually have one other question for you, that's connected to your reference of a split personality between educational and public outreach programs, and then the exhibitions in the gallery spaces themselves. Would it be fair to also think that that split personality is reproduced in a distinction between actual face to face programming and exhibitions and the digital presentation or the digital presence of the institution?
Michelle: Yeah, and I would actually say that in terms of contemporary exhibitions, when we're working with contemporary artists, those projects fall more in line with the nature of the projects we do in education, and sometimes when we're working with the collection as the basis for our exhibitions we get to a point where there’s a certain liberty taken in the telling of the story, that they’re almost getting there too. But there are aspects of the collection where, I don't know, I guess we're sort of beholden to the legacy and donors and things like that. We have a new curator of Asian art who just started in January, and we're really excited to see where she takes the programming around that collection, because really our Asian collection has been built around relationships with collectors, and that has created a situation where we've been really — I keep saying we — we've been really, I don't know, mindful of not talking about the story of the missionary who might have gone across the street and dug up oracle bones and brought them home in his suitcase. So yeah, it's really in the realm of certain aspects of the collection where we feel this restriction of conservatism. Ellen has been working hard to get the website to fall in line with the experimental nature of the public programming and special exhibitions and she has been struggling to figure out how to work with the collection to get eMuseum to also reflect some of that experimentation, but that's been really tough.
Michelle: No problem. I wonder if anybody has questions for each other or if my colleagues from the AGGV have any questions?
Deb: Michelle, I just wanted to ask one question, because I have to leave in about 20 minutes because I have to go to Snuneymuwx, and I have to actually travel there physically — I know this is really wild eh? But when the chief says you're going to go meet him personally, you go meet him personally. I'm wondering about what I would call “the moose in the room”, and that is, has the nature of this project changed slightly since we first conceptualized it in light of anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, and the ongoing systemic racism and persecution of Indigenous peoples? Does that frame the question slightly differently? Like, I know how to categorize things, and machine learning can do a lot of interesting things, but it's a very western approach to understanding the world, right? Are we thinking about actually changing the project slightly to reflect maybe a more Indigenous world view of how things should be categorized, sorted, and thought about, and all of those sorts of things? Or are we still stuck with the same project just reinterpreting it in light of the current context?
Michelle: Well I guess what has always been at the back of my mind is that the softwares that we use, whether it’s the internal TMS or eMuseum, it's absolutely true that they restrict the way you access information. You have to have a certain training in Euro-Canadian or Euro-North American collections management to put the information in, and you have to know how the information was put in to get it out. So, it's absolutely true that you're always working with the same world view. And in some ways, what I've been thinking about is how I've been trying to approach the collection, which tries to move away from that and find different kinds of relationships amongst the objects. The example that I always give is, I don't understand how come Facebook knows that I like children dancing, funky eyeglasses, cats, and mid-century furniture, but with the database that I've been working with for the last 17 years it's like I'm starting fresh every time. So my hope, my fantasy, is that there's some way to approach an array of objects in a database that actually becomes personal and that can actually learn from the person working with it. So I suppose one answer to your question is yes, everything has changed and we have to think about different world views, and then the other question that it raises for me is, are the softwares that we're working with so restrictive that we have to change the foundation in order to do that, or is there a way to create workarounds so that they can be more responsive to different modes of inquiry? The other thing that I've been reading a lot from my colleagues who have worked in big institutions over the past little while, is they don't know why some of us racialized people continue to work in these institutions. They say, “We're beyond believing that you can change things from the inside.” So maybe that applies to this question, I don’t know if we can change TMS from the inside or if we just need to throw it out and start new.
Mark: If I could jump in here — I don't see it as being changed at all — what our mission is here. I realize there are new pressures and new emphases that we’re looking at, but really the spirit of this in my mind is providing equality, providing equal access, and not being reactive, but being sustainable long-term, which means sometimes we have to jettison a system that's already in place or we can modify it. But really, my goal as a designer and as a human being has always been to be reactionary as I need to be, but also try to build something or make something or have a conversation that can go on, that it is inquisitive that it is maybe a little bit anachronistic — that everybody has a personality within that system that we celebrate, or we challenge each other, and I don't see that being anything different now with this system here. I see this over and over and I think that's why I shake my head when I hear about TMS’s and various systems like that, because organizations bend the tools and their culture changes based on tools. My institution right now is going through this change in our HR software which is just draconian, and all of the policies that come out of that and all the extra work are just because of this friggin tool, and nobody can think of a different way of doing it. So I'm very reactionary, I get very angry about that when they say, "Well we just can't do it. We have to do it this way, because that’s the way it is.” Then that drives the culture of an institution? It's how people interact with each other. And that's why about two years ago I was like, “I've had enough with this, I'm going to start seeing if I can make small things that are very personal," and think about interface as community, and think about interface as inquiry, and think about it as a way of providing paralleled ways of interpreting information, paralleled ways of working, but also critical points of intersection and understanding that people do process information differently. I also really am interested in, and I still am, particularly with this project, participation. How can we work with taxonomies, folksonomies, and how can we get stories? Maybe the photos don't even matter, maybe we have an audio archive, or we have videos, or some other way of representing them? That’s the exciting part to me about this and I think we're all trying to confront where we should go right now, like what we should do. And I don't have any answers for that, except for I try to stick with what I feel like I'm rooted in, and also intuitively where I feel like there are gaps, and how do we actually try to maybe fill them a little bit, or explore them, poke them a bit, see what we can find in there. That's sort of how I see this project continuing to unfold, I don't think my method will change on this.
Noya: Can I jump in? To go back to Deb's point about machine learning and classifying — that we know how that works. Since we last spoke of this two years ago I definitely changed my perspective on it. Thinking more about the ways in which we can not just utilize existing schemes and algorithms, but re-generate and generate new perspectives and new ways to classify. I personally think of this a lot through the perspective of queer computing that really tries to encode something more flexible and less hierarchical, going through the ideas of soft classification or soft clustering, things that can have more than a binary meaning. I think for me, using technological classification tools in this context is an opportunity to, in a radical way, rethink the way that we use them and do it also in a way that is practical and useful for the community. So not just generating a really radical structure that is unaccessible, useless, or theoretical, but really digging into the ways in which we can encode radical structures in a way that's actually useful for a specific community in a specific situation, in this occasion. So while the last few weeks did not change my perspective radically it does amplify the goals that I have in this context, which is not to just adjust a structure, but radically question it. And I think, I mean, I'm personally done with a slight adjustment, I was never really inclined towards it, so I hope we can try and think in that direction.
Gabrielle: I would love to follow up on Mark and Noya's comments. And Mark, I really appreciated you saying that it's not about being reactive it's about being sustainable in the long term, and I take that so to heart. I had a conversation yesterday about a project I've been involved with very long term, SAH Archipedia, and we've always known what the blind spots were — this is a peer-reviewed online encyclopedia on the history of the built environment that, right now, just deals with buildings in the United States. It was based on a series of print volumes that were produced beginning in the 1990’s. So if you assume that the foundation content itself, although it strove to be diverse in terms of canonical architecture and building typologies, it was still nonetheless basically the history of the United States part of North America, written by a bunch of aged white historians, mostly men at the very beginning. So there were already problems built into it. We've always known that, and one of our long-term objectives was, how do we fix things? How do we not only update existing content, but how do we allow for more complex narratives to emerge from what is basically a database? So in the aftermath of what's been going on in the last couple of weeks, there was a quote unquote “emergency phone call” in which board members and executive directors are throwing all of this junk at me about, “Well we need to do this, and we need to do that.” And I just kept saying, “No, our agenda hasn't changed,” it’s still about how we can make this change structural, literally structural. How do you build it into the structure of the system? I think that’s such a critical thing to remember that it has to be something that is sustainable in the long run, because we know no matter how, let’s use the word “inclusive”, no matter how inclusive one wants to be there are blind spots that we have now, no matter how thoughtful we’re all trying to be, that ten years from now it's going to seem incredulous to somebody looking at a resource, “How did you people not see x, y, or z?” So to me, and this goes to Noya's point, it's always about building in the opportunity for continual change. And Noya, as you were speaking I kept thinking about, again, a Western art history notion of misreading something, and what I like about that as a reference is that what it really means is a different reading — misreading would imply that it's not the dominant reading, but to me the strength of what could happen here is about allowing for an endless number of readings of things, and again who knows what those things are, those things are objects, those things are something more ephemeral — that has to do with the nature of the gallery itself. Anyway, all this does is just make me more excited about these conversations.
Nicole: Me too.
Mark: I like to use the word “perversion”. I pervert systems, basically, and that implies that there's something already there to work with or maybe we jettison it, but I'm really interested in hacking TMS, and figuring out what we can do with that thing, but I think that's what we're all getting at, is that there isn’t a direct right or wrong at this point, that binary way that Noya was describing. I really love that idea of querying this platform into any number of different ways of interpreting, or exploring, or learning about somebody else, or a different culture — or just getting lost in it and looking at cat videos.
Nicole: I really appreciate everything that’s been said so far, and I think as an institution we've been trying to figure out how to position ourselves in recent events and I think in the last few months everything's been amplified, but again we feel too like the path we've been on is one that we feel is a good path, and we had to be very careful not to react. I was trying to describe it to Michelle — like, in an abusive relationship where somebody acts like a jerk and then gives you a bunch of flowers and then acts like a jerk again — it's not about some flash gesture and then going back to the system. We need to be slow and steady and consistent, and be moving in the direction that is necessary and essential. The arts are not, well I feel like, in the arts it’s constantly a questioning of things, so it's not a binary of black and white, art lives in the grey. So we always have to be questioning and challenging the systems and I think right now it needs to be about a dismantling. How are we taking these things apart and building something that works better? So I'm really excited about all of the things that have been said so far, because they are really feeding into what is feeding us, about how we're trying to approach the programming, but also how that can infiltrate the collection, because within our own institution we have our own dysfunction and challenges and roadblocks that we’re trying to address and it needs to be cohesive. Within the institution we need to all be coming at this and the only way for it to have power and to do what it needs to do is for it to be cohesive, and it's not right now, and the collection is a huge part of that. Our Asian art collection, I mean there's so much in there that we just need to address, like really urgently. So yes, very excited about all of this.
Emily: You guys, this team is so great and not everyone is meeting somebody new today for the first time, but I know that everyone in this room has been working so hard on this, and that's why we're all ready. That's why this is so great, because we're ready to work and the positioning is there. I can't wait to see what the next — well I mean — 10 years will bring.
Gabrielle: Do you guys from the gallery, do you see this project and the digital presence of the gallery… I'm trying to think through if it is appropriate for us on the advisory team to be thinking curatorially, because all of these things suggest a curatorial approach. We're not approaching the collection as much as we're approaching the digital representation of the collection. I guess I'm just asking if you guys think it's valuable for us to be thinking curatorially, even though that's your job?
Michelle: I think it's fine to come from that perspective. You know something that occurred to me as you were all speaking is that maybe something that is relevant is that you know that I'm not a Black curator who's a specialist in Black artists, or Black art. I’m a Black curator who’s a specialist in critiquing from the perspective of a Black individual, Canadian art. So one of the things that has been challenging for me is being responsible for the Canadian art collection at the AGGV and bringing that particular perspective to the way I share it with people, because art museums do tend to miss dichotomy where they're connected to critical conversations happening in art and art history, but then we are also inclined to just celebrate what we have or the artists in the collection. There has been so much work done on Emily Carr, for instance, from an Indigenous perspective. We have worked with probably the leading Indigenous scholar on the critique of Emily Carr on other projects, but we still tend to talk about Emily Carr at the institution as the late-great-icon of art in Victoria. So creating a situation where multiple voices can come to the collection with a curatorial view and those different perspectives can be in conversation I think is absolutely the ideal, because right now I’m critiquing Emily Carr, there are other people outside of the institution that are critiquing Emily Carr, but within the institution it's kind of me against the fans. And if we could create a situation where there were some more people who understand that, that there are different ways to approach things, I think that would be a great goal to be working towards.
Mark: Can I ask a question? [...] Intellectual property, and the shifting role or the shifting understanding of that, amongst art galleries and art collections. I realize there's certain agreements that are in place that'll probably always be in place, but is that part of this conversation? I know Rod brought that up earlier, but looking at how not only could it be voices interpreting what the work is, but maybe there are visual interpretations, or ways of extending it to a different community to work with, or to try to understand, or to turn it into something that's relevant to that community, is that something that is — I know it’s probably on the table, because I think anything's on the table at this point — but is that realistically something that can be part of the work that we do here?
Nicole: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve had a few conversations about our collection, one was with someone who I’ll refer to as a radical registrar, who’s working at another institution here, but just about the challenges of — I think this came up earlier — about the categories and the way we classify and the information that could be relevant. A curator from another institution was also working on an exhibition of First Nations baskets from this region and the way that the research happened and the care for the baskets should take place… Or you know, there's so many layers to the story and the humanizing of a collection that I'm hoping that there’s as many ways as possible to animate that so that as a tool, it’s a resource for understanding the life of these objects. One small part that we're trying to start is interviewing artists as we acquire work to the collection, so that there's a record at the time of the work being collected from the artists themselves articulating the context of the work. And that seems like, “Oh, of course that would be great to have,” but it's not something we've done previously. So I think, although it feels like an overwhelmingly huge project to animate the collection further, I'm hoping that there is potential for that to become part of the practice. I think part of this is also getting buy-in from our collections department — to feel as excited by all of this as we are. And we do have a new registrar who will be starting, I’m not sure if one's been selected yet, but that position will be filled soon, so who knows what that person will bring to the mix as well.
Ellen: Yeah, just to add to that Nicole, with this adaptation of our digital programming and doing a lot more video panel discussions, it's so interesting to think about how we might weave that back into our collection, in learning about it, as to your point, and how to deliver that to our online community. And also from my own perspective, I’m really interested in talking about sustainability. I'm really curious about user generated content and what can be done there to engage online communities, as well, because every once in a while we'll post, we’ll share, an object from the AGGV collection and we'll get a comment on one of our social media channels from a grandchild, or something like that, with additional storytelling. And so, user-generated content and how to look at the eMuseum as an interface that is public facing and what can be done there as well, I think it has a lot of potential.
Gabrielle: So, in terms of the benefactors of the AGGV and the kind of, oh I don't know, you didn't ever say, “resistance to change”, but I'm just curious, is there a structure in which — and I'm sure there's a very political way to answer this — but is there a structure currently that you feel like there's a tension of people resisting these new stories, new interpretations, between let's say old Anglo-Canadians and a different idea about how you would be presenting art and culture in the 21st century?
Michelle: I would say it’s hard for us to know what kind of resistance is actually coming from donors or descendants of donors, because our curator of Asian art was so protective of that community that he was the person who decided to work in a particular way. So you know, I am hopeful that with our new curator of Asian art, who is in fact Asian, and would be approaching this donor community from a place of representing at least one of the cultures represented in our Asian collection that they would at least be open to a conversation. I'm just running through my head some of the donors that I know. I chose the oracle bone in particular because that was donated by an important Victoria family with deep roots here — there’s a street named after them — so that might be an example of a situation where it would be hard to tell the real story. In fact, if you Google the reverend online there’s one line of storytelling that speaks about him as being a very ethical person, who sort of brought modern archaeology to the situation and helped uncover those oracle bones, and he was given some as a gift for his participation. Then there are other stories that say that he snuck out of his house at night and stole them from the archaeological site. But there are lots of other people who I think by this point are getting pretty self reflexive about their collections, which they may have inherited from a parent or grandparent who had a very different perspective than they do now. I think, both in terms of the relationship to the donors, and I wasn’t sure if Mark's question was also relating to how we use images of works, but here there is a body that looks out for copyright infractions against living artists, so both in terms of working with living artists and working with the donors, there would be work to do in terms of relationship building in order to work a little bit differently with the content than we have been. And I think maybe that's what makes the collections departments nervous, but if we started thinking about it as part of the programmer’s responsibilities, we could probably get there.
Gabrielle: So some of that is related to the fact that these bequests and donations had specific issues connected to them about reproduction of images, etc.?
Michelle: Specifically with acquisitions of works by contemporary artists. I think our copyright law is maybe even a little looser than in the States. So fifty years after an artist’s death the work enters the public realm. So a lot of the Asian collection is in the public realm, a lot of Canadian historical works would be in the public realm. There is a quite active concern about contemporary artists' works, or images of contemporary artists' works, being used without their permission. So that's where the challenges would most likely occur.
Mark: Is it too early to talk about outcomes?
Michelle: Probably not. Maybe Emily will lead that part of the discussion as it does relate to something she was going to talk about around expectations. Let's call it, “expectations and outcomes”.
Emily: When we were formulating the meeting we made this document and this document basically sums up what has been spontaneously generated by this group already, which is very affirming. So I can skip to the end Mark and say that at the end of the project the only things that we really need from these four meetings, or this period of the project, are, (1) excellent engaged documentation of our exploration, (2) a clear exciting proposable compelling fundable and fun way forward from here, and (3) that everyone walks away going, “That was a great project!” So that is, as far as this set of meetings goes, that's what we're thinking for outcomes, but let me jump backwards in time and just review, which is basically going to be a meeting review.
“The Digital Potentials Advisory is established to help the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria understand what's possible for itself and its audiences in the digital networked realm. We aim to build a team of trustworthy advisors who can act as digital council in the beginning, and possibly and hopefully, expand into creation projects further down the road. This is a creative forward-thinking grounded team who are helping the gallery adapt and thrive in high stakes changing circumstances.”
We, so, appreciate everyone's openness and agility and generosity. I just, I’m really loving this group. The AGGV has a broad mandate and a divergent community, which we view as a strength — the collection is a microcosm of that. So, in using the collection as the starting point we are building capacity and exploring potentials for digital augmentation to expand, support and untether this strange and wonderful community. We hope this can be an example for others. So just to review, the intention of the Canada Council Digital Strategy Fund is to, “Foster open source collaboration as a way to increase Digital Literacy in the Arts in Canada.” So the grant that we received is exploratory and upon successful completion of the project we're eligible to apply for larger scale longer term support. This means the project could grow from here depending on how the first phase goes and what we come up with. So just to reiterate, the parameters of this funding stream are, (1) open source, (2) collaborative, and (3) digital. So when we're thinking about how the group can engage — and all this exists, this already happens — but genuine attention and engagement with the meetings and the content presented. If you can't attend a meeting you can catch up via recording. It might be nice to talk about if there is a way for us to comment or discuss if somebody missed and watches and has a question or something. Awareness and planning for a broad spectrum of digital literacy as well as a wide variety of academic disciplines and backgrounds and interest stakes in this team. So, we designed it so that at least one other person in the group understands what you're talking about and also will laugh at your jokes, but there is probably also one other person who won’t understand that joke. Limitless thinking, this is the exploratory phase, let's push what is possible, but also as we were talking about planning for success — realistic discussion about how these big new ideas can be accomplished. Starting to think about time, staff, understanding capacity, if other experts are needed, honest practical conversations in order to implement well. What's really nice about this group is that everyone here knows that it takes a lot of hard work to see a project successful, so that's really great if we can leverage that. Sharing sources and networks, magnifying excellent resources for the gallery to look to for inspiration and ideas in its community — this is so important, it's just so useful to get eyes on great examples. And of course, humor and compassion as the only way we're going to get through a project in 2020. So that is the extent of my “guidelines for participation” documents.
Rodney: Okay, I was waiting to hear more about our outcomes, but just to add to the conversation and the questions, I guess ideas I wanted to leave with you all, I think it's this idea of the digital literacy, which is personally what I struggle with, but I think this idea of the digital strategies, is that it’s being user friendly for people like me, and believe me, there’s people with less computer skills than I have. I often wonder how the little old lady up north applies for a Canada Council grant if she doesn't have internet, or if she's got a fax machine. You know, so it's like, how does that work? But I think it's this idea that we work with this idea of ownership, taking ownership or adopting something to create ownership. With a lot of regalia work, or work that I personally do, there is this idea of initiating it, which means that you give it a life and you present it to the world so the world can adopt it, or not. So I think this idea of animating, this idea of living history — I'm not sure if this is too abstract — but the collection has to somehow be adopted by, for my example, by First Nations People. This idea that it's this foreign thing, they’re stealing our images, we’re like, “Why do we have a collection? Why are all these things in vaults? How do we make access to the originals?” If somebody says, “Well hey, I saw that you had a Charles Edenshaw, any chance I could actually see it in person? I see you have an image of it.” So just these questions about engagement. And, how do we socially, societally integrate this collection to make it more of a real thing and less abstract, or just this thing that’s out there somewhere in the ethernet. So to make it more of a real thing that people can actually adopt and take ownership of it, and be proud of it — I don’t like using that word — but just some ideas I'm thinking of when I'm listening to the way everybody's talking about this project, because it is somewhat abstract to me, what we're doing, but yeah. So this idea of collaboration, I guess I'm curious to know about the firsthand knowledge of the collection. Like can I actually go to somebody at the AGGV and say, “Have you physically seen every object in this collection, and do you have firsthand knowledge of everything that's actually there, of the inventory?” I think that's an interesting question, even if it's the inventory of Asian art or First Nations art. When Emily and I went to the Museum of Natural History and had a private tour the lady that gave it had in her head knowledge of all the First Nations collections, and she actually showed us some works that I was horrified that they were in a vault. It's like, how did you get these, and why are they here? So it's just that experience that we had. But those are my comments.
Michelle: Thank you. You raised many good points and I'm going to respond to the most banal of your comments, not that your comment was banal, but my answer is banal — in terms of whether anybody’s eyes have been on all of the objects. For some reason that just raised an interesting thought in my head, because it's the people in collections who have done the inventory and have seen every object, it's not the curators. And maybe that represents a — what’s the word — chasm in the way we work, because the people interpreting are not the people who have put their eyes on everything, and maybe that somehow relates to the failure of the collection — could it be a real thing that people want to adopt and engage with. It’s the people who can itemize it and put numbers on it that know it the best. So maybe we have to go downstairs and look at everything.
Gabrielle: I have to say Rod and Michelle, as you were both speaking I was thinking about, I think in like 2000 or 2001, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art — and we'll leave aside the problems of having a right wing publisher funding your Native American Art Center — but the thing that was so literally revelatory was the fact that everybody got in to see stuff that was in storage, right. That whole notion of visible storage seemed so radical back in 2001, and now it's almost as if through the kinds of conversations that we can have now we can think about what is the radical access to a collection in 2020, because it's not just about glass on shelves that lets people see stuff. I think there's something else there, but I liked being reminded of that because I had almost forgotten about what that experience was like almost 20 years ago, and it seemed so important because it seemed to literally start to take away some of the legs that were keeping the cannon standing, at least in some sense. And anyway, I just wanted to throw that in. I guess the thing I keep coming back to is that what we're confronting now is far more complex than an earlier era of a more inclusive collection in which the objects themselves were about demonstrating diversity rather than just kind of the “best” paintings by the “best” artists — however those were defined. And I just think that it's almost about levels of interpretation and meaning that we're dealing with now, rather than simply what is in the collection, and that it’s just really how it's presented. I think it’s just really exciting to be thinking about this.
Michelle: Absolutely, and that relates to one of the things that I've been thinking about, which is that we're never going to catch up. Our collection is never going to be representative of all of the communities that it should be representative of, and so what do you do with that recognition? Do you just give up, and go, “Okay, well this will always just be an institution for one sliver of our community.” Or do you think about those levels of interpretation and think to yourself, “Why can't we relate to Indigenous communities and invite them in to critique the works donated to us by the sisters of Saint Ann?” That idea of the relationship between an object and a viewer is so restrictive — that they can only speak to each other if they're from the same culture — that is, I think, a limit that our institutions have unnecessarily put on themselves when they think about opening up.
Mark: It seems as though access is really the key to this, to Rod’s point and to Gabrielle’s, is that, yeah, you can't necessarily quickly change a collection, or for that matter over long term, depending on how that collection is being funded. But the access in the ways that people participate with that, that's what we can actually bring to this here. Whether it is, I mean other ways of looking at this is maybe there's a texture, we’re not looking at the whole piece, but we’re looking at something more sensual about a fragment of a piece of art. I forgot who it was, I don't know if it's the Louvre or some other one that was doing these extraordinarily high resolution scans and had images available, and I can't remember the painters — I'm not very good at this right now — but the point is that you could really see technique, you could really see layering, you could see questioning, those kinds of things that go into making art. And maybe that is what we're able to allow for, through this process here, is that access and maybe a different lens or a different way for somebody to provide their own interpretation of it. Maybe it isn't relevant and it never will be relevant to an individual, but it helps frame why it isn't relevant or why it is a part of their culture, and I think that perspective right now is another one of those sustainable methods of really dealing with the chartered atmosphere we are in right now culturally.
Michelle: Absolutely. So I guess we're at five to whatever hour it is wherever you are. So we should probably come to a conclusion so people can move on to the rest of their responsibilities for the day. Anybody have any final thoughts they want to share?
Gabrielle: I’m looking forward to going and spending some time on your website and looking at what's there and just trying to get a bit of a grip on the collection, etc., as it presents itself publicly.
Nicole: Our website is another layer to this too, as Ellen can attest to. Yeah it’s… We have layers of systems that don't work the best, to serve what we're doing. So TMS is one, TMS eMuseum interface, and then our website — like there's so many layers of things that need adjustment, but we do our best with the systems we have, so yeah.
Ellen: One of the biggest things, with so many people turning to mobile devices especially during the pandemic to view websites, it's something that a lot of institutions are dealing with, is the mobile version versus the desktop, and so how these systems and interfaces present themselves depending on the device, that's always been such a challenge. But yeah, it's there, have a browse. Happy browsing.
Emily: We as a team, can hold the vision and the space. This gallery is going through such a massive transformation, because of the building renovation, getting ready for changes in leadership, potentials in the digital realm, and if we can just hold the vision and use the authority and expertise that we have to say, “This is the way to go in our collaboration,” there really is potential to do something special here.
Michelle: Well, everybody exceeded my expectations and my expectations were high. So I'm thrilled with how this went and I'm really looking forward to moving forward with all of you. Thank you so much for taking the time.