Galvanize: talking it through

Under the theme “Visibly Absent”, contemporary artists in Trinidad stage Galvanize, an arts programmme

Akuzuru’s installation Atonement for Our Transgressions. Photograph courtesy Akuzuru/the Galvanize Advisory TeamFrom Gerard Gaskin’s portrait series A Walk in the Park. Photograph courtesy Gerard Gaskin/the Galvanize Advisory TeamFrom Parker Nicholas’s installation, Light, Lyrics, and Boxes. Photograph courtesy Parker Nicholas/the Galvanize Advisory TeamGalvanize 2006 sign, designed by fete sign-painter Bruce Cayone. Photograph courtesy the Galvanize Advisory TeamGalvanize Flickr set. Photograph courtesy the Galvanize Advisory Team

Last September, as final preparations for Carifesta IX were reaching fever pitch in Trinidad, and the local press reported on the festival organisers’ state of muddled unreadiness, a crowd of several hundred gathered one Thursday night at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA) building on the outskirts of Port of Spain.

Artists, musicians, writers, and other, mostly younger, members of the Trinidad culturati wandered through CCA’s big, white-painted spaces, talking, looking at a screening of short films, taking in an installation of artists’ sketches and notes in the foyer, and gradually drifting to the huge back room where a stage and lights were set up. The rapso artist Mark “Ataklan” Jiminez was waiting to perform, but first Wendell Manwarren of 3Canal took the stage. MC for the evening, he introduced two of the people responsible for assembling that eclectic crowd: artist Mario Lewis and CCA director Charlotte Elias. This was the launch of Galvanize, a new contemporary arts programme that over the following six weeks would break many of the rules of the Trinidad art scene, staging events and projects in sometimes unlikely locations, and generating a buzz completely out of proportion to the initiative’s modest resources.

Galvanize was Lewis’s brainchild. In late 2005, he returned to Trinidad from London, where he had been studying at Goldsmiths College, and began talking to other creative practitioners about the problems and dilemmas facing contemporary artists in early twenty-first-century Trinidad. Since the late 1980s, Port of Spain has been an important centre for contemporary Caribbean art, thanks to the ambitious, outward-looking work of a generation of artists like Francisco Cabral, Christopher Cozier, Irenée Shaw, Steve Ouditt, and Edward Bowen, all of whom negotiated international careers that remained rooted in the realities of post-Independence Trinidad. Through a series of groundbreaking projects, shows, and initiatives — including the founding of CCA in 1996 — these and other artists made a space for challenging work that has attracted increasing regional and international attention.

But the local art market has failed to keep up. Commercial galleries deal almost exclusively in landscapes, still lifes, and genre paintings, and local collectors have sometimes been openly hostile to work that breaks those conventions. Lewis and other artists who came of age in the 1990s have grappled with anxieties about their audiences, and whether their work does or can register on the local scene.

Gradually, in conversation with his colleagues, Lewis evolved a plan for an exhibition programme that would address these issues head-on. At a meeting of artists and writers in April 2006, the Galvanize concept began to solidify. Then CCA stepped in to offer institutional partnership. In its earlier years, the organisation had mounted an annual contemporary arts season. CCA saw Galvanize as a means of reviving this event, and Elias was particularly pleased that Galvanize was an artists-led initiative.

By June, a core advisory team had been set up: Lewis and Elias were joined by artists Christopher Cozier, Steve Ouditt, and Peter Doig (British, but based in Trinidad since 2002), and Caribbean Beat editor Nicholas Laughlin. They decided to extend the Galvanize idea from its visual arts base to incorporate other creative media: music, literature, design, architecture, performance. An overall theme emerged: “visibly absent”, a phrase invented by Doig to describe the local contemporary art scene, where artists with impressive lists of credentials and shows on their CVs might nonetheless never catch the attention of the cultural authorities, never merit a mention in the press.

But as the Galvanize opening drew closer, the press did begin to take notice. Perhaps the Carifesta hullabaloo had everyone in the mood for “culture”. Almost inevitably, because of the timing of the two events (Carifesta IX ran from 22 September to 1 October, Galvanize from 14 September to 26 October), and because the Galvanize participants had been, for the most part, excluded from the folk-culture-focused Carifesta programme, some onlookers began to talk about Galvanize as a fringe event, a “rebellion” against the cultural bureaucracy. An editorial in the Trinidad Guardian even suggested that Carifesta might learn something from Galvanize, which it described as a “sub-culture, the voice of tomorrow’s art,” which “must be given its own support and encouragement if the region’s cultures are to truly cross-pollinate and blossom.”

Still, the Galvanize team insisted that theirs was an independent initiative, driven by its own sense of urgency, and the goal to create a visible presence for so-called emerging contemporary artists. The modus operandi was two-pronged. First: attempt to “engage with unconventional audiences in unconventional ways”, by taking artists’ work out of gallery spaces and into public locations. (As Lewis has pointed out, there is a strong tradition of this kind of improvisatory use of space by Cuban artists; the 2006 Berlin Biennal did something very similar.)

Nine visual artists were chosen, based on formal proposals. Sabrina Charran and Nikolai Noel made graffiti paintings and posters at outdoor locations around Port of Spain; Noel’s were complemented by an installation at CCA. Photographers Gerard Gaskin and Alex Smailes installed their portrait series in a tattoo parlour and the entrance to a popular dancehall, respectively. Akuzuru made a site-specific environmental installation in the Queen’s Park Savannah (it was vandalised, and re-erected, twice; the artist gamely incorporated this turn of events into the narrative of the work).

Parker Nicholas, the oldest of the Galvanize artists, installed his sculptures in a popular fabric shop in downtown Port of Spain (playfully provoking art-versus-commerce questions). Tessa Alexander’s multimedia work was installed in artist Edward Bowen’s home studio. Jaime Lee Loy’s video installation used a rough concrete shed in a backyard in the west Port of Spain neighbourhood of Woodbrook — a setting both domestic and prison-like, disturbingly consonant with the feminist themes of the work. And Marlon Griffith’s multimedia work, tackling questions about public security and surveillance, was (almost fittingly) evicted from the Independence Square restaurant where it was supposed to be installed (the restaurant owner cited “security” reasons); it eventually found a home at CCA.

The second key element of the Galvanize process was “conversation”, in which “everyone is both a speaker and a listener, where problems and questions are tackled from many directions at once, where above all we pay real attention to each other, make a real attempt to engage in understanding.” In the simplest way, this meant creating opportunities for informal exchanges between artists, writers, musicians, and their audiences. More methodically, many Galvanize events included a “conversation” of some kind. Performances by the bands 12 and jointpop opened with public interviews between, in the former case, 12’s frontman Sheldon Holder and Christopher Cozier, and, in the latter, jointpop founding members Gary Hector and Damon Homer and writer Jonathan Ali. Architect Sean Leonard’s multimedia installation What Is Worth Talking About: Points for Reference in Our Changing Urban Landscape incorporated interview footage with other architects and designers. And a series of symposium-type discussions brought together newspaper columnists to talk about the literary possibilities of their medium, poetry and fiction writers to muse over common themes, and associates of a pioneering 1980s programme called the Visual Arts Environment to debate the legacy of their work. On all these occasions, members of the audience were encouraged to join in, ask questions, express opinions.

The entire Galvanize programme of 21 events or projects spread over six weeks was produced on a remarkably modest budget. There were small logistical hurdles. Schedules sometimes changed on short notice, venues were shifted, and a few of the more elaborate plans had to be scaled down. But the enthusiasm of all the Galvanize participants, and their spontaneous co-operation, combined with the interest of the diverse audience to create a strong momentum. Throughout, the Galvanize weblog — projectgalvanize.blogspot.com — posted updates, images, and artists’ statements, amounting to a constantly growing multimedia catalogue of the whole initiative. Artists, curators, academics, and gallerists outside Trinidad began to take note.

By the time of the closing event, a “conversation” called “What Next?”, in which the advisory team discussed in public what their efforts had actually achieved, it was clear that Galvanize was something more than an arts festival or exhibition programme. They spoke of it as a process of creative investigation, as a prototype for artistic collaboration, even as a kind of collective work co-created by all its participants.

It was also only a beginning. “What Next?” closed with the announcement of dates for the formal six-week programme of Galvanize 2007, but also with the promise of a regular series of Galvanize events throughout the year, to keep the conversation going. There was discussion of a Galvanize project focused on Carnival, the major phenomenon in Trinidad’s cultural calendar. Work had already started on the publication of a printed catalogue documenting Galvanize 2006. And the Galvanize weblog, with its associated gallery of images hosted by Flickr, was set to evolve into an online version of the contemporary art magazine the Anglophone Caribbean sorely needs.

“One of the main problems regarding the audience for contemporary art in Trinidad is the perception that contemporary art is in a hierarchy above other creative production,” wrote Mario Lewis. “I believe it is organic by nature.” Emerging organically from interactions among practicing artists, emphasising improvisation and informality, and trying to break through the barriers between contemporary artists and their possible audiences by taking art literally out into the streets, Galvanize was a landmark step in the ongoing debate about the usefulness and relevance of art in the Caribbean. The conversation continues.