Artist-in-residence pioneers the process

Sean Smith says it’s important to “leave some air” in your plans to make room for what may emerge on the way to accomplishing your goals. And certainly don’t focus on the finish line.

“Don’t even think of a finish line. Keep to the process,” says Smith, the inaugural artist/scholar-in-residence for the Department of Visual Arts. “If not, then you’re working in a direction. To not propose a finish line says we don’t know what the direction is.”

The Toronto-based artist is wrapping up his four-month position in the ‘Nonsense Lab’ – the unofficial name of his studio space at Western – and has been thrilled with the opportunity to not only share his talents with the students, but to become a student himself.

“I guess the way I began in art was sort of a frustration with mainstream academia and the publishing volume involved,” Smith says. “It afforded me different ways of expression and in terms of thought. And I found that art was enabling me to ask better questions of philosophy. I would go back and read more philosophy to create better questions and different questions.”

Department of Visual Arts Chair Joy James says the new position brings with it a number of pluses.

“It offers a certain level of visibility in the larger academic and arts scene and profiles the very best of our program, which is to move across both the academic and studio practice,” says James, noting she initially received more than 80 applications for this position.

“It works in line with what we’re trying to do in our undergraduate programs and brings in a new resource person, with their particular kind of research, for our students.”

Working on his dissertation for his PhD in philosophy of media and communication from the European Graduate School (Switzerland), Smith recently completed a three-year research/creation project titled Walking is In(di)visible with collaborator Barbara Fornssler (as the art collective Department of Biological Flow).

He teaches a small class at Western, a culmination of the end of his project and an opportunity to share with the students the idea of the process.

Through his blog (nonsenselab.tumblr.com) Smith has documented his engagement with students in the elective course Toward a Kinoderm Aesthetics, along with other activities with the Western and broader London communities while in residence.

“It’s an attempt to tear down that conceptual framework with the group,” Smith says. “My work is very process oriented, so the class has been about trying to articulate those processes, but also ways to think to processes to work our way out of it.

“We’ll go through what we’ve done, critique and look at other artists who have worked with similar ideas, read philosophy and also, in a studio sense, work with processes to ask better questions and not to worry as much about outcomes. It’s the process that matters.”

Smith’s time at Western will culminate with an exhibit titled D S NFORMAT ON: Threnody from the Vision Machine, scheduled for Jan. 12-26 at the Artlab Gallery in the John Labatt Visual Arts Centre. It will be a large-scale exhibition of the work he’s done here and some that led him to getting this position in the first place.

Smith remains hopeful the seeds sown during his time at Western will allow future artist/scholar-in-residences to do more.

“There’s always a learning experience in terms of how you plug into an energy field. Art is about the relations you create and the energy you plug into, and then how you’re able to bring that back into your own process,” Smith says.  If there’s something I learned here it’s to be more engaged with materials, because in the past most of my stuff was performance based and text based. It’s not going to radically change how I practice, but it makes me think why I do what I do.”

Due to budget constraints, James says next year’s artist/scholar-in-residence will also be a four-month position, this time focusing on someone who is more a scholar than an artist.

She adds these streams come together perfectly with the department’s unique Art and Visual Culture Program, which just graduated its first two PhD students, a first in English-speaking Canada.