Conversations with Artist Cathy Busby 

Art, in our eyes, is a utopian platform for discussion, and is the perfect platform for the metamorphosis between {Past}, {Present}, and {Future}. Often times, art speaks to all three. By all means, Canadian artist Cathy Busby‘s art illuminates these dimensions simultaneously creating complex statements on history, society, and life.

We are honoured to feature a conversation with this talented artist by our equally talented correspondent John Wisniewski, so please enjoy!

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JOHN: Could you tell us about your installation “Steve’s Vinyls”? What inspired this project?

CATHY: Steve’s Vinyl was an art installation and performance giveaway of the nearly two-hundred albums left to me by my late brother, Stephen Busby. Steve was a gay man who died of AIDS-related illness. I had kept this eclectic collection of record albums in cardboard boxes for many years, neither playing nor looking at them. Gradually it occurred to me to stage an art event to appreciate and disperse them. It was a way of remembering him publicly and activating his record collection as music and graphics, dispersing the albums into the Halifax community.

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I knew the Khyber Centre for the Arts would be the best place in Halifax to host this event with its history of art installations, bands and performances since the 1990s. I planned Steve’s Vinyl for Dec 3, 2011 to coincide with World AIDS Day. It was a tribute to Steve and his varied tastes in music, men, and identities and a way of activating the collection as music and graphics. The collection became a time machine, a stimulant of memory and pleasure.

I colour-coded the albums, putting together, for example, the ones with a lot of yellow or pink on the covers, and made floor-to-ceiling stripes of these colours to frame the corresponding albums. This made the 200-or-so albums seem to fill this quite-large space. I carried over the colour-coding to make section breaks in the book, and to determine the colour scheme for the cover. Also, once people choose an album, they left drawings and notes on the wall in its place.

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These albums were further brought to life by the party with dancing and the performance of the MC in characters from the albums: Ken Hughes, the leather man from the Village People, Bruce Springsteen and Janis Joplin. The hype for the event came from the lottery-style draw where the first number could choose from all the albums. People were excited to have their number called, and in the end, everyone was a winner.

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JOHN:  What project are you currently working on, Cathy? Maybe you could tell us about any future plans?

CATHY: There are a few things coming up: My work, Pickled Art Centre Opening (2008) with Jinkelong, a large vinyl work, opens as part of (Da Bao) (Takeaway) at the Surrey Art Gallery on Jan 25. I’ll be featuring my printed matter at the LA Artist Book Fair Jan 30 – Feb 2 and I’m doing a page-work for the Capillano Review. Then in April my work will be featured in a show of politically-engaged artworks at Malaspina Printmakers, Vancouver, curated by Justin Muir. In June, I’ll be showing in Berlin.

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One of the things I’m most excited about at the moment is a project I’m working on with LA based artist Bridget Kane, called Debt and Hope. It came about at a seminar about the problems of post-secondary art education and she, as a recent graduate blurted out that she was looking for hope in all of this and was $120,000 in debt. Of course many people are in debt these days, but this incident made me want to commemorate this situation, this moment we’re in now, so I asked her if she’d be interested in collaborating on an artwork about this. Since then, we’ve had an extensive email exchange and agreed that this correspondence would be the resource for our artwork, which will be presented at Assembly with support of the MAK Center in LA. I gave a reading from our correspondence at the Can-zine Broken Pencil Festival last October and this was the first public presentation of our work, I think it fueled the fire for both of us. The date for the actual installation is still to be determined, but will likely be sometime in 2014.

CATHY: Whom are some artists who have inspired you?

JOHN: About artists whose work is important to me, AA Bronson is an artist who has completely remade himself after the death of his two General Idea partners. Now he connects and collaborates with various artists depending on the project and does sexual celebrations in ritualized form, documenting the whole process, such as in he and Peter Hobbs book, Queer Spirits (2012). He is making hope and magic tangible, creating community wherever he goes – for example being the founder of both the New York and LA Art Book Fairs.

Since the 80s, I’ve appreciated the Guerrilla Girls and their feisty interventionist work, and then there’s Barbara Kruger’s big, biting pithy one-liner billboards and room wraps that have always seemed to me to stand up to mainstream marketing practices and call their bluff.

In another world of practice, Elaine Ho who founded Homeshop in Beijing and kept it going for 5 1/2 years, until the end of 2013. During the 2008 Olympics, she created an alternate art-hub, celebrating, for instance, all of the losers.

CATHY: Cathy do you collect activist posters? Why is this artwork important to you?

JOHN: I have some activist posters collected casually when I was making them myself in the 1980s . However, my substantial collection of posters comes from 2005 – 2007 when I collected neighbourhood posters in North End Halifax. These were the substance of an exhibition at the Emerson Gallery in Berlin (2006) and at Art Metropole in Toronto (2007). Each year I compiled them into limited edition  artist books, volume one and two (edition of 10). They are a portrait of the Halifax community and include posters for performances, protests, other social justice activities and gatherings of various description, all past-due and non-commerical. Sometimes I’d dig down through layers on the utility poles and find ones from events from past years. In this sense the art project of collecting and assembling was an archeology of sorts and I felt it was an important history to document, one that was so ephemeral in nature that it was often lost. The National Gallery of Canada purchased both volumes, so now this history is preserved.

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CATHY: Could you tell us Cathy about your work “We Are Sorry” and how the project began?

JOHN: I’ve done three large versions of We Are Sorry; first in Melbourne Australia (2009), then in Winnipeg (2010), and most recently in Vancouver (2013). The motivation for the project came from my work with public apologies generally. Then in 2008 the federal government apologised in Canada and Australia to their Aboriginal peoples for the Indian Residential School system in Canada and the Stolen Generations in Australia. These systems are now recognized to be responsible for generations of disrupted and broken lives.

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I often commemorate important but fleeting media moments in my work. The Laneway Commissions in Melbourne accepted my proposal to make large sign vinyl panels which were installed on the exterior of a power substation . The next year I was invited by the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission of Canada to do a similar project in conjunction with their launch in Winnipeg. At this point AA Bronson of Printed Matter in New York invited me to make a pamphlet in their Artists and Activist series, and this accompanied the Winnipeg project.

Since 2008, despite the inherent promise of the apology to respect Aboriginal people, much disrespect has been demonstrated including severe budget cuts to many Aboriginal programs addressing health and social conditions. So I made a commemorative billboard, Budget Cuts in 2012.

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Then in 2013, the sign vinyl of We Are Sorry, Melbourne Laneway Commissions became the raw material for the work I contributed to Witnesses: Art and the Canadian Indian Residential Schools last Fall. I fitted a piece from it for the Koerner Library at the University of British Columbia to fill the wall space available, with the words WE ARE SORRY centred at the bottom. The rest of the two large panels were cut into about 1000 pieces and these were available for visitors to take. The idea was, and I’m quoting myself now from the accompanying pamphlet: “…I like the idea of many people dispersing this work and that pieces of it find their way into homes and offices where it can be a reminder of the need to take responsibility for a justice-based co-existence / relationship between Aboriginal and settler peoples in Canada, which was the intent and the spirit of the 2008 apology…” Almost all the pieces were taken during the exhibition. It’ll be interesting to see them and hear stories about where they’ve ended up.

Thanks so much for this interview. It’s been great talking with you about my work.

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If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy our conversations with:

Chad Channing ( Drummer for ‘Nirvana’ & ‘Before Cars’)

Greg Prato (Author & ‘Rolling Stones’ Editor)

Donald Rizzo ( Artist )

Allyson Adams (Author & Daughter of Actor Nick Adams)

Lurker Grand (Author of “Hot Love: Swiss Punk + Wave 1976 – 1980” )

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 Until next time,

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