Arts

How Ottawa's Nordic Lab is creating new opportunities for Northern art

The expanded space at the SAW Gallery is promoting cultural exchanges between Indigenous people in circumpolar nations.

SAW Gallery's expanded space is promoting cultural exchanges between Indigenous people in circumpolar nations

A view of Arts Court from the Mackenzie King Bridge. (Joshua Soucie)

For creators living in under-served Northern communities, geographic isolation and a lack of resources present a barrier to success. But the Nordic Lab — a new initiative at the SAW Gallery in downtown Ottawa — is hoping to empower these artists by offering them a mainstage platform to showcase their craft.

The newly expanded space in downtown Ottawa now hosts artists in residence, showcases Nordic art and provides educational programs geared toward Inuit youth — all the while promoting cultural exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, Norway and other circumpolar nations.

The SAW Gallery's curator, Jason St-Laurent, says the Nordic Lab is both a program and a set of physical spaces, though the public will have to wait until the spring of 2020 to view it. St-Laurent says the physical spaces will consist of "screen printing spaces and an artist residency space, which we're naming after Annie Pootoogook," the legendary Inuk artist who passed away in 2016.

"We're all about being the social lubricant of the art world," says St-Laurent. "We're not your grandmother's art institution."

Tam-Ca Vo-Van stands in her bright, document-arrayed office during our interview. (Joshua Soucie)

Tam-Ca Vo-Van, the SAW Gallery's director, says the Nordic Lab has been a long time in the making: "We have collaborated often with different Nordic embassies on special presentations. Things just came together, and our curator, Jason St-Laurent, thought of putting in place this Nordic Lab, which would bring together artists from Nordic countries and the North of Canada, and also from Ottawa, in a sort of triangular zone of collaboration."

"We were involved, for about two years, in major renovations — an expansion of our space," says Vo-Van, referring to the tripling of the gallery's space to its current 15,000 square foot home in Arts Court. "We didn't have our programming spaces for about two years, so we relaunched our facilities at the end of July, but the Nordic Lab wasn't ready at that time, so we delayed the opening."

The director describes the Nordic Lab as a research and production space that SAW is making available to its visiting artists. The program is also an educational space that the gallery hopes will invite artists-in-residence to get involved with the local community through initiatives such as community art projects or workshops.

The gallery's curator and director allowed us to get a shot of the Nordic Lab’s contemporary artist-in-residence studio space while it is still under construction. (Joshua Soucie)

"At the moment, we're working on a collaboration with an Inuit children's centre as well as the City of Ottawa, more specifically the Community Arts and Social Engagement program, to put together workshops [for various age groups] that are coming up in November," says Vo-Van. "With the Nordic Lab, we really wanted to involve the local Inuit community. The Nordic Lab initiative has an artistic mandate but also an educational one. We want to involve youth in artmaking. We really want to contribute to the well-being of the community in which we live, and we really believe the transfer of traditional knowledge is beneficial, especially for youth that are marginalized."

For its Nordic Lab, the SAW Gallery will be installing semi-automated screen printing presses, which St-Laurent describes as "octopus presses" because their many arms make it simple to accomplish large-scale editions of projects, such as the simultaneous production of T-shirts, bags or prints: "Normally, when you're hand-making it, it can take forever, but with this semi-automated press, you can do 500 no problem."

"We're launching a project called the SAW Art and Protest Initiative," says St-Laurent, explaining that the project will help elevate the visual impact of political actions or protests by pairing organized social movements with artists to devise visual campaigns through merchandise that will be funded and produced by the SAW Gallery. "SAW, in its beginnings in '73, was a bunch of activists, feminists and queers coming together to create something where people can see themselves reflected all across the gallery. We kind of wanted to go back to our activist roots, and normally, we can't apply for funding for political anything, so now we're using the profits from the bar to invest in our projects."

SAW Gallery curator Jason St-Laurent. (Joshua Soucie)

The bar to which St-Laurent is referring is known as Club SAW, where gallery-goers are invited to grab a drink to sip on as they view the pieces laid out throughout the gallery. 

Despite the delay in the launch of the Nordic Lab's physical spaces, the program is well underway. In the fall of 2018, they welcomed their first artist-in-residence, Sobey Art Award-shortlisted artist Joi T. Arcand. Club SAW therefore features a neon sign that was commissioned by the gallery over the course of Arcand's residency. 

During her residency, Arcand took on a hybrid role with the gallery, becoming the Nordic Lab's first program director. Arcand says she looks forward to seeing some of the international partnerships she has helped foster come to life as she moves on to her next residency at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre.

Joi Arcand's neon signs hang on the wall of Club SAW. (Joshua Soucie)

On November 7, SAW will be hosting an afterparty in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada for the launch of the Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel exhibition, which will be showcasing the works of over 70 Indigenous artists from around the world. At their afterparty, the Nordic Lab's second artist-in-residence, Norwegian Sámi artist Elle Márjá Eira, will be performing Joiks, which the artist describes as Europe's oldest singing tradition.

"Joik is still a living art, and I always say that Joik is my heart language," says Márjá Eira. "I will perform a Joik, a piece from the Norwegian feature film The 12th Man, directed by Harald Zwart. I composed that piece together with film music composer Christophe Beck. [...] I hope that the audience is able to capture my feelings and stories, and that they somehow come into my world. My universe is completely different from yours."

With its emphasis on community building and spotlight on Northern art, the Nordic Lab's programming is sure to give its event participants chills.

About the Author

Joshua Soucie is a freelance journalist who usually covers arts and culture. Aside from feature writing, Soucie produces short docs and is currently working on a queer web series with a cultural outlet in Ottawa. His Gen Z angst also manifests in the occasional Op-Ed or social media tirade. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshuasoucie.