This Crash Gallery judge knows what it's like to make art for a live audience — but not underwater
Before he makes his debut as one of the show's new art experts, get to know Syrus Marcus Ware
He's an artist, curator and academic, and Crash Gallery expert Syrus Marcus Ware can imagine what it's like to be a competitor on this high-pressure show — one where artists race to create masterpieces in front of a rowdy audience (possibly while strung upside down).
So maybe Ware's never experienced those exact circumstances. But when it comes to creating art for a live audience, he's been there — although he typically gives himself a few days, not a few minutes, to finish.
When the show returns to CBC on February 5, he'll be among a few new faces on the show, joining art experts Bridget Moser and Paul de Guzman. Each episode, this panel will share their takes on the competitors' work before turning things over to the audience. The crowd will ultimately decide who wins, but what this trio has to say just might swing the vote.
Here, Ware tells CBC Arts a little about himself and the whole Crash Gallery experience.
Syrus Marcus Ware, artist and academic
What's your art about?
"It's very socially motivated. I do a lot of political art making."
"Most of my work, certainly in the last five years, has really focused on the lives of activists [...] celebrating and honouring their work and their organizing."
"I've done very large-scale portraits of organizers in Black Lives Matter — in the United States and Canada — or organizers and activists who are doing sort of small-scale organizing on a local level, and really trying to think through why they do what they do, why they choose to keep doing it."
"I also do a lot of performance art and work around disability and what my experience of disability is. It's usually [done] with a bit of humour, but just trying to get people to think about how we've set up society in such a way that it kind of benefits some people but not everybody."
How did you become an artist?
"My mother's an artist, and I come from a long line of artists. So even as a child I knew this was something that I wanted to do for my day to day."
"It seemed very possible, the idea of being an artist, and that it could be somebody's job. I feel very lucky that I get to do that."
"And because I'm also an activist, making art that is about social movements and movement building was a natural fit."
When did you realize you could use art as part of your activism, or vice versa?
"I think when I was going to art school. I made a lot of work that was specifically about social issues — and it was not well received. I was told it was too political, or too overt. And I thought, 'OK, maybe I'm onto something, in fact.' (laughs) If it's making people uncomfortable or wanting to really think through the issues, maybe this is a good sign."
Why did you want to be on Crash Gallery?
"I like the idea of bringing artists together and connecting people across the country. There's something so powerful that happens when artists get the opportunity to be together, to make work in the same environment, to meet each other — especially across distances. It makes better art happen and it really helps us to build an artistic community that's sort of networked and connected, so to me that was really appealing."
"And then the idea of the creative challenges. There's a political focus on some of the challenges and the idea of giving people these complex problems in a very short amount of time in a creative way — I'm so interested in that. To me, that's what activism is. That's what a lot of the organizing that we do is. That's what real life is like: trying to use our creativity to solve a problem in a quick way."
The show really tries to throw artists out of their comfort zone. Is it the same for the Crash Gallery experts? What was the experience like?
"I think for me, just to go back to that story of being in art school and being very heavily criticized for making the kinds of work I wanted to make, I was very sensitive to what it means to offer someone feedback."
The creative challenges [...] That's what real life is like, trying to use our creativity to solve a problem in a quick way.- Syrus Marcus Ware,
"It's hard! They are given such a difficult challenge of making things in a really quick way with really unusual conditions. (laughs) So how do you judge or assess someone's work when it's been such a challenge just to make it? But I really loved being able to offer what I offered. For me it was very cathartic to be in that role and give people feedback in a way that was hopefully generous in a way that I didn't always feel the feedback that was given to me was generous."
How would you sum up your judging style, then?
"(laughs) I'm maybe not the softie, but I was the tender judge, the tender art judge."
What was it like taping all these challenges with an audience?
"I think that'll be really interesting for viewers to watch because you have this added element of performing live and creating live.
"To me, I know this feeling well. (laughs)"
"The Activist Portrait Series — I've been doing these very large-scale hand-drawn portraits of activists, 12 feet by 6 feet or larger, and I draw them over a durational period in the gallery. I did it at Daniels Spectrum, the Art Gallery of York University — so there's been a couple different places I've done that in. And it's a whole different thing when you're in what I like to call a fishbowl, where people are watching you make what you're making."
So what does it feel like to make art in front of an audience?
"First of all, if you're a social person — if someone was asking you questions while you're making what you're making, the tendency is to sort of stop and have a conversation, but you actually don't have a lot of time sometimes."
"The work that I make, I do it over a period of 84 hours in the gallery while people are watching. [...] For these artists, I was like, I can imagine what this must feel like — but they have an even greater pressure cooker of only having a certain number of minutes."
I don't know that I could do what they do. I have full respect for what they're able to pull off.- Syrus Marcus Ware,
"But the other thing that's really positive about it is you get to have real-time feedback where people are engaging with how you make your work or why you're making the decisions that you're making, and I love that part."
"I saw that happening during Crash Gallery and that's one of the nice things about making live work in front of people. You kind of de-mystify the process of art creation."
What's the must-see challenge from Season 2?
Episode 2: Oils and water
Armed with oil paints, goggles and snorkels, the artists are plunged into dunk tanks where they're challenged to paint underwater.
"I'm a painter, and although I work in acrylic, I know oil paint can be very challenging. I wasn't sure how it was going to work — even though the physics and chemistry of it make sense."
"It was so interesting seeing how the artists negotiated getting little bits of help and support from the audience when they weren't really able to talk because they had scuba gear in their mouth. [...] Some members of the audience were holding their palettes for them, stuff like that, to make things more manageable."
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"And then the work that came out at the end was so, so beautiful and so powerful. The winner of that particular challenge, their work — it was just such a beautiful piece, notwithstanding it was made under such unusual conditions: underwater, with scuba gear, with oil paint. Even if you didn't know that back story, you would still think it was such a striking work of art."
Would you ever compete on Crash Gallery?
"(laughs) I have full props and respect and love to the artists on the show because I would find it really daunting having to do a very large-scale work. I do do it in one go just the way that they do, but I do it over 84 hours! (laughs)"
"I don't know that I could do what they do. I have full respect for what they're able to pull off."
Season 2 of Crash Gallery premieres on CBC Television Sunday, Feb. 5 at 9:30 p.m. Until then, catch up on what you missed. Watch all of Season 1 online.