The most radical act of making art: Vancouver artist Jayce Salloum on his recent Governor General's Award and his many fights against censorship

Like an archeological dig, Jayce Salloum's Downtown Eastside living room floor is arranged in a grid: his Afghanistan photographs carefully measured between strings stretched taut, a sort of creative excavation for an upcoming show. Nearby, the acclaimed Vancouver artist's past gallery plans are crumpled into a half-metre taped ball of newsprint.

The 56-year-old artist won a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts on March 26. Raised in Kelowna, Salloum returned to B.C. from New York in 1997, when he formed the desmedia Downtown Eastside artist collective, which ran a drop-in arts program for residents.

He spoke to Megaphone about the award, censorship, and the importance of “in-between spaces”:

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Megaphone: How has your work in the Downtown Eastside informed your art practice today? 

Jayce Salloum: Working in the Downtown Eastside helped impress upon me that everyone has many stories in their lives. Given enough time, if you listen and pay attention, people will open up, trust you, and tell you their stories...we all carry different knowledges. I think the most radical act of political art-making is collaboration or collectivity—thinking outside your own solitary practice in the studio. It's important to have time to withdraw and reflect, but social engagement is also crucial.

MP: Congratulations on your Governor General's Award. Is there any work you feel most earned it?

JS: It's a career achievement award, so it's not for one particular project. But people are more familiar with my video installation called “Untitled: 1999-ongoing.” It looks at people living in interstitiality...in between states of being. Whether you're in permanent exile, or displaced temporarily, we all experience in-between states in our lives. For some people, such as refugees, it might be their whole lives that they can't go back home. There's a number of pieces I shot in the Middle East, another during the breakup of former Yugoslavia, others I shot with First Nations communities here in B.C., as well as with Maori people in New Zealand.

MP: Is that the installation that was censored by the Canadian Museum of Civilization? 

JS: That's the one. It got off to an auspicious start!

MP: What happened?

JS: The museum's intention was to show an exchange of Arabic-Canadian artists. But after 9/11, the director freaked out and said Arab voices can't be shown so soon after 9/11. We fought to have the show mounted as planned, and through people writing letters, pressuring their MPs, and MPs pressuring Jean Chretien, he did the right thing and stood up in the House of Commons in Question Period and said, “If it is good for March 2002, it is good for October 2001.”

MP: It must have felt like a big victory for the arts as a whole.

JS: It's a reminder that when people band together, they can affect change. It happens rarely, but it's beautiful when you see it happen. It was the result of a few of us... sending out as many emails as we could.

MP: You've worked with First Nations here in B.C., and your work often talks about the colonial legacy. 

JS: I was invited in 2005 to make a film as part of Kelowna's Centennial celebrations. Being from there, I had to think of the most important project I could do—and I decided to present voices of First Nations people who have lived there since before colonization, to show their histories and stories of the area. But when it was scheduled to be screened, the City of Kelowna cancelled the screening and tried to censor my piece.

MP: What did you do about that?

JS: We went ahead and did a screening anyway—we even booked it in the same theatre they'd cancelled! It was a fabulous screening, and hundreds of people up and down the valley came, about half First Nations and half not, and there was a traditional ceremony before the screening. It really brought communities together.

MP: Do you know what they objected to in your film?

JS: These were people speaking frankly and honestly about their lives, their grandparents' lives, the creation of the reserve system and of residential schools. They might have objected to the histories being told frankly and honestly, which they may not have been used to—people not holding back…I always say that colonization is the theft that keeps on taking.

MP: I understand your grandparents immigrated from Syria. Has that affected your artistic practice—maybe your interest in the “in-between spaces” you mentioned?

JS: It's part of that. I also did a lot of work in the Middle East, a lot was looking at how issues of representation play out in contemporary art on the ground. I wanted to go to where my family's from, in what was then Syria but is now Lebanon, and see if it meant anything to me, if there was a place for me there.

But it's also from growing up in a family that wasn't afraid to discuss politics at the dinner table. They always embraced a lively discussion. I also grew up in the’60s when radical politics were part of the mainstream discussion for kids.

MP: So what's next for you? Where do you see yourself in five years?

JS: There are so many new projects I want to do. One thing that I think is most important now is the Fukushima disaster. The Western world has chosen to ignore it in such a wave of denial but still hundreds of tonnes of radioactive waste are leaking into the water every day. This will haunt us forever, for all our lifetimes.

MP: What gives you hope or gets you up in the morning?

JS: The practice of making art, and passion about the practice, keeps me going. There's a lot of things that could prevent me from getting out of bed in the morning, but with humanity there's always hope. As an artist, no matter how cynical you might be, there's a sense of optimism because somebody will view it after you've made it. 

Nature is also a driving force for me. It's why I moved here from New York. Even if our culture doesn't survive, I'm sure nature will, in one shape or another. The first thing I see when I wake up and when I go to bed is the Burrard Inlet. It might be polluted, but it's a reminder of the force that unites and surrounds us all. 

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