Our conversation with Joshua Vettivelu first took place during one of the last few days before this past new year. We got in touch with Vettivelu weeks prior and after sorting out scheduling conflicts, we finally made it happen. And after months of putting our chat into transcript in collaboration with Vettivelu, we are happy to share what we conversed about that crispy morning when we gave them a wake-up call. "I just got home a few hours ago and so I might sound groggy" Vettivelu advises us. Groggy or not, we had many laughs throughout and learned quite a lot from Vettivelu. There are a lot of quotable moments throughout our chat. They don’t give themselves enough credit for how well-spoken they are even if they feel language tend to run against them. Vettivelu recently contributed a poignant essay for C Magazine detailing his views on institutional hidden terms when it comes to inclusion. This same subject was on their minds last year when they spearheaded a float for the Toronto Pride Parade with an awning that read: “HOW FOOLISH IT FEELS, TO TAKE THESE STEPS, THINKING YOU’D PROTECT US. – A MESSAGE TO THOSE AT THE TOPS OF TOWERS.” Vettivelu also initiated a panel discussion on the same topic with artists Abbas Akhavan and Deanna Bowen--and that’s just among many other undertakings Vettivelu has been active in. On top of all that, Vettivelu has their own dynamic studio practice. So, we were rather lucky to get some time with the Toronto artist, administrator, and educator as they shared with us why being administrator can sometimes feel like an endurance performance art piece, the difficulties in explaining their art practice to their immigrant parents, where his obsession with making hands come from and so much more.
Check out our chat below with the amiable Joshua Vettivelu
"i am the kind of artist that everything I make --I fucking love to masturbate--is always about me. You know? But it's about me in a social context. Me as power dynamic as existing in the world. I think no matter what kind of artist you are this is always true, and it just a matter of how much of your practice is concerned with revealing where you’re situated in this matrix of power. But that isn’t - and shouldn’t- be an all encompassing framework for approaching an artist’s work. "
Do you have plans for the day?
No plans but I have that never-ending pile of work that I slowly need to pick up. I think I’ve got like invoices and reimbursements and gross accounting shit to sort through.
Is this for Whippersnapper?
So you have to do all the clerical side of things?
Yeah, some of it. It’s a two-person organization and we both work part time. We go from mopping floors to like giving lectures.
So you are doing it all…
Oh yeah, it’s a real boot camp
How long have you guys been at it?
Well Whippersnapper is about 13 years old. But I’ve been doing since Feb 2016. it still feels pretty new but it’s going pretty good.
Was it what you expected it to be when you started?
Yes, I think it is. If anything, I expected it to be a little bit more gruelling - but it’s still a hefty workload.
I’m only the third person who has received a salary from Whippersnapper prior to that it was a group of people working where they would right a project grant and if they got it they’d split like a thousand-dollar curatorial fee between four people for months of work. When I started working I began to realize I was inheriting a lot of free labour. I’m also a studio artist and art administration can seem like a weird endurance performance art piece. It can be really trying sometimes. I truly don’t know if I’m good at it or not. It a weird feeling for me where I don’t know where I stand at any moment. But I think I’m doing ok, probably. Maybe I’m just being hung-over and self deprecating.
Well, you organized that Found Footing project which is pretty cool…
Yeah thanks. That was my first curatorial gig with the gallery. I wrote the grant in late Feb when I started, and now it’s finally coming about in November.
And you began that conversation series at the gallery too.
Yes, the first one was the Damned If You Do: A Conversation on the Politics of Refusal. Where we brought in Deanna Bowen who is currently a Guggenheim Fellow and Abbas Akhavan who won the Sobey Award in 2015 and was having a show at the Guggenheim at the same time. Part of my thinking with Whippersnapper is that it’s important to center art exhibitions with emerging artists but it's also important to have an intergenerational conversation happening. I wanted to put these two established artists who work on an international scale, but are based in Toronto in conversation with each other.
What exactly did you guys raise on the politics of refusal?
We talked about inclusion and when inclusion into spaces feel suspect, what are the tools of negotiation you are allowed to have in terms of refusal? We boiled down our conversation to three questions. The first one being how do you refuse, the second one was what if they don’t let you refuse, --for that I mean, there’s been a lot of time where I’ve made a piece a people will still always read it through the lens of my body and even though I’m actively refusing reductive identity politics it still gets read that way so the refusal isn’t allowed to manifest. The third question being what if you don’t want to refuse. What if you do want to fuck with identity politics? How do you do that? Our second round of PEERS included only people of color and we were talking about what it means to be included especially in a neoliberal state like Canada where inclusion is very much insidious and operates as a tool, just like anything else.
We also run this residency called PEERS in the gallery which was a three month paid residency where a group of artists meet to talk. There’s no ‘making’ as part of this. We didn’t expect the artist to do anything but rather talking about the terms of production. And it actually been one of the most amazing experiences of my life because I get oversee and be in two rounds of PEERS and it was just an amazing art specific group therapy but not always even art specific. It really showed me how special just coming together and sharing the plethora of messy shit you are dealing with and everyone being in agreement with you saying 'where can we go from there?' It’s through the PEERS program that the themes of the Conversation Series develops.
"I have a fucked up and stressful relationship to language- for so many different reasons : through queerness, through being dyslexic, through immigration, through only knowing English and not my native tongue. Arriving at language is always strange and insufficient and that is why I turn to art."
How did you know these two artists could help facilitate this conversation and how did you get them on board?
I met Deanna when I was a resident in the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency hosted on the Toronto Islands. I was the youngest artist in residence there, so I was generally intimidated by everyone, but when Deanna visited to do studio visits I immediately was like, 'holy crap this person knows their shit.'
During our studio visit I remember she kept grilling me on specific word choices and kept asking me to clarify. I was definitely unprepared, no one ever had ever asked me to explain myself with that much rigour. After, over dinner, we had a conversation where I learned about her work and a couple of negotiations she’s had to do throughout her career. For example, intentionally refusing to show images of black bodies (especially those in pain or danger), was a push-back against the expectations people had of her art practice. I was fascinated by this negotiation, which eventually led to the question of how to refuse but still participate.
For my first time encountering Abbas, I went to a talk he had at NSCAD back in 2012 and I was struck by his ability to speak frankly about complicated ideas, in a way that was passionate and poetic. (I’m forever intimidated by everyone). Some of the things he said during that talk are still kicking around in my head to this day. He talked about how is identity as a Persian/Iranian* artists bars him from certain visual tropes (carpets, scrollwork, Arabic calligraphy) because there’s an expectation for his practice to rely on them. He talked about how, especially in Canada, identity politics operates within its own cultural economy, that can render an artist expendable. I believe the phrase he used was “meat of the moment” and I have a hard time forgetting how deeply I empathized with the imagery. He also talked about “killing your hero” which was kind of a mind blowing statement to hear out loud, because I often had felt that way towards other artists I looked up to, but thought it was one of those ugly, weird thoughts you keep to yourself. But by treating this ‘ugly thought’ seriously, he was able to turn it into a real critique of how artist get circulated and related to each other.
I should also clarify we are not talking about literally killing anyone or intentionally ruining their career, but rather breaking through established precedents and parameters that have been laid out for you. Sometimes the artists who ‘make it’ get reduced to a certain set of tropes or themes that then get affixed to any artists who shares a similar subject position that emerge after them. It was interesting to hear about how he anticipates this and tries to subvert it.
Also in general, I just have a lot of respect for artists who can speak publicly about the messiness of internally navigating your own ego and self as a process that runs parallel to navigating the external world.
I have no idea why they said yes to participating, but I think it’s largely because these conversations are already happening in private, and there’s something about publicly presenting it that is radical. But it also requires a great deal of risk on the presenters part.
I’m curious about this irritation to actively not want your work to be seen through your body…
It’s more an anxiety lined with irritation at this point. I’m the kind of artist that everything I make --I fucking love to masturbate--is always about me. You know? But it's about me in a social context. Me as power dynamic as existing in the world. I think no matter what kind of artist you are this is always true, and it just a matter of how much of your practice is concerned with revealing where you’re situated in this matrix of power. But that isn’t - and shouldn’t- be an all encompassing framework for approaching an artist’s work.
Art gives you a lot of ambiguity because it allows you the space to figure shit out. But I think is important to be direct with somethings --which is why I’m grateful for interviews like this. So when I think about the irritation you are referencing, I think it is more of an anxiety of a lazy audience. An audience that would see something in my work that is intentionally complex as just a signifier for “brown-ess” or “Sri Lanka-ness” —and it ends there.
Yes, sometimes the verbiage surrounding the narrative of the work reduces it.
Exactly. It is important to find new ways of speaking and this is something Whippersnapper has drawn out of me. I have a fucked up and stressful relationship to language- for so many different reasons : through queerness, through being dyslexic, through immigration, through only knowing English and not my native tongue. Arriving at language is always strange and insufficient and that is why I turn to art. Because for me it is just an amalgamation of different symbolic references that I can just mash together and put it in this space of exhibition and incubate them. I like to think about them as utterances, they are not even full words. They are kind of just disparate floating parts that you can eventually put them together to form half of a meaning or reference. Maybe? I don’t know.
So where this anxiety/irritation comes up is when a viewer who doesn’t know the material lexicon I’m trying to build within my work would immediately brands me under terms like like colonisation or diaspora. And I just want to flag - we’re all guilty of it! It’s a form of shorthand that allows us to summarize a practice during quick conversations. The problem I have with it is that comes from a reliance on these pre-existing referents. It’s as if, through their repetition, these terms of classification have emptied themselves. This kind of shorthand tries to refer back to a singular shared experience, but that in itself is dangerously inaccurate. Think about the word feminism, and then think about Laverne Cox, Michelle Obama and Lena Dunham. All of them have been categorized as feminists by different factions, but all operate and work towards very different things. The disparity in the referent of ‘feminism’ reveals its inadequacy as sole category for these three women’s works.
So, when curators or people come into my work and tell me that I’m obsessed with identity politics or race or diaspora just on the very basis that I’m brown and I’m making work about myself, I always want to push back and say: “Sure you can use the word ‘colonialism’ but I want you to understand that to me colonialism isn’t theoretical textbook phrase. It is actually a relationship to my father and my father’s relationship to his mother and the social situation there created personalities. My father growing up in Sri Lanka in the specific subjecthood he occupies formulated his personality and that personality then raised me. That is the personal connection I try and tease out. Through anecdotes I’m able to tease out the humanity that is rooted a word like ‘colonialism’. It is a set of personal experiences that are then extrapolated into larger frameworks of power.
I think there’s a place for this kind of language, but I think it’s really important to find different ways of speaking. I always try to imagine using this kind of language when talking to my immigrant parents. What language do I use to relay the urgency I’m approaching my work with?
Yeah, good luck…
Yeah, it’s a real task. I’m interested in how people have conversations with their parents. You can’t just be like [speaks in a mocking lethargic whinny voice] “Well…I’m post structuralism, formalist. I’m really interested relation aesthetics.” That means nothing to me and mean even less to my parents.
I found it funny that someone actually thought your video Fort Da was about slavery…
Yeah...I showed it at a film festival in Scotland. And was like “What?” I was so upset. I didn’t even know what to do. “I was like I’m not West Indian, I’m not black” Like where is this coming from?? You know?
It all goes back to what you were saying about not being allowed to refuse…
Yes! That is exactly what happens when they don’t let you refuse. I can’t even make a gay video about water without it being about some ship full of psychotic white people.
You think that would ever go away?
No, but what that does it forces me to be really smart and anticipate people’s reactions. It’s a lot more work but I think most kids of color hear from their parents especially in North America, “You gotta work twice as much” this is where it shows up in the art world. My work is to anticipate audience reaction and do something that could like trick or switch their perceptions.
Fort Da (Ongoing series)
Going back to your Fort Da piece, and some of your other pieces like Pulse or Glory Hole, they all seem to be ongoing and incomplete in a way. Which correlates with what you said about your problem with language and making work intuitively then figuring it out later on. Do you think the work is making less of a sense to you as you do it with different people and at different locations…does that make sense?
JV: [sighs and pauses]
Do you think ultimately the goal is to find a reason why you are compelled to create what you create?
[ponders for seconds] that’s a good question…
Glory Hole (ongoing series) Documentation by Elise Victoria Windsor
Or do you think it’s a way of trying to figure something out for yourself?
That’s a very good question that I maybe intentionally avoid. I will say the point of doing art is not to figure out why I’m doing art. That seems like a can of worms to figure out why but also maybe an interesting can of worms. The way I would describe it will carry over some kind of romanticizing of the artist which I truly hate. But I think I’m just responding to urgencies and I never really know if it will go anywhere. I also think maybe some messages are never meant to arrive. Which I guess relates to Fort Da, there was kind of a gap or a one sided gap of communication…I lost my train of thought.
[both laugh abruptly]
Well, let’s talk about Pulse piece because for that one you’ve done it with different people and at several locations how do you think the work changes as the context also change…
Yeah I’ve done it with like maybe 200 people now.
Yeah, I’ve done it at couple performance art festivals. It was a research project about a forced intimacy that then brings about anxiety. The whole idea is you hear/feel both heart beats and you don’t know which one is yours. I thought it would be like romantic or chill or something, but it just made most people nervous and anxious.
Pulse (ongoing series), Vettivelu invited a group of First Nations performers to amplify their heartbeats at an event at the AGO
Photo Source Art Matters Blog
Anxiety is an interesting affect, especially politically. I was asked to put something together for the AGO’s First Thursdays and the night was about land rights and indigenous solidarity. I invited a couple of Indigenous friends and performers to sit in a semi-circle in the Thom Thompson room at the AGO and I made a choir of their amplified heart beats with concert speakers. From where I was sitting, the floors were vibrating with their heartbeats. I was thinking about amplification and the transition of affect, and how far can a human body reach, how far can someone’s humanity be transmitted? What does it mean to amplify bodies, especially these specific bodies in a room dedicated to the Group of Seven?
OK, last few questions for you is: can you remember an early memory of making something can look back as being creative inclination…
From the ages of like 10-14 I used to draw hands obsessively, like I have multiple full sketchbooks of drawings of hands. Which is really weird because now I’m working on a project where I’m casting my grandma’s hands a thousand times. Anyways, my parents were like “why is this kid always drawing hands?? what a weirdo. We should have signed them up for sports”. They really should have.
Are you looking forward to anything in the New Year?
I'm not a very positive person. I wish I had a better answer for you.
OK well thanks for making time for me.
No, thank you.
Cover image by Chelle Whitchurch