Continental Drifts


Corrie Jackson 
& Emelie Chhangur



Human experience isn’t monolithic. Contemporary art offers possible perspectives through which futures can be considered, experienced and defined. Artists play a critical role in this imagining. They create portals into ways of being, and ways of being in-relation. The parameters for how these proposals come into association with those of us who engage and experience these intents are mediated by the context of conceptual frameworks presentations.

The act of engaging contemporary art with an awareness of the context in which it is presented, is akin to considering possibilities of the future with an active recognition and consideration of where we are situated within our current moment, physically, geographically, and in time. This gives us the muscle memory of how we might observe, consider, and respond to the conditions in which we find ourselves at any moment.  

This is one of the reasons I wanted to speak with Emelie Chhangur. Her approach to facilitating engagement, and shaping audience/institution relationships has offered space for reconsideration of why and how art acts as a catalyst for meaningful reflection and change. 
Emelie is the newly appointed Director/Curator of Agnes Etherington Art Center, anchored in Kingston Ontario, on Queen’s University campus. She arrived there after 17 years at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), where she has created a national and international dialogue of artistic practice rooted in relationship-based making and engagement. 

She takes on a constant, reflexive, and absorbing approach to the role of institutional space, anchored in the onus of internal change. As an artist, curator, and director, Emelie has been actively  building on this work for over two decades, and in many ways, has created precedents for institutional change that we can look to as we consider how culture will exist in futurity.

In Conversation

There is a unique experience of relation in the moments where I’ve been a participant/viewer/observer in the spaces and programs you present. The way that you brought artists into and out of institutional spaces support the artists’ autonomy, intents, and the communities they engage.

As an observer, your approach feels like a microcosm of how one can consider barriers and space; and understand art's role is in that relationship. You dissipate the idea of broad strokes around definitions of culture and identity and anchor them in the durational  experience of engaging with an art practice. The anchoring role of relationships in fostering culture is how I have understood your practice. Maybe we can begin here? 
I’m really flattered to hear that, but also, it's nice to hear it crystallized. I do feel like I'm in the middle of it, the practice, since all of my practices are super intuitive. It’s hard to see it as objectively as you have articulated it just now. I operate with a general ethic that flows forward and I move with it; a kind of ex-centric curiosity that is always challenging, and changing. And that's what makes it exciting. I have a terrible, terrible fear around routine and banality. It’s why I work with contemporary art and collaborate with artists.

In many ways, in your past role at the AGYU, you were deeply intertwined with how I understood and defined that space. There was never a moment of banality. It was a long-term evolution.

I've been given a few opportunities lately to look back at this practice through formalized talks. Given some distance, I'm like, whoa, I didn't work on a series of long-term projects. I worked for 17 years on a single project: the AGYU.

Within those years you created a way of working known as “in-reach.” Can you speak to your role in mobilizing that approach? And how are you shifting that ethos into your work at the Agnes?
In-reach is a practice that was developed through making socially engaged curatorial projects that brought individuals and groups together over long periods of time. Through the process of their making, these projects  forced the institution to bend and to meet the methodological demands of the individuals and communities with whom I was working.

Coming to Agnes was a chance to ask: what does it mean to make in-reach an institutional practice and not just project-based? I believe that curating is simply a way to bring individuals, entities, communities, donors, spaces, exhibitions, into relation.  I now take this, the “curatorial” on as  Director. It is through relationality that we bring  new forms (regimes of visibility, ways of working, structures) into the world. In-reach happens when different cultural protocols, social economies, and ways of working, come into the institution of art and change it from within. I recognized early on the incommensurability of the institutions of art to accommodate different worldviews or non-Western ways of working. I understand that it is not the communities that need to change, but the institutions themselves. So, institutionally speaking, this has to happen not only through our working methodologies,  but also our budget lines, our human resources, administrative structures. Those are the elements that underpin broader societal transformation and change.

The structures that allow a museum to function are so often anchored in the processes and people, but also in the physicality of the space.  What drew you to Agnes? And what do you see as its relationship between its ethos and its physicality?
The reason I was attracted to Agnes (seduced?) was because it has all the trappings of a museum, but because it's a University-affiliated museum, it’s nimble enough to change. It is the place to redefine museological practice in this country because transformation can happen in between Agnes’ civic and pedagogical function. It  serves a dual mandate that creates a liminal space worthy of what we might call a third way.

Perhaps it is because I'm a mixed race person that I'm attracted to duality, or hybridity, and I have become good at rocking a liminal space in-between, which is always about negotiation. These university-affiliated art institutional spaces are publicly funded and as permeable entities, serve both civic and social function. At the intersection of pedagogy and civic responsibility is art's ability to transform social imaginaries.

At Agnes, what has become central to my reimagining of the institution is this museum’s physical origins is a house. Agnes Etherington, from which Agnes gets its name, bequeathed her home to Queen’s in order to “further the cause of art in community.”  Agnes has developed out of the initial gift of this forward-thinking woman. I've been considering  (in so many ways) how to work along a continuum. What does this “cause” mean in the 21st century? And what does it mean to further the cause of arts and community as a museum? This feels like a future-oriented proposition to me.

One core vision piece for Agnes Reimagined (which is what I am calling a major redevelopment project I am currently overseeing),  is to return the Etherington house back into a home: to create a four bedroom apartment upstairs for artists residencies and make the downstairs--complete with living room, dining room and kitchen, and all the trappings of a house-- a community facing hub. This space needs to be outside the security perimeter of the museum itself so that it can operate on its own time scale and act as a kind of self-organizing entity, but also be a place where artists actually live inside the museum. This then becomes the heart of the whole institution. To turn the house back into a home makes hospitality the institutional ethos of Agnes. It brings the art centre back to its origins.

You’re making a space into a place. There’s a new intimacy there.
The minute I arrived at Agnes, I took the “The” off ‘The Agnes,” which the museum has been  familiarly referred to. I wanted to take the definite article off and make it Agnes, permitting the institution a personality.

You’ve anthropomorphized the museum and anchored it in the intentions and spirit of its creation. How does Agnes enact its newly found personality?
Well, I am addressing  the institution as if it is a woman! Agnes. Agnes can also now address her publics. We have started to performatively take this up through, for instance, the language of our marketing, which is also engaging with people on a personal and direct level during COVID. Take for example Agnes’  robust wellness program. Our whole messaging changed around this program, making it more playful and  invitational and  foregrounding  an ethics of hospitality (affability, in familiarity)—one that is consistent with our upcoming branding of Agnes Reimagined and as a performative refrain related to the art centre’s origins: the gift of Agnes Etherington’s House to Queen’s to “further the cause of art in community.”

The living room is an office.
The kitchen is an archive.
The bedroom is a classroom.
It’s time to welcome wellness into the home.

It is “Agnes” that does the welcoming now. I like the slippery ambiguity between the person and the institution. This also means that all of us inside Agnes can have personalities as well. That personal interaction is shaping the vision of Agnes Reimagined.

As Agnes is about to embark on a major capital project and change of the galleries, and as all spaces are shifting how their audiences move through them- it seems appropriate to ask - what is the role of the museum as an architectural space?
When I say I'm building a new space from the ground up, what I'm really saying is: I'm building museological practice anew. Architecture becomes the physical manifestation of Agnes. I am treating the development phase as a long-term social practice project. As we get ready for a facility closure, the opportunity for an incredible period of experimentation begins. Agnes will embody this transformation through our programming  and begin working  across temporalities and worldviews. We prepare to “take the streets” when we close for the construction period. How Agnes attends to community (rather than how we look at the community’s attendance at Agnes) is actively on my mind.

Currently,  Agnes’s  collections in Contemporary, Canadian Historical, Indigenous, African and  European art, and associated time periods, are underscored by specific galleries. How these collections hold space, as well as have their own agency across space-- and time--  has already been the subject of experimentation. As we turn ourselves to the spring, an African “historic” show (though it is in dialogue with contemporary art) is happening in the contemporary galleries, while contemporary shows will take place in the so-called “historic” galleries. Those sorts of movements and gestures are already starting to shift Agnes’s work. Our European Curator will be hosting micro-residencies with contemporary artists this fall using the studio since our education programs can’t happen onsite.

This is preparing us for when Agnes  re-opens in a new facility. The galleries will be re-imagined without physically-defining time periods. Curators will work across time. What is important to me is that we are addressing definitions of how one engages with history,  and proposing new ideas about contemporaneity in the process. All art is only ever contemporary to its time. However, what is most important is the future.  What that means in the 21st century  is to work along a continuum and to constantly recalibrate and reevaluate history through the lens of the present in order to create new spaces for the future. I believe that Agnes is extremely well poised to do this kind of work. I do treat my directorship as a curatorial project. This is to say, Agnes itself is a curatorial project, relationality is the material we are working with, and architecture is the form that this work is taking.
CORRIE: Methods of display can disconnect the two ideas;  that art is contemporary within the time of its creation and that it can still actively contribute to propositions of futurities. You’re creating a shift towards spaces for reflection and historical context as space to explore futurities. You’ve always pushed on these expectations and structures of institutional space.

One of the first manifestations I witnessed was your presentation The Awakening. It was a 3-year long collaboration with Panamanian artist Humberto Vélez, traceurs (practitioners of parkour) and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation  that culminated in a ceremony/performance place at the AGO in 2011 at Walker Court. There hadn't been a lot of temporary performance enacted in large scale and set in a major collecting institution - at the time it felt like it was pushing at the architecture and ethos of the AGO.

The Awakening was the first project I worked on that honed my interest in what it means to  appropriate dramaturgical forms and reimagine them as contemporary art projects. The Awakening was a civic ceremonial. The site of this performance, Walker Court, was for me an Agora -- a public square-- and as such was an opportunity to host a public address from inside a museum. I have since gone on to make street processions and take up other recognizable dramaturgical forms, recasting the characters of these social dramas with individuals and groups who are not generally seen at the civic heart of their city or at the centre of art institutions, which are supposed to represent them. To speak truth to power from inside art institutions makes those institutions vehicles for public discourse. The art system should be full of transformative power. I am still hopeful this system can change.

The how of your approach, positions this durational nature of a relationship as being the anchor for transformation. This is something that seems applicable at all scales- from the personal to the inter-personal, to the civic. In an art-institution, staging and framing creates the platform where the intents become a part of public discourse -an opportunity for engagement and participation. Can you speak about this staging?
Yes, this is the relationship between curating and dramaturgy. I wrote my master's thesis on this but only as a way to make sense of a practice I was undertaking intuitively. They are powerful tools to transform culture. As it relates to power, this is very important to me. How things are put together is a political matter of curatorial concern, period.  I say this twice because it is that important!

We have a responsibility to be corrective in our relationality and to bring together folks who have been kept separate by systemic issues to form new legions and alliances. We do not have to check in with a center. It is  interesting to be at a museum. I am so not interested in the museum as a centering frame. I’m interested in multiplicity and the proliferations of many centers. All margins create their own centers and how those centers overlap is the space where innovation and change happens. That is the kind of museum I want to be a part of. A museum for the 22nd century!
There is something undeniably essential in the act of decentering as core to innovation and the importance of realizing one's own center as consistently in relation. You recently spoke on a panel alongside Gail Lord, Karen Carter, Gaëtane Verna, and Binkady-Emmanuel Hié as a part of the Night of Ideas presented by Alliance Franais. In this generous discussion you brought forward the role of the Two Row Wampum Treaty as not only an essential Treaty relationship between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Dutch Merchants, but also as a structural approach to the role of relation within Agnes.
The Two Row Wampum bears direct relevance in this context because Agnes holds a very significant Dutch collection, including our “beloved” Rembrandt's, and we reside on Haudenosaunee and Annishinnabek territory. This original Treaty is a beautiful framework that represented a familial relation, brother to brother. The two rows are the canoe and the ship moving in parallel down the river; a proposition for living and “governing” side-by-side, as equals.

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to have this Dutch collection being held on this territory and how the museum is an intermediary, without being incarcerative. The museum, as a European colonial construct, could not imagine what it means for a Dutch collection to be framed on Haudenosaunee Territory. As a mnemonic device (not an illustration ), the Two Row Wampum may present us with a way of working that is respectful of the equal knowledge systems and world views that can sit side by side in relation at Agnes.

Rembrandt emerged as a consequence of the Dutch Golden Age, which happened in along-side/ in relation to the Dutch colonization of  Africa. At Agnes we also have displaced African masks and ceremonial objects. How can these two get along, now that they find themselves in Kington, Ontario?

To facilitate a sincere relation, I have to change the museum.
You’re rebuilding an ethos of how we understand our bodies as well, in relation, and as a part of the dialogue between the collection and the institution. The space of the museum becomes another player in this relationship.
The Truth and Reconciliation framework at Queen’s is called “Extending the Rafters,” based on a concept that comes from the Haudenosaunee tradition of building good relations. The Haudenosaunee exemplify good relations by adding another rafter to the Longhouse. However, at Agnes, we have to rebuild from the ground up: it is not good enough for Western museological practice to only expand. In other words, we cannot just bring a practice into the institution, the institution itself has to become a practice. I am no longer proposing bringing practices to bear on institutional ethics, I am proposing that a building is built around an entirely different ethos for new museological practice to emerge from it. Agnes itself is a curatorial project, relationality is the material we are working with, and architecture is the form that this work is taking.

The act of building new feels like a more energizing approach- and perhaps a more productive one?
It's a healthy approach. You can face a lot of resistance and fear towards the dismantling of something, while you can manifest energy towards the creation of a future. I am somebody who has always negotiated, and I have always had to create--which is to say improvise--new systems of belonging.  Through that struggle, I have somehow made something that many people now feel that they belong to. It does work. I want this energy to be future oriented. These propositions of entanglements-- like the Dutch and African collections--are not to revisit trauma. Rather, it is to imagine otherwise and to capitalize on the transformative power of art to re-imagine the world anew.
I think that might be the place to let the conversation go.
Me too!


Corrie Jackson