In Practice: Kay Burns
Image credit: Kay Burns, Work in progress: Photo pertaining to evidence of the sighting of Iris in Ireland, June 2020.
Throughout the month of June, our Curator of Canadian Art, Darryn Doull, reached out to Fogo Island-based artist Kay Burns. You may remember Burns’ work from past exhibitions at The Rooms, including the popular “Folklore and Other Panics” in 2015. Among the works in that exhibition was a flattened globe of the Earth, the final stage of initiation for new members of the Flat Earth Society. While Burns’ own Museum of the Flat Earth is currently closed for the season on Fogo Island, the artist has been keeping busy in Alberta.
Hello from across the planar disc!
Hello over there, across the mighty earth plane!
You often spend the fall and winter semesters teaching studio art at the Alberta University of the Arts (AUArts). As the semester has now come to a close, what sort of situation does that put you in? Are you considering a return to your beloved and beautiful spot on Fogo Island?
I was indeed teaching at AUArts in Calgary this past term. My contract finished on April 30 – and now I can’t get back to my lovely home on Fogo Island. We had flights booked (to Gander) to go back home early May and they were cancelled due to COVID. I have no idea when it might be safe to travel again, especially when it's so far and entails multiple flight changes, airport waits, possible overnights, and travel from Gander to the ferry connection to Fogo Island. Our car is parked at home on Fogo Island and I can’t imagine that anyone will want to give us a ride to the ferry without a two-week isolation period first, but we can’t isolate until we actually get home. So it is a very awkward situation. For now we continue to stay in Calgary and will see what happens over the next while.
As you continue to make your home in Calgary, what effect has all of this had on your studio practice and making new art and inquiries?
While I remain in Calgary, I am somewhat limited and perplexed regarding my studio work in several ways. First of all, I don’t have a studio in Calgary. When I was teaching at AUArts, I had access to the studios and shops on campus for my experimentation and work, until the school closed due to COVID. While I was finishing up teaching (online), I was concentrating on my obligations to students and faculty responsibilities. Once my contract was complete, I found myself floundering and rather unfocused at a time when I would be returning home to my own studio and to beautiful, remote Fogo Island. I am working on things, but in short bursts. Everything feels like part of a disjointed and piecemeal process.
I was very pleased to find out that my ArtsNL grant application was successful, so that has helped spur me into action. The grant will go towards developing the first phase of an installation structured as a parafictional traveling museum exhibit to infiltrate museum/gallery institutions. The project will act as an instigator for critical inquiry regarding the role and intention of museum practices.
The entity of “museum” is a colonial institution; it is based on a historical premise of ownership (collecting) and control (selection and didactic messaging). Museums need to probe their histories through unconventional exhibits and programs, to transparently acknowledge historical biases, and to present opportunities for critical reflection. By inserting this installation into existing museum sites, I will pose alternative perspectives to question portrayals of histories, messaging, and institutional structures.
What strategies are you using to help stay productive, or to re-frame pre-pandemic understandings of productivity?
Disjointed thinking and motivational interference requires me to work on multiple things at a time because of my limited ability to focus for extended periods. I’m delving into a variety of research. I’m conversing with an art colleague in the UK whose work also deals with the role of museums. I’m experimenting with various forms of fictional documentation that will become part of my current project to move previous histories into alternative directions. And I'm also working on some small sculpture casting experiments. This is related to my own prep for future bronze casting when foundry access is possible again, but I want to do some experimenting with casting in other materials too.
And I’ve also just been provided with the opportunity to attend the Gushul Studio residency in Crowsnest Pass (https://www.uleth.ca/fine-arts/community/gushul-residencies/location-and...) from June 8 – mid-July. I will take advantage of the time out there in the mountains to undertake research and experiments. Having the space to spread out and work will be a tremendous asset to me at this time.
One of the best-known aspects of your practice is your involvement with alternative ideologies, speculative modes of inquiry, and personal ways of engaging the world around us. [In full disclosure, I worked at Burns’ Museum of the Flat Earth in the summer of 2017 as a Summer Programming Coordinator.]
Yes, I do have a persistent fascination with “alternative ideologies and speculative modes of inquiry.” I continue to explore those underpinnings within my work in a variety of ways. Some of the research I’ve been exploring includes "This is not a Hoax – Unsettling Truth in Canadian Culture" by Heather Jessup (Langara College, BC). Within the first section she offers an in-depth interpretation of the work of Iris Häussler – an artist who I find very inspiring in relation to my own practice pertaining to parafiction and the museum setting.
Also an article called “Memory, Distortion, and History in the Museum” by Susan Crane (University of Arizona) addresses some interesting points about the role of viewers’ memories and expectations within museum environments, particularly in the context of having that expectation distorted through fictional content. Another article called “The Art of the Plausible and the Aesthetics of Doubt” by Michael Young (Cooper Union) addresses the role of parafiction and speculative exploration.
How has the situation affected the Museum of the Flat Earth (MoFE) this year and what plans are you making for the future?
We certainly had some interesting discussions during your summer working at the Museum of the Flat Earth. In fact, I was recently going through some of the daily record documents for the past three summers and found myself chuckling over some of the anecdotal records you provided, including:
July 2, 2017:
“Family from Chicago loved the museum and said it was their
new favorite – replacing the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A.”
July 7, 2017:
“Deep skepticism in the air today - some enjoyably difficult patrons.”
July 13, 2017:
“Really great family from Ottawa stayed a long time and we talked
about map projections and how they shape our idea/vision of other
countries in relation to our own.”
July 22, 2017:
“Interesting conversation with a woman whose husband worked
for NASA & believes in UFO’s and non-spherical earths.”
This year however, there will be no summer season at the Museum. We can’t offer a Visiting Artists Program when visiting artists can’t come into the province. And it would be impossible to commit to anything else while I’m uncertain about my return. In April, our Board decided to postpone the summer 2020 program and plan to present it in 2021 instead. I’m very grateful to both Canada Council for the Arts and ArtsNL who have agreed to let the Museum retain the grants for the 2020 visiting artists to present the program next summer.
In the meantime, I’m keeping a social media connection active for the Museum. Since May 1, I have been posting questions five days a week on the Museum Facebook and Instagram pages. The Museum is about inquiry and coming at ideas from alternative points of view so I offer these interrogative prompts for musing and for conversations while people remain safe at home.
I understand one of your long-time collaborators, Iris Taylor, pre-empted social distancing by disappearing from public life altogether after an interview that we conducted during Porter Halls’ residency at the MoFE in 2017. Have you heard any rumblings of where she might have gone, or what she might be up to?
It is true that Iris has disappeared. In fact, her last public appearance was the interview with Porter Hall in August 2017. There have been reported sightings of her since then in various locations, including Ireland in early 2018. Since the evidence surfaced about Iris being in Ireland, I traveled there in an attempt to track her movements while at a residency in the Connemara region of Ireland in 2019. This investigation turned up information about both Iris Taylor and Bartholomew Seeker (the Guardian of the Corner on Fogo Island from 1971-78). He disappeared in 1978 and evidence suggests that Iris was in Ireland pursuing information about Bartholomew. It’s odd that they both disappeared without informing anyone and that by all indications they both materialized in Ireland 40 years apart. An aspect of my current project considers the legacies of Iris and of Bartholomew.
Any good books, favourite albums, or go-to recipes that you think we should know about?
In addition to research indicated above, I’ve always got a novel on the go. I like to read and so I tend to read several books a month. My favorite book that I’ve read since the start of COVID is "The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill. I recommend it. And I’m not much interested in cooking so my meal prep is pretty perfunctory – alas, no great recipes to share.
Who is a Canadian artist that you want to shine some light on?
There are so many tremendous Canadian artists. The one I will share light on for you here, is the artist who created the last exhibition I saw before the impact of COVID forced galleries to close.
In February, I visited Rita McKeough’s fantastic exhibition “darkness is as deep as the darkness is” at Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff. This extensive audio, video, and kinetic installation experience is still fully set-up, yet it remains still and quiet in the dark at Walter Phillips. Rita’s work is mesmerizing, with a wonderful balance of humour, poignancy and profound meaning as she reveals and addresses a wide range of environmental issues.
Her work can be seen on her website: http://www.ritamckeough.com/work/
Thank you Kay!