Jul. 08, 2009 - Issue #716: Death 2.0
Building a public art program, one brick at a time
Kristy Trinier combats cynicism and apathy in Edmonton with ambition, talent and moxy
It's hard to believe that Trinier is only 29, especially considering what she's accomplished during her life thus far. She is responsible for public art in Edmonton by day and a successful, internationally working artist in her spare time. It almost seems unlikely that this is the woman who stood up to criticism for the "Public Art Master Plan," who passionately represents the visual art community on the Wipe Out Graffiti committee. She doesn't crave public recognition; you could almost hear her blush over the phone when contacted for an interview.
"Being a big public person is not anything I really ever wanted—in the sense that I want to contribute, I want to work and do what I can do in my job and in my personal life, to make more artist opportunities and better conditions for artists to make better work."
She is a moderately successful artist, showing in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and China. Her work is highly conceptual; she mentions, off-hand, a work she did for the Documenta building in Germany in 2003, in which she did architectural work alongside light, sound and fog artists. She had a work in the 2007 Alberta Biennial, and earlier this year she had a solo exhibition, Kristy Trinier: otherworld, at the Art Gallery of Alberta. At the Mayor's Celebration of the Arts earlier this year, Trinier received the Northlands Award for Emerging Artist.
With not only local but international success, one could wonder what, exactly, Kristy Trinier is doing in Edmonton.
She laughs at the thought. Before she came back to Canada, even her friends and colleagues questioned the decision. "I thought a lot about when I moved from Banff, about what type of city I wanted to live in—if I wanted to go back to Vancouver," she explains. "I had job offers in other cities, but this job, I thought, really matched well with my skills."
Raised in Whitecourt, Trinier attended the University of Victoria. She did her Masters in Visual Art (majoring in Public Art) at the Dutch Art Institute in the Netherlands. She has held jobs as disparate as a hospital assistant in northern Alberta to the campaign research and proposal writer for the Banff Centre. From Banff, she came to Edmonton to head up the newly created position of Public Art Director for the Edmonton Arts Council. She carries a camera with her nearly everywhere, and will gladly show you many of the (good) pictures she's taken along the way, usually from a recent trip. She's well travelled; this spring she was in Cuba to see the Havana Biennial. In June, she took a refreshing trip to Seattle, exploring some of the better art gems of the city. Her experiences, personal and professional all seep into her work.
Professionally, her thorough knowledge of the arts and fundraising practices across Canada gives her a working knowledge of common practices across Canada and the US, a sort of working catalogue of contemporary practices in art and arts administration. It gives her confidence, too: she plucks examples of good and bad public art practices from her head easily in conversation. She doesn't think Edmonton is the backwater that it bemoans itself to be. She knew full well what she was coming to when she moved here, after all.
Trinier has absorbed all of her experiences, and draws on them regularly in her current occupation. She is a thoughtful and pragmatic advocate for her Public Art Master Plan. "This is the playbook I'm working with, so it needs to be functional for me, but it also needs to reflect the level of standards we need and to be that definitive line."
The conversation about public art is somewhat new to the city, so that "definitive line" also required a definition of values. "The first one was the concept of taking care of something," she explains. "An artwork exists in a city for a lifetime and those attitudes and perceptions about the artwork will change over time, its meaning will shift over time. I'm trying to include that value— that we need to be open to protect the development of the artworks' context over a long period of time, not just its immediate reaction, which is a short-term way of thinking."
The other value is more fiery, more controversial, striking at the heart of Edmonton's great inferiority complex. "I don't believe in homogenous programming, " she says, "I don't want homogenous programming for the city in public art. So I want programs and policy that will encourage things I haven't thought about, that I don't know about. New ideas that lead to a really balanced roster of artists working in this city." Trinier has both the international knowledge and experience to know what this city can be, but also the local knowledge to understand the history and the dynamic of Edmonton.
But what about, then, something like The Legs? The work is well known to locals as the massive piece of public art that underwent a good deal of scrutiny last year. They are the large-scale, black-and-white striped legs wearing clogs that will greet passengers at the Southgate LRT station.
"The Legs," she sighs. Technically she points out, they're called "Immense Mode." "As a simple read, you can make a lot of jokes," she explains, "but the project is a lot more complex. The more you think about it, the more you spend time with it. As a technique it kind of pushed the limits of craft art and what the scale of those types of projects can be. I mean, its all hand-carved and double-glazed bricks. There is a huge amount of contrast with that sculpture and the building."
The chatter last year about the absurdity of the work did not phase Trinier. "It was like, 'Finally! There's some reaction!' At least if nothing else, let's talk about it. If I put an artwork out there and nobody says 'Boo,' and nobody notices it, it doesn't mean it's a failure, but it also doesn't mean that there's dialogue being created and that the artwork can live beyond itself. When you put a two-story set of brick legs on the side of the road, definitely I was expecting a reaction, and I got the reaction I expected. But I was just thankful that people were paying attention."
Trinier is good at making a case for artwork, but she pauses here. "People will discuss it, and even if they hate it, that's OK. You don't have to love all of the public art in the city. And I think that's an important message I wanted people living in this city to understand. We're going to accession a lot of artwork for the city through this program and you're not going to love everything. I don't love everything. But if there's something for you in that whole collection, then I've done my job."
Trinier doesn't take well to the standard assertions that "the quality just isn't there" in Edmonton's public artworks. "I don't think it's as simple to just say the artist made a bad artwork. The system generated the bad artwork. And that includes the public at large."
Aside from life as an artist and public art provocateur, Trinier has a major personal goal. "We don't have masters' programs for public art in Canada and I would like to work on that as well. If its not a master's program, some other type of postsecondary-level research laboratory that helps to start that level of thinking and engagement for artists, to train artists on how to approach that and how to work in the public domain."
Edmonton is skeptical of newcomers, of the flash-in-the-pan fast-talker who comes onto the scene, raises a lot of hope and goes out with a whimper, to the point that it might be a special brand of local cynicism. But it would be unfair to refer to Trinier as an ingénue. She's got moxy, for sure. But she has helped set goals for Edmonton that would make our public art something to be proud of, that will leave an immense legacy in this city. There are a lot of hopes placed on her, and a lot of pressure too.
The fear is that people like Trinier don't stick around long; as Cadence Weapon says, we "move away 'cuz they expect it, move away because they'll ask you to." Trinier has no doubt, however, that she's here for a while.
"I'm here, I'd like to stay here for a long time and I do want to contribute what I can to make this city a place I want to live in and other artists want to live in," she says. "And I want to create a culture that the rest of the city would feel proud of. And I don't think that's impossible, either." V
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