Alumni, English

Glen Lowry: Alumnus Profile

May 15, 2014

Glen Lowry’s academic career traces a shift from the spatial analysis of literature to the creation of objects in space: interdisciplinary art objects that engage with critical questions across race, politics and art. His scholarly and art practices, integrated with his teaching and his role as a facilitator of public discourse, led to his current position as Associate Professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Lowry completed his PhD in English at SFU in 2001, studying under the supervision of Roy Miki. Referring to the reassertion of space as a category of analysis in the Humanities, Lowry explains: “My dissertation was informed by the spatial turn and the attempt to locate contemporary Canadian literature in that larger body of literature—particularly around questions of race, gender and sexuality.” Early in his career, Lowry was motivated to move beyond what he saw as the confines of scholarship, traditionally defined. “One of the things that came out of that work, reading Henri Lefebvre and thinking about space as social production, was what I often talk about as a shift to the production side of things. It became less interesting to me to spend all my time reading and writing critical work: I felt the need to continue making things.” At that time Lowry was coeditor with Jerry Zaslove of SFU-based literary journal West Coast Line (now known as Line), a publication founded by Roy Miki with a history of radical engagement with local, national and international arts and politics.

As he learned the process of publishing, Lowry found himself drawn to an expansive cultural milieu: “We built out from a literary focus to a community based, artist-run, visual culture. That was a really useful change for me: to locate myself firmly within contemporary cultural production, artistic and literary production, and specifically to think about all the processes to get work out into the world.” This production work in turn began to inform Lowry’s critical writing in advantageous ways: “I’ve written a lot about collaborations, about artistic production as knowledge production and knowledge mobilization. I think in many ways that became the basis for why I would get a job at an art and design school like Emily Carr University.” A dual appreciation of and facility with textual and visual art has also served him well: “Even though I’m teaching English and Humanities, I am sympathetic to visual practice and know lots of curators. Being able to negotiate the divide between studio courses and academic courses and to see the important connections among them is one of the things that brought me into Emily Carr.”

One of Lowry’s most significant art projects melds his interests in geographic space, urban planning, and intercultural exchange. The Maraya Project, developed with Emily Carr colleagues Henry Tsang and M. Simon Levin, won a SSHRC research creation grant to “look at the relationship between urbanization in Vancouver and urbanization in Dubai.” Since 2007, the project has analyzed “what built environment means in relation to cultural production,” using a wide range of experimental media and discursive approaches to study a particular question: what is represented when a particular built environment is built again? In a unique form of geographical and architectural repetition, the urban waterfront of Vancouver’s False Creek was reproduced in Dubai Marina by many of the same planners, architects and developers. Maraya, meaning “reflection” in arabic, draws out the mirror-like mirage of the replication of an urban plan in space.

Lowry’s many forms of “practice-based collaboration,” including his work on Maraya with artists, educators, scientists, theorists, urban planners, and architects, provide an ideal opportunity to pursue true interdisciplinarity. “Part of my doctoral training was looking at poetic form: at modes of communication that are not easily deciphered, that are not popular in their dissemination but trusting that they are important bodies of knowledge.” In the work of Canadian avant-garde poets Roy Kiyooka and Daphne Marlatt, he says, “there is a new way of thinking and seeing that you really have to pay attention to,” and this attention often spills over perceived bounds among academic disciplines.

Shingwauk Residential School

Increasingly, Lowry’s recent work aims at generating ideal conditions for dialogue. “I’m not as interested in making things such as videos or installations as I am in talking to people and getting out in the land,” he says, indicating another evolution in his creative means of production. As he branches into socio-political issues including reconciliation among First Nations cultures, Lowry’s practice has begun pursuing community engagement in the tradition of the public intellectual. He was the inaugural scholar in residence at Shingwauk Residential School Centre at Algoma University, sited in a reconditioned residential school. There he worked in the survivor-run centre to research and strategize about how to build knowledge and support for their mission, utilizing publishing platforms both analog and digital to elicit and disseminate crucial conversations about the grave costs of colonialism in Canada.

Lowry guards carefully against acts of appropriation external to aboriginal concerns while focussing on the First Nations’ integral material concerns of natural resources and pollution. In the process of learning exchange, mixing skill sets through what he calls “bartering, co-authoring and co-producing,” Lowry says he remains “respectful of my own knowledge gaps.” Thinking in this way presents “new opportunities for dialogue, collaboration and affiliation,” he explains.

For the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Lowry co-edited Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools, a volume of personal narratives that retrace the painful and traumatic memories of residential schools in an attempt to approach reconciliation and forgiveness in a national context. Working with his co-editors, including CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, and Mike DeGagné, then the director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Lowry traveled Canada, reading at book clubs and engaging in conversations around reconciliation and residential schools. It was an “amazing process” to be in “people’s living rooms, hearing their stories,” he recalls, pursuing what he calls “social engagement through a publishing venture.” This is just one example where the thing produced, in this case a text, was actually the means to another end: a prompt to open conversations that might work through intergenerational trauma.

“I was trained to distrust narratives in many ways,” says Lowry, “but now later in my life I’m coming to them and thinking: ‘we have to have better stories.’” Lowry has developed a facility for figuring out what the story is for people: “I’ve sometimes called myself an ‘embedded critic.’ I sit with an artist and talk, and then I figure out how to find some language for their project. That skill was part of my training.”

Roy Miki

Academic work should always be pointed toward social contexts, Lowry says, and should show “respect for a modality of popular engagement” in order to bring the wider public into the process of knowledge production. “Studying with Roy Miki,” he relates, “I was trained to be a public intellectual. I learned early on that my focus wasn’t primarily academic: that academic publishing is valuable, and I participate in it and borrow from it, but only as a parallel to other forms of publication and public engagement.” Lowry adds, “If I can’t stand up and talk about what’s important to me in a more general context, then somehow I’m failing myself. I got that from Roy: he didn’t teach courses on how to be a public intellectual, but that’s how he functioned.”

By speaking to a “larger array of people” in his public work, Lowry maintains a nuance that never simplifies: “One of the great lessons I learned from Roy is that social change would speak in a language I probably wouldn’t get at the time. When we are in a university we are living among so many different ways of talking and thinking, often coming from the ground up, and we have to be aware of that: that we don’t know, and we have to tune our ears to different ways of speaking. That is the true gift you get from someone like Roy.”

Lowry appreciates the ways in which practices in art schools versus big universities are different: “Influence and affinity is a more dominant idea in an art school,” Lowry notes. “Rather than denying it, and trying to do it all yourself, how do you negotiate these influences?” Accordingly, Lowry reflects that his career arc is ultimately not the result of his own choices, explaining, “I was influenced by people making choices and recommendations for me. I thought I was in charge, when in fact I was being carefully puppeted by all these interesting people.”

On the horizon, Lowry is co-editing a follow-up to Speaking My Truth, tentatively titled Reconciliation Commonplace, focusing on Aboriginal justice and residential schools. At the upcoming International Symposium on Electronic Arts, the Maraya Project will activate a new piece along the Marina Walk in Dubai Marina, their version of Vancouver’s False Creek Seawall, and Lowry will present a paper reflecting on seven years of working across the two cities.

Never forsaking his own literary creative practice, Lowry is also finalizing a book of poems based around close-listening to music. Tentatively titled Failure to Thrive / Some Leafy Bower, it features meditations on Bach’s Goldberg Variations constrained to the 140 character limit familiar to the contemporary world of micro-blogging. He says the work responds to the sense in which “musical composition and discursive writing don’t really touch. I’m very aware of the fact that we can’t always tie things up, and not wanting to tie them up, not wanting to know everything, not wanting to talk about everything you know...”.