Interview with Shadbolt Fellow and Governor General's Award winner Germaine Koh

December 07, 2023

Current Shadbolt Fellow Germaine Koh was recently named a recipient of the 2023 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. She will be honoured at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on December 8, with her work exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada until March 3, 2024. As a part of the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship in the Humanities, Koh will be continuing some of her highly acclaimed artistic work at Simon Fraser University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. 

English professor Clint Burnham recently sat down with Koh to discuss her projects over the years, her artistic process, and the philosophy behind her creations. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Clint Burnham: My name is Clint Burnham. I'm a Professor in English at Simon Fraser University and Coordinator of the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship in the Humanities. I was born in Comox, British Columbia, which is on the unceded traditional territory of the K’omoks or Sahtloot First Nations centered historically on Quinsam. We're recording this interview via servers and other cloud infrastructure on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the Squamish, the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Kwikwetlem Nations.

Germaine Koh is a 2023-2024 Shadbolt Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences here at Simon Fraser University. She's also recipient of a Governor General's award for artistic achievement to be given out at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on December 8th, with an exhibition opening the night before at the National Gallery. We spoke in November 2023. So, welcome, Germaine.

Germaine Koh: Thank you.

Clint Burnham: I'd like to start, or continue, our discussion with an idea I heard you develop during your recent artist’s talk at SFU’s School for Contemporary Arts. You mentioned the value of non-specialization, how your work partakes of a DIY or do-it-yourself ethos as an amateur - that you like to get outside your lane, or cross disciplines. 

As you know, these strategies are both praised and problematic attitudes in today's cultural landscape: being disruptive or interdisciplinary is thought to be important, but the very idea of “staying in your lane,” usually around issues of identity or professionalization, is also sacrosanct. 

So, let's be concrete and talk about some of your art. You mentioned in your talk that while your work itself is important to you, you're not the kind of conceptualist who just sends some instructions, à la Sol LeWitt (or even Ian Wallace). So, for Fair-weather forces (water level), which tracks local tides using stanchions and velvet ropes, you said you manufactured and learned the material and computer details, or for the Blue Cabin project, you actually went back to school to learn, if I got this right, some construction certification. 

Germaine Koh: Yeah, I went and got a certificate in Building Construction Technology around that time.

Clint Burnham: Nice. So, I guess I’m interested in two aspects of your practice here: first, the question of crossing disciplines, what that means, what’s entailed (learning or doing it yourself as opposed to just more training), and then how that comes out of the artwork, or relates to the artwork -- its making, contributions, changes the final product (if there is one) and/or its relation with audience.

Blue Cabin Floating Artist Residency docked in Steveston. Photo: Colin Griffiths

Germaine Koh: All right. So, it's true that although many people have described my work as conceptual, that label doesn't really feel right to me. Because to me, it suggests a kind of removal, a very cerebral approach, where you’re removed from the world-at-large. But what I'm really actually interested in, is kind of paying attention to the world and its systems around us. And in many cases, to try to draw relationships between different kinds of systems. And to me, that means having a certain fluency with those different systems. 

So, a lot of my work ends up enacting kinds of translations between different systems. And when I'm thinking about work, the kind of vague, conceptual play that eventually leads to works, it's often thinking about whether there are relationships between systems that we might not normally think about. And so, all of that means that it calls upon me to, at certain points, delve into those different systems. And that means learning technologies, learning how things actually work – like if I want to point out, point to, aspects of the world that we might not be paying attention to – to my mind, it entails having a kind of understanding about them. And so, that's what drives me to take these kinds of deep dives into areas in which I'm not trained [laughs], and to go and learn about how those things work in order to follow up these hunches, these inklings that there could be something there that relates to something else. 

Like for example, the first work that I ever did with using electronics was when I decided I was going to make a smoke machine that would sort of like… physically manifest, albeit in a very ephemeral way, the kind of work that we do at our computers every day: typing, typing, typing, typing, and then hit a button, and the message goes out into the world. And so, I thought: Okay, well, I wanted to physically manifest that using a smoke machine, and at the same time, tie that… So, I realized I needed to add a computer onto this network. And that computer was gonna spy on one of the other computers in the network, and translate its output into Morse Code, and then have Morse-encoded smoke signals. 

I knew that had to be possible, but I didn't know how. It had to be possible because of the legacy of today's digital communications being tied to things like the telegraph and steam power, and so on. 

Prayers at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Clint Burnham: That’s the work Prayers, right?

Germaine Koh: That’s the work Prayers, sort of after a line in Hamlet where he says something like: My though- Oh, you're the English professor! You might be able to get this better than me… 

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts, never to heaven go.” So, it's kind of like these ephemeral things are somehow the manifestation of all our intentions, even if we aren't necessarily aware of them. 

But yeah, so like that in that case… at that point, I didn't have any idea how to program that. So, I had to hire someone to do the programming, but that was the start of me sort of learning over the shoulders of the of various experts that I've hired. And so, through the course of decades of making work like that, I've acquired certain kinds of technical skills and so on. I really do feel that part of my interest is in demystifying some of these aspects of the world are around us – to sort of make us understand that things are not as impenetrable and unattainable as we might think they are. And so, part of that is to model the fact that a person could, an amateur could, go out and learn enough to make things. 

It is important to me that it not just be a theoretical exercise, that it be that these things be possible and attainable. And I feel like my practice serves as kind of model for that: the ability of a dedicated amateur to make connections, and to gain a kind of fluency in different areas of operation.

Clint Burnham: Yeah! Well, maybe just follow on that idea that there doesn't have be such a barrier to learning how to do things, either informally or more formally. I was thinking about how much your work engages with -- or even manufactures -- housing, studios and other built spaces. 

In the Home Made Home series, which is both a social enterprise and an art project, you make small freestanding artist studios and homes, and also in the Blue Cabin Floating [Artist] Residency. You do exhibit research, and kind of challenge notions of who can make their own space. Do you wanna talk a bit about that process, and also how the social enterprise part fits with your art, making or working in gallery spaces, or working public/private land?

Home Made Home - Lululiving.

Germaine Koh: So, Home Made Home is an ongoing project that is in some way pretending to be a business. This is me thinking that as an artist I have a platform to be able to exemplify the fact that a person without formal training in the trades could for example, build a beautiful and dignified and a workable small dwelling. And so, I'm sort of positioning that project in a way that it might seem like I'm a home-builder. But I'm actually making use of the platform that I have within the contemporary art world to sort of put forth propositions and models and ideas around housing that I know are not possible and not accepted within the current regulatory system for building. 

At the same time, I did go out and got proper training in Building Construction Technology. And so, I guess I'm trying to position… again, it's kind of like a translation between what I know… between what I am convinced is possible, that a person, that an amateur, non-professional builder –with recourse to traditional systems of knowledge, what are well-understood best practices for building – is every bit as capable of building a good house as a licensed home builder. And it's certain kinds of regulations that make that not possible. So, it's exactly in some way pretending that I'm a builder that allows that to happen, I think. And it's also pointing out that it's really like a matter of political will that some people are allowed to build houses and other people are not.

Clint Burnham: Right. But also – not to ask you to solve the so-called housing crisis, which Ricardo Tranjan, in that new book The Tenant Class says is not so much a crisis as a matter of gross inequality. When we have a crisis like COVID, things swoop in, and we sort of deal with it. 

But in looking at the Home Made Home series in particular, you talk as well about the Tiny House Warriors, or the pop-up tents that activists did for safe injection sites. Of course, in the artist tradition, there's Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work in the 1980’s where he made that sort of shopping cart/home. And we have street sweeps where people in tents are sort of forced off the sidewalks in downtown Vancouver, and many other places. So, I guess I'd like to hear your thoughts about that side of making. Your thoughts about that social side, that social enterprise side, and how of what you're doing and how it relates to these other kinds of social practices.

Home Made Home - Lululiving.

Germaine Koh: Yeah, I brought up the example in the talk that you attended recently of Sarah Blyth, who's a former Vancouver Park Board councillor who took it upon herself to start up a safe injection site. And to me, this is like a really great example of what Jane Jacobs talked about: kind of neighbourhood connectors. Like the people who have no official title or position but are the glue that holds neighborhoods together. 

And so, to me, that's an example. I talk about Tiny House Warriors because to me, that's an example of folks who saw a need to, or took it upon themselves to, make happen things that needed to happen. They needed housing, and they needed to create a kind of resistance against the Trans-Mountain pipeline. And so, they're not gonna stand around and wait for someone to allow them to do that. And so, to me, it points to the fact that there's all kinds of gaps in our world between what is allowed to happen through regulation and what needs to happen socially. 

And also, this world really does run on the will of dedicated amateurs and non-specialists to make things happen – using kind of traditional technologies and/or traditional bodies of knowledge, collective effort, and so on. 

I guess a lot of my work, especially in recent years, has started to kind of create these situations for skill building, for example, for skill sharing, for reconnecting people to traditional bodies of knowledge. So, it's kind of like re-building resilience, I want to say, that sits outside of official education programs, and so on. Like when every little structure that I've built within the Home Made Home project has involved people who are starting off with no experience in construction, for example, and they go away with some knowledge. 

And yeah, so I think part of that comes from again realizing that somehow, over the course of a couple of the decades that I've been doing this, I’ve accumulated certain kinds of knowledge, or have access to certain kinds of knowledge, that are maybe not so common as they used to be. For example, building one's own house or wiring electronics and things like that. So, it behooves me to share that, it seems to me, in some way. 

I am aware of how contradictory it might seem to apply for a fellowship at an institution of higher learning and dare to go in there and want to talk about the value of amateur efforts and the value of non-specialization – in a place where we assume that everyone's there to become ever more specialized, ever more the only expert in their own field or something like that. And instead, to go in and sort of try to make connections between different fields.

Clint Burnham: No, I think we welcome that, and I mean, there is the big “blah blah” about interdisciplinarity, which is uttered more in its absence than its practice. But I think a lot of people do want to try and make connections with people outside their own sort of silo or zone. 

I wanna come back to this idea of what you built up over your career over the past few decades -- about how you sort of engage with the environment, nature, or climate crisis, as we sort of think about it now. Like in a gestalt kind of sense, I mean… so like The Haunting work, which I think signals noise from traffic via thrift store lamps, if I have that right?

The Haunting at Invaliden1.

Germaine Koh: Yeah, it’s adding different environmental sensors to a building. So, things like accelerometers or things that are sensing vibrations et cetera. 

Clint Burnham: Right, the rumble…

Germaine Koh: Yeah, and it's using that to flicker just a collection of ugly household thrift store lamps. Half of them were broken down… or people think they're actually broken, but it's just like a screw that's loose or something [laughs].

Clint Burnham: Right – or you have these three Fair-weather forces works, where they track sunlight, or wind speed, or water level, is that right?

Germaine Koh: Yeah, so the Fair-weather forces series, they're all taking control of some aspect of the built environment and then driving that in relation to cycles in the natural environment. 

Clint Burnham: Yeah. GroundWaterSeaLevel, that public artwork in North Van that sort of tracks both soil moisture and tide level. And they appear on these display monitors/poles near Burrard Inlet, is that right? 

And there's Errant Rain Cloud, that cloud sculpture at the Minoru Aquatic Center in Richmond that actually rains, I think, once a day. Or, even something like Crowd Shyness, a project you did in the summer of 2020 during COVID, which sort of connected COVID-era social distancing to that more environmental idea of tree branches leaving space between each other in “crown shyness”. 

So, I guess my question, or set of questions, about this is: I'm wondering what ideas you think art can do with respect to thinking about nature, or the environment, or the climate crisis that science or politics can't; and how your thinking and practice has evolved over time around these issues.

Errant Rain Cloud at the Minoru Aquatic Center, Richmond. Collaboration with Gordon Hicks.

Germaine Koh: Well, here I'd like to actually point out that these overtly environmentally-related works do actually have something in common with some of the works that I've done that have more to do with social connections. I'm trying to set up situations in which our individual experiences going about the world – walking through turnstiles, or allowing ourselves to be directed by these lines of velvet ropes – to get us outside of that individual experience, and make us realize that we're actually connected to things greater than ourselves. 

So the Fair-weather forces series, which takes control of elements in the built environment – driving a line of velvet ropes up and down with the tide level, or turning a turnstile in relation to the speed of the wind, or taking control of the lights in a room and then dimming them in relation to the sunlight – it's in some way sort of inverting all of these social controls. 

It’s inverting or it's undoing all of these systems that we put around ourselves, that insulate us from the natural environment. And instead, it puts us back directly in relation to that environment. And so, it's like an exercise in kind of making us reconnect to the greater-than-human, and to these kinds of systems to which we are tied. It's kind of related to questions of the sublime: the emotional effect that happens when we realize that we are part – we're a small part – of a greater whole, and so, those questions of awe and wonder happen. 

I think those questions certainly do have environmental concerns, but what they do kind of establish is, I think, a certain sense of common cause with those systems around us. And that's the thing that happens in the works that I do that seem more social as well: it's that I'm looking for the points of connection, points of commonality between us as individuals, and the people, the strangers around us… looking for commonalities rather than differences, the points at which we can feel, where we start to feel, a responsibility to a greater whole.

Clint Burnham: I’m just looking at SeeSawSeat as an example, that public sculpture on Main Street, that is a seesaw made into a park bench, in a certain way. 

SeeSawSeat prototype at the Art Labor Gallery.

Germaine Koh: Yeah, park bench made into a seesaw. Sort of modeled after the benches in the transit shelters, and it's installed right beside a transit shelter. But it's set on a pivot so that it always tips off to one side unless you're willing to reach out of yourself and connect with a fellow citizen and have a conversation. Or else you could be, you know, lonely and sad, and sit askew by yourself [laughs].

Clint Burnham: Maybe just to push a bit about the sublime you were saying a minute ago. So, The Haunting, that's suggesting the sublime can also, in the kind of tradition, is all Burke-ian or Kant, it can be horrible – 

Germaine Koh: Yes! Yes, yes – or uncanny!

Clint Burnham: Yeah! And the COVID work, Crowd Shyness, I mean, that was a moment of, we didn't trust each other, or we had to socially distance. We had to be together by being apart in a certain way.

Germaine Koh: Mmhmm. But yeah, both the sublime as an ecstatic or wondrous thing, or as a source of a fear – they're both related to realizing that we're not separate from this thing. We are part of it, right? 

Clint Burnham: You've been making work for over 25 years, almost 30 years. And so, I'm really interested in those artworks that span that entire time-period. So, Self-portrait, this painting you began in 1994 and continue to remake over the same surface. And you document that you keep painting as your face itself or body changes. Or Knitwork, that immense knitted sculpture – it's almost painterly with the colors – that you've been making since 1992. 

Knitwork at the British Museum.

Germaine Koh: Thank you for recognizing that! The painterliness of Knitwork.

Clint Burnham Well, there's that one shot, and we'll have to get this in here, spilling down the steps at the British Museum, which I think is pretty amazing. 

So, in this 2005 article about Knitwork, you talked about the importance of giving form to the invisible, which I really like. You said, "I wanted to illustrate the magnitude of the tasks we take for granted – commuting, office work, handwork. These things take up an enormous amount of time in our lives, but somehow remain and unacknowledged” (Bethany Lyttle, "Knitwork: giving form to the invisible", Interweave Knits, Spring 2005, p. 6). So yeah, I'm just thinking about those words’ relation with time. And then this, how art can represent what is unseen, in a way? Or, what do you think you're doing in terms of that?

Germaine Koh: Yeah, I think that a lot of what I'm trying to do is to create situations in which we start to recognize or come face-to-face with aspects of the world around us that we might not normally pay attention to. So, trying to create situations that give voice to the minor elements in the world around us, the undervalued elements that sort of underpin and shape our daily lives. Sometimes that happens in terms of scale. 

For example, in Knitwork, more or less, this ever-growing blanket becomes a kind of a measure of time, and of these everyday, mundane labours that are normally not paid attention to. So, it is kind of like a data visualization, but it's literally measuring time as it goes. Sometimes, it's in terms of scale… that it makes visible these minor elements. So, with Knitwork, it's both in terms of scale and time, the duration of the thing. 

But I want to say that I also do a similar thing with works that are actually really ephemeral. For example, I've done a number of works that are urban interventions – for example, like making human-scale spider web things that are made out of string in underused, or out of the way, urban locations. Kind of drawing a sort of connection between animal survival and human survival, and places a person could exist without being seen. But to me, these are kinds of works that are distinctly or obviously ephemeral. And so, they kind of call for attention. 

Call. Photo credit: Scott Massey.

And there's other works that, I think, even as people are participating in them, they are aware of the fact that they're really fleeting. So, for example, the piece that I did called Call, in which I got a phone that's sitting on a counter, just like a taxi call phone or something like that, and it's been replaced with programmable circuits. 

When you pick up the handset – it invites you to "lift the handset / for conversation" – and when you do it, it dials a phone number of somebody who has agreed to have conversations with strangers. And then it's like a whole set of decisions and reckoning that that the audience has to make in the moment. And so, I think that this attention to the everyday is equally an attention to the present and to the conditions to the world around us in the present, as well as to the minor things that we don't normally pay attention to.

Or when I did an installation in which I went out to an empty lot, and we basically just scraped off the top layer of soil and plants, and then transplanted that into the gallery for the duration of an exhibition. So, we normally think of a gallery space as a place where you see finished things. And instead, there was just this profusion of process – of like the plants growing, dying, bugs crawling around. And you would see people… I think that there was a real understanding on the part of the audience that what they were seeing there in the moment was soon going to be gone. And so, you would see people spending hours in that gallery. And people still come up to me and talk to me about that work in the most kind of ecstatic way, wanting to talk about what they saw and stuff. 

And that happens also with the telephone piece, with Call. It's because it's like you have an awareness that you're the only person who had this experience. And so, there's a lot of oral history that happens around it, where people want to talk about the thing, about their experience. And I think it's really that ephemerality of those pieces that calls for that kind of sharing. 

Clint Burnham: Yeah, nice. I wonder if, by way of wrapping up, if you want to talk either about: if there's any work that's gonna be showing in Ottawa, or also your projects that you're doing here in Vancouver as part of your fellowship.

Germaine Koh: Right. Well, in Ottawa, I would love to tell you about that… You know how I said that a lot of the work that I've been doing has been trying to create opportunity: learning opportunities and skill-sharing opportunities. So, the piece that I'm gonna be showing in the Governor General's Awards show at the National Gallery, is a kind of a platform for other people's production. 

It’s already been featured in a whole series of projects curated by current SFU PhD student Joni Low. It's called HMH Boothy, and it's growing out of this Home Made Home project. But it's not a dwelling per se, but rather a small structure, modeled after the typical generic North American phone booth – which, of course, don't exist very much anymore, but we still have this vision and understanding of the telephone booth as a place where connections happen; and where transformations happen; and a place where you sort of port out to other dimensions, and things like that. 

HMH Boothy - Khan Lee, Andrew Lee, Patrick Cruz, The People's Salon

So, this telephone booth is made in a way where you could switch out the panels; you can add on wheels, so this thing can move around to different locations; and it can be changed to be a service kiosk, or a display cabinet, or a light box; or it's been used as a greenhouse. Things like that. So, we're going to send that to the National Gallery. 

And I'm kind of tickled about what we're gonna do with it. Because I used to work at the National Gallery. In an early part of my career, I trained as a curator at the National Gallery. I left at a point when it was gonna start to feel like a conflict for me to be a practicing artist and to be a curator there – so, I left. But I'm sending this piece to the National Gallery, with the understanding that they're going to use it, that it's not gonna just sit in a gallery and do nothing. But rather, it's going to become also a platform to be used for, to show the creative production by National Gallery staff. So, it's gonna be animated in that way. I really like that as a way of kind of undoing… issuing a kind of challenge to certain kinds of museological practices. 

There's other works in my body of work that do that, like Knitwork or the Self-portrait, both of which are works that are ongoing. And so, the fact that I’m asking a museum to collect a work that is deliberately unfinished, goes against so many of the conventions of what museums do. And so, similarly, this kind of challenge to museums is to acknowledge the fact that they're filled with working artists – you know, people behind the scenes are for the most part, or very, very many of them, are creative people. And so, I'm asking them to acknowledge that. And they took up the challenge, to their credit.

HMH Boothy - Emily Neufeld and Cease Wyss at Common Ground.
WARES bag.

Clint Burnham: Germaine, I was looking at one of the pictures of your bags from the WARES series, and they really remind me of the big plastic shopping bags that are used everywhere…

Germaine Koh: Yeah, that's exactly what I was going for. 

Clint Burnham: Which got some kind of fashion pick-up about 10 years ago, am I right? 

Germaine Koh: Yeah, there was a whole thing around Balenciaga, and reclaiming that. And then it was like the tables were turned in terms of who was ripping off whom there. 

The work that I have in the display cabinet at the School of Contemporary Arts – they’re all from patterns that are kind of iconic within the realm of global trade, and so on. But yeah, for sure, that shopping bag is pretty key there. To me, it's this kind of symbol of resilience, and it's like a marker of diasporic routes or something like that.

Clint Burnham: Yeah, yeah, people on the move, ‘cause that's what they're using. Yes, people on the move, because those bags are what they’re using. And I think in Nigeria for a while they were called “Ghana Must Go” bags because of internal displacement. And also, the bags as vernacular luggage are aesthetically pleasing, as is the outfit that you made for the [School for Contemporary Arts] cabinet, which has a big houndstooth pattern on it.

Germaine Koh: Yeah, so that piece includes houndstooth, this red-white-blue pattern. There's a riff on the Burberry plaid and the Hudson Bay blanket, so it's got it all going on. But to me, it was quite important that that look really convincing – coat, fabric, and everything. 

It's all just made from unraveling old clothing and weaving it into these panels. But I wanted it to be pretty convincing, but super slowed down from how fashion materials are usually produced.

Clint Burnham: Cool, cool. Anything you wanna finish with… 

Germaine Koh: What was the other thing you asked me, you said…?

Clint Burnham: Oh, just what you’re doing here. This big project, or the clothing jam you're doing next week.

Germaine Koh: Yeah, yeah. So, part of the so-called research project that I'm here on is to advocate for the idea that we could play around in domains in which we're not trained. So that recalls to me the… I'm not sure if I mentioned this in that talk, but it recalls to me something that the physicist Andre Geim said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: where he said that it was really important to his eventual breakthroughs that he that he did a lot of play and experimentation in fields in which he was not an expert, even if that kind of play was at first quite elementary. 

And so, I'm coming here to this institution of higher learning, with the mission to sort of suggest that we could all play in areas in which we're not experts. And part of that is to do a series of making and doing events. So, the first one is gonna be this next Friday – sort of in relation to this little exhibition I have on right now of clothing that I've made from recycled or unraveled clothing. 

We're gonna do a bit of a clothing jam where we're going to take a bunch of donated clothing, mash it up, maybe make it into pockets and provide pockets for the pocketless [chuckles] – i.e., women who never have pockets on our clothing, and so on. So, opportunities for collective making and the kinds of interesting conversations that happen around that skill-sharing… connecting with bodies of knowledge that are maybe not especially valorized within the academic environment, and so on.

Clint Burnham: Great. Well, thanks, Germaine. Great conversation. Thanks for doing this today.

Germaine Koh: You're most welcome. Thank you.