Not Together, But Alongside VSVSVS



Mercer Union For Contemporary Art, 29 May 2015 - 1 August 2015


Reviewed by Stephanie Cormier, published in Border Crossings magazine, Fall 2015


Henry David Thoreau wrote that one should strive to be surprised by what one saw. This was in a time that was beginning to see the possibilities of rapid changes in industrial development and production, but he was not referring to an awe at these new developments, rather, he was encouraging us to look at what had always been around, as if one were seeing this for the first time.


On entering the latest project of VSVSVS, Not Together, But Alongside, at Mercer Union Centre for Contemporary Art in Toronto, there is this feeling of innovation. Although many of the components that make up this installation are mundane gadgets or parts of another recognizable whole, it is an experience of something new, perhaps something only just generated and in its primary form. The seven-person collective (Wallis Cheung, Ryan Clayton, Anthony Cooper, James Gardner, Stephen McLeod, Laura Simon and Miles Stemp) provide us with a built macrocosm of their combined material efforts to explore. Typical of VSVSVS, they build us a context in which to experience their creations. The temporary, slightly disorienting, raw plywood architectural structure, gives us a passageway, a couple of rooms, a “courtyard”, two lofts, a sleeping nook and some stairs. Depending on which way you approach your viewing experience you may encounter various objects, or things (some of them definitely categorize as the more autonomous “thing” as opposed to the ubiquitous and homogenous “object”) or representations of these things, whether through photography, video, light or sound. The whole amounts to some sort of humming vibrating factory that generates and supports the collectives’ labor and its products.


This “vibrant matter”, as in theorist Jane Bennett’s book of the same title, acts upon us, signaling a space of democratic existence. Here, bodies enhance their power in, or as, a divergent assemblage. Agency becomes distributed across a heterogeneous field rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced only by human efforts. To take a new materialist viewpoint, rocks, plywood, Styrofoam, fake plants, electric static, all become equal creators and participants. As has been noted by the artists, everything is on going and in a process of becoming- not together, but alongside, in an endless affectation of one element to the next.

The “figures” present in this installation are plastic, wooden, cylindrical, rectangular, covered in small nodules, protruding, penetrating, wispy. Some of them are separating, dividing, stacked, humming, and others are immobile. Yet, it appears that all of them have some animation to them. In this process of becoming, some of them have been produced in stop-motion speed, while it is not impossible to imagine that others are still forming at an imperceptible rate. Perhaps, as in geologic time, rather than biological, their layers of strata are still in the process of solidifying.


The collective, in their act of collaboration, manage to invite us in to partake, if not in an obvious act of creation, in one where our bodies enter the eco system or feedback loop of activities. In the enclosed room where there is a projection above our heads of a procession of materials sometimes driven by human hands, sometimes by the vibratory effects of the soundtrack, our bodies start to buzz as well, held by the vibrating benches forcing us backward, our heads looking up. The structure, teeming with the life of these objects, also houses a sleeping nook. It does not seem far-fetched to ponder our resting molecules being sucked up through some act of osmosis that will combine with the energy forces keeping everything else vibrant.


VSVSVS formed in 2010 and work and live in their artist-run centre based out of a warehouse in the portlands of Toronto. While maintaining their own individual practices they confess to their collaboration being an experiment of being together too much and making things constantly. Their projects often revolve around humor, play, interaction and allowing their audience or exhibition venue to alter their direction. As part of their recent residency at Centre Bang in Chicoutimi, Quebec, they not only used objects and images found on the premises, but also invited the viewers to intervene in any way they pleased. Releasing control and allowing others, circumstances and things to throw them some curve balls keeps things constantly evolving. 


The collective reiterate their ambitious collaborative efforts (and the project title) of working with each other while maintaining their own identities, by the large selection of objects they collect and use. The parts and pieces all appear recognizable, having come from a greater whole now forgotten, to amalgamate into a new mass with a different focus. Everything in the installation has been, or is in, the process of being moved, shifted, propped, and balanced, to produce new and unprecedented forms. The borders have not been penetrated to meld into new materials but remain alongside in a string of new activity. The whole, like its individual parts, contains separate layers like the strata in both the found rocks and the ready-mades. Each layer is determined and individual but comes together to make up this vibrant new installation.