SFU Masters in Fine Arts grad Casey Wei makes things happen at Kingsgate Mall

Photo courtesy of Scout Magazine.

In June 2014, Casey Wei, a graduate of SFU’s Masters in Fine Arts program, bravely engaged Kingsgate Mall to explore the intersection between art, music, community, and the public space of commerce. As an artist-in-residence at the Western Front, she programmed a month of “Happenings” that included live music, an audio talk show, dance and open mic, an art flea market, tarot card readings, book readings, and artist talks. It was all done with generosity and good intentions, and to express how she felt about the mall.

“Going to the mall was a big deal for me when I was growing up, wei explained, “Kingsgate is meaningful to the neighborhood and a spot where a lot of gentrification is going on. A lot of people respond to Kingsgate Mall out of nostalgia.”

Photo courtesy of Scout Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Scout Magazine.

In the art world, the term “happenings” calls up artists such as John Cage and Allan Kaprow and the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and ’70s that explored chance operations, indeterminacy, and unconventional modes of presentation.

The Western Front has a long-time connection to Fluxus and supports music practices that blur boundaries, from composed works to electronica and noise. Wei’s idea for her residency began with plans for an installation, but they quickly evolved into a much larger project. On top of working in film, video, and other genres, Wei is a musician. Her latest project is Late Spring, a band she established with two other MFA graduates.

Kingsgate’s management was behind the project and within the first few days the Happenings were integrating well. People enjoyed the leather couches and rugs in the lounge, brought magazines and CDs for the public library rack, lined up for tarot card readings, and participated in the open mic. Someone even left an anonymous request for a chess table. “I like that the art was undefined, because art can be more than just what someone calls it,” Wei explained. “It’s possible to get cynical, but everything can be art if you just allow it to be.”

Unfortunately, two weeks into the project, the mall’s management cancelled it. “Some of it was the combination of art and music in a non-normative context,” said Wei. “It’s like that; Fluxus artists don’t have a 9-to-5 existence, but the Mall does.”

To a certain extent, the Happenings suffered from a few moments of tension around unclear expectations for appropriate mall behaviour versus what Wei described as, in one instance, a bit of “artistic irreverence.”

Wei said the relationship was transformative and continues to be positive, despite the abrupt ending. “In some ways it was a discovery of what the Mall could handle and what it really wants. It may have reached a limit in the myth of Kingsgate as a local centre, but it was interesting to see how much it could take and remain fair to everyone involved.”   

As an indication of the excitement generated by the Kingsgate Mall Happenings, Wei screened her film about the Happenings to a full audience at the Western Front in February.

Michael Turner, a Vancouver author best known for his book Hardcore Logo, responded with readings that included his poem, “Kingsway,” which describes the avenue as, “a place to get lost, to lose oneself — both a starting point and a destination.” Wei had invited him to deliver readings during the Happenings, but the opportunity was lost when the project was cut short.

Wei will be putting her good experience to use again in April. She was awarded a 10-day residency at Toronto’s Chinatown Centre to develop a site-specific installation that includes film screenings, mah-jong tables, tai chi, and karaoke to encourage the Chinese community to participate. When asked if she planned on developing a reputation as a mall artist, she laughed and said, “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to make things and engage in live study.”