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On Exchange from Canada to France: Reflecting on Change and Difference

Welcome to Provence!

Grand Hall foyer at the Université de Provence

At one point, I thought that I had an understanding of what my personal practice consisted of, but it wasn’t until the end of my MFA residency that I really started to learn about the concept of ‘adaptation’ and modifying my art practice to meet certain life and educational circumstances. I remember sitting there in my emptied studio, with brown boxes to my right and garbage bags to my left, reminiscing about my two-year relationship with this studio space, coming to terms with the fact that I had now become a free-agent and was entering into my thesis year.

Concordia University in Montreal has one of the longest MFA Studio Arts program in all of Canada (probably in the world), as the typical 60 credit MFA is stretched out to three-years. From the get-go, an elusive grapevine makes it known that the third year is most likely to be the toughest because it marks the transition into this so-called ‘real world’ to become ‘real artists.’ We are without the support of our studio or seminar classes, and expected to generate a new oeuvre of work that will serve as our thesis exhibition, which will then be defended with tons of philosophical and conceptual ideas, of course…

Many of us go our separate ways in our third year. Some of my peers go on to fulfill teaching positions offered by the university, others set up shop in collectives; the choices for a third-year student are both ample and daunting. Unlike most of my peers, I decided that this year I would go an exchange with the anticipation of working on my thesis in a different part of the world and learn about art and the making of it from a different point of view.

In January, I packed my bags and went to the south of France to study arts plastiques at the Université de Provence. When I arrived, I came with certain expectations — well, preconceptions to be exact — on how a university should operate and the facilities that should be indispensable to any art student. I was surprised, to say the least.

My first week of school in France proved to be challenging, as it amplified my insecurities of studying in a foreign language, but that was only un petit défi because the real shock came when I spoke to my professor. I still recall that moment, dumbfounded with a horrified look on my face and trying my best to be composed, not to show any signs of contempt or emotional distress, especially when I sounded like a broken record, repeating the same set of questions and phrases over and over again:

Isabelle Sentenne demonstrates the use of the electronic loom located in the EV Building's Jacquard Room. Photo courtesy of IITS Creative Media Services from Concordia University Journal

— What do you mean there is no equipment to support a visual art practice?
— I have to work on my thesis.
— What do you mean there is no darkroom?
— There must be a darkroom…
— Do you have a large format printer for students?
— You don’t have that either…
— What about a wood or metal shop?
— Oh…that doesn’t exist.
— What about a digital sound-editing suite that supports Pro Tools?
— Really, there is no such thing…
— This is great news! There is a Final Cut Pro editing suite, but it’s only opened six hours a week.

I had gotten used to my life at Concordia, where I had 24-hour access to equipment and could take new media workshops at a blink of an eye. These rhetorical questions that I asked my professor made me see just how technologically dependent my visual practice had become. I had the luxury of using Hexagram, the institute for research/creation in media arts and technologies, which advocated the integration of new media in design and art. This million-dollar facility supplied: large format Mimaki and Epson inkjet printers, a Chromira LED printer, a computerized Jacquard Loom, a textile printer, a FastScan 3D scanner, a Pro Tools edit station, Final Cut Pro edit suites, and other interesting gadgets like HD video cameras, or field recording devices, and the list can go on and on. If I couldn’t find what I needed at Hexagram, there was CIAM (Centre intermédia et arts médiatique) a center that also supported the use of new media within exhibition spaces, which could satisfy the cravings of any techie artist.

When I look back at my reaction, I realized that shock has a way of putting things into perspective. It made me reflect on the need to modify my practice in order to adapt to these new circumstances, and called into question how I need to re-strategize the making of my thesis. More importantly, it made me see how difference could create opportunities for creative growth.

In critique with Fabien Faure and Jean Arnaud at the Université de Provence

I would not say that this experience in France has been an easy one, but it has opened my eyes. For example, the university system here is free, as are all the écoles d’arts. Education is made widely available for everyone, not only for the students enrolled in a Licence, Master, or Doctoral program, but anyone can walk off the streets and ask “je peux écouter?” and the professor will most likely be very happy that you’re auditing their class. However, one of the mistakes I made was confusing what an école and an université is, considering that these institutions approach the teaching of art quite differently. At Concordia, the MFA is a hands-on practice that is supported by conceptual theory. Here, the practice is more predominately reserved for an école, which is less academically based (that is changing as they are now offering Masters degrees, according to Le Monde). The focus of the université is more on humanities, but in the domain of arts plastiques, students are still required to have a personal practice. One of the major complaints that I hear from both faculty and that of students is: how does one work without adequate facilities? Some students seek out independent workspaces elsewhere, and others just give up on making art, since it’s so complicated. In many ways, I wonder how many students actually pursue a career in art after they graduate. Regardless, there are some things that never change, like that dreadful critique – it’s still there, I can’t seem to escape it.

Sure, I have no studio nor new media gadgetries, but I find this to be very thought-provoking, as I’m starting to think about the possibilities of a nomadic practice, something a bit more portable, lighter, and flexible. It’s refreshing to listen to Derrida in French, no matter how many words I might miss out on. It’s wonderful to be able to learn about French artists like François Rouan, Tatiana Trouvé, Gilles Barbier, and others. There is richness for conceptual art and psychoanalysis, which I don’t hear about very often in my studio classes in Montreal. Lacan, mise en something, and détournement are familiar words that are always on the lips of everyone. However, what I love most is that I’m able to talk to a 70 year-old grandma about her knitting while sitting in a cinema class about maladresse, and having her tell me about her grandchildren and the reason why she is at the université: juste pour écouter. I guess there is something to be said about being uncomfortable – we start to look at ourselves differently.

Vency Yun is a neurotic, artist, foodie, and writer who grew up in Toronto and Hong Kong. She is completing her M.F.A in Sculpture at Concordia University, Montreal. Her work often involves food allergies, narration, and language. Currently she is in Marseille, France, working on the bouillabaisse project, an existential philosophical inquiry into fish soup!

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