A little bit about UAAC – AAUC
The University Art Association of Canada holds a Conference for its members at different locations around Canada each year. The conference allows students in terminal degree programs, university faculty members and independent scholars and artists to chair and present on various panels. This year the conference was held at The Banff Centre for Creativity in Banff, Alberta. There is no unifying theme for the conference as a whole, and instead the panels change from year to year based on scholar’s proposals and interests. At this year’s conference, there were sixty-two panels over the span of two days, with eight panels running at any given time. The panel topics ranged from “Fashion, Capital, Time” to “Negotiating spaces of queer practices in visual arts”.
From the U of A, three graduate students presented on panels at this conference. As their first time presenting at a major academic conference, they wanted to share their experiences. Myken McDowell, a second-year printmaking MFA candidate presented her thesis work on a panel entitled, “The Lure of the Archive/Writing New Histories”. Phoebe Todd-Parrish is also a second-year printmaking MFA candidate who presented on the panel “New Approaches to the Interior”. Becky Thera is a third-year drawing and intermedia MFA candidate who presented on the panel “A Muscle the Size of My Fist: Negative Affect & Social Justice in Contemporary Art”.
In Preparation for the Conference
Since joining the graduate printmaking program at the University of Alberta a year ago, my studio art practice has revolved around a family archive of Super-8 films. Because of this, and because of my fascination with archives in general, I was thrilled to discover that there would be a panel at the 2017 UAACC conference called “The Lure of the Archive/Writing New Histories”. I was even more thrilled when I learned that my proposal for said panel was accepted, and for the first time ever, I was scheduled to present a paper alongside other archive-obsessed artists and art historians. Thrilled, and just nervous enough at the prospect to check out several books from the library—key word “archive”—read them, despair because Derrida is hard, and eventually decided that the best course of action is to leave Derrida to the experts and prepare an artist talk instead. I was glad for the chance to practice my presentation ahead of time in front of some senior level printmaking students—when it was my turn to present at the actual conference I felt 80% more confident knowing I had gotten through it at least once before.
Around May when the call for papers for the UAAC conference was being circulated, it appeared in my own inbox one afternoon, forwarded from my supervisor pointing me toward the call for papers discussing “New Approaches to the Interior”, a panel lead by Professor Erin Campbell from Victoria. A few days went by and as I added it to my to-do list (which has a funny way of evaporating into thin air) and then… whoosh! there went the deadline, but, not to worry– the deadline was extended! I was across the country on an island with a population of three humans in the Atlantic ocean when I decided to apply. Leaching valuable wifi from my cellphone, I sent off my proposal. A few weeks went by, and I had returned to Edmonton. My colleague mentioned she had been accepted as a presenter on another panel but I hadn’t heard anything so I emailed my panel’s organizer. To our shared dismay, she had missed my email application and the panel had filled up, I thanked her and she apologized and I thought that was the end of that! Fast-forward to about two weeks before the conference in October and a new email appeared (Ding!) this time it was better news (for me): someone had dropped out, and could I still present? I replied yes and then spent the better part of the next two weeks simultaneously freaking out about writing a paper on such a tight deadline and playing with slide effects on keynote.
As I read through the potential panel topics for the 2017 UAAC Conference, the panel “A Muscle the Size of My Fist: Negative Affect & Social Justice in Contemporary Art” jumped out at me. This was completely in synch with my studio work! What an exciting notion to discuss this topic that I am so invested in with other like-minded individuals. I was a terrifying mixture of ecstatic, honoured and nervous when I found out I was accepted to speak on this panel.
I was very grateful for the opportunity to practice my presentation in front of a group of senior level printmaking students at the U of A prior to the conference. I have experience giving academic presentations, but that doesn’t make me less nervous or self-conscious every time I do it. I was also very glad for my panel chair’s structure in preparing for the panel. She required all our panel members to prepare their paper a month in advance of the conference. Despite being “prepared”, I found myself rushing through my presentation in front of the students and confronted with my videos not playing on the screen. I left this run-through feeling that it was better to have it happen now than at the actual conference! I took a step back, wrote “Breathe. Go slow” on each page of my presentation and practiced reading it until the words had lost all meaning.
At the Conference
Reflection after the Conference
The conference was a success! I left feeling a) blessed to have Marilene Oliver as an advisor (she was the one who encouraged me to apply in the first place) and b) inspired by the two women who organized the “Lure of the Archive/Writing New Histories panel, Colleen Skidmore and Joan Schwartz. I truly appreciated all of the works presented, and the conversation that followed over lunch was fascinating—so thanks to them for including me and for helping make my first-ever academic conference experience a positive one. I would highly recommend conferences like the UAACC to any MFA student. I found the exercise of putting together an artist talk to be a great catalyst for focusing my research, and the challenging questions that came afterward offered a fresh, valuable perspective. Plus, opportunities like this give you presentation experience—good for the eventual thesis defense—as well as a chance to connect with other artists and scholars from all over the country—a good thing all around.
Anyway, then the conference was upon us! I had run out of time! The car was running and my peers were urging me to hurry up, get in, and close the door so we could get to Banff. I practiced to a captive audience of four other U of A students and alum the night before my panel and they assured me my presentation was not complete garbage. Of course, I was still very nervous. However, after the first part of my panel, where I found myself nodding furiously along in enthusiasm with the other panelist’s presentations and mumbling, “oooh interesting” a few hundred times, I felt a bit more at ease with my own presentation. Maybe I wasn’t invited by mistake, maybe my paper might actually be interesting to this particular group of people! My paper was part of the second half of the panel and although my artist talk touched on theory here and there it was not historical like my PhD panel-mates’ papers were. My presentation went off without a hitch and the question period after was also a great experience. It was nice to hear what the crowd thought, or to elaborate and make connections between the different papers through other’s questions. In addition to my own panel, attending the conference was a valuable experience in a few other ways: seeing artists and scholars I knew from my undergraduate degree and hearing about their research now, meeting and listening to new people explain their work, and of course, the pressure to put my own practice into words- words that might even be coherent and interesting! Writing this paper and then presenting it was a challenge I had never taken up before, but ultimately I think it made me understand some of my own underlying interests and directions more clearly with the added benefit of being able to communicate them to others in a meaningful way.
Considering my nerves at the trial run for the conference, my actual experience on the panel was a pleasant surprise! I followed two highly intimidating speakers, one being the president of UAAC and the other, a founder of an art gallery and PhD candidate. I barely slept the night before but I wore a new blazer and my hands were steady. Delivering my presentation and answering questions, I felt strangely calm. In that moment, I felt like I have been doing this my whole life, and perhaps to a more exciting end, that I could continue doing this for as long as I could imagine. Although I left the conference exhausted and a bit emotionally burnt out, I was proud of myself. Proud of the big things, such as getting up in front of that room even though I was scared. Proud of the little things, like introducing myself to strangers. I left the conference feeling stronger and more confident, not just in my ability to defend my thesis, but in my ability to thrive in this world of art and academia. I would attend again if I get the opportunity and have since been looking into the possibility of a PhD. Above all, I must remember to take my own advice and breathe.