Morel interview: Artist Wyn Geleynse

Mary Baxter photo: Wyn Geleynse
Mary Baxter's picture
Mary Baxter is editor of and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.




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The late 2000s proved challenging to Wyn Geleynse. On the London, Ont., artist’s computer was a massive, three-video project that required not only visual editing, but also sound work. The project’s digital nature was not new to him even though, over previous decades, he’d acquired an impressive national and international reputation as a Canadian pioneer in installation work that included analogue film and video. (He’s landed exhibitions in galleries throughout Europe and the United States as well as in Canada.) But with digital production comes constant changes in editing software and, in turn, the constant pressure of learning how to use new tools.

In 2008, Geleynse — a regular presence at London gallery openings, at art-related lectures and on arts boards — was steering a soon-to-be-homeless Forest City Gallery artist-run centre to new digs on the city’s Richmond Street. “It was a bit of a hairy time because the new landlord on Talbot Street (the gallery’s previous location) wouldn’t give us a lease, so we couldn’t apply for grants, because for grants (we) had to have the three-year program in place,” he explained. “We weren’t sure if we were going to have a space or not.”

To relieve stress, the artist did what he’d often done before: he tried to find something to occupy his hands. “I really like to make things,” he said. “That’s almost like a hobby of relaxing.”

Over the years, he’d created many ingenious pieces that mixed thrift store finds with film or video projections. Most of these works contain some sort of autobiographical content. The works generate the kind of images that once seen burn into your memory.

Wyn Geleynse photo: Portraiture

At the centre of Portraiture, for example, is a small, white cartoon-like figurine manufactured by the Wallace Berrie & Co. The smiling figure stretches its arms Christ-like and wears a long shirt that reaches its bare feet. The figure’s eyes focus upward, as if in prayer. On the figure’s mouth, Geleynse projects human lips that move in tandem with a sound recording of the artist’s voice describing himself by using the carefully edited words of others. The descriptions are often mocking and derisive but also humorous. “If he ever had a bright idea, it would be beginner’s luck,” the recording woefully pronounces. “His imagination is his curse. His heart is in the right place, though his brain isn’t.”

Such works are powerful, iconic. They reveal the story of not only Geleynse the man, but also a late 20th- and early 21st-century everyman. They capture what it’s like to be a man struggling with or against the conventions of contemporary culture to assert himself.

Geleynse credits exposure to feminist thought while working at the University of Western Ontario for opening his thinking on the subject. “It liberated me in many ways to no longer try to live up to a masculinity which I really didn’t fit into.”

In 2010, when he made his first city service truck (CST #0810/0010), it too found genesis in his own experience. This time, however, the inspiration came from his involvement in the public rather than the personal realm.

Part of that experience was a project he’d done in Windsor in 2005 when he created first a model, and then a life-size version, of a “stake” truck (like a big box truck) that carried in its bed the projection of an image of a woman uttering soothing phrases. (The life-size version was exhibited in Windsor that year where it was moved from location to location over a period of about 10 days.)

But the Forest City Gallery situation also heavily influenced the subject. He created a portable “pop-up” artist-run centre on the back of a flatbed truck. The centre folded in for transport. Once in place — a place that could be any location — the centre folded out like a tent camper trailer or one of those large recreational vehicles. “I put in a video projection screen that you can screen outside or inside, and then you had four really nice walls inside with stairs leading up, and there was a motorized sort of turning sign that could catch people’s attention,” he says.

He found a collector-model die-cast truck that was “this sort of crappy orange in colour, which I thought, oh, that’s so ugly, it’s really interesting.” And after he was done making the model, he sat down to write a description of it. The writing became a story, “almost a send up, a bit of a dig.”

Wyn Geleynse photo:

CST #0810/0010 is a response to the needs of Artist Run Centres which, in some instances, live a precarious existence within their communities. It’s a low cost alternative to the status quo. This platform and its collapsible design allow the exhibition space to be located advantageously in responding to innovative events.


He noticed a synergy between the description and the model. “So I thought, well, I’m going to come up with stories for all of them.” He ordered more trucks and, over a time equivalent to three years beginning in 2010, he built 15 pieces. Not one of the trucks has a name. They are numbered, just as city trucks are.

Making the models and the story believable was crucial to obtain the suspension of disbelief that would allow people to engage with the work and the story. “It had to work. People could say, ‘Yeah, we could actually build that up.’”

Playful and imaginative, the works have struck a chord with regional audiences. A selection of them was shown in 2015 at DNA gallery in London as part of a two-person exhibition that also featured his long-time friend and collaborator on City Service Trucks, Stan Denniston, a Toronto artist. The collected works were exhibited again at the Stratford Public Gallery this summer (2016).

In June, I caught up with Geleynse in his East London studio — a quiet space in a nest of artists’ studios in an old industrial district near the Western Fair. We sat at his work table for a question-and-answer session. He faced the wall where his most current work was underway; I faced two long shelves that were jam-packed with knick-knacks and toys.

Geleynse told me he visits thrift shops almost every day. He pulled down a wind-up car, wound it up and released it. The car sped to my edge of the table. Afraid it would fall off, I held out my hand to stop it, but Geleynse told me not to touch it.

At the last moment, the tiny car reversed direction. Geleynse grinned. “It won’t fall off the edge,” he said.


MB: Was this the first time that you had introduced story to your work in this way, with words?
WG: Literally yes. I would sort of write it out. Maybe the paragraph — they’re all only about one paragraph — would take me maybe two or three hours of going through it and playing around. But then I had a really good editor who became my collaborator, and that was Stan Denniston. He edited all the work, all the text work for me.

He and I in the past have worked on each other’s works, but not as real collaborations. Just as helping each other out. We’ve been doing that for almost 15 years.
As far as collaboration goes, a lot of my friends here, in the building (where Geleynse has his studio), would come in and out while I was doing all of these things because they’re always curious about what I was going to be doing next. It was really nice. Or they would respond and I would adjust to their responses and stuff like that as to how effective or how funny something was. It became this sort of group collaboration.

So yeah, over the period of two years, I built them as the mood struck me or as an idea struck me. None of the narratives were intended to become like a whole narrative, but they were connected by the idea that it was a city service truck and the (inventory) number (assigned to the truck). And that these were all city-designated, that this was a rather forward-looking city council that saw the need for this. So they were pretty much send ups for that sort of stuff.

At some points they were funny, like the sail truck which long-haul truckers could sail around the ring road around the city (CST #1010/0012). I’m thinking like Kitchener/Waterloo; they have a fantastic ring-road system.

It kind of pushed the idea of what cultural support could mean within a community. Sometimes they’re actually cleaning up, like this one here:

Wyn Geleynse photo:

CST #1110/0014 fulfills the un-glamorous necessity of the City's Cultural Clean-Up Division (CC-UD). This rare but controversial activity is an important contribution to the renewal of any city. Here we see the rescue of the Artist-in-Residence Studio from the now demolished Museum of Embittered Artists (MOEA), founded in 1967. Through the efforts of the CC-UD the studio was transported to, and now resides in the City’s Museum of Cultural Anthropology.

And when you look closely at this (the cube that the truck is carrying), there’s no door. You’re totally trapped within that conceptually as well as literally. This was one of my favourites.


MB: In this particular (installation), you seem to be looking at the systems of delivery of contemporary art. Why?
WG: When I was a younger artist, I was always coming up with a stage or a method for presenting ideas, but I had trouble realizing the ideas on those stages I would create. So I was good at creating a stage, but not really good at following up. I think it was just due to immaturity. So, I think a lot of my work is about creating a unique stage with which to provide something. Even now I struggle mightily with that.

And these (toy trucks) were “ready-ad” stages. Because they were so unattractive. They’re flatbed trucks, utilitarian, there’s nothing aesthetic about it. It’s an ugly orange. I thought they would be perfect for me to launch some ideas.

I’ve always worked from series, so it’s really natural for me to come up with 12 or any number. That was a real challenge for me because I’d have to fill that gap, and how well I could do that.

But the staging for me is really important. The video portraits I do, I create the staging and the people create the content for me. You know, that really is recognition of other people’s participation. But yeah, the staging is the important part, and the trucks provide that instant stage, and I provided the content.


MB: I’m thinking of media in general in terms of staging, you know, something like the Internet which might be considered a stage. And it’s interesting that you’re interested in that infrastructure of making art. Do you see other artists working along (the same vein)?
WG: I think it’s generational, and I say that only because I just learned how to build a website and rebuilt my old website. And I know how to use it, and that’s exactly the same thing as a stage. Luckily, I had the content so I only had to struggle with the structure initially with which to present that content. And the beauty of the website is that it gave me an insight into that sense of staging, how predetermined it is now and how much easier it is than it was before when you had that specialized language, HTML, which I didn’t have, right? So I couldn’t update it.

But I think there’s a generational shift now in that sense of staging because everything now, including the videos that I work on, the actual staging is in zeroes and ones, right? It doesn’t exist structurally in 3-D as these trucks do. These are a way of delivering, both literally and metaphorically, a message, right?

And I’d see that within the digital world. It’s the same process except it’s now — for a new generation has gotten away from something that exists in a three-dimensional form in the real world — like a book or like film (because film exists in 3-D as an object as well as imagery).

So yeah, I think it’s generational, and I don’t think it’s fundamentally different. I think the methodology and the delivery is different, but I think the intent is the same.
I mean, I could delve into the psychology of it which might be interesting, as much as we all stage ourselves. Even staging your house for sale is now important so you present a neutral thing that people can engage in.

When I talk about my work, that’s what I try to do. I try to present the ideas without telling people how to think about it, then let them determine themselves how they work or bring their own experience, and they fill in the gaps or whatever.

To me that’s a really valid engagement. You’re presenting a proposal, proposed ideas, and letting them work with you through it. That’s something I strive to do in my work an awful lot. I don’t like telling people what to do in my work. In real life I do, much to my dismay. But in my work, I try very much to not be overly didactic or directed. And I try to add layers to the work. This work has layers as well.


MB: Could you talk a little bit more about your attraction to series and working in series?
WG: I think the interest in series is because I am a fiction addict and I grew up with comic books, and they were in these little squares, right, and they were serial comic books or series, and they were ongoing. I used to love the serials in the movies. All that stuff.

It’s like narration; it’s like how narrative is structured. Which is why I pointed out that I wasn’t trying for cohesive narrative with the stories (in City Service Trucks). They were just one-offs, but the cohesion comes with the fundamental idea of this offering the service, this cultural service.


MB: Would you classify this installation as satire?
WG: I think to be a satirist you need to have depth of understanding about your topics, and I think this was really more about the surface impression. No, I wouldn’t call it satire. Some other people might describe it as satire. To me it’s just a send up. It was just like a tongue and cheek, one-liner.


MB: A lot of other work you’ve done traces back to you in some elemental way; this one seems more fictionalized.
WG: Well, I think it is because I dared to come out of the fiction closet. And I found this as a way to actually write fiction. I would like to write detective novels because I love reading them. My holiday is finding a good detective novelist. Read the book; it’s a holiday.


MB: The shifting and the numbers and your limited edition piece here remind me a little bit of a work that (the late sound poet) bpNichol did that was in a box that you could pull out and —
WG: Pull out and reassemble them. Yeah, I know that piece (Still Water, Vancouver: Talon Books, 1970), yeah, yeah. That was a great piece. I really liked that. It’s funny I forgot about that. Thanks for reminding me about that.

Maybe that’s where it came from. I always liked that randomness. But it’s also the music of (the late U.S. composer) John Cage, I think as well, either his long tone or synchronous stuff that builds up to something that’s really, totally unexpected. And just redefining what sound is. Yeah, I forgot about that bpNichol piece. Yeah, there’s another piece I like too by (Toronto artist) Becky Singleton. She did those little dials about language, and I have them here. You pick a word and you can match with all these other words and create all these sentences about art and stuff. I think it was smart. I really quite like that play in language.
I really love language. And I’ve known three languages (English, Dutch and French) through my life, so I’ve been lucky. I don’t know if I’ll learn any more. But I’ve always been able to play back and forth within them and have a lot of fun for myself.

Words mean a lot to me because that was my main way of getting out of fights when I was a kid. I was able to talk myself out of trouble or into trouble.


MB: Can we go to the numbers and how you numbered things? I seem to remember the one with the LCD screen (the 2005 model which was one of the first you made).
WG: Number 9. That’s just an arbitrary number I pulled. Sort of implied a history. But it was done years prior.

I numbered all of them. So they don’t have a name, they have a number like the city would do (an inventory) of trucks.


MB: One of the things I keep thinking about is how much you are a storyteller, how much you use material in a way that’s different from journalism, but in the same time it’s similar. There’s a certain necessity (in your practice) to use the found items to build the story and to generate it, which is what I think you’re talking about when you say you don’t supply the content. But I think you do supply the content.
WG: I recognize certain things that represent the content that I would like to provide. I do original things. I built a lot of those things. Right.
I build, actually physically build those things, structure them, measure them and cut them and stuff. I do build them.

But the gallery is an icon, right? Building it was easy. I didn’t have to invent the gallery to make it an iconic gallery.

Wyn Geleynse photo:

CST #1210/0015. This truck was dedicated to maintain and display a City landmark sign which once rotated atop the Globe & Post Newspaper Building, at Main and Queen (which also housed the City's Press Club since 1953). Fully restored, it is now used in parades, political rallies, and most poignantly, during annual homecoming celebrations at the School of Journalism.


MB: What role does nostalgia play in this installation? These trucks, they’re what, mid-’70s models?
WG: 1975. GMC 6500 Sierra model.


MB: Why then?
WG: I don’t like the term nostalgia. Because I think nostalgia is too closely associated with sentimentality. And I’m not really. I am sentimental, but people have talked about my work that way before, but to me I think they’re projecting their own issues on it. It was never my intent to be sentimental.

I prefer the French word “souvenir.” It brings back something. Right? But it’s a memory.

Nostalgia is viewed with a sense of loss, I think. But a memory can be delightful. It can be fun. It can have a value.

The trucks are a means to an end.

You see that grey projector there? That projector with the loop system I designed is signature. When people see that, they know who it is and where it’s from and everything else. But people have now anthropomorphized it. So they view it as a standing for me. But I say no, you’re wrong. It’s just a means to an end. When I turn this thing on, you’re going to look at what it’s doing, just forget about it. Right?

And I just had this discussion with (Museum London). I said you should digitize all my film stuff because these things aren’t going to last much longer. Even though I repair them for them. They said, “No, you can’t do that.”

Well yes, I can. You know, that was the technology then; this is the technology now. I can make it even better than what it was and I showed I could. By digitizing the films and improving the quality of the film and making a much better piece out of it. You know, you turn the projector on, they’re still looking at the piece, not at the projector. But people have incorporated that technology with the work, the sound and everything else.

So to me these trucks are like that. They served a function for me. I did not project or invest them with any of that nostalgia because they’re from 1975. I didn’t care what they were; they were just a stage for me. So I don’t have those feelings about that sort of stuff.

I think I would use “nostalgia” when I use the trucks as opposed to the trucks for me representing nostalgia. But at the same time, I certainly acknowledge what toys do for people. Hence, toys do something for me.

But (even then) they’re not about nostalgia as much as they are about mechanics and stuff for me. They were what I did with my hands as a kid. This is what I do with my hands as an adult. So I don’t have to be nostalgic for it because I still do it, right.

But toys are really important. Toys are used to socialize children. Toys are all miniatures of things in the real world.

So toys do function in a very specific way, and I think Roland Barthes really hit the nail on the head (in his essay “Toys” in his 1957 book, Mythologies). And these (trucks) owe themselves to a degree to that type of socialization because these ideas (that they carry) are meant to inculcate you with the possibilities of responsibility of governments. It’s a bit subversive in a way, right?


MB: What role does our expectation of government play in this piece?
WG: Very much so, and that’s exactly why they’re called City Service Trucks. It could have been a private company. It could have been a promotion. It could have been advertising. But I was trying to say the city needs a cultural service. Sometimes it’s messy; sometimes it’s surveillance; sometimes it’s just saving things. And not in a way (of saving) that we put them away in a museum, but in a way that they relive in another way, like the hat (CST #1210/0015). That’s saving that hat from the top of the press club. You know what I mean? That’s really tongue and cheek, but every press guy that’s seen it just loves it, of course. Because it’s home to them. They completely understand what it’s all about. The cliché is all about the press. I since added a vulture feather I found in Stratford . . . Because you know you have feathers in hats and also a feather in your cap, sucking up. I thought that was a good addition.

So yeah, they’re subversive, but they’re also optimistic. You hope that the city would see this and they would somehow respond and say, “What a good idea. Maybe we should think about this, right?” Because you know what culture’s like in North America now.


Wyn Geleynse photo:

CST #1010/0012 is commonly known as the ‘sail truck.’  It’s a hybrid apparatus developed through the cooperation of long-distance truckers and local hobbyists, all enthusiasts for parking lot / road sailing. This rig has proven to be the most popular CST to date and can be seen most Sundays on the closed ring road (R405) of the City.

MB: How much of the piece is proposal and how much of it is comment?
WG: I think it’s varying degrees of the two. Depending on the work, right? The idea of the embittered artist is a comment (CST #1110/0014); the idea of the sails trucks could be both comment but more proposal. The gallery, of course, is definitely proposal, but it’s a comment on the precariousness of these galleries. In some communities, they just barely survive because there’s no support. So I think percentage-wise it fluctuates between the two. Pure proposal is about the lead rose, which is about pollution (CST #0811/0020). So I think it varies. It just moves all over the place.


MB: What piece presented the biggest challenge to develop and why?
WG: To me, I’m happiest when I have a problem, when I have a challenge. So I don’t view challenge in the way other people do. To me, that’s my pleasure. Each and every one presented a different thing for me to either resolve or overcome. And I tend to put limits on things, so I have to be fairly flexible.


MB: Limits how?
WG: Size-wise. I mean I could have built them out and out and out or up and up and up. But that gets kind of silly. So the limitation was, it has to be possible to create this in reality. That’s a limitation.

Artists like limitations because it forces them to — I like to use the term “be a bit more flexible” — and be open to new ideas as opposed to the word “creative.” Because I think creative is all part of the flexibility, recognition and opportunism, a lot of different things. So I really like that.

I like going to bed with a problem and waking up in the morning and going (he snaps his fingers) I think I know how to do that. (They’re) my happiest moments in life. People ask me when I’m happy, it’s at that moment. And then the carrying out, of course, is just work. Having your brain do this somehow, you don’t know how, but it’s working there. It’s really quite nice.

Some might appear a lot easier in the building, but then the writing was harder to make it believable. Whereas some might be really complex in building, but the writing was really easy.

— September 2016

Wyn Geleynse’s work can be seen in Portraits, Self and Others (It’s Complicated), a University of Western Ontario Macintosh Gallery group exhibition that opens Sept. 22 and runs until Oct. 29.

This interview has been edited and condensed. The feature was edited by R. Franklin Carter.