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Rita education

As a retrospective opens at the Centre for Art Tapes, Halifax artist Rita McKeough looks back on a career both figuratively and literally big.

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Outskirts, Tower of Silence,Side Street, Defunct, Urban Scroungers, Destruck, The Artificial Marsh. The titles of Rita McKeough’s artwork hint at the artist’s preoccupation with architecture. Or with spaces and bodies and how they fit together—or clash. Long Haul, slipping by, Wave Over Wave, Shudder, Shiver, Take it to the Teeth.

They’re all art installation performances—presented not only in traditional galleries but often outdoors—she’s been actively creating since 1977. And it’s all work McKeough (pronounced muh-KO) will discuss at a retrospective talk presented by the Centre for Art Tapes (CFAT) this Friday.

It’s the second year that CFAT is focusing on the art of a member who has contributed substantially to the media arts in Atlantic Canada. Last year it was the videos and films of Jim MacSwain. This year, they turn the attention to sound and electronics, McKeough’s primary creative tools.

Like MacSwain, McKeough has been around CFAT since near the beginning—it started in 1979, the year McKeough graduated with her MFA from NSCAD—and she is a longtime instructor at NSCADU and other Canadian universities and art colleges, dividing her time between here and Alberta, where she got her BFA from University of Calgary.

“I like to share my excitement about the experience of art, helping people make art, giving them technical skills, making sure they get what they want out of their work,” she says, sitting on a wooden trunk in her north end studio, which is—fittingly—next to a fire station, bus garage and houses.

But just as teaching isn’t more important to McKeough than her art, clever titles are no substitute for actually seeing the work.

As a performance artist who works on a large scale—her pieces frequently take up whole rooms, or whole city blocks—McKeough doesn’t hold onto past shows. Sometimes she abandons the materials—gallery-sized exhibits are dauntingly large to archive—or she stores parts in a storage locker she splits with another artist. And she has her studio: One wall is stacked halfway up with boxes and suitcases.

Often she recycles parts into other shows—for instance, the clock she used in X, a piece shown last summer as part of the AGNS’s Artport show at Pier 22, with its backwards-rolling hands (alongside electronically motivated pencils repetitively grooving half Xs into the table), shows up in slipping by in Calgary: “Clocks were on my mind,” she explains. “Stride”—a gallery in Calgary—“is on a busy bottlenecked street. I felt the tension, and it made me want to make the piece.” In it, the clocks “speak” in hushed, panicked tones: “Oh no, oh no.”

In Outskirts, which McKeough showed at the Owens Gallery in Sackville, N.B., three years ago, visitors experience miniature “houses” making similar cries—an allusion to the ghosts that inhabit abandoned spaces and to the liveliness of outmoded spaces.

Like the creations of a postmodern architect, McKeough’s work is generally site-specific, with the exception of two shows: Wave Over Wave, 36 precisely synchronized drumsticks drumming for the dead at sea—“What I learned was how powerful the silence was between the drummings”—and In boca al lupo/In the mouth of the wolf, an opera performed within the shape of a female body in which gallery-goers balanced themselves on precariously piled books. In boca al lupo was designed specifically for the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery in 1991—because of its history as a women’s university, explains the artist—and Wave Over Wave was meant to be experienced with the Halifax Harbour in the backdrop, not the video screen she resorted to in Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery and at the 2002 Sound Symposium in St. John’s, but she travelled them anyway.

Sitting in the second-storey loft, the 55-year-old, white-haired McKeough refuses to be interviewed for a story about her instead of her work. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing either—a black corduroy shirt, jeans, black runners that got soaked walking Wick, her dog, in the park—but its ordinariness is signature McKeough.

Most of her art is social critique. But that’s treading dangerous territory for McKeough, who doesn’t want it to be misconstrued as didactic: “That’s arrogant. I’m interested in very particular things and interested in communicating what I’m thinking about.”

Perhaps it’s also impossible to describe the trajectory of McKeough’s career as one of Canada’s most successful long-term performance artists; CFAT’s billing her as “one of Atlantic Canada’s most influential media artists.” She hardly thinks of herself that way and measures her own success by the authenticity and prescience of the dialogue she creates—literally.

Trained as a printmaker, McKeough first exhibited pictures, but she layered the show—about the previous generation of redevelopment in Calgary in the 1970s—with sound recordings. She got interested in sound while hosting a show at the university radio station—“where I learned that each voice has value”—and playing drums in rock ’n’ roll bands like the Ten Foot Henrys. “I learned how to handle gear right away when I was very young. That’s how I gained confidence and technical skills.”

But her perennial interest in sound and art probably began even earlier: McKeough’s mother spoke Gaelic at home and her father was a folk artist. She was born in rural Nova Scotia, but moved to Vancouver and then Calgary with her family as a child.

Another thing McKeough emphasizes is the importance of collaboration to her work. She reels off dozens of names of people who’ve been involved in her creations. Most recently, it’s Robyn Moody, who’s also her co-instructor in CFAT’s House of Voltage Electronics for Artists workshops: “I owe my work to my friends—it’s so labour-intensive, I couldn’t have done it myself.”

These days she’s working on Long Haul, which will show as part of Toronto’s 7a11d performance art festival in October. Current-ly, her plan for the piece is that a motorized concrete planter containing a tree will trail her as she collects organic material she finds on the street and tags it with more sound pieces, which she’ll in turn attach to the tree.

Still in the technical research and component gathering stage, she’s looking for the latest edition of the Bargain Hunter and the number of a man who’s selling a remote-controlled device she can adapt for the planter. And she’s looking for a venue for the exhibit.

McKeough never stops working. Outside an Agricola Street cafe, she runs into filmmaker Andy Pedersen, who’s editing his documentary on bridge players. McKeough volunteers what she knows of bridge—it’s nothing, except what she calls the “poetry” of play descriptions she reads in the newspaper. Even though he already has more footage than he can use, Pedersen immediately wants to interview McKeough. She gives him her phone number.

“I study electronics manuals at night,” she explains. “I’m trying to be more independent—and I’ve got to a point where now I can teach it. If you don’t know everything, you don’t let that stop you.”

Rita McKeough presents her work on Friday, July 21 at 7pm, at the AGNS Windsor theatre. Bedford Row and George Street entrance. Free admission.

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