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Caleb Abbott quietly intervenes during Festival X

By Diane Bond on September 28, 2012

We’ve been covering a lot of Festival X lately on Apartment613. The 10-day photography festival wraps up this Sunday, September 30, but if you haven’t had a chance to see any of the exhibitions yet, have no fear! Many of the projects are on-going, including Redeveloping the Core, a series of site-specific installations by Ottawa-based photographer Caleb Abbott.

Abbott’s latest works, installed at various locations around Ottawa, look to how urbanization and development can affect small businesses. Printed on transparent vellum, the large-format photographs are hung in the windows at Fall Down Gallery, Collected Works, The Daily Grind, and Young Janes. If you’re planning on stopping by, be sure to read Abbott’s viewing instructions beforehand.

We met for a coffee a few weeks ago, pre-install, to talk about the series.

Apt613: How did you get involved with Festival X?

Caleb Abbott: This is the third year I’ve participated, and I wanted to do something a little bit different this time. I’ve felt that, over the last few festivals, there is a lot of conventional work being shown – maybe conventional isn’t the right word. I didn’t want to just add more to it – add more framed photographs in spaces. I think that that is an important part of the festival, but I was thinking “What can I do that is more challenging and enjoyable for me, while still participating within the framework of the festival?” Not to repeat what I’ve already done, but to push myself further. I talked to one of the organizers, Francesco Corsara, and asked if this idea would fit within the framework of the festival.

Apt613: And the response was positive?

CA: Yeah.  He said, let’s try it – it might expand part of the festival or give people ideas on how to, if you don’t have a gallery, do something outside of that. There are many ways to present work and be a part of the festival.

Apt613: Your work is going to be installed in four different venues: Young Janes, The Daily Grind, Collected Works, and Fall Down Gallery. What is it about these spaces that are important for you?

CA: When I was thinking about doing the project, I didn’t know what I was actually going to do, or what it was going to be about. I started thinking about work as an intervention, without being anti-gallery, or a comment on the art world or white cube. In this case, doing installations within these spaces – what would be appropriate? What talks about the area, or the overarching issue that a lot of people in Ottawa are talking about? What could I do something that would emphasize that?

Apt613: What is the issue?

CA: Development. It’s something a lot of people are talking about. From Lansdowne to Light Rail Transit – it’s about urbanization in general. Mistakes we’ve made, how can we make it better – but at what cost? When you look at certain areas of the city, what do we lose by developing them? Often these small businesses create a hotspot – a cool, trendy area – and then developers look to those areas to build. It’s gentrification, really. It’s cleaning it up, making it look more modern, but is that conducive to what people want? And what does it do to small businesses?

I didn’t want to make work about the loss of small businesses. I wanted to focus on how this kind of development can make a city creative, encourages growth and density. It can be difficult for small businesses to survive in those developing areas, like with Nicholas Hoare Books on Sussex closing because the NCC was jacking rent up and it became unaffordable. What do we lose out on, and what do we gain?

That was the initial idea for the work. Then I thought, how can I talk about this, outside of a gallery space and into where those places are? The emphasis being on: this is practical, this is appropriate. Putting the work here couldn’t be more effective, in a way.

I’m challenging myself, because I don’t photograph architecture very much. Not reinventing anything, not changing aesthetics, but literally transposing ‘building’ into ‘building’. It’s an immediate, simple concept – building blocks within a building, to open up a discussion about development and urbanization.

Apt613: The images reference abstraction, patterning, repetition, and industrialization. How are these elements important to your photographic process?

CA: There is something appealing about formal photography, where subject and content aren’t necessarily the focus, as much as aesthetics. These buildings are modern, clean, very much about pattern and simplicity. The photographs act more as building blocks, abstractions of buildings, than they are about the buildings themselves.

The highlight, for me, is having content and subject matter as being equal to the object in location – where the object is placed. So the photograph is a sculptural object in a location, as opposed to an image (where the focus is the content of the image itself) hung on a wall.

Apt613: How did you select the images?

CA: There are obvious constraints, technically. Certain files that I worked on worked better in larger spaces. For example, the ones in Fall Down Gallery (there are two) are in two huge windows, 52 inches by 103 inches. I had to build the file to the point where I had enough raw material to fit within those windows. Still pushing the file as far as I can, but not making it so blurry or grainy that it’s a bad image. Although I try not to obsess about aesthetics like that. I don’t think that blurry or grainy images are bad images, technically. But the aesthetic – I still wanted it to be obvious, what it was. At Collected Works, the windows are much smaller, I had files that would work well there. So it’s random in the selection of buildings, but not random in the computer, building the images for the spaces.

Apt613: Can you describe you process or method for working, for these installations specifically?

CA: There are no trade secrets. When I look at taking photos, my personal process is less about the technical side – although I feel that’s important – I feel sometimes when you get obsessed in that realm you either lose out on content or you affect the content’s sincerity. By making something really slick and shiny, you risk losing the core of the image. More importantly, I don’t see photos as content-based subject matter, I try to see them as process-driven objects.

When I use a camera, I’m purpose-driven: I’m photographing buildings. I don’t carry a camera around with me, here and there, putting images together in a narrative sequence afterwards. It’s very much pre-meditated. Utilitarian.

Apt613: The work, in some cases, could easily be missed by people walking by. How are you hoping the public will respond?

CA: There’s the hope, and then there’s the reality. The work is visible from both inside and outside the shops. Some are at a large enough scale that they will, if you’re going for a coffee, you’ll probably ask what it is. Somewhere like Young Janes, the work is in a spot that could look like it’s intentionally there to add something stylistic to the place.

I think people will notice something is a bit different. When you approach artwork, you ask yourself, “Is this important to me?” If you see it out of context will you even know it’s supposed to be something? Or does it even need to be? Can it just be what it is?

I’m of two minds – the installation for Festival X is almost as important as the document of the installation, for personal records. Because the project is on-going, when I photograph the installations in their own context (for  a website or in a book), you’ll see them as a series, as documentation.

Apt613: So this work is to be carried forward into a different format?

CA: Yes. There are four locations for Festival X – I wanted to do more, but couldn’t afford it. I have another few businesses that I want to continue with, after. I’ve built a website and I’m going to add them in as I’m going. There’s no end to it. Or, there doesn’t need to be an end to it.

Someone might care, and that’s why I did it.
– Caleb Abbott