The Mindfulness of Jim Johnston

Editor’s Note: this piece originally appeared in Issue Zero of Tenth to the Fraser’s print magazine, April 2016 in a condensed format. This is the complete interview. 


Sarah Joyce, co-Curator/Director of the New Westminster New Media Gallery at the Anvil Centre shares a tour of the gallery with a regular visitor.   

I am moved every time I come in here. I’m always a better person for coming here. ~Jim Johnston

The first time we met Jim Johnston was shortly after the gallery opened. He was already a regular; a quiet fellow in a well-worn cap, sweatshirt, baggy pants. He began visiting the gallery at least three times a week; visits ranged from 15 to 60 minutes. His questions revealed an insight that surprised us. We saw a skilled observer with an ability to make connections, and a strong emotional intelligence.

Early on he mentioned that he had never been to a gallery before. He told us that one of the works in the Musicircus exhibition nearly brought him to tears. Our interest was piqued. Indeed, Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet is a breathtaking, four-screen video work that makes even the most hardened critics a bit wobbly.

Here’s the thing; Jim’s exploration of art is courageous, gutsy. His approach is what you long for as a curator. Open-minded, enthusiastic and curious ; this is the Jim Johnston we’ve come to know. You always hope the exhibitions you pull together will touch people in some way. Perhaps the works of art will change the way people see the world. Each exhibition is so brief; eight weeks and after that just a memory. Jim says he is a better person after coming to the gallery. And we are better for knowing Jim Johnston. He gives us hope for the future.

Touring the New Media Gallery with Jim Johnston

SJ: So…have you been to all our exhibitions?

JJ: Yes. The first one I came to see was all those movies juxtaposed together.

The work Jim mentions is Video Quartet by Christian Marclay; part of the inaugural exhibition Musicircus.

There were four, big screens. I just came in for something to do and I will always remember… because you saw this piece and it picked you up and just PULLED you along! You started off by playing it like it was a game. You were trying to identify each clip, but then the whole thing, the whole idea: it just picked you up and pulled you along!

SJ: Did it just sweep you away or could you see a logic to it? How did you experience it?

JJ: You understand the mood it evokes. One of the great things here; you get to see things you would never get to see, like that work. Like this gallery. Coming here gives you a connection. You’re connected with the artistic world, you’re connected with the past and with the people here, you’re connected by looking out the windows! Ideally you open yourself up to the possibilities. You feel a great sense of accomplishment after being in the gallery. This sounds hokey but…you’re better for coming in. It’s better for this town, better for the people living here.

SJ: Before you came to the New Media Gallery would you have thought that art could have touched on so many common understandings?

JJ: Academically I did. There’s this idea that a gallery is separate from the day to day. My day work is down from the Vancouver Art Gallery but I’ve never been inside it. For me there is no connection between the person on the sidewalk and the gallery. The genius of this place is you can always see outside and there is a connection with the street that really works.

Photo by Mario Bartel Jim Johnston waits patiently for propane balls of flame to blast through Carsten Nicolai's installation, 334m/s, at the New Media Gallery in the Anvil Centre.
Photo by Mario Bartel

Jim Johnston waits patiently for propane balls of flame to blast through Carsten Nicolai’s installation, 334m/s, at the New Media Gallery in the Anvil Centre.

SJ: Tell me your experience of this work here.

We are standing in the centre of the main gallery, on one side of a glass wall. Hanging from the ceiling is a work by Berlin artist, Carsten Nicolai entitled 334 m/s. Two transparent tubes are suspended from fine wires; each tube is hooked up to propane tanks. A mess of coiled cables sprawls across the floor. A faint hiss can be heard as propane gas fills the tubes. This hiss abruptly stops; silence. The next eight seconds seems endless. Then two blue fireballs ignite with a whoosh and speed through the tubes. The resulting sonic boom makes us jump…again. We have watched this many times. That shock of sound and speeding light doesn’t disappoint.

JJ: Now THAT’S interesting because it actually opened up this time and the air pushed it out and the fireball looked like it would go out the end!

SJ: The experience is different each time, isn’t it?

JJ: Exactly. It’s not a machine. There are subtleties and nuances that make each experience individual.

SJ: Tell me about Tristan Perich’s Octave. What is your experience of this work?

Photo by Mario Bartel Jim Johnston, a regular visitor to the New Media Gallery at the Anvil Centre, pauses to listen to the sounds emitting from tiny speakers in Tristan Perich's installation, Octave.
Photo by Mario Bartel
Jim Johnston, a regular visitor to the New Media Gallery at the Anvil Centre, pauses to listen to the sounds emitting from tiny speakers in Tristan Perich’s installation, Octave.

We turn around to examine Octave. On the white wall hang 12 square aluminum panels, lined up at eye height. Embedded in each metal panel are 25 tiny, black speakers, 300 in all. A blanket of white-ish noise fills the room, cascading off the wall behind us; encasing us in soft sound.

JJ: Basically it looks like one of those cool electro-fifties things; all smart and pure with clean lines. It looks perfect. But then you come in close, and I saw this on opening day: you come in close to these little speakers and they’re all completely different.

SJ: From a distance they all look alike, but as you say, when you come in close you see the flaws, the differences, and this must affect how they speak or perform.

JJ: Yes. It’s like all the clones are going to turn out different because they experience life differently.

You’ve got to get past the vanity, the pre-conceived notions. When you take the time to really see this stuff, you open yourself up to the possibilities. You think the gallery’s got nothing for you, you think you’ve got to be smart, you think you’ve gotta be an intellectual. I’m not any of those things and yet I am moved every time I come in here. I’m always a better person for coming here.

SJ: The thing that strikes me with Octave is this idea of organization or a sort of intelligence in terms of how it is organized. What do you see?

JJ: It is organized. The single tones all work with each other, the way you experience the sound is relative to where you’re standing.

The writer Robert Heinlein wrote an idea about how earth was invaded by intelligent insects, and they were a metaphor for communism because they worked collectively. You had this perfect division of labour: workers work, thinkers think and everyone is completely dedicated to their cause. It was a militarist, fascistic organization that was like a machine.

SJ: The connection with Heinlein is great.

Photo by Mario Bartel Jim Johnston discussed Adam Basanta's Pirouette with the co-curator of the New Media Gallery, Sarah Joyce.
Photo by Mario Bartel

Jim Johnston discussed Adam Basanta’s Pirouette with the co-curator of the New Media Gallery, Sarah Joyce.

We walk back through the glass wall into a smaller section of the main gallery. Seven speakers hang from the ceiling in a circle. The fishing line that suspends them catches the light like a spiderweb. A microphone rotates slowly on a circular pedestal, passing over each speaker in turn. A series of ethereal, musical tones seem to emanate from each speaker as the microphone passes them by.

SJ: Can we talk about Adam Basanta’s Pirouette for a bit? We’ve spoken about it at length and have had some very interesting conversations.  

JJ: What occurs to me when I look at it is just… life. It’s alive. The speakers are suspended in the air like lily pads. The music is like the music of the spheres: the music of the natural world. You pointed out before that there is a tune, which I didn’t get at first, but now I hear it.

SJ: How do you hear it? Describe this. Describe how you approach this piece.

JJ: You look at it, you hear the sound, it’s not a monotone, it changes as the microphone passes over the speakers. See! There’s a change right there! And you don’t hear this piece in a vacuum. It’s part of everything. You’re hearing the big bang go off in the other room (he points to 334 m/s) and you’re also hearing that other piece in there (he points to Octave)

SJ: Do you like that aspect of sound in this exhibition; the overlaying sounds… or is it distracting?

JJ: I like it. You have this idea here that you don’t have life experiences one at a time. You could maybe approach sound like a Japanese tea ceremony where you concentrate on each aspect of what you’re doing until it is perfect. You could try that, but I don’t think you can ever isolate things that much in the real world. There is always some distraction. The more you think about this piece (Pirouette), the more the organic livingness of it seems important.

I remember once there was a ginormous crane just down the street from here, at the top of a skyscraper. You looked up at it and it was all steel and grease but then you stepped back and it was as delicate as a reed, extended out in space, way up there. This reminds me of that.

SJ: Beautiful connection.

We listen to Pirouette for a bit. The musical tones we hear are created entirely from feedback, generated by the proximity of each speaker to the passing microphone. The artist has filtered the feedback; in fact he has tuned the whole piece like an instrument. But the microphone moves so slowly that the tune it ‘plays’ cannot normally be understood by the visitor. Perhaps it is felt intuitively more than recognized. The tune itself is the most common section of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Pirouette is a work that references both technology and memory.

JJ: Like the others, you see that this is not a machine. The subtleties and nuances are there; all you have to do is listen. It’s all there.

SJ: I’m interested in how you understand the relationship between the microphone and speaker; the feedback. As a visitor you wouldn’t immediately know this is feedback; you might think it’s music generated somewhere and run through the speakers. Does it help to have someone here to discuss this kind of information?

JJ: Yes – absolutely. These are complex things. A piece of art doesn’t exist in and of itself. It interacts with everything else going on around it. It interacts with the person who made it and everything that person did before they made it. It doesn’t spring up by itself out of nothing. It comes from somewhere. It has a history. I don’t understand why every art gallery in the world doesn’t do what you’re doing, and help people out. You feel someone cares.

We hear people coming into the gallery so we walk through another door that closes behind us. In this room is Jesper Norda’s The Centre of Silence. It is stark white and completely empty in here. For some this can be an unsettling experience. A woman’s voice begins to describe the room. The location of the speakers is uncertain. The 10 minute loop is spoken without intonation, a slight echo blurs or obscures what she is saying. Her reading style encourages the mind to wander.

SJ: When you first encountered The Centre of Silence what did you think?

JJ: Of all of the pieces this was a little harder to get, you had to become more engaged. There’s a point she’s making about sound; the perfect circle, the calm surface. It’s incredibly stark in here; there’s nothing in the room and yet for me it conjures up visions and metaphors of the pond which again ties back to that other piece, Pirouette. And you see it’s all a lie; it’s not stark! You understand that this place doesn’t exist by itself. It’s not that there’s nothing here; there’s LOTS going on in here. You’ve got to let yourself be guided by it; you concentrate on what she’s saying but you don’t get hung up on the words themselves. It’s like the first piece I ever saw here…the clips. (Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet).

You start out playing the game and then suddenly it just picks you up and carries you along and you understand a greater point. You know, it’s like a science experiment where you put something into solution: you put one drop in and you keep adding drops until you realize it’s everywhere. You’re everywhere at once in here. You’re evenly distributed throughout this entire universe. There is no later, it’s all now, constantly in the present; you’re catching everything, processing everything. You become immersed and taken up. The room isn’t empty ; YOU’RE in the room and you’re everywhere. If you take the time to look and to see, you realize it isn’t bare or dead, it’s so alive.

The visitors have followed us into the Jesper Norda gallery. They stop suddenly, surprised perhaps at the white emptiness. But they laugh and enter cautiously. We leave them to this room and move through a door into the quiet of the New Westminster Museum. Here we’re surrounded by historic artifacts and automatically lower our voices.

SJ: One thing I’ve noticed is that your thought process is very connective and big picture. I’ve noticed how you constantly link all the works you’ve seen, and the exhibitions themselves into some sort of connective pattern. I find this really fascinating.

JJ: Nothing is created, nothing is destroyed; it’s just in a different state. Each exhibition works with the other one. The gallery works with the museum, with the building itself, the archives, the theatre. Anybody can come in here, anybody can connect with this. It’s all part of one thing and it is not separate from the community or different from the street.

SJ: So the idea that an art gallery is separated from real life, and that you can’t get anything out of it: you don’t buy into this?

JJ: No!

Jim points at the wall panels in the museum. The portraits of the long gone stare back with enigmatic eyes.

JJ: Any one of these people here could have gone into that art gallery and they would get the same thing out of it that I do. They would likewise be moved by what they see and hear. You don’t have to be special. You don’t have to think the same. It’s a big mistake to think that the art gallery is an imposing thing.

SJ: What does it mean to have a gallery that you can enter for free?

JJ: Oh – well it’s great! I’m not a wealthy man. Even a nominal fee becomes a barricade. I know there’s a school of thought that says if you add a nominal fee people will think it’s worth more, but the fact that I can come to the gallery and museum for free means I will come back more. Then there’s the fact that it’s a public good, like a road or a bridge, or a school…because it makes the society better.

SJ: What is the key then? What do you say to someone who says I’m not interested in art; I could never understand it? How would you tell them to approach an art gallery?

JJ: Basically? Don’t think that you don’t belong here. Don’t be intimidated. The people who made this stuff are not any smarter, or any more passionate than you are. They’re dedicated to their job just like you are. If you can learn about football, you can learn about art. I work in a comic book store and I don’t know much about comics, but I pick it up. You come in a few times, you get into it, and you go away feeling I can do this! I talk to people about this all the time; I say, this gallery here is a real asset. I have a reason to come downtown. And maybe you’ve got a couple of extra minutes and hey, you’ve got that coupon so you’re gonna go for coffee. There’s that snazzy new sandwich place. It’s a destination now.

SJ: When you drop in you’re sometimes here for 15 minutes; other times you stay for an hour and a half. Is it important to you to just drop by; to treat this as your gallery?

JJ: Yes. Sometimes you’ve only got 15 minutes, but the 15 minutes you spend here; you feel better for being in here. Just to see this, to see something you haven’t seen before, to be transported. And if you’ve got an hour and a half to spend, you stand and watch the light rotate and see how the shadows move, see how the light reflects, maybe make some connections with the friezes on greek statuary, think about how this is the first thing we ever did, we sat around a fire and we watched light.

Photo by Mario Bartel New Media Gallery regular Jim Johnston is always prepared to talk about his ideas and reaction to the installations.
Photo by Mario Bartel
New Media Gallery regular Jim Johnston is always prepared to talk about his ideas and reaction to the installations.

Jim speaks of 5600K, an exhibition of white light. The work he mentions is Gunda Foerster’s Circle. Circle is a single, mesmerizing, white light that swings in a wide circle, creating fluctuating shadows on the walls and an encompassing experience for the visitor.

SJ: Is this a human need; is it important for people to be able to come into places like this and experience art and culture on common ground?

JJ: Yes! We’re social animals and we’re smart. There’s all this input going on in here. We like to know stuff, we like to learn.

SJ: When I ask you which piece, of all the pieces, is your favorite, what comes to mind?

JJ: I have come to all the exhibitions but the first gallery opening I ever attended was POPart. Everybody was laughing at this video, and I’m like ‘Oh my God – this is futility!’.

SJ: (laughs) You’re talking about the video work by William Lamson? I had the same reaction! It was heartbreaking.

Jim and I discuss Actions by American artist William Lamson. Over 10 minutes it presents a portrait of the artist taking on different roles; attempting in humorous, pathetic and ridiculous ways to build with, manipulate or destroy balloons. There are connections to Buster Keaton: a small, lonely figure up against very big and frequently absurd odds. He wins, he loses, but despite the outcome, he keeps trying.

JJ: Yes – literally I didn’t get it. I’m sitting there just about in tears over this video and everybody around me is seeing it differently. They see it as funny. I wasn’t expecting that. And then I think; this is futility but it’s also strength! The way the brick balances on top of the pop cans, but the brick doesn’t fall off. All the times where he rigs things up, all the times he tries to break the balloons but one balloon makes it through. You’re beat but you try anyway.

SJ: Did you feel perhaps there was some hope in this piece?

JJ: Ultimately yes. He’s trying to beat these things, he doesn’t have the right equipment, it’s all so jury-rigged and the nails don’t even match and he has to look around to even find the right hammer. But somehow it’s hopeful. Yes one balloon escapes, but hey, he gets the others. Yes the cans are crushed, but the brick didn’t fall off. He’s trying like crazy and he never gives up; gotta try, gotta try, it’ll work this time, it’ll work this time. The futility of it is horrifying but you don’t give up. That one always stuck with me.

We move toward the museum exit, moving backward in time through the museum toward pre-history. Toward the beginning.

SJ: I know you and your Dad had a business here in New West. You’re a long term New West resident. Would you like to tell me about that?

JJ: Yup – we were at the Quay when it opened. We had a market stall here and on Granville Island. When you’re in a small business it takes up all your time. Now if the gallery had been here then, I’d like to think I would have found the time to come and see it. Because you can hide in your stuff, you can hide in your ignorance, you can hide in your job. That’s ok. But the thing is, I know I would have had a much easier time of it had I had a place like the gallery that I could simply come and spend time in.

SJ: You think it would have helped you in some way?

JJ: Knowing that it’s here?

SJ: Yes.

JJ: Oh yes. Because it helps if you’re part of something. And here I’m part of something.

SJ: Do you think an international New Media Gallery is for local people?

JJ: Yes. It’s local because it’s where I can be. We live in an international world, in a connected world. There is no reason we shouldn’t experience an interconnected world. We’re all connected anyway.

Now we have come full circle. Outside the gallery, we look through the big windows out over historic Columbia St., with a view to the market, a glimpse of the boardwalk and the shimmering sliver that is the Fraser River. Sun is shining; time to go. I sense that Jim never stops thinking, never gives up. “Alrighty then! See ya Thursday!’. Tipping two fingers to his forehead, in a now familiar gesture, he offers up a little smile and signs off with a cheery good-bye. There’s a whole world out there to think about and connect with…thanks Jim, until next time.

Photo by Mario Bartel Jim Johnston is enveloped by soft sound in Jesper Norda's installation The Centre of Silence, one of four pieces that comprised OTIC at the New Media Gallery in the Anvil Centre. Johnston has become a regular visitor to the gallery.
Photo by Mario Bartel
Jim Johnston is enveloped by soft sound in Jesper Norda’s installation The Centre of Silence, one of four pieces that comprised OTIC at the New Media Gallery in the Anvil Centre. Johnston has become a regular visitor to the gallery.