Burning Questions with Local Artist and Educator Justin Langlois

If you’ve spent any time along the seawall between Olympic Village and Cambie Street bridge lately then you’ve seen the striking work, “Should I Be Worried?”. At night the art installation posits its burning query over False Creek in apt neon capitals, likely leaving impressions on many minds long after evening strolls have ended. At least it did for me. Which is why, in an act of role reversal, I recently got in touch with the artist and Emily Carr University Associate Professor, Justin Langlois, to ask a series of my own pressing questions…

Where did you grow up? In a small town. Kingsville, Ontario.

What is your current neighbourhood? Southeast False Creek.

Your neighbourhood haunt? It’s a little outside the neighbourhood but just about every weekend I head to the Federal Store for breakfast.

Favourite Vancouver building? There’s a bunch of awkward buildings along 5th Avenue between Cambie and Main that are beautiful but slowly disappearing.

Favourite view in Vancouver? To the west of Waterfront Station there’s an elevated plaza; it’s an amazing space on a summer day.

Your favourite piece of public art? I might be a little bit biased, but everything that the amazing team at Other Sights produces or curates ends up being one of my favourites.

What keeps you up at night? My partner is a poverty law lawyer and the systemic injustices she tells me about definitely stay on my mind. It makes me think about institutions of all kinds and the barriers they create for folks through policy and practice.

What do you do when you can’t sleep? I try to read or do SFU professor Luc Beaudoin’s ‘cognitive shuffle’ where you think of a random set of things that are easy to picture in your mind. It helps your brain settle down.

Via justinlanglois.com

A burning question? A question I usually ask other people because I’m trying to figure it out for myself, but it goes something like: If you could wake up and do anything, what would it be?

A recent discovery that made you excited? I’m re-discovering Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It’s so beautifully written and catastrophically sad, at least in passages, but the rhythm and just the way it moves through contradictions does something really great to my brain.

What is your artistic background? I studied filmmaking before going to art school.

Your three favourite galleries in Vancouver? The people at 221a, grunt, and Artspeak are incredible. They do diverse work but they’re all worth checking out.

A current hobby? I’m re-teaching myself guitar. I used to play a lot when I was younger but now I’m trying to learn some actual technique.

How do you stay curious? I think you have to be genuinely interested in the people around you and you have to find ways to tune into that interest when you meet someone new. I’m curious about the huge range of difference in how people see the world and how they try to understand it. I try to ask a lot of questions.

Something that you’ve recently learned? I don’t know if I would consider this as something I’ve learned, but I was reading Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s latest book, Assembly, and thinking about their idea of ‘strategy to movements, tactics to leadership.’ I tend to think about things over time, so it’s hard to know when it’s solidified as something ‘learned,’ but I’ve been trying to think through their idea when I’m at work, whether with students or in meetings or working on curriculum.

I don’t think all art ‘should’ have a message, but I’m generally most interested in artwork that is interested in something other than itself.

What does “activism” mean to you? I think activism seems to imply an exception to how we might normally operate in the world, and I can see that as both more and less helpful. If that word is used with an aim to cultivate a space outside of capitalist, racist, classist, white, and patriarchal centres, then yes, we should all be activists. If it’s used in a way to dismiss something as unnecessary or superfluous, the word seems less useful to deploy as a gathering point.

Are you an activist? I don’t think I operate with enough urgency or responsiveness for anyone to consider me an activist. But I do think a lot about the ways in which things could be re-organized and rearranged towards prioritizing justice, dignity, and agency. I try to measure the things I do against those priorities, but I don’t think there’s much use in framing that as activism. I’d rather think about it as a necessary and vernacular way of seeing decision making and action.

Tell me about the process of “Should I Be Worried?” from start to finish. “Should I Be Worried?” came out of a residency I did with the City of Vancouver’s Sustainability Group. While in residence, I would sit in on team meetings, offering ideas or approaches to engagement around some of the projects they were working on, and also leading workshops for staff on things like design thinking and the creative process. A lot of my time was focused on the team working on sea level rise and so I think this question came up when I started thinking about the time-scale of that challenge, but then it also extended to a much larger frame. When it came to having the work fabricated and installed, all I can say is that I’m very grateful for all of the help I received from the amazing staff in Public Art and Sustainability in navigating that process. I’m really happy that it’s up and that it serves as this caption or annotation at different scales for a lot of different experiences every day.

A current project you’re involved in? I’m working on a project with AKA Artist Run in Saskatoon called Locals Only. It’s this large-scale multi-year project that explores food security, community-led resource development, and intergenerational exchange in Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods. It’s curated by Tarin Dehod at AKA and there’s a lot of amazing artists working on it with me including other Vancouver-based folks like Vanessa Kwan and Holly Schmidt, along with Alana Bartol, Lisa Hirmer, Michael Peterson, Marcel Petit, Jordan Schwab, and Janelle Pewapisconias.

The most valuable lesson you’ve learned? There’s always another way.

A tool you can’t live/work without? It’s boring, but the Notes app on my iPhone and Mac are the backbone of how I operate.

An issue that’s currently on your mind? I want to see the legalization of all drugs and a stop to the criminalization of drug users and the homeless.

I think we need to build different kinds of time and different kinds of space for both teaching and learning.

Language and words is central to your work, in various applications from tattoos to signage. What draws you to the written word? I’m invested in language because of how it totally enables or disables ways of seeing, thinking, and acting in the world. It’s the materiality of our ontology, of how we are. In terms of English, for example, it has so many values embedded in it and in that way, it’s incredibly inadequate. Words and, in turn, ideas that can exist in one culture by virtue of its language don’t exist in the same way in another culture. I think that’s fascinating.

Do you speak any other languages, besides English? Unfortunately, not really. I can read modestly in French but speaking it is another matter.

If you could speak any other language, what would it be and why? I wish I could speak French and also I’d like to learn Italian. My mom’s side and my partner’s side are Italian, so it would be nice to be able to connect in that way.

Your favourite word? “Constellation.”

Least favourite word? “Education.”

Your favourite typefont? DIN 1451.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your artistic practice over the years? Early on, especially in the first part of my MFA, I don’t think a lot of people considered what I was doing to be art. Now, I think it’s kind of flipped where I’m less sure myself if the things I’d like to do are art or if art is just a highly productive space for incubating them.

What has been your most rewarding professional experience? While I don’t like to think so much about the professionalization of teaching, in that it completely constrains what we’re willing to recognize as a space for learning, it is the most rewarding thing I do.

Should art have a message? I don’t think all art ‘should’ have a message, but I’m generally most interested in artwork that is interested in something other than itself.

How has your approach to teaching changed over the years? My approach to teaching has become more flexible and responsive over time. I try to work from the assumption that everyone in the room is there on the terms that they are able to be there on that day. That means that some days people are ready to engage really deeply and other days they need some more space or time for processing. I try to respect and support that. I also know from myself that learning or understanding is different from thinking, and so while we might be able to think about something differently in a classroom or in a discussion, it might not mean that something is learned or understood in that same space or time. I think we need to build different kinds of time and different kinds of space for both teaching and learning.

Your most memorable teacher(s)? Sigi Torinus, Rod Strickland, and Lee Rodney at the University of Windsor each taught me things that I think about every single day. Each in their own way, they showed me the role that artists can have in collaboration, research, and everyday life. I think the core of that role is to ask the questions no one else is asking.

What has been your biggest learning curve? I’m still learning how to find a balance between work and life.

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