• Rachel Deiterding

Art and Archive: Reflections from the Information Desk


Having worked in numerous museums and galleries, I somehow always managed to avoid gallery sitting…. until this fall. In September 2021, I was one of two gallery sitters at Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at the Art Gallery of York University. For a month I spent 18 hours a week looking at the show, telling people about the show, and learning more about all its hidden secrets. I can’t think of many exhibitions that I’ve visited more than once, let alone spent more than 72 hours with, but the perpetual proximity of gallery sitting, this long-term visiting, had a way of revealing the life of the exhibition. I was watching it grow and listening to it breathe. It felt personal. Maybe like it was watching me back? Central to Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective were the ideas of performance and archive. Jess Dobkin is a Toronto-based performance artist whose work facilitates uncomfortable encounters and is often created in dialogue with community. Using relics of past performances, the works were reimagined to produce multiple iterations of what a performance archive might look like. The exhibition was fueled by the tension of simultaneously looking at the past, the present, and the future. Thinking about the afterlife of the archive, the exhibition “demands of archives what we expect from performance: the live encounter of experience in a ritual of transformation.” (Emelie Chhangur, 2021)

Jess Dobkin's Wetrospective, installation view, 2021. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski, Source

The thing about spending so much time with a show is that you start to form an intimate relationship with the space. Initially, the space felt overwhelming. There was so much to look at that each time you entered new details emerged, elements I had never seen before. The consistency of these discoveries was almost comical. Like the exhibition itself was consciously sharing these details, leaving these easter eggs, posing questions, and forcing reflection. Soon it felt absurd that someone might visit the show only once, walk through in 20-minutes or less and never return, leaving stones unturned.


Jess Dobkin's Wetrospective, installation view, 2021. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski, Source

My favourite parts were the corners. Not only is this where many of the plugs were hidden, which I used to power up the exhibition each day and tuck it in for the night, but the corners also housed messy bits of the archive, teeming with life - a mix of loose sketches, notes, another ephemera. A seemingly uncatalogued history, but a history nonetheless. Beyond getting acquainted with the energy of the space, gallery sitting also brings you into an interesting relationship with visitors. Interacting with each person, you learn a bit about them and, through that interaction, a little bit about the show. In the second week of September, as students were returning to campus, a family of four came into the gallery. After I warned them of the show's mature content, the mother and daughter went in, warily, and the father and the young son waited outside. While the father bragged about his daughter entering university and the success she was sure to find as a landscape painter, she emerged from the gallery, eyes wide. “That was vulgar,” she said. “Exactly,” I said. The space told me nothing more was required. We blinked at each other. Sometimes people get it and sometimes they don't.


Jess Dobkin's Wetrospective, installation view, 2021. Documentation by Yuula Benivolski, Source Perhaps it was the performative nature of the show that made it feel alive. Or the archivists that animated the back room, producing a constant physical presence. But even with the gallery empty and the lights off, there was a sense of tension in the space. Like it was waiting for me to turn my back to come alive, to get into all kinds of archival imagining and experiments. It felt a bit like Toy Story. Of course, this didn’t happen, but at the same time, maybe it did? One evening I got an email from a colleague. It was a "gallery update" that concluded by saying: “I should let you know that one of the boobs in the lactation bar isn’t working very well, so we have one boob working fine and the other is dribbling. I guess it's more relatable? Like its more realistic to actual breast feeding? Idk.” As I was refilling the fish tank that powered the lactating breasts the next morning I knew that the exhibition was alive, that it was playing a bit of a prank on me. I was grateful for it. These details had almost slipped from my memory. I chalked them up to too much introspection; it’s just gallery sitting after all. It wasn’t until I was in a new gallery, in a new exhibition that I started to feel the viscerality of the space again, a connection being formed. Undoubtedly, exhibitions take on their own lives, and we have much to learn by being attentive to them. So, here I am, sitting in more exhibitions and trying to look and listen closely to uncover just what they might be trying to tell me.