Meet You at the Transit Bar

Vera Frenkel, Transit Bar News. Photo © NGC

Up in the National Gallery’s contemporary galleries, there is a sprawling, highly engaging work of art that looks decidedly like a bar. Indeed, …from the Transit Bar, created in 1992 by the internationally renowned Canadian artist Vera Frenkel, is a functioning bar, where visitors can converse over a vodka-and-orange.

A seminal piece of video-based art, and an early example of the relational aesthetic—which examines human relations and their social context—…from the Transit Bar, was first exhibited at documenta IX, in Kassel, Germany, and installed in 1996 at the National Gallery. Now, after almost 20 years in storage, its many parts have been re-assembled, and visitors can once again meet at the Transit Bar.

NGC Magazine caught up with Jonathan Shaughnessy, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, and Geneviève Saulnier, Conservator, to talk about the triumphs and challenges of re-installing …from the Transit Bar.

NGC Magazine: Geneviève, what is your role in re-assembling this work of art?

Geneviève Saulnier: Well, I’m a conservator of contemporary art, so my task is to restore contemporary works of art. And because this is a pretty extensive installation piece—even if it’s a bar, which is made of wood and industrial materials—it’s still considered a work of art. So my task is to make sure that all the pieces exist, and that they’re in good condition. For this work, we have no installation documentation. We don’t know how it goes together. So it’s an enormous puzzle.

Jonathan Shaughnessy: …from the Transit Bar is an iconic Canadian video installation and also an early example of "relational aesthetics" in an artwork. That was a movement that started in the early 1990s, where "hands-on" involvement, or interaction with viewers, was integral to a work. In this case we have an installation that is activated into a fully functioning bar. Drinks are for sale. It’s a vodka bar, with an option of scotch.

GS: Vera’s work is very much about the ambiguity between fiction and life. From the beginning, we started talking about how plausible the bar should be, whether people really had to believe that they were suddenly in a functioning bar. But if you take the aesthetic of the bar—it was made in the 1990s—it’s very different from the aesthetic of today, so it looks more like fiction than reality. And talking to Vera, it was very clear that the fiction aspect is the bar—the objects, the fake walls—and the reality is the communication, the dialogues between people, the actions, the performative part of it. Because of that, we decided not to make it look current, but to restore the original and keep it as a time capsule.

JS: That’s a very good way to describe it. And it was conceived as a transit bar. Vera’s work is often about stories of exile, being disassociated, or not being able to go back to the place where you’re from. When she was a very young child, her mother got her out of Czechoslovakia in war time, moved to London, England, and finally immigrated to Canada—ultimately to Toronto. So the idea is of being cut off, or being in a transient space where language and the fabric of a story are important. You can be tied to a specific history, but you can also fabricate and embellish your history. Our identities are caught in a place that is a mixture of fiction and fact. The transit bar is a place out of time, in terms of the aesthetic. Also, if you’re in your everyday bar down the street, where people know your name, you have a reputation. But, as Vera tells it, if you’re in an airport bar, or waiting for a train, these are transient spaces where you can be anyone. You can share your whole life’s story with a stranger you know you’re never going to see again. So what’s the fabric of that bar? What stories get told? This is what gets re-created through this installation, actively, by visitors.

Conservator Geneviève Saulnier and Associate Curator Jonathan Shaughnessy, installing Vera Frenkel’s … from the Transit Bar at the NGC, 2014. Photo © NGC

NGCM: What will visitors see here?

GS: It’s a fully functioning bar with bar stools, tables, bar rails. And there’s a second component, which is very important. It’s a six-channel video, which is presented on a very old laser disc player, which is connected to an old Mac computer.

JS: Vera’s always been interested in cutting-edge technology of the time. When you enter into the space, at first glance you see that it’s an art installation with videos on monitors embedded into the wall. But then you can make out that it’s a bar. I think it will be disorienting at first, trying to figure out what kind of space you’re in, and discovering that you can actually communicate with the bartender and order something. There’s a player piano—a piano that people can play. It’s interactive in many ways.

GS: And there are newspapers that are related.

JS: Yes, newspapers in different languages. And the videos tell stories about migration, about Canadians who have come from somewhere else. They are in four languages: English, French Yiddish, and Polish. The soundtrack and images overlap. It’s always a bit of a puzzle with Vera; language is never used in a straightforward way. There isn’t necessarily a beginning and an end. Also, Transit Bar exemplifies something that is always in Vera’s work: it’s contemporary. Transit Bar is always enlivened by the people using it. That makes it about now, while it’s speaking about another time and place.

NGCM: Can you tell me how the process of re-assembling Transit Bar started?

GS: Well, the bar traveled extensively in Europe in the 1990s, and many elements needed to be adapted to particular venues. So we weren't sure what we were dealing with, and what kind of shape the bar was in. One day, Jonathan and I went and unwrapped everything just to get an idea of what kind of inventory we had. We took some pictures, and then met with Vera and showed her the images. She was so happy, because she was under the impression that it no longer existed, or that things were missing.

JS: Yes, it turns out the bar is in much better shape than any of us thought.

GS: It’s great, because the only sign of wear is shoe marks at the bottom of the bar, where people were sitting. Those are traces we want to keep.

JS: And that was the start of a process which has involved a lot of exchanges of emails.

GS: We’re so lucky to be able to collaborate with Vera, because the information we had about the bar was so incomplete.

Vera Frenkel, ... from the Transit Bar (1992, reconstructed 1994), six channel laser disk installation and functional piano bar, 120 square meters. Gift of the artist, Toronto, and purchase, 1997. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © CARCC 2014. Photo © NGC

NGCM: Are you taking good notes?

GS: Yes, everything is being documented for the future—not only the installation, but all the conversations: every little detail that makes us understand what is important in the work of art. For instance, the sound coming from the piano is super-important for her, and the sound from the videos as well.

JS: It’s been a good process of collaboration—more than people might think with a contemporary work of art. The technicians have been involved in raising the roof of this bar.

GS: Yes, it’s certainly a collaborative project. We get to collaborate with the designer—who designed the new wall, and matched the original bar and wall colours—with multimedia experts, and electricians. Everyone’s getting together to make things happen.

JS: When the bar is up, it’s going to be quite an intimate space. For Vera, it’s a place where she wants stories to be shared—an inviting space that forces you into a meeting with the art and with other people. To achieve that, we’re going to be doing some programming throughout the summer, on Thursday nights, where we have local celebrities, curators, and even Vera herself, as guest bartenders.

Vera Frenkel’s …from the Transit Bar is on view at the National Gallery, in room B102, from May 15 to August 17, 2014. To listen to the CBC All In A Day interview with Vera Frenkel, please click here.

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