Interview with karen elaine spencer

Through the diverse textual, performative and material forms that characterize her practice, karen elaine spencer has developed over the last 30 years a dense corpus of works and collaborations. This interview highlights some of her main artistic concerns.


ESPACE art actuel:     Your work has always been infused with a strong conceptual approach, which puts language at the forefront. At the same time, in your paintings, drawings and prints in particular, there is a strong formal articulation that reinforces and balances the content. Is this fruitful tension a calculated strategy or something that emerges naturally in your work?

karen elaine spencer:     I would have to answer that almost all of my work arises because I am faced with, what I feel as, a “disturbance”—whether the cause of this disturbance is conceptual, material, ethical or any of the myriad situations life or art can push up against. The source of my trouble, which led to the grid being employed in much of my text-based work, was a contextual shift from cardboard signs presented in the street to works on paper presented in a gallery.

I am not a gifted sign painter (I cannot write text in a straight line nor keep all the letters the same size) and I wanted a structure to hold the individual letters. The grid was a practical solution that could then be adhered to—or conversely—broken through.

The limitations and benefits of a given material or tool coupled with an awareness of how the material interacts with intention also impacts, in a very real although perhaps banal way, my solutions to troubles. For instance, you can pencil-in a grid on paper. Arches, a specialty air-dried fine-art paper, will appear at home on a gallery wall. A flat square-ended brush will give you a straight edge. Ink on paper will bleed (depending on the paper and the ink) and soften a hard-edged look. These are some of the givens you can work with or against. Then it is a question of how these choices work with or against what it is I think I am trying to transmit through the work. Who is this work for, how does this work perform, what is transmitted? All the while being cognizant, I have my blind spots: there are things I will never be able to see, let alone control, and so I welcome and am grateful for these signs and effects that will always escape me.

The words—and wordplays—that are expressed in your works often point to complex and plural levels of power relations. How do you circumscribe the issues you want to address in each work?

k.e.s.:     I wanted to let this question settle inside me as it evokes a sense of unease with what I feel is an economic and market driven requirement to declare a work complete. The structures of support I find myself moving through (exhibitions, collectors, curators, grants) by their very nature require a certain finitude. This closure of a work to be defined by a name or a title or a date is actually a fiction I adhere to in order to proceed. In fact issues or concerns seep and thread themselves continuously within present works. I have the sensation I am returning to the same terrain over and over with a slightly altered perspective. Saying the above, I also have to point out the limitations of the materials and conditions required to create a work. For instance, the size of a piece of paper, the time and money allotted for research, the location of production and the location of reception—all these very real conditions allow a kind of framework in which a work can be broken off from another work. However, even within these material constraints I still seem to find ways to allow myself to declare a work as an ongoing preoccupation. As an example, for the work sittin’, I give the start date as 2010 with the first iteration performed as part of the festival 7a*11d. I then continued sittin’ in various guises to give the end date as 2016 for sittin’ with cabot square – the cardboards. So within sittin’ there are plural subheadings, and yet even so words or ideas from before 2010 are woven within the work… and who knows, future works may still be folded into the title.

How do you intertwine those contextual, material and processual considerations with the sociological implications inherent in your work?

k.e.s.:     I listen. I use my body. I, as much as I can, give myself time and freedom to meander and backtrack and sit and feel out what feels right. I give myself permission to make mistakes and permission to continue. I am exceedingly suspicious of ‘good’ intentions. I have had spectacular failures and from these failures any sense of certainty I might have had towards what it is I do has been rendered highly suspect. I do not mean to suggest I do not also have an instinctual sense of protection towards my work and a deep sense of trust towards the unknowable. I understand my job is to listen as attentively as I can along every step of the way. I also understand gaps will exist between a sought-for internal logic and what I am privileging in place of something else. As an example, right here, right now (2019), produced to hang in a cube as part of the SIGHTINGS program at Concordia University, is a banner printed on vinyl. Vinyl is not an environmentally friendly material. The text for the banner was lifted from Greta Thunberg’s 2019 United Nations address in which she was speaking of the urgency of global warming. There is a conflict between the environmental realities of my choice of material and the larger ethical considerations of the banner. Is this conflict productive, and what were the considerations in choosing this material? What is performed when a decision is taken based upon something as subjective as the place the banner was produced: the small store within walking distance from my home with one primary employee––who has worked in this same location for twenty years––and that this same employee spent a good hour over four separate visits including one where the maquette was brought in and every option for printing and hanging the banner was discussed and presented? What am I giving up in order to support the local? What weight do I accord to human relations? What are the costs––environmental, economic, ethical, personal––of other options? What criteria is used to render a decision and can I live with the consequences? Who and what am I accountable to? All these knowable concerns can be raked through every step of a work from its conception to its “after-life,” while I’m also acutely aware of those glaring blind spots of my uniquely individual unknowables, which makes any decision a fraught one. And so, in the end, perhaps it becomes about trust and the necessity to keep on moving through.


Born in Nelson, British Columbia, karen elaine spencer lives and works in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. She holds an MFA from the Université du Québec à Montréal and a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. Oscillating between work in the street, exhibitions in galleries, and projects via the web, spencer questions hierarchies and investigates how we, as transient beings, occupy the world we live in. Her most recent accomplishments include commissions for new work: nous sommes tous for the École Saint-Jean-de-Matha in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal (Intégration des arts à l’architecture, 2020), the Margaret Atwood inspired textile for the Consulate General of Canada in New York, New York (2019), and the Quebec Room carpet design for Canada House in London, England (2015, with Nadia Myre.)


Available in our store for $100 CAD (including a copy of ESPACE art actuel no. 125) + taxes and postage: karen elaine spencer, always the same, 2013. Inkjet print on Moab 300 natural paper, 28 x 20.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Each copy (1/20) is signed and numbered.