Set For Life, Steph McNair 2009

Steph McNair moves into the Khyber.

Art of living in the Khyber ICA

Part performance and part sculptural installation, artist Stephanie McNair transformed the Khyber ICA into her home.

After seeing off a friend, Stephanie McNair walks across the freshly mopped, grey wooden floor to greet a new guest.

The walls, including columns and moldings, have been dusted and painted a pristine white. High-ceilinged, the large, open space has no walls; no rooms, only the component parts of a small or studio apartment-based life “separated by light,” according to the artist.

Spotlights cut an illuminated circle around a provisional kitchen and a table and chairs. McNair’s calico cat, Nishka, lazes on one of the seats. A cage stands open and empty: Her dog Billie roams the room.

A bed stands in the middle of the space. Her clothes are divided between a steel-tube rack outside the tall doors and four outfits hanging on pegs against inlays in the gallery walls. Portable stereo, a short row of books, a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste on a plinth: all are lit, iconic.

With no washroom, McNair uses one downstairs. OK, but it’s still a nice place.

Her place, for now, is the Ballroom Gallery at the Khyber Institute of Contemporary Art, which the non-profit, artist-run centre rents from HRM and operates in the battered, embattled building on Barrington.

McNair, a veteran of performance, burlesque and drag-king art in Halifax, has moved into the gallery, out of necessity. She needed a temporary address between an apartment she had to leave and one she can’t move into until the first of March.

Called Set for Life, this exhibition, curated by Emily Jones, plays on the name of the lottery game.

“It still feels very homey, I think,” McNair says, scanning the room.

When an unexpected hole developed in the Khyber’s exhibition schedule earlier this year, Jones, an independent curator, had just heard from McNair about the latter’s need for a transitional place. This need led to McNair revisiting an idea to inhabit a gallery she had when working at Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery. (She’s worked in gallery installation. Her toolbelt hangs here.)

“We’re both kind of needing something,” she says of herself and the Khyber. “We’re both able to fulfill each other’s needs.”

McNair may workshop a performance in the Ballroom Gallery, but not as a programmed event during her stay. Instead, she might practice for an upcoming event, such as Live Art Productions’ fundraiser, the Salt Truck Follies, as she would in her own apartment. Drop by during regular gallery hours and you just might catch her at work. McNair may stop to talk, she may keep going with the piece, or whatever other routine thing she’s doing. So far she’s gone with her gut, following an improvisational impulse.

Not a cellphone owner, the artist is reachable through the gallery’s number. She suggests friends and strangers call before popping in to visit. Some people are comfortable with the pop-in; others aren’t. It depends on who’s popping in. McNair has found an undefined spot on the pop-in spectrum. “Yesterday, there was a few people in. I met them through the gallery in the last few days. So they came in to say hello and I…wasn’t necessarily expecting them,” she says, uncomfortably.

Beforehand, McNair admits she rarely came downtown. She lived and worked in the north end. “I haven’t even ventured out much here,” she says of this stretch of barren, boarded-up Barrington, except to walk the dog. She ends up going back up the sloping streets, heading into the north end.

“The Khyber has a history of operating outside typical gallery hours. A lot of that kind of activity has moved to the north end where many landlords are more lenient, or where there aren’t so many regulations being enforced and what-not, but I like that the Khyber is so stubborn about its location downtown,” explains curator Jones by email, which she requested to use during a busy day of “moving furniture.”

She says, “I don’t think that they do,” when asked if HRM staff were notified about the nature of the exhibition. “It’s bizarre that the city and laws make it difficult for the artists and the Khyber to operate downtown, doing fairly innocent and harmless things, but then it’s so easy for hundreds of young adults to get blindingly drunk in downtown.”


CIRCA 1995