The grass is not greener on the other side: Surrey exhibition highlights the importance of local agriculture

Sylvia Grace Borda, an award winning Vancouver photographer and media artist, employs multiple techniques and perspectives in her latest exhibition titled This One’s for the Farmer. An un-romanticized homage to local agriculture, the five-part exhibit – a portion of which is already on display under the title Figuring Ground, alongside the work of Jeremy Herndl – launches in its entirety with an artist talk on October 10th at the Surrey Art Gallery.

A well-travelled inspiration

Slyvia Grace Borda hard at work on the production of Aerial Fields | Photo by Sylvia Grace Borda

Slyvia Grace Borda hard at work on the production of Aerial Fields | Photo by Sylvia Grace Borda

Borda, a research associate at Emily Carr University of Art + Design and the University of Stirling in Scotland, is the kind of artist who is equally comfortable working on an international scale as well as a local scale. She sees her work as continuously cross-referencing various artistic and cultural identities.

“You become a hybrid. You become very good at relationally understanding multiple spaces and multiple perspectives,” Borda explains.

While teaching university students in Northern Ireland, Borda observed that because of the region’s turbulent history, people seemed to associate photography solely with documentation and surveillance. She encouraged her students to break out of that limitation, but adopted their interest in the observational capacity of the medium.

Similarly, after working to document modernist architecture in the Scottish town of East Kilbride, Borda noticed a reservation amongst the city’s residents to identify with their own community. Like Surrey, East Kilbride is a newer town without a solidly entrenched identity, and Borda found this lack of finite definition rife with creative possibilities.

“I am definitely interested in the peripheral. I think it is much more interesting to work with content that has been either ignored or languishes, or that can be readdressed under a very different guise,” she says.

All roads lead to Surrey

Borda explored her interest in the often artistically neglected suburban landscape with a project called Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC (2005), which inspired her to extend her documentation of the city landscape to farmland.

Even though farming played a key role in Surrey’s development and remains a vital part of the city’s economy, it occupies little space in local artistic discourse.

Borda was determined to break the stereotype that agriculture is not suitable artistic inspiration and decided to cast an unsentimental, yet sympathetic look at an occupation whose local history is interlaced with cultural diversity.

“We tend to look at culture in terms of ethnicity. We don’t often look at it in terms of larger gilds and trades,” she explains.

Pat and Sue Harrison sort blueberries by hand at their organic Historic Collishaw Farm in Surrey, in Farm Work | Photo by Sylvia Grace Borda

Pat and Sue Harrison sort blueberries by hand at their organic Historic Collishaw Farm in Surrey, in Farm Work | Photo by Sylvia Grace Borda

Bridging eras

Borda was keen on creating a contemporary portrait of farming through a combination of modern digital technology and 19th century photographic techniques like stereoscopic photography. She wanted to recreate that epoch’s concept of the Grand Tour (a sightseeing trip across Europe) in the context of showcasing Surrey’s food production.

“I am very interested in making spaces relational to both contemporary art, but also to historical processes,” says Borda.

Therefore, Figuring Ground features a series of stereoscopic photographs and a two-channel stereo video that, with the help of specialized glasses, give the viewer an immersive three-dimensional look at the details of farming life.

In addition to these intimate pieces, this exhibit also includes a double projection video that documents in detail the labour-intensive agricultural process.

Though documented in a modern digital format, Borda consciously framed this video in a way that references historically revered artwork with similar subject matter, such as Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.

In her artist talk, Borda will touch on the historical connection between art and agriculture, educate the public about how farming funds helped establish the Group of Seven and demonstrate how agriculture played an integral role in developing Canadian artistic identity.

In addition, Ron Tamis, vice president of Surrey Urban Farmers Market Association, and Ravi Bathe, president of BC Young Farmers Association, will provide opening comments at the talk, lending their own voices to Borda’s artistic portrayal of farmers’ lives.

Join Borda and her guests for her artist talk about This One’s for the Farmer on October 10th, 7 pm, at the Surrey Art Gallery. In addition to the Figuring Ground portion of the exhibit already on display at the SAG, Borda will discuss Aerial Fields, a documentary now showing at the Surrey Urban Screen, and Google Streetview: Farm tableaus, a project created in collaboration with John M. Lynch.

Visit for more information on the talk, and visit for more information on the artist.