Germaine Koh – Creation that threads the needle of what’s possible

Photo courtesy of the Blue Cabin project

Breakthroughs happen when people push the boundaries of what’s allowed. This December, Vancouver-based artist and organizer Koh will be one of this year’s recipients of the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media arts.

Despite being winning various awards and holding many official titles over the years, Germaine Koh’s work has a distinctly grassroots, D.I.Y., and non-specialist theme to it – one that she hopes can inspire new ways of thinking, and inspire others to think about the changes they can create for themselves and their community.

“I’ve gone to this institution of higher learning in order to advocate for amateurism,” says Koh about her Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship at SFU. “All the theorization that I do around my work has to do with showing the value of traditional forms of knowledge, talking about the satisfaction… the magic that happens when you solve problems yourself.”

Creating beyond boundaries, and the importance of amateurism

It can be hard to assign Koh with a singular label any narrower than “creator.” She’s created traditional art pieces for galleries. She has worked as a general contractor and construction manager to create a floating artist residency by transforming a historic squatter cabin. And from 2018 to 2020, she also served as Vancouver’s first-ever Engineering Artist in Residence, leading the creation of various projects, like an interactive public display to visualize the city’s environmental impact data.

But ‘first-evers’ and ‘hard-to-pin-downs’ are kind of the point for Koh. Boundary-pushing is often both a tool in her arsenal, and the purpose of a lot of her work. For example, Koh’s Home Made Home is an initiative that has built, exhibited and advocated for alternative forms of housing beyond what is currently allowed.

Germaine Koh. | Photo by Tayu Hayward

“The City of Vancouver, for example, has resisted allowing tiny homes as a form because they’re not going [to] meet building codes, et cetera. And yet in the places where people have just made it happen, it’s worked,” says Koh.

But Koh says she’s aiming to, and is often able to, “thread the needle” of regulations and standards by using out-of-the-box thinking. That thinking comes from having experience in, and drawing inspiration from, many different realms.

“I’ve had to learn the language of engineering and so on. So I feel like a lot of what I do is, over the years, is building up enough fluency in these various fields of operation that I’m able to sort of translate them to each other,” says Koh.

The floating artist residency, for example, only exists because of Koh – despite not being a bespoke specialist in home-building – and her team’s multidisciplinary background.

“I had done enough building at that point, and went and did some full-on training in building constructive technology,” says Koh. “That project managed to exist, even though it’s like a pretty hefty building… But, the way that we threaded the [regulatory] needle is that thing exists as a vessel. So we’re not totally tied to building codes and to using a full-on home builder.”

Indeed, a through-line in much of Koh’s recent work is promoting the value of non-specialists and ‘amateurism.’ Much of her work also focuses on bringing together people with different backgrounds one might not expect.

“We don’t have people on our crew who [are] only carpenters. So everybody tends to be able to do a little bit of everything. To me this is demonstrating viability of a mode of operating less specialized, [more] problem solving,” says Koh.

But while Koh is far from being “anti-expert”, she thinks it’s important for individuals and policy-makers alike to give more credit to the change-makers who might not have a distinct title or certification.

“If city planners and governments were honest, they would recognize that a really big part of how things get done in cities is by amateurs,” says Koh. “The role of the non-specialists and the amateur, the person that’s not authorized to do the things that they do, has always [been] really important.”