Web Exclusives

screengrab from the October 18 livestream during the "Together Apart Zine" programming. On screen in the video are Brandi Bird on the left (Term Editor) and Whess Harman on the right (Project Manager) and the live captioning is displayed at the bottom of the video screen.

[For three days in Fall – Emily Carr’s campus welcomes Vancouver Art and Book Fair. Discorder spoke with the director Lisa Curry and marketing coordinator Erica Wilk. Unfortunately, the fair coordinator Helen Wong and technical coordinator Katayoon Yousefbigloo could not be in attendance. The Vancouver Art and Book Fair is a non-profit organization that celebrates all publishing from zines, comics to books.]


Alexis: What are the challenges you encountered when curating a virtual festival? 

Erica: Everything. I think initially, even the decision to go virtual was challenging. 

Lisa: We had a meeting fresh into quarantine and decided that for the benefit of the organization and our well-being to go online versus moving forward as expected. Building the website was quite a challenge, but we did have a great team who walked us through the entire process. 

Alexis: I did find the website simple to navigate, while also bold in terms of design and colour scheme.

Erica: One of our priorities was keeping it simple and making it as accessible as a tiny non-profit with a limited budget. 

screen grab from the VABF 2020 website displaying a catalogue of all that is available from the exhibitors.

Alexis: My favourite part of VABF is meandering around the seemingly endless rooms and getting to know all the different creatives. How are you keeping the same feel for attendees of the virtual festival?

Lisa: Creating a digital community and an experience where people want to spend a lot of time was vital to us during design. We included various features, such as a chat feature and some hidden digital programming. The chat feature will be a very successful add-on this year. You do not always get to talk to an exhibitor; maybe there is a line-up of people, or you are shy. In the digital version, there are more possibilities to engage. 

Erica: As an attendee, you can create a profile, save events, make a schedule to print off. You can also navigate through a bird’s eye view of the tables. There is a point system set up for attendees to gain different levels, sort of like a game. The digital version of wandering through tables, except the more exhibitors you view and talk to, the more points you get. There is a surprise me, roulette version. Also a catalogue of all the books is on the site.

Alexis: I love that you created the Vancouver Art and Book Fair experience into an entertaining interactive game versus just clicking on a bunch of buttons. My next question is with regards to accessibility, seeing as  VABF is a free event that anyone can attend. There are barriers to accessing an online festival, such as an internet connection and a laptop. How are you working to overcome these barriers? 

Lisa: We are working on accessibility barriers for the website. We have not set up an option for those without access to technology. 

Erica: There is a custom mobile version. Unfortunately, still only available to those with cell phones and internet or data. illustration of two faces with a grey speech bubble above them that they are both connected to.

Lisa: If we end up doing a second digital edition, given circumstances that are entirely out of our control, potentially, there would be an option to do some socially distant screenings. 

Alexis: With the changing times, technology is a requirement to stay connected with virtual events. How is VABF ensuring that the virtual festival attendees can get that wonderful one-on-one experience with their favourite zine-creator or comic book artist? 

Lisa: A part of the programming, we have a secret chat room with a schedule of moderators who will be present. Through social media, people can engage with exhibitors. 

Erica: We have a YouTube channel through which the program will be streaming live each day with a chat to interact with presenters. Another way to connect is through the #vabfvirtual tag on social media. Anyone in the world can post their book, zine with this #, to appear on the website over the weekend.  

Alexis: I am happy to hear that you found ways to make the Vancouver Art and Book Fair accessible worldwide. How do you think a virtual VABF will impact folks that are neurodivergent or living with a disability? 

Lisa: I think the online version, in general, makes it more accessible. Being digital has allowed us to offer features such as sign language interpretation and live captioning, which has never been part of our programming before.

screengrab from the October 18 programming featuring Kameelah Janan Rasheed.

Erica: A virtual fair is naturally scent-free, which can be an accessibility barrier. In terms of time, the program is available all day for people to tune in for a morning program at 9 pm, even though they will not be able to ask live questions. We are encouraging our exhibitors to include image descriptions as we do with the alt text. 

Lisa: The live fair itself is busy and can be overstimulating. To be available to view the fair at home individually or with family is a much quieter environment to enjoy these publications. 

Alexis: I remember when I went last year, it felt claustrophobic, and there was only a certain amount of time I could spend inside the building before I felt overstimulated and had to go outside to get fresh air. Especially when you go on a Saturday during peak hours, it tends to be busy. There is a lot there, and it feels like you need to go the three days to get the full experience, which is not possible for many folks who work weekends. Now with only eight days left until the virtual fair, how are you feeling? Erica: We are excited and nervous. 

Lisa: Excited and a little overworked, everything tends to culminate in the last month and around this time, the public and the media become more illustration of a green face with a book behind the face and two sheets of paper in the foreground, one containing text and the other containing an illustration.involved. Erica, Helen, Katayoon and I have been working together for years, and we have a tight-knit team, and they are some of my best friends. It is the best time of the year.

Erica: And after we get Halloween — it is a win-win, in my opinion. 

Alexis: Definitely, I am looking forward to it. There are many different virtual talks that VABF features this year. Which one are you most looking forward to attending? 

Lisa: I am super excited about the program because I get to see it this year. Usually, I am running around trying to find water bottles for volunteers. This year, there is a range of programming, everything from introductory workshops to keynote speakers. The program curator is Vivian Sming of Sming Sming Books, who resides in the Bay Area. I am very excited for our keynote speaker Cecilia Vicuña, a poet and an art-book artist previously exiled from Chile during the Pinochet regime. We also have a Wikipedia edit-a-thon by Black Lunch Table followed by a two-hour working group — this is one of the first times we have had an interactive program. In addition to presentations, we have artist projects. I am most excited about Neta Bomani’s direct action for prison abolition digital zine. 

Erica: I could list all the programs right now but Lisa already mentioned the ones we would like to highlight. 

screengrab from artist-poet Cecilia Vicuña's keynote speech on day one of the fair.

Alexis: Those all sound incredible, is there anything else you want to add? 

Erica: We are excited for everyone to come to the fair. 

Lisa: We are a non-profit. Vivian, our guest curator, is paid an honorarium and has put in so much work to support this project. Same with our website designer and developer. They donated a lot of their time, and we would not be able to present a project like this without that kind of support from the people involved. To support exhibitors, we dropped our table fees for the digital edition from $150–200 (2019) to $25, which includes a VABF membership. It was especially important this year to reduce barriers to entry.

Erica: On that note, if people want to support us, they can become VABF 25 or 50 members and basically, you get a bunch of unique perks from sponsors. Most of the staff has two or three jobs, and we want to keep the fair open to the public, free and accessible.

Alexis: That sounds great; we appreciate all the work, Lisa, Erica and your entire team have dedicated to transforming Vancouver Art and Book Fair into a virtual and accessible online platform with all the fun and engaging features. 

photo from the launch party of the senior and youth programmers who worked on the radio documentary series.

Multimedia artist, writer and radio producer Rachel Lau was living in Hong Kong, when a Facebook message arriving from halfway across the world caught their attention. 

“They said, ‘Do you wanna do something related to radio and storytelling and Chinatown?’” recalled Lau, “And I thought to myself oh my god, these are all the things I care about and don’t stop talking about, always. So yeah, I would love to do that.” 

This “something” would later become the Speak My Language radio documentary series, coordinated by Lau and facilitated by the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for justice 世代同行會, an organization supporting youth and low-income immigrant seniors in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

According to the page on Yarrow Society’s website, Speak My Language is “a storytelling media arts project for and by low-income Chinese illustration of a speech bubble with open hands holding up a floating pink heart inside the speech bubble.seniors to share their experiences of language and cultural barriers in accessing healthcare, while exploring individual and collective healing and envisioning a culturally accessible healthcare system.” 

Having coincidentally been at the launch before the assignment of this article, I got to witness first hand the attention the project garnered. The event was busy with people from all sorts of demographics. There were your Kitsilano hipsters, old Asian grannies, local activists and journalists; councillor Jean Swanson was there, MP Jenny Kwan even spoke at the beginning of the event.

“I think ultimately that’s what we wanted to do, because this project is not only the radio documentaries themselves but they’re also part of a larger advocacy campaign that Yarrow wants to embark on and is aiming to embark on in 2020, […] so I’m glad it garnered that kind of attention,” said Lau, “And I think that we want a variety of people to be listening to these docs. When we were creating these we were thinking, ‘Who’s going to be listening to these and why should they care about this story?’ and so the people that came up on our list or we think would care or would listen to them are people with decision making power, people in health administration, are people who care about Chinatown and wanna learn more. And most importantly, I think it’s also for the seniors to hear themselves in these radio documentaries.”

photo from the Speak My Language Launch of the audience, with the Chinese seniors sitting in the front row listening, watching, laughing.

The love and support the radio docs have generated is well deserved. Speak My Language navigates areas and topics that require nuance and respect. There is a stigma relating to not speaking English perfectly, especially for POC, but the podcast handles it with ease. Lau attributes this to the nature of the work done at Yarrow Society. Language accessibility is already deeply embedded in services available there, and so the focus was instead on making the radio docs as accessible as possible.“If we’re going to talk about language access, then we’re going to have to walk the talk. We can’t talk about language access if we’re not
practicing ourselves” said Lau.

“We made the sessions as accessible as possible by having simultaneous interpretation in both Cantonese and Mandarin each time we had a training, each time we had a listening party, to get the feedback from the seniors. And also we brought on volunteers onto the project that had those language skills”. 

illustration of five people sitting in a circle and speaking.There was also a sign language interpreter and simultaneous interpretation headsets for non-English speakers at the launch that frazzled volunteers ran around passing out. 

The end product was a radio documentary series with two versions of each episode. One for English speaking audiences and another, in the original language the interviews were conducted in.

“It was very intentional, the way we did the translations. We didn’t go for voice overs which is very commonly seen in English […] because not only are they hard to listen to and distracting, they are in my opinion disrespectful because you are talking over the person who doesn’t speak English and you make it so that their voice doesn’t matter. And so we thought of translation as not just moving one language to another but actually using it as an expressive tool, something that can communicate more, something that we can use strategically to shape and mould in order to communicate a message. So a lot of the translators made very intentional choices around translation. […]” explained Lau.

photo from the launch of the panel on stage speaking.

I noticed this immediately at the launch where certain medical details were omitted in the English translation to preserve dignity and respect to the seniors. To those who speak both languages, it becomes obvious that this project was done with so much attention and care. “What’s really beautiful that’s come of this engagement in this English and Chinese version of the radio documentaries is that you have a sliver of a moment […] when you have an English speaking person, especially if they only speak English, [and they] can get a sliver a glimpse of what it might be like for the Chinese seniors to not understand the language around them that they’re navigating through their daily life,” Lau pauses with the delighted air of sharing a secret, or the conspiratorial smile of a magician revealing a favourite trick, “So a lot of the documentaries start off cold with the senior’s voices and they just talk for like 30 seconds, a minute, 40 seconds and if you only speak English you don’t know what’s going on for that first bit, you just need to sit with that discomfort.” illustration of a notepad and a pencil. on the notepad the word "hello," "goodbye" and "thank you" are written.

In a lot of ways both Speak My Language and Yarrow Society act as bridges, between different cultures and languages, between the youth and the seniors of our community; a dream born over the 10,245km distance between Hong Kong and Vancouver.


The full interview with Lau can be heard on the episode 4 of the Motherlands podcast: What Comes Next. Speak My Language will be airing at CiTR every Monday at 3PM until the 7th of September, with a bonus episode on the 14th. If you missed the start of the radio doc series, don’t worry! It will be re-airing at the same time starting on the 21st of September 🙂