From Colm Tóibín’s “On Lynne Tillman:”

When she [Lynne Tillman] writes, for example, in “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” that “fish probably don’t know they’re in water” and then adds, “(who can be certain though),” I, as the reader, become uncertain. I think about fish, and the sheer tragedy—or maybe sadness is a better word, or maybe even comedy—of their not perhaps knowing something so obvious, so—how can we put it?—clear-cut, staring you in the face. And then I think about certainty. I stand up and move around the room, opening and shutting my mouth like a fish, wondering if I really know where I am, forgetting about fish for the moment. Then I go back and look at the last two sentences Tillman has written in that paragraph about fish to see if there is any comfort there. “Complacency is writing’s most determined enemy,” she writes, “and we writers, and readers, have been handed an ambivalent gift: doubt. It robs us of assurance, while it raises possibility.” That last sentence is very beautiful, but you would have to be not a fish to appreciate it. Or at least I think so.

 

Raymond Boisjoly, "The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo" (2012)

Raymond Boisjoly, “The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo” (2012)

The spirit of No Reading After the Internet, in its reading aloud-ness, is to approach texts improvisationally. Instead of the regular acts of scholarship that characterize attending university classes—having done the required readings—or the preparedness on display at artists’ talks, No Reading… constructs a triangulated relationship between artworks, texts and readers that plays out in real time. Artworks become a way of understanding the texts, and texts a way of understanding the artworks, so that neither text nor artwork are approached as having some true meaning to be ascertained, but rather that meaning emerges through a dynamic encounter generated by being in a space, close to each other, contemplating the shapes made when setting things in relation. At SBC Gallery, as part of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Chelsea Vowel and I hosted an iteration of No Reading…, taking on her essay “The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated.” First published in FUSE Magazine, the essay was set in relationship to Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie. Both deal with language, though where Hiller’s film is a haunting portrait of dead and dying languages, Vowel’s essay advocates for the learning of languages, specifically those native to wherever one may find one’s self. From learning to loss, somewhere in the middle, we gathered together, spoke to one another, transformed the written word through voice, listened as Vowel voiced Cree words and puzzled out the pronunciation of the Kanien’keha:ka people, on whose traditional lands the city of Montréal sits.

The not-knowing of No Reading… is usually in relation to the ideas in a text, but this gathering felt different, because though we were reading Vowel’s essay, we all already bear a relationship to language. In Montréal, a robustly bilingual city, this movement between languages is banal. It’s the every day. The title of the exhibition, A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, points to the things that language is not, evinced in many different ways in Hiller’s film. Language is not a record of speaking. Language is not vocabulary lists. Language is not scientific deconstructions of vocal patterns. Language is a diverse and expansive collectivity that needs constant tending. And it’s a morphing thing. At one point in Hiller’s film, a Cajun French speaker talks about popcorn balls, and it is my own ignorance or romanticism that places language loss in the past and thus registers this mention as a strange step out of time. Popcorn balls? I know popcorn balls! This is the stuff of my life, and yet I read these words and am jolted because of the assumptions I bring to listening to these voices, that they are distant ghosts. But they are not. This loss that Hiller documents is on-going and present-tense. 

Why care about language loss? Because languages represent unique ways of knowing the world. When languages are lost, so are their specific insights into the relationship between being alive and living. In her essay, Vowel suggests that it is possible to come around to the unique wisdom of specific languages through other languages, but that it takes work. A lot of work. But when the last speaker of a language dies, no anchor to the knowing can be maintained. It is doubtful that those paradigms of knowing can be recouped, despite work, when there is no living connection to the knowledge embedded within a particular language. Language structures movement, sight, sound. A straight-forward example is the observation, often made in the field of science, that the distilled results from an experiment are directly related to the questions asked within the initial parametres. How we think is determined, in part, by language, and what we think about determines what we see. Conversely, when we learn a language, new kinds of thought become possible. A simple example in the move from English to French is the way that gendered nouns propose new (if not necessarily substantiated) relationships between objects, if only as a prompt for consideration of what strange bedfellows certain things make. (When organizing bookshelves by colour, for instance, one can’t help but ask why so many philosophical texts sit in the orange-red colour range.) 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the proposition between language and knowing is taken to extremes, as when the ruling government attempts to control thought by constricting the language. Does an experience of freedom depend on having a word to name it? The villains of 1984 have a stake in the constructed nature of social reality, and there’s a term for this idea that language influences one’s worldview: linguistic relativity. In its strong form, language determines thought and therefore linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. In its weak form, linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. [1] Perhaps it is to betray my politics to admit that I think that more ways of knowing are better than fewer.

In the context of the exhibition, that afternoon of No Reading…, not only were we on Kanien’keha:ka land, but we were gathered around a table made from deconstructed fences, and while there is a utopic gesture at play in turning something used to keep people apart into a place to gather, tables are also places where hard conversations are had. People break-up sitting around tables. People throw wine into other people’s faces. Food is launched in the air. Legal disputes are settled in back rooms, around tables. The conversation that afternoon was suffused with a generous spirit, but we were talking around a table, about language, in Québec. And as it stands, an upcoming provincial election has prompted some political parties to instrumentalize language as a force of opposition, proposing once again the possibility of Québec separating from Canada under the rubric of sovereignty.

When I began working with Pip Day at SBC, I knew that I wanted whatever I did in the space to begin from an Indigenous perspective. In English-speaking Canada, the political use of “sovereignty” in Québec is proposed as a synonym for separation and it is precisely this debate/proposal that has been raised again. But the colonial reality of Canada is erased in the confrontation between French and English. French/English relationships have not ever played out on a blank slate. When the French arrived, when the English followed, there were people and cultures and languages long entrenched in this land. When sovereignty is used as a euphemism for separation, the reality of aboriginal title is skirted around. And yet, if the claims for sovereignty rest on ethical arguments, then the reality of aboriginal title must be addressed. What if the political climate in Québec was leveraged for an accounting of colonization and the collective and intermingled sovereignty of all cultures in Québec? The colonial reality of Canada must impact these discussions, in Québec and elsewhere. The inclusion of Vowel’s essay is one attempt to confront language and colonization in Canada, within the space of the exhibition, using translation as another way of understanding negotiation.

Above, an image from Raymond Boisjoly’s The Writing Lesson series. When Vowel’s essay was first published in FUSE, it accompanied an image folio of Boisjoly’s work, which Editor Director Gina Badger described as “[writing] Indigenous languages and histories into the practice of text-based post-conceptual art. Each image is a black-metal-styled graphic presentation of a place name with an Indigenous origin. Reinforcing Indigenous histories and knowledge of the land through both language and pop culture, Boisjoly’s project offers an example of the resurgence Vowel describes.” [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

[2] Badger, Gina. “Survivors and Survivalists,” FUSE Magazine 36-3, Summer 2013, page 2.

Photo credit: Jimmy Limit

Photo credit: Jimmy Limit

This past weekend A Problem So Big It Needs Other People opened in Montréal at SBC Gallery. As the culminating project of my year-long curatorial residency, the exhibition departs from the gallery’s current focus program on sovereignty, where the idea is approached from the position of the sovereign subject. Considering the shift in the place of sovereign embodiment from the nation state to the self, A Problem… proposes that sovereignty manifests through intimacy, contact and sociality as processes of negotiation.

At the centre of the exhibition is a table. It is a table as artwork and as functional object, a thing to be navigated around and a place for gathering.

Fences Will Turn Into Tables (2013) is the work of Maggie Groat, the result of three years spent collecting fence boards from around Toronto and Guelph. When Groat began gathering the raw materials, it was petty acts of theft organized by an idiosyncratic set of rules: fence boards could only be removed by her hands, without tools, carried home. While fences mark off private property, the evidenced disrepair of the liberated materials pointed to a neglected logic for the fence: the one-time care taken to keep others out has been abandoned as a project of separation. Groat’s small destructions can be thought of in service of this new imperative of degradation and there exists (in imagination only) a shadow map resonating outward from the table of all the small gaps her acts of removal left behind.

But then maybe theft is just theft, even in service of liberation, and so the process of accumulation shifted and Groat began collecting fence boards from deliberate sources: online exchange sites where torn-down or destroyed materials were being given away. And so the collection continued in that way, posts and boards to complete the project that now makes a table 13.5 feet long by 3 feet wide, four benches and a surprising beauty.

At one point during the opening, Groat stood at the head of her table, telling the story of wood. The curious around her formed a small gathering that from the back of the room filled a similar kind of space as the imagination of a pivotal point in a very important board meeting, key players gathered around the President as she lays out the next steps in whatever subject is up for debate. Groat, up there at the head of her table, was ministerial, and the forms that were made around her and her work looked rather different than the space galleries often make of circulating along the circumference of a space. Instead, the table is gravity. The table draws people to it and movement through the space is in concentric circles (ovals, really) outward.

The table is the first work of the show, the object around which the other works have been gathered in form and in spirit. Its shape must be reckoned with when moving in the space, when attempting to take in most of the other works in the show. And the table’s spirit, rewriting demarcation as gathering, presents itself as the place from which to consider the other propositions of exhibition, extending a spirit of conviviality, domesticity and generosity.

The table is also a proposal realized, and a proposal for others to make again and again. As Groat has asked, “What would a world be like where all fences were transformed into tables?” What if you turned your fence into a table?

Or, why do we find it necessary to mark off private property at all? Are fences a physical manifestation of a sense of our own sovereignty? Fences can be more or less robust in their force. The fences that were decomposed to make Groat’s table were the kind of fences that could be climbed. Other fences, barbed or electrified, attempt to be adamant that no person cross their line. This first kind of fence remains a gesture, a polite request: stay away. Or, this is mine. If the sovereignty of the subject emerges through negotiation (where there are at least two parties involved with stakes at hand), then what is the correlated reading of these different kinds of barriers? In some ways the wooden fence, in its realization as permeable, acknowledges its barrier as a choice made real through the respect of another. Those other kinds of fences are dictatorial, taking space, insisting on it, attempting to turn land irrevocably into territory over which one rules.

What if we approached our relationship to the land from the position of stewardship rather than ownership? Would we construct no fences at all? I have to wonder if we would not feel ourselves as more sovereign through this overt sense of responsibility to others than how sovereignty is experienced from the position of authority or fear.

From the position of the subject, I propose negotiation as a defining characteristic of an embodiment of sovereignty. Collected in A Problem… are a number of works that embody different kinds of negotiation. I begin with Groat’s table as a cultural consideration. From there idea of negotiation is approach linguistically through the work of Susan Hiller and Chelsea Vowel; bodily through the performance work Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee; institutionally through the mark-making of Maria Hupfield; materially through Tiziana La Melia objects; politically through the performance of Basil AlZeri; and authorially through the images bearing Annie MacDonell’s name. One task of the show’s life will be to measure if these negotiations get us closer to an understanding of sovereignty. I’ve come to these works in one way. What happens with a reverse mapping of the impulse? Instead of understanding how they were gathered together, what do they say within the space of the gallery? Over the next seven weeks, as the exhibition lives its life, I hope to come closer to an understanding of these questions.

After having attended a conference entitled The State of Blackness, I am haunted by this question: How to be energized by absence?

Since the 1930s, power brokers of the government sort have been meeting on the shores of Lake Couchiching, on the traditional lands of the Chippewa Rama First Nation, in a quaint YMCA park, to discuss policy issues. Billed as a “civil place to disagree,” these summer conferences take on topics of national and international significance, aiming to create a place of dialogue from a non-partisan perspective (though their roster of speakers over the years is distinctly left-leaning). While the organization positions the history of the conference as “understand[ing] the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns,” the capital-P political representation of attendees gives the feeling that this is a place where substantial conversations about future policy directions are instigated. [1] However, a robust slate of scholarship opportunities, coupled with the fact that the specific topics draw in associated and unique crowds, work to diversify the range of participants at the conference, young and old, party-affiliated and not. As a novice, I was reminded that “for those who have not attended before, the dress is informal. And we do mean informal…jeans, shorts, skirts, bathing suits. Ties and suits are decidedly out of place.” [2]

As the first gesture of my curatorial residency at SBC, which sits within the gallery’s Focus Program on sovereignty, Director/Curator Pip Day and I attended the 2013 conference.

The theme of the summer’s meeting was “Coming Together as One: Navigating the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada.” The relationship between Indigenous populations and settlers (in Canada and elsewhere) has always been subject to debate, struggle and compromise, and yet the title comes off sounding a bit strange for the way it make Indigenous populations a subject of the state while somehow separate from it. This awkwardness acknowledges that Indigenous people do not bear an easy or even consensual relationship to Canada as a nation. In the case of Couchiching, the title points to the actual need to negotiate that relationship: it is not given, it is not in the past, it is contentious, right now, everywhere across the country.

In the lead up to the 2013 conference which, according to then-President Rima Berns-McGowan, was two years in the making, a foundational relationship to place was instigated when, at the 2012 conference that focused on the Arab Spring, Chief Sharon Stinson-Henry was invited to welcome conference participants to the land of the Rama First Nation. For over 80 years this conference has been taking place in the same YMCA park just north of the reserve. It is possible, though I cannot confirm otherwise, that 2012 was the first time that a proper welcome from the people of Rama was part of the conference proceedings. In 2013, Stinson-Henry again welcomed conference participants, and further, John Snake and James Simcoe, elder brothers from the reserve, performed a ceremonial welcoming, setting a tone of mutual respect and reciprocal vulnerability between conference attendees and local residents, and between those Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. However, that the welcome took place after a wine and cheese introductory gathering demonstrates that there are opportunities to delve deeper into what this reciprocity calls forth, as ceremony should not follow the consumption of alcohol. A recognition of cultural context of the conference’s happening deserves a corresponding adjustment of cultural norms.

Over the course of the conference, an acknowledgement of the land was fittingly reiterated by moderators and presenters, regardless of their cultural affiliation or home base. The theme of the conference did relate to this practice in a very direct manner, though this was not necessary for it to be appropriate. The specificity and the politics of the place do not change despite the topic of conversation shared amongst Couchiching participants. Though the practice of territorial acknowledgements does run the risk of seeming to be enough simply because it is something, I think it is important for non-Indigenous scholars, artists and politicians to bear some weight of what a colonial history means in Canada, and perhaps thereby challenge the on-going systemic injustices that are deployed against Indigenous populations across the country today. It is factual and ethical to acknowledge this history, but it also opens the possibility of being motivated in response. Whose land are you owning when you buy that house, for instance? Maybe property ownership should be understood in a spectrum of political implications, and not just a person’s simple and privileged right to consume. As a guest on any land (all land?), what obligations are we bound by? Territorial acknowledgements are a small act of resistance, to which no one should be content, but hopefully this kind of performance connects with other strategies of civic evolution.

One such proposal, seeming to have a rising chorus of support, is the abolition of the Indian Act, a statute that circumscribes many aspects of Indigenous life in Canada, including the definition of what an “Indian” is, the governance of bands and legislation of reserves. Again and again, the Indian Act was brought up as a moment of perpetual harm, as a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous people of Canada and Canadians that soured the potential to speak amongst each other as equals, though I have to wonder if this was not just a moment of formalizing conditions between the state and Indigenous populations, to the express benefit of the former. Indigenous people of Canada are literally some of the most legislated people in the world. Fundamentally, this fact bespeaks fear and disrespect on behalf of the legislators. Indigenous people must continually respond to these regulations (through acts of resistance that are as old as the act itself), despite the fact that the statute approaches Indigenous populations paternalistically rather than diplomatically. Correspondingly, settlers and immigrants should be forced to acknowledge that the act legislates in their name: what is your relationship to the Indian Act? This mutual implication is also part of the treaties that set out terms for co-existence on much of the land that Canada occupies. Treaties do not only police the actions and rights of Indigenous peoples, but of settlers too. If you live in a part of the country governed by a treaty, it dictates responsibilities for yourself as well as others. The phrase “we are all treaty people” is not a metaphor. As was brought up at the conference on several occasions, non-Indigenous people of Canada would do well to reckon with what their identities mean when framed by these statutes.

Over the course of the conference, I was presented with many ideas that I am grateful to have encountered:

  • To responsibly conceptualize a relationship to resource acquisition and use (be that mineral or social), the terms of the conversation should shift the focus from a rhetoric of rights to an articulation of responsibilities.
  • To undo Canada’s historical amnesia, the assumed sovereignty of the state must be reconciled with the pre-existing sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Canadians, as part of the relationship navigation of the conference’s title, need to confront how the colonial hubris of settler populations unlawfully usurped the living sovereignty of Indigenous cultures. Unlawful, that is, on the state’s own terms (not only ethically). For instance, Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, did not believe that Indigenous populations deserved legal recognition as already existing inhabitants of the land, despite the way that property ownership was and is otherwise understood. Today, BC remains unceded despite Supreme Court rulings that assign fiduciary duty to acknowledge that Indigenous land rights persist after, and despite, colonization.
  • We are the least of existence. If humans were to vanish, the net result for the balance of earth’s ecosystems would be positive. (Perhaps not actually; what about domesticated house cats?) If humans were to vanish, the complex and interrelated health of all ecosystems on earth would benefit. I am speaking in grand terms, but what life forms are less important to balance than us? All animals and plants and other life forms are more integral to mutual sustainability of life here than the human animal. And even if exceptions to this position can be produced, that is not the point. The idea is to diminish our self-importance to a point where, as mentioned above, our orientation to the environment and each other becomes one of care (responsibility) and not entitlement (rights). This is a profound paradigm to use in discussing natural resources, where the dictates of capitalism demand ever increasing extraction and consumption, and the dictates of many Indigenous cultures suggest a consideration of indefinite future sustainability.

I interpreted the charge of the conference’s title as a decolonizing one, and that the negotiation would be one of how the descendants of settlers could responsibly and respectfully account for the rightful sovereignty of Indigenous peoples through a reconsideration and reformulation of privilege, power and resources. The term “decolonization” has a current cache in the art and academic fields. Yet, despite its prevalent usage, I feel that a lack of specificity accompanies its charge. Decolonization sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean? Because the politics of art and theory often remain propositional, and because policy is concerned with the translation of ideas into action, I went to Couchiching hoping to gather information on tactics to use in the decolonizing work I attempt in the cultural field. In re-articulating the history of Canada as colonial, in recognizing the on-going and systemic consequences/repercussions of these overly managed relationships between settlers and Indigenous people, what is to be done and how can we do it?

What I came away with is what should be the fundamental gesture of decolonizing work: to listen. It was said over and over again, that “navigation” is not a matter of the Canadian state dictating the terms and conditions of life for Indigenous people. Decolonization must begin from a position of Indigenous sovereignty, diverse and complicated as it is. Here are some other tools at our disposal:

  • Start the story earlier. Instead of beginning the history of the land that Canada occupies in 1867, begin it in 1467. In this way, Indigenous histories are re-centralized, which is not only factual but has the additional consequence of destabilizing the power of inherited historical narratives that are already a reflection of systemic power differentials related to colonization. When the story starts earlier, the interpretive gap between what settler societies believe history to be and how Indigenous populations have experienced colonization, becomes a lot clearer.
  • Start from different sources. Seek perspectives other than your own. (Or, be wary of confirmation bias.) Seek out ways of knowing that destabilize what you think you already know. Assume an imperative to engage outside of one’s comfort zone, to reach beyond the cannon, to look further, to be unsure, to expend effort.
  • Learn the pre-contact names for the places you go.
  • Know whose land you stand on. Acknowledge this. Contend with the fact that there are consequences to knowing this.
  • Situate yourself in relationship to power through a practice of non-belonging. Make it a habit to align yourself publicly with the parts of your identity that belong the least. Through non-belonging, it is possible to disrupt one’s own privileges, whatever they may be, and create ruptures in logic that would otherwise be definitional. [3]
  • Advocate outside of your subject-position. Be the one to speak out against injustice when it is not your own. In essence, there is no true value, no right place of power, only socially constructed negotiations to which we contribute either constructively or disruptively. Or both.
  • It is often proclaimed (sometimes attributed to Slavoj Žižek or Mark Fisher or Fredric Jameson) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The force of this imaginative block can be measured in precise relationship to the ongoing ubiquity of colonization. Capitalism is not inevitable. To read decolonially is to denaturalize these kinds of totalizing concepts and strict binaries. Insist on nuance and specificity and the possibility that things can be different.

And now, to undo all these lofty hypotheses. Decolonization is precisely related to land and resources. Decolonization is the repatriation of land and resources to Indigenous people. This work I am talking about, it’s not actually decolonization. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would call it social justice. [4] I prefer the use of an adverb to modify its scope: cultural decolonization. In relation to the kinds of conversations Couchiching is known for, this type of decolonial work could have taken the form of specific policy proposals, only this is precisely what remained unsaid at the conference, at least from a non-Indigenous perspective. There was no talk about what it meant for non-Indigenous people to re-orient themselves to non-colonial ways of knowing, to give up their privileges, to reconsider land ownership.

And also this: people on the presentation stage speaking about their personal experiences, not from the positions of power that they occupy in the relationships up for discussion. These men—David MacDonald, a minister for the United Church; James Weisgerber, a Catholic archbishop; and Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan; to name a few—got up on stage and told stories about themselves. Anderson is friends with at least 20 chiefs, and Weisgerber was adopted by an Indigenous community, and MacDonald did not know about residential schools growing up and it was upsetting when he learned the history. And it was maddening. These men used their personal stories to avoid having to embody the positions of power that brought them to the conference. I wanted them to speak as the president of a company that wants to triple their resource extraction by building pipelines on unceded land, which means that his relationships with Indigenous communities are in service of this profit motive and not simply community building, as he otherwise characterized it. I wanted these men to struggle with the fact that “adoption” does not somehow absolve them of the reciprocal, generational alienation the church has brought to Indigenous communities. I wanted them to deeply worry about the inherited responsibility they embody as architects of historical and therefore on-going horrors. Instead, smoke screens.

In the question periods that followed each panel, audience members were instructed to keep their comments in the form of a question. People did so, more or less, with the consequence that the format did not allow a rigorous holding accountable of the claims made in the presentations. Granted, it is difficult to orchestrate meaningful dialogue when there are more than maybe ten people in a room (and the self-importance of some audience members was a real detriment to creating space for diverse positions to be presented), but what could a more functional post-panel strategy be for encouraging meaningful, inclusive but not self-centred discussion to play out? How can the conference synthesize the lessons of past iterations and carry them forward in radical and meaningful ways? How does the civil disagreement central to the conference’s identity become more than polite deferral or egomaniacal posturing?

As preparations for the 2014 conference progress, it is my hope that the re-invitation of the Rama chief be central, along with organization of a ceremonial welcome (though this time, perhaps, wine could follow rather than precede the smudging) and continued territorial acknowledgments. For the conference’s future, one must imagine that the Snake and Simcoe brothers will become as central to the cast of characters as ex-Prime Ministers. And if I am right – that Couchiching is a place of brokerage – I eagerly await the policy outcomes of so many people engaging an Indigenous dialectic from a civic perspective.

[1] “Our History.” http://www.couchichinginstitute.ca/about/our-history

[2] Two days before the conference began, an email was sent to participants noting some basic information, such as the informal dress code and, importantly, offering a pre-conference workshop for Aboriginal Awareness-Cultural Understanding.

[3] I first encountered the idea of practicing non-belonging through Wanda Nanibush.

[4] Over the course of their essay, Tuck and Yang outline the specific ways that social justice work is different from decolonization, which for them hinges on the way that social justice work turns decolonization into a metaphor, rather than addressing the strict charge of decolonization as the repatriation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1, 2012.

c. turions Presentation Image

As part of the Media Arts Network of ontario/réseau des arts médiatiques de l’ontario (MANo/rAMo) Evolve or Perish symposium, I was invited to speak about precarious cultural labour from my position as an independent curator and writer. While the mundane struggles of these positions inform my thinking about precariousness as a contemporary social phenomena, what I tried to do with my presentation was circumscribe a much larger field of precarious labour, feeling for the potential of resonance between cultural work and other kinds of “flexible” jobs. Cross-sectoral alliances will be difficult to construct and maintain, and it is clear that things cannot remain the way they are forever (obviously), but precarious living conditions coupled with state austerity seems to be forcing the hand of change now. As the panel that concluded the symposium suggested, we’ve got a couple of options: evolution, mutation, amputation or death. What follows is a transcription of my presentation.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “PRECARITY”?

To be precarious in the dictionary sense of things it is to be dependent on something beyond one’s authority. It’s a material or immaterial insecurity that comes from control resting with another–often a set of circumstances or a system incapable of being motivated by care.

Broadly, feminist- and literary-theorist Judith Butler proposes that “‘precarity’ designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection.” (1)

When Butler talks about precarity, she invokes the gender queer and the racialized, and these experiences of precarity are nodes of intersectionality that, in the cultural field, interact with specific labour characteristics such as fluid working hours, high levels of mobility, hyper-communication and flexibility, not to mention, often, shit wages and a lack of benefits. Precarity, as a economic embodiment, is often related to unpredictable, insecure and exploitative labour relations. In this moment of late-capitalism and austerity, precarious work proliferates as a symptom of what has been described as “changing conditions of production, [such as] deindustrialization, outsourcing, declining unionization, and a shift from full-time salaried work to flexible arrangements with weak protections.” (2)

As it is practically deployed, precarity seems to reinforce any number of repressive social forces, such as racism and misogyny. For instance, “whilst women have almost always done ‘immaterial and affective labour, often with little recognition in both fields’ precariousness is only discussed ‘at the moment when the Western male worker began feeling the negative effects of the new post-industrial flexible job market.’” (3) And based on my colloquial experiences, artist-run centres? They are ruled by women. The directorship of large museums? Not so much. Further, in the catalogue The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, the authors note that “it is immensely important–if the global economy is to function–for the world labour force to be ethnicized, for a correlation to be established between ethnicity and economic role; for example, at the international level by imposing low wages on non-European, Asian, or African workers, or at the national level on immigrants. [Or, as our specific case may be, on Indigenous populations.] The visible classification of labour power and ethnic groups provides the index for income distributions…This institutionalized racism (and it goes beyond xenophobia) is one of the most significant pillars of historical capitalism. Racism serves as an all-embracing ideology to justify inequality.” (4)

HOW DID WE COME TO BE PRECARIOUS?

On the one hand, the proliferation of precarity could be read as a response to worker demands. Personally, flexible working hours allow me to take on multiple projects (both an intellectual desire to work diversely and a practical consequence of needing to pay the rent), and traveling to art fairs means I can see parts of the world I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit, and I like working from home sometimes. It is not simply market ideology that manifests these kinds of working conditions, but these kinds of “flexibility” certainly do serve the inevitable thrust of capitalism to extract increased labour in exchange for fewer investments in the labour force which powers the economy. On the other hand, the condition of precarity is “unevenly experienced” across the workforce, since while I may value or even choose my contingent work arrangements, elsewhere they are imposed on others. (5) Combined with hysterical debt-loads from post-secondary education and credit cards, and then the mundane costs of living that are subject to inflation at a rate not matched by wages, the lack of security associated w/ precariat flexibility conspires to leave giant swathes of the working class extremely vulnerable. Granted, some people thrive under these conditions, but most of us do something a bit more humble: we subsist. Barely. As Judith Butler points out, “neo-liberalism works through producing dispensable populations; it exposes populations to precarity; it establishes modes of work that presume that labour will always be temporary; it decimates long-standing institutions of social democracy, withdraws social services from those who are most radically unprotected – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented – because the value of social services or economic rights to basic provisions like shelter and food has been replaced by an economic calculus that values only the entrepreneurial capacities of individuals and moralizes against all those who are unable to fend for themselves or make capitalism work for them.” (6) In fact, capitalism requires that it not work for most of us: there can only be so many millionaires. This is not just a problem of the cultural sector.

And yet, across the field of precarious labour, cultural workers carry a special kind of social capital; our jobs are cool. However fragile my financial stability is or however guaranteed my human rights are, I get to pass through the world with certain privileges, one of which is working in the cultural sector. It feels gross to say this, but in a way, we are the popular kids at the precariat high-school. In these kinds conversations, we cannot be inward looking only. It is our duty, really, our duty, to align ourselves with the aspect of this struggle to which we belong the least, which is to seek positions of advocacy outside our cultural cache. At minimum, this means recognizing that experiences of precarity in the cultural sector may not be representative of the experience of precarity elsewhere, and that our experiences may not be the most suitable upon which to build cross-sectorial alliances that could address the larger phenomena of economic and social insecurity as it is experienced today. In this respect, it will involve a lot of listening (and not necessarily so much talking).

OUR PRECARITY IN RELATION

And to take this one step further, I’d like to quote the writer Jacob Wren: “There is all this discourse about how the freelance artist is the model for the precarious worker, and it must be true, but for me what’s actually the real criminal problem is not that information workers are working 24 hours a day, it’s that people in China are working in the conditions they’re working to make the computers and the iPods we are working on. All this talk about immaterial labour is a mask for the material labour behind it, which has actually gone back to pre-union factory conditions…You have these mass suicide protests in China at Foxconn, where the people putting together the iPods, hundreds of them, are committing suicide to protest their labour conditions. And how bad do your labour conditions have to be? I think we have no idea…With immaterial labour, the material labour is still happening, but the pure exploitation has been moved off the immaterial labour and onto the material factory worker in another country, who we don’t see.” (7)

It seems that our precarity is of a different sort, a slow death, by inertia or obesity or ennui, and I would like to propose our precarity in relationship to the precarities that allow ours to exist. (8) When we work all our waking hours, tap tapping on our laptops, texting on our smart phones, sending emails all over the world in English, our precarity comes to be seen as rather the justification for a level of precarity many of us have probably not ever had lived contact with. It is just not the same to spend all your time thinking about exhibitions while making slightly more than minimum wage then it is to work 16-hour days in a factory that you cannot leave, and when you do, with mere dollars in your pocket. Our precarity is on the backs of other precarity, much more precarious than ours. And because changing systems of globalization, slavery, racism and capitalism are so daunting as to be paralyzing, we excuse our inaction with the claim that nothing can be done to effectively change things.

AGAINST THE SAME SAME OR REVOLUTION

I feel like the increasing ubiquity and severity of precarity is the perfect consequence of capitalism. How efficient or futile will our advocating for different ways of organizing labour in general (or cultural production in particular) be within capitalism? Kinda seems impossible, especially given the claim, reiterated by Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fischer, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And yet! We operate within different economies everyday, such as when we cook for our lovers or trade documentation for artwork or volunteer. The failure of our imagination that Žižek and Fischer diagnose comes when we place every type of labour in a capitalist framework, ignoring the fact we simultaneously work in multiple economies all the time. Plus, come on, capital is in a moment of crisis. I’m not sure if this is the revolution Marx foretold of, but at the very least, this moment can be one reconsideration.

Put another way, what does the crisis of precarity make possible? As the availability of economic and natural resources declines, how about a different architecture of how these remaining resources move?!

SOLUTIONS/PROPOSITIONS

Given that precarity manifests across a range of factors, such as class, race and gender, there is the difficult potential of building solidarities amongst us. And I say “difficult” because if these alliances are to be fruitful, they must not erase the power differentials and social inequities that mark these varied experiences. It would be to understand what we have in common without effacing the very real differences of how precarity is experienced. I think about this as holding a space for not-knowing that is something more than polite deferral, and something more than the strategic mobilization of what is common for the benefit of the few. For us, as cultural workers, I think the first step might be to be attentive to (and not impose) fellow-feeling that may come from the very different experiences of, say, janitors, migrant labourers, office temps, service workers et cetera.

Maybe this is unrealistic? What do you think? Do you think that addressing precarity as a systemic condition of late capitalism will require collective address?

While I believe that labour precarity is somehow the perfect expression of capitalism, there are things being done already, within this system, to address the deleterious effects of living with so little security, such as:

  • Co-working spaces, such as Bento Miso, offer medical and dental benefits to its members.
  • NDP MP Andrew Cash has introduced a bill to the House of Commons called the Urban Worker Strategy (which is a strange name, but okay), which is a policy meant to address some the structural mechanisms that perpetuate precarity, and it includes proposals for expanding access to employment insurance; taxation reform; expanding access to pensions; enforcing labour laws for temp agency workers; strengthening enforcement of rules around internships; extending supplementary health benefits to the precariously employed; and working with provinces to prevent job misclassification, the legal sleight of hand wherein employers hire workers as independent contractors to evade employment standards. The bill hasn’t passed (yet?), but as has been pointed out, “for many workers in unstable employment, policy is one of the few mechanisms for improving their social and economic conditions.” (9)
  • And speaking of policy, there is the incredible proposal currently being debated in Switzerland  for a guaranteed basic income to all citizens, which in this specific formulation is the work of an artist, Enno Schmidt.

And then, here are some wild imaginations with the caveat that I don’t know how to make any of this happen:

  • In this moment of a shifting funding landscape, we can re-imagine what we would have our artist-run centres to be. Do we even want government funding, with all the things that brings with it, such as organizational calcification and programming to council mandates, as well as the capacity to make and present works free from market constraints?
  • What if, somehow, subsistence support was offered to people to not make work for the sake of making work? So many people I know labour creatively at jobs they hate, producing Facebook games the deploy addiction mechanics in their design decisions (and not some lofty idea of passing-time pleasure), or doing social media upkeep for plastic surgeons (gummy-bear breast implants, anyone?), or in production crews making shitty knock-offs of consumer products that no one needs anyway? What if we paid people to not contribute to the deluge of cultural crap that chokes and drowns us, both in the making and in the consumption?
  • Instead of mourning job security within a capitalist framework, which was never sustainable anyway, this far-reaching experience of precarity could be used to imagine the thing that comes when late-capitalism comes to an end. Maybe the experience of precarity will be the thing that allows for an economic revolution?!

(1) Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, vol. 4, num. 3, September-December 2009.

(2) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013. 

(3) Fantone, L. (2007). “Precarious changes: gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy,” Feminist Review 87, pages 5-20. As quoted in Gill, R. C. and Andy Pratt, “In the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work,” Theory, Culture and Society #25, page 18.

(4) Belting, Hans, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (eds.). The Global Contemporary at the Rise of New Art Worlds, USA: MIT Press, 2013, pages 23-24.

(5) Andrew Ross makes this point in “The New Geography of Work. Power to the Precarious?,” OnCurating Journal #16, 2013.

(6) Butler, Judith. “Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy?,” Greek Left Review, 12 November 2011. 

(7) Lee, Yaniya, Chris Kraus and Jacob Wren. In Different Situations Different Behaviour Will Produce Different Results: A Chapbook, Toronto: Paperpusher, 2013, pages 23-24.

(8) Lauren Berlant uses the idea of slow death to describe the experience of living in this stage of late-capitalism, which she explores in-depth in “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency,” a chapter in her book, Cruel Optimism.

(9) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013.  

In the spirit of careful precision, this distinction as articulated by Nelson Maldonado-Torres:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

We are all students and subjects of coloniality. So what are we gonna do about it?

And what happens to sovereignty when it rests upon an empire, both to the colonizing nation and the colonized state? Is sovereignty diluted or made stronger when set in relation to patterns of oppression?

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