Prone to ritual and fond of reflection, I find myself sifting, sorting, storing so many remnants of the last year. In July, as part of the Power Plant’s group exhibition Tools for Conviviality, curated by Melanie O’Brian, I was invited to respond to the exhibition as part of a member’s event. Coming across these notes now, I realize that many of the questions I posed toward the show and its frame remain points of curiosity for me, seeing as how the core concerns have multiplied in relation to other works I’ve seen this year. What follows are the rough notes of what I tried to work through that night:
In a show whose title speaks to getting along, there are a surprising number of works that linger on the potential for hostility, at least at first glance. In particular, some of the works by Abbas Akhavan and Claire Fontaine appear to be weaponry on display, makeshift and beholding a violent possibility should the glass of the vitrines be smashed. I would like to try to puzzle through the notion of weapons being tools for conviviality.
With Tools for Conviviality, O’Brian “addresses social and individual agency in contemporary life,” by proposing that art can be an agent for change. Both kinds of potential energy or change are represented here: there are works that take on the tools of self-improvement, as a relationship to oneself in the world, and other works that propose a self in relation to others in the world.
O’Brian states that the artists and practices represented here share in common their engagement of “tools to effect change and reconsider social behaviour,” but to what end? (And a whole host of other questions rise up here such as the the essential character of agency, and the difficult task in evaluating whether or not it is being employed). In moving through this show, an important question, for me, becomes one of what kind of change I would have contemporary art effect. What kind of world would I have these practices be in service of?
What, specifically, can art do? Is the place of that doing coincident with the artworks or is it elsewhere?
For me, I wonder about the possibility for art to shift ideas in the social realm, to reconfigure or challenge or propose radically new ways of being in relation. I don’t believe in a pure aesthetics, and thus, I gravitate towards art that clearly has political pretensions, be they grand or modest.
Over the past few years, this tendency has veered toward art that takes on the immutable difference between us. My idea of the future, which I understand to be another expression of my political inclinations and priorities, holds hope for a means to productively confront difference and diversity. Here, productive antagonisms are ones that makes us aware of the import of our own subject positions while simultaneously forcing the acceptance of others.
There is a reciprocal discomfort (in relation to the troubling of our own identities) that comes from recognizing a person outside of, or in addition to, the stereotypes that follow them. In short, our identities are hybrid, nuanced. Stereotypes are only ever blunt. While I’d like to think that I can escape indoctrination by them, I can not. But what I can do is try to be aware of how they function in my own mind. I can try to make a space for another and not fill it.
How does violence play into this idea? (In regards to this exhibition, I am letting weapons stand in for the idea of violence more generally.)
Violence comes into this picture when I consider that what I do not want in the world is a tepid notion of diversity as getting along, but rather, I want a difficult translation between identities and ways of knowing that does not seek common ground per se, but insists on the space between each of us. Productivity or productive antagonisms are then the result of confrontation, negotiation and empathy, which, by the latter, I mean a state of increasing interdependence, where your way of understanding the world becomes necessary to my own.
The presence of weapons put us in touch with our real contradictions, our ugly desires, our dark passengers, and forces a choice about the kind of people we want to be and the kind of world we want to inhabit.
As Ivan Illich points out (and whose words inspired the frame of this exhibition), “A tool may accept more than one utilisation, sometimes even distant from its original use. A tool accepts expression from its user.” Consider one of Akahavan’s work: a comb whose handle has been chiseled to a sharp point. The comb is for your hair. Or for stabbing you in the juggular.
I would like to pose this idea as a question, and then see if it resonates with any of the weapon-based works in the show. Could those be tools for getting to a world where difference is respected? Or are those weapons things that shut down that possibility?
Certainly weapons are tools for social interaction, the question for me is how they can be understood as tools for conviviality.