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, the 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.