Considerations

Krista Belle Stewart’s “Seraphine, Seraphine”

I’ve had the luck of seeing Krista Belle Stewart’s video installation Seraphine, Seraphine twice: first at the Esker Foundation in 2013 as part of the Fiction/Non-Fiction exhibition, and then again in 2015 at Mercer Union in a solo presentation of the piece. In the five years since I first experienced Stewart’s work, which is kind of biography of her mother, I have continually come back to it as a profound articulation of strength and resistance, and as an example of what effects art might produce through encounter.

This week, ArtsEverywhere has published “From Where do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s Seraphine, Seraphine,” an essay I have spent many years writing that attempts a deep reading of the video work, both on its own terms and through the world we live in today, which is a post-TRC, post-Canada 150 country in the midst of a widespread social and political paradigm shift away from settler colonial plunder, or so I hope. As provoked by Stewart’s work, I wonder:

What if a decolonial, Indigenized Canada is made from the twinned imperatives of decolonization on the behalf of settlers and self-determination on behalf of Aboriginal peoples? While these processes are inextricably bound yet distinct from each other, their conjunction recognizes the fact that a decolonized future must start with the self-determination of Indigenous people: despite the fact that decolonization is the task of the colonizing settler, it is not settler-articulated. Decolonization demands a robust relationality between settler and Indigenous populations, and most important for the task at hand is the capacity of settlers to listen, to receive, to be deeply uncomfortable, to recognize themselves as estranged from the skewed history presented in textbooks, to feel alienated from a sense of righteous belonging and to cede powers and privileges that have been ill-gotten.

There is so much profound work to be done in regards to making some sort of decolonial future possible—cross-culturally, legally, spatially, aesthetically, and in regards to repatriating land and resources to Indigenous communities—and it is my sincere belief that cultural forms, such as this work by Stewart, are part of what will make these endeavours legible to the many people that now call this place home, settler and Indigenous alike.

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Considerations, Happenings

“Picking Up a Long Line” in Afterall Journal

So long ago now, I remember picking up a copy of Afterall—a journal that showcases in-depth considerations of the work of contemporary artists, as well as essays on art history and critical theory—from the University of British Columbia bookstore. I picked it up because I was someone who loved language and wanted to know more about art, and this was the one art mag that featured more words than pictures. I still have that copy kicking around, so many years later, so many different homes and different cities later.

And just this month I received the latest copy of Afterall in the post, which features an essay I have written about the practice of Rebecca Belmore. In the nerdiest way, that young women of before is thrilled today to see my writing in those pages. It has been a total honour to engage with Afterall’s editors, and the invitation to consider Belmore’s practice could not have come at a better time. The essay, entitled “Picking Up a Long Line,” charts the ways that Belmore’s practice has provided an anchor for feeling my way through all the awful shit that #MeToo and Times’ Up and Not Surprised have brought to the surface, socially and intimately. Not that any of this is new, but that it has been hard to find my way sometimes. As I say in the essay:

Belmore reminds us of our complicity in the unfolding of stories like this: what duty do we have to bear our suffering on each other’s bodies? How to carry the burden that trauma produces? These questions resonate with stark clarity today. What to do with the public accounting of how power and violence are wielded to demean others? What to do when the naming begins, both the naming of perpetrators of these violences and the naming of those whose lives have been altered by them?

In Belmore’s practice, I am reminded that this kind of social grappling and reconfiguration has been going on for a long long time, and that although the correlation isn’t perfect, that something like Not Surprised needs the long history of Belmore’s practice to be possible at all. Like so much else in life, it is the labour of BIPOC women that lead the way in making an otherwise possible. That young women of before, and this woman I am now, cannot be more thankful that there are such fierce precedents for how to be in relation to what can no longer stand to be.

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Considerations, Wood Land School

Taking up Space

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View of “Kahatenhstánion tsi na’tetiatere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing Lines from January to December.” Photo Paul Litherland.

Nearing the turn to the new year and thus the conclusion of Wood Land School: Kahatenhstánion tsi na’tetiatere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha /Drawing Lines from January to December it is meaningful to have been given a chance to reflect on the project and its force. In “Taking Up Space: An Interview with the Wood Land School,” Art in America’s Sean J Patrick Carney posed a series of thoughtful questions to Tanya Lukin Linklater, Duane Linklater and myself about the project and about art institutions. With their future-tense inflection, these prompts point to the work that still, continually asks to be done, and in the twilight of Drawing Lines… I find myself easing into hope.

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Considerations

Between Desire and Change

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The incubation period for press, for words on a page, the holding in the hands, is always so much longer in the end than what we convince ourselves it will be when we begin. It is almost as though it is impossible to make books. Except that there are libraries stacked full, proof otherwise. And now, another gem to add to those shelves: Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (2017). Published by Winnipeg-based artist-run centre MAWA, the publication brings together contemporary Canadian feminist art through the entangled relations of desire and desire for change.

Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada is edited by Heather Davis and includes contributions by myself and Janice Anderson (Concordia University), Gina Badger (artist, writer, editor, Toronto), Noni Brynjolson (writer, San Diego), Amber Christensen (curator and writer, Toronto), Karin Cope (NSCAD), Lauren Fournier (artist, writer, and curator, York University), Amy Fung (curator and writer, Toronto), Kristina Huneault (Concordia University), Alice Ming Wai Jim (Concordia University), Tanya Lukin Linklater (artist, North Bay), Sheila Petty (University of Regina), Kathleen Ritter (curator and writer, Vancouver), Daniella Sanader (curator and writer, Toronto), Thérèse St. Gelais (UQAM), Ellyn Walker (Queen’s University), Jayne Wark (NSCAD) and Jenny Western (curator and writer, Winnipeg).

In my essay, I tried to work through some observations of and reflections on the 2013 exhibition Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art:

Theoretically, the exhibition was an expression of the difficult, hopeful work that is our living responsibility as cultural workers, gallery visitors, thinkers and citizens today in addressing the injustices of colonization, a project that I see as central to contemporary feminism. It is important to acknowledge that feminism is about more than ending sexism—it’s also about abolishing interconnected systems of oppression that affect different people in different ways, and in a Canadian context this importantly means working to acknowledge and then abolish colonial forms of dispossession. And yet, like a trailing stitch of wool hanging from a sweater, the [National Gallery of Canada] undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture. At the entrance of the exhibition, where the spirit of “sakahàn”— an Algonquin word meaning to light a fire—was put forward as the organizing principle of the show, was this disclaimer: “The views and opinions expressed in this exhibition are those of the artists and do not reflect the views of the National Gallery of Canada.” Such disclaimers are not in regular use at the NGC nor are they common practice for exhibitions generally. The appearance of an additional disclaimer, directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s “For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations” (2013), was therefore notable: “The views expressed in this work are those of the artist and do not reflect the views of the National Gallery of Canada.” In both cases, the language enacts a strict demarcation between the views of the NGC and the artists. The politics of the works on display do not align with the politics of the gallery itself.

This essay has been a long time in the making and finally it lives in the world. If it comes to rest upon your shelves, your desk, your hands, let’s talk more about what it means to install Indigenous art as feminists.

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Considerations

Thinking about labour, love and what we do for $$$ or lack of $$$ as we complicatedly compute the costs of pleasure against, say, food:

I am tasked as an artist with bearing the meaning of labour by bearing its negation or opposite side of free desiring activity, I should work from the free activity of my desire … The position of the artist insofar as the artist is not just an excrescence of financialization or an avatar of (il)liquidity, is of mediator: the artwork is supposed to mediate between living and dead labour. The operations of art may be like the operations of that banned substance, analogy; they may be analogous to analogy itself, mimicries of mimicry. Analogy is reactionary, I think: it yokes what has yet to happen to what has already taken place, through language laws that are also laws of probability and credit. It implies that events can be known and enumerated because, although there has never before been anything like it, they have somehow already happened.

—Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party, (67-69).

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Considerations

At the prompting of Joni Murphy, I recently read Alice Driver’s essay “Femicide in Juárez is Not a Myth.” Murphy has just published her debut novel, Double Teenage, and I was hosting her as part of No Reading After the Internet. The idea, in part, was to triangulate between Driver’s essay, Murphy’s book and the crowd that gathered to read aloud together. It’s been a couple of weeks, but I can’t shake a question that was raised that afternoon: why do we not use the word “femicide” to describe the shameful plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada? As Driver’s essay points out, femicide frames the murder of women—usually Indigenous, and usually involving sexual violence—as systemic, and not a collection of isolated incidents of domestic abuse.

In Murphy’s novel, one of her central protagonists leaves Las Cruces, New Mexico, where the specific border context around Juárez, Mexico plays out in its American counterpart, eventually ending up in Vancouver, BC. As she prepares the leave one country for another, her American friends proclaim the civilized nature of Canada, so magical, so prosperous, the citizens so polite. But what she is greeted with instead is the almost incomprehensible violence “of a serial killer who targeted women on the margins, women who traversed prostitution and drug scenes, the hyper-visible yet willfully overlooked. This bad man tugged the frayed edges of the urban cloth, slipping in and out of the holes. For a long time he could get away with it” (67).

The specificity of femicide in Juárez cannot be reduced to the violence of any singular man, but it would be a willful ignorance to think that what happened in Canada could be either. A serial killer operated for nearly 20 years and this is because there was a social infrastructure that supported him. In Driver’s essay, she quotes Jean Friednam-Rudovsky, a journalist who has worked extensively on describing the social context of femicide: “These crimes are different than other crimes both in how they are committed as well as in the response given to them by government, law enforcement and civil society.” There is no doubt that the willful blindness of the Vancouver Police Department at the RCMP played a significant role in allowing for the serial-killer murders to continue for as long as they did and the The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry details much of this complicity. But, to be sure, the systemic complicity extends beyond the borders of the Downtown East Side. The murders of so many Indigenous women across this country need to be understood as enabled by that very same systemic complicity. So why do we not use the term “femicide” in Canada? Why is there such resistance here (as there has been in the US and Mexico) to understand the roles we play in enabling such violence? What other way could there be to stop it?

 

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Considerations

Actually Dangerous Nonsense

What kind of a thing is racism? I recently read Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (1970), where she analyzes the different ways that people rule over each other, delineating five different instruments: power, strength, force, authority and violence. Taking as given that racism is a kind of rule by one class of people over another, which specific exercise of rule describes racism best?

To be clear, in Arendt’s time as now, racism is equivalent to the exercise of white supremacy. It is, as Mia McKenzie has pointed out at Black Girl Dangerous,  a system of oppression that denies people access to employment, education, housing, food, medical care, safety from police brutality, fairness in sentencing, media representation, and a host of other things, based on race.” This means that white people benefit from racism, at the expense of non-white life. (Okay, super awkward articulation there, of “non-white life,” but racism is more than anti-blackness. It is settler colonialism and mythologies of model minorities and so many other kinds of systemic disadvantages and destructive stereotypes that characterize the reality of people who do not share in the privileges that characterize whiteness.)

In Arendt’s paradigm, racism is not force. She reserves the use of “force” for technical language describing the release of energy, of either physical phenomena or social movements, that can be measured. Racism is not a release of energy so much as it is an organizing principle with deleterious consequences for those bodies and lives deemed racialized. Perhaps resistance to these forms of organization can be interpreted as forceful (think race riots or peaceful protest marches) but the regular deploy of racism is structural, an insidious order of things that works to make itself seemingly logical (think narratives of hard work justifying access to education or perceived danger justifying murder).

Arendt understands strength to be an attribute of an individual person or thing, like the hardness of a diamond or an undefeated boxer. The individualistic aspect of strength means that strength can be counteracted by cumulative address: diamonds, although hard, can be shaped (through bruting, where two diamonds are set spinning against each other), and the boxer, although brutal, can be beat down by a tag-team. The independent nature of strength does not capture the scope of racial oppression functioning across access to heath care and housing, rates of incarceration and unfair representations in the media (to name just a few places where racism manifests), where the individual’s resilience has nothing to do with their ability to access resources or be fairly treated. Racism precedes the individual; it is social inheritance.

Arendt characterizes authority as a reciprocal relationship, where its exercise is dependent upon the uncoerced recognition from the person subject to its demands. Clearly, racism is not a function of authority because racism is not unquestioningly acceded to by the people whose lives it attempts to exploit and destroy.

That leaves power and violence, and I believe that racism is a child of both these forces. Arendt states that power is the ability to act collectively, and particular forms of power exist so long as they continue to be propped up by a critical mass (not necessarily a majority and this is where violence comes in, “violence appears as a last resort to keep the power structure intact” [47]). Racism is a social phenomenon. It is registered on the innumerable lives it circumscribes, but it is deployed systematically, manifesting in centuries of customs and laws that privilege white life. There’s the bright glimpse of an otherwise in her observation that “it is the people’s support that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent that brought the laws into existence to begin with … All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them” (41). Although white supremacy is entrenched in Canada today, it is easy to imagine a world structured differently, regardless of how difficult it is to imagine the undoing of this one. There is nothing necessary about racism. But her observation also carries the implicit connotation that some critical mass of us are invested in upholding racism, a point she and I will return to below.

Arendt’s main claim of violence is that it relies on instruments, things like guns, bombs and prisons. Given the proliferation of black death at the hands of the state; the proliferation of wars waged by the US, Canada and many European nations in the Middle East and North Africa; and the proliferation of Black and Indigenous incarcerated people across North America, it is clear that contemporary instruments of violence are deployed in ways that maintain racist dispossessions of life, freedom, and human and natural resources.

In a discussion about the dangers of using biological metaphors to understand violence, Arendt notes that “racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition because it objects to natural organic facts—a white or black skin—which no persuasion or power could change” (emphasis added) (75–76). It seems she considers racism be violence only, but I say that it is power too. Racism is not just the tangible harms wrought, but institutions that support the exercise of violence and the logics that make certain kinds of violence legible or deemed appropriate. Arendt already admits that it is possible to act collectively—this is what power is at its core—so why is it a stretch to imagine that racism is one of the ways that power manifests? Recall that Arendt’s whole project is to understand the ways that people come to rule over each other. If “power … is actually the very condition enabling a group of people to think and act in terms of the means–end category” (51) then white supremacy is that ends and racism its means.

I wonder if Arendt’s focus on understanding racism as a kind of violence divorced from power is what allowed her to make claims such as the following:

It has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react to Negro grievances with the cry, “We are all guilty,” and Black Power has proved only too happy to take advantage of this “confession” to instigate an irrational “black rage.” Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing. In this particular instance, it is, in addition, a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions. The real rift between black and white is not healed by being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. “All white men are guilty” is not only dangerous nonsense but also racism in reverse, and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality (emphasis added) (65).

Charges of reverse racism, which are meant to describe racism against whites, express a white fear of violence, but it is a charge that breaks down when considered in relation to the collective nature of power and the instrumental nature of violence. Like Aamer Rahman points out in the video above, reverse racism would require a complete re-articulation of thousands of years of history in order to make the systemic dispossession of white life a possibility—there simply are not the support structures (philosophical, political or economic) in place to author such a reversal. Plus, it is not as though prison populations could be swapped out, one race for another, or the directions of warplanes reversed to lose their loads on North American soil. It is telling, for instance, that in a discussion of contemporary forms of violence, racism first enters into Arendt’s analysis in the context of this claim of reverse racism. (Literally, the first discussion of racism in her text is at this point. All other talk of racism follows this.) On Arendt’s own terms, the idea of reverse racism just doesn’t hold.

There are other troubling assumptions in this excerpt. In what sense is black rage irrational? She was writing this immediately following the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. What about that context could have led her to make such judgement? We have the privilege of seeing her ideas in an extended historical context, and we know that racism has not abated. Black rage was justified then, as now. It’s also strange how she uses “‘we are all guilty’” and “‘all white men are guilty’.” These quotations are not footnoted and so I assume she is scare quoting them—putting them in quotation marks to signal that she deems their claims inappropriate or misleading. But these claims correspond to the fact that racism just doesn’t happen, it is upheld. She participated in it. I participate in it. I can work to dismantle white supremacy, but feeling liberal is not equivalent to material change. Further, how is being guilty of racism equivalent to racism in reverse? In what sense could bearing responsibility for racism be a deployment of it? And lastly, yeah, we absolutely deserve an escape from reality: a utopic non-racist future would be a different reality, an escape from this racist one.

Arendt believes that the opposite of violence is power (not non-violence), and although she also admits that “these distinctions [referring the five major categories of rule], though by no means arbitrary, hardly ever correspond to watertight compartments in the real world” (46), perhaps her understanding of racism as violence alone is due to the dialectical relationship she constructs between violence and power. And yet, her proposals about violence, that it appears in the waning of power’s consensual hold, is a useful tool understanding the persistence of racism over time. It can explain how slavery became lynch law became the carceral state, how at every juncture where institutionalized racism is challenged, it’s instrumental nature changes form, new tools for the perpetuation and spread of violence to uphold certain structures of power. For instance, Sudbury’s “A World Without Prisons” clearly outlines how, today, the prison industrial complex secures a consistent and increasing set of inputs, read: prisoners, read: people, read: racialized people.

Arendt goes on to say that “Racism, as distinguished from race, is not a fact of life but an ideology and the deeds it leads to are not reflex actions, but deliberate acts … it [racial violence] is the logical and rational consequence of racism, by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system” (76). Reverse racism is not an explicit ideological system, not in a world that is already set up at every conceivable turn to privilege white life. The dangerous nonsense, I would say, is the very idea of reverse racism. Remember, those subjected to racism are already not consenting to its terms. The charge of reverse racism doesn’t represent a reconfiguration of power or a redistribution of the means to enact violence. The charge is, in fact, a tool that attempts to subdue the ongoing refusal of racialized people to be fully conditioned by the terms of racism, in order to secure to perpetuation of privilege and power as deployed in service of white supremacist logics.

Perhaps this seems overly critical of Arendt, but in a text that is about the precise use of language, I think it is fair to interrogate her use of it. And to be fair, bias and discrimination belong to us all, now as then. I wonder what others see in my framing of Arendt’s ideas, what biases or discrimination of my own that I am blind to?

(Page numbers here refer to the Harvest Books edition, published in 1970.)

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