Happenings, SBC, Wood Land School

How does the line behave?

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Image credit: Tsēma Igharas

In the ongoing becoming that is Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing a Line from January to December, the second gesture launches this week with a cast of artists invested in thinking through what an inherited history makes in the present. It is an honour for Wood Land School to be thinking alongside Joi T. Arcand, Elisa Harkins & Nathan Young, Tsēma Igharas, Brian Jungen, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Marianne Nicolson, Annie Pootoogook and Wendy Red Star.

The first gesture of this year-long project was concerned with the power of line to mark history and invoke memory. In this first gesture, we considered what it means to inherit a history. We made claims for where we have felt ourselves formed. We proposed that this is one of many ways to pick up the line.

In the second gesture we are asking the following question: how does the line behave?

Spanning video, photography, sculpture, drawing and performance, the works of the second gesture show us how to occupy the present. Here, the line acts as a point of departure for Indigenous relations, mapping time, family, Indigenous languages and non-human relations in the now. And yet, this isn’t a singular line of thought. What does a line of thinking become when it is collapsed or disrupted? In this second gesture, we complicate and converse with the idea of the line and materiality.

Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing a Line from January to December has yielded many questions and ideas—for Wood Land School, for SBC, for the artists and for our publics. Collectively, we consider how this line acts, thinks and articulates itself under this particular condition we have created or implicated ourselves in.

Please join us at the launch of the second gesture on Thursday, 11 May 2017, 18:00–20:00, at SBC galerie d’art contemporain (372, rue Ste-Catherine Ouest, espace 507, Tiohtià:ke/Montréal). Elisa Harkins, Tsēma Igharas and Hilda Nicholas will be variously performing over the evening and they are not to be missed.

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Happenings, SBC, Wood Land School

Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha

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Image credit: Wood Land School, Untitled, c-print, 2016.

For the duration of 2017, I will be working with a group of people I deeply respect on a project that promises to totally reconfigure how I understand the cultural work I do and the relationships that function as the support structures for it. On the invitation of Duane Linklater, I will be joining him, Tanya Lukin Linklater and Walter Scott on a new iteration of Duane’s ongoing Wood Land School project, this time anchored in Montréal at SBC Gallery. For the year, SBC’s institutional identity and resources will function wholly in support of the Wood Land School as an experiment with what it means for settler-colonial infrastructures to work in service of Indigenous imperatives. This is one attempt to understand what such a reconfiguration of power, privilege and resources can be, authored from our specific and varying subject positions. Entitled Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó: wa tánon Iotohrha (in Mohawk),  Drawing a Line from January to December (in English) and Traçant la ligne de janvier à décembre (in French), this project is rooted in our shared investment in making a world that grapples with how to inherit history, and it dreams wildly free about how else we can be in relation. Conceived as a single year-long exhibition, the project will unfold through a series of, what we are calling, gestures—clusters of activity that bring works into and out of the gallery space—such that the exhibition is in a constant state of becoming, learning from itself and responding to the political urgencies that are sure to emerge over the course of 2017. Amidst so many confederation and civic anniversary celebrations, Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó: wa tánon Iotohrha aims to be a space of critical reflection otherwise.

Tanya, Duane, Walter and I have authored a letter, explaining the project and articulating our goals for the year’s activities, which we anticipate will shift and change as the year’s programming develops. Perhaps we will re-write the letter along the way. As we begin, though, this is where we are:

For the duration of 2017, SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art will be renamed and operate as the Wood Land School. This is the continuation of a conversation, and it is the forging of new relationships. From an initial position of Indigenous self-determination and collectivity, we situate ourselves as impacted upon by forces both nurturing and destructive; we work to be aware of our own participation in dispossession; and we consider our capacity to articulate new ways of being in relation. Structured as a single exhibition unfolding over the course of a year, Wood Land School: Drawing a Line from January to December recognizes the power of line to mark history and invoke memory, proposing a line without beginning or end as a space to collaboratively imagine Indigenous futurity.

Contemporary civic institutions and social structures are built upon systems that have silenced, ignored and destructively classified Indigenous people, ideas and objects. In response to this history, Wood Land School calls upon institutions to give intellectual and physical labour, philosophical and physical space, time, and funds to support Indigenous ideas, objects, discursivity and performance. In Wood Land School’s six-year history, it has come into relation with many kinds of institutions through a framework of treaty, wherein we have accepted and shared in the responsibilities of realizing these many projects. Foregrounding Indigenous history and presence on this land now known as Canada, in a place now known as Montreal, Wood Land School: Drawing a Line from January to December attempts to create a space of critical reflection and re-imagination, where the tenets of treaty—mutual accountability, reciprocity, relation across difference and stewardship of resources—can be enacted.

Wood Land School is an experimental space where Indigenous thought and theory are centred, embodied, mobilized, and take shape as practice through exhibition and pedagogy. Wood Land School does not seek to summarize Indigenous identity, but rather to honour specific, embodied expressions of inheritance and becoming.

The scope of the contexts we operate within and in relation to include the historical, which is akin to theory, and the contemporary, which is akin to practice. Wood Land School aims to be a space for listening, where we can tend to the urgency of current conditions as they unfold—both systemic and material—with an eye to how (and how else) these circumstances can shape our everyday lives. It operates with an awareness that settler colonialism is ever present, enacted in and on Turtle Island in various forms. Wood Land School is the theorization and practice of centering Indigeneity. Our primary relationships are Indigenous to Indigenous, which includes land and non-humans. We also extend our conversations with and to other communities and publics, working in and through a treaty relationship, to re-frame conversations in a way that centres Indigenous agency. The impact of this project will be determined by many viewers over time.

We wonder, how do the relationships between theory, practice and pedagogy manifest across the complexity and diversity of Indigenous identities, and in relation to settler colonial positionings? What does it mean for a settler-colonial institution to unknow its power? What does it mean to memorialize and dream in relation? How to collectively tend to the becoming of the future?

The project launches this Saturday, 21 January 2017, with a single work by Annie Pootoogook and readings by Heather Igloliorte and Wood Land School. Please join us from 4–6 PM at SBC (372 Ste-Catherine Ouest, suite #507).

Thanks to Pip Day, Camille Usher, Julia Smith, Lindsay Nixon, the board of SBC galerie d’art contemporain, Ersy Contogouris, Kanerahtenhawi Hilda Nicholas, Dorothy Thunder, Reid Shier, Heather Igloliorte, Beatrice Deer, Canadian Art, The Three Sisters and The Andy Warhol Foundation for your labour and generosity in making this project possible.

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Launch of the first gesture with Beatrice Deer, Heather Igloliorte, cheyanne turions, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Duane Linklater and Annie Pootoogook’s “Coleman Stove with Robin Hood Flour and Tenderflake” (2003-2004). Photo credit: Camille Usher.

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Happenings, SBC

The Oblique Cut, et cetera

Photo courtesy of Jackie Wang.

Photo courtesy of Jackie Wang.

As the final events of SBC’s Talk Show exhibition, which focuses on the art and politics of conversation, this weekend Jackie Wang and I are going to investigate language in a couple different ways: we’ll examine how words can gloss systemic phenomena and how words can be a way into/out of the shadow that runs aside living. We’ll be talking and we’ll be writing, and the whole thing is participatory. There’s still a spot or two left in the workshop, which is free!, so if you wanna get tough on your logic and/or get tough on mine and/or invoke the oblique cut and/or figure out what Jackie means by “the trauma monster,” then you should come join us. All events happen at SBC (#507, 372 Ste-Catherine ouest).

April 24, 7-9 pm, Jackie Wang in conversation with cheyanne turions

Departing from Jackie Wang’s text “Against Innocence; Race, Gender and the Politics of Safety,” Wang and turions will engage the audience in a discussion about the precision of language. As Wang notes in her text, the “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary.” Collectively, we will attempt to map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power, envisioning tactics to use language more precisely, in order to reveal and dismantle.

Those attending are encouraged to pre-read “Against Innocence,” which can be downloaded from LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism here.

April 25, 11 am-5 pm, The Oblique Cut: A Writing Workshop

Participation in the workshop is limited. To register, please contact SBC Gallery at julia.smith@sbcgallery.ca 

Participation in the workshop is free.

“How can I explain it to you? I’ll try. It’s that I’m perceiving a crooked reality. See through an oblique cut. Only now have I sensed the oblique in life. I used to only see through straight and parallel cuts. I didn’t notice the sly crooked line. Now I sense that life is other.” —Clarice Lispector, Água Viva

Drawing on Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, Wang will lead a writing workshop that uses Lispector’s idea of the oblique cut as a way of communally exploring the relationship between trauma, the written word, the fleshy body and something Wang calls “the trauma monster.” Together, we will try to enact the cut that casts life as other.

Jackie Wang is a poet, musician and academic, and is the author of the zines On Being Hard FemmeMemoirs of a Queer HapaThe Adventures of Loneberry and The Phallic Titty Manifesto. In her critical essays she writes about queer sexuality, race, gender, the politics of writing, mixed-race identity, prisons and police, the politics of safety and innocence, and revolutionary struggles. She blogs at Ballerinas Dance with Machine Guns and she is currently working on a book or two.

Photo courtesy of SBC Gallery.

Conversation documentation courtesy of SBC Gallery.

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Considerations, SBC

More Precisely

James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died in 1987, his life bearing witness to significant social upheavals including the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s; the Second World War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War; and the gay liberation movement and the emergence of AIDS. Just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed Baldwin as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. In London for a remounting of his play The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin joined Nicholson amongst a set of empty theatre seats. The footage is raw: a time code ticks the seconds away, noting that the edit begins eight minutes into recording [1]. The conversation shows Baldwin ruminating on shifting distributions of social power and those that remain entrenched. He is irreverent, refusing to be sated by the revolutions he has witnessed for the deliverance he imagines. I cannot be sure why this interview, nearly 30 years old, re-entered circulation in November 2014 [2], but with the title “Civil Rights” it is easy to register its resonance with contemporary events in the United States such as waves of protest against a racist, and specifically anti-Black, police state or the then-anticipated release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014). It seems that Baldwin’s ideas again aggravate, push and prod: this is not yet the world we dream of.

Nicholson is a provocative if somewhat naïve interlocutor, asking frank questions about racialization, religion and sexuality, and Baldwin is an affable subject. And yet, the interview comes to be characterized by his consistent reframing of the assumptions embedded in her prompts. For instance, when Nicholson suggests that the terror Baldwin felt as a young man was because he is Black, he resists: it was because he was despised. The fear he felt was not properly related to the colour of his skin, but to the base reactions it elicited from peers who did not look like him. Baldwin’s point is that the pathology of racism belongs to the inner life of each of us, not to the observable facts of the world. And, while he never says this explicitly, it’s not a generalized racism but white supremacy in particular that allows for the social legibility of such hate, then and now.

This point is taken further when Nicholson tells a story about watching Baldwin’s play the week before the interview was taped and witnessing an interaction between two families. The patriarch of one family she describes as looking “intelligent…well-off…liberal” and the other family she describes as having a crying child and being Black. Nicholson suggests that the inherited history of “racial prejudice” prohibits the man whom she implies is white from telling off the Black family for bringing their child to the theatre. But again Baldwin stops her: “Why don’t you examine what does the word ‘racial’ mean. After all, everybody is a race of one kind or another. We’re not talking about racial prejudice; we talking about the structure of power. The structure of power that has the right and the duty to tell other people who they are for very dubious reasons. After all, one of the reasons I am Black is because I had to be Black in order to justify my slavery. That’s a part of my heritage and a part of yours too. It has nothing to do with race; it’s a way of avoiding history.” Against Nicholson’s proposal that this nearly missed confrontation between families is a moment of post-racial neutering, Baldwin insists that the white man will simply find another way to punish the Black family, a worse way. Perhaps Baldwin meant to imply a direct reaction—an admonishment of parenting capability or a slashed tire—though more likely he was invoking systemic distributions of power—higher rates of incarceration, widespread poverty, obstructed access to education. Seeming to function without leadership, these ongoing phenomena are actually the perfect manifestation of a white supremacist fear of difference. Baldwin knows he is being provocative when he says that “the hardest thing for any human being to do is to forgive someone they know they’ve wronged… [and so] white people live with the nightmare of the nigger they’ve invented.” Patterns of racial discrimination are not ever the proper consequences of whiteness or blackness, but rather a product of social conditioning, where white people are unjustifiably understood as superior to others, and where this unfounded belief then maintains systems of inequality that effect the social, economic and political lives of all other people.

Baldwin refuses what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice.” On his terms, racial prejudice is nothing more than “the most abject cowardice” of those who occupy positions of power—politicians, citizens, the bourgeoisie—to self-reflexively understand their standing as historically informed and arising through subjugation. To the extent that material and political equality is possible, it will involve a recognition of how fear shapes every member of a society, and to address shifting political subjectivities through some kind of embodied relationship to this complex truth. Race is absolutely a lived reality despite the fact that it is not real, at least not biologically as is now generally accepted in scientific fields [3]. And yet, there are countless social consequences tied to our differing historical, linguistic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Racism has become shorthand for acts of fear or hate that unfairly cast their provocation upon the body of the person who must bear their cruelty. Baldwin’s tactic refocuses agency on the perpetrator. He doesn’t say it, but in his persistent refusal of Nicholson’s terms I read a refusal of racism. Racism is a way of describing structures of power, but it is not a thing unto itself, not the way the word is commonly used. More precisely, it is a system predicated upon an insidious kind of make-believe.

In this precision, the complexities between the “you” of Mavis Nicholson and the “I” of James Baldwin (and vice versa) are drawn out, placing the capacity for great social change upon them both as social actors capable of responses based in sentiments other than abject cowardice. However, that this nearly 30-year-old interview still so urgently resonates points to the fact that any real confrontation of racism will require systemic dismantling of white supremacist power structures. We can begin (one place amongst so many) by following Baldwin’s lead and engaging with the repercussions of language. We can consider, at the urging of poet and scholar Jackie Wang in her text Against Innocence, that “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary” [4]. We can refuse a rhetoric of innocence that serves to distance the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Pearlie Golden and Kathryn Johnston and Aiyanna Jones and Trayvon Martin and Nizah Morris from the murders of hundreds and hundreds of Black people each year by police officers in the USA. We can map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power. We can use language more precisely, in order to reveal. And dismantle.

[1] I am unable to find a more complete version of the interview.

[2] From what I can tell, the footage was not available online until 01 November 2014, published on Youtube by ThamesTv and then circulated amongst aggregation sites. However, the footage remains relatively unseen, registering just over 4500 views as of 24 February 2015.

[3] For discussions on the persistent myth of biological race see Merlin Chowkwanyun’s 2013 article “Race Is Not Biology,” published by The Atlantic here; Agustin Fuentes’s 2012 article “Race Is Real, but not the way Many People Think,” published by Psychology Today here; or UNESCO’s 1950 document “Statement by Experts on Race Problems,” found here.

[4] Jackie Wang, Against Innocence (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 7-8.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the video Civil Rights—James Baldwin—Interview—Mavis on Four (1987). Thanks to Gina Badger and Pip Day for making my thinking stronger.

This text accompanies the exhibition Talk Show, curated by Pip Day.

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SBC

Subjects as Things

In reframing the concerns of sovereignty from the perspective of the subject, there remain differing locations of embodiment: there are sovereign subjectivities formed by power relations, gender, language, class and race; on another reading, there are to sovereign subjects, as things, formed by power relations, materials, pressure and gravity. Within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, the works of Tiziana La Melia occupy this latter position—paintings and sculptures that insist on being read inconclusively as kinds of things despite the act of looking that otherwise wants to fix objects as immutable or understood. La Melia’s works want something else from the viewer: the maintenance of multiple identifications, such as the tending to an oscillation between painting and sculpture, or an ambiguity between the objects of art and the accoutrements of the domestic.

Hanging from the walls of the gallery, the usual presentation devices (frames, mats, glass) are exchanged for mundane if seemingly jerry-rigged supports.

“Yolk Tabs medieval genuflex and still,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

In Yolk Tabs medieval genuflex and still (2012), a painted scene of portraiture hangs from an undone coat hanger alongside a significant collection of pop tabs. There is no frame in the regular understanding of things and no stretching of the canvas that, as it is, falls away from the magnetic supports that barely keep the painting attached to the hanger.

"Dust selves, reflect and flex," 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“Dust selves, reflect and flex,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

For Dust selves, reflect and flex (2012), a purple colour field (lighter and softer than “purple” suggests) does keep a more regular shape, long and straight, but instead of a glass barrier between the linen and the world, there is a sheet of mylar stapled to the wall, right through the painting beneath. A rusty nail marks the top centre of the field, off of which another undone clothes hanger spools, precariously supporting a pair of sunglasses. Almost as though a chain reaction, another piece of bent metal extends from the frame of the glasses and a single magnet keeps in place a magazine clipping that, as gallery visitors pass by, sways in the air.

"Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character," 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

A third work—Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character (2012)—is planted on gallery floor. Kicked out from the walls, a simple armature creates a stiff 90 degree angle, upon which two more paintings hang, their subject matter being two-dimensional abstractions of the shape of their support. The work is an object to circle around and regard, with no vantage point for optimal viewing suggested.

"clay voice drink still," 2013-2014. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“clay voice drink still,” 2013-2014. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

La Melia’s final contribution to the show is a series of small ceramic sculptures entitled clay voice drink still (2013-2014). As the name of the collection suggests, the small ceramic works could be read as dining ware, but queer dining ware as their shapes and sizes are just a little bit off scale to common cups and mugs. Thus, the domestic value of the set is questionable (despite being displayed in close proximity to Maggie Groat’s Fences will turn into tables [2010-2013]). 

The indeterminate character of form in La Melia’s work is not remarkable in itself, but it is foregrounded in a way that compels consideration by the viewer. If sovereignty is properly characterized by negotiation, then La Melia’s work performs this give-and-take at an aesthetic level. Since when is canvas the stuff of sculpture? Since when is painting draped from a coat hanger? And yet, her work suggests that the answers to these questions are beside the point. By resisting resolution as strictly one medium or form over another, any one understanding becomes provisional at best. Which just might mean that there is something to this idea of negotiation after all. Like the effects of Rubin’s vase (an image that uses a common border to alternately appear as a single vase or two faces staring straight on), distinct narratives are produced if the works are considered from particular art historical perspectives, and other narratives emerge from other lenses. To encounter her work is to engage in a process of concession and insistence with no clear end in sight. 

While often utilizing forms of abstraction, La Melia’s work comes from a place of trust for her materials and processes in a way that does not glorify the genre, but seeks to make meaning of it. So then, abstraction becomes a way to embed oneself in the world through materials and work. What are the effects of looking? What of the field of possible responses an object or experience can generate? Within the exhibition, La Melia’s work provides a focus the action that happens in objects as material things. Maybe it seems a bit funny to talk about sovereignty in regards to things, but humans are just a special case of things. We use tools all the time, and art is just another tool we can use to make sense, relate and do things.

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Confronting Movement, Confronting Vocabularies

"Slow Scrape" Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee, performance, 2014. Photo credit: Sam Cotter.

“Slow Scrape,” Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee, documentation of performance, 2014. Photo credit: Sam Cotter.

As the final event of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, the idea of negotiation was approached choreographically, as the instruction of movement by Tanya Lukin Linklater and the practice of movement by Daina Ashbee. A historical negotiation was also at play in Lukin Linklater’s translation of civic protest and domestic labour into poetry, which she exhibited in the gallery space as a series of three hanging banners. Entitled Slow Scrape, the three-part dance utilized the banners as scores for performance. To begin, every English and Cree word comprising the first banner was addressed through movement, a  patient and deliberate reckoning of syllabics by a body. In the second act, phrasing was acknowledged and Ashbee’s actions corresponded in scale, expanding, taking up space, her body shooting forward and crawling back, behind and in front of the banners. And in the end, the shape of language itself was embodied, the rising smoke used to tan leather suggesting an arrangement of words on a page, which then became the shape of a body moving through a crowded gallery space.

As a practical reflection of Lukin Linklater’s processed-based approach to developing work, the distance between North Bay, Ontario, where Lukin Linklater is based, and Montréal, Quebec, where Ashbee resides, was broached through a series of electronic exchanges (webcam conversations, video sharing and email correspondence), where Lukin Linklater provided “the structure and concepts to [Ashbee], who in turn [experimented] with movement vocabularies.” [1] The collaborators had only one day of rehearsal time in the space, where the decision to utilize the exhibition as a site was realized. Just as the banners were scores, the other works in the show became Ashbee’s partners. The voices of Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie spilled out of the cinema space of the gallery and spoke alongside Ashbee’s powerful presence as imagined commentary; Annie MacDonell’s photo series and Tiziana Le Melia’s paintings/sculptures were rooted as silent partners subject to spatial address; and even the audience became site, albeit a metamorphic one, where space was made and taken as Ashbee moved amongst those present.

The banners—part of the exhibition from the start as objects themselves, but also harbingers of a sort—are poetic reflections on a series of conversations Lukin Linklater conducted with her kin in order to learn a specific kind of mitt-making. This was instruction as a gesture of solidarity. Lukin Linklater describes it as such: 

Slow Scrape is a series of nine banners [only three of which were on display at SBC] developed from a text, The Harvest Sturdies, written in response to Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, a 44-day action that began December 11, 2012. The mitts Chief Spence wore in many of her press engagements are an important symbol for the people of James Bay. Interviews with Agnes Hunter, Marlene Kapasheshit and Lillian Mishi Trapper during January and February 2013 regarding the process for making traditional James Bay Mitts were conducted for this text…The text began with experiential knowledge shared within the context of phone interviews, conversations between relatives, across generations. Within the development of the text, translation is at the centre, [I worked] with Cree language, the concepts of syllabics, visual vocabularies, and poetics…The process [of creating the performance became] a negotiation between the text, Daina’s body, the concepts at the centre of the work, and my ability to communicate or translate the ideas to Daina. [2]

Departing from the first line of the banners’ poetry, “So it’s done like this, Tanya,” it is apparent that Lukin Linklater’s work is about an intergenerational relay of teaching and learning. Through these pedagogical processes, parallels were constructed between the various acts of translation (from protest to education to dance) and negotiation (between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, between Lukin Linklater and her elders, between a choreographer and a dancer). In the last instance, the negotiations between Lukin Linklater and Ashbee, as artists, is mediated by their sovereignty as people and as makers, which results in the manifestation of the work itself. So, while the choreographic relationship between the artist and the dancer was structured and instructional, the aspects of improvisation in the work generate questions about where these roles begin and end, and these questions are present without clear answer.

Considering the articulation of the sovereignty focus program at SBC, the sovereign subject has been the unit of measure in discussions of, and enactments of, negotiation. Lukin Linklater’s performance, which has been firmly rooted in the female Indigenous body at all stages of development, presents a very specific subjectivity within the exhibition. Given the space of reflection that the gallery represents, and given the framework of thinking through the processes and possibilities of sovereignty, what is to be made of our bodies in that space? The sovereign subject is not disembodied; we are bodies, bodies which profoundly inform how we are in the world. While Ashbee’s performance departed from Lukin Linklater’s text, it was a translation of intention and spirit that only another female Indigenous body could make. 

The performance was developed in specific response to the space of SBC and the conditions of the exhibition, a process possible because of reciprocal extensions of trust between SBC as an institution and myself as a curator, between Lukin Linklater and I, and between Lukin Linklater and Ashbee. Although I am sure that the commissioning of any new work for an exhibition involves a similar extension of belief, this was one instance in the show (among others) where the conditions of sovereign negotiation were foregrounded. Trust was both an acknowledgement of faith and recognition of independence in service of something being collectively created (standing apart from other kinds of facilitation, like hierarchical directorship or even consensus). Trust was the agreement implicitly made that allowed for the production and presentation of a new work. 

Fundamentally, this extension of trust was enabled by the subtle callings of intuition. What initially drew me to Lukin Linklater’s work was the introduction she wrote for Duane Linklater’s Decommission, a solo-exhibition held at the MacLaren Art Centre in 2013, where she spoke about the relationship between the artist, the mechanic and machine as one predicated on processes of negotiation. As Lukin Linlater said of the sculpture, “My ideas about the object are not the same as the object itself,” pointing to an irreducible remainder in the work, the thing that cannot be seen but cannot be discounted, to those negotiations of skill, desire and material that foster the work’s being in the world. I have been drawn to her work for the way I recognize what she sees. I realize that this is an intimate consideration, one that cannot be displayed as part of the exhibition, but in the same way as the ideas are not the object, it cannot be discounted, this feeling of recognition. To be honest, the role of intuition cannot be discounted in my own processes of curating more generally, and as is its nature, it resists articulation. 

And yet, at the performance’s close, Ashbee was asked what she thought about when danced. And as it happens, Lukin Linklater had asked her relatives what they think about when the sew. How often or how little do we consider the what happens in the silences that enable the performance of our lives? Do these conversations or rituals resist articulation or is that we are not accustomed to naming these other aspects of our interior lives? Surely, our expressions of sovereignty are deeply inflected with intimate concerns, however much they yield or resist translation into conversation. Not unlike the untranslated Cree words that structured Lukin Linklater’s banners, a desire to bridge between knowing and unknowing is all a matter of concern. Though some visitors had access to the language (and in fact expressed their joy at seeing their languages reflected in the space), and others did not, understanding was only ever so far away as one’s own motivation, and of their being open to being acted upon in return. 

[1] From an email correspondence with Lukin Linklater, 10 February 2014.

[2] Ibid.

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SBC

Not Looking at an Archive of Collecting Practices

"Untitled," from the Picture Collection Series, 2012.

Annie MacDonell’s “Untitled,” from the Picture Collection Series, 2012.

Gesturing towards the transformation of fences becoming tables, Annie MacDonell proposes that folders become frames, inserting a selected group of images from the Toronto Reference Library’s Picture Collection into A Problem So Big It Needs Other People. Four weeks in, these images, drawn from three related folders of the library’s vast and idiosyncratic storehouse (“Reflections,” “Mirrors,” and “Reflections—Mirrors”), mined from various kinds of printed matter over the last 90 years, will remain at SBC until the exhibition closes, a three-week period happening to coincide with the maximum borrowing time of the material. The 35 images of mirrors, replicated patterns and the world cast back at itself, represent the maximum allowable amount of borrowed materials, a second-run berth of images in relation to MacDonell’s photo series, On Originality and the Avant Garde, on the gallery walls that depict other images from those same Picture Collection folders, collaged and re-photographed on her studio walls. Though the plane of the collage is flattened through the photographic reflection, pencil scrawls on the studio walls place the five reframed collections in a specific and recurring space where their subject becomes not the animate and inanimate objects therein, but the act of framing itself.

Appropriation, quotation and sampling are common tactics used in contemporary art production, extending beyond any one medium, informing music, literature, sculpture and, in this case, photography. Meeting MacDonell’s images means negotiating between independent and related acts in order to make meaning: the first instance of photography; the librarian’s decision to extract the images from their original context and insert them into any one of the Picture Collection’s folders; MacDonell’s research and compulsion toward certain images; her collaging and re-photographing in her studio; and our looking in the gallery as part of an exhibition. MacDonell has said of her work that “with photography and film, we’re generally not creating new images, but instead working from the existing pool of images that reality offers up to us. The essential act then becomes one of framing those existing images in order to designate them for a special kind of attention. We get the viewer to look at them with an intent and intensity we don’t normally bring to the act of seeing. For me, presenting an image within an image is multiplying the framework around the image in order to bring attention not to the subject of the photograph, but instead the act of looking at a photograph.” 

The creation of a new context is the potential for new meaning.

Emphasizing the ways we construct meaning through looking, art historian and curator Gabby Moser hosted a “looking group” entitled No Looking After the Internet at SBC, in collaboration with MacDonell. Utilizing these additional images from the Reference Library, collected on the table in a folder as a frame, the clippings circulated among those present that afternoon already stripped of the predictable information structures of gallery life: there were no didactic panels noting names and dates, and contextual information about where these images originally appeared is mostly already removed through the librarians’ acts of clipping (though in all cases there is something to be gleaned from turning the image over, inseparable as it is from the printed matter context of its other life). Moser says of the project that its aim is to “slow down our interpretive processes and to spend more time looking at images in a state of ‘not knowing’: trying to articulate what we want from images that are ambiguous or that withhold immediate interpretation, and being self-reflexive about how we respond to images—do we immediately try to ‘do’ something ‘useful’ with them by trying to put them to work or to learn from them? Do we have a tendency to try to project a narrative onto them to help answer questions the image raises?” And yet, our detective impulses are hard to shake. We wanted to know the factuals of the Reference Library’s own practices: Why does the Picture Collection exist? Who decides on the collection’s themes and logic? Who uses these images? What about the librarians is revealed through their collecting practices? Perhaps like images, the Picture Collection compels our attention because it is constructed. As a mirror of the world, a photograph can be said to have documented something, but it is in the deeming important to capture or in the placement of the frame (and what falls outside of it) that our human nature is revealed. MacDonell holds that this is what makes photography an enduring form of representation: not its pretense of objectivity, but its suffused bias. 

Exhibitions are always about constructing relationships: between an artist and an institution, and between art works. In its making, a single work cannot predict the range of relationships it will find itself in. It is perhaps romantic or naïve, but in each of the relationships set up between works, or even in the regular ways that images and objects circulate, new meanings arise, and as these meanings accumulate, might something of the soul of an image be revealed? If, obviously, we are willing to admit such things exist, even just as intellectual provocations. And yet, an image can mean many things, but it cannot mean anything. There are natural limits to what a work can do.

In choosing to work with certain folders (“Mirrors,” “Reflections,” et cetera) , MacDonell was conscious that a reflection is always of something, which is a perfect metaphor for the mediation of the world through photography. There is no mirror without an image and no photograph of nothing.

In the spirit of No Looking, it is difficult to resist an analysis of the construction of the Picture Collection in order to look slower, look collectively and to consider what is at stake in and through looking at the material pictures at hand. But at least part of what is on display is power: to dictate which images are deemed interesting or worthy of archiving. On the one hand, there must be something biological at play, as when an image perfectly composed in a rule of thirds tweaks a pleasure circuit in our brains, but on the other hand, who is to say that that itself is not just another product of social conditioning? And though the Reference Library advertises that there are over 32,000 subject headings in the collection, no doubt certain subjects have been elided due to moral judgments or insidious sleights of hand that do not recognize their prejudice as such, alongside the inclusion of some subjects as activism, as when MacDonell stumbled upon a folder full labeled “Advertisements—Sexist.” This discovery lead her to her current work with the collection, which seeks to reframe it as one with a subtle feminist bias. A narrow understanding of photographic preservation considers photography as objects isolated from social and emotional ties. In MacDonell’s case, and in the case of No Looking, these social and emotional ties are both lost (from their original context) and rewritten (when gallery visitor’s with their own agendas look on). Like language cannot be reduced to vocabulary or recordings (as Susan Hiller’s film and Chelsea Vowel’s text point out), neither can photography be reduced to paper, emulsion and silver. The preservation of a photograph as an artwork is conceptually different from its preservation as a souvenir or in an archive. Perhaps the Picture Collection is not an archive of images, but an archive of collecting practices that needs an organization—the Reference Library—in order to exist.

And so, in this instance, the exhibition and the looking group need the institution of SBC to exist, framing the works and the conversations within the gallery’s focus program on sovereignty. The context has its own agenda for what it wants from images, here casting MacDonell’s photo series as the result of numerous negotiations between object, impulse and representation. And the context has its own agenda for what it wants from talking, that being the give and take of constructing understanding alongside another.

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