This January, I sat down with Kim Simon and an awesome cast of cultural workers and artists to discuss Althea Thauberger’s latest film, Preuzmimo Benčić (Take Back Benčić) (2014), as part of its exhibition at Susan Hobbs. Like so much of Thauberger’s work, the film layers subjectivities through performativity, the role of the artist brushing up against the agency of her collaborators, where the beginning and end of Thauberger’s direction is unclear. Saelan Twerdy has said of Thauberger’s work (and I referenced it in the conversation that afternoon), that it asks a viewer to consider who authors the roles they feel they must play. Preuzmimo Benčić refracts this question through time and across political ideologies. Filmed in Rijeka, Croatia, with a cast of over 60 child performers, it documents an occupation of an unused factory amidst its real-life possible redevelopment. Having no doubt inherited stories of their parents’ experiences with communism, the children create a drama of the factory in its worker-managed past, where the imagined desires of labourers brush up against the invented agendas of factory bosses and town politicians. Our discussion at the gallery centred around the complexities of what the film made visible and what remained concealed, in terms of its making and its reception. The gallery has published an edited document of conversation here, and though it is impossible to capture the energy and reciprocity at play in conversation through text, the document does capture something about the complexity and resonance of Thauberger’s work. It’s one of her best, in my opinion.
Contemplating magic, I found myself with Michael Taussig’s Fieldwork Notebooks (2011).
I have written in books for as long as I have been writing. The first book had rainbowed, perfumed pages and a pathetic little lock. I used those pages to conduct magic through elaborate rituals of pronouncement and restraint, where the scale of desire was translated into withheld touch. The question of god’s existence, for instance, must have meant at least a month of that book hidden away from my graphomaniac impulses. This was a sacrifice. These books, as I have continued to write + write + write, remain involved in the occult in two ways: first, they conjure ideas, every gap in logic sorted out by my hand on the page; second, they purge my mind of obsession, as though the translation from mind to page were actually emptying one for the other. Other things happen amongst these pages, regular things, mostly the documentation of the thought of others as a way of being present, akin to Taussig’s interpretation of the fieldwork notebook. Writing is a way of paying attention, in the moment and removed from it. I’ve never really practiced strict translations of living though, what Taussig identifies as the diary’s impetus. Whenever I write about life, it’s always slightly divorced from correspondence to reality. This is another kind of magic, to write my life as I wish it had been, to write living with the benefit of retrospect.
Taussig knows there’s something spooky about the enterprise too. He describes it this way: “the notebook is like a magical object in a fairy tale. It is a lot more than an object, as it inhabits and fills out hallowed ground between meditation and production. Truly writing is a strange business” (9). But what Taussig assumes to be a function of the form of the notebook, I have assumed to be a function of process of writing. I develop affection for the object as collection, sure, but I’d write on anything. It often feels rather unromantic actually, as though I have to write in order to live. When I was a kid I would steal piles of deposit slips from the town bank, take them home, and loose myself in the rolling pressure of producing carbon-paper triplicates. The pleasure of this is so totally obvious to me that it is hard to describe. (If I were to step away from the computer screen and scratch away on paper I would find the language, I’m sure of it.) Taussig’s diagnosis is misplaced when I try to apply it to my own experience, despite the resonance it generates. The magic’s in the action, not the object it generates.
I played a game of writing, where I spent 10 minutes telling about a text that has profoundly shaped me:
Passed into my hands with heat, an exchanged book was set to become an emblem of a relationship that was just then beginning to unfold. In any case, this one especially, the scope of paradigm shift cannot be anticipated because it is a reordering that renders assumptions about the world mutually incomprehensible. So I was someone before and someone else after. Our intimate dancing began and ended, a regular chronology afterall, but in the interval I took those words and marked them on my body. This is language I want to be read upon my flesh when it lay dead, language I wanted to be read each time my clothing fell to the floor. Because it was love—sweet, young—that pressed those words into my palms, I could not consider its eventual unravelling; my skin was scarred in a moment of indulgence or optimism that now other lovers read on my body instead.
And then I spent six minutes telling about a text I have shamefully not read:
I have a pat answer for this. I have a pat answer for this and it has been so for years, compounding the shame. I have a pat answer for this and I am just days distance from doing the thing I always do rather than meeting the writing on its own terms. Virginia Woolf, pockets full of rocks, how have I not been there with her? Oh, but Rebecca Solnit wrote of her writing and I take that in, always reading around Woolf instead of meeting her head on.
What is still called public space has been undergoing a profound transformation over the last decades. Neoliberal practices have induced a shift in the political and moral structures that demarcate space so that even if public space remains a cherished idea, it is now rather common that the public nature of public space be legislated in such a way that only certain kinds of manifestations of the public be possible. From the historical phenomenon of unregulated common spaces such as the the agora, to a contemporary public realm wholly regulated by either public authority or private property laws, the forms of publicness happening within the city have evolved. According to scholar and ex-architect Miguel Robles-Durán, public space is no longer a place available to all for social gatherings, debate, protest or retreat without specific purpose for the simple reason that these uses do not “[meet] the requirements of the private investors, private corporations, and of public-private alliances to extract land rent and most importantly, to develop new spaces in which re-invest their accumulated surplus” . The boundaries between personal and collective expression are blurred as they are recoded in favour of commercial interests or reduced to state-sponsored notions of participation. Whether designed for cultural or commercial uses, urban spaces are equally appropriated for this new form-of-life, where the dictates of privitization either actually characterize spaces or are used to justify legislation that operates against the manifestation of dissent directed toward governments or the market, themselves increasingly indistinguishable.
Despite the manifold changes in social organization that neoliberalism has produced, voices of dissent that imagine that other worlds are possible cannot be quelled. The list of recent actions are, by now, quite familiar: anti-austerity riots, Idle No More, Occupy. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was not just a series of football games but waves of protest against the expenditure of public funds to finance the games and a corresponding diminishment of Indigenous land rights.
Mega events, in fact, are a microcosom of these practices, where non-state actors are suddenly very able to act in ways that sidestep regular democratic or legalistic processes. In what has become rather common, these types of mega events become paradigmatic drivers of social, economic and political transformation emerging in service of neoliberal agendas. Long before the events arrive, and even before a host is assigned, cities compete to offer the most extreme benefit to the mega-event overlords, competing to offer the most extreme tax breaks or most robust infrastructure for the event itself, the cost, of course, displaced onto citizens and used to justify rollbacks of social services, including support of culture or access to education.
This afternoon, I will be part of a discussion at Blackwood Gallery about the paradoxes of public space as part of the exhibition Falsework. On the invitation of Adrian Blackwell, I contributed an essay to his Furnishing Positions project, which is part of Falsework, reflecting on whether public space is made by the state or its citizens. Using a series of programs that happened at VIVO Media Arts during the 2010 Winter Olympics as a case-study, I propose that in our neo-liberal present tense, public space is more a philosophical position than a spatial organization. Come and convince me otherwise. Details below.
FURNISHING POSITIONS: CONVERSATIONS
Part colloquium, part workshop, and part experiment, this event is a support structure for the exchange of ideas.
Eric Cazdyn, Greig de Peuter, Karen Houle, Mary Lou Lobsinger, Dylan Miner, Paige Sarlin, Scott Sørli, Christine Shaw, Kika Thorne and cheyanne turions. Moderated by Adrian Blackwell.
Saturday, November 22, 2014 | 1 – 6PM
Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto Mississauga
A shuttle bus will depart Mercer Union (1286 Bloor St. W) at 12:30pm, and return at 6:30pm. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.
If capitalism has produced two forms of property, one owned by the state (spaces of public authority) and the other owned by private citizens (private property), then public space is always an appropriation of one of these. Insofar as public space is political, that appropriation involves the construction of a physical space in which the paradoxical reality of capitalist society is rendered sensible.
Adrian Blackwell’s Furnishing Positions explores the paradoxical relationship between publics and space through three different structures: a sculpture consisting of thirty pieces of furniture, reconfigured over twelve weeks to test the social effect of different spatial forms; a broadsheet series that interrogates six paradoxes of public space through artwork and texts by twelve contributors from diverse disciplines; and now, a set of conversations that test these ideas with an assembled public in the sculpture.
Furnishing Positions: Conversations brings together the contributors to the broadsheet series in order to test the ideas developed within its artworks and texts in dialogue with other contributors and an assembled public. The event is structured through two conversations. The first will function as a sequence of short monologues, in which each of the broadsheet contributors will present their ideas in turn. The second conversation will involve contributors and the assembled public and will be an opportunity to connect and relate these discreet provocations. Between the two conversations, there will be a break, during which time the assembled public will reconfigure the sculpture for the second half of the event.
 Miguel Robles-Durán, “For the Brief Moments of Confrontation,” in Make_Shift City, Renegotiating the Urban Commons, ed. Fracesca Ferguson and Urban Drift Projects, in cooperation with the Berlin Senate for Urban Development (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2013), 25-31.
Last week, as part of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries (OAAG) annual awards celebration, I had the honour of accepting their inaugural award for Innovation in a Collections-based Exhibition for Other Electricities, an exhibition commissioned by and hosted at the Art Gallery of Windsor.
Working with the gallery’s collection, which has been amassed over a 70 year period, I attempted to unsettle its colonial assumptions using only the collection and the gallery as tools. It was a bold proposal and I had no idea if it would work. That OAAG would choose to acknowledge the exhibition in this way seems so hopeful and I imagine that the innovation of the gesture will be undone in the methodolgies other member galleries bring to bear in the collections-based exhibitions they will make, to come.
The award was accompanied by jury notes: “This exhibition presented a rigorous and considered pairing and contrast of modern and contemporary artworks from a range of mediums found in the Art Gallery of Windsor’s permanent collection. The sensitive juxtaposition and exploration of relationships between colonial and Indigenous cultures effectively brought to light issues of sovereignty and the strategies of cultural decolonization. This entire exhibition was further enhanced by the strong curatorial essay presented in the on-line publication which will provide a lasting legacy of this provocative collections-based exhibition.”
I must extend sincere thanks to the Art Gallery of Windsor, to Catharine Mastin, Nicole McCabe, Stephen Nilsson and Chris Hummer, but especially to Srimoyee Mitra, their risk-taking, tough and visionary curator for offering me the opportunity. Thanks also to OAAG for fostering this kind of dialogue across the sector, especially to Demetra Christakos and Veronica Quach for making the awesome spectacle of the awards actually happen.
A full list of 2014 award recipients can be found here. Congratulations to everyone!
This Monday, 10 November 2014, I am going to lock myself in a room with eight other people overnight in the spirit of feminist consciousness-raising sessions of the 1970s. Organized by Mikaela Assolent and Flora Katz, the experiment is part of a larger project entitled If We Carry On Speaking the Same Language to Each Other, We Are Going to End Up Repeating the Same History. The title is incredible; the sentiment sharp. What is the shape of change? And what do we agitate for? And what form do our tools take? In an exciting way, I have no idea what to expect, but here’s how Assolent and Katz have framed it:
At the end of her book This Sex Which Is Not One (1976), Luce Irigaray addresses another woman and imagines what their experience could be outside of a social construction created by men, for men. She observes, “If we carry on speaking the same language to each other, we are going to end up repeating the same history.” For Irigaray, women’s liberation is not only about deconstructing imposed roles and identities, but also re-appropriating and/or inventing a language of our very own, that allows us to invent and live entirely new stories. To do so, we must start from scratch and independently rebuild what was previously confiscated.
In the spirit of collective encounters, as conceived by Lois Weaver (The Long Table) and Malin Arnell (The Oncoming Corner) and inspired by texts which reflect on art as a space for a community to come (John Roberts, Art, ‘Enclave Theory’ and the Communist Imaginary, Third Text, July 2009) we will further investigate the questions evoked above through a series of collaborative evenings taking place at PARMER in November 2014. We would like to experiment using the sharing of experiences and knowledge to undo the inherent power dynamics of the groups assembled. Thus, we aim to consider these sessions as a space for the collective production and exchange of singularities.
Participants in the November sessions include: Maia Asshaq, Arlen Austin, Corrie Baldauf & Megan Heeres, Lindsay Benedict, Amber Berson, Maibritt Borgen, Sara Constantino & Rochelle Goldberg, Catherine Czacki, Leah DeVun, Alaina Claire Feldman, Ariel Goldberg, Saisha Grayson, Joseph Imhauser, Liz Linden, Kylie Lockwood, Jane Long, Jordan Lord, Jacqueline Mabey, Trista Mallory, Anna Ostoya, Michala Paludan, Rit Premnath, Chloé Rossetti, Julia Trotta, cheyanne turions and Wendy Vogel.
Each person is invited to bring an element, prepared beforehand, that is as close as possible to their own area of expertise. The element, such as a text, anecdote, performance, video, object, et cetera, will be up for discussion according to the conversation format and staging chosen by its presenter. Listening, commenting, and contributing will be open, with participants being free to speak spontaneously, whenever possible. Each individual will thus be able to negotiate their own contribution to the session.
With the aim of questioning even the parameters of these sessions themselves, the procedure used to compose the participant groups will also be discussed. As a space open by invitation, PARMER seeks other strategies of inclusiveness to redefine the boundaries of what is public. What defines the level of accessibility of an artistic space? How this ephemeral community that we will constitute during the session can have strong common grounds and the right level of openness?
The sessions will conclude with a public reception on November 23rd that will include material collected and developed over the course of the sessions.
For more information please visit the website.
A series of sessions following the same protocol took place in Paris, France, at the artspace Chez Treize, in Fall 2013. See documentation here (in French).
This project is supported in part by the Danish Arts Foundation and the Visual Arts Department at the University of California San Diego.
My contribution will depart from my on-going project No Reading After the Internet and its concern with collective forms of knowledge production. My interest specifically is in non-institutionalized learning, particularly methods that de-emphasize scholarship and prioritize improvisation, intimacy and a multiplicity of meanings. Given the notion of expertise at the heart of If We Carry On…, I wonder if these methods are in opposition to one another, or if there is the potential for a productive, mutual implication between a stance of knowing and a stance of engaged not-knowing. There’s something also about the way that ideas move, about translation and adaptation, that I hope to bring to the conversation by way No Reading’s history: an itinerant project now collectively supported and transformed, rhizomatic, producing strange but related fruit in many places around the world. How does knowledge begin and end? Inspired by the different forms that the No Reading project has produced—like its life in Vancouver with Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk and Alex Muir out of VIVO Media Arts or its translation into No Looking after the Internet with Gabrielle Moser—I will use the opportunity of If We Carry On… to think through methodology as substance. Quite aside from any of our singular fields of expertise, I imagine the result of our evening of *not* carrying on will be a thing that none of us can yet anticipate and hopefully that the orientation of No Reading will be one way of registering whatever collective thing will transpire.
As I understand it, the impetus behind the formation of artist-run centres (ARCs) was artistic self-determination. ARCs, as a form of self-determination, distinguished themselves from commercial galleries in their distance from (if not their opposition to) the market, and they distinguished themselves from museums in the temporal direction of their activity, which was unconcerned with historicization and prioritized experimentation over connoisseurship. Emerging in the late 1960s, arguments for self-determination were taken seriously and the support of ARCs can be read alongside other social phenomena of the time, such as the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and antiestablishment counterculture. At this time, the infrastructure of the Canada Council already existed and the Council’s expansion to support artist-run initiatives reflects its adoption of the zeitgeist.
Given the oppositional stance of artist-run centres—from the beginning operating against the market and against the museum—I think there is a case to be made for these impulses of self-determination as an early model for what came to be known as institutional critique. Avoiding the inherent contradictions of institutional critique—namely, that there is no outside from which to offer critique because, as Andrea Fraser demonstrates, “the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves”—ARCs offer instead a practice of critique by embodiment . ARCs are the institution, which has allowed them to be influential on the form of institution itself.
In Diana Nemiroff’s essay, “Par-al-lel,” which was written in the early 1990s, she studies the history of ARCs through the words that have been used to describe them: alternative, artist-run, parallel. I am not sure how the term “parallel” emerged to characterize the relationship between ARCs and museums, but in her essay Nemiroff quotes Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker suggesting that “a problem with the term ‘parallel’—‘something similar which is continually equidistant’—is that it does not adequately define the artist-run centre as an alternative, that is, ‘mutually exclusive, available in place of another, and a group of persons disassociating themselves from conventional social practices’” . According to Nemiroff and Danzker, “parallel” did not reflect the alternative positioning that was fundamental to the early conception of these centres. At that time, the term “artist run” was in favour, but contentions surrounds that term now, as Reid Shier points out in his essay “Do Artists Need Artist-Run Centres?” Alternative was and remains an aspiration.
Is there virtue in reconceptualizing curators and administrators as artists in order to maintain fidelity to the moniker “artist run”? Might the reclamation of “parallel” offer any value in better describing what these organizations have become? Can “alternative” act as inspiration?
While the desire for self-determination played a part in the formation of ARCs, it is not an argument for their continued existence. The political, economic and social climate of 2014 bears only slight resemblances to 1967 and it must be recognized that we change the world by being in it.
A pervasive example of this practice of mutual becoming is the phenomena of organizational structuring and programming, both geared toward council mandates. That ARCs have boards of directors cannot be untangled from the Canada Council’s dictate that they do so. That so many Indigenous artists show work in ARCs probably, unfortunately, cannot be divorced from the strategic priorities of funding bodies. Nemiroff notes another early example of this mutual becoming: “Because the [funding] programmes were community oriented, they encouraged artists to define themselves in practical terms as a community. This orientation in turn affected the way in which the artist was able to perceive his/her role vis-a-vis the larger community” . AA Bronson suggested as much in his 1983 essay, that while the development of artist-run culture in Canada led to our humiliation as bureaucrats, it also led to the realization of an art scene where there had been none previously . This changes things. We have an art scene. We have access to production resources. We have exhibition opportunities. There are structures of mentorship. Given these changes brought about by a history of artist-run culture in Canada, the terms of what artists need to practice have also changed.
From the position of artists in Canada, what do they need from artist-run centres today?
Die Die Die
And I can’t help but think of death and dying, of organizations on life support, of the reality of limited funding. There is a general lack of of public discussion about the ethics or necessity of organizations folding; there is no lack of private discussion on the matter though.
What better time than now to reflect on how these organizations—a relatively fixed set of institutions across the country—are serving their constituents. In my visions of a utopic art-world future, I want to live in a place where the presentation and contextualization of art is supported outside of the market and where historicization is complicated (those classic desires of the artist-run model).
But what are the limitations of the current technology of artist-run centres?
I don’t think it’s that ARCs are obsolete, but that they are living beings (of a sort), subject to succession. This metaphor has limited use-value, but like any ecology, artist-run culture requires periods of growth and periods of destruction. It’s not that I have an interest in killing off organizations per se, but there’s an undeniable stagnancy in the system. I think that artist-run culture is ready to have conversations about what a reconfiguration of the landscape might look like. And actually, just last year, the Canada Council announced a policy of a redistribution of funds, implying that they are ready too.
There was also an anonymously published text in one of the final issues of FUSE, where a group of cultural workers delineated some tactics for infrastructural redistribution, including merging institutions into “super-centres,” but, they note, “part of what’s standing in the way of such succession is that no one’s done the math. With a dearth of precedent, no one is sure how the councils will respond, and people fear losing jobs and programs…The death and merger of centres are not suggestions; they are inevitable as the sectors evolve with changing climates. The only question is where and how the decisions will be made—collectively by institutions and the artists they represent, or top-down through the funding process?” .
So, where do we want those decisions to be be made? And are we brave enough to make them?
 Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutuions to an Institution of Critique.” Artforum, 44-1 (2005), unpaginated.
 Nemiroff, Diana, “Par-al-lel.” In Sightlines, edited by Jessica Bradley and Lesley Johnstone, unpaginated. Canada: Artexte editions, 1994.
 Bronson, AA. “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Spaces as Museums by Artists.” In Museums by artists, eds. Peggy Gale and AA Bronson, 29-37. Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983.
 Anonymous. “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear.” FUSE Magazine, 37-1 (2013), unpaginated.