Happenings

More Caught in the Act

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When I worked as the Shop Manager and Curator at Art Metropole, you wouldn’t believe how many requests I received for a publication called Caught in the Act (2004). Edited by Johanna Householder and Tanya Mars, this anthology of writing on performance art by Canadian women, from what I can tell, sold out immediately but the thirst is deep for the critical reflections it contains. I’ve actually  never seen a copy—Art Met didn’t have any and copies on the secondary market are extravagantly expensive (a quick search tells me $250 on Amazon).

But, I have just got my hands on a copy of the follow-up, More Caught in the Act: an anthology of performance art by Canadian women (2016), which will launch in Toronto at YYZ Artists’ Outlet later this month in Montréal at Artexte later this year, and it’s heavy and thick and gorgeous, full of writing by some of the most exciting thinkers around, bringing their skills to bear on the most important performance artists in this country. And I’m lucky to be a part of it.

Johanna and Tanya approached me a couple years ago about writing an essay about the complexity of the body mediated through film or video. This new publication focuses on work produced in and around the 1990s, and so I dove deep into works by Judy Radul and Penelope Buitenhuis, Cathy Sisler, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, and Dierdre Logue to consider what the confluence of moving images and performance art can accomplish.

Setting out, the question seemed to be this: what makes performance for the camera a specific kind of art practice? What distinction is made when film and video works insist upon a connection to performance art practices? As two means of making, performance art is ostensibly in opposition to artists’ films and videos in its temporal emphasis—performance is live, here and now, volatile; film and video are the material of archives, mobile, repeatable. Spatially, the performance event has blurry contextual boundaries; whereas the mediatized image is fixed within its frame. When a camera is used as part of a performance, it can be as documentation, but performance for the camera is not equivalent to this practice of representation. Unlike documentation, which can never be total, these works must be understood as complete in themselves. When an artist performs for a camera, there is no discrepancy between experience (witnessing a live event) and capture (a recording to be experienced later). The live event is not re-presented in film or video, but unfurled in its deliberate fullness as the recorded image moves.

Performance for the camera is a lush practice that traffics in performance art’s long history of transforming political concern into imaginative response, and it takes advantage of the formal capacities of film and video. The specificity of performing for the camera—as opposed to artists’ film and video, as opposed to documentation—lies in conjoining the apparent contradictions between forms. The works I discuss highlight a range of tactics that exploit the meeting of performance art and media forms, and they are not meant to stand in for the incredible breadth of performances made for a camera that have been undertaken over the last 25 years. They do, however, provide clear examples of what the confluence of artistic tactics can accomplish. 

I had a lot of support crafting this essay. Thank-you Fraser McCallum and Barbara Clausen for your generous feedback when I needed it most. Thanks to the artists for producing works that continue to resonate. And thanks to Johanna and Tanya for the persistence in making your vision its own kind of performative reality.

 

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Happenings

The Fraud that Goes Under the Name of Love

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Mika Rottenberg, “Time and a Half,” 2013. Single channel video. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. 

For the past many months, I have been working alongside the totally brilliant Amy Kazymerchyk in developing an exhibition for Simon Fraser University’s Audain Gallery. I head out to Vancouver next week to begin installing The Fraud that Goes Under the Name of Love and I couldn’t be more excited to see how this show begins to unfold in space as we make a constellation of the works of Billy-Ray Belcourt, Hannah Black, Rebecca Brewer, Anne Boyer, Maggie Groat, Johanna Hedva, Hanna Hur, Dylan Mira, Skeena Reece, Mika Rottenberg and Rachelle Sawatsky.

This group exhibition explores how singular and social bodies are affected by the entwinement of love and work. It focuses on under-acknowledged forms of physical, intellectual and emotional work, such as domestic care, cultural production and social activism, which are often referred to as “labours of love.” In querying the complexity of the commonly used phrase, the exhibition exposes how this love is valued on global, communal and personal scales.

These artists use material and conceptual strategies to express the physical, emotional and psychological effects of enduring or refusing the conditions of these social roles. Employing figurative language, abstraction and poetics, their works express how the conditions and affects of labouring are absorbed in the body and enfolded into life.

Full details about the exhibition and associated events can be found here, and it would be especially lovely to see you at the opening on 01 June, 19:00–21:00, at the Audain Gallery (149 West Hastings Street, Vancouver BC).

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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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Happenings

Meryl McMaster’s “Confluence”

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Catalogue cover for Meryl McMaster’s “Confluence”

Meryl McMaster is having quite the year. She was just long-listed for the Sobey Art Award, has work in Ellyn Walker’s carefully curated Canadian Belonging(s) at the Art Gallery of Mississauga and in Jessica Bradley’s expansive Counterpoints: Photography Through the Lens of Toronto Collections at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, and last week an early-career survey entitled Confluence opened at the Carleton University Art Gallery.

Alongside Gabrielle Moser, I had the pleasure of contributing an essay to the catalogue that will accompany Confluence as it tours across Canada (to the Richmond Art Gallery, Thunder Bay Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in 2017, and to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and The Rooms in 2018).

McMaster’s photographs are anchored in her extensive use of props and costuming, which work to conjure a sense of the otherworldly, transporting viewers out of ordinary life and enlarging our understandings of inherited historical narratives. Her interest in taking on different personas and her theatrical embodiment of divergent aspects of herself are all part of extending the boundaries of identity beyond what is known and understood. Although McMaster does not consider herself a performance artist, the temperament of the central subjects she embodies shift in response to the outfits they are cloaked in and the objects they are in dialogue with, activated through a series of performances staged for the immediate audience of her camera lens. When I look at McMaster’s work I recognize a powerful articulation of identity along a spectrum of instantiation: from inherited to burgeoning to speculative. McMaster’s exploration of the acts and outcomes of identity formation arises out of the shifting reconciliation of these forces, new stories piled atop old ones. If her work is a mirror because of what we assume it tells us about her, then it is also a window onto our capacity to relate to any project that takes interrogation of the self as its motivation.

The catalogues arrived this week and the nerd in me is so happy with tactile beauty of the object. Further, I heartily endorse Moser’s essay, which reflects on continual development of meaning that photographs provoke, reading McMaster’s work through the lens of Kaja Silverman (among others), as well as an interview between McMaster and the exhibition’s curator Heather Anderson, which examines McMaster’s working methods. The increasing clamour around McMaster’s practice demonstrates how her explorations of identity, representation, storytelling and the environment resonate across different audiences and contexts. I can’t wait to see how else her practice will develop from this significant juncture.

 

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Happenings

MICE Magazine

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After FUSE Magazine ceased publishing in 2014, a small group of cultural workers, spearheaded by the gregarious and industrious Ben Donoghue, got together to consider what to do next. The result is MICE Magazine and the project will launch on 22 April 2016 as part of the Images Festival. The inaugural issue is devoted to Invisible Labour and is co-edited by Gina Badger and Nasrin Himada, featuring contributions by so many brilliant folks: Kandis Friesen, Laurie Kang, Kathryn MacKay, Maya Mackrandilal, Nahed Mansour, Anne Riley, Krista Belle Stewart, Malena Szlam and Daïchi Saïto, Jennifer Tamayo, and Tania Willard. And it would not have been possible without the relatively invisible labour of Rose D’Amora, Sameer Farooq and Ali Shamas Qadeer, Amy Lam and Aliya Pabani.

Images will host a discussion with current collective members and makers the next day, staking a claim for what MICE is and why we need it now. But, here’s a hint, taken from their first call for submissions:

With any luck, MICE Magazine will not be what anyone expects it to be. We of MICE are not united. Some say it will be Moving Image Culture Etc. Some seek Misandry, Infamy, Calamity, Ecstasy. Yet others anticipate Monsters, Infidels, Cretins, Elegiasts. Surely there are unthought multitudes.

What we do know: MICE will pay for the fruits of your labour. MICE is at least as thoughtful as it is rowdy, and is equipped with some pointed questions. MICE wants to go for a late night walk or a bowl of noodles or a double-feature and MICE will want to talk about it afterwards, or just sit quietly with you and stare at the clouds.

Founding and current members of MICE include Parastoo Anoushahpour, Gina Badger, Jesse Cumming, Ben Donoghue, Amy Fung, Onyeka Igwe, Yaniya Lee, Scott Miller Berry and myself.

I cannot wait to delve deep into these conversations about labour, justice and media art.

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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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