After the first semester of my studies at the University of Toronto in the Master’s of Visual Studies program, I am honoured to be the inaugural recipient of the Reesa Greenberg Curatorial Studies Award. Greenberg is giant in the field of art history whose Thinking About Exhibitions (1996), co-edited with Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, is one of the first attempts to think through exhibition histories. She is an adjunct professor at Carleton University and York University, encouraging new generations of curators, writers, historians and artists to proceed in their professions with curiosity and rigour. I feel very lucky to be connected to her through this scholarship. In a very real way, her support makes my continued education possible. I am so grateful for her vision in this regard, and for my incredible teachers at the University of Toronto—Barbara Fischer, Charles Stankievech, Lisa Steele and others—who work tirelessly to make the Curatorial Studies program a rich field of ideological challenges and formal experimentation, and a place to hone practical skills. I can’t wait to see what happens next…
For many years now, I’ve been observing the practice and potentials of reading aloud through No Reading After the Internet. As a kind of reading group, the collective encounter shifts the expectation away from expertise (as often happens with reading groups where participants are asked to pre-read) toward improvisation. Practically, the form is one of fits and starts, where the reading is continually interrupted by questions and propositions, posed to the text itself and other participants.
This evening, I am excited to take part in another kind of reading aloud experiment, a project of Danielle Aubert’s to make a used book audio recording” of the entire book of Ursela K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Using annotated copies of the book she’s gathered over the years (she has collected over one hundred copies), Aubert is organizing the reading aloud as a performance of the evidence of having been read already. As a group reading and recording of chapter 3 of the science fiction novel, it will include articulations of existing hand-written notes, marginalia and underlined passages.
Previous recordings have been conducted at Ditto Ditto books in Detroit (Chapter 1), and at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ (Chapter 2).
There’s still room for readers, so please do join us if the nerdy inclination of out-loud reading compels you. The great folks at Art Metropole are hosting, starts at 19:00. I wonder what kind of sense we’ll make of it, our voices bearing both the text and ghostly evidence of so many others…
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!