Happenings

Memory, Memorialization, and Forgetting

Memory

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I will be participating in the English Department’s 5th annual graduate conference at the University of Toronto entitled Memory, Memorialization and Forgetting. It will be my first-ever academic conference and I’m going to try and reason through something that just won’t let go of a piece of my mind.

In 2013, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) did a remarkable thing: they presented an international survey of contemporary Indigenous art entitled Sakahàn.

The way that Indigenous identification functioned in the context of Sakahàn was not only a claim of being from a place since time immemorial; it also marked an inextricable connection to experiences of colonization. Considering Canada’s colonial history, Sakahàn was aptly situated at the country’s national gallery, an institution which has often acted as a mechanism of colonial subjugation by way of its perpetuation of Eurocentric art-historical values and the related omission of artworks and narratives that emerge from other cultural traditions, notably artists and traditions of the Indigenous people of Canada.

Theoretically, the exhibition was a gesture of solidarity with the decolonial work that is our living responsibility as cultural workers, gallery visitors, thinkers and citizens today. And yet, the NGC undid at least some of this work through a repeated gesture: disclaimers that formally distanced the gallery from the politics of the work on display. Focusing on the appearance of a disclaimer directly next to the didactic panel for Nadia Myre’s For those who cannot speak: the land, the water, the animals and the future generations (2013), my presentation will discuss the responsibilities of curators and institutions in presenting work that directly engages decolonial politics within a colonial context. Situating the exhibition within the colonial legacy and institutional memory of the NGC, I will examine what curatorial responsibility might mean.

Come ask me tough questions.

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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 20 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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Happenings

Emerging Curator of Contemporary Canadian Art

When I decided to go to university, my choice to study philosophy was the perfect consequence of listening to too many albums by The Doors (and thus reading a lot of Nietzsche), combined with a desire to study science but knowing that I am no good at math. Maybe the logic is hard to follow, but art was not exactly there as a beckon. And yet. Through this funny journey I’ve had around to where I am now, these early impulses have come to deeply inform my curatorial practice and it is still astonishing to me that I get to practice philosophy through the medium of exhibition making, in space, alongside the wild propositions of artists. This is a real joy—the product of so much hard work, privilege and luck.

This week I was awarded the Hnatyshyn Foundation’s Emerging Curator of Contemporary Canadian Art award at a celebration at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. This is an incredible honour. I am so thankful to the Hnatyshyn Foundation, foremost the late Right Honourable Ramon John Hnatyshyn for having the vision to create these kinds of recognition opportunities for cultural workers, and for the board members and staff there who imbue the process with such integrity.

This award makes a huge difference in my life. The prize is awarded to support professional development and the esteem that surrounds the Hnatyshyn Foundation will undoubtedly transform the work I will come to do in the future. This is a pivotal moment. 

To know that the kind of work I have been doing resonated with the jurors, to know that other people think it is a worthy project to think colonization and decolonization and historical inheritance and sovereignty and translation and language and migration through art is heartening . And what a powerhouse jury! It was composed of Daina Augaitis, whose work at the Vancouver Art Gallery in a sense raised me to understand what exhibition-making can be at its most grand; Pamela Meredith, whose work with the TD Bank Group is a paragon of what corporate relationships to the arts can and should be; and Reesa Greenberg, who, as a scholar, was one of the first to consider exhibitions as historical units in need of analysis and this kind of attention is crucial to the kinds of exhibitions I make.

Over the years, I’ve worked with such imaginative collaborators, had the pleasure of engaging the practice of artists who have changed how I see the world, and the joy of generous friendships. Not to mention the sweetness of love that makes everything possible. I’ve also had incredible mentors, some of whom I was able to share the evening with. Here are some of the silly and profound things I’ve learned from the outstanding company I’ve kept…

Pablo de Ocampo is the man who thought to nominate me for the award. He taught me how to be chill in the face of all kinds of challenge and has become one of my best friends. 

Alissa Firth-England and Kika Thorne were the very first people to extend their belief in my capacity as a curator, offering me my opportunities to propose resonances between artworks. Between them, in many different ways, I have learned precision.

When I arrived in Toronto five years ago, Kim Simon and Scott Miller Berry welcomed me and anchored me and supported me in finding a place in this city. They have continued to extend this kind of radical generosity and they’ve become some of my most trusted collaborators. Kim has taught me the value of difficult knowledge and of the importance of saying things that need to be said. Scott has taught me what it means to be a member of a community, how important it is that we nourish each other.

Srimoyee Mitra, through our collaboration at the Art Gallery of Windsor, taught me that the meaning of history is not fixed.

My friends are my most consistent interlocutors, asking me tough questions about my sometimes unnecessarily obstinate ideas and encouraging me in my best ones. They continue to teach me sanity and empathy and fun.

Pip Day taught be not to be afraid of what an exhibition needs to be, regardless of how it seems to fit alongside some Platonic idea of what an exhibition should be.

Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk has taught me what it means to be on a journey of change together and the importance of writing letters.

There so many others I deeply admire who have supported my writing and curatorial practice, including every  artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. THANK-YOU. I hope I am able to support all of you in equal measure to the joy you’ve offered me.

I just can’t wait to see what the future holds. 

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Happenings

Talk Show at Nuit Blanche Montréal

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Tonight, as part of Montréal’s Nuit Blanche events, SBC Gallery is launching Talk Show, an exhibition and a series of actions, coming together to investigate how the future is produced and how this coming future relates to common struggles to embody the present.

Talk Show is focused on the art and politics of conversation. Organized by el instituto (Mexico City), the sequel expands on the original Talk Show (2012) and its exploration of the roles of the speech act, of the contested figure of the witness, and of testimonials in the constitution of the subject and the configuration of the political.

Talk Show launches SBC’s second Focus Program: Água Viva. This long-term research project emerges out of Clarice Lispector’s 1973 book of the same title and seeks to expand on SBC’s practice of living research: artists, writers, architects, musicians, curators and other cultural practitioners will be invited to think together and to develop projects through and around this extraordinary piece of prose. Dispensing with narrative while dwelling in the “secret harmony of disharmony,” the Focus Program, like Clarice’s Água Viva, seeks to pull at the threads that articulate shifting political subjectivities, modes of address and the complexities between “you” and “I.”

A series of live interviews, performances and talks will be held over the course of the Nuit Blanche evening, enacting on the art and politics of conversation. It’s coming together and confrontation as a certain kind of making. A full schedule of events can be found here.

Alongside these real-time enactments, the gallery will be filled with documents of past conversations, including the only recorded interview with Lispector, a stunning and strange document that betrays her reclusive tendencies while showing her to be irreverent as well.

Upon the invitation of SBC’s Director and Curator Pip Day, I have contributed one element to this constellation of historical materials: this conversation with James Baldwin. Speaking to Baldwin in March 1987, just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed him as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. The raw and incomplete footage, which suddenly appeared online in November 2014, shows Nicholson to be a provocative if 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 the assumptions embedded in her prompts. In refusing what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice,” Baldwin refocuses agency upon the perpetrator, away from body of the person who must bear racism’s cruelty. It’s a profound point of departure from which to consider Lispector’s prompt from Água Viva: “The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself?”

I will also be collaborating with Jackie Wang on a workshop in April. It is going to be amazing. More details soon…

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Uncategorized

Every Name in History is “I”

(I’ve been conducting writing experiments, prompted by Eva-Lynn Jagoe. I’m trying to not be precious about it. Here’s a bit of how I approached her prompt to write a piece in which the grammatical voice shifts.)

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Every name in history is “I,” though you wouldn’t know it for the way our stories pass from one generation to the next. If the individual remains, and most often they do not, then “I” is made into an object of the proper name. The complexity of being becomes the simplicity of thing. However awful the repeal of the capacity for narrative may seem, this fate is to be saved from something worse, which is your subsumption into the unnamed masses upon which history plays. If this fate is difficult to bear—your agency inevitably undone—then persistence must be sought outside of historicization. Here, we experience the other as if they belonged to us.

Another interpretation of the claim is possible. If every name in history is I, then each signifier is revivified when we assume it as our own. I am Friedrich Neitzsche who first authored these words to the historian Jakob Burckhardt in 1889, a mere two days after collapsing in the streets of Turin with his arms around the neck of a horse. I am Jalal Toufic who took Nietzsche’s words for his own in trying to understand the act of murder conditioned by anonymity between a soldier and their enemy in an essay first published in the year 2000. I am the object of address in every “you” or “we” or “their,” performing a restorative kind of magic in answering the offered call. I suppose that poetry is a name for this inverted reification, where the thickness of language compels identification, turning nouns back into verbs. This kind of direct address resists strict interpretation. How do we live within poetry? To live within poetry is to register oneself being addressed. Here we experience the other as if they were us.

The torture of every name in history being “I,” mine, is that history anticipates my name being sung back to me, dead. Nothing registers this loss so deeply as love. How is the form of love reconstituted by history when we recognize that all our electricity will dissipate? Love makes us terrified. Love renders us pathetic. Love is written and rewritten with such regularity as to be utterly banal; history tells us this. Here we experience ourselves as if we were another, our identity unstable and exceedingly vulnerable to the whims of the beloved.

There are many ways of being distant, many ways of being near.

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Happenings

Lines and Nodes

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Tomorrow I will be participating in Lines and Nodes, a day-long gathering scholars and artists who study the politics and affects of human-made infrastructures. I will be moderating a discussion to follow a film screening featuring the works of Len Lye (a short PSA made in 1937 that could have been made this year for its formal innovation), CAMP (a terrifying demonstration of the ubiquity of urban surveillance), Larilyn Sanchez (an exploration of globalization through the specificities of death) and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (a video questioning the contemporary inheritance of colonization). This happens alongside presentations by Brenda Longfellow, Michelle Murphy, Deborah Cowen and Ursula Biemann. Based on a program presented in New York last year, these considerations of infrastructure, space and resource extraction promise to challenge understandings of how these different aspects of contemporary economic systems are interconnected, and how representation and resistance come together to make change.

Sunday, 22 February 2015
12-8PM
Daniels School of Architecture, 230 College Street, Room 103 (Please use Huron Street entrance)

A full schedule of events can be found here.

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Happenings

Reesa Greenberg Curatorial Studies Award

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…

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