Public Art / # MAIMBY/ Found Compressions

Around the same time that the initial “outrage” and predominantly immature dialogue (I’m looking at you, MSM) around Keeley Haftner’s Found Compressions 1 & 2, part of a number of temporary installations through the city of Saskatoon’s Public Art Placemaker Program was happening, I heard an interesting discussion on Q, on the CBC.

Apparently, someone had thought it an important idea to poll a number of MPs in the House of Commons and ask “What does an MP do?” This led to a variety of opinions, some enlightened, some encrusted, some entitled. I found myself listening to this, and thinking that I know exactly what MPs do.

They collect a substantial and often unwarranted salary. They will collect a pension few of us can ever hope to aspire to enjoy. They do very little for all of this, and some – such as our “silent 13” in Saskatchewan, seem to try to do as little as possible (such as even making appearances at debates, or serving their constituents over their immediate overseers).

Now, I mention this not just to colour this debate in terms of how Luke Coupal is not the only person who can lay claim to the position of “irate taxpayer” (perhaps someone should inform the CRA that according to vandals like Coupal I don’t have to pay taxes, since I’m in the cultural industries). I also mention this to do a rare thing in this inflammatory debate: to speak a few facts.

Firstly, all the money for Miss Haftner’s project came from the parking meters in the city. So, let’s not have any more ignorant talk about how this is “tax money” that should be spent on roads, or on schools, or on anything else that happens to be the personal focus of the person complaining.

Secondly, let’s play a game: for every person who declares they have no wish to have “their tax dollars” go to public art (such as our City Councillor Randy Donhauer, who seems to have no issue with his party – the denizens of Harperland – spending tax dollars on a recent ad for the tar sands in the New Yorker), allow me to say I fully and completely agree with their assertion of the primacy of their individual “rights” over the whole.

So, in light of that, I want none of my tax money going to roads: after all, I don’t drive. I’d also like none of my tax dollars going to children, as I have none, and the majority of my friends have also chosen to forgo this. Frankly, I am very bothered by the government using my tax dollars to support individuals engaged in a lifestyle I don’t condone, and especially when a lack of birth control knowledge leads to a major financial drain on society.

While we’re engaged in this pathetic and self serving Balkanization of society, let’s screw the old, the infirm, and anyone who doesn’t fit within my narrow definitions of self serving greed.

Let’s run that hyperbole to its conclusion, and pretty soon we won’t have a society at all. And that’s a fact that is rarely spoken of, by those whom don the mantle of “irate taxpayer”.

Another fact to consider: Tonya Hart’s work in the Public Art program was also stolen and damaged, even though it was on the U of S campus, a site that might be considered more respectful. My interactions and experience of individuals there has taught me (and many others) the opposite.

This is a “school” where a tenured faculty member considered it acceptable to assault an MFA’s student work during their thesis defense….and since we all like sources, here’s the direct quote from the bullied student, Lissa Robinson, on this shameful behaviour: ” …she literally kicked one of my sculptures along with a comment or question about the works being “too pretty.” On another piece, she then started picking away at the fabric paint with her fingernails. Her gestures were disturbing enough to provoke one of the other faculty to ask the group if they could all agree not to touch my art work while we were talking about it. I thought it was very unprofessional that an art professor would engage in these acts of physical (albeit subtle) aggression towards the work”.

So I won’t be privileging academics as being more or less considered than the person who defaced Haftner’s work, and this means there have been two works in this program damaged.

Let’s add another fact, courtesy of my conversation with Alejandro Romero, the head of the city’s program: there have been no complaints about any pieces others than Haftner’s.

I mentioned talking to Romero, and gathering information and facts over crude insults and blather: apparently, the idea of doing research on this was anathema to sites such as the CBC online “news” reporting (frankly, the quality of coverage of both this story and others of late has made me want to see my, ahem, tax dollars go to CBC radio, and allow the propagandists for the government and others at the web site go elsewhere…). The numbers bandied around were incorrect and thrown around with a flippancy worthy of a tabloid.

After all, we all know artists have closets full of money: and unlike politicians, such as Duffy, Wallin or others of that ilk, most of us have experiences making and keeping to budgets. (Anyone who’s ever applied for an SAB grant knows your budget needs to balance, and you need to provide receipts and such in your final report).

If you’ve picked up a copy of Megan Morman’s Sask art activity book, you’ll see that I’m a clue in a cross word puzzle, described as an “antagonist to Modernism”. So, it’s no surprise that I find the littered rusted metal trash “sculpture” around the city as offensive as Coupal found Haftner’s work. However, I’ve never vandalized them, nor tarped them, despite the temptation. But I bet that if I did, I’d be up on charges, or at the very least would be paid a visit, friendly, perhaps, by the Saskatoon Police Service.

So shall we presume that self declaring as an “irate taxpayer” is like a “get out of jail free card”? And at what point does an act like Mr. Coupal’s turn into an act like that which damaged Tonya Hart’s work? Is it there already?

Perhaps when I got my visit from the police for my post modernist intervention of Bentham’s blights, I could ask where the investigation into the damage and theft of Hart’s work is…after all, we, ahem, irate taxpayers paid for this, and it can’t be “too expensive” and then financially inconsequential. That’s doubleplusgood doublethink.

It’s interesting, in light of this, that the conversation has rarely been about the work. It’s been described as ugly, an eyesore, etc., and I can’t help but feel I’m having another example of how we (artists, curators, regular people, idiots – and that last has substantial representation from the preceding three, for sure) are incapable of talking intelligently about art.

Haftner’s work is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the regional modernism of Bentham: it’s made from many hands, not just one “expert” artist. It plays upon materials that are cast off, not prized or eternal like bronze. It is not designed to be archival, or to last, and it grew mold and morphed during its time on the street.

We spoke about her work on my radio show, and that can be listened to here. She also has significant information about the work and the ideas behind it here.

I don’t know if the placement of the work was as considered as it could be: there are a number of sites in this city that are not often thought of, or when thought of are dismissed as “trash” or dangerous spaces, in need of “recycling”, you might say. Sadly, this is often manifest in solely economic terms, as gentrification is the god for many in Saskatoon. I’ll pick up that notion of site later on, in this diatribe…

Bizarrely, and with little reason of late, I’m an optimist about most viewers: the reactions from most people to Sans Façon’s interventions on Betham’s work was almost child like wonder, and seemed to improve the visibility and public profile of the pieces. This is where I’d mention again that the only complaints were about Haftner’s works: and this manifestation of the Placemaker Program was “dangerous” enough to incorporate a massive sign in Cree on the side of the Persephone. This seems to rename this city, or perhaps return it back to what it was called before….so let’s not pretend that Haftner’s work is the most controversial in this spate of temporary placements and projects.

But let’s return to that poverty of conversation: aka artist run – Tarin Hughes, now known as Tarin Dehod, the director there, was the true motivator for this – “hosted”, along with the TwoTwenty on 20th Street, a panel and discussion regarding public art, that had a catchy phrase comparing some art to dogshit. The original panelists, as announced, were exciting: it included Joi Arcand, whose billboard work on 20th Street was engaging and smart (I had spoken to Joi a few weeks before about her exhibition at the Mendel, and her forays into public art). She’s also the artisitic editor of the zine kimiwan. As well, David Hutton, who was the main force behind Saskatoon Speaks, an online and print initiative at the Star Phoenix a few years ago that explored ideas of what the city can, should and shouldn’t be, brings an intelligence and consideration to debates about the public sphere.

However, the conversations that did result at the #MAIMBY panel (More Art In My Back Yard) were disappointing, and the conversations that didn’t happen left me, to echo another attendee, wondering why I didn’t just leave.

Arcand and Hutton cancelled. And though those who replaced them did their best, they couldn’t bring the same experience and history to this debate. And the “introduction” set a rather pathetic tone….

Marcus Miller, aka board member and custodian of the 2nd rate gallery (Gordon Snelgrove) at the  2nd rate Art Department at the University of Saskatchewan, began the evening, and a nadir was his use of LinkedIn to read the participants (sometimes incorrect) bios, and of course, forgetting to introduce one of them. Rarely, except for our last civic election with our esteemed mayor, have I heard someone talk for half an hour and say so little, and found what they said to be so ignorant.

Let me illustrate: Ellen Moffat, who steered the aneco project of a few years ago, and also was a main force in both incarnations of the SPASM public art projects, was in attendance. So was Joan Borsa, who led a reading group nearly a decade ago that focused on public artwork as well, that was done in conjunction with the city, and featured guest speakers from across North America (this was a wide and wide ranging group, and the debates re: politics and community are still markers for me).

Keeley, of course, was there, and even J.S. Gauthier, who, with the more established artists Adrian Stimson and Hap Grove, is working on a piece that somewhat hijacks Harperland’s intentions with 1812 “memorial” sculptures. All of these individuals could have spoken with more nuance and consideration.

Before the street became gentrified, Lee Henderson did an artist residency of exchanging cigarrettes with local residents in exchange for a story. Clark Ferguson produced a billboard, titled Boom Town, concurrent to the aneco project, that engaged respective neighbourhoods in Saskatoon, asking about their dreams and desires for their areas (and notably, Clark told me in conversation, with the framework of not denigrating other sites, but attempting to improve your own…)

Instead of referring to any of these projects, or any sense of a history of public art in this place, we were treated to a display of Miller’s blissful unawareness of both art history and the rich and conflicting history of “publics” in Western Art (one might consider that the Reformation and Baroque movements, and the history of the pilgrimage churches, speaks a lot about publics both sanctified and dangerous…or consider the Twentieth Century’s various totalitarian states’ experiments with Socialist Realism, where the artists might even be nameless, as the narrative that serves the “public” is all that matters… ).

There’s a point to be made about the academic’s lack of knowledge or awareness of public(s), whether artistic or just outside of the ivory tower. And that’s where this began to go wrong…as public art is by definition a conversation, and unlike when one steps into a gallery, the artists are stepping into the space of others, and those others can often be as disparate as imaginable.

This is not to say there weren’t high points. I can always count on Linda Duvall, who likes to describe her artistic practice as being a “rogue sociologist” to problematize the debate by asking why we focus upon objects, sculptures, things that are still detritus, and not the experiences that often define our experiences of art, both public and private. Her exhibition / project Where Were The Mothers? is necessary for any who cite “community” too much.

Alex MacPherson, on the panel along with Jeremy Warren from the SP, and Curtis Olson from the TwoTwenty, made what may be my favourite point, that public art can make you rethink and reconsider what HERE is, or perhaps, is not.

David LaRiviere, the artistic director at PAVED and someone whose work has made interesting forays into the public sphere, both in Street Meet last summer but also in terms of the Mendel’s Beneath a Petroliferous Moon, raised the issue of who owns public spaces, as we’re inundated constantly by advertisements and media, and this is either considered “normal” or sadly, is seen as a form of “progress”….

In reference to David’s points, its also worth noting that Dana Claxton’s billboard work wasn’t spoken of, at #MAIMBY. You can read a bit about it here, and consider that Claxton’s ideas are about re enforcing positive images, instead of negative stereotypes of Aboriginals in this site, and the larger national theatre.

This latter point is a good place at which to speak to how this conversation took place on 20th street, a site that has gone from being “bad” in that wonderfully naïve “West Side” designation, to now being “good”, as its gentrified. I would have been very grateful to have had Marcel Petit at this debate, to raise the issue of how public spaces are NOT free spaces, and that though we may be vague about who owns this space, we are not usually willing to argue with the hegemonic apparatus that indicates very clearly who doesn’t own these spaces….like the displaced on 20th, or those whom are often the targets of the Partnership downtown, as though one is not a citizen, unless you’re a consumer…

The word “community” was bandied around, like the word “education.” I’ve now decided that the former is the new “c – word”, and found its prevalence funny as the group was predominantly white, predominantly artists (or people who think they are), and a small sliver of a larger public. I’d paraphrase one of the many conversations I had after MAIMBY wherein it was suggested that there needs to be less representation of “artists” on public art panels, and I’d echo Alex’s wonderful assertion of “slamming” different people, of different backgrounds, together, to force a degree of change. After all, hegemony really doesn’t foster change: it fosters stagnation and irrelevance, or a bad Doug Bentham piece like the ones that litter the downtown…

I’d also inject that the assertion of a need for “education” of the public is fine art world snobbery or misdirection: while I was maintaining my work in the first SPASM festival, I encountered many engaged, intelligent “viewers”. Most wouldn’t enter an art gallery or an academic space at the point of a gun, mainly for the implicit dismissal of their ideas or experiences. Besides, in light of the recent trials of the U of S, and those of us whom are very aware of the implicit bullying in many sites of that University, “conversation” and “education” seem to be exercises of power and assertions of “superiority”….

Let’s end with my previous assertion: public art needs to be a conversation between the artist(s) and the public(s). A conversation is not a “teachable moment”, nor is it a lecture. It need not be “pretty”, nor need it not be bothersome (the karaoke modernists were offended by Sans Façon’s interventions on their works, but that was a necessary and smart and funny conversation. I’m sure others were offended by Tony Stallard presenting what could be seen as the future of Saskatoon signage, where the dominant language is not English, but Cree).

Several years ago, Rachael Seupersad spoke in the city about public art, bringing her experience from being intimately involved with Calgary’s public art program: she defined public art as being moments of unexpected joy, implying that people would encounter them as they go about their day. I like that definition, and that “joy” can be many things – sometimes a confrontational joy, like with Stallard’s signage in Cree, or something that, as MacPherson has pointed out, makes you reconsider what ‘here” is, in all of its facets.