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.

 

The seductive works of Yam Lau

Oftentimes, when confronted with art that is highly specific in its use of digital technology, there is a distancing, or an almost palpable space between the artwork and the viewer. This need not be a negative experience. If you happened to see Jennifer Steinkamp’s work in Ecotopia, recently at the College Gallery, it’s so artificial that it seems a world unto itself, inside the monitor. It was like an artificial environment, remote and untouchable, and very beautiful.

Yam Lau’s Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illuminations) at PAVED arts, however, seem to invite an intimacy with the viewer: this is despite the bare nature of the gallery and the antiseptic cleanliness of the installation. The larger projection, nearly wall sized, is not quite directly across from the smaller, white-boxed monitor. This mild misalignment allows you to engage with one work at a time, allowing you to interact with either “space” exclusively.

This is helpful, as both are scenes with voyeuristic overtones. The larger projection, on a loop, brings us to a scene of a young woman, seemingly unaware of our intrusive gaze. She seems upset, and her positioning – her back to us, but facing a mirror in her “room” – allows us to see her facial expressions while avoiding direct engagement with her. The sole audio in the space is rainfall, corresponding to the film of “rain” in the image, hinting that we’re outside, like someone who desperately needs to see this person, or this scene unfold, and will brave the elements. There’s no menace, no implication of stalking, in our looking. She sits, weeping, before rising to leave, seemingly no happier and just as oblivious to our gaze.

Yam_Lau02-sm

This “ignorance” – not in a pejorative sense – of our presence is also occurring in the smaller work. The “boxing” of the monitor in a white structured frame is both effective in breaking that hideous “let’s put a television on a wall and pretend its art” laziness and quite lovely. It works in both a formalist manner of “hiding” the tech, but also in terms of continuing the “whiteness” of the space to privilege the scenes in the darkened gallery.

The smaller image rotates, featuring a transparent cube in an empty (gallery?) space, where a man and a woman seem to engage in private, domestic tasks, sometimes folding clothes, sometimes reading and undressing, as though we’re not even there. The scene is not entirely clear as to whether it’s a projection on the clear walls, or actual figures within it. The players don’t seem to interact with each other, and of course, don’t interact with us anymore than their singular counterpart in the other work. Which is really there, or if they’re ghosts or imaginings, from one to the other, is vague.

Yam_Lau01-sm

I’m sure I could come to an appropriate, “factual” conclusion about this: but this would simply cramp the ethereal experience. I prefer to think that everyone is really “there”, the same way that I’m part of this scene, and my interaction with him or her is real, as well.

My suspicion regarding artist talks is well known, and I’d paraphrase someone whose cynicism makes me blush in commenting that artists should tell you what they ate while making the work, as everything else they say is just as (not) relevant. I’m not quite that dour: and Lau’s talk was one of the more engaged and enlightening in terms of his current work that I’ve seen. His past works have also played with notions of space, reflection, and the idea of seeing oneself and your environment in alternate ways. He joked that an earlier, almost dangerously fragile glasswork that incorporated the works of poet Paul Celan was his first projection, as it let light shine through it, to shadow Celan’s words on the wall.

Celan was a survivor of the concentration and death camps of World War II. His writings (specifically Todusfuge, or in English, Deathfugue) are both poignant and cutting, and like many camp survivors (Primo Levi, Jean Améry), he took his own life (I highly recommend, on a side note, the anthology Holocaust Poetry, edited by Hilda Schiff). There is an element of absence, and they hint at things lost and gone, in the works of Yam Lau: a presence and an absence, and the title of Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illumination) seems to suggest that brevity and intangible transience…

The Child Taken / Mendel Art Gallery

I’ve been reading Boris Groys’ excellent book The Art of Stalinism, and it’s fascinating not just for it’s unvarnished look at a much misunderstood period in the history of art, but also for some of the asides (often barbed) he makes about “Western” art history. One of these is the idea that “real art” is somehow separate of economy, or class, or the other strictures and structures of society. The writing you’ll see in Canadian Art is a good example of this: but ignoring class just makes very clear the higher position you hold, that others “below” you can’t ignore.

That hypocrisy is in my mind for this reason (and another I’ll mention later), when I experience The Child Taken in the auditorium space at the Mendel Art Gallery. This was a partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the Department of Art and Art History at the U of S that happened this summer. The works had been exhibited in the Snelgrove Gallery on campus, but this is a more appropriate site. I mean this in terms of potential attendance numbers (the Mendel always does well, which makes political discourses a bit stronger) but also in terms of a metaphorical site as the Mendel is not so conflicted (or bluntly hypocritical) about race as the Art Department.

The description of the project is as follows: “The Child Taken art commemoration project honours the resilience of the children taken from their families and homes for generations and placed in Indian Residential Schools. This exhibition of senior student artwork was created in response to Indian residential school stories told by Elders in a unique project partnership between the Saskatoon Tribal Council and University of Saskatchewan Department of Art and Art History”.

The downstairs space is somewhat sparse, and the works are few in number, but often quite powerful in affect and content. The room is dominated by Kayla Prive’s New Child, and you can see why this is the work that was chosen to be enlarged to a massive and powerful size. It’s hopeful: and in that respect it does look forward, as we live in a country that is being made appropriately uncomfortable about its history, and where Idle No More has not “fizzled out” so much as focused and expanded (or consider that the upstairs exhibition of Contemporary Drawing from the National Gallery is very heavy on works from Cape Dorset, which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago…)

Corinna Wollf’s The Fourth Hill presents imagery both familiar and haunting, and Wollf’s words, alongside the image, are eloquent and evocative. Hill is dominated by an image of Alvin Cote, whom you may remember from an award-winning piece in the SP that talked about him, and his life on the streets, and what brought him to that space, as well as his recent death. Wollf writes very clearly and honestly about her encounters with Alvin, and how we sometimes see people, and see their histories, or how sometimes we chose not to see them at all. This is a more localized version of what is considered “history”, or truth, or what is not. Consider that the National Post recently polled its readers (as it so often does, on many polarizing topics) about Residential Schools, and there was no lack of individuals willing to declare them “not so bad” when they had neither experienced them, or knew anyone who had…

This brings me back to the aforementioned hypocrisy, as another work of note is Nicole Paul’s Unwanted Children of the Indian Residential Schools. Nicole samples text from artist Cathy Busby, specifically Busby’s appropriation of the PM’s apology for residential schools. Some of you may remember Busby’s Budget Cuts billboard that was on 20th Street several years ago, which has become a touchstone (for me and many others) about how politicians are gleeful liars. Budget Cuts listed all the Aboriginal focused programs eliminated by the Harper Gov’t™ since the “apology”. Talk is cheap when the actions that follow are the same, or worse.

This raises another point: it’s odd the Art Department is engaged in this project. If you’ve seen the TransformUS report that came out of that area, you’ll note section 5.1, BFA honours program, “Faculty Member awarded SAB Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” That’s obviously Ruth Cuthand, who last taught there in 2005 (since none of the rest of them have ever even been in the running for this award) – as a sessional, not faculty. Ruth also expressed exasperation to me about when she did apply for a tenure position at the U of S…

I add this screen grab with the appropriate areas highlighted, as there’s been some “controversy” regarding this assertion and it has led to some bullying from respective parties. You can click on it, to see a larger version.

BFA.Hon.TransformUs.

There’s no finer definition of institutional racism than passing of the work of others as your own, while keeping those same individuals away from genuine power. Further: Adrian Stimson (whose works about his residential school experience was featured in a recent Canadian Art) has severed his relationship with A + AH, due to their “handling” of an accusation of systematic racism / academic bullying…

But let’s speak of positive things: and the works in Taken are a necessary and poignant bridge. There’s also a video in the corner, with participants (Elders and the artists). The aforementioned debate in the NP was marked by pre-existing rigid assertions, and how Taken is more one of communication, and ensuring that history is honoured, unpleasant truths intact. Too often institutions – especially “educational” ones – are willing manufacturers of ideological excuses. But many institutions (and individuals) in as the rest of the country are being dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, towards an acknowledgement that one must go forward, before you can move ahead…