November 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
The Mi’kmaw artist talks about her big prize win, moose fencing and how she became a butterfly
Mi’kmaw artist Ursula Johnson has won this year’s $50,000 Sobey Art Award. It’s a well-deserved win in a strong year for the national art prize, which focuses on artists under 40.
It marked the first time a nominee from the Atlantic region has prevailed. At the ceremony last week, Johnson first addressed the crowd in Mi’kmaq before switching to English because “nobody can understand me but my Mom,” she said.
The speech reflected her artistic approach: opening up traditional practices so they have contemporary relevance.
A member of Cape Breton’s Eskasoni First Nation, the 37-year-old’s art encompasses installation and performance, often incorporating skills learned from her elders, like basket weaving.
Johnson’s installation at the Sobey Art Award exhibition at U of T’s Art Museum is Moose Fence, based on fencing used to prevent animals from straying into traffic. NOW spoke with Johnson about the piece and her wider practice.
Congratulations on the win! How does it feel?
Thank you! I am kind of vibrating with excitement. I can’t believe it.
For any artist who wins this type of prize it must be a shock. It’s so separate
from what you do to win this kind of prize.
Yes. It seems more like what an athlete does – training for competition. Artists are creating things with materials or mediums to try to communicate what’s in our minds. There is no [finish] line.
I really love Moose Fence. Could you talk about it?
I’ve wanted to make Moose Fence for years now, but I needed the right space, one with an intersecting gallery to disrupt movement of people so the work could convey the idea I was interested in. This type of fence is very familiar for people in Eastern Canada. It has an ominous feel because it represents a dangerous situation for animals – specifically ungulates or animals with hoofed feet. I wanted to create that feeling for humans. I want visitors to think about these barriers we create between us and nature.
Visitors can choose to go inside the cage or not – nobody wants to be inside a cage, and neither do moose. So it points out that we have this power over animals.
Absolutely. I wanted to create a situation where people couldn’t tell at first – if they entered the cage – that there was a way out. If they are not familiar with this type of undulate gate, they don’t know it’s a one-way gate. There’s a moment of panic maybe before they realize there are also doors on the side. This introduces something that features a lot in my practice. You might ask someone to help – you collaborate.
This project also connects to your basket weaving performances. There’s one where you weave a basket so by the end you are enclosed by it. This implies you are only a part of the tradition you are working within.
My family are basket weavers. Once I started to explore this, it led me down a whole different path, being able to spend time with the elders in my community and my great grandmother and following them around with video cameras. I learned some important life lessons by asking them things like, “How does this relate to conservation practices and sustainability?”
The first time I did [the basket weaving performance] I was in art school, and I had the punk rock hair and piercings in my face. I thought, “I’m going to do something really on the edge,” and I went to ask my great grandmother if it would be okay. She laughed hysterically and said, “That’s going to be a really big basket!”
It was at an Indigenous art festival in Halifax at Dalhousie [University]. I worked for three days and struggled with it horribly. At one point, I looked up at people on a balcony who were looking down on me – these Maliseet First Nations women who were basically laughing at me. I felt so humbled and went up to them and said, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I really need some help.” They helped me and that was an important lesson. So many people engaged in this beautiful process and that propelled the entire way that I work now.
How did you get out of the basket in the end?
I fell onto the floor and lay there for a bit. Then I crawled out the bottom. I thought, “Oh, I’ve emerged from my cultural cocoon. I’m no longer a larva – I’m a butterfly now.”
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
NOW MAGAZINE OCTOBER 31, 2017
More about the 2017 Sobey Prize here.
More information about Ursula Johnson here.
October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
Sarah Fuller’s Illuminations is the latest artwork to question the Canada 150 time frame
Maybe it’s typically Canadian to have fumbled the football that was supposed to be our celebration of 150 years of nationhood. That’s one conclusion we can make about this year’s sesquicentennial events. For one thing, the focus on 150 years seems trivial. It’s a time span that disregards the histories of peoples who have been living on these lands for much longer than that. While probably not its goal, the 150 has ushered in a wider awareness of this legacy.
Most cultural events in the city now begin with an acknowledgement that they are happening on traditional, or unceded, Indigenous territory. The 150 has apparently been a catalyst for this practice to be widely adopted.
So while not exactly a bust, the most impressive accomplishment of 150 is how it expanded the discussion about who makes up Canada.
Which brings us to Illuminations, a “participative artwork experience,” that happened in Rouge Park from October 5-7. The event found its premise in questioning the 150 time frame. A collaboration between the artist Sarah Fuller and Montreal-based multimedia lab Moment Factory, the project also showed in Banff National Park earlier this month (the Banff Centre is the producer of the event).
The project sidesteps questions of nationhood. Instead, it focused on ecologies of the park that expand the celebration to a time frame of 10,000 (or more) years.
Scarborough’s Rouge Park has the distinction of being Canada’s newest national park. Established in 2011, this work in progress has long-term ambitions to become the largest urban park in North America.
It’s a gorgeous setting, one the Illuminations team clearly had no intention of upstaging. A multimedia experience presented at night in nature lends itself most readily to things like images projected onto trees using projection mapping technology – and Moment Factory is known for creating exactly these kinds of amped up visual extravaganzas.
Maybe you saw their “kinetic installations” staged for Madonna or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers while on tour? Or enjoyed the “experiential marketing” they devised for the 2014 Super Bowl, or any of myriad similar events staged globally? For their Banff collaboration, Moment Factory and Fuller took quieter approach.
Gathered into small groups, visitors received tools to mediate their experience of the park: backpacks, flashlights, maps, projectors and a lantern that activates short multimedia interludes at wayfaring stations throughout the site. At each station, the groups were told a story about the history and ecology of the park, with visitors using the handheld projectors to cast images that were accompanied by voice-over narration. It was a gentle, meditative experience.
Images of the region’s endangered Blanding’s Turtle were cast on the sand, creating a ghostly picture that reinforced the message that it’s a threatened species the park is working to conserve. The tour ends with a gathering around a fire, evoking the idea of groups who have gathered in this way for millennia – though most such groups no doubt enjoyed a real fire and not the simulated one Illuminations devised (likely for insurance purposes).
An artist with an expanded practice in photography, Fuller has done experiments in video, public commissions and collaborations with members of the public. The baseline throughout is an engagement with landscape, often in the more northern environs of the country. Her sensitivity as an artist came through in her photographs, particularly in a wry series documenting her former colleagues (and eventually herself) leaving the Banff Centre, an arts centre in the mountains where no one ever stays for very long.
Fuller has noted that 150 years is a mere speck in time when compared to “the larger continuum of geological, ecological and human history” of the country we now call Canada.
Her commitment to making the importance of this continuum evident began with the negotiations visitors undertook while navigating the park. The small gestures of carrying the lantern or pointing the projector (to show, for instance, images of the Blanding’s Turtle) suggests ideas of stewardship. The message might be subtle, but efforts to reveal the hidden ecologies of the site emphasized their fragility – and the role humans can play in either preserving or destroying them.
Aside from the somewhat forced encouragement to our group of visitors to “bond,” and a few technical glitches, Illuminations succeeded in its goal of putting human scale – and national celebrations – into perspective alongside the vast expanse of planetary time.
Originally published by NOW Magazine, October 29, 2017
More information about Sarah Fuller here
More information about Illuminations and the Banff Centre here
October 12, 2017 § Leave a comment
The artifact preserved and cared for by the museum – the humble clay pot, for instance –
communicates a message to us through time about the circumstances of its use and how it got made in the first place.
The artifact re-created tells a different story. Maura Doyle’s smoke sealed clay pots are not re-creations exactly, but the artist confirms their point of reference comes directly from the pasteven for those works in the show modeled after things from the contemporary world, like a paper coffee cup. At first glance, precedents of the clay pot in history, examples of which go back to the Stone Age, are what make these works intelligible. Why they might exist in the present, and what decisions led Doyle to create them, is how we understand them as artworks. Writing about ceramics practice today, art critic Roberta Smith offers a helpful distinction, these works are to be understood as: art world, as opposed to ceramics world, ceramics. 
As Smith implies, Doyle’s works come with a built in conceptual dimension, and this distinguishes the work from clay pots understood to be straightforward executions of pottery as a craft. A nuanced understanding of how we exist in the present is a message the best artworks can bring to us. In Doyle’s case, the artist’s interest in mastering a centuries old technique sheds unexpected light on how we experience our contemporary world. Consider the words of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum: [h]uman history is told and written perhaps more in pots than in anything else  for viewers of Doyle’s exhibition this includes what these pots can tell us about the history of our own time.
Before making these works, Doyle thought it important she become a student of the craft of pottery in its earliest examples. Time spent at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and especially looking at the Jomon pottery  at Tokyo’s National Museum was the artist’s starting point for the endeavor of pot making itself. Doyle’s exhibition plays with the conventions of museological display to make this context explicit. Fidelity to this source material also extends to the surface of the works, but more about that later.
Up to this point Doyle’s art practice has not necessarily been craft-based. Instead the artist has embraced a range of strategies in which, more or less, form follows function for the projects she develops. For The Money Collection (2002-2003) Doyle collected money (donations welcome!) turning the necessity of financing her art practice into the substance of the practice itself. Existing mainly as an informational flyer and talking point, The Money Collection mined the humour of the humbled circumstances artists typically experience in the early stages of their career, the work proposing a way to make Doyle’s experience tangible for her audience.
Instead of a medium-specific engagement, working longterm with sculpture or painting or video, for instance, Doyle creates the context for shifts in perspective she can share with her audience. For The Chip Bag Project (2004), the artist collected empty potato chip bags (her goal was to collect 10,000) with the idea they could be dropped from a helicopter en masse into Toronto’s Sky Dome (today known as the Rogers Centre), which she rechristened the Sky Bowl for the project. Seeing, with the help of the artist, a city’s sports center as a receptacle for our culture’s trashiest elements (junk food being much more pure commodity than actual food) helps us to break free, if only temporarily, from a normalized view of our culture in all of its ridiculous excess.
The artist’s two Boulder projects take a similar approach to a wildly different topic: the erratic boulders that populate the urban landscape in Canadian cities. In short: erratics are rocks that have been transported by glaciers to wherever they have happened to come to rest. Launched by the artist in Toronto and Vancouver in 2004 and 2005, respectively , Doyle’s twin projects present two erratic boulders in their respective cities as sculpture. Positioning her boulders as artworks, Doyle then created booklets for each project that included a guide to where other boulders could be found throughout the two cities. Functioning incidentally or by design as elements in an urban landscape, these large rocks typically go unnoticed, blending in with their surroundings along with nearby squirrels and park benches. Doyle’s project asks us to look again. Contemplating how they got here suggests a glimpse into a geological timeframe that engulfs us, a corrective to a purely human and narrowly contemporary perspective on our everyday experience.
Of course a long tradition exists within art making for this type of corrective. It is called the momento mori (remember that you will die). While other works by Doyle directly partake of this tradition (Bone Dump (2011), for instance, a commission by Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, consisting of 8000 femur-like porcelain bones piled in a heap), Who the Pot? could be said to evince similar concerns, if less directly. Clay pots are among the earliest examples of human culture. Recent scientific studies have found a connection between the skills required for tool making and human speech. For this reason, the earliest toolslike a hand axe carved out of stone, for instanceare considered to mark the emergence of humans most like ourselves .
Sculpture makes society, in other words, and the works in Who the Pot? deliver this message in terms that are highly particular to the time we live in. Every potter, in practice, will make ceramics in a manner consistent with the craft’s prehistoric origins. Doyle’s pots reinforce this idea; through the similarity many of her works have to examples of the earliest ceramics (the pot, the jug and the pitcher), their method of display, and most important: choices the artist has made about what the surface of each pot looks like. She has opted not to work with the glazed finish familiar from contemporary ceramics, (the glaze makes ceramics usable, unlike Doyle’s works). Fired by the artist in a barrel, the surface of each pot is instead sealed by smoke, the tell tale signs of which are the surface flashing marks of smoke and flame. This simple choice marks Doyle’s pots as decorative, but within a register of the prehistoric world. In their textured and imperfect surface, in the absence of sheen, we can intuit a kind of withholding on the part of the artist. She resists allowing her artworks to appear seamless with the universal surface of contemporary life. This would be a universal surface as it is figuratively understood, which is experienced through the lens of the digital. Against that depthless continuum, Doyle asks us to, if momentarily, look away so we might understand our lives within a broader and much more human, expanse of the present.
 Roberta Smith, PAUL CLAY’, New York Times, June 30, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/arts/design/paul-clay.html (accessed May 05, 2014)
 Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 55.
 Accepted as the oldest form of Japanese pottery, Jomon refers to the distinctive cord markings found on the surface of pots made during this Neolithic era of Japan’s history. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jomo/hd_jomo.htm (accessed May 5, 2014)
 Maura Doyle, There’s a New Boulder in Town, 2004, Toronto Sculpture Garden, Toronto; Monument to all Boulders in Vancouver and on Planet Earth, 2005, permanent public sculpture in conjunction with Or Gallery and City of Vancouver.
 Neil McGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London: Penguin) 2010, 17.
This text originally commissioned on the occasion of Maura Doyle’s Who The Pot? at YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto, 2014.
September 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
A groundbreaking film and video festival made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Vancouver stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics
Still from Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Canadian premiere at InVisible Colours. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
The personal trajectory of Zainub Verjee over the past four decades intersects with cultural moments that continue to resonate.
Born in Kenya and educated in the UK, Verjee arrived in Canada in the 1970s to study economics at Simon Fraser University. A close collaborator with Ken Lum in the early years of Vancouver’s photoconceptualism movement, and with Sara Diamond on a history of women’s labour in British Columbia, Verjee also helped build the international profile of the Western Front throughout the 1990s. Her policy work on the BC Arts Board in the early 1990s helped produce the province’s Arts Council Act, leading to the formation of the BC Arts Council, and she later worked on early digital initiatives at the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage.
As a practicing artist in the 1980s and ’90s, Verjee was included in national and international group exhibitions, including “New Canadian Video” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994; “TransCulture,” a satellite exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995; “Traversing Territory, Part II: Road Movies in a Post-Colonial Landscape,” curated by Judith Mastai for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 1997; and “Tracing Cultures III,” curated by Karen Henry and installed at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby in 1997. (“A first when contemporary art was shown in a mosque in Canada,” says Verjee.)
Rosemary Heather: It’s been almost 30 years since you staged In Visible Colours, with more than 100 films and videos by artists from 28 countries and 75 international delegates in attendance. The event focused on global issues around diversity and representation. What do you think has changed in the intervening time? Have we seen any progress?
Zainub Verjee: In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.
To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.
RH: So IVC was essentially informed by that era’s worldwide push for decolonialization, but with a stronger emphasis on discourse, correct?
ZV: IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval.
There were transatlantic responses in the art world: In New York, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” in 1984, can be read in context of the ascendancy of two generations of Black artists (this includes South Asians) in the UK in the early 1980s. Their contrasting relationship to modernism, and opposition to anticolonial and postcolonial politics, resulted in the making of the Black British Arts movement.
In Canada, the 1951 Massey Report frames this nation-building project, and despite its multiple flaws—primarily its Eurocentric orientation— remains well entrenched today. The failure of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to a flurry of counter-events with the emergence of second-wave feminism. Race also became a major element in this collective endeavour and shook the cultural institutional apparatus. IVC was a forerunner of these phenomena.
RH: You worked with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was a key inspiration for Black British Arts—the radical political art movement founded in the UK in 1982 and inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique. How did Black British Arts influence IVC?
ZV: Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.
Over that decade, artists and thinkers such as Hall, Sonia Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Kobena Mercer and Rasheed Araeen, and institutions like the Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Third Text, were other major influences. They informed me about the agency I had as a person of colour and how I could use that position to intervene on the racialized gender issues of cultural production and institutional discourse that had been unleashed by globalization and a new neoliberal order.
RH: Was this conversation also happening in Vancouver at the time?
ZV: Indeed. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, Chilean women in the exile community established themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles and left movements. Pinochet was, after all, the poster boy of the neoliberal regime!
In 1987, I started working at Women in Focus Society (WIF), a feminist, arts and media centre devoted to women’s cultural production in film, video and the visual arts in Vancouver. I recall the WIF exhibition “Mujer, arte y periferia” [Women, art and periphery], in 1987, raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship as well as the “placement” of women’s art.
It was within these larger contexts that I noticed there were no works by women of colour in WIF’s distribution collection. This overwhelming absence of the voice of women of colour in the Canadian context led to the first conversations that ultimately took the form of IVC.
RH: This sense of tumult at the end of the 1980s produced other exhibitions that were equally influential to the direction of IVC. Can you talk about that?
ZV: The two-year period leading to IVC in 1989 became coterminous with other exhibitions of equal critical import.
In Paris, in response to the colonial ethnography of MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition, Jean-Hubert Martin curated “Magiciens de la Terre,” presenting works by more than 100 Western and non-Western artists from 50 countries. In London, Araeen’s “The Other Story” invoked multiple modernities. And in Ottawa, Gerald McMaster’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” framed Indigenous contemporary expression without any apology, offering a definitive moment in the contemporary art history of Canada.
This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2017 issue of Canadian Art.
September 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
On the heels of his popular U of T Art Museum show, the Cree artist is unveiling a 12 x 24-ft history painting based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
Kent Monkman’s show at U of T Art Museum earlier this year might have been Toronto’s most important art exhibition of 2017.
Hugely popular, Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience presented the artists’ work along with a selection of historical paintings and artefacts. A much-needed corrective to the Canada 150 celebrations, the exhibition addressed topics including treaty signings, First Nations’ reserves, residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Whatever the event’s organizers had in mind when planning the sesquicentennial, it probably wasn’t this.
Now Monkman is back with Two Ships. The monumental painting will be presented for two days – September 26 and 27 – as part of 360: Bridges at 6 Degrees Citizen Space, an event that asks what citizenship looks like in the 21st century. This series of discussions at the Art Gallery of Ontario will be livestreamed via four Toronto Public Library branches. Monkman’s talk happens September 26 from 3:30-5 pm, and his piece will be shown in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre’s inaugural exhibition in May 2018.
At 12 x 24 ft, this is the largest painting you’ve made. Tell me about it.
This project has been ongoing for almost three years. I wanted to do a very large history painting. The scale has a certain impact. The story I wanted to tell is based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois called the Two Row Wampum Treaty. It was a belt with two purple rows of beads made by the Iroquois to talk about a peace alliance — one for the European vessel and one for the Indigenous vessel and the idea was that they would travel a parallel course and not interfere with one another.
This painting is, of course, that moment of interference. I was inspired by Delacroix’s Christ On The Sea Of Galilee (1854). The parable here was that Christ was asleep and everyone was freaking out because they thought the boat they were in was going to sink. And he was blissfully asleep. In my painting, because of the collision of two cultures, these two vessels are about to collide and Miss Chief, my alter ego, is asleep in the boat. The idea is she is going to wake up and calm the storm.
With your show at U of T’s Art Museum – the room about the residential schools, for instance – I saw that and thought, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Well, that was part of my work as I cycle through Western art history looking for all these gaps – there are huge gaps in the narrative and how the story of North America is told through a very European lens. The other stuff never really made it into the art canon because no one wanted to show it or to expose it. These chapters of Indigenous history – the removal of children, the rate of incarceration, the dispossession of Indigenous people from our land – those never made it into art history. They never made it into our school curriculums. I never set out to be an educator, but when I went into art history, all this stuff just came to the surface and I had to deal with it.
A large part of what I do in the art world is bring people over to my perspective because they are so used to the dominant narrative, which is a whitewash. The incidences where this story does exist in art history is minor. The story North America tells itself about its own history and mythology is flawed.
Do you think there are different rates of progress between Canada and the U.S. on these issues?
[Americans] are at least a generation behind in terms of their awareness. It’s like slipping back in time when you go across the border, depending where you are. That’s my perception. I feel that they are 20, 25 years behind. They have never had a major biennial, like the Sakahàn, of Indigenous work. They don’t have Indigenous curators working in institutions as contemporary curators. We do. And those are major battles that took generations to secure.
There is the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., but that’s an ethnographic museum.
Exactly. That’s still how native people exist in the minds and imaginations of Americans, that they belong in the ethnological wing. Or the Indian Market. It’s either tourist art or they are ethnological specimens. That’s one of the biggest problems holding back Indigenous art from getting into the mainstream.
In Canada, the treaties haven’t been resolved. Is that the reason this history is not being dealt with?
Absolutely. It all goes back to the Indian Act and how the government has established a relationship with Indigenous people. It’s not nation-to-nation; we are wards of the state. We still have cards with numbers that identify us as wards of the state. This goes back to the signing of the treaties and the beginnings of colonial policies that began with incarcerating Indigenous people on reserves and then the institutionalization of Indigenous people through all these different policies.
This is why Indigenous people fill our prisons, because they were foster children. They were taken out with the Sixties Scoop and never had a chance. They never had a relationship with their parents or grandparents and they became institutionalized. They are in our prisons, they are in our foster care system. I could go on and on.
ORIGINALLY COMMISSIONED BY NOW MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 20, 2017 11:42 AM
August 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
Dynasty Handbag, photo: Charlie Gross
Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron on straddling the worlds of art and comedy, parodying The Handmaid’s Tale and making TV moves with Jack Black
2017 is bananas. Nazis are back – and they are not afraid to cry on the internet. It’s a white supremacist man-baby thing, one given free reign by that Whiner-in-Chief currently residing in the Oval Office. If that’s real life, how is art supposed to compete?
Los Angeles-based Jibz Cameron, who performs under the name Dynasty Handbag, is one answer.
The queer performance artist and comedian’s videos and theatrical shows skirt the edges of what’s acceptable to the mainstream. Take her D-Bag’s Quick And Easy Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism (2017), for instance. Smearing her eyes in a black “accent” she calls “doom, capitalism and white supremacy” she crosses the line from humour to discomfort. It’s a literal black eye that reflects our troubled times back to us.
Always with her work, each manic moment is redeemed by humour. In Vague (2016), the artist vamps’ guttural noises to strains of the Madonna hit with the similar name. As with her video that parodies Beyoncé’s vanity doc Life Is But A Dream (both 2013), Cameron offers welcome relief from the dominant culture’s dictates of perfection. Called by one smart critic “a send-up of the current social id,” Cameron’s act has attracted the attention of comedy heavyweights like Jack Black and Community creator Dan Harmon.
Though she is often referenced in the same breath as profane talents like John Waters or Amy Sedaris, she also recalls Karen Finley, the performance artist whose work sits at an intersection between art and theatre. Its not a perfect analogy. Cameron is madcap while Finley is more about unadulterated catharsis. Yet there is something to the comparison. Both show us how fraught political moments give us the artists we need.
NOW caught up with Cameron ahead of the Toronto debut of her latest show I, An Moron.
Your work straddles the worlds of performance art and comedy. Would you say you feel more at home in one than the other?
I don’t feel at home anywhere, really. It depends. Neither the typical straightforward comedy world nor the typical straightforward art world feel like a cozy blanket to me. But there are facets within those worlds where I think people are open and they kind of get that the two things are not mutually exclusive, and there is room for going in and out of those two contexts. Ultimately, they are just frameworks.
I guess one art world precedent is the performance artist, Karen Finley.
She’s not very funny [laughter].
There are lots of artists I identify with. A precedent for me would be Andy Kaufman. I am also really influenced by the early 80s female comedians, like Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin. All that wacky stand-up. But it is just kind of more blended together in my presentation rather than sectioned off into specific characters.
Ah, your work is not skit-based?
But it can be. I don’t think that any of it is really limiting. What I’m doing actively is not trying to think about those things, and just do whatever I want. I just shot this thing the other day, a spoof of The Handmaid’s Tale – The Handbag’s Tale – and because I have this persona in place already. I have something to work off of, but its not like high art. Its like, really, really, lowbrow. Real low. [laughter]
You should tweet it at Margaret Atwood.
I will. I think she’ll love it. I actually really did love that book, and I like the show, too. It was really campy. But it often surprises me that people are thinking about, wondering, you know: what are you doing?
That’s what’s good about your work. That you are able to provoke the question: what is this? Its very refreshing. There’s an obvious way in which Trump is the context within which everything is happening right now. And you refer to that in your Makeup Tutorial For Life Under Fascism, but I also thought there is this other context. I just found out about “virtue signalling” do you know about that?
No, what is that?
It’s about political correctness. Like, everybody’s fiddling about correctness, and Rome is burning.
Oh right. Philosophy is for those with full bellies?
Yes, exactly. I feel your work responds to that as well, because its so the opposite of correct behaviour.
My work’s the opposite of correct behaviour?
Yes, I’d say so.
Well, if you say so. [laughter] The show I’m going to do in Toronto premiered at the Hammer Museum [in Los Angeles] in October last year. All that year I was writing it and I was really frustrated with North American white Liberals who are all talk no rock, or some rock but then the rock is like, so tied into capitalism – like, what kind of choices of gluten-free bread am I am going to buy and what company is the most moral? Choices we feel are moral and somehow making a difference, but what the fuck is actually going on? Nobody really knows. It’s hard not to be paranoid you are being led down some path that’s meant to distract you from some other terrible thing that’s happening.
Nobody knows what’s real and it is hard to grasp onto that, but I think what you’re doing is very real and its very effective for that reason. You are somehow channeling that or expressing that directly, which is a bit in short supply at the moment.
Well, thank you. I feel like I can express questions and outrage and naïveté. I know that I am naive. I just have feelings and I know where else to put them.
What’s next for you – and Dynasty Handbag?
Well, I’m trying to sell a television show right now with my writing partner Amanda Verwey. I’m having lots of meetings with enthusiastic, heterosexual, white gentlemen who nod and laugh a lot about how – well, they do say they will kill you with enthusiasm here – but I do have some really cool people that I am working with. Jack Black, who is just really awesome and a sweet guy that really loves art and wants to do fun projects. And also Dan Harmon, a producer and writer who has done a bunch of interesting stuff. He is an interesting guy who is in on the joke of the whole thing. And I am doing work on a new, live performance for the spring called Titanic that will premiere in New York. And, what else am I doing? Trying to finish all of Prime Suspect once again.
Oh, that’s a good show.
Yeah, I’m going to get through it for the sixth time. Some pretty big goals I’ve set up for myself.
I, AN MORON by Dynasty Handbag at DDL (209 Augusta) on August 24 at 9 pm. $12. torontomoron.bpt.me
This text commissioned for https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/dynasty-handbag-opposite-correct-behaviour/
March 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Can, 1962
I like the idea that Twitter and Andy Warhol are equivalent expressions of their eras. Both incarnate their respective cultural moments with illuminating simplicity. Warhol called his studio The Factory, made artworks using industrial processes, and tried to be robotic in his utterances. What the artist implies is how 1960s consumer culture made mass identities, but with the appearance of uniqueness. Update that and you get Twitter as an aphorism machine and automaton of self-promotion. Twitter fulﬁlls the vision Warhol foresaw of today’s fame industrial complex – as the art critic Jerry Saltz recently quipped: “In the future everyone will be famous to ﬁfteen people.” Most important: Twitter embodies our present era in a manner Warhol himself wouldn’t recognize.
History works like that. Epochal change happens in a way we don’t fully understand. Tweets have no value without an audience to read and respond to them. This tells us the transition we are now going through is one from not human to machine so much as individual to collective, from client-server relationship to a peer-to-peer universe. Art today places a lot of emphasis on group initiative, but the effect is relatively weak when compared to the awesome power social media and the blockchain puts into the hands of the collectivity.
While the end result is not art, the culture the net creates suggests a new role for art that the institution has yet to come to terms with. It’s a crisis that the current vogue for artworks as an asset class helps to obscure. But no matter the collusion that will continue to prop that market up, the cultural tendency of actual signiﬁcance in our time is happening elsewhere with profound long-term effect.
This text originally commissioned by MISC Magazine – a journal of strategic insight and foresight, FALL 2015.