July 26, 2019 § Leave a comment
The artist, curator and trailblazing Queen West gallerist created the world she wanted to live in
JULY 22, 2019
The death of gallerist Katharine Mulherin is a hard blow for Toronto’s art community. Beloved and highly respected, Mulherin was central to building the vibrant art ecosystem the city enjoys today. Struggling with depression in recent years, Mulherin took her own life last week at age 54, her son Jasper Mulherin confirmed in a Facebook post. The loss has been widely mourned on social media – and at an informal gathering of friends on July 16 at the site of one of her former galleries at Queen and Dovercourt. Over the years she had many.
Mulherin created the world she wanted to live in. A habitual gallery-maker, she founded a stream of them, first in the late 90s in Toronto, then in New York and Los Angeles. Making spaces was at the heart of her practice. She also worked and showed as an artist, studying art first in New Brunswick, where she was born, and then in Quebec City. Her move to Toronto in 1988 was accompanied by a shift to curating. She graduated from the criticism and curatorial practice at the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1998, a time when the profession was just becoming formalized as a career.
Things were different when Mulherin was starting out. In a 2001 cover-story interview with NOW, she said there was a simple secret to running three galleries simultaneously while also being single mother to a small child: “Cheap rent.” More than a wisecrack, this was a strategy. Work with what you got – and live behind the store, or above it, which Mulherin did at a number of locations, along with her young son, Jasper. She opened BUSgallery in 1998, then quickly went on to create 1080BUS, also on Queen West and, at the invitation of OCAD, the School BUS project space.
In the NOW interview Mulherin cited an abundance of younger artists she wanted to show as the reason for her growing empire. This was the emerging Toronto scene she played a key role in nurturing.
Countless artists benefited from Mulherin’s discerning curatorial eye, with shows at her gallery leading to recognition elsewhere. A random sampling includes Kris Knight, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Elaine Stocki and Balint Zsako, who calls Mulherin “magnetic.” Her “mix of wit, intelligence and enthusiasm made her like nobody else in Toronto,” he says.
“Katharine invented communities, programs and collectors,” notes painter Margaux Williamson, who showed with Mulherin in Toronto and New York. “The stakes were high, but they were not typical, so there was so much more room to move.”
Art collector Paul Bain remembers Mulherin as “kind, down-to-earth and open,” noting that’s not always the case in the art world. Bain bought his first artwork from Mulherin, who made it easy for people to collect. “Working with her was like a process of discovering things together,” he recalls. “Like a partnership.”
Over 20 years, Mulherin created many spaces, including Board of Directors, KMLA, Katharine Mulherin’s Sideshow, No Show Exhibits, Mulherin Pollard Projects, Mulherin New York, No Foundation, New Multiples and Mulherin Toronto. The range of initiatives spoke to her entrepreneurial drive and an ad hoc approach, with the general temper of the times, budgets and affordability dictating the terms of each project.
Given the global scale of the real estate affordability problem, the term “gentrification” might now seem like an outdated notion. Regardless, Mulherin’s gallery practice ran on the rhythms of gentrification. She was intimately acquainted with the process, moving into overlooked neighbourhoods like West Queen West. “Before the Drake and the taco shops,” Bain notes.
On Queen West, Mulherin would find a clientele in the area’s new condo dwellers, who would go on to take over and transform the neighborhood, making it much less affordable. But art always exists in this uneasy symbiosis between patrons and artists. All credit goes to Mulherin for the ingenuity she brought to this balancing act for so long.
The artist Annie MacDonell had her first exhibition with Mulherin after graduating from Ryerson University in 2000. She went on to show with her for almost 15 years. “I always thought of her as someone who was unstoppable, as someone who would keep on reinventing herself and the world around her for a long time to come,” she says. “That’s part of what makes it so hard to lose her.”
Mulherin is survived by her sons Jasper and Satchel, her husband Daniel “Paco” Paquette, sisters Jennifer and Erin and brother Shawn. A celebration of her life will take place at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West) on August 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm.
A GoFundMe page to cover immediate and ongoing expenses for her family has also been set up.
February 19, 2019 § Leave a comment
During a visit to Toronto, Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa summons the greater prairie-chicken and passenger pigeon to provoke a change in mindset
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER FEBRUARY 19, 2019
Seances are boring in the way meditating is boring. You have to relax and let yourself sink into the moment. This requires letting go of things, including everyday worries and the non-stop, tyrannical pull of our electronic devices.
Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, visiting the city for the exhibition How To Breath Forever at OCAD’s Onsite Gallery, himself used the b-word when talking about his experience with seances.
The internationally shown and very busy artist (he will also be participating in the inaugural Toronto Biennial of Art this fall) introduced the event by talking about his own history with this type of spiritualism, which was in vogue over a century ago. In Canada, such enthusiasts famously included William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister for the first half of the 20th century, who used mediums to get advice from his dead mother.
The soft-spoken Ramírez-Figueroa talked about being an art student at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University and attending seances with local spiritualist practitioners. “This was a way for me to have some communion with other Latin Americans because my school was pretty white,” he says.
He did this again when going to art school in Chicago. He experiments with the form in his art practice, but gives it a different focus. At the seance he conducted on a chilly Wednesday evening in Toronto, the goal was to contact not people, but extinct species of birds from the local area.
Wearing white toques to keep out bad spirits, 18 people held hands around a large table and tried their luck at contacting the beyond. Since spirits presumably stay close to the area where they once lived, the artist researched a number of extinct birds the seance might summon. Were the greater prairie-chicken, the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon haunting our gathering? It’s hard to say.
The former two birds were declared extirpated (gone from the area but still living elsewhere on earth) from Ontario within the last decade or so, while the passenger pigeon was notoriously hunted to extinction over 100 years ago.
Whether their spirits visited the Onsite Gallery on this particular occasion was somewhat beside the point, as Ramírez-Figueroa made clear in conversation after the event. The product of a non-religious upbringing, the artist saw his own spiritual investigations as mostly a kind of rebellion.
Calling the seance an exercise, he said, “I don’t think I’m guiding it too much but it does become a kind of guided visualization.” He cited the tradition of hippie idealism in British Columbia, where he lived from ages 12 to 26, as influencing this part of his practice. The grandeur of the landscape in B.C. has a spiritual power, though his interest is more in how we typically fail to connect with the natural world.
“You can live close to nature and ignore it at the same time,” he noted.
While at Emily Carr, for example, he said he “lived near the ocean but never looked at it.” Seances are a form of group projection, and Ramírez-Figueroa feels that humans tend to project things onto nature instead of seeing it for what it is.
For those at the seance who had never given much thought to extinct species in Toronto, it was a chance to contemplate what gets lost in the incessant busyness of contemporary life. There is a cost to never getting bored. “This is the reality we are all facing: mass extinction,” Ramírez-Figueroa says. “And we don’t even notice.”
So maybe we do need a medium, as opposed to constant electronic communication, to get back in touch with ourselves and our urgent predicament.
Ramírez-Figueroa is also preparing to make a work about extinct species in Lithuania for an upcoming biennial in that country. He feels there is a higher level of concern around looming environmental catastrophe there than in Canada. Perhaps part of the problem is that Canadians are fooled by their own PR. He talked about the dominance of Canadian gold mining in Guatemala.
“It’s a really small country and the damage it does is substantial,” he explained.
Upwards of 75 per cent of mining companies globally are based in Canada. The industry is massively destructive, but Canadians are only minimally aware of this. We’re happy to go on seeing ourselves as the good guy. Closer to home, oil sands workers are required to sign waivers preventing them from speaking about any form of environmental destruction they witness as a result of this now largely unprofitable form of resource extraction.
There is a lesson in the fragile stirrings that occurred during the seance. In the gentlest terms, Ramírez-Figueroa’s seances with extinct species are a form of collective action. The exercise suggests we need a new form of collective belief to avert humanity’s extinction.
Instead we are participating in a mass delusion of denial.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, “Seance for Extinct Species of Birds,” part of HOW TO BREATHE FOREVER at Onsite Gallery (199 Richmond West). ocadu.ca. January 16 – April 14, 2019.
January 29, 2019 § Leave a comment
The kinds of photos that are popular on Instagram are well represented in True To The Eyes, an exhibition of one of Canada’s most important collections
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER
JANUARY 29, 2019
Instagram is often considered the “good” social media platform. It is a place for photo sharing and largely free of the fake news and sheer trashiness found on Facebook and Twitter.
There are, however, some ironies to Instagram’s pure-hearted dedication to the photograph. As it is practiced today, photography – i.e., taking snaps with our phone cameras – is digital and, as such, aided by in-camera artificial intelligence. Because of the adjustments AI makes, like sharpening blurs or adding light to dark corners, digital images have technically little in common with the analogue photography of the last century. This tech-aided evolution away from the original medium will continue, eventually to the point where image-making becomes something closer to illustration.
And yet the photos we take are completely influenced by inherited ideas about what makes a good picture – and what’s worth photographing. The categories or genres of photos that dominate today can all be seen in the Ryerson Image Centre’s new exhibition, True To The Eyes. Selected from one of the largest and most important photography collections in Canada, amassed by Toronto’s Howard and Carole Tanenbaum, the 200-plus photos on view span over 100 years and an eclectic range of styles, providing viewers with an excellent survey of the medium’s development to date.
Here are five photos from the exhibition that wouldn’t look out of place in your feed.
When it debuted in 1837, photo technology was still almost 50 years away from the invention of the hand-held camera. Access to the medium required a visit to a professional, with baby pics being among the most popular reasons for taking the trip. Long exposure times also meant strategies were needed for keeping your subject still, such as this posing of a child on a rocking horse.
As this picture taken by Toronto’s Rafael Goldchain shows, portrait photography always strives for a measure of idealization – in this case, in the image of the Virgin Mary. Today, in-phone digital photography has made the camera so accessible that a whole new genre of photo-taking has been invented: the selfie, the most ubiquitous form of vernacular photography, and one unique to the 21st century.
Attempts to capture nature at its most sublime is a perennial ambition of art. As seen in this photo, Niagara Falls is a favourite local subject because it is perfectly photogenic. The English idea of “the picturesque” tried to teach the best way to compose a picture out of the raw material of landscape. This tradition continues today in the beautiful sunsets and breathtaking mountain shots we choose to share and like on social media.
Landscape and portrait photography come together in the vacation shot. Examples in the Tanenbaum collection date from the time when photographers at scenic locations took your portrait for you. In 2019, social media influencers burnish their brand by art-directing their selfies in far-flung locations. Proof that you were there is still the abiding motive for this type of picture-making.
The shoot-from-the-hip style of documentary photograph sacrifices compositional perfection for immediacy – the fabled “decisive moment” taken by 20th-century greats like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. As well, street photography has long had a sociological bent. Lewis Hine, an American sociologist working in the early 1900s, took photographs as a way to advocate for social reform. This use of the camera as a form of witness now arguably lives on in, and is much debased by, the contemporary voyeurism of the viral video.
TRUE TO THE EYES: THE HOWARD AND CAROLE TANENBAUM PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION at Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould), January 23-April 7. Free. ryersonimagecentre.ca.
January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Look out for the Toronto Biennial of Art and exhibitions featuring work by Brian Jungen, Chantal Akerman, Carrie Mae Weems and Daniel Arsham
If last year is anything to go by, 2019 promises more social media exodus and a world slightly less obsessed with connected devices. Art galleries offer a good alternative. Instead of the light emitting from the mobile or computer screen, light therapy as art is on offer. And come September, Toronto gets the art biennial it has long been waiting for, featuring local and international artists at venues adjacent to Lake Ontario.
VAJIKO CHACHKHIANI: THEY KEPT SHADOWS QUIET
Scrap Metal Gallery, October 11, 2018-March 30, 2019
The first solo show in North America by the young Georgian artist is the most ambitious exhibition staged to date by this private gallery. It features a number of works, including a specially built “inverted” immigration checkpoints. Using two way mirrors in reverse direction, visitors can surveil the occupants of the booths, which are manned by actors every Saturday from 1-4 pm for the duration of the show.
SANAZ MAZINANI: LIGHT TIMES
Stephen Bulger Gallery, January 12-February 23
Known for her large-scale mosaic works embedded with political content, Mazinani returns to her hometown for this back-to-basics study of photography. Camera-less photos (i.e., light exposed to photosensitive paper) form the basis of this show – but Mazinani’s larger agenda is revealing the manipulations, framing and cropping that create photographic “truth.”
TRUE TO THE EYES: THE HOWARD AND CAROLE TANENBAUM PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION
Ryerson Image Centre, January 23-April 7
A presentation of over 200 works from the Toronto philanthropists’ private collection. The sheer range and eclecticism of the photos on view – including Brassaï, vernacular works, Diane Arbus and Edward Burtynsky – offers insight into how genres within the medium have evolved. A useful point of reference for photography’s expanded digital life today.
JAAN POLDAAS: A COLOURFUL LIFE
Birch Contemporary, February 7-March 2
This is a memorial exhibition for the Swedish-born Toronto-based artist who died in October. Poldaas made vibrant, hard-edged abstract paintings, working within set rules he imposed on his practice such as using primary colours and the colour grey in differing shades. This framework allowed him to discover constant variation in composition throughout his career.
LIGHT THERAPY &
MOCA, November 28-April 30/ MOCA, February 14-April 14
Here are two good reasons to visit MOCA’s new location. Slovenian artist Šušteršič presents a light therapy room as part of the museum’s interest in exploring the role galleries play in supporting well-being. Visitors who become MOCA members can also book it for private sessions. Filmmaker Akerman, who died in 2015, was one of Europe’s foremost auteurs of the last 50 years. While many of her films have screened in Toronto, MOCA is hosting the first museum presentation of her installation work.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS: HEAVE
Art Museum at University of Toronto, CONTACT Photography Festival and three public sites, May 3-July 13
Part of this year’s Contact Photography Festival, this show marks the first solo exhibition in Canada by this important African-American artist. Weems is known for her photo-based installations that incorporate film, daguerreotypes, textiles and period-specific dress. Her tableaux reflect on how power functions in society, in part by making viewers aware of the constructed nature of photography.
Art Gallery of Ontario, June 20-August 25
A solo exhibition by the celebrated West Coast artist touches down at the AGO this summer. Jungen is known for remaking everyday items, like Nike shoes or plastic lawn chairs, into powerful sculptural works. The artist’s always inventive refashionings often reference his Indigenous heritage. His use of mass-produced materials also critiques the conventions of museum display and the value of the objects collected therein.
Cooper Cole Gallery, September TBA
The New Zealand-born artist’s debut solo show will feature beguiling works that are part sculpture, part installation. Working with ceramics, bricks, glass and found materials like pebbles and other detritus, she often uses the floor and other overlooked parts of the gallery to subtly shift visitor experience – as well as the concept of what can be art.
TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART
Various venues on Lake Ontario, opens September 21
Biennials are the lingua franca of the international art world and Toronto is long overdue to host its own. This 90-day event is helmed by Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, two smart, experienced curators who have announced a theme focused on the history embedded in the city’s waterfront – the site of settlement, trade and Indigenous histories. Featured artists include Althea Thauberger, Shezad Dawood and Syrus Marcus Ware.
Various venues, October 5
The city’s all-night public art event again includes venues in Scarborough and adds first-time locations Fort York and the Garrison Common. Nathan Phillips Square will host an installation by Daniel Arsham. Few details are available, but given he works with meta-architecture firm Snarkitecture, it’s a good bet the New York artist’s piece will be big and involve the colour white. The deadline for artists to submit proposals for the Open Call section is February 4. 11 art exhibitions to be excited about in 2019
January 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Historical legacies and Toronto’s changing landscape were major themes in galleries and in public art works this year
DECEMBER 3, 2018
Toronto is growing by the square metre, with buildings popping up everywhere. The city’s art scene is also changing and, in some cases, responding.
In 2018, all-night art event Nuit Blanche extended to Scarborough and Don Mills. Fighting condo glut, artists are building spaces in overlooked corners and raising voices against the threat of Toronto becoming homogenized for the rich.
Thinking about the urban landscape is second nature in a profession in which space is a core element. That’s one reason arts organizations here and across Canada are drawing attention to the contested status of the land beneath our feet. Land acknowledgments of First Nations territorial rights preceding art events have become common. This year saw Canadian art galleries cited internationally for changing the terms under which Indigenous art is exhibited. At the same time, one of the city’s leading curators, the AGO’s Wanda Nanibush, started a conversation to get arts professionals to better understand how to do it right.
With this attention to historical legacy, and commitment to reasoned dialogue, the art world increasingly feels like a realm more thoughtful and separate from wider public spheres. Artist-led dialogue contrasts strikingly with conniving public figures like Premier Doug Ford, who emulate the worst tendencies of our U.S. neighbours. Toronto artists are fighting back in the best way they know how. By making art and putting on shows – some of it explicitly in protest.
1. Ibrahim Mahama, Radical Histories, 2012-2018, Nathan Phillips Square (September 29)
For Nuit Blanche, the Ghanaian artist transformed the pedestal ramp of City Hall by wrapping it in a patchwork curtain of jute fabric that had previously been used in trade of cocoa, coffee and charcoal. A thrilling, instantly readable monument to labour, colonialism and the hard truths of commerce.
2. The Work Of Wind: Air, Land, Sea, Blackwood Gallery, Mississauga (September 14-23)
This massive art project in Mississauga’s Southdown Industrial Area featured 13 outdoor installations that visitors could tour using a specially commissioned MiWay bus. Many of the works captured the event’s theme of stewardship in the face of environmental crisis, while remaining playful. A show highlight was Tomás Saraceno’s giant walk-in air balloon made from thousands of plastic bags.
3. Rebecca Belmore: Facing The Monumental, Art Gallery of Ontario (July 12-October 21)
For those who saw Belmore’s excellent 2014 show at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, her AGO exhibition was a revelation. This show featured a different but equally compelling range of works. Her monumental stack of shopping carts packed with fresh clay offered a concise statement about Indigenous dispossession. Just one of many works on view that combined critique of social and power structures with strong emotional impact.Expand
4. GTA, Gentrification Tax, Trinity Bellwoods Park (February 25); Public Studio (June 1-July 30)
GTA stands for Gentrification Tax Action, an ad hoc artist group who – in different combinations of people – have made activist art since the 90s. Via a temporary billboard installation in Trinity Bellwoods Park and poster project, GTA proposed a practical solution to Toronto’s gentrification problem: a tax on real estate speculation, with the money redirected to affordable housing. Their work added much-needed nuance to the conversation around the city’s affordable housing crisis.
5. Shannon Bool, Bomb. Shell., Daniel Faria Gallery (November 1-January 12)
Canada produces a lot of strong artists. Bool is a contender for one of the best. Her stunning photo collages and tapestries in this show combine the work of modernist giants like Le Corbusier with vintage postcards of nude Algerian women, whom the architect also made sketches of in his off hours. A deft exposé of Orientalism and the darker underpinnings of modernism.
6. Shelley Niro, Ryerson Image Centre (April 28-August 5)
This was a welcome survey show for the 2017 Scotiabank Photography Award winner. Niro is skilled at bringing humour to dark subject matter like the decimation of her Indigenous ancestors by white settlers in Canada. The preference for comedy and a light touch on view in this exhibition made clear her connection to the sophisticated craft-based work of artists like General Idea and Allyson Mitchell.
7. Believe, Museum of Contemporary Art (September 22-January 6)
Attendees at the MOCA’s inaugural exhibition at its new home in the Lower Junction Triangle were probably as curious about the building – five floors in all – as they were the art. This show is multifaceted and sprawling, with textile works sitting next to a playable and wildly decorated pinball machine, adjacent to sculptures and video works. A total experience of art and space, its highlights include works by Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Rajni Perera.
8. I continue to shape, Art Museum, University of Toronto (September 5-December 8)
This group show features mostly First Nations artists taking a non-didactic approach to settler and Indigenous histories. By combining traditional First Nations and contemporary art vocabularies – see Nicholas Galanin’s re-carving of a traditional native mask – the artists bring viewers into a fresh dialogue with the subject matter. In a show of great works, Joseph Tisiga’s paintings using Archie comic characters as stand-ins for white obliviousness are standouts.
9. Yoko Ono: The Riverbed, Gardiner Museum (February 22 to June 3)
How calming it was to visit the white environ Yoko Ono created in her three-part, ceramic-based installation. Ono was part of the first wave of artists making interactive (or instructional) artworks in the late 60s and 70s, and this recent work confirms her preeminence. Made with the help of museum visitors – who reassembled broken china and threaded twine into a room-sized spider web – and probably for that reason, the installations evoked the timeless mark-making of artists like Cy Twombly.
10. Diagrams Of Power, Onsite Gallery at OCAD University (July 11-September 30)
This exhibition articulates the forms power takes in the 21st century through works that highlight how today’s geopolitics are networked. We understand we live in a networked world and yet it remains intangible in important ways. The research-based works in this exhibition, such as Bureau d’études’ mappings of what they call “the World Government,” create a visual lexicon for grasping ideas society has yet to fully grapple with.
November 1, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Artists Projection Protest Project is taking steps to align with labour unions, teachers and health care providers in Ontario
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER, OCTOBER 31, 2018
Resistance to Premier Doug Ford is just getting started. That’s the view of artist Kelly McCray, who staged a protest on a chilly Wednesday night last week in Queen’s Park.
Along with artist Ian MacLeod, McCray and a small group of supporters used a construction hoarding as a backdrop and projected a series of images onto a makeshift screen. Thirty artists – including high-profile local talents like Shary Boyle, Suzy Lake, Jon Sasaki and Gary Taxali – made work for the Artists Projection Protest Project.
McCray says the Ford era recalls the 90s when Mike Harris was Ontario’s premier. The Conservative leader implemented a series of budget cuts in the name of smaller government and deficit reduction. Among the most controversial was the amalgamation of Toronto and five boroughs into a megacity.
Fiercely opposed at the time, the move is reminiscent of Ford’s reduction of seats on city council from 47 to 25. Both were supposedly undertaken to create “efficiencies” by shifting power from elected officials to admin staff – not a smaller government so much as one less democratic by design.
“We’ve already been through this,” says McCray, who adds that tactics like the rolling one-day anti-Harris strikes, Days Of Action, now seem relevant again. “We should have taken measures back then to protect our city.”
As the anti-Ford movement gathers steam, he and MacLeod are among artists thinking about how to respond.
Included at the protest, Lyla Rye’s close-cropped black-and-white image of a women’s face with the word “SHAME” superimposed on it pointed to a number of recent issues: Ford’s opposition to the carbon tax, and/or his scrapping of the progressive sex-ed curriculum.
Illustrator Taxali, known internationally for a signature style that riffs on 20th-century newsprint ads – think pulp comic figures and the Ben-Day dots of the four-colour printing process – contributed an image of a broken heart bisected by a silhouette of the CN Tower. The work’s subtle power gradually sunk in over the course of the night. Who wouldn’t be sad given the pointless destruction Ford has inflicted during his short time in office?
McCray and MacLeod are in the midst of finding other opportunities to stage the project. They are reaching out to labour unions, with the plan to align with any forthcoming protests. They are also open to working with teachers and health care providers around the province.
There is an important difference between the Harris years and today: the internet. The pair plan to add their images and others they collect to an image bank for use at future protests and to be circulated on social media.
Like many things today, protest will happen on the web as much as it does IRL; the contemporary model for political action is necessarily two-pronged. By holding events on the ground, the Artists Projection Protest Project continues the history of vibrant street protest. On the day of the protest, there was a demo on the south side of Queen’s Park against Ford’s move to freeze the minimum wage at $14 per hour. The location of the projections in the north end of the park was also close to where to an Indigenous protest encampment had been set up for a number of weeks during the summer.
Of course, circulating images through Facebook and other social media platforms will create greater exposure for the project. However, so far the right has made better use of meme culture than the left. A meme as innocuous as the cartoon Pepe the Frog is now considered a hate symbol by the anti-bigotry ADL (Anti-Defamation League) because of the ways it was circulated online by right-wing extremists.
How the left can use images to galvanize online support remains an open question. As the writer and podcaster Anna Khachiyan pointed out in a recent NOW article, using internet platforms for protest has troubling implications. As a society, we have barely come to terms with how sites like Facebook and Twitter double as mechanisms for surveillance. Furthermore, activity on these platforms might be free but at the cost of a fait accompli donation to the tech giants who profit from data mining. That reality must be considered when answering the question: how do artists protest today?
For McCray and his cohort, creating images for protest is a good first step. It’s a way to workshop even bigger gestures that capture the imagination and bring people together.
“There are a number of ways to get the message out,” says McCray, “but our focus will always be on artist images.”
October 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
Ahead of her Art Toronto talk, critic and podcaster Anna Khachiyan suggests that artistic dissenters should focus on platforms like Facebook and Instagram
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER OCTOBER 23, 2018
If the art world needs a contrarian, Anna Khachiyan can oblige.
Along with Dasha Nekrasova, Khachiyan co-hosts the podcast Red Scare. The New York duo’s weekly, often provocative, look at cultural news already has healthy base of Patreon supporters since launching in March. Part of the so-called Dirtbag Left, Khachiyan and Nekrasova are caustically skeptical about the niceties of mainstream liberal thought.
In balancing an indulgance in bad taste and being reactionaries, the Red Scare duo sometimes risks sounding like an internet troll act. But as a writer, Khachiyan is a too-rare voice in a world that’s voguish for art best understood through moral positioning. Her recent essay Art Won’t Save Us tackles why so much political “resistance” art aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump is ineffectual, and argues what’s needed is more critical thinking around the power big tech companies have over our lives.
In town on Friday to speak at Art Toronto, Khachiyan chatted with NOW over email last week.
Your essay is a series of propositions that ends with a stunning observation, one I haven’t seen anyone else make. But before we get to that, I want to ask: You dismiss political art like Barbara Kruger’s PRUMP/TUTIN poster as “vapid sloganeering.” But, to state the obvious, isn’t that what artists do: work with visual elements?
It goes without saying that artists primarily work in a visual language. But there’s a difference between understanding something in aesthetic terms and insisting on its moral significance. The sense you get with all this anti-Trump political #resistance art is that it’s aggressively propagandistic yet bizarrely phoned-in.
What’s especially bad-faith about the propagandizing is that it’s not in service of some political agenda, but rather personal consolation and mutual flattery – not so much anti-Trump as pro-themselves. These people are so scandalized by Trump’s persona precisely because they’re so removed from Trump’s policies. On a more basic level, the aesthetics are just so corny as to be embarrassing for everyone involved. The art world has lost sight of the fact that artists are under no moral obligation to be role models, which is what made them such compelling interpreters of reality in the first place.
I disagree on the aesthetics being corny. I’d say Kruger’s work is more classic protest style. Art gets part of its power from finding new relevance for visual formats. But I agree that artists who want to be role models are misunderstanding their role. In your essay you write that art needs mass appeal to have political force. What are you thinking exactly? TV has mass appeal, art typically does not.
I’m thinking more of the Soviet mode of socialist realism. The Soviets came the closest to successfully engineering the total collapse of art and life. But it came at a cost: the tyranny of an enforced style. Interestingly, in America today you also have the presence of an aesthetic and ideological monoculture, though the difference is that it’s not so much enforced from the top down as self-enforced.
The claim that I made in that essay – that the Trump administration is the first properly capitalist realist “regime”– is crucial to the degree that it has been able to successfully absorb and neutralize artistic dissent. Trump parodies himself so well that any form of protest art, whether earnest or satirical, falls flat. That’s why that classic protest style you mention looks so ill-suited to the current context, and is also why mainstream TV political comedy like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show are equally cringeworthy.
Your comparison of the received wisdoms of today’s art milieu with Soviet realism is useful. As I mentioned, your essay offers another powerful insight: a reluctance in art circles to grapple with “the systemic dangers lurking… in the digital networks… governing our everyday existence.” You’re right. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter should be a focus of art’s political talk and action, but they aren’t. Any thoughts on why?
Well, for starters, it’s a daunting proposition – not only from the standpoint of our willing participation in these networks, but also in the sense that the language we use to understand them is unwieldy and not agreed-upon. That is, before anyone can launch a systemic critique, let alone a concerted action, we first have to author the theory around it. “Platform capitalism,” for instance, as a particularly aggressive exponent of neo-liberal orthodoxy, is for the most part uncharted territory.
If you really want to psychoanalyze it, there’s also the question of the art world’s collective guilt. As I’ve said before, these [artists] are the people who are least likely to be meaningfully affected by any of Trump’s policies, so they’ve re-routed all of their energies into performatively grandstanding over his persona. But a politics that privileges affect and sensibility over society’s common interests will always be toothless. The art world’s power players, at least subconsciously, know this about themselves. They know their unwillingness to part with their power, however narrowly defined, is precisely what makes them so powerless, so they’ve overcompensated in the opposite direction.