Why Trump is able to neutralize #Resistance art

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

 

Trump, Resistance, Protest, Art

Barbara Kruger’s Prump Tutin magazine cover, part of New York Magazine’s My New York public art project. Photo: Anna Khachiyan

 

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.

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/anna-khachiyan-trump-resistance-art/?fbclid=IwAR2jH4_RfpkPCNt1l7MuhpORmMxyom7300t4WF9_DXH_jsXtnn6KtZiFDnw

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The enduring influence of author Chris Kraus

September 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Chris Kraus, I Love Dick Author

I Love Dick author Chris Kraus has a long relationship with Toronto, including a column for art publication C Magazine. Photo: Carissa Gallo

I Love Dick writer talks the importance of labour-of-love publishing ahead of appearance at launch for IMPULSE magazine’s interview compilation

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER

Lucky Toronto. The city is getting a reprieve from its tendency toward cultural amnesia with a gorgeous book of interviews, collected from a seminal 80s art magazine. Published from 1971 to 1980, IMPULSE was led by Toronto artist/editor Eldon Garnet and art director Carolyn White.

The book replicates the mag’s distinctive style and features a mind-blowing collection of archival interviews that includes rocker Debbie Harry, cultural theorist Paul Virilio and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All of these figures continue to be influential in today’s culture. Equally influential is the author Chris Kraus, travelling to Toronto for the launch. A lot of her work, some of it made 20-30 years ago, is finding an audience today. Her roman à clef I Love Dick was recently made into an Amazon series by Transparent’s Jill Soloway.

Kraus also has a long relationship with this city, including a column in the art publication C Magazine, from 2001 to 2006. We chatted via email about the importance of local art scenes and labour-of-love publishing.

Is it fair to say you’re something like a literary Neil Young? You’ve managed to stay at the centre of each cultural moment you lived through by transcending it?

That’s high praise! But maybe not really accurate. I was present around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the early 80s, but mostly as an observer. And then again, around the earlier days of Semiotext(e). I didn’t start being active until the early 90s, and it took a couple of decades for people to take what I was doing then seriously. I think maybe some of the interest in my earlier work, like the films [1982-1996] has to do with the way they carry forward communities that no longer exist into the present.

When you say it took a couple of decades for your work to be taken seriously, you mean recognized beyond the scenes you were working in?

Or recognized at all! Hardly anyone saw the films during the years I was making them.

You say the interest in your early films stems from a curiosity about the communities that produced them. The IMPULSE book definitely carries that charge. I like that Eldon Garnet left the ads in. That context is so important. When you note these communities no longer exist, is that just due to normal churn, or is there something about our current time that is less hospitable to this type of local artistic scene?

Well, maybe both – although you should ask Eldon. I don’t think IMPULSE could exist now in the same way as it did when Eldon and his friends produced it. It came out of a moment and community of people in Toronto when Toronto was cheap. People were also very connected to the cultural worlds in New York and Europe. IMPULSE, like Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) magazine, was a high-stakes/low-stakes game. It was a labour of love, very time-intensive and didn’t rely on grants or institutional funding. The people involved took the magazine very seriously, and it had a tremendous reach and influence.

A high-stakes/low-stakes game is the perfect way describe most art endeavours. From what you know of Toronto’s scene, do you feel it is similar to other local art communities you’ve been a part of? 

Yes – it’s famously provincial, but then, so is any art community! Even in a major city like L.A., people create little pockets of community, like Janet Kim and her friends did with their artist-run gallery Tiny Creatures. Everyone’s always saying it’s over, but these scenes are perennial.

Its hilarious and rather charming that, among other luminaries, IMPULSE did an interview with John Kenneth Galbraith, renowned advocate for the Liberal economic order we still enjoy the remnants of today. Shows the magazine was fearlessly ambitious. Should today’s art mags try similar stunts?

Yes, why not? Obviously, IMPULSE had much less to lose than magazines like Artforum or Canadian Art. The work of Eldon Garnet and his collaborators was a great example of moving with the freedom that comes from operating at the margins, rather than complaining about it. I mean, I think that’s how culture happens.

Originally published in NOW Magazine, August 31, 2018 

Sobey Art Award winner Ursula Johnson spreads her wings

November 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

The Mi’kmaw artist talks about her big prize win, moose fencing and how she became a butterfly

Photo: Rita Taylor/Banff Centre For The Arts

Ursula Johnson, Sobey Award Winner 2017/Photo: Rita Taylor/Banff Centre

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.

Sobey Award Winner Ursula Johnson

Ursula Johnson’s installation Moose Fence           Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

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

https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/ursula-johnson-interview-sobey-art-award/

More about the 2017 Sobey Prize here.

More information about Ursula Johnson here.

In Visible Colours – Rosemary Heather In Conversation With Zainub Verjee

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.)

 One of the defining legacies in Verjee’s career is In Visible Colours (IVC), an international festival in Vancouver dedicated to film and video by women of colour that she co-founded, with Lorraine Chan, in 1989. A landmark event of its time, IVC assembled works by then-emerging artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gurinder Chadha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita and Mona Hatoum. IVC and the issues it foregrounded is one reason why, from Verjee’s perspective, the identity politics of today is in large part a return to a conversation that started in the 1980s.

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.

 IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker?

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.

Kent Monkman prepares to debut his largest painting yet

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

Kent Monkman in his studio – photo credit: Samuel Engleking

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
https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/kent-monkman-debuts-largest-painting-yet/

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

Performance artist Dynasty Handbag is the opposite of correct behaviour

August 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dynasty_HandbagDynasty 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

BY 

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 alreadyI 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

art@nowtoronto.com | @rosemheather

This text commissioned for https://nowtoronto.com/art-and-books/art/dynasty-handbag-opposite-correct-behaviour/

 

Interview: Allison Hrabluik on the Unscripted Magic of “The Splits”

February 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

SFU Gallery - Allison Hrabluik - "The Splits"
Allison Hrabluik, video still from “The Splits,” 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

Studying the human body in movement is a constant in Allison Hrabluik’s work. Starting first with hand-drawn animations, then making more abstract films derived from tracing figures on YouTube, the artist has most recently worked with real people to make her short film, The Splits (2015). The beguiling piece that results suggests another constant in the artist’s practice: an intuitive ability to use the things she works with — often random, dissimilar — to tell a story wrapped up in the artwork’s process.

With The Splits, Hrabluik constructs an unlikely portrait of everyday life in British Columbia by focusing on people performing a skill or hobby they are passionate about — from sausage-making to Afghan Hound-grooming. The desire to practice and get better at something, whatever it may be, connects the film’s subjects, and this includes Hrabluik and her facility for filmmaking. The artist told me she followed no strong rule about who would be included in the work. Instead, she found participants through an organic process, one that combined on-the-ground research with referrals from friends. She pulls it all together according to an intuitive logic both enigmatic and highly persuasive that makes clear the skill the artist brings to the project.

Hrabluik beguiles through the trickery of cinema. The work’s greater subject is the idiosyncratic space the film constructs and the role viewer perception plays in its making. A tightly focused camera frame makes us aware of the film’s synthetic space. Reinforcing this impression is the location where Hrabluik shot The Splits, a community center in Surrey, British Columbia. A typical setting for many of the activities the artist depicts — a tap dancing rehearsal, for instance — by using it to bring together a disparate range of such activities Hrabluik creates an enhanced but denaturalized context for her subjects. This approach is made clear from the film’s opening frames when the viewer receives partial pieces of information that become more intelligible as the film progresses. Sound from each scene carries over into the next, helping to establish the broader coherence of the work.

The Splits takes place within the white space of a rehearsal hall, and also in the world Hrabluik creates. This opens her work up onto a wider conversation about the use of art as a tool for scripting reality, a contemporary preoccupation that extends from the lowest forms of pop culture to the high art aspirations of literary autofiction. In her method of using real-world performance to capture unexpected, composite effects, Hrabluik’s film shares a lot in common with these tendencies. I spoke with the Vancouver-based Hrabluik this March about her artistic process, the logistics of filming The Splits, and where her practice might lead next. Following a presentation at Kassel Dokfest, in Kassel, Germany, the film is currently on view at SFU Art Gallery, Burnaby, BC, with an upcoming screening at Images Festival, Toronto.

You’ve described movement as being a unifying factor in your works, can you distill what’s of interest to you there?

Prior to making The Splits, I had been making narrative video works, and found that I didn’t know what kind of story to tell anymore. When it came time to write a new script, I could focus on almost anything, so how should I make a selection?

I was also reading a lot of fiction, and began to notice the similarities between many of the books on my shelf. They were wildly different in content, but similar in that they all describe how we manage, or don’t manage, the situations we find ourselves in. I wondered if this internal struggle could be distilled into something visually. Perhaps through the ways we physically move through the world. I began creating movement-based scripts as alternatives to narrative scripts, in an attempt to reveal a character instead of telling a story. To do this, I worked with a composer and a choreographer and began to trace films, looking for different ways to make things move.

You also made works by tracing videos found on YouTube — taking a video and choosing it for its movement. You mentioned this was the provenance for The Splits?

Yes. I was looking for videos to work with, and came across a group of young gymnasts online who record themselves performing in their living rooms and backyards, and post the videos to Youtube. The footage was strangely captivating but because they were teenagers I knew I couldn’t ethically use their images. So I started meeting with gymnasts and dancers here in Vancouver. I began videotaping them, planning to use the footage to trace their forms, but soon realized that altering the images wasn’t necessary. There was instead something in the connection between performers that I wanted to follow.

I contacted as many people as I could find who I thought moved in interesting ways. I started with gymnasts, a hula hooper, and weightlifters — athletic ways of moving. To round this out, I considered other ways of performing, like opera and burlesque, amateur music, and how we move everyday at work and with animals. I also incorporated elements of our lives that lean towards the grotesque — the salami makers and the hotdog eater. The absurd is linked to our everyday as much as the transcendent, which is often what we look for in physical excellence.

And you knew all the people?

I know a few of them. Barbe Atwell, the hula hooper is a friend, the tap dancers I saw tap dancing on Granville Island, and the dog trainers I found online through the Afghan Hound Society. Others, like the skippers, gymnasts, and weightlifters I contacted through their coaches, who put me in touch with people they thought might be interested. Often friends recommended people.

I began to notice that if there’s an action people do, there’s a team around it. For instance, I was thinking about skipping, fencing, competitive eating, dog training, birding, etc., and found communities for all of them, each with their own language, skill set, and measures of success. In this project, art and filmmaking became only one activity among many, and I enjoyed that opening up.

That brings me to another question. I noticed in the bibliography that accompanies your show that it includes the category Scripted. What’s the connection?

Melanie O’Brian, the director of SFU Galleries and the curator of the exhibition, asked me to compile a bibliography of books that formed my thinking around The Splits. She knew that literature is often a starting point for my work. Scripted is a section of the bibliography, and includes The Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974/1997) by Georges Perec, who works with writing constraints, and also the catalogue Yvonne Rainer: Space, Body, Language (2012). Rainer uses a lot of annotated scores to direct movement in her choreography.

Okay. Because that brings up a whole world of ideas that are relevant to the current moment. For instance, the idea of autofiction associated with the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I’m not familiar with the term autofiction, but think I know what you mean. I read the first book of My Struggle (2012), and enjoyed it. Other books in the bibliography for the exhibition, like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984/1985), bill bissett’s work, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), I believe fall into that category. I’m also interested in nonfiction that has literary qualities, which for me begins to read in similar ways. Like Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), and Sharon Butala’s Perfection of the Morning (1994).

What some of these works share is a thinly-veiled allegory of self-love and self-destruction as two sides of the same coin. Sometimes describing this in a cool voice, other times with unapologetic effervescence. It’s the effervescence that spills into The Splits.

This makes me wonder about how scripted your works is?  Is it scripted?  

The selection of the cast was carefully arranged, as was the location of filming. We filmed at Sullivan Hall in Surrey, a very active community center. The events that happen at Sullivan Hall on a weekly basis are not far off from what happens in The Splits. The weeks before we filmed, the hall hosted a wedding, a bird sale, a rock and mineral show, an auto show, yoga lessons, and dog training evenings.

Creating the situation became the script. I trusted that once the cast and location were in place, something interesting would happen. During filming, I asked the performers to perform whatever they wanted. We filmed everything, and I made a lot of decisions during the editing process.

The framing is so important. When the film starts, it’s the tap dancers. Then it’s the hula hoop woman, but the way you frame it, there’s some degree of ambiguity. You are suggesting there is an equivalence between the frame and the stage, and that creates the space of the film. Were you always trying emphasize this tight framing when shooting?  

I was interested in the similarities between the different actions performed. The motion in the close-up scenes of the hula-hooper is echoed in the close ups of the gymnasts and weightlifter. By initially hiding the particular activity involved, I could focus on their shared qualities. In the end, it’s curious to know that it’s a hula hoop, a dumb bell, and balancing exercises that create such erotically-charged motion, but it’s not really about the hula hoop.

Right. I guess that’s what you give to the viewer is this puzzle to work out about what’s going on. Why are these things together and what connects them all? I think you can intuitively understand that it’s pretty open but I think you are also very aware of the frame.

I needed a frame, I did. I tried not to have one. I tried to film in everyone’s individual spaces and it didn’t work. So the hall and the stage and the close cropping become devices that connect what might otherwise be a random grouping of people, isolating and highlighting their actions. The neutrality of the hall is important. While it has the character of a space that is well used for performance and celebration, it also shares the neutral characteristics of an exhibition space, allowing us to focus on movement over setting.

Obviously you are able to work with these people because you have that sensitivity to what they need to feel comfortable, and to perform. It’s very naturalistic, that was another point I was going to make …

The process was comfortable, and this was important. I met with everyone individually before we filmed, to describe the project and answer questions. Once they arrived at the hall, we spent several hours filming each group. This gave them time to become comfortable in front of the camera. A feeling of naturalness also happens through editing. I searched through hours of footage to find moments where the performers were unguarded. Much of the scripting you asked about earlier happens there.

It’s not a documentary.

I think it intersects documentary and fiction. The performers are performing themselves, but the situation that brings them together is constructed. I’ll continue to explore this intersection with other subjects, leaving movement behind for a while.

Do you think about directing? Will you be making a more scripted film in the future?  

Yes, I’ll certainly experiment with a more scripted approach. That might involve writing scripts while leaving room for improvisation.

Rosemary Heather

This interview originally appeared in Momus, MARCH 29, 2016.

More information about Allison Hrabluik here.

 

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