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.