Friday, March 31, 2017
Exhibition Essay: The Future Behind Us
The Future Behind Us revisits a collective project initiated by Romeo Gongora in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in March 2013. Each artwork and object in the exhibition enacts a series of subtle shifts, ruptures, and translations across time and space, re-presenting and relocating the project from Kinshasa to Calgary.
The project in Kinshasa
Romeo Gongora’s research-led practice involves the creation of temporary situations, each uniquely structured around collective creative, critical processes of production. In line with this approach, and in response to an invitation to be a facilitator for a workshop at Kin ArtStudio in Kinshasa, he proposed to collaboratively produce a science fiction film, from scratch, over the course of a three-week residency.
Kin ArtStudio - a cultural platform set up by artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo - produced the annual ‘Master Art’ workshop as a fluid, alternative education program offering young artists the opportunity to work in close collaboration with an invited international artist. A group of around 14 young artists from DRC took part, and the pilot film, Perinium, was created over fifteen days of production.
Before arriving in Kinshasa, Gongora kick-started the collaborative process of producing the film by creating a sci-fi literary competition, circulating a poster via Kin ArtStudio’s online networks. Two of the winning entries later formed the basis of the script for the pilot film and its title, Perinium.
The film was written, directed, and screened within three weeks. Working with little to no budget, the team self-selected their roles, producing DIY props, soundtracks, and costumes in the lead-up to the shoot. The shoot itself took place over three days and was edited right up to the final hour before its first public screening.
The installation in Calgary
The installation, The Future Behind Us, at TRUCK Contemporary Art translates the experience and process of shooting on-location in Kinshasa from different angles and perspectives; offering a sense of the energy of the city whilst reflecting the wider socio-political contexts that informed the making of the film.
A series of questions thread in and out of the work throughout the space: What do we do with the past? Is it possible to re-present an artwork that was based as much on process as on final outcomes? If the film was a project defined by collective work, how can it be exhibited?
The film: a pilot
The central installation and screening framework at TRUCK echoes the structure of the bar in Kinshasa where the film was first shown. The site, which is a meeting point for locals in Kinshasa, becomes a communal point in the centre of the gallery. These two moments are connected by the film banner, hung here in the space but originally printed to advertise the event in Kinshasa.
Romeo Gongora took a series of images in what he describes as ‘gaps of time’ whilst travelling through the city; in the midst of producing the film on route to and from Kin ArtStudio and the Academy of Fine Arts where he was staying throughout the production. They act both as a counterpoint to the moving images of the film, and as contemplative imprints of Gongora’s subjective experience of the city.
Gongora’s mode of creating communal, creative, critical projects is inspired in part by the theories and praxis of Brazilian radical pedagogue Paulo Freire; and equally by artist collectives from the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, to name a few, the Mousse Spacthèque, the Fusion des Arts group, and the Fondation du théâtre d’environnement integral, as well as the periodicals Parti Pris and Liberté. His recent project Just Watch Me (2014) transformed the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery into a social club. For the duration of the show the space became a radical site of production, dialogue, collaboration, and collective creation. Taking similar starting points, but expanding beyond the walls of a gallery space, Commun Commune (June 2015) was a month-long experiment that brought a disparate group of strangers together to temporarily experience life in a commune.
The process-based project in Kinshasa took a similar approach: while Gongora initiated the film, his role gradually shifted within the group from catalyst to collaborator, from instigator to interlocutor. In his own words, “over time, the project became horizontal”.
While these subtle processes of negotiation, which played out within the dynamics of the group behind-the-scenes remain invisible, for Gongora they are integral to the work. For this reason, the film Perinium was first screened at the 10th edition of the Bamako Biennial of Photography in Mali (2015), as a collectively authored project.
The Future Behind Us represents a new departure for Gongora, as an exhibition presented as a solo show rather than a collaborative project unfolding within the space. And yet, the performative act of staging the exhibition in itself involves the creation of a temporary space for collective, creative, critical, and transformative processes of reflection. A workshop taking place on March 25th, 2017 - almost exactly four years to the day since the pilot film was originally screened - loops back to Gongora’s collaborative impulse and takes a step further in this direction, feeding back into the exhibition with science fiction objects created by visitors for future use in the space, for the duration of the show.
By Lily Hall
Lily Hall is an independent curator and writer based in London. She holds an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London, UK (2012) and a BA in English Literature and Art History from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK (2007). Forthcoming curatorial projects include Surface Tensions: Pavla and Lucia Sceranková, at Pump House Gallery in partnership with Czech Centre, London; and Soft Walls, curated in collaboration with Mette Kjærgaard Præst and Daniela Berger at Museo de la Solidaridad Salvaldor Allende (MSSA), Santiago de Chile (both 2017).
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
An Essay on Obsolescence
By Mohammad Rezaei
In an interview following the release of her 2014 album Wanderlust—a departure from her signature sound—British pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor spoke of the album as “something which I really felt like I needed to do. I felt more excited than worried and liberated. I'm really not sure where I'll go from here if I'm honest. It's funny, it's the first time in ages where I'm not sure where I'll be in the next six months or with the next album.”
If we were to approach obsolescence as an evolution, how would future generations recount the discourse of art in our current time? Would they look to objects made by artists presented in the white cube, in theory a place with aspirations of opening dialogue that is instead oftentimes exclusive, classist, and routinely resisting change? Or would they look to .gifs, memes, and emoji as evidence to track the evolution of language and culture? In 2017, how important is it to make tangible objects to continue the discourse of visual art?
When I started doing research for this project, I was interested in signs made by migrant/illegal workers underneath bridges, tunnels, close to railroad tracks. Lines crossing each other, squares within squares, horizontal zigzags hold meaning of up to a full sentence, indicating the social structure of the surrounding area and its friendly/unfriendly nature. Humans decipher lines that were thought up by other humans because we find patterns within layers to seek meaning in marks.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines obsolescence as “the process of becoming obsolete or the condition of being nearly obsolete.” With this exhibition, I wanted to explore the residual leftovers, the marks left after obsoletion. I look at this process as an evolution, not an end. A gradual fade to white, rather than a fade to black.
This exhibit is an attempt to define meaning within mark making from a very specific educated in the arts socio-economic point of view. It is an exploration of what is not there, more than what is there. The works presented here are process-driven and explore the depth of perception, both literal and metaphorical. They are methods of communication within a world on the brink of collapse. Each piece in its own way embodies an approach of noticing and not noticing. Justin Somjen’s photographs are layers of printed photographs and arranged objects, printed and then photographed again and again and again and again. They are optical illusions made from mass-produced objects, taken out of context when placed within the white cube. Brynn Higgins Stirrup challenges the viewer by making marks that resemble a lost language. Like an archeological discovery, these works are placed within the gallery space asking to be viewed from different angles and in one case, to even be touched. Colwyn Paddon takes the most sentimental approach here, by unthreading and re-sewing thread onto fabric bouquets found in public mourning sites. Jim Verburg takes an architectural approach to defining shadows and perception through layers. Here you are more focused on what is not there than what is there. This is accompanied by the text piece “I Forget That You’re Trying To Interpret All This As Well,” where the most literal approach to the concept is explored. Joy Nina Walker’s drawings pick up where Verburg left off. They are simplistic in nature, symmetrical, and clean. They are forms of communication formed in numbers and measurements.
When I submitted this application almost two years ago, I was younger and the world seemed like a brighter place. I longed for recognition and legitimization. More recently however, most of my thoughts are directed towards the turmoil I see in the world. I’ve been feeling that I’ve fought for something for so long now, only to come to terms with it becoming obsolete. As a queer brown person, I have come to terms with the resentment I feel when I navigate white institutions that insist on seeking their own legitimization via exhibiting what they’ve known over and over and over and over again. I wonder about the value of visual arts in this time; will visual arts be obsolete, perhaps for its inability to be enough when faced with intense aggression? Have tangible objects lost their ability to communicate the urgency of the political turmoil that has taken over the world? Perhaps to me, obsolescence is the acceptance of the inevitable.
Exhibition Essay: The Epistrophy[i] of James Luna
James Luna — his name should be whispered in reverence by all performance artists everywhere but also should be screamed through the halls of every museum. James Luna is a Puyukitchum (Luiseño), Ipi (Degueno), and Mexican-American performance and multimedia installation artist living on California’s La Jolla Indian Reservation. He has been at the forefront of performance art and its intersections with and influence on photography and media installation since he first stepped into a museum as a living exhibit in the 1970s. Trained by Dutch conceptual artist, Bas Jan Ader, Luna uses psychology, a keen eye to the contradictions contemporary ‘Indian’ people live under colonialism, the aesthetics of a painter, and a fearlessness in “airing our dirty laundry.”
The diptych Apparitions 2 shows the complexity of Luna’s strategy of juxtaposition in his photographic work. For this series, Luna uses self-portraiture as a contemporary Indigenous man paired with anthropologically situated photographs of potential ancestors. Apparitions 2 has Luna mimicking the photo of William Ralganal Benson, circa 1936 and held at Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California. Benson was an expert basketmaker, the evidence of which he displays in his hand. In the anthropological discourse surrounding him he is described as follows:
Benson was fortunate enough to have lived his boyhood years during the last decade in which Eastern Pomo speakers enjoyed a more-or-less traditional lifestyle. By the 1870s, the social and environmental disruptions caused by a growing local Anglo-American population would make traditional life impossible, as the lifeways of local Indians became increasingly marginalized.[i]
Another layer in Luna’s work can be seen clearly in We Become Them, in which he contorts his face into the exact replica of a ‘traditional’ west coast mask. Instead of critiquing the prevalence of desire for west coast art in the white imaginary he reframes the mask in an Indigenous context. As a performance artist, his work is connected to the work of the First Nations who would have used these masks in performance, offering a much longer history to performance art in North America. By using his own body to become the mask Luna draws us into the idea of transformation itself and its potential value in Indigenous cultures. As another kick to the knees of old school anthropology he questions: if the masks are meant to be performed then why are they behind glass? We might also ask ourselves how our cultures have shifted into Luna’s brand of performance and storytelling and how we should value it as equally about social change and community remembrance.
In Half-Indian Half-Mexican Luna challenges our understandings of racial purity and the stereotypic signifiers of culture. While each of his two profile shots are of the same man (Luna), each can be recognized as either Mexican or Indian because of the proliferation of images we recognize as representative of a culture. In this case, the Mexican mustache and the Indian long hair. When you confront both profiles head on you realize the ridiculousness of our standards of recognition and how easy it is to split a person in half by our desire to know who someone is definitively. When people cross borders literally (US/Mexican border) and biologically it challenges us to see the fear that lies at the assertion of all borders and purities. That same fear leads to violence against the bodies that cross those borders. While we might laugh at the absurdity of such a dual face we also realize the reality of imposing the division of those identities.
While Luna’s photography is a distillation and continuation of his performance practice it also functions in a similar vein. By having his own body confront the viewer, they can no longer deny his existence. The Indigenous body that has been segregated, exterminated, traumatized, disabled, and confined becomes a site of challenge, power, humour, community, and cultural continuity.
By Wanda Nanibush
[i] Title of Thelonius Monk song. He used it to mean the repetition of sounds at the end of a musical line or phrase. Luna loves Jazz and the title is a tribute to him.
[ii] Luthin, Herbert W. Surviving through the Days: Translations of Native California Stories and Songs: A California Indian Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002: 261.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Friday, September 16, 2016
Exhibition Essay: Goodbye forever: False Absence
Mark Clintberg’s Cecil Hotel is a sculptural artwork and anti-monument for the defunct Calgary hotel of the same name. Until December 2015, the Cecil Hotel was one of only six pre-First World War hotels still standing in the city.1 It was in a neighbourhood now called the East Village inhabited over centuries by First peoples, settlers, campers, cruisers, labourers, bikers, sex workers, and homeless communities. The Cecil became a gathering place for people needing short term accommodations, people needing company for a night, people looking for a fight. It has a long and storied history.
The work takes the form of a modified replica of the hotel signage, which was visible on the roof of the hotel for decades. As precisely as possible, Clintberg has created a scaled down replica with the same framing, font, colour, and mounting structure, with one exception: the letters are backwards, a mirror image of the original.
Viewers encounter it first by catching a glimpse through a large industrial door giving way to the gallery space. In addition to mirroring the text, Clintberg plays with its installation. The work is installed “backwards” and on entry, beckons us to view it from the other side. When approached in this way—the only way that the choice of installation here allows—the text is reversed and the tracery of the mounting structure and letters are in silhouette. Could there be another way to approach it? There is only one entrance to the gallery but there are many ways to read this sign. The text is an advertisement that advocates for critical thought. What is perceived as illegible is in fact comprehensible. We can figure this out.
The mirror image is reflected yet again as the floor’s slight gloss bounces a pinkish/red glow. What’s the right way around? Where should one’s attention and body go? The mirroring and reflection heighten the ambiguity about what the right way is to look at this work—and the right way to look at the Cecil Hotel. What is to be done about places with conflicting stories? What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right way to read not just the text but the ethics of the demolition of this hotel? And what’s an appropriate artistic response to the symbol of a systemic problem?
The societies we have built for ourselves are uneven, busted systems with which we have to contend. The Cecil was once known as a “gathering place for Calgary’s lesbian community in the 60s, when local softball teams chose the Cecil’s backroom as their watering hole”, an underground haven for a community to convene and celebrate.2 Around the time of its demolition however, the stories told in the mainstream media presented the Cecil as an ugly blight that Calgarians had long wished removed. Some referred to the heritage report that deemed it salvageable while others said the opposite.3 These conflicting viewpoints seem to indicate that while the old hotel had value, it was inconvenient to recognize it and care for its history. Most of all, the stories that are told are of violence and desperation. At least three different major news outlets cited the same statistics: in its final year of operation, police were called 1,700 times and weeks after its bar license was revoked, calls to the area dropped by 91%.4 Why share this repeatedly? Yes, it’s newsworthy, but it also implies that a perceived threat can dissipate like dust settling after a demolition. The repetition of this narrative creates a false absence and erases the stories of community, convening, and celebration. The conflicting viewpoints, opposing details, and drilling of these narratives shows that this place was not as simple as an “'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness.”5
The demolished building stands in for a body being denied. People who used it are perceived as useless, worthless, a blight to be covered up and hidden. The hope to disappear the body of the hotel is a hope to disappear the bodies of the past and recent frequenters of the hotel itself. This characterization of the hotel as a useless body denies the many individuals who were once there, especially those who recently stayed there, because to acknowledge that they are also no longer found at this address would require asking where they went. It wishes them away. As one commenter on the National Post article wrote: “No one likes you Cecil. Goodbye forever.”6
Clintberg could have drawn upon his connections in Calgary to meet with various community groups to discuss the future of the hotel and the now vacant site but he chose not to. In this moment of social practice, city-based research, collaboration, community awareness, and new funding for engagement, many arts organizations, municipalities, and individual creators have conducted community consultations or impact assessments and included community members in the creative process. Artworks that respond to community issues by depending on the community itself for aspects of the material production have mixed results. Sometimes the art enhances the community with a visual expression or the community enhances the art with personal content. Often enough, work made in this way turns out to be a simplistic representation of the community involved because it relies on whoever is available and willing. On rare occasions, both the work and the community are authentically strengthened by the engagement. When city planners or artists use art as a tool or set of instructions to work on lived social issues, this process legitimizes art as having the ability to save a neighbourhood, a city, or a society. Culture can create change and is the backbone of a strong society. But more often than not, this hopeful way of thinking loses its nuances and complexities by focusing on individual artworks, rather than larger cultural movements less limited by time and space.
Clintberg invites the community into the process after this material production phase. He explains: “…rather than a conversation focused on how to best represent the communities of The Cecil Hotel through the fabrication of an object (or even the planning of events, interventions, or other core strategies of social practice), I hope the conversation can focus on how to spark discussion about gaining representative ground for The Cecil Hotel's communities—with no expected artistic outcome. Cecil Hotel, I hope, will become an initial gesture to return to the present-tense of the Cecil Hotel, which while architecturally absent is still demographically present.”7
This brings us to an important point of public and community contact for this project. There is a set of beverage glasses that have been created with the Cecil Hotel logo. To insist “Goodbye forever” is to let go forcefully. The glasses, which are circulating in bars and establishments around town, ask people to hold onto the memories of the Cecil with a bit more care. Spreading a multiple directly into neighbourhoods in this way points to endings and renewal. The glasses, unless archived, will break eventually through use. The systems we have will also eventually need to be replaced because they too break through use. But the story of the Cecil tells us that it’s not people who need replacing but the systems that define us.
Clintberg has chosen to be political without being didactic, to be engaging without requiring participation. Art doesn’t need to be instructional to be meaningful.8 This work focuses attention back on form rather than initiating prescriptive learning processes. It does not purport to solve the systemic issues of the city. He does not deal with the quickly shifting landscape of the East Village as though gentrification is an artistic thematic or contemporary issue to be chosen among many. He reveals that focusing on thematics and issues is a problematic and outdated way of making art, of communicating. Instead he shares his work as if to say, “Let’s talk.” To speak to a community this way is to first deeply consider the ethical implications of such a practice. There is nothing for people to do but consider their own choices in the presence of what art reflects.
Essay by: Alissa Firth-Eagland
1 Steve Mertl. “Notorious Calgary flophouse and crime magnet Cecil Hotel could soon meet the wrecking ball.” Daily Brew, October 28, 2012. Accessed August 8, 2016 https://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-brew/notorious-calgary-flophouse-crime-magnet-cecil-hotel-could-183756622.html
3 The National Post reported the building as salvageable while most other major news outlets claimed it was not. See Jen Gerson. “Calgary’s 'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness may soon become a frightening piece of the past” The National Post, October 26, 2012. Accessed August 9, 2016 http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/calgarys-cecil-hotel-a-reminder-of-a-time-of-evil-death-and-darkness
4 These statistics were quoted in the National Post, CTV News, the Calgary Sun, Yahoo! News, the East Village Free Press, and avenuecalgary.com.
5 Jen Gerson. “Calgary’s 'epicentre' of evil, death and darkness may soon become a frightening piece of the past” The National Post, October 26, 2012. Accessed August 9, 2016
7 Email dialogue with the artist. August 16, 2016.
8 Nato Thompson has recently written about the role of art today as instructional, which places experiential limits on moments with art. In his essay “Living as Form” from the Creative Time hardcover (2012) of the same name, he says: “In a world of vast cultural production, the arts have become an instructive space to gain valuable skill sets in the techniques of performativity, representation, aesthetics, and the creation of affect. These skills sets are not secondary to the landscape of political production but, in fact, necessary for its manifestation.” Thompson’s point that citizens of all walks of life can become political actors if they come into contact with the right art and walk away changed is simplistic and prescriptive of art’s potential. Art can be meaningful without being instructional. People can form their own opinions, learnings, and rebuttals to art (or not) without needing to acquire a set of art viewing skills with the goal of manifesting a political expression. One can simply experience art.
An independent cultural producer, curator, and writer based in Guelph, Alissa Firth-Eagland explores flexible, creative, nurturing, place-based projects. She volunteers in her community, acts as a program consultant to Canadian not-for-profits, and writes about relationships between people, culture, and place. She believes our experiences with art tell us important stories about our selves, our sense of belonging, and our communities. These are stories to be shared.