Friday, September 16, 2016

ESSAY: Cecil Hotel


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
2  Ibid.
 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
 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
6  Ibid.
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.

Friday, February 26, 2016

ACCOMPANYING TEXT: MIRROR ME

Text By Dana Buzzee for Niki Boghossian's exhibition Sacred Circle

It is important that we make sure we are prepared. Protection is a must, but we also need to rally up power for our task. We are here to scry - to fortunetell, to look, and to see. Intention is crucial. We will be seeing with a sight that is not often exercised and in order to access it we need to be transformed. This transformation that will tip the balance of power and grant us vision, comes in two parts: the site and the self.   


We must carve out a circle, to mark the ground as sacred, and separate it from what is common. The site becomes a place for magic by inverting the ordinary. To empower the space, we must acknowledge our own power. We can hold no quarter for presumptions about weakness, displays of normalcy and what is believed to be appropriate. Those things must be left outside.   


Walk the perimeter of the circle to set it. Cut it, with a little force, if the need is serious. Always seal it with salt. These actions need to be meant. When they are, we will have created a site worthy of ritual work, where channels between worlds run open. In this place, we can be fortified by shadows and spirits, and we –ourselves – will be transformed by admission into the circle.   


Seeing the future and the otherworldly is not very different from seeing the mundane. Fix your gaze and let it linger until you understand what it is all about. It helps if the surface is reflective - literally or figuratively -as it will cause the eyes stick. Drawing the mind in through the gaze, there is time for it to process the mystical imagery being seen. It is a simple process when it is stripped down to its essentials, however, the particulars are what set seekers apart from those without the aptitude for seeing.   


Divination and the grouping of domestic tasks deemed ‘women's work’ have grown up as sisters to one another. Objects made for scrying that are handcrafted are inherently subversive; their existence challenges conventions conceived from necessity, making the esoterica of soothsaying objects feminist creations. In the fog that lies between the many myths and many facts connecting women and magic, historical archetypes still persist. These mythologies affect how we understand craft, ritual, and our powers, but we have the choice to pull what we want from the history of women witches, discard what we know is untrue, and build our own meaning of identity with it.   


Holding all this in mind, the time is good to look. In our circle, the mirrored sight is telling and more potent that what might be expected. Pay attention to what is seen here and how you see it and you will be able to access the sight and meaning reflected back.  


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About the Writer:  Dana Buzzee graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2012, studying at the Alberta College of Art and Design, The New York Studio Residency Program and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Since completing her undergrad, Buzzee has enjoyed a nomadic studio practice with exhibitions and residencies in Canada, Finland, Iceland, and the United States.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ESSAY: Veins

Exhibition Essay: Willfulness of the wild: deep listening with Rita McKeough

Are you sure that you are hearing every thing that there is to hear?
-Pauline Oliveros, 2005
 
My body bristles everywhere becoming attuned to the nuances of Rita McKeough’s Veins, waking up to it, searching for a pattern, itching, scratching, listening for a fragment of language to hold. My nerves are awakened by slippery motion of snakes at my feet and the snarls and growls that pierce the air of the exhibition. I’m immersed in Rita’s audio work Elk; a few days writing amidst her chorus of wolves, snakes, leaks, bears, rivers, leaves, and I’m finally arriving where Pauline Oliveros suggests that we may go when deep listening.
 
In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed suggests we can create a more ethical relation to “nature” when we recognize its willfulness.[1] To be willful, or full of will, might be to overflow, to exceed what is understood. Of course our fraught understanding and attempts to define the fullness of “nature” are too narrow, too simplistic to grasp its complexity. It is not a subject. For McKeough, it is a pounding, a persistent present knocking that wakes up the body, where each body is a hybrid, a combination of movements, twitches, gestures. Her Drummers beat by themselves, and they must be heard. As Oliveros seems to imply with her question above – we may not hear every thing, but deepening the will to listen is at the heart of it.[2]
 
A willful body might participate differently from normative ideas or social formations, actively resist them, or simply exist in a way that isn’t legible within such formations at all. At first, I read Stump EyesElk TongueSnarl, and Owl leaf as simple animated faces made of cutout pieces, not necessarily moving in synch. These willful parts confound the assumption that facial features should act in a unified manner to produce a specific expression. Instead, they are emotive assemblages: elk horns rise up, coyote ears shake with anger, big focused owl eyes stare us down, and cartoon-cutout teeth add menace, and each is at will to communicate a different signal. At one point McKeough and I attempt to discuss how her hybrid elk-bear-leaf creature feels—what they are “saying,” by fixing some meaning into familiar words, but in the next moment we give way to sounds. A complete “dog person,” McKeough knows sound is a language, and barks at me overtop of herself.
 
Through all the growling, barking, rough to the ear snarl that explodes from McKeough’s lungs, chest, mouth into the gallery, I’m thinking of Donna Haraway’s companion species. Though her work focuses on the joint lives of dogs and people, of “companion species” she says, “one must include such organic beings as rice, bees, tulips, and intestinal flora, all of whom make life for humans what it is—and vice versa.”[3] She calls the term itself “a composition that resonates… in which co-constitution, finitude, impurity, historicity and complexity are what is.”[4] So another willful, enabling, expansive voice joins us amidst the rising and falling resonance of Veins.
 
As an artist, McKeough is her own kind of willful creature, in the habitat of her installation full of hybrid companion species, doubly willful. This is what draws me closer to her work. To sustain a long career as a woman artist is to stick with it, to keep knocking, digging out the ideas that mean, and come to mean more, through persistence. To take up “willfulness” as an ethical, reparative position is an opening to different experiences of being; a mode that makes us more aware of how we fit (or don’t fit) the expectations of the social body outside of ourselves. If this sounds like the process of inhabiting other words, like “queer,” or “feminist,” it should. Ahmed says “persistence can be an act of disobedience…a deviation from a trajectory, what stops the hurtling forward of fate, what prevents a fatality.”[5] In Veins, the “hurtling forward” is a pipeline, a spurt, time, a highway, a leak, the anxiety of another kind of mechanical knocking, knocking oil up out of the ground.
 
The willful figure might pose an obstruction. Ahmed asks, “How do you know which way things are flowing? Usually by not going that way.”[6] We come to willfulness by being in the way, and thus like McKeough has, might develop a heightened sense of urgency that we cannot keep “going that way.” She implicates herself, as we walk the divided road to the back of the gallery. The route is necessarily limiting; it’s a bird’s eye and a sideways pan all at once. Traversing this road I become more aware of its constrained, sense-deprived view of the world, the way hyper-detailed leaves and articulated, minutely scaled snakes start to conform to the linear logic of resource extraction that forces all things to flow in the direction of the road. Following Ahmed, we might also ask by whose will has capitalism come to be understood as “a whole body,” a dominant circulatory system of minute control where “capital is identified as the lifeblood [that] must be kept in circulation no matter what”?[7] No matter what?
 
Veins documents McKeough’s position, which is not a moral one, but an ethical one that is willing to expand in all directions: a space for feeling, for being affected, and for sensory immersion, where she creates a stage for hearing every thing there is to hear. For being inside of Veins, writing in it, is a process of excavating gradually deepening layers of feeling, of deep listening, of being seduced by surfaces, and being called to look beneath them.
 

Essay By: Anthea Black
[1] Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2014), 192.
[2] Pauline Oliveros, “Listening Questions,” Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, (iUniverse, 2005), 56.
[3] Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 15.
[4] Ibid. 15-16, emphasis mine.
[5] Ahmed, 10.
[6] Ibid, 144.
[7] Ibid, 105.


Anthea Black is a Canadian artist, writer, and cultural worker. Her current writing approaches contemporary art, craft, and performance by women artists through fictocriticism and interview. Her collaborative writing with Nicole Burisch is included in The Craft Reader and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art and their forthcoming book is Craft on Demand: The New Politics of the Handmade. She is a faculty member at OCAD University in print, publications, and criticism and curatorial studies. Black wishes to thank Rita McKeough, Mark Clintberg, Hazel Meyer, and Jeremy Pavka at TRUCK, for their generous support of the text.

DOCUMENTATION: A Conversation

Roselina Hung & Mary Porter's A Conversation at the +15 Project Window







Friday, January 15, 2016

ESSAY: two eyes gleaming pictures of windows

As humans, we all wish to connect with others, to be known and to share our experience, and yet we know that truly sharing an experience with another is often fraught with missed connections and misunderstandings, and that we often simply fail.  For Steven Cochrane and The Walled Garden, this critical failure is at the crux of his whole endeavour.  Recognizing the tenuous objective, Cochrane’s installation offers a speculative conversation about both his own memory and also the relative impossibility of recreating for your conversant the intricacies and subtleties of a memory, a dream, something that you experienced or a feeling you once had.  Describing the scene only goes so far.   

Cochrane layers and repeats drawings, prints, photographs, and familiar-but-unsettled objects alongside signs bearing fragments of text, intentional lighting, and larger installation elements in a multivalent but non-verbal description of something elusive and yet very concrete. The memory is real.  This immersive exhibition tells the parts of a story that words can’t convey and casts the viewer as interlocutor, puzzler, witness.   

Untitled (Screen wall) (2011) is made up of a series of unique rubbings, each repeating graphic components within a gridded frame to create irregular patterns.  They are regimented enough to make a person think there’s a formula here (on this wall, and also in this room) but further investigation seems to suggest otherwise. Can you crack the code?  This careful looking, eyes darting over the grid to compare this here to that there, is similar to the mind’s project of persistently revisiting different aspects of the memory/ies of a traumatic moment in an effort to make sense of it/them.  The mind continues puzzling, despite the possible endlessness of this pursuit.   

Plants drawn from memory with invisible ink (2012) is a series of blind contour drawings Cochrane’s made by relying on his own memories of botanical illustrations of plants that grew around his childhood homes,^ and they’re drawn with a medium that disappears as you work and then reappears when it’s dried.  He explained, “you can see sometimes that I'd accidentally draw…over and over again in the same spot…I was trying to build the struggle to remember into the making of the work”^ —again, a metaphor for the mind’s project of working it out, whatever ‘it’ may be.  Explaining, repeating, defining, exaggerating, leaving things out, forgetting, but you get the gist.   

Two jewels gleam on the wall, yellow-green and blue-red eyes surveying the space.  Together they are After Evening Thunderstorms, June 2002 and June 2007 (2013), a pair photographs from Cochrane’s personal collection, each mounted behind an acrylic prism—a paperweight?  an award?  a crystal ball? These two snapshots were taken in the same room, five years apart, each an attempt to capture and reproduce “that quality of light—a very particular kind of hyper-saturated yellow-green.”^  Windows in particular have a specific job: letting the light in, framing the view. Windows are contemplative by their very nature, conjuring ideas about reflection, longing, escape… Cochrane’s pictures of windows here, now viewed from a distance in time through a bevelled crystalline filter, put us in that room looking out those windows.  Viewing the rest of the exhibition from this position, we might feel that we’re looking through Cochrane’s own lens.  Is this the key?   

Cochrane’s visual and sensorial narrative seems to reveal intimate details about a moment in his life, if obliquely, and at the same time The Walled Garden presents a perfect illustration of the frustration inherent in such an undertaking. Communicating a  subjective experience, whether profound or traumatic or both, can be tremendously difficult.  The artist is sharing something with us here, and whether we scrutinize the clues or simply absorb the impressions, or/and walk away feeling stumped/bemused, curious, betrayed, or touched, we are participating in a conversation.   

Lisa Benschop 
July 2015         

^ refers to details shared by the artist in email correspondence, April 23, 2015. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

DOCUMENTATION: Finding Ana

Documentation from Elise Rasmussen's Finding Ana