Landlocked and Lonesome: LIDS, Queer Feminism and Artist Run-Culture in Boomin’ Calgary – Anthea Black

The title of the Ladies’ Invitational Deadbeat Society’s (LIDS) performance, JDH: Keepin’ On, Keepin’ On, has a particular geographical and political significance. After living and working in Alberta for my entire life, I had observed that artists and artist-run activities had survived in spite of our surroundings. For queer artists, this was painfully more acute. And yet, we survived where others—many of whom are artists of colour and aboriginal artists—were marginalized to the point of obscurity, or felt forced to leave in search of more hospitable communities. For every artist who left, those of us who remained felt more and more lonesome, and yet resolved to stay and fight the good fight. It was a point of pride and strength to remain, and we identified passionately with a narrative of survival and persistence.

After all, Alberta has decades of uninterrupted conservative landslide majorities at the provincial and federal government levels, with a corresponding relationship with the arts and queerness that has encompassed (and still swings between) flagrant neglect and all-out confrontation. Ours is the government that refused to accept the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that sexual orientation be included in Human Rights legislation for over ten years, the government that has ignored arts funding advocacy for a couple of decades and the one that has recently de-listed health coverage for transgender surgeries. These are painful daily realities for some, and issues that local activists have spent their entire lives fighting. And perhaps most pertinent for those who live outside of the bizarre microclimate of Alberta, including our ex-pats, to never forget: this is the place that groomed Canada’s current Prime Minister and many in his cabinet. Gradually, the Podunk place we call home—that remains a place to escape from or a backwoods blind spot for many outside of the province—has become very dangerous far beyond its borders.

Even the entrepreneurial spirit of “the West,” with all of its loaded connotations, means that artists and activists are constantly hatching new ideas and initiatives to combat these forces. We respond with direct-action protests, posters, performances, exhibitions and themed programming initiatives, art criticism, workshops, coalitions, letter writing and traditional lobbying of our local and provincial governments (when they’re not refusing to meet with us). And yet, the largely separate activist, queer and arts communities in Calgary can be deeply conservative working environments, full of fear and self-censorship, where overlaps are not always welcome.

The pressure on our communities intensified from 2005 to 2008 when oil boom-time hit corporate and working class Calgary once again, and massive, neighbourhood-ripping developments displaced artists, arts spaces and the economically vulnerable alike. City council was dismissive of the idea of live-work spaces for artists and the creation of more general low income housing as being an obvious solution to ease these strains. Then a high-profile “Art Matters” panel discussion, led by Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond with Calgary’s so-called arts leaders, focused more on cultural boosterism than real solutions to artist poverty, rapid gentrification and loss of affordable arts spaces, not to mention corporatization and professionalization of arts groups who were struggling just to keep up.

A group of faculty, staff and students at the Alberta College of Art and Design launched an anti-racist/anti-homophobia alliance in 2000 that had made gains with a review of the college’s ancient discrimination and harassment policies, a lecture series by artists of colour and anti-racist workshops for faculty and new students. At that time, there were less than 10 self-identified aboriginal students out of almost 1,000 and no aboriginal faculty. Despite the desperate need for change, the initiatives were cancelled without explanation. Axing this project left a dearth of support for culturally diverse and queer students that would not be filled until the college launched the Diversity Advisory Committee in 2006, and a queer student’s union group and the independent Feminist Book Club were started from scratch in late 2008.

Yet to put these developments in context, during this same period, neo-Nazis marched unhindered in downtown Calgary along a similar route that Pride Parade organizers require a permit to use. Members of the Fairy Tales International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (as it was called until 2010) programming committee made the case for an evening of films focused on trans-experiences, but the idea was dismissed by the Board President as being potentially controversial and alienating for the festival’s largely affluent white male audience. One queer culture-starved LIDS member identified with General Idea and AA Bronson’s practices as lifelines of strength in queer artmaking, until she later heard Bronson speak at the Banff Centre for the Arts where he said he wasn’t interested in art made by women; no one at this lecture questioned him. When The New Gallery programmed lesbian artist Toni Latour’s “Queers on the Move” performance for the Calgary Stampede Parade, the application was approved by officials and then quickly revoked again, days before the performance was to take place; other arts organizations hadn’t even programmed a culturally diverse or queer artist in years, with boards who were unwilling to consider proactive change. Edie Fake’s public window installation for TRUCK: Contemporary Art in Calgary, filled with bright, gender-ambiguous cartoon figures, was the subject of controversy and censorship at the hands of another arts organization and its management: the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts. That issue exploded as front-page news at The Calgary Herald, drew comments about the appropriateness of public art from City Hall and once the dust had cleared, was the subject of a detailed piece by Diana Sherlock for FUSE Magazine.

The historical background to these events includes the controversy and censorship of Much Sense: Erotics and Life exhibition at the Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery in 1992. A period of intense public and political dialogue, violent threats to gallery staff, and government bills to cut arts funding to any organization that programmed queer art followed this exhibition. These events are documented in the book, Arousing Sensation: A Case Study of Controversy Surrounding Art and the Erotic. Unfortunately for a younger generation of feminist and queer artists, of which LIDS is part, this battle left many cultural workers in our community so exhausted and demoralized, it’s hard to gain information and hear first-person accounts of the time.

Looking back to the more recent past, I offer the following collection of anecdotes as a fairly personal record of my (and LIDS members’) direct involvement in various events and organizations. It’s certainly not exhaustive, nor is there room to document each in great detail, but they provide a window to some of the experiences that have marked Calgary’s artist-run community.

The Ladies’ Invitational Deadbeat Society was a humourous name for a group of women who were working hard to build community at home and mediate our loneliness and isolation from larger artistic centres. There was no choice but to make friends among our artist-run colleagues, to get through the tough times together, and to use collaboration as a tool for creative survival but also for social and political dialogue.

At the time, the performance of JDH: Keepin’ On, Keepin’ On wasn’t envisioned to be overtly political, but it was certainly informed by the climate we were living in. The artist-run ethos was deep within all of us, as was our willingness to stay in Alberta and fight, and yet, these very same activities had burnt us out to the point of abandoning our arts admin positions to refocus on our artistic practices. As a tribute to our artist/arts admin peers and as a nod to TRUCK’s 25 years of history, we wanted to pay homage to those who worked behind the scenes. To embody this, we emulated TRUCK Programming Coordinator and denim-clad Prairie boy, Jason de Haan.

By collectively dragging in the uniform of our white male colleague and performing work tasks around TRUCK, we weren’t taking aim at inequalities, we were literally “trying on” what we perceived as a kind of untroubled, apolitical nonchalance. To highlight the often unacknowledged blood, sweat and tears (not to mention long hours) of artist-run staff and what we ourselves had invested, one staff member multiplied and became three. We became the tough Prairie butches to match our usually (mostly) femme-identified selves. Rather than moving away and leaving our arts colleagues and fellow queers behind to carry on in an even smaller pool of cultural labour and dates, we proliferated and repopulated.

And now I say, so long, Alberta. You instilled in me the strength to keep on keepin’ on; now I must be movin’ on.

Anthea Black is a Canadian artist and cultural worker. Her projects in printmaking, collaborative performance, writing and curating take various forms, but most often feel at home as part of artist-run culture. In 2007, she launched looking for love in all the wrong places, an artist-curatorial project that commissions, produces and distros posters and editions by queer artists for public spaces in Alberta and beyond. The project has since included collaborations with Daryl Vocat (Toronto), Karen Campos (Edmonton), Megan Morman and Cindy Baker (Saskatoon), Carol Maxwell (Texas) and Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan (Winnipeg). Anthea has recently exhibited as part of Gestures of Resistance at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, GENDER ALARM! Nouveaux féminismes en art actuel at La Centrale in Montreal and SURRENDER NO SURRENDER at the Society of Northern Alberta Print-Artists in Edmonton.

The Ladies’ Invitational Deadbeat Society (LIDS) was founded in 2006 as a closely-knit affiliation of then-unemployed cultural workers, not working, but still bustin’ ass within Alberta artist-run culture. LIDS realized a number of performative n’ craft projects including: RCMP Radical Cooch Maximum Pussy, the Easy-Town Super Hoz, the LIDS BDSM and Leather Crafts Chapter and JDH: Keepin’ On, Keepin’ On as part of a series of three works for TRUCK Contemporary Art in Calgary’s 25th Anniversary Celebrations. LIDS core members have held positions as board and staff of several Alberta artist-run organizations, exhibited their own work, published and lectured throughout Canada and the world, but future endeavors include bummin’, and nothing too serious. LIDS is: Anthea Black, Nicole Burisch and Wednesday Lupypciw. “Landlocked and Lonesome” is Anthea Black’s farewell letter of all the things she never said to the strange place that the LIDS ladies call home.