“Rage-O-Holics Unite!” – RM Vaughn & Andrew Harwood

Photo Credit: RM Vaughan

I have been dear, sisterly friends with the artist and provocateur Andrew Harwood for nearly 20 years, and yet we still indulge, about once every three years or so, in a good old fashioned scrap.

We are both chronic rage-o-holics (a term coined by Andrew, or, as I call him, Herself, years ago). My rage comes out in the strangest ways, almost like Lupus or some other mysterious disease that can attack without warning or symptom. Andrew’s rages are more direct, faster, and thus more easily dispelled.

If we were two families at the dinner table, I would be the family from Ordinary People, and Andrew would be the family from The Sopranos. I’m all slow burn
and repression, Andrew is all outburst followed by loving regret.

As artists, our anger has taken us on very different paths. I write poems that are full of cruel twists, revenge plots, and insults. My plays are always about people hurting each other, and my videos have a reliable morbidity. Andrew, on the other, sparkly glove-covered hand, makes art that is covered in glitter, literally – installations, drag performances and gorgeous collages packed with optical illusions, funhouse black light shine, and celebrity (and celebratory) glee.

What the hell? I am full of rage, and express it via indirection, crossword puzzle writing. Andrew is full of rage, and expresses it with a mitt full of sequins and an orange wig.

The Clash once sang “anger can be power”, but they never told us what anger might do to one’s art (thanks for nothing, you fake Marxist fucks). So, to puzzle out this rage-inducing topsy-turvydom, I contacted Herself by email and asked some very blunt questions. So far, we are not fighting about this article ……

Me:

Let’s talk about rage as a creative force. For me, anger is a great motivator, and a lot of my writing is quite angry, and autobiographical. Do you find rage/anger motivating, and, if so, why is so much of your work so sparkly and fun? Is there a subtext that most people miss?

Andrew:

Art History is littered with angry manifestos!

Yes, anger and rage can be quite creative and inspiring! I think a lot of people are deathly afraid of their own anger and see it as negative. The Toronto Alternative Art Fair (TIAF) International was started, in part, out of rage and as a reaction against the conservatism of TIAF at the time. Pamila Matharu, Selena Cristo and myself formed TAAFI as result of literally not seeing ourselves represented at TIAF.

There is, generally, no subtext of anger in my visual art practice that I am aware of – although an art historian or art therapist might disagree. I am actually very interested in the concepts of pleasure and hedonism, in art and in Western culture, as they are still the most difficult notions for us to deconstruct, even harder than anger. There is a perception in Canadian art circles that art should not be enjoyable or entertaining, hence the sparkly and fun. This is one of my strategies or resistance to a hetero-normative art world/world.

Anger is such a pure emotion for us all that it has to be part of art and creativity. It can be, at times, the most delicious feeling of all. It is what keeps us alive and what lets us know what separates us from others in both positive and negative ways.

I have tried to channel anger and rage into change on my best days! And sometimes this fails. Sometimes living with failure is the best teacher of them all.

Me:

When you are in a rage, are you aware of it? Sometimes I stomp around my house and kind of catch myself doing it. Also, rage tends to turn into anxiety for me very quickly. How does rage transform you?

Andrew:

Yes, I am mostly aware of anger and rage – that was what all that therapy was for, silly! On occasion I catch myself getting upset and try to temper it, and other times I let it fly. I love hosting drag events with lots of noisy people because I have an outlet to yell at them and make them laugh – it’s great catharsis, not just for me but also for the audience! I think I sometimes “perform” anger on stage for the audience.

Anger can make me painfully aware of my own foibles and sadly, those of other people. I have certainly stomped around, punched a hole in a wall once, intentionally broken things (not valuable stuff because I have been poor most of my life, so no Ming Vases smashed here) and lesser, benignly crazy things. I think we all do this to exercise the physicality of anger in ways that are intended not to hurt people, either physically nor emotionally. People also cry when they are angry because it’s easier to either look or act sad, which I find fascinating. It’s more “ok” to be sad than angry, which is such a ridiculous cultural construct, I guess it’s less threatening, but just as stressful.

I have had my share of arguments and they are, partially, negotiations of feelings and needs. Feelings of betrayal and other people not telling me things are two huge triggers for anger in me. Everyone has their list of stuff that generally makes them crazy with frustration.

Me:

I don’t regret anything I’ve ever made out of anger. Do you?

Andrew:

OMG yes! Mostly with people and I try to make amends as quickly as possible.

There is a very small handful of people that I will never make amends with, as that would be quite damaging to my psyche and maybe theirs, so I try to avoid them, if possible. These people are why curses were invented. Forgiveness was also created for the really important people! I try to make peace with everyone spiritually, if not in person.

I have a collection of letters called “The Bitter Letters of Marsha McLuhan” that I wrote, as one of my alter-egos, last summer that I love – I donated a couple to the A Space fundraiser and people bought them! They are private musings in some ways, but also quite funny to some folks.

So, no real regrets about any artworks that I may have made from rage inspiration. Ragespiration! I have had more regrettable situations than art. I have honestly made some bad art too, but not necessarily due to rage.

Me:

Is rage itself a form of creativity? Does it take an active, engaged mind to fully comprehend what is pissing one off?

Andrew:

Hmm. I think that when I look at Jubal Brown’s work he somehow embraces rage and pissing folks off in a way that amazingly and beautifully aestheticizes anger. I am a little jealous of his ability to do this and he’s such a sweet person! Maybe I am the opposite?

I think alienation is also a very important strategy for some artists to keep out of the mainstream. I think we are so afraid of anger, culturally, that we tend to have more fear of it than is necessary. Rage shows ya care! Passion over reason! Sure it’s a form of creativity and perhaps culture is the best place for displays of rage and anger, as opposed to wars and big business. We should all take a cue from people engaged in consensual SM and role play, they get to exercise some of their rage in mutually agreed upon sex and fetish play in the bedroom that can be quite healthy.

Rage and anger exist because people feel unjustly treated. I think repressed anger is not healthy either and it seeps out of people through institutions like spousal/family abuse, road rage, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, suicide, etc.

Fear is also a big part of what makes me and other people angry. Fear is just as necessary for our existence as anger. I know so many people who are super angry because they are not able to grieve the loss of loved ones, from familial dysfunction or from being victims of violent acts. We all get “taught” how to be angry by our families and society. Rage is pain’s vomit.

Conversely, I am inspired by the ecological necessity of a forest fire. It seems so destructive to us because we enjoy the beauty of a green thriving forest and see the opportunities therein. A fire, though, is necessary to the long-term health of a forest and releases all sorts of chemicals for new growth, keeps the animal population to sustainable levels and some trees only release seeds when there is a fire. So hell yeah we need our anger, on occasion, to level things sometimes and start again!

Me:

Finally, what are the personal costs, outside of how it affects one’s creativity? I would go back now and do many things differently, but I also know that “in the moment”, my expressions of rage were very, very true and very necessary. I’m not talking about regret – regret is too easy. But, rather, taking one’s patterns into account and adding up the tally, so to speak.

Andrew:

This is a good question; it is sometimes difficult to gauge the exact costs and effects of anger on one’s own creativity. I may have missed opportunities in the art world because I may have been perceived as “difficult” to work with. I think that has happened to an extent. I have very high expectations of art and am often disappointed. A curator at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver said I was “Problematic,” and I was pissed off that she said that, but friends put it into context for me and I kind of felt complimented by her statement, ultimately. When I arrived in Vancouver and worked on the show with her, she was super lovely to work with and there was no bad blood between us at all. It was also interesting that other people said that she had been “Problematic” to work with in her past positions and I did not experience that with her. This can be hard to measure.

Am I demanding? Yes, sometimes. Have people yelled at me to get stuff done? Yes. Have I yelled at other people to get stuff done? Yes. Have I learned anything? I am still learning.

Putting together installations and performances can be so stressful. We, as artists, don’t really acknowledge this aspect of our work. Most of this process involves problem solving, even if these are self-created, in terms of planning the many elements of an exhibition – often with little or no money. We also present this work to the public, which can be an experience rife with anxiety!! Being an artist is stressful even if you have a great deal of personal success. The pressure of having to be creative all of the time has its emotional tolls too, and can lead to burnout in folks. The competitiveness for attention, criticality and sales or making a living are all gigantic hurdles that can, in part, create rage and anger. I know that all of these factors have made me feel angry and greatly frustrated at times. What pisses me off most are societal misconceptions of artists and associated poverty. (I know lots of other artists who feel the same way.) As Carla Garnet, my dear friend, curator and former gallery dealer says, “There’s no dental or retirement plan for artists!!” Our freedom as creative people is our greatest strength and weakness.

Oh and I have regrets too, I think its really important to have those moments of introspection to try not to repeat shitty stuff from the past. I also really try not to harbour resentments against people, this one can be hard and true forgiveness is also tough, yet in certain instances, and with some friends and family, forgiveness has come easily. As corny as this sounds, “time” does mend a lot. I have noticed, as I have gotten older, that revenge is such a seductive thing too. People who have done me dirt or have made me angry in the past were either jealous of me, in enormous pain themselves, or in love with me! Most times karma takes care of them for me. Then there are just the plain assholes in the world that need levelling and I seem to attract those types a lot.

My rage may have also drawn me to like-minded individuals and to people in the arts who are as passionate about things as I am. It may have also alienated people from me, but I think there has been a balance of both so far.

I try not to keep score or tally, this is hard to do, we tend to remember angry moments with more clarity and purity than the pleasant ones because of the intensity of our experience of this emotion. I have great friends and family members who are very, very patient with me too; I am very blessed in this regard. I have had hell-damner arguments with people that have torn relationships apart and, yet also greatly improved and enhanced them as well. Anger helps separate the wheat from the chaff.*

Without conflict there is neither growth nor new understandings of people or the world.

If I was a real rage-o-holic I shoulda told you to fuck off at the start of this!

Andrew x0x0x0x0x0

* I am not sorry, Vegans. Have some bread for Christ sakes, you look like you’re starving, and don’t get me going on the difference between yer eating disorder and yer politics LOL! I don’t care. ;)>

RM Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist originally from New Brunswick. He is the author of eight books and a contributor to over 50 anthologies. His videos and short films play in galleries and festivals across Canada and around the world. Vaughan comments on art and culture for a wide variety of publications and writes a weekly visual arts column for The Globe and Mail. http://www.rmvaughan.ca/

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.