The Artist, The Curator, The Priestess: Leveraging and Ceding in Social Practice – Danica Evering

This is the conversational part of IMPOSTERING: Complicating Power in Social Practice, teasing out power and position and place and practice in crossing boundaries. This re-pieced concentrated excerpt continues conversations started while working in some capacity with Orev Katz, Cristóbal Martinez, and cheyanne turions. A member of Postcommodity, Martinez (the Artist) has a PhD in Rhetoric and researches and practices Indigenous convolution media. turions (the Curator) is a curator and writer of settler and Indigenous ancestry from the farmlands of Treaty 8. While she is not directly a social practice curator, the projects she works on carefully trouble power and positionality, and she has written extensively about art and society. Katz (the Priestess) is an artist and activist and most recently an itinerant Jewish prison chaplain who considers bodies as sites of knowledge, and communication as a political practice. Each of them navigates their own roles in relation to art’s power structures both inside and outside institutions. It’s a bit hard to pull this all into focus. We spoke in the summer and in the winter, in two different cities. I did not audio-record these conversations but instead scribbled many hand-written notes. Now I draw a line through them, across time and space. We grapple with working inside and outside: reaching out, leveraging, and ceding power.

Let me reconstruct, best I can.

+

(In the space between the four of us, I inhale. The sound I make before I say something, A signal that I I’m going to speak, a stall cause I don’t quite know how to frame it yet. Like this: *ksfffttt*. Air rushes in. I hold it behind my teeth, behind my tongue, waiting.)

WHY DID WE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?

For a number of reasons—because we spoke last, because I don’t know them as well as the others, because I’m feeling existential by this point—Katz is the only one I ask: How does it feel, when it’s working well? Here is how I ask it: leaning beseechingly over the table, arms raised. Even the gesture is frustrated.

Here are my notes of what they said: “Why I got into SEA was justice and service. Cum pee spit—gallery. Studio practice is about people… facilitating social justice projects. I like navigating that.” And later on: “When I think back to the beginning of a project, when you’re hopeful, when you’re writing a grant—I was always excited and had faith and belief in the project and what I was doing. There was a usefulness I felt, a purpose, something palpable in those moments.”

I felt this desire for service and justice too, particularly in the beginning. I wanted to apply the skills that I had as an artist and a lateral thinker in addressing political issues. In the beginning, I was so eager to have found other people who were thinking about art that relayed outside an exclusive gallery space. People who wanted art to also be social justice. This is why we thought this was a good idea: we wanted to be of service, to connect to justice beyond this immediate often unjust context. So we reached out.

(Purpose is a kind of belonging. At a lecture that artist Rebecca Belmore gave, she told us that she wanted to make herself useful to her community, so that her community values her.[1] Usefulness feels like worth. It rumbles golden in our chests. Who is my community, though?)

THE TROUBLE WITH REACHING OUT

Katz and Martinez agree on the trouble. Katz says: “SEA often does the harm it’s trying to prevent.” (I put this in bold later, when I type up my notes.) Martinez says, “The problem with SEA is that there’s no training for the situations artists are expected to handle… public policy, human relations. We’re not the UN but we think we can meddle in situations we’re not equipped to handle. Organizations are fully implicated in the outcomes and often deny accountability.” What Martinez isn’t saying is: we should stop reaching out from our disciplinary boundaries. But we assume that the impulse to reach is enough without accepting responsibility for the outcome, the fallout that often comes from doing work we’re only pretending we know how to do.

The expectations of social practice (and the fields and tools it aims to engage) also don’t always align with the resources allocated for it. Martinez describes this as “Art as PR, or as cheap labour from highly-skilled workers.” After working for years in social practice, Katz has since become a prison chaplain. The work is emotional and service-based but there’s an understanding of the intensity of the work at a structural level. It’s well-paid and chaplains take time to recover from the work. I wrote that they said: “The arts system is so exploitative,” and also, “In the end, there was a lot of giving. Interest and skills are there, but no support structurally for more involved work.” The current contextualization of art and social engagement means that although its practitioners move outside its boundaries, funding and support structures are still configured for an object-based framework and don’t follow the artist into this new configuration.

Socially engaged art’s boundary-crossing into other disciplines and institutions can also lead to an uncritical reframing of the work we do. I write that Katz mentions the “Institutionalization of SEA.” They talk about “Investments in justice co-opted by urban planning.” Yes, I reply later, looking out a different window. Institutionalization: because we need money, because we want art to be relevant to law or science. What if artists were consulted by politicians? It’s irresponsible to approach hierarchies lightly, though. We can’t assume that what we do won’t be co-opted by systems contingent on positive economic benefit: urban planning, social innovation. turions glances into the corner of the bar. “Transformative potential,” I wrote that she said, “‘evolution’ – stopped using this word.” These words are too intangible, too easily misguided and remade. Martinez adds his voice from half a year before, “SEA, despite its anti-oppressive rhetoric, often corporatized w/ the idea of engineering society.” He has seen many socially engaged art projects that end up functioning as control instead of resistance. Martinez says, “Social justice fails on the inside—keep your house clean, you can’t have this power imbalance.” Who am I mutable for? 

LEVERAGING AND CEDING

On three separate days, in three different spaces, The Artist, the Curator, and the Priestess each speak of how they work within. Their eyes glint recognition across the bar/in stale fluorescent light/fake candle citric flickering.

There are many reasons to cross the boundary of an institution or an organization: to work, for school, being invited to produce an art project. Martinez talks about this potentially tokenizing gesture: “[social practice] often thrives in a self-serving economy, making POC the conduit for white people to talk politics.” Postcommodity sees their role as leveraging for people of colour within the places that invite them (often leftist, wanting to see the world in a certain way).

“With white leftist people there’s a lot of nodding,” he adds.  

I can suddenly feel my own white leftist head bobbing:
mmhm
mmhm

There’s not always a lot of action though, not a lot of tangible economic and political follow-through. The collective can leverage resources and expertise from these situations. Yes, I think, to hold organizations accountable to their words. As people of colour, Martinez says, instead of leveraging for ourselves, we want to leverage this power for othersfor our kin, for family. Diverting the conduit for others to talk politics into a conduit for resources back to kin: a shift in power.

Katz elaborates on how they saw their role working with a community, “Being in service: as an audio engineer, I could make a CD. I can draw. Skillset, cultural work. I saw myself as an outsidear.” (An outsider? An outside ear? This error in my notetaking opens two potential ways of being, both a not-obviously-belonging and a perspective of listening that comes from being outside.) They talk about their time at Parsons, where they did their MFA. My notes: “I offered my studio space up to the African American Students’ Union.” Inside, who do you hold open space for, when it is allocated to you?

turions talks about space and structures too, in relation to the Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing a Line from January to December. Wood Land School is an ongoing project initiated by artist Duane Linklater with no fixed place or form. For the most recent iteration, turions, Duane Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater, and Walter Scott practiced Indigenous self-determination and collectivity by opening space over the course of 2017 in the former SBC, a non-profit public gallery in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal). They are exploring how civic institutions and social structures control and silence Indigenous thought and making, and call on them “to give labour, space, and funds to support Indigenous ideas, objects, discursivity and performance.”[2]

The Wood Land School performs this call. Though the container is a public gallery, the collective’s work inside it thinks complexly about enacting “new ways of being in relation.”[3] These ways play out through many levels of autonomy: organizational decisions, public face, programming, curation. It is complete: not only holding space for ideas and objects and conversations and people who might not otherwise be programmed, but also addressing shifting power structures. The inside intervention requires a willingness on the part of the gallery to cede its audience and space, yet it is the Indigenous artists and curators who are making decisions about the flow of political, economic, and cultural capital. Martinez nods [flashback montage splice]: Leveraging. For our kin, for family. Who actually has economic and legal control of an art project? Who is crafting the trajectory and making decisions? This question is a critical one. It challenges institutions, artists, and cultural workers to candidly examine who is holding power.

She has proposed this act of ceding when she contributes to group conversations—often with mostly white middle-to-upper-class cultural workers—about art and politics and hope. Here is how turions says those groups reacted: “Reception was not warm.” A few weeks later, Katz says, “I don’t have a lot of faith in institutions to let go of the power they wield, though there is an ethical imperative to do that. [Socially engaged art projects] are trendy, contemporary. But it doesn’t push the boundaries enough. Distribute power.” Martinez agrees – “Holding of power.”

On three separate days, I feel a resonance. It sticks in my throat, a mellow lump. I have also seen power—institutions, organizations, galleries—hold social, cultural, and economic capital tightly to its chest. When turions says “Reception was not warm,” I am reminded of suggestions that we open control being quickly rebuffed. It seems impossible to the people steering. turions mentions Tuck and Yang’s writing on ‘settler moves to innocence’—settler attempts to reconcile our guilt and complicity and the dismissing of decolonization as impossible.[4] We can’t just… I share their doubt in institutions to cede power.

Still—there are many reasons to cross the boundary of an institution or an organization. Sometimes you’ve approached a gallery with a proposal. Sometimes you’ve been invited and leverage resources and expertise and hold the inside accountable in a tangible way to their symbolic gesture. Sometimes you work for an organization. Sometimes even, you’ve worked for a very long time from within and have been hired to lead it. Even then, you can cede the power and space you have to voices otherwise controlled and silenced (a real relinquishing). These are shifting shades of inside and outside, and your relation to that spectrum changes how you push from within. But in any case: you push.

End Notes:

[1] Rebecca Belmore, Big Ideas in Art + Culture Lecture, CAFKA and Musagetes, November 20, 2012.

[2] Duane Linklater, Tanya Lukin Linklater, cheyanne turions, and Walter Scott, “Wood Land School: Kahatènhston tsi na’tetiátere ne Iotohrkó:wa tánon Iotohrha / Drawing a Line from January to December,” January 2017, http://www.sbcgallery.ca/wood-land-school-gestures-c19i2

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 25–26.

Danica Evering was born in Cobourg and lives in Hamilton. Through writing, sound composition, and curation, her work thinks through difficulty and belonging, reaching out intentionally, and complicating narratives. She holds an MA in Media Studies from Concordia University and works as the Education Officer at Humber Galleries. Her poetry and performance were included in Althea Thauberger’s experimental video work L’arbre est dans ses feuilles as part of In Search of Expo 67 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and her experimental text on artist Cheryl Sim’s YMX will appear alongside Matt Soar’s creative photo works in the upcoming issue of Public #57: Archive/Anarchive/Counter-Archive. She is a part of the editorial team of Publication Studio Guelph, a sibling studio of an international publishing network that attends to the social lives of books, and a board member of Kazoo!, a new music and art festival and year-round music series. For detailed descriptions, images, and excerpts of projects, go to http://danicaevering.com/.