Issue 128

Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual In Canada, Edited by Lydna Jessup, Erin Morton and Kirsty Robertson
by Alison Cooley

Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada assembles a selection of essays that probe the relevance of the categories “Canadian” and “art” in a globalized neoliberal society founded on values of individualism, economic and technological progress, property ownership and utilitarianism. Central to the book’s argument is the contention that “Canadian art history,” as the discipline is currently practiced, replicates neoliberal values, often in the name of concepts like “creative economy.” Drawn from several discussions that have been taking place since 2006 at the Universities Art Association Conference (UAAC) and Canadian Art Association (CAA) conferences, and crystallized in a 2009 workshop at the University of Toronto, the assembled texts all aim, in some way, to re-envision the discipline. The book’s editors, Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton and Kirsty Robertson, begin the text with a provocative introduction – one that sets out to trouble the existence of such a thing as Canada. Among other things, their compelling introduction muses on inclusion and the canon. They ask whether simply adding underrepresented works to the Canadian canon actually destabilizes its underlying principles. They also include the thought-experiment-like suggestion that, instead of opting to insert Indigenous art into an existing canon of historical Canadian art, the National Gallery of Canada could instead curate a Canadian gallery “from an Indigenous perspective of what a ‘National Gallery of Canada’ might mean.”

The assembled texts range wildly in their scope, from Kristy A. Holmes’ inquiry into the intersection of feminist art and nationalism in the 1960s and ’70s to Susan Cahill’s case study of an exhibition
of Afghan war rugs at the Textile Museum of Canada. Each essay differs in tone and approach, but the uniting feature among them is an attempt to demonstrate how the study of visual culture in Canada might be done in a way mindful of the dangers of nationalism and neoliberalism. The best contributions go further than mindfulness of art’s mobilization as a tool for creating narratives that support the dominant ideologies of the nation state to propose some solutions to the entanglements artists and cultural workers regularly face in their attempts to position their work within the overarching organizational schema of “Canadian.”

Some of the tactics are simple gestures – wordplay and reversals of language emerge as successful strategies for shifting the conversation. For example, the editors’ decision to avoid pigeonholing the subject matter of this book by calling it “Canadian art” (which might suggest some uniting } feature of Canada and art), opting instead for “the visual in Canada.” Mark Cheetham, in his piece on the trend of likening Canadian artists to artists of other nationalities (Homer Watson as the “Canadian Constable” and Jack Chambers as the “Canadian Puvis de Chavannes”) plays with this cross-cultural comparison by also comparing the two with each other, and Chambers with Gerhard Richter, highlighting the way that such likening could disrupt geographical
and temporal boundaries.

Heather Igloliorte’s article is a powerful assertion of the link between art and sovereignty. This link is discussed elsewhere in the text, but it is often as a critique of the colonial impulse to assert sovereignty over Canada through artistic practice and display. In Igloliorte’s essay, however, art production is a tool for the affirmation of Inuit sovereignty, achieved through an emphasis on the articulation of Inuit principles of collective purpose (piliriqatigiingiq), consensus (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) and serving the common good (Pijitsirarniq). Richard Hill provokes with an examination of Jimmie Durham’s practice as a way to think through the assimilatory agenda that comes through neoliberal capitalism. Hill suggests an attention to the “local, the specific, the out of the way and the impractical” can provide a resistance to being co-opted into white, middle-class, politically neutralized models of citizenship. There are some beautiful kernels of almost-tangible
advice here.

As I read this book, however, I was left wondering at the real lack of solutions to the struggles of visual culture in a globalized era that remains decidedly racist and complacent in (if not ferociously supportive of) the construction of its arbitrary borders. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the editorial team for this volume had mobilized some of their funding towards something radically experimental – say, a reorganization of a national collection from an Indigenous perspective of Canadian nationhood? Or, what if this text had taken the form of a toolkit for academics and curators supporting artistic practices that reject or transgress borders? What if this had been a book about re-imagining studying the visual in Canada that didn’t only include Canadian scholars writing on Canadian topics? Weirder and more provocative still, and in the tradition of wordplay and subversion already living in this tome, what if the book was structured in such a way as
to avoid using the word “Canada” altogether?

I’m dreaming. These possibilities are so far outside the purview of this kind of academic text. But if the goal is to reimagine, unsettle or intervene in the way art is mobilized in our society as a tool for
nationalism, I do wonder why there is not a little more dreaming in this book. While it advances solid criticism of museums and galleries, of individual writers, artists, granting bodies, and other institutional structures, a critique of the academy itself is sorely missing (Alice Ming Wai Jim’s brilliant study of the “ethno-cultural” art history survey course aside). After all, aren’t periodization and geographical distinction academic constructs?

Reading Jennifer VanderBurgh’s article, included in this text’s last chapter, which queries the role of Telefilm Canada in deciding what film and TV gets supported here by virtue of its success at fulfilling certain criteria of Canadianness, I’m reminded of the parallels between that particular funding body and the funders that supported the production of this book. The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canada Book Fund, and publisher McGill–Queen’s/Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation Studies in Art History all prioritize Canadian authors and Canadian subjects, even citing the use of Canadian sources as key to their eligibility for funding. Rather than speculate on how the Canadian academic funding structure might have implications for the radicality and experimentalism of this text, I’d like to borrow VanderBurgh’s words on Telefilm as a kind of oblique reflection: “As long as the methods by which […] texts are produced, distributed, and received in Canada is determined by state incentives, regulations, and policies, the nation-state is an inherent part of the texts produced in this location.”