by Kari Cwynar
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no–the right no–
drags him down all his life.
—C.P. Cavafy, “Che Fece … Il Gran Refiuto”
Or, as the friend who sent me this poem said, on the subject of refusal, “but, as a woman, I would say the right no lifts you up all your life” – a sentiment to be extended to anyone who has found themselves facing untenable conditions. This issue is about that no – the right no – and how acts of refusal can be psychologically and politically demanding, and at the same time a necessary means of self-preservation.
The theme of refusal was suggested by C’s editorial advisory group last summer, and in the months since it has become ever more pressing. We discussed ethics in art and institutional practice, and how refusal or non-participation can work as a political strategy; and more broadly at ethics in art and institutional practice; we discussed the histories of artists who have declined, dropped out or refused; the relation of consent to refusal; when and how one says no, who actually refuses and who should be refusing?
We discussed Audra Simpson’s writing on the politics of refusal as a strategy for Indigenous self-governance amidst settler colonialism; refusal as the possibility of finding an “otherwise,” following the thoughts of Ashon Crawley; Sara Ahmed, Rebecca Belmore, Lee Lozano, Tehching Hsieh and many others’ decisions to leave flawed institutions or art systems. We considered the power of maintaining the terms of your own participation; Divya Mehra’s refusal to allow art audiences to ignore their complicity; Maria Eichhorn closing Chisenhale Gallery during her solo exhibition to give staff members a paid break. Someone voiced the desire to see a white privileged person refuse, and stated the conundrum that, if this isn’t altruistic, it’s often invisible.
The issue theme piqued interest – perhaps more than expected – but the difficulty of taming refusal soon became evident – of writing it into 2,000 words, editing it, forcing it to lie in pages assembled according to deadlines. It seemed counterproductive at times to nudge writers to synthesize thoughts, to hurry to fit the print schedule, when the issue impelled us to say no. This issue is thus necessarily messy and disparate; refusal is often approached sideways – it is not theorized as much as demonstrated both overtly and subtly in the work of the artists, writers, organizers and institutions in the pages that follow. Some writers did choose to say no, but overwhelmingly I was struck by the vigour with which potential contributors saw the issue as a vehicle for proposing alternatives rather than stasis.
Some texts privilege a radically personal voice – insight into those private conversations usually made invisible in art’s public life. This voice pulsates in texts by Joshua Vettivelu and Lido Pimienta, and in the unbridled honesty present in Stacey Ho’s interview with the Vancouver collective Killjoy. The refusal to accept existing institutional terms comes out in this discussion of Killjoy’s creation of QT2IPOC-only space, and in the self-organization of the Wood Land School – a shifting project started by artist Duane Linklater and currently residing at SBC Gallery in Montreal for the duration of 2017. Jonah Gray’s essay – a report on the Wood Land School’s 2016 conference – outlines the School’s continued push by Indigenous artists to organize critical conversation. Lauren van Haaften-Schick and Sabrina Tarasoff also propose alternatives to the institutional
status quo: the predominance of object fetishism and capitalist acquisition as the ultimate end-goal for art objects is challenged in van Haaften-Schick’s text, while Tarasoff’s lyrical profile on Lutz Bacher suggests ways in which Bacher refuses participation in her work after the moment of its creation. Bacher’s work offers too a means of considering what kinds of refusals are supported by dominant art systems, and the perhaps unanticipated ways in which refusal adds intrigue to the artist’s persona.
I’m thrilled to feature a powerful body of work by the young Brooklyn-based photographer John Edmonds in the magazine’s centrefold. The portraits in this ongoing series at once refuse to give too much – the subject has literally turned his or her back to the camera – while sparking the imaginative potential of the unknown, and forcing a conversation of one’s assumptions in looking and naming.
The texts in these pages have purposefully been left with a light editorial hand – given the force inherent in the concept of refusal, it felt vital to demonstrate the layered ways in which refusal can operate, the many faces of refusal as a strategy, to see its effect across different “art worlds.” To me it feels slightly unhinged and contradictory, befitting what could be called the current collective mindset. There is a vital sense of dynamism in seeing these unexpected statements and voices appear together, in their own ways.