by Kari Cwynar
This issue, on Institutions, picks up threads from the fall 2018 issue on Trust, acting as a kind of sister publication. As the Trust issue came together earlier this year, it was clear that one of the most critical sites in which trust is at stake is in relation to institutions—in art and otherwise. In that issue’s editorial, C Magazine’s editor Jaclyn Bruneau and I wrote: “The theme’s reach grew, with trust (and breaches of trust) revealing itself as a fundamental principle through and against which we are all working today, where public trust has been eroded, and where interpersonal trust must endlessly be redefined.”
Many—or most, or all—of us working in the arts have witnessed or experienced instances of institutional failure, have observed outdated processes and protocols upholding institutional practices that are in urgent need of updating. The word “institution” evokes systemic, structural power. In 2018, it has become a dirty word, conjuring arts organizations’ shaky attempts to modify or dislodge values established in a different time, or political institutions and systems in rampant decline. The word connotes the ever-hungry force of professionalization, with its impulse to formalize self-organized initiatives, artist-run centres, apartment galleries, artists without “formal” education. As art institutions are being cracked open and held accountable in previously unseen ways, we wanted to re-evaluate what it means to make work for, against and in them, for it is almost impossible to imagine working outside of institutions in 2018, though artists always have.
The issue includes artists’ reflections on institutional experiences; a conversation on how issues of accessibility are—or aren’t—being navigated in museums; a look at how curator Candice Hopkins has proposed and fostered models for shifting or disrupting the global contemporary art biennial; and a Q&A with OCAD University’s new dean Ashok Mathur, who examines the impulse towards the doctorate in fine arts and the academization of artistic practice.
Annie Wong and jes sachse’s collaborative piece is a poetic debrief written after a difficult recent experience working with an art institution. Wong’s text uses concrete—a material that many galleries and museums are primarily made of—as a metaphor for institutions, quietly suggesting material and ideological oppression in the latter. The text oscillates between a subjective-poetic and objective-didactic voice, which transfers energy back and forth between the container or structure, and the life, body or mind occupying it. Alongside Wong’s text, sachse’s concrete poem is structured around three ramps, the familiar form recalling public institutions’ attempts at accessibility.
Whitney Mashburn and Carmen Papalia’s conversation around accessibility in the museum unpacks the oft-used term “meaningful inclusion,” and the mutual exchange required to see disability politics adequately addressed in art institutions. Their conversation is dense with tangible examples and ways forward—for example, more fully integrating topics of disability and accessibility into curatorial conversations, rather than seeing them routinely sequestered in public programs departments. As Mashburn writes, “for institutional decision-makers, inclusion requires the allocation of resources to support projects engaging topics of disability. Arts leaders need to know what it means to disrupt ableism and be open to a radical reorientation of the field, guided by those at the margins.”
Natasha Chaykowski—the first signatory on a public letter penned by a number of arts workers in Calgary who, earlier this year, protested a Jordan Peterson talk at Arts Commons, a multi-venue hub that is home to several of the city’s artist-run centres—describes the broken communication, institutional barriers and resulting breakdown of trust that she and her colleagues faced after the letter was sent. We may fixate on institutions as rigid, cold, hard, even concrete. But the crux, for me, in Chaykowski’s text is in thinking through the real people that make up institutions and prop them up. She writes: “Arts Commons, like all institutions, is borne of humans, but ultimately, it is something greater than its discrete, fleshy, constituent parts. A wayward gestalt. A living creature that—like an animal, a human, any living organism—is compelled by its subconscious desire to survive at whatever cost: the behaviour of self-preservation.
As Bruneau pointed out to me, coincidentally, both Chaykowski’s feature and Kendra Place’s review of Jackie Wang’s book Carceral Capitalism make mention of last summer’s forest fires in British Columbia. The urgent topics in each—hate speech and institutional silence in the former, the prison industrial complex in America in the latter—were mirrored and intensified against this apocalyptic backdrop. Place quotes Wang: “Before I was able to disentangle the political, economic, cultural, and racial forces that were shaping my context, I could feel their effects.” There is, and was, quite literally something in the air.
The artist project in this issue also looks beyond the specifics of art and academic institutions to broader capitalist city systems. Gentrification Tax Action (GTA), a collective comprising artists, designers and activists Adrian Blackwell, Sameer Farooq, Jane Hutton and Kika Thorne. GTA formed this year in response to the increasing lack of affordable housing in Toronto, and the collective has installed signage and poster projects in parks and windows around the city. The poster in this issue will be similarly dispersed with the magazine’s mail-out, alongside an accompanying text that reads something like a manifesto:“This is a proposal to create a Gentrification Tax to make Toronto affordable for lower- and middle-income residents. The tax is designed to discourage house flipping and to direct real estate profits to the local community.”
To go back to the start, the issue opens with Nasrin Himada’s text for C Magazine’s final On Writing column, ahead of the magazine’s 2019 re-design and editorial re-structuring. In this column, which for the past five years has featured “writing about writing,” Himada homes in on revenge writing. It’s a compelling way to open an issue dedicated to the looming, omnipresent weight of institutions in our lives, with Himada reminding us that writing is action. Publishing an issue on institutions at the moment of C Magazine’s re-structuring is also a fitting reminder of the magazine’s own responsibility to institutional reflection, evolution and open dialogue.