by Jaclyn Bruneau
We have been taking the important, aggrieving and revolutionary events that began in the wake of George Floyd’s death incredibly seriously, understanding that his horrific murder was one in a string of more than four centuries’ worth of anti-Black discrimination and violence, including lynching. While police force epitomizes some of the most overt manifestations of systemic inequity, the effects of white supremacy are omnipresent, including in the arts. C Magazine’s latest organizational message—including actions toward anti-oppression in our workplace and in our approach to content commissioning, past, present and future—can be found on page ten, or online here.
We considered dramatically delaying this already delayed issue themed on “Humour,” first in light of the pandemic, and then in light of the Black Lives Matter uprising: two sources of exceptional individual, community and collective grief, each of which prompt different but in many cases overlapping imperatives for how things need to change. At the time of this writing, the world couldn’t feel heavier; I’m personally focused on how to take on more of this burden in order to unburden my BIPOC friends, family, lovers and peers, and I implore our white readers to do the same.
Ultimately, we agreed that constant uncertainty seems to be the only thing we can count on (when would a “better” time come—or, would it?), and that humour has surely had some place—of whatever proportion—in the processing of every significant moment of history, however harrowing. (Already, as I’m finalizing this text, there is a proliferation of deeply funny memes about Officer Stacy’s tearful, tone-deaf plea, spirited laughter from monument-topplers and a freckling of new articles about artists who use humour to make sense of difficult matters and set forth more accessible discursive modes.) While we aren’t so deluded to think that an issue foregrounding this phenomenon offers an antidote to this unprecedented compounding of so many systemic ills, humour is explored in these pages as a way of exposing the machinations of power through creative means, thus inviting us to approach their dismantling creatively, too. If nothing else, maybe the word alone, when sighted peeking out of our readers’ mailboxes, runs a chance of sending a small, sweet jolt to the heart; a split-second reminder of the distinct melody of a loved one’s laugh, or of a time when lightness felt a little easier to find.
At the conception of this issue at the top of 2020, not long before the pandemic arrived in North America, it began as an inquiry into (and to some degree a pursuit of) joy. Observing that institutional critique in art, art programming, art writing and social media had become a permanent condition from which all our activities originated, I began to wonder what impact this sustained applied pressure might have on who we might become—as individuals, in our respective roles in this sector, and as a whole, however fractured. Would care, self-care, episodic pleasure, kinship and calling in be enough to counterbalance the weight of this ultra-serious, important, implicit layer of our work? Where was joy located in an art world hyper-selective about sentimentality and hell-bent on justifying its ever-troubled existence by adhering itself as tightly as disciplinarily possible to the political exigencies of our time? (Understanding, of course, that such efforts are a pursuit of joy in the sense that joy should follow from justice.) If that space was nil or limited, how might that terse condition come to shape not only our work, but our selves and our many relationships?
To this end, I became interested in humour as a permutation of joy—in its curious efficacy as something that at once allows us to participate in sustained critique, but also sustains our strangeness, our spirits, the nimbleness of our perspective (“I use humour” together with “I feel joy” from humour, this marrying of instrumentalization and sensation). I thought it worthwhile to consider the way humour complicates certain conversations by introducing nonsense (or just “sense” according to different contexts, logics or world views) into the equation, reminding us of the constructedness of any given situation, allowing us to consider how it might be de- and then re-constructed, but differently. It is this dimension of humour that feels salient despite that this historic moment we find ourselves in is anything but funny.
In the early days, I had EB White’s definition of humour in mind—“the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient that sometimes gets in”—with the idea that by aggregating some practices and strains of thought, without overdetermining their relationships, and knowing how hard it is to pin down, something unexpected might take shape. Laughter would be a possible and welcome by-product, but it wasn’t really the point. In fact, I was cautious of the setup-punchline structure, which is a tried-and-true recipe for laughs but relies (often problematically, as Hannah Gadsby outlines in her explosively successful stand-up special “Nanette” in 2018) on tension and release, which she calls “abusive,” and which often comes at the cost of omitting important parts of the story (especially in autobiographical comedy by members of oppressed groups) that would make release impossible. “Abusive” surfaces in humour, too, harking back to playground days, when a bully would re-cast their dig as “joke” after their subject unexpectedly fought back, a dirty rhetorical manoeuvre that some people unfortunately don’t outgrow.
Mindful of keeping these cheap, unproductive and sometimes outright nasty instantiations of the genre at bay, as the issue began to unfold, it started to become apparent that in the context of contemporary art, humour seems most likely to come about where artists dispense with dichotomous thinking altogether. As Robin Simpson wrote in his introduction to a conversation with Life of a Craphead (Amy Lam and Jon McCurley) in C Magazine’s “Monuments” issue, “Each title [of the duo’s works] plays the setup to—but not, to my mind—an assurance of a laugh to follow. Instead, they are setups that leave you time to trade your anticipation for attention and understand in this suspension that you’re now to follow up on the details.” In short, if there are setups, they’re invitations to roam; in all the space between and beyond poles is crude possibility (cue the old gender studies adage “it’s not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘both-and’”). My fellow queers know that even the staunchest defaults are not natural, and that while starting everything from scratch may at times seem terrifying, it’s our best bet (or, in many cases, our only option) at making meaning that feels autonomous, not contingent.
In our opening feature, Caitlin Chaisson writes about the fact that despite their differences, in both comedy and contemporary art, explanation is considered the death knell, and goes on to create a weird, compelling framework with which to consider the definition of humour. Quoting Henri Bergson, she suggests that humour arises when “the ‘circumstances of the case called for something else’”—distilling so clearly this notion that the phenomena arises extra to the scripted world. Taking these considerations around explanation (and its obverse, mystery) a step further, Leah Schulli, in her interview with the artist Madelyne Beckles, asks: “Do you think that if you make something that’s entertaining and funny, then it’s often read as accessible in a way that threatens to debunk the sort of esoteric nature of contemporary art?” It got stuck in my head, for articulating something at the heart of what felt taboo about endeavouring this issue, and invited further questions about the relationship between these two genres, which I address more later on.
Schulli probes the artist’s wryly parodic citation of feminist texts, which unfurls into a complex conversation about gender and the evolution of feminist discourse—its commodification, its expansion, (its dilution?) and the instincts of its purveyors, in some cases, to problematize earlier generations of thinkers. Beckles makes her position clear: “I think it’s healthy to have a complicated relationship with these texts.” Christina Hajjar engages these questions in her review of Inside Killjoy’s Kastle, too, at one point citing Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who asks: “Do we always have to slaughter our mothers? And, at another level, can feminist thinking … engage differently when it is time to learn from emergent or long-suppressed or traumatized ideas and formations?” In both cases (and others in these pages), there is a close questioning of the reflex to write things off (or cancel them), stirring thinking about how such reflexes are initiated, who is or isn’t served in continuing to practice them and how they shape the field of discussion.
Do they perpetuate scripts, or do they encourage deviation therefrom? In the dialogue between Paul Chaat Smith and New Red Order (NRO), a “public secret society,” including Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil and Jackson Polys, the possibilities of experimental, anti-dichotomous learning opportunities in Indigenous-settler relations are explored. In light of “the New York City art-institution arms race to adopt [land] acknowledgement” a few years ago, which marked the beginning of the collective’s relationship with a number of institutions, Adam said, the group “started talking more and more about how we could not be contained by the fact that we were being informants,” and instead “use that as a position of power brokering.” The beating heart of this conversation, which has been condensed here from a version more than twice its current length, is a seriously pursued anti-essentialist agenda shared between both interviewer and interviewees. For NRO, this manifests mostly as performances that stir—but also rigorously make space, however uncouth, in which to process—settlers’ shame, guilt and even problematic (or dubbed as such) desires. Their work aims to grip the discomfort involved in these dynamics in an effort to wear down the shock, which they see as preventing more complex, proactive conversations.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s The Sound of a Heart arose from her contemplation of humour as it pertains to the trickster figure (which she’s pursued at length in her Nanabush/Nanabozho stories)—its non-binary nature, its capacity as a teacher and its use of performance to disseminate wisdom. Here, in our Composition column, readers are offered yet another avenue through which to consider the pursuit of meaningful inter-subjective exchange and sincere allyship (or accompliceship, as friends of mine have taken to saying). This entry elegantly prompts questions about the ways one’s steadfast, wholehearted commitments to their community can inspire participation from without.
Performance is perhaps unsurprisingly dominant in this issue. Karina Irvine homes in on Mike Bourscheid’s sensitive interrogation (and often subtle ridicule) of constructs of masculinity and heteronormativity, which manifest mostly as intricate handmade costumes and performances that foreground humility and play. On the opening night of his solo exhibition Thank you so much for the flowers (2017) at the Luxembourg Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale, he performed wearing a ceramic flower vase helmet he’d made, with the idea that it might end up being either overflowing with flowers or completely empty (which he’s described as “a joke that can go either way”). His approach outlines the usefulness of self-effacement, deep reflection and even sometimes wilful humiliation in scrutinizing one’s own privilege, whatever the variety.
Parker Kay turns to performance art and “alternative comedy”—which came about “in response to the mostly male-dominated, often misogynous, observation-based comedy that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s”—to consider the way practitioners in both genres, which have cross-pollinated since the early aughts, straddle the personal and the performed, drawing a parallel to Lauren Berlant’s theory of cruel optimism. Lisa Smolkin’s artist project Say “Hi,” created for this issue and performed for the camera and a live audience at the Banff Centre, makes a fitting entry into this particularly beguiling strain of performance art, wherein the artist “at once perform[s] and, at the same time, expose[s] the manifold conditions in which the performance is situated” (as Kay put it). Where does Lisa, the person, end, and Lisa, the performer begin? “Smolkin deploys self-parody to implicate herself as she considers how a desire for self-actualization butts up against the realities of social hierarchy,” Aliya Pabani writes in the accompanying text. “But that ambiguity facilitates a more empathic spectatorship: whoever she is, we’re rooting for her.” Cason Sharpe faces this productive ambiguity as well in his backward glance at Alex Bag’s cult classic video work, Untitled Fall ’95, which follows our protagonist as she weathers the seasons of her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Freckled with laugh-out-loud funny moments, it is, on one hand, essential viewing for the more emerging among us and, on the other, almost eerily timeless in the way it details certain tropes, traps and uncomfortable truths of our milieu.
I hope I’ve not killed the funny in any of these practices by culling them all together in the name of humour—doing that thing of naming that Chaisson sort of cautions against. But, whether absurd, defamiliarizing, taunting, illuminating, instructive or playful, this issue represents some of humour’s elasticity as a tool of critique, of unmasking, of interruption, of… dare I say, joy? Working with all the thematic contributors, and thinking through these practices with them, has confirmed for me how hard-won humour is—even at its most effortless. In order for it to tick, to have that x factor, to maybe even get a laugh (that unconscious, delicious acknowledgement), one needs to be able to hold all kinds of contradictions together simultaneously, and from there, cook up exponential new combinations of their composite parts. As Emily Pelstring writes in her review of Walter Scott’s recent exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre: “Doesn’t our proclivity for neat, clear structures and hierarchical distinctions reek of competition, territorialism and pride?” It seems wise, especially these days, to consider what more can be started from scratch, to resist pre-existing, clean cut judgments and to get a bit more comfortable with seeing everything as unfixed, as it is.