by Anna Hawkins
Dear C Mag,
The last issue spoke to something I’ve been thinking about often: that one of the most effective ways to neuter a destructive force is to laugh at its desperate fervour to harm. I think about the New York artist Betty Tompkins who turns crowd-sourced submissions of the cruel things men say to women into carefully rendered paintings and drawings. Divorced from their original contexts, violent phrases like “You are a dumb bitch” become neutered and bizarre. Similarly, the Hong Kong video artist Wong Ping uses gallows humour in his brightly coloured, jovial animations to critique the complexities of an increasingly authoritarian society. Even as freedoms of expression in his city have drastically diminished, Wong’s work functions as a trojan horse with potential to slip under the radar. I love artists like this. Comedy necessitates both sharp social awareness and an empathetic understanding of the pain of being human—all jokes are a little bit sad. That’s why a date who is very funny becomes all the more attractive.
But above all, the issue made me think about the nature of conversations between artists and critics. The best kind of studio visits resemble conversations between friends, and often contain escalating banter and laughter; humour is a looseness which allows for slips, gaps, and honest revelations. That type of camaraderie translated wonderfully in Paul Chaat Smith’s conversation with New Red Order. So, I wonder why, if so much art is funny, more art criticism isn’t humorous too. Can we overcome the self-seriousness of an art world, which Jaclyn Bruneau succinctly described as “hyper-selective about sentimentality and hell-bent on justifying its ever-troubled existence,” and laugh at ourselves?
Dear C Mag,
Recently, while visiting over horchata, my friend vehemently stated that fungi are related to plants as rock is to music. After a weighty pause, I burst into laughter I could not control, my stomach beginning to cramp up, my face blushing red and tears starting to pool in my eyes. In my head, I had envisioned a sandstone boulder sitting on a patch of grass, wholly unrelated to music—an inflexible form faced with the living elasticity of music. Between sucking in quick breaths and giggling, I struggled to explain to my friend what I found so funny, only able to push out the word “rock.”
As Caitlin Chaisson mentions in “No Laughing Matter,” in issue 146, the circumstances of a joke are that of something mechanical encrusted on the living; what evokes laughter is the inflexible mechanical reaction to something that called for something else entirely. What evokes giggles? What makes sense? What is unexpected? Inherently a mode of investigation of relativity—of who laughs and who doesn’t—humour reveals what is expected, and thus the systemic structures
that form our expectations. If humour reveals what’s real and known, anti-humour encourages complex multiplicities of funny.
In “Tragicomedy, a Toolkit,” Parker Kay turns the spotlight onto the tightrope that comedic performers walk, never falling and yet always falling between their personas and their personal lives, making funny a spectrum of emotions against simplistic and binaristic emotional states. Tragicomedy, as a form of anti-humour, is suspicious of the binaries of our perceived neoliberal reality, and functions as a method with which to search relationality, allowing for the more complex understandings of oppressive systems of power and of what’s funny. With “rock,” I see the awkward space between my friend and I in that moment highlighting the relativity between my reading and theirs, nudging us both to comprehend the other’s perception. When I contemplate how anti-humour creates new relationships to the word “funny,” and the overarching idea of laughing at power structures that is present in C146, I imagine that perhaps these new relations can aid in envisioning new expectations and new structures where yes, that rock joke really is funny.
Dear C Magazine,
Issue 146 had me wondering about the relationship between humour and precarity. In physical comedy and slapstick, putting one’s body in a precarious position can be quite funny. Think of any number of Buster Keaton’s stunts which are played for comedy but could easily be rendered for terror—jumping from the rooftop of one tall building to another (and missing), or sliding under a moving vehicle. These feats are dangerous and perhaps a bit foolish, but also incredibly clever and impressively executed. Both comedy and horror work to create pleasure in discomfort, and build moments of tension and release.
Similarly, finding the means to place a ladder over an open stairwell in order to hang an artwork, or creating a provisional blender using a power drill requires a bit of risk but also ingenuity. This is the territory dealt in by Art Handler Mag, an Instagram account that works to mine what’s funny in the precariousness (both physical and financial) of arts labour. Art Handler Mag illuminates the largely invisible, blue collar side of the art world inhabited by art handlers, installers, and technicians, who are, more often than not, artists themselves. It’s niche humour for sure, and while it’s peppered with explicit critiques of the inequalities and precarious working conditions that many museums and galleries uphold, it’s dominated by one of the most common internet tropes: hacks. These hacks are either ridiculous or brilliant, and often both. A hack usually involves using materials in ways for which they weren’t necessarily intended, as does art installation and,
quite often, art creation. Something that’s provisional doesn’t need to last forever; often it’s created with the intent that it should eventually (sooner rather than later) be replaced. In its makeshiftedness, nonchalance, and anti-commitment, what’s provisional is often deeply funny.
I thought about this while reading Karina Irvine’s feature about Mike Bourscheid’s work Ledgers, which bears a relationship to the artist’s day job as an art mover. As an artist who has also spent some years working as an art technician/installer, I was interested by the way that Irvine folds details about this line of work into the piece. In his performance, Bourscheid uses humour to address precarity in relation to art workers, but also to a more general shift in labour conditions. As the effects of COVID-19 eliminate work for many and create dangerous, unsupported conditions for others, it’s hard to see precarity in a particularly humorous light; however, reading about Bourscheid’s work was a gentle, funny reminder of, as Irvine puts it: “the importance of building alliances through laughter at a time when it is most seriously needed.”