by Jac Renée Bruneau
“Community” is at once the word used to quickly refer to a group of living beings who have something in common, and something that’s way more effortful, hard-won. Many of us have been clumped into “communities” we may not identify with, or with whom we have a more complex relationship than the word suggests. The word is also commonly used to refer to museums’ publics, and might be considered a shorthand for work being done in isolation from, or even in contradiction to, those long-standing pillars of the field. This issue of C brushes against all these varying definitions and usages of the word “community,” dwelling longer on some than others. From rounding up resources for those living on the street to organizing petitions to boycott arts organizations that accept money from Zionist funders to running full-blown first-time auctions, with proceeds going to the victims of Beirut’s explosion, Black and Indigenous trans folk, sex workers, and more, there has been a heartening push of self-organizing in the past year. We wanted to acknowledge and learn from such work, situating it in a long history of art’s entwinement with crisis response, mutual aid, and politics, and also consider these practices within an ever expanding frame of artistic, critical thought.
This issue is big, the highest page count I’ve seen in my three years at C Magazine, and that’s largely as a result of people wanting, needing, to situate their work in relation to that of others—as inspiration, peers, collaborators, or some combination thereof. As we went along editing, the number of artist-runs, grassroots, or otherwise small and mighty collections of people quickly proliferated, including: Wildseed Centre for Art & Activism, Black Lives Matter – Toronto, Blue Devil Posse, Caribana (Erica Cardwell); Picasso PRO, Equal Grounds, Capoeira Angola (Emelie Chhangur); Encampment Support Network, JaneFinch Housing Coalition, Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council, Friends of Chinatown Toronto, 7th Generation Image Makers (Benjamin de Boer); Pivot Legal Society, Food Not Bombs, posAbilities, Facebook “Buy Nothing Group” (Emily Dickson); GENDER B(L)ENDER, Montréal, arts interculturels (Dallas Fellini); the Chinese Cultural Centre (in Calgary), Tomorrow’s Chinatown, I LOVE YYC Chinatown, 221A, aiya 哎呀! Collective, The New Gallery, Tea Base, Friends of Chinatown Toronto (yes, again), Joss Paper Library, Hua Foundation, Centre A (Steph Wong Ken); the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, The Nap Ministry (Kite and Alisha B. Wormsley); Isuma Productions’s Digital Indigenous Democracy project (Emily Laurent Henderson); Gudskul, ruangrupa, Grafis Huru Hara, Serrum, LAL/Unit 2, Younger Than Beyoncé Gallery (YTB), Sister Co-Resister, Department of Public Memory, Gentrification Tax Action, The Mobile Recording Studio, Casa Maíz, Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples, Youth ‘N’ Charge, Gendai Gallery, Mastering the Art of Misguided Business Administration (MA MBA) (Vince Rozario); Pride, and the Toronto Gay Action collective (Jamie Ross).
While “art intervenes in political life at various distances from particular political issues,” as Leo Bersani wrote in Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays, one of the most exciting questions that runs through this issue is: how do we all (not just “institutions,” but everyone, wherever we are) do more than the symbolic? The first feature, written by Benjamin de Boer, offers one of many concrete examples. They and their collaborator, Phát Lê, made a short video of themselves mixing cement at night, pouring it over benches that have been designed with hostility in mind—uneven or otherwise obstructive to the body that simply wishes to lie down. It was screened on the monitor at Albany Pizza, a delicious legend of Toronto’s West End neighbourhood, which might otherwise have been screening CP24. Someone at The Bentway caught wind of the project, and invited de Boer and Lê to do something at their site, a privately owned, condo-destined swath of land underneath the Gardiner Expressway that runs leisure and culture programming in the meantime. Slightly puzzled but curious, the duo scrapped the idea of creating a “facile public spectacle” and proposed that the organization split the $10,000 on offer among a number of grassroots groups that the artists thought The Bentway could learn something from with regards to public space.
The question of material support recurs, often opening out onto more ideological contemplations. In Steph Wong Ken’s survey of different organizations working at the intersections of art, activism, and community building in Canada’s Chinatowns, she speaks of the influence of tongs, family clans, or benevolent societies. “Dating back to as early as the 1880s, they emerged across Canada as a way for newly landed people from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam to find one another, acting as integral hubs for generations of immigrants”—not only “to exchange knowledge, language, and history” but to share financial aid. Vancouver’s 221A, one of the organizations profiled in the piece, cites being more inspired by such groups than by traditional art institutions. In 2017, they adopted a fellowship model, wherein artists and designers are paid to work on long-term projects with very few limitations. “Art practices are often seen as non-functional or not expected to be involved in generating economic security,” says Brian McBay, 221A’s executive director. “We want to get artists and designers directly involved in determining how society operates and to have an economic base to sustain themselves.”
It was exciting to see this removal of contingency from opportunity crop up across numerous pieces in different ways, considering how at odds it is with commercial exchange, the nation’s granting model, and most residencies. Hopefull highlighting this radical openness to let artists do their own thing, trusting them to define success on their own terms, will beget more such opportunities. (Is this not literally what self-determination is?) The Wildseed Black Arts Fellowship, a 20-month long journey spearheaded by Black Lives Matter – Toronto for 13 artists working in many disciplines, similarly, has no deliverables. Erica Cardwell had conversations with a number of the program’s participants and administrators in order to understand the thoughtful, holistic framework and how it was working. A DJ named Me Time reflected on how important it was that much of the experience be loosely defined, especially considering how drastically the past year has affected her relationship to her work. In a word, she felt liberated by it, seeing the primary objective of the fellowship as “focused on cultivating and preserving the collective imagination of the fellows.” Citing the rarity of being in an exclusively Black creative space, she says, “Very early on, we realized that just us being together was the work.”
In thinking about how organizations can tailor their programs in ways that truly meet artists where they’re at, I’m reminded of Dallas Fellini’s text on the relative absence of trans women in Canada’s art world, and the spaces they’ve made for themselves instead. They draw from a conversation with the artist Kama La Mackerel, who asks: “What can you offer, beyond just a show, that can actually be transformative for a career? I think of my relationship to the MAI [Montréal, arts interculturels] for example, which is where I’ve been developing my show ZOM-FAM for the past couple years. They gave me a one-year mentorship program and money that I could use to get whatever training I needed. They actually gave me resources to allow me to empower myself to learn new skills, to grow as an artist. […] Instead of asking: what will this artist do for us? we should ask: what can we do for the artist? […] How do we take a chance on them?”
“Institutional Failures and Legacies of Transmisogyny in the Arts in Canada” also tunnels down into a matter of inclusion which I’ve scarcely seen explored and is maybe even kind of taboo—something I’ve tentatively dubbed “aesthetic gatekeeping.” As Fellini writes: “Institutions are deeply tied up in classist, exclusionist frameworks of valuing artwork, and yet feign shock when marginalized communities are unable to access the material resources, formal education, and thus theoryspeak and elitist aesthetics necessary to achieve conventional ideas of success. Whether or not an artwork conforms to these norms dictates in large part who benefits from inclusion efforts. What the artwork looks like, how it operates, and how its intelligence is understood become conditions of participation.” In other words: in today’s acute reckoning with Euro- and US-centric canons, legacies, and practices, the art world has been perhaps overly fixated on including artists on the grounds of their identities, rather than on the diversity of ideas and the ways those ideas are made manifest in visual languages. It must be said that decentring whiteness means destabilizing our conception of what art looks like. But lest we forget, there is one demonstrable way that artists who work in non-hegemonic modes find their way into these spaces despite tight controls; Fellini again: “if they are willing to perform their trauma, by putting forward work that is excessively biographical or that mines emotionally difficult experiences.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that many artists opt to find artistic community in spaces they have a hand in defining. The artist and composer Kite and artist Alisha B. Wormsley reflect on a virtual gathering they organized for 18 Black and Indigenous artists to nap and dream together for a whole day. “In this current labour force, in this slave model, we are not sleeping and not dreaming,” Wormsley writes in the collaboratively written feature which attempts to mirror the non-linear logics of dreaming. “We are not supposed to dream, so there must be extreme power there.” Redolent of Me Time’s sentiments about Wildseed, the pair’s project centred togetherness, the necessity of imagination, and the importance of acknowledging individual needs in community work. It reminds me of something Rozina Kazi (of LAL/Unit 2) said in the roundtable Vince Rozario orchestrated for this issue: “I used to think, ‘Do bigger things for community.’ Now my work looks like actually helping one or two people at a time, to really impact their lives, instead of trying to impact the whole sector. If we can start with one or two people at a time and then teach other people how to make care collectives, how to make art together, we can build a different world.”
Rozario’s “Imagination Tool for Institutional Operations” also includes Leonhard Bartolomeus, Farid Rakun, and Gesyada Siregar of Gudskul, Geneviève Wallen and Marsya Maharani of YTB, Ruben Esguerra of the Mobile Recording Studio, and curator Emelie Chhangur. Each of the individuals associated with collectives digs into the distinct but overlapping needs that their respective groups were founded to address, and reflects on what came about as a result of the shared projects they’ve been embroiled in for the past few years. Continuous with her practice of “in-reach” (as opposed to outreach)—an extended definition of which precedes the conversation—Chhangur, together with her colleagues Suzanne Carte and Michael Maranda at AGYU, decided to put the institution into residency with this group of collectives. While she’s “mostly interested in the self-organizing potential of relationality over choreographing outcomes,” consonant with Gudskul’s underscoring the worth of simply “hanging out” for creative work, the project resulted in a co-authored “knowledge-sharing and
-mapping module that addresses the complex concepts and tasks involved in creating sustainable collective platforms.”
The question of un/sustainability—of anthropocentric practices, of a precarious art sector, of an increasingly divided political left—crops up in Emily Dickson’s feature, too. Taking Emily Carr University’s social practice and community engagement (SPACE) program as a pedagogical case study, the scholar considers socially engaged art education’s (SEAE) tools for healthy, necessary shifts in the field—not only for artists, but for institutions and other systems. While many art schools engage community-oriented practices in some way, “the concerted institution of SEAE introduces an alternative lexicon to the institutional body,” challenging its very bedrock perhaps to such a degree that its relative scarcity in the nation’s art schools is worthy of closer examination. Dovetailing with sentiments in Fellini’s text, Aaniya Asrani, a recent instructor in the program, says, “It isn’t the language of fine art,” indicating, as Dickson extrapolates, “that as vocabulary develops, manifestly different routes of practice become visible, and available.” Acknowledging that social practice work is plagued by familiar critiques—“the legacy of the artist who works to ‘solve,’ the danger of participation proffering excess positivity in order to mask social ills, and the possibility of such work picking up where the state leaves off in a form of unpaid volunteerism”—Dickson sets up some interesting food for thought about art’s potential in the social sphere.
Emily Laurent Henderson homes in on a formidable example of artists who don’t distinguish between their sociopolitical community work and their artistic output. For many years, Isuma has been a major proponent of media accessibility across Nunavut, and in 2012, they initiated the Digital Indigenous Democracy Project. In “Aajiiqatigiingniq” (an Inuit method for consensus-based decision-making), the writer explores the film-making collective’s work creating awareness of the proposed Baffinland Mary River iron ore mine near the communities of Igloolik and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet). They gathered testimonials of Inuit, called for community consultations, and made the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s public hearings accessible virtually. Though the mining development was built, Isuma’s work continues—most recently earlier this year, to support the airstrip protests against the mine’s proposed expansion, which would entail running hundreds of kilometres of railway through traditional hunting grounds.
In closing, we’re eager to announce that this issue pushed us to definitively outline an idea that’s been percolating for some time—a new column which will serve as a dedicated place to focus in on individual and organizational efforts being made in the name of equity within the arts community, acknowledging that this work is freckled with missteps, joys, failures, surprises, disappointments, and teachings. We’ll be looking for rundowns on specific initiatives, projects, and programs to see how they’re shaking out in the attempt to invite more complexity, sensitivity, and nuance to this crucial discourse. Consider it a place for deep, substantiated writing on specific case studies by folks supporting the development of more just infrastructures. Since it sets out to highlight the work that many features in this issue are engaged in, the column will launch in the next issue, “Maps” (December), and carry on from there.