In-reach and the Fabulatory Function of the Curatorial
by Emelie Chhangur
I am a biracial Torontonian who grew up in a small town as the only person of colour, and returned to Toronto to study. Toronto has been the subject of my work ever since.
My curatorial work for the past two decades can be simply summed up as a practice of negotiating the complexities of how to belong with a place over time. It has questioned the social and civic role of art and its public institutions, conceiving of the curatorial as a means and methodology with which to engage and participate in the civic sphere by bringing artists, non-artists, and city structures into relation, and in doing so, giving shape to future visual culture grounded in multiplicity. I have approached this through: the adoption of artistic methodologies that stem from vernacular cultural traditions, the transformation of traditions through their mixing, and the constitution of new traditions formed through solidarity-building collaborations between individuals and groups with no “perceived natural affinity”—in particular, Indigenous and diasporic communities. Even though my projects have often culminated in large-scale public works that appropriate recognizable dramaturgical forms— recasting the protagonists of these social dramas with individuals and groups who do not generally find themselves at the civic centre of their city—the real work of these projects is in the invisibility of their longterm making. I think of this behind the-scenes work as rehearsals: for the creation of new social relations, on the one hand, and for new ways of participating in the civic and cultural life of a place, on the other. This backstage work has tremendous bearing on art-institutional practice, too.
My approach to engaged institutional practice stems from my continuing collaboration with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation beginning in 2009 with The Awakening/Giigozhkozimin, which brought members of the nation together with parkour athletes from the Greater Toronto Area in “a civic ceremonial.”1 Giigozhkozimin meant radically rethinking the temporality of projects—including institutional decision-making practices. Following processes proposed by the project revealed to me the institution’s incommensurabilty to support non-Western sociocultural practices, behaviours, and values. Then and now, I insist that the institutions I work for2 bend to meet the methodological demands of the communities with whom I work and the projects we want to make.3 Doing this productively ensures something meaningful inside the work persists beyond the projects’ own temporality. I call this form of institutional transformation “in-reach”—in contradistinction to outreach—because the differing ecologies of knowledge that these kinds of projects produce change institutional practice from within by introducing different social economies, cultural protocols, and perspectives in ways that the institution can neither suppress nor ignore if they wish to see the project through.4
Ring of Fire was a project with 150 core collaborators that resulted in a 300-person street procession in downtown Toronto.5 The project brought together disability dancers from Picasso PRO and Equal Grounds, the Mississaugas of the Credit, members of the Capoeira Angola community, and young spoken-word poets from Jane-Finch, Malvern, and Regent Park, simultaneously signed by Deaf and Hard of Hearing youth, in a two-year process that involved over 100 workshops in visual art, music, movement, and spoken word. I was interested in how using an appositional approach to curating could transform traditions and simultaneously create new images of and for Toronto.
It was at this time I began to rethink my own practice: from a socially engaged curatorial practice—as in The Awakening—to a curatorially-engaged social and civic approach to cultural work. If traditionally the work of curators is to bring artworks into dialogue, then curatorially-engaged cultural work would bring together elements of the civic and social spheres so that individuals and groups might create new arrangements with which to navigate the existing structures of their city and the cultural organizations that are supposed to represent them. This is where the curatorial might create a kind of slippage—a fabulation—making what is performed play a real role in the history of a place and making the history of a place a kind of fiction to be played with and upon. Even if it was just for one day, Queen’s Park, Toronto City Hall, and 52 Division of the Toronto Police worked for us.6
Mobilizing the power of these dramaturgical forms and their capacity to enact new traditions, I more deeply understood what is at stake for curating and how to disestablish art institutional power. Through performance, we can transform visual culture in authentic ways by putting the art institution in the service of a changing social imaginary. While performance is often a mechanism of dominant culture— reiterating and reinforcing values that hold up exclusion as the driving force of its pedagogical function—it remains a powerful myth-making means with which a culture can picture itself. So, if within the art institution you change the frame and the participants, then you can change what a culture sees of itself—and can start to change power structures outside the art institution as well. In other words, to speak truth to power from inside art institutions makes those institutions vehicles for changing public discourse. The art gallery is not a reflection; it refracts.
These projects are not about what diasporic practices do to places, or what places do to them. They ask us instead to consider what Toronto will do with diasporic practices to new effect through their mixing: entangled with yet other traditions, movements, gestures, and rhythms to no known ends. How things are brought into relation is a political matter of curatorial concern. An assembler of difference—the diversifying difference of the yet-to-be—the curatorial in this way is a relation machine that brings new forms into the world and in doing so provides new foundational grounds from which to build the future we want to see, right now. I call this iterative way of working “curating on a continuum” in that, as a process of continual transformation and change, it collapses pasts, presents, and futures. It’s speculation in action. It’s anti-assimilationist. It’s turning the institution itself into a practice. It’s a belief in the transformative power of art to reimagine the world.
One can face a lot of resistance and fear when manifesting energy toward the creation of a future no longer tethered to a baseline structure. While the Western museological frame needs to be dismantled, I think of my work as proposing otherwise. I operate with a general ethic that flows forward and I move with it—a kind of ex-centric curiosity—but last summer was a defining moment for me. I realized: everything can change.