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Just over a year ago, I watched artist Adrian Stimson stand alone on a stage, covered in the flags of France, Britain, and Canada that were secured by white rope tied tightly around his neck. “ERRANT,” (2019) an endurance performance commissioned by curators Pamela Edmonds, Wanda Nanibush, and Catherine Sicot for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s From Glissant Unfixed and Unbounded symposium, was a confrontation with settler colonialism that I, at the time, was still silent on.
(The pandemic, being in lockdown — it all makes me fixate on the art I saw just prior: the last concert, the last night out dancing, the last art show.)
In a darkened theatre filled with audio of the Siksika artist learning Blackfoot from an elder — a language almost lost to Canada’s residential school system — Stimson stood his ground as two assistants painstakingly wrap him in barbed wire with heavy duty gloves and wire cutters. The barbed wire coiled outwardly, a penitentiary or livestock fencing material showing how human bodies can cruelly be rendered as property. Even as he was completely covered in flags and wire, Stimson remained still. For a moment, I was him. My breath caught in my mouth a wisp of that frantic sensation I get when the feeling of claustrophobia comes through me. I felt his bravery, especially given that just prior, he told the audience this performance was dedicated to his reserve, still mourning the recent death of one of its members, a 17-year-old boy. Eventually, completely covered in the flags and wire, the only way Stimson could become free was if he got help. This vulnerability emphasized how in the colonial project that is often nationhood, all citizens are implicated.
That performance, and my involvement in it as a commissioned documentor of the symposium in collaboration with my colleagues, the journalist, curator and researcher Rosemary Heather and multi-disciplinary artist Alejandra Higuera, marked one of my last institutional jobs before the pandemic, and was probably one of the last live-in-person performance works I saw. Less than three months before, I had quit my full-time job working at a Toronto cultural institution. I wrestled privately with the guilt and responsibility I had as a hypervisible token — or diversity hire — in a traditional museum setting. I now hid at exhibition openings, uncomfortable with the professionalism banter: “Oh, you are no longer at the museum? What are you doing now? ” In deflecting, I was just keeping up appearances, cruelly honoring — as many of us arts workers who are reliant on these institutional spaces for our livelihoods do — the institutional codes of silence. Outwardly optimistic, in times like these I felt grateful I could lean on my journalism skill of deftly navigating small talk by going into interview mode. (Because if anyone that can talk at length about themselves and their work, artists and curators can.) No one needed to know the truth: that I was spinning, struggling with the worth of my work and whether I even wanted to work again at a cultural institution.
The trauma, grief, and spectacle of this year weigh heavily. Why did it have to take the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Dion Johnson, Regis Korchinski-Paquet? The art world is well aware of its systematic barriers, and the institutional impulse towards centering the historical art object, and how little has been done in traditional museum settings to value the lived experiences that continue to not be represented. Why did the art world need to feed on the trauma narratives of other current or former institutional workers like myself, neatly packaged in Instagram stories graphics, to realize how often the art object supersedes lived experience?
I once organized lectures about European porcelain mostly attended by rich old white people who sometimes mistook me for a volunteer, and felt embarrassment that if I wanted to show one of the few objects on display by a Black artist (Magdalene Odundo), I had to take them down to a poorly lit vitrine in our basement clay-making studios. Then there was the time I was gaslighted by a white male curator. It took an open letter for me to realize I wasn’t alone in having to take two leaves of absence, one of which was unpaid. These places that work so desperately to affirm the neutrality of white supremacy leave many of us emptied, drained, exhausted, debilitated.
Even though I was employed by a museum, and walked through its doors everyday, I wasn’t welcomed. Because even if you build capacity with historically underrepresented museum publics, and those constituents become invested in that change work happening from the inside, and then ask questions about what is not there, the conversation stops after the didactic wall text has been proofed. Why are there blackface objects in this European Porcelain gallery? Why do institutions extract the emotional and intellectual labor of queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color arts workers as damage control when an exhibition’s curatorial direction goes awry? I felt, in that Sarah Ahmed sense of the Sisyphean work of diversity practitioners within institutional settings, I had to at least bang my head hard enough against the wall to make a dent for my successor. (Museum workplaces are notorious for scrubbing clean the legacy knowledge its former workers attempt to pass on to the next round of diversity hires.)
But being on the outside has its benefits. And speaking out — well, it lets people know where you stand. During June and July, I felt gratitude for the conversations and socially distanced hangs with other spat out hypervisible tokens. We all had our experiences with that Karen-type artistic director who never remembered your name (despite meeting you a number of times), or the white male critic engaging in Facebook damage control over their mostly white criticality. Stats were compiled, collectives were formed, some of which are still circulating.
One night in August, I danced in a public park with masked-up revellers to the DJ Tiësto remix of the Sarah McLachlan and Delirium late-1990s techno classic “Silence,” and I felt fully in my body, and I held onto that vibrational energy for weeks, even months after. The rare physical shows I got to experience before we went back into lockdown — Jennifer Sciarrino at Daniel Faria, Tau Lewis at Cooper Cole — made me feel like I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how lichen-informed speculative futures or hand-sewn household material worldbuilding processes, respectively, could protect our energies, ourselves. Sure, museums and galleries were closed, and I felt that loss acutely. But I had my K-pop boy band obsession — yes, I am referring to BTS, and yes, I am what you call “pandemic ARMY.”
Right now, I have probably watched numerous times this “Dynamite” dance break, choreographed for a single K-pop awards show, because this is what K-pop groups do all the time: comeback stages, dance practices, behind-the-scenes footage, documentation upon documentation of the same gestures and movements, just refashioned and ever so slightly tweaked each time, and then parsed and isolated and re-edited by fans trying to bottle that thirst trapping energy, to keep it looping forever in the timeline.
When I went down the rabbit hole that is BTS during the early part of the pandemic, I remember reading a 2018 interview the group had done, where its leader and rapper RM (AKA Kim Namjoon) elaborated on how the word “future,” in Korean, was made up of two parts. “The first part means ‘not,’ and the second means ‘to come’,” he told E. Alex Jung for a Billboard cover story profile. “In that sense, ‘future’ means something that will not come. This is to say: The Future is now, and our now is us living our future.”
I think about these eerily prescient words, how they reflect on this slow cancellation of the future. I also take solace in online conversations I watched, in particular, an October panel with Laura Raicovich, LaTanya S. Autry and Helen Molesworth on museum decolonial work: Autry noted how change comes from below and the outside, that it takes “actions on multiple fronts” to hold museums accountable. “We are porous spaces,” she concluded. “The most profound change will be grassroots.”
Another online conversation, pertaining to the systematic racism in representation, affirmed the power of refusal. “What does it mean to create and curate work with an intent to dismantle stereotypes you are complicit in?” This critical reflection, asked by emerging artists Kourtney Jackson, Nawang Kinkar, Sadaf Khajeh, and Hermmela Tafesse, led them to stage a November panel/collective action as part of a Ryerson Image Centre public program convened by soJin Chun responding to its Mohamed Bourouissa: Horse Day exhibition. In their view, a 45-minute public panel wasn’t enough time to fully unpack the “collaborative” ethics of an Algerian/French male artist creating work documenting the young Black horsemen of Philadelphia’s historic Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.
So after delivering a land acknowledgement, the artists informed the audience this panel, a scheduled performance, was cancelled, leaving behind three pointed title card questions. In doing so, they outsourced their racialized, representational labor to the audience watching. As public engagement surrounding racial justice and the dismantling of cultural institutions continues to be livestreamed or TikToked into 2021, collective actions such as this — deliberately reframing the conversation — will circulate and redistribute.
Art by Athena LaTocha, Wendy Red Star, Marianne Nicolson, Anita Fields, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith & Neal Ambrose-Smith, and more is on view through January 2022.
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