Writing for a new publication can be an exercise in humility, in the best ways. A reminder of your crutches and tendencies as a writer (including, for me, always including two nouns when one will do. This sentence is a case in point), but also a chance to hone your descriptive capacities. At least that was the case with writing a review of Jason de Haan’s “Free and Easy Wanderer” solo show at Clint Roenisch for this month’s issue of Art in America: a task that was both deeply satisfying, having long been an admirer of de Haan’s work, but also tricky in terms of trying to unpack the ways the artist plays with time in his practice. This is as close as I got (I hope) to articulating with words what I feel when I look at de Haan’s sculptures:
By using the fossils as filters through which the machines emit gas into the air, de Haan taps into the human desire to access the metaphysical powers of primordial matter. At the core of the installation is a question about where these natural and man-made objects belong in time; the work complicates the fossils’ status as artifacts of remote eras, while also making the modern appliances seem strangely old, like tools of archaic rituals.
I told a friend recently about an experimental short writing workshop I took with Ivan Coyote many years ago and how one of the most challenging things Ivan did was give each participant a different rule they had to follow for each week’s assignment. For me one week, it was that I could not write in the first person. For another classmate who was hysterically funny, it was the limitation that she could not tell any jokes. By spotting and then removing our shorthanded ways of getting from one point in the story to another, they forced us to try new things. Short of my self-imposed rule of not starting a sentence with the word “in” (borrowed from Charles Reeve), I have not been terribly disciplined in pinpointing and eliminating my writing crutches. Perhaps, with the inspiration of trying to write about de Haan’s work in mind, it can be one of my resolutions for the year ahead.
My dear friend cheyanne turions, who has been thinking alongside me about the practices of looking and reading for quite some time, sent me photos of several pages of A Great Books Primer (1955) this holiday season, which offers 10 rules for running and participating in a reading group.
What I love about these rules are their clarity of language and direction, and their insistence that every reader (or viewer) is equipped with the critical and analytic tools to create meaning from any text (or image), so long as they pay close attention to it, and to the discussion of others with whom they are reading (or looking):
The Rules of the Game
1. Read each book well
Give it your full attention.
2. Have some questions ready
To pose to the group, not to its leader.
3. Talk about the book
You come to the group to talk about ideas. But about the ideas presented by the book—not just any ideas.
4. Speak your mind freely
State your opinions openly and be prepared to back them up with reason.
5. Be brief and to the point
If you find the talk is wandering, help to get it back on the track.
6. Don’t let the discussion get away from you
If you don’t understand what’s going on, say so. Ask for examples, illustrations, reasons until you do understand.
7. Disagree, by all means, but in a friendly way
Disagreement may bring out the contradictions in a position, or the complexity of the question.
8. Matters of fact can waste time
Assume the disputed fact for the sake of discussion. Of course, if the fact in question can be found by referring to the book you are discussing, you should do so. The book is the big fact which you all have in common.
9. Discuss the book, not what others say about it
Forsake outside authorities for the purposes of discussion. Not that they don’t know anything. They do. But your main purpose should be to develop your own thinking and ability to communicate. No “expert” intermediary can help you to think for yourself.
10. Discuss the author’s ideas, not her life and times
It is her thought that counts for your discussion, not the circumstances in which the author found herself. The major arguments, those which have meaning for us today, are understandable in the author’s own terms.
[excerpted and feminized. You know, like using feminine pronouns as the universal, and also like feminism made into a verb]
Through her work in No Reading After the Internet and my own attempts at adapting it into a looking group format, cheyanne and I have often discussed how to create an environment where this kind of looking and reading and talking can happen. We have drafted versions of a kind of “No” manifesto (along with the brilliant input of Kim Simon, Amy Lynn Kazymerchyk and Jacob Korczynski) that try to get at many of the same tenets and ideas. I suppose, like many of our experiments, there is the chance that there will be a disconnect between presenting these guidelines and the “real life” effects that can interrupt them when put into practice (group dynamics, unconscious processes, the eternal difficulties and discomforts of teaching and learning), but it has been a real inspiration for me, as I turn to thinking about a new calendar year, for pushing ahead with a kind of blind belief in the critical capacities of the reader/viewer, and the space of the gallery or artist-run centre in providing the environment for great (and sometimes difficult) discussions about books and images.
I have been trying to write about the work of my friend Aleesa Cohene for many years now: an artist who works with video as a medium in a way I have never seen before. I have been fascinated and entranced by her installations over the past few years, and have enjoyed seeing my students at OCAD be equally enthralled by her savvy use of film and television clips, alongside newly composed scores, to create new narratives around otherwise well-worn material.
So it was my great pleasure to finally have the chance to contextualize her work, and try to describe my experience of it, for the Winter 2015 issue of Canadian Art magazine, timed to coincide with her recent solo exhibition at Oakville Galleries, “I Know You Know.”
As with any technically rigorous work, it was hard to resist the urge to explain how she makes her works as some sort of interpretive key to understanding them. Luckily, Cohene’s videos also produce highly affective experiences, which forced me to oscillate between describing how she creates them (largely through a list of self-imposed rules for finding and editing her source material), and the feelings they can create for the (this?) viewer.
I’m very grateful to Aleesa for her patience in answering questions about her process and work, and to Matthew Hyland, Oakville’s director and the curator of this solo exhibition, for continuing to champion the work of contemporary women artists in Canada.
The title of Karen Kraven’s first institutional solo exhibition, “Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah,” signals the Montreal-based artist’s infectious enthusiasm for mimicry, subterfuge, and speculation across a new body of work comprising sculpture, photography, and ceramics. Like a modern-day incantation, the phrase begs to be spoken aloud, evoking the shimmering strands of cheerleaders’ pom-poms and the emphatic sounds of exploding fireworks.
Last week, I sat down with Sarah Milroy, Richard Rhodes and Sky Goodden for a panel discussion about the past, present and future of art writing. Organized as part of the Canadian Art Gallery Hop and the magazine’s 30th year, the talk asked each of us—chosen from a different generation of art writers and editors—to reflect on why we write and to think about the current challenges facing art writers and critics.
It was a thoughtful and (rather typically for Canada) collegial conversation that often circled back to issues of looking slowly, of the importance of subjectivity in art writing, and of the perils of being critical when it is almost impossible to make a living as an art writer. The discussion was livestreamed, for the first time in the gallery hop’s history, and there were some fantastic and critical questions from the audiences both in the room and watching at home (none of which I felt I did a particularly good job at answering). Video documentation of the discussion is now available on Canadian Art’s website, or you can (retroactively) follow the live-tweeting of the event from @canartca.
Last fall, I was fortunate to be able to attend “The Flood of Rights,” a conference in Arles, France, organized by Thomas Keenan, Suhail Malik and Tirdad Zolghadr that aimed to address “how technologies of image-capture and the channels of communication have in recent years transformed the very terms of human rights.” Featuring papers and talks by Amanda Beech, Rony Brauman, David Campbell, Olivia Custer, Rosalyn Deutsche, Jackson Pollock Bar, Eric Kluitenberg, David Levine, Sohrab Mohebbi, Sharon Sliwinski, Hito Steyerl, and Bernard Stiegler, the symposium was the second such event to address the intersections between photography (and other lens-based practices) and human rights. (I highly recommend everyone watch David Levine’s fascinating reading of several filmic representations of spectatorial nausea).
As I wrote in my event review of the symposium for this month’s issue of the Journal of Visual Culture, one of the most thought-provoking outcomes of the three days’ worth of performances, talks and discussions was the ongoing difficulty in getting a hold on how streaming and crowd-sourced forms of image-making challenge our understanding of the relationship between images and human rights claims:
Although the ‘flood’ of the conference’s title called to mind the massive volume of photographic images being produced daily – underscored by Erik Kessels’s artwork, 24HRS of Photos (2011–), a mountainous installation of printed copies of all the photographs uploaded to Flickr in one day on view concurrently at the Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographies festival – it also suggested the unruliness of their directions. Without the newspaper front page or a photo editor to direct the viewer’s attention, how does the spectator make sense of these competing claims for rights from distant digital citizens? And how is the role of the viewer understood and evaluated in these networked forms of dissemination?
… [T]hese questions… point to an ongoing challenge facing visual culture theorists in the age of digital networked communication: how to picture a seemingly immaterial medium, or series of media, streaming between portable screens around the globe with no fixed point of production or reception. In many ways, ‘The Flood of Rights’ was an event in search of a common and consistent object of study, in itself an interesting and demanding project and one that I want to think about not as a shortcoming of the conference, but rather as a productive ambiguity that unsettles assumptions about ‘the event’ and ‘the image’, two foundational terms in recent photography theory.
Unfortunately, the review is only accessible if you have paid access to the journal (or one of the databases that archives it), but luckily video documentation of all of the talks have been archived on “The Flood of Rights” website and a book edition of the papers will be out this fall.
Last month, I was invited to participate in a press tour of the Yokohama Triennale and the Sapporo International Art Fair, two triennial art festivals in Japan that each meditated on local histories of development and the legacies of modernism on contemporary art. While the Sapporo festival—the first of its kind in the city—was a massive, multi-venue project that activated the local history of the island and presented some ambitious public installations, it was the Yokohama Triennale exhibition that held my attention and fascination the longest, particularly for the ways it both borrowed from and liberally improvised upon the themes of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (a nostalgic favourite text of mine, perhaps because I got to read it on my own and not in a high school-mandated English class. The François Truffaut film adaption is its own head-spinning interpretation of the book). I also couldn’t shake the vision of the Yokohama Home Collection, a strange “housing park” located right across the street from one of the triennial’s main locations, which seemed like an explicit manifestation of some of the problems of late capitalist real estate development and speculation. The Wikimapia description of the place says it all: “Nobody resides here.”
The triennial was a massive exhibition of more than 400 works, but for the most part, the exhibition worked, offering small moments of contemplation, historical conjunction and even laughter (everyone should listen to Marcel Broodthaers’s Interview with a Cat) amid the blockbuster exhibition spaces and chaos of some of the works. I tried to draw some links between these various moments of connection in a review for Canadian Art that went online today.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to write about Elias Hansen‘s incredible sculptures, which, along with Yuko Mohri‘s works, were one of my favourite discoveries of the trip. The man’s titles alone are worth writing home about.
It has been a good year for seeing photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario: first, there was Associate Curator Sophie Hackett’s two-part meditation on the gallery’s permanent photo collection, “Light My Fire,” an elegant, thoughtful and often surprising overview of portraiture within the institution’s massive (and growing) collection of fine art and vernacular images. Now, in tandem with World Pride, Hackett has once again curated a pair of exhibitions that take as their focus photography and identity: “Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography” at the AGO, and “What It Means to Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility” at the Ryerson Image Centre.
While the Ryerson exhibition focuses on documentary images of collective identity—often seen through forms of public demonstration, protest and print media—the AGO half of the exhibition foregrounds artists’ collections and creations of identities through photographs. Self-portraiture, or portraits commissioned by the sitter, are more common here, and use costuming, props, poses and performances for the camera to construct an identity for the lens. Photography has long been tied up in ideas (some of them inflated to the point that they are unsustainable myths) of instantaneity, objectivity, and universal legibility, and the two exhibitions demonstrate how these ideals have been both harnessed by subjects and troubled by artists, photographers, and photo editors.
Over the next three weeks, I’m hoping to think through some of these questions through a workshop at the AGO on “Photography and Self-Fashioning.” Is there something unique about photography as a medium—aside from its mechanical nature and its increased accessibility with the mass manufacture of cheap camera equipment—that allows subjects to control how they are publicly represented? How does photography’s ubiquity and circulation, its ability to be reproduced in places quite different from where it was produced, trouble the distinction between private and public space? What happens when performances of gender and desire that are “supposed to be” private enter the public sphere? And what does a “queer visibility” look like in an age where we are surrounded by a flood of self-made images?
I’ve been thinking a lot about live or performative criticism lately: ways to try to move critical discourse away from its seemingly inevitable destination as printed or posted words, into another space that might be more fleeting, more experimental and more social. In some ways, it’s been a hard conceptual move for me to make, as a dedicated book fetishist who still brings a pen and notebook to every exhibition, lecture and artist talk I go to. It’s difficult to imagine discussing or reviewing art without lots and lots of written words: my own and those of others. Which is why I’ve been excited to attend a few of the “Open Sesame Critics Forum” sessions, organized by artist and critic Xenia Benivolski for the past several years as a way to activate and enliven art criticism. In each session, three art critics review three exhibitions, discussing their interpretations and reactions with one another and in front of a crowd.
It’s not exactly living research, or research in public, which has been motivating a lot of my curatorial work lately (especially under the generative guidance of folks like Kim Simon at Gallery TPW and Pip Day at SBC Gallery) since in most of the sessions I’ve attended, the participating critics have shown up with some pretty well-formed ideas about the art they are reviewing, rather than positing some tentative and changeable ideas. But it also offers an opportunity to talk about the function of art criticism, in print and in dialogue, and to think about what it might mean to change one’s mind in public, in relation to other artists, writers and curators in the room.
I’ll be participating in the next session of “Open Sesame,” happening this Saturday, April 26 at LUFF art + dialogue, and I’ve been trying to think about how to challenge my reliance on printed words in art criticism and to force myself to experiment with the modes of critical discourse. This might be as simple as showing up with no notes, or could involve its opposite: trying to force myself to write, at length, but in a completely different voice and style than I’d normally use.
OPEN SESAME: Critics Forum, vol. V
Saturday, April 26, 3–6 pm
LUFF art + dialogue
688 Richmond Street West, #202, Toronto, Ontario M6J 1C5
Based on David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum in New York City, three critics will review three current Toronto exhibitions, after which questions and dialogue between critics and audience will be facilitated.
Darryl Napinak: “Darryl Napinak’s Throwbacks”
Paul Petro Contemporary (upstairs)
April 11 – April 26, 2014
Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens: “Is There Anything To Be Done At All?”
Trinity Square Video in Collaboration with Images Festival. TSV.
April 12th – May 12th, 2014
Eva Kotátková – S/T” Eva Kotatkova”
Scrap Metal Gallery
April 3 – June 28, 2014
Critics are Amish Morrell, Gabrielle Moser and Alex Wolfson. Moderated by Amy Lam.
This weekend, No Looking After the Internet meets in Montreal as part of cheyanne turions’s “A Problem So Big It Needs Other People,” an exhibition about sovereignty as a form of negotiation at Montreal’s SBC Gallery. Co-facilitated with turions and with artist Annie MacDonell, we’ll be looking at an unusual archive of found photographs that are collected by and housed in the Toronto Reference Library. Come help us think through the appropriation of images as a process of negotiation, the sovereignty of images, and the political implications of labeling something as “difficult.”
No Looking After the Internet is a “looking group” that invites participants to look at an image (or a series of images) they are unfamiliar with, and “read” the image out-loud together. Chosen in relation to an exhibition, an artist’s body of work, or an ongoing research project, No Looking examines images without the traditional frameworks of the caption, gallery exhibition or artist’s talk. Instead, it offers the space and time for immersive looking, asking what we might see when we look at images slowly and collectively, unpacking our responses with others.
Premised on the idea that we don’t always trust our interpretive abilities as viewers, the aim of No Looking is to examine what makes practices of looking difficult. How does a slower form of looking allow us to be self-reflexive about our role as spectators? How do we look at images differently when we interpret them with a community of others?
No Looking is an ongoing, collaborative project based out of Toronto’s Gallery TPW and takes its name and inspiration from No Reading After the Internet, an out-loud reading and discussion group that meets regularly in Toronto and Vancouver (http://noreadingaftertheinternet.wordpress.com/).
This salon will feature images from the Toronto Reference Library’s Picture Collection, as selected by Annie MacDonell, who has been working with the collection over the last few years.