Friday, August 19, 2011

Close Encounters: the Next 500 Years*

Contemporary indigenous art received its largest international display as part of Winnipeg’s year as Cultural Capital of Canada. Showcasing 33 international artists, ‘Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years’ ambitiously looked forward to the future of indigenous culture while remaining very much in conversation with a past 500 years of oppression.

Image credit: Jonathan Jones, 2011

Two examples to give a bit of context to the visibility of contemporary indigenous art: the first living artist to receive a solo exhibition at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian was Dunne-za First Nations/Swiss-Canadian Brian Jungen, only as recently as 2010, under the guidance of curator Paul Chaat Smith. Four years earlier in Australia, Sydney-based Jonathan Jones won the Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award and came under fire for not being ‘Aboriginal’ enough. Working with clean, sleek designs and often using commercial fluorescent light tubes, Jones has often been compared to American minimalist Dan Flavin, but beyond their shared interest in a now widely used media, the comparison does not hold.

Indigenous history and representation has been largely shaped, if not dictated, by European settlers and explorers who have decimated indigenous culture through systematic eradication of language and animistic traditions. It is a history still fraught with anger and miscommunications fuelled by generations of racism. ‘Close Encounters’ began where Western art history fails, at the narrative of first contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. Curated by LeeAnn Martin, Steven Loft, Candice Hopkins and Jenny Western, the exhibition took place throughout Winnipeg, where Canada’s largest population of urban First Nations people currently reside. The five exhibition venues featured artists from across Canada, the US, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand and Australia working in installation, photography, sculpture, performance, film, new media, video and painting.

Demystifying the Western representation of an untamed culture – one that perpetuates an ideal of the ‘noble savage’ – and the commodification of traditional designs and traditions, ‘Close Encounters’ set out to focus on works that defy stereotypical ideas of indigenous art. Canadian artist Michael Belmore’s sculptural installation Smoulder (2010) was one of the strongest examples of work that looks back while moving forward. Inviting viewers to form a circle around an arrangement of copper inlayed stones on the floor, the concept of Smoulder is simple: when gathered around the stones, the outside light is blocked, and the inlay between the stones begins to shimmer like a camp fire. As a reimagining of the traditional campfire, the work encapsulated the essence of the exhibition’s reclamation of identity through contemporary modes of storytelling.

Other highlights included contrasting immersive sculptural works by Maori artist Brett Graham and the aforementioned Jones. Graham’s interest in the materiality of traditional forms, such as stone and wood, is transformed into modern spectacles such as Te Hokioi (2000–9), a large hand-engraved sculpture of a scaled-down stealth bomber that also references its namesake, a magnificent eagle of Maori legend. Jones presented Untitled (infinity) (2011), a multi-tubed fluorescent light installation in the shape of Canada’s Métis infinity symbol – a culturally loaded image for Canadians of French and First Nations heritage. As an artist already receiving both accolades and scrutiny for not being ‘indigenous enough’ in his work, Jones carries this provocative issue of authenticity further by directly invoking a symbol from a heritage of which he is not part, but which he has chosen to use within the scope of an international contemporary indigenous exhibition.

With a cross-generational line-up that also covered the urban and rural divide, ‘Close Encounters’ excelled in its scope but failed in its own promise to look ahead. It stumbled at times over questionable inclusions of works by notable names that did not necessarily serve the exhibition’s outlook. For example, while it was obvious to include works by Jungen, it was unfortunate that only a handful of small pieces from ten years ago were on display, none of them indicative of his current direction or representative of his work’s scope.

The show addressed Winnipeg and its province’s history of rebellion and human rights, which dates back to Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba and one of Canada’s most controversial historical figures. As a rebel leader of Métis heritage, Riel actively championed the cultural preservation of Métis languages and culture in his region before eventually being executed for treason against the Canadian government. Shortly before his death in 1885, Riel prophesized in his journals: ‘My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.’ More than 100 years have passed and reconciliation talks between Canadian government and First Nations leaders have only just begun in what will be a long and complicated healing process. With the realization of an international and indigenous art exhibition in the very resting place of Riel, a step has been taken towards the fulfillment of his life long goal, which ultimately was for the preservation and perseverance of cultural sovereignty for all.

*First published in Frieze Issue 141 Sept 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Precocious and Precarious: The Future is Unstable (and it always will be, so deal with it)*

Since arriving in Scotland from Canada as a visiting writer and curator one month ago, I have been introduced to quite a bit of talk on the subject of ‘precarisation’ and labour - specifically, the precarious labour of cultural workers.

There seems to be both a blind valorisation of precarity in the arts and a growing desire for revolution from the precariously dissatisfied. But the theoretical arguments and the day-to-day reality of precarity appear worlds apart.

Precarity, to clarify up front, refers to individuals employed through temporary, short-term contracts. While this was once a choice for workers, the choice is now being made for us as precarity becomes normalised within the current neo-liberalist era.

My own experience working as a full time freelance writer and curator is a dedicated life of never-ending cycles of hustling and networking, where there is no clear distinction between work and life, business and pleasure, or employers and audiences. I do not see myself as privileged or subjugated, as I simply do not fit into the system.

As a precarious cultural worker, my job, life and time is spent questioning and magnifying the fissures in the system, akin to identifying the inevitable cracks in a plaster wall. The job of the artist is to widen these in order to expose the problem before the crack is superficially patched up. And there are cracks everywhere, not just in the art world.
The precarious nature of cultural workers is not so much a devaluation of our skills, but a lack of understanding as to where the demand lies. We work in a field that demands mobility without stability, but inversely, our instability allows us the freedom to address a multitude of subjects.

The nature of most cultural workers is precarious, because few of the systems that offer stability will actually want to be accountable to so many stakeholders.

My current placement is unique in that they believe in a 50/50 approach between the organisation and the town, and that’s how they’ve been functioning since they began as a self-organised arts group with a strong focus on socially-engaged art practices. I am also only here for a fixed span of time, which is also an important factor, because once precarity becomes routinised, as is the case across artist run centres, the working conditions take on restrictive parameters, and suddenly, cultural workers are still without stable incomes or pensions, but find themselves working 60 hours a week for meagre wages on an indefinite amount of time.

For another generation of cultural workers who find themselves painted into a corner, there is a palpable anger and frustration towards the system that has subsumed and regulated our precarity, making us active, although weak and willing participants in the very economic labour system we are supposed to challenge through our ideals and our actions. More likely, we are reinforcing the power of those systems when we let ourselves be bound by them.

No one would deny that this unstable framework has led to an imbalance of power relations both economically and politically, but the question of the day is whether this unstable framework is actually capable of destabilising our current neo-liberalist society.

If neo-liberalism is indeed governing through the action of instituting insecurities, as suggested by the den mother of precarity, Isabel Lorey, the issue at hand is not the precarious nature of labour, but about how this precarity is being culled. To go back to the image of the fissuring plaster wall, if we have moved into an era where we are distracted from even fixing the cracks; rather, we have become dependent on prescribed precarity, on the doling out of scraps of decorative wall coverings, and fighting one another over who can put up what and where in a legitimated realm of instable institutionalised patterning.

A base function of art is to shine a light on areas in our society that have grown dark or invisible. Artists do so by challenging conventions of both form and content, by carving out a space for themselves among these issues by de-territorialising our standardised rhythms and patterns of action and thought.

In continuing on as precarious workers in an increasingly unstable realm, the issue is not precarity, which is a given, but the boundaries set upon our precarious nature that we must be released from.

*First appeared in Line Magazine, Issue 4