All the rooming houses on my street have had their front doors removed.
A THESIS EXHIBITION ACROSS SEVEN SITES
(text originally spoken)
When I was talking one day with Sarah about whether or not my title had value as a title she really beautifully thought of it as a first line in a novel as a tool to evaluate it and I have hung on to that. The works across the seven sites of this exhibition tell a story. The story is about relationships, about learning, about quiet moments that build on each other, about you as the audience in relationship with this work. It is a story about power, and a story about time.
I want to start by acknowledging that we are here on Treaty One Land, and also the homeland of the Metis Nation. This is a relationship – being a treaty person – that I have been in all my life, but one that I am new to understanding. I really don’t know what it means a lot of the time but I’m trying to figure it out through searching, listening and working at it. Naming myself as a settler is part of this process. Naming this has to do with a number of things – increased understanding that allows defining for one, and it also has to do with power – acknowledging past and present systems of power and my own place in these.
Since I discovered contemporary art, and it really has been a process of discovery, I’ve been finding and developing my practice both through naming and defining. The defining involves questions, conversations and listening – It is also an unraveling of definitions that are assumed. I could say this is a description of the process of contemporary artists in general – and it also seems to be a description of the process of being in relationship.
I can think of the unraveling of a definition as the coming apart of a textile into all the threads that makes it up. In my practice, even though I am involved in taking them apart I am also involved in trying to knit them back together. And I do this through time. Time of learning, time that serves to increase the responsibility I have to those I am learning from, time that moves forward from the these unraveled threads – untangling them, creating something from them – and time that moves back into the process that pulls these threads apart.
So, what are the relationships that have helped me to name, define, unravel, and knit together?
I am in relationship with art – a place where doors can be built metaphorically. In art I can say that the work in an exhibition entitled “all the rooming houses on my street have had their front door removed” is a look at my practice as building doors. In art the work can hold utopian possibilities. Knitted thread and laser cut paper built through time can shelter us somewhere between the gallery and the door that leads outside of it, there is something to be learnt in a reflection of ourselves and a the system we are in labelled vulnerable and fragile, In art an unmonumental pile of old newspapers is afforded contemplation, volunteering in an organinaztion in an already existing role has the potential to overturn hierarchies. In relationship with art documentation can be believed to be a political act.
Yet, none of the doors in this work are functional. The doors in the gallery are so fragile that to touch them would probably break them. The pile of newspapers, 3 years later, is not even high enough yet to block the cold in the doorway. The fort downtown is held up only with doorframes – still with no door attached – the actual doors coming only from the business of art. A performance in which only a line is left might just be a doorway for the artist to see themselves, and lobbying for regulated guidelines for rooming houses is probably a stronger political act than documentation.
I am also in relationship with those for whom the removal of their door labels them and leaves them vulnerable. – I’m in relationship with those that live in the area that a politician recently called “the other end of the street, where the problems are” – he used this in a way that implied that the problems at that end of the street are inherent to those that live there. And his labeling is actually convenient not just for him, but also for me, it keeps me from having to take responsibility for the fact that I have neighbours that live with the reality that fighting for a door never comes with the security of knowing it cannot be removed again. It is part of a system that needs me to believe that poverty and the problems associated with it are the fault of the people in living it. I’m in a relationship with a system that says we all have equal chance at success. It’s a system that is slanted in my favour – for many reasons – but I will just point out that this myth of individual achievement works really well for me because I have a room full of people here today to support me.
It is in relationships with my neighbours that I have learnt about the realities of living ‘at the bottom’ of our current economic systems. And it is from these relationships that I have learnt how to define strength, care, welcome and activism. In this relationship I get to spend time learning through knitting each week. In this relationship I have experienced over and over how important sharing a cup of coffee is and have seen how little I learn when I am not willing to spend time or, when I come with my own agenda. Here I learn how a representation of poverty must also acknowledge how much closer it brings you to death. Here I get to be chosen to receive a gift, and the moments of conversation that come with it. It is here that I have received welcome however I have come. And, it is in these relationships I have learnt that to just build an actual door is not enough.
I’m in relationship with a specific area of art: socially engaged art. There are a lot of names for it (relational, dialogical, social practice, are just a few). In my discovering of contemporary art I discovered this area of art where the medium is actually the relationship. There is a lot of work that falls into these categories but I am thinking specifically about the work where the practice itself is also its ethics and its aesthetics. The work where the talk about aesthetics and relational art is not just an intellectual process but also the practical reality of choosing to sacrifice the formatting of my printed booklet rather than the meal planned with a group to put it together.
This is the relationship under which I have been able to bring together the utopian potential of art and the realities of relationships with people. It is in this relationship that I have worked to define the possibilities and limitations of art documentation.
The story of individual accomplishment, to use the earlier example, is often evaluated with the idea of truth – so, if there is an example that proves that it is true then it cannot be disputed. Like, the story of the person that succeeds against all odds therefore proves that everyone is capable of it.
Sometimes art documentation, specifically in socially engaged art, works in the same way. Like, if I show you a picture of a person sitting on the doorstep of a rooming house with the doors removed and tell you a story about our conversation you will have learnt what I have learnt from conversation with them and you will understand exactly what I mean when I say I learn from people whose stories power systems often don’t allow us to hear. But, the photo and the story is only true in the same way that the person who succeeds against all odds is true for us all to be able to do it. You are not in relationship with the person on the steps and the photo and story is me representing them. It is also showing you an image that we are very used to catagorizing – categories the power systems we live in have stories for that are even more nuanced and ingrained than the idea of individual accomplishment is. To overcome the stories that create these categories it requires more work than directly pointing them out – because our current power systems even have ways to co-opt that action. Like, if I tell you about how this person sitting on the steps in a photo has taught me how strength can be silence and with it I have learnt how to be silent – it is so easy to make this a formula to use for understanding another person’s silence and then we don’t have to get to know the person in front of us and discover that maybe their silence does not feel like strength for them in a system that does not allow them to talk.
But even if you do not know that person I still believe it is important to communicate this experience to a larger audience. It is just figuring out what threads to pull out and build into this communication.
In my relationship with socially engaged I have focused on what it means to translate. Translate all that I have learnt in my artwork – my relationships – to another audience. This means I have to be a careful learner. Learning is not just what happens to me – it is following and recognizing power, it is listening, it is welcoming with what I have, it is receiving gifts, it is empathy, it is compassion, it is anger. And, it is ongoing.
And so, when I translate the relationships that are my artwork – I am documenting. The work you see in this exhibition is the documentation of my artwork.
The documentation is a translation of my artwork to another audience. I’ve thought about translation in this context as being four things: the first is responsibility. When I translate to an audience I am responsible for so much. What I learn is not what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the single story, it is multiple stories. A person is not one story about them, a group of people is not a single story that is told about them and I’m not a single story that I might tell about myself. So, when I am translating I am responsible for the multiple stories that make up what I am learning and for demonstrating the complexity of each relationship and the complexity of relationship itself. Documenation is essentially a representation – and as such hold a lot of responsibility.
This slides into the fact that translation is also a tool of power. Naming things establishes power, and when I document about relationships with people it becomes a naming of who they are – and the clichés about those at the other end of the street are so incredibly strong in our current moment that it is so hard not to perpetuate them. When I try to stop those myths that clichés hold up I often end up playing out that same system that creates them. I so quickly end up supporting it – even with the best intentions.
Translation is also a posture of understanding, of knowing that a single story is never enough, of understanding that there is a lot of work in moving something from one audience to another, of understanding the work of knowing the person in front of us.
The other thing about translation is that it can be reinterpreted. This is where it holds that hope – that it can provoke questions, that it can offer the potential for learning and hold meaning for an entirely different audience. This is also where it gets blurry, maybe the documentation of this show is also capable of actually being artwork.
But, that assumes a lot. I claim in the paper I wrote that documentation could be a political act. Maybe, rooted in the real relationships of my social practice, representing in a way that knows it can never fully capture the original socially engaged art, I am learning about the realities of relationhip, the realities of capture: demonstrating this pull for everything to be co-opted into our current system – demonstrating what there is to be learn by approaching this from the sides rather than directly from within the system.
I am also in relationship with silence. In my years of active learning I have learnt how to get better at silence. Thanks to Sigrid I became familiar with a text about Silence in the act of translation. It has helped me to name something that I have been doing for a long time. And so, in the documentation that I am presenting there is silence. The author of the text is Anne Carson and she has outlined three types of silence in translation: the first is physical silence through the loss of part of a text – I see this as the silence that represents the holes that will always be present for those not part of the artwork. The second is metaphysical silence that occurs within a word whose intentions are difficult to understand – I see this as silence whose complexity demands time – and then, to quote her: “a deeper one – a word that does not intend to be translatable.” – silence that is resistance. I continue to hope that I am doing this in my work.
There is this quote from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that I use in my paper, footnoted with the fact that everytime I think I understand it enough to summarize it slips away. I think my process of documenting, of being in relationship, of trying to operate on the edges of power, of trying to take all these threads and knit them together, is kind of like that: the process of trying to capture something while knowing that if I do it will be co-opted. So I thought I’d end with her quote:
The lesson that I have learned over the last decades is that, unless there is infinite patience, not just in one of us but in all of us, to learn from below, we cannot stand for their collectivity, if anyone ever can, when freedom from oppression, from not having rights, turns round, one hopes, to the freedom to be responsible.
2018•june8•artlab room 467