I’ve been fascinated, in the last few days, to tease apart questions of voice, representation, appropriation and power in the local arts community. I’m not an artist, but my Dad is, so I’ve grown up with a keen sense of the power imbalances and politics at play in the Canadian art world. Full disclosure: my Dad is a Metis (yes, ‘big M’ Metis) painter living in Vancouver, and through his struggles to establish authenticity and identity in a complicated community, I’ve come to shape my own views of which voices are privileged in the arts, and the challenges that artists and arts organizations face in trying to create art today.
I was hesitant to write this post, because I worried it would come across as overly harsh (or that it would hurt people’s feelings). But, I think that, as an artistic layman, I have some things that are worth bringing up. And I’ve never shied away from a good debate, so I am hoping that this will give all of us, Edmontonians or ex-Edmontonians, something to think about as we try to define and create a fertile, respectful, exciting and interesting arts community.
I will break this post down into three parts:
Act I: Erasure
Here is my post from my post-awesome blog about a local street artist who buffed over a mural of Rollie Miles. This act raises so many questions: what was the artist thinking? Did they fail to notice that they were painting over a person of colour? Did they know that the mural had been painted by local children?
This is essentially a perfect example of the erasure I have written about so much in my blog. By tearing down, painting over, filling in anything to do with non-WASP history in the city, we’ve completely skewed our sense of who we are. While I am sure Foodlot took great pride in creating his/her piece, I don’t think he/she reflected on the violence in his actions. It’s the same violence inherent in each time we tear down a building with historical significance, or every time we call urban Aboriginal people a ‘new’ phenomenon. Through art, through words, through buildings and stories we erase the past and recreate our own whitewashed version of ourselves. This artist’s intervention is the ultimate result of art pursued solely for aesthetics, without any consideration for the political and sociological implications of the work. In other words, it’s fueled basically by the same the impulse that all these folks claim when they don headdresses.
Act II: Appropriation
You may or may not have heard about a recent situation in which a prominent local organization allegedly* solicited advice from a local arts writer. According to the writer, the organization wanted to put on an event inspired by a similar event that said arts writer had planned and executed in Scotland. The organizers allegedly then proceeded not to credit or compensate said writer for her help (although there is now a small credit to her on their event website). I won’t dwell too much on the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ aspects of this example, mainly because I don’t know any of the people involved**, I am relying on the only public available account of the situation from the writer, and because I don’t want to incur any legal claims. However, the narrative of this situation evokes lots of questions, and can be applied to other similar situations. If we can’t give credit where credit is due, why should anyone feel compelled to contribute to the local arts community? Our city is so small, so when someone does something innovative and exciting, we should make stringent efforts to acknowledge that innovation and ensure that we create a space where people continue to create good work and challenge the status quo. We should be celebrating creativity, rewarding it, making people want to stay here and make amazing, cutting-edge, and high quality art (or writing). When these types of things happen, I immediately feel uneasy about sharing ideas. If I can’t rely on my peers to acknowledge me, I’m much less likely to contribute. We keep talking about how we want to make Edmonton a ‘world class’ city — well it starts with how we treat one another. A healthy community attracts people, and encourages artists, writers, musicians and thinkers to work harder and make exciting stuff. (I’ve been lucky to have people acknowledge my work in the city, so I know we have the tools to do this right).
In my line of work, there are stringent rules about how and when to credit people for their ideas. I can lose my job if I fail to do this. However, I have found that some other fields operate under the rubric of ‘inspiration’. I don’t know where we draw the line between inspiration and appropriation, but I think this is stuff that we need to sort out, and fast. And I’m pretty sure there is case law that can help us in these situations. So let’s maybe take a moment to think about how we can support each other, acknowledge other people’s ideas, build upon each other’s knowledge and push the boundaries of what is possible in our little prairie city.
Act III: Representation
I hesitate to criticize this project too harshly, because I can see where the artist’s impulse comes from: she clearly wants to raise awareness about issues of inequality and access in the Canadian justice system. In effect, it is the exact opposite of the Foodlot intervention mentioned above. It is trying to acknowledge inequalities, acknowledge voices that are often unheard or ignored, and celebrate the ways people react to adversity. I really do like the idea that these messages are being documented, and the context in which they are produced is being highlighted, particularly now that the Remand Centre is moving away from the (accessible) downtown (as she notes in the article). I would love to see the photographs, because I am sure they are powerful and moving. However, as an anthropologist, red flags immediately went up after another friend posted something about this project on Facebook, expressing her own unease about the project. If I were to do work like this, documenting texts produced by people in a vulnerable position (trying to communicate with their loved ones in the Remand Centre), there are a lot of rules regarding how I proceed. I am expected to receive permission from those creating the messages if I want to document either them or their work (even if they are public notes). I have to obtain an ethics clearance (from my University) to do the work. I have to determine whether people are comfortable having temporary messages reproduced in perpetuity in a commercial product. I have to discuss the outcomes with those who consent to participate, and determine what is and isn’t off limits according to their own needs and rights. I have to reflect on why the people are writing the messages in the first place — are these public messages really ripe for permanent public consumption, or are these temporary messages the symptom of a byzantine system that affects how and when people are incarcerated, and in turn how people can communicate? Does the artist know whether any of these messages could harm those who produced them if they are documented in a more permanent fashion? I am also expected to talk to the people who made the work. In other words, I have to acknowledge my privilege and power as a researcher (or documenter) and make sure that I mitigate any harm that can be done by my work. Another friend pointed out that the people who wrote the messages may even have copyright claims, if the artist is profiting off of her documentation of their notes. (I pretend to hold absolutely no legal knowledge, apart from that which I learned ad hoc while studying First Nations, Metis and Inuit issues in Canada).
I realize that I am coming at this as a researcher, but the rules that govern my work came about after a particularly bloody and horrible history of people being exploited in the name of documentation. I think that it is time that we start to ask the same questions of artists that we asked of scientists in the past: who are you exploiting? How are you profiting? What do the people you are documenting have to say about that?
I don’t want to come across as too angry or self-righteous. Far from it. I just want to problematize some of the threads that unwound from the city this week. Themes of erasure, appropriation, and (disconcerting) representation emerged, and these things are ripe for discussion, analysis and re-formation. If we don’t feel like it is safe for us to ask questions or critique what is going on around us, then we are doomed to stasis. I also think it is important to foster a healthy, respectful space for discourse.
I think that we have to question who makes art, and why. And whose voices are privileged, and whose aren’t. If we can’t question ourselves, our inspiration, our work and our politics, then I wonder whether it is possible to move ahead. Tension is okay — it spurs us to ask questions, to break things down, to fall apart and rebuild again. I have noticed, in my time between Scotland and Canada, that we are extremely adverse to open debate in our communities over here. We have been conditioned to see critiques as personal attacks rather than a force for healthy dialogue. It is possible to be critical but still respect the people involved, and acknowledge where they are coming from. (I would argue this lack of ability to hold civil, critical discourse is what is destroying politics, but that is a story for another day). We just want to say ‘everything’s great’ and not hurt anyone’s feelings. But everything’s not great. There are problems. And unless we start finding productive and respectful ways to start addressing these issues, people like me (Metis, non-artist, your average Canadian) will have no desire to engage with the arts community. And that’s too bad, because I think that at a time when the government is cutting arts programming left, right and centre, we need to start building as many healthy, fertile alliances as we can.
*I say allegedly because, since I don’t know anyone involved, I have no way of knowing exactly what happened. For the sake of fairness (and not getting sued), I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
**I want to stress this — these are my opinions alone. I am reacting solely to the substantive part of the claim (ie: ‘inspiration’ vs appropriation). I have nothing to gain (and probably everything to lose) by critiquing this situation or the organization involved. I don’t think I could write this piece if I were an artist because I would be too scared about the repercussions for my career.