Tag Archives: art making

the precarity epoch

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Recently I visited the House of Commons, the seat of our federal government. As a guest I was invited to sit in on question period. But while I was in line the Minister of Heritage, Melanie Joly came up right beside me and began a long conversation in French with a monsignor of the Catholic Church. It was a pretty chaotic moment and I desperately tried to scan my brain for something I could say to her that was both intelligent and had enough of an activist inclination as to make an impression. I also thought of giving her my “Has the artist been paid?” button from CARFAC (security made me take it off and it got passed around and then okay’d – I take this as quite the honour. If a CARFAC button gets a second look by security on Parliament Hill we are all doing some thing right.). But of course, being the intellectual turtle that I am and that I completely do not agree with ambushing people, once I thought of something she was already walking down the hall escorting the monsignor to whatever place they were meeting.

The thing is I wasn’t there as an artist, I was there representing CARC, the NGO I now work for. So… it did occur to me that perhaps I might jeopardize my associations with an unseemly introduction that the minister was not ready for. Opportunity lost perhaps, or perhaps opportunity understood; oddly the entire experience was a confidence booster. It’s like ‘I get it’ now. I also realized that politics will never be my thing however policy and how it helps and hurts society always will.

Being in our nation’s capital just before xmas with all its trim and bustle (it is crazy busy there these days as rockstar PM has made it a tourist destination as well) made me think about how people do have a natural urge to gather. It’s for an anthropologist to say but we seem to want to get together for all sorts of things, rituals, politics, protests, commemorations, revolutions, and of course art. Yet art continues to moan about its lack of interest from the public. I can’t think of another time in history more people experienced art – if you’ve ever gone to a major gallery in Europe and waited forever in line you know what I mean. And yet, contemporary art makers continue to have a numbers problem. People line up for a recognized work but stay away from the new. See this very interesting article from Canadian Arts Presenting Association .  People don’t want to attend art events out of lack of interest. It’s a fairly simple but kinda’ heart breaking conclusion.

Usually at this point I would go on endlessly about how contemporary art should shoulder a lot of the blame for this as most of the work shown in galleries speaks only to the MFA class and its tiny community, and with tons of money being auctioned on so-so works from the masters people are being turned off art as much as they are turned on by it. But I would rather consider that art was always a marginal pursuit with a reputation and fixture as the touchstone to our culture that has become outsized. And that art’s value is bounced around throughout our society as a volleyball for politics and economics, used and abused by everyone to artwash their event or stance or campaign. And now art’s meaning isn’t just a profound moment one has with an object of great significance, beauty and meaning but that it is now a conduit for all sorts of displays of activism, good and bad as well as crass means of making people feel belonging. To this there are many who feel it’s a reality whose time has come. Art now being the most targeted form of patriarchal oppression – all those museums with stuff by white guys, yeuch.

One of the many cheeky posters of the Precarious Festival

Art has become its own monster and is now devouring its children. This is the world I am an artist in. This is the reality, like it or not. Like many in my generation, we never got to that brass ring or made a fortune, most of us have just kept our heads down and made adaptation and survival our guides. We had to learn metric, French, video, the internet and devices in our lifetime as well as deal with the devolving of post war socialist ideals. We were given the gift of globalization just as we became adults and have made the realization in the last decade many of us will never own a home or a car for that matter. We are environmentally sophisticated and active, politically charged by listening to The Clash in high school and we legitimized science fiction, graphic novels, independent publishing, Queer and women’s studies and made irony a thing. We are also the inheritors of precarious work and have adapted in ways that should astonish any low tax neo-liberal.

This past month in Peterborough an extraordinary thing happened, a festival took place devoted to ideas of precarious work including art, art making, theatre, publishing, poetry, music, politics, discussions and articles. The Precarious Festival was the brain child of several people (too many to name really) but it was directed mainly by Kate Story and Ryan Kerr who run and operate The Theatre on King. Manifesting a critical economic conversation into art is not an easy thing to do. But Kate and Ryan and many others in Peterborough are part of my nimble and able generation so the festival was a raucous success in many ways, pivoting notions of art into activism.  A lot of the events were remarkable for their artistry as well as activism. The festival eschewed the numbers game and reached out to all sorts of ideas regarding art thereby vastly improving its interest for the general public – although that wasn’t the reason for the festival, the point was to gather people around an epoch; precarity is the new normal, a new adaptation, so now what? Now there’s an opening for a conversation with our Minister of Heritage. Dang.

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The Theatre on King

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northern dreams

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

It’s been a long weird summer here in the forest. We’ve had so much rain that snakes, yes snakes are trying to get into our house and studio. But I don’t like to dwell on that cuz although I spent many a year wishing my life was an Edgar Allen Poe story I can’t have snakes in house. And it hasn’t been warm. For those of you who have never been to central Ontario, we get hot summers, usually heatwaves that last a few weeks and make things like swimming feel as though you discovered a new planet. This year we had maybe four days that were central Ontario hot and they weren’t even all together.

So is was kind of amazing that I embarked on a new chapter in my life which would have me spend a lot more time on the computer and indoors this summer. I didn’t have to sit inside feeling miserable for not being outside. This new chapter sees me working several days a week for a national organization that helps to support people, wildlife and the environment in the Arctic. While most people continued their obsession with American politics my world gradually moved into stories about hunting, fishing, climate change, ice, food security and caribou populations. And a lot of getting to understand governance in the north – very complicated, very sensitive and not for the faint of heart.

I must say it has given me a completely fresh perspective on what I am trying to do in my art. Survival being the singular issue for north of 60 (the latitude that marks the distinction between Canada and really northern Canada, unlike Canada and Boreal Canada or Canada and tundra Canada – I could go on, it’s a big, big country) it seems all too fitting to be working away in my studio on the other days of the week making art work that is a combination of locale, landscape, consciousness and its many transformations. My work has always been a bit existential and based on what isolation and wilderness teaches us or how it transforms us. Now I spend part of the week dealing with real time issues of a culture and species and a landscape which is transforming and making survival questionable. And then I work on art without having to make an intellectual or conceptual switch.

Balke’s Stetind, Norway’s famous peak and a northern mystical landscape.

Synchronicity seems to find me continually in my life (I don’t completely understand it as a thing) as friends of mine are travelling in Norway right now and sharing the most amazing imagery. I went back to my Norway file (yes, it is a lifelong dream to travel there and so I have file full of stuff on it) and looked through my Peder Balke imagery that I had been collecting from Google images. Balke lived in the far north of Norway, painted its landscape and helped foster socialism in that country. The fjords and mountains he depicts dissolve into the horizon as though they may have only been a dream to begin with.

I wonder, is our Arctic a dream too? Obviously not for the people who live there, far be it for me to objectify and romanticize the very effects of climate change that is creating catastrophic events but if I am honest with myself I need to realize that I am going to be parceling away things I learn to later be run through the mill in my brain and ground into some sort of artistic idea. I can’t help it, I am now wired this way.

For now, however I am struck by how Peder’s work touches on the very real idea that make our polar regions are so very, very fragile – the climate/water needs to stay cold to keep them stable. That stability is disappearing and ideas of transformation are now in flux.  In every way this stuff is at odds with my impulse to stay positive but it speaks also my deep sense of wonder about existence, and how art making can help me work through this new, scary reality.

Please follow the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee on Facebook as we try to support it’s people and environment.