Tag Archives: mfa

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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Five years

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I got pretty excited when I saw that a Hill & Knowlton document was making the rounds on social media. In it there is some great numbers regarding how economically fruitful culture was to Canada, and that the arts actually contributed more to our overall GDP than forestry. Forestry! Take that resource extraction based economy.

But then I read that the stats were from 2010. That’s five years ago.  Now five years means nothing in terms of art’s impact and influence, I still get wobbly when I look at art work made over a thousand years ago. But five years is a long time in the life of a contemporary artist. In Canada our public gallery system is on a three year funding system so most of us have exhibitions two or three years from now in order to get into that funding cycle. Five years also marks how long many of us can show a particular body of work. It’s not too often you walk into a gallery and see contemporary work that’s eight years old. It happens but curators and dealers want new things. Five years is about the amount of time you can finish a BFA and an MA give or take a year or two. Five years can be just enough time to reflect on work made that long ago and rethink its importance to you. Five years is significant in the life of an artist.

Think for a second what you have done in the last five years. I did a residency in Yorkshire, England, exhibited there two years later plus I had thirteen exhibitions here in Ontario as well as two trips to Cape Breton for workshops and exhibiting. And that is just the art stuff I do. Add the rest of your life, like the fact that two new people were created in that time (my niece and nephew) and you’ve got a heap of busy.

The song Five Years from this album is a great dystopia anthem that scared me as a kid. But then five years was a millennia to a seven year old.
The song Five Years from this album is a great dystopia anthem that scared me as a kid. But then five years was a millennia to a seven year old.

Since 2010 a lot has changed in the art world. While the Hill & Knowlton document is still relevant there are many other factors by which measuring the health of the art world needs to be taken into account. 2010 marked the year that many of us who were selling our work saw our buyers completely disappear. In that time I have met artists who have gone back to school to get an MFA, moved out of places like Brooklyn because they can no longer afford to live there, watched the rise of administration and curatorial fields take up a lot of economic space, witnessed the stagnation and reduction of funding in the Canadian art world, and been a participant in activism that vies to keep art from being dragged into entropic capitalistic consumer interests.

This sea change is palpable to anyone who works in the art world and yet it is only now in the most marginal places being recognized as a potent epoch that changed anyone making art forever. Possibly the most disconcerting idea that has cropped up in this time and perhaps this has happened because of this entropic backdrop is that people are now concluding that art can be used like a service. Art has moved from individual experience to communal experience to consumer experience with end users who want to be fully engaged without commitment like they do on Facebook. I don’t blame the public for this; I blame the art world for allowing itself to be pimped up, Tweeted out and instagrammed through a vortex of commodification without any regard for its own self worth.

People fight oppression through organizing and uniting themselves. It is the only way to do it. This will never happen in our current art world. There are too many vested interests in keeping it a murky and untidy place. There are too many artists who think they are undiscovered geniuses who act like they have disdain for the mainstream but would walk a red carpet in a nano second if they got the chance. We blew it essentially.

For the next five years I plan to work toward dignity and integrity. Although sometimes I wonder why I care about artist’s rights when in fact so many of them don’t care themselves, I have to remember that I am not working for those who can afford the luxury of indifference. I work for those who do care. We are small in numbers but we are smart, creative and understand that everything can change even in five years time.

Pic from Wikipedia