February 25, 2016

The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (Monthly Rework)


PME-ART will be presenting a The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information (Monthly Rework) twice at La Vitrola:

March 28th

April 25th

A pile of records and a record player. For every record we have a story at the ready. This performance explores the way music infiltrates our personal and social lives, affecting our understanding of love, work and how we think society works.

Création: Caroline Dubois, Claudia Fancello & Jacob Wren
Continuation : Marie Claire Forté & Adam Kinner,
Performance : Claudia Fancello, Marie Claire Forté, Adam Kinner & Jacob Wren

28 mars & 25 avril 2016
La Vitrola : 4602, boul. Saint-Laurent
Portes/Doors: 19 h
Performance : 20 h
Contribution volontaire/Pay What You Can (10 $ sugg.)

Bonus: A letter about The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information

Coproduction: FFT (Düsseldorf) Collaborations: Noorderzon Festival (Groningue), Studio 303 & OFFTA (Montréal) With the support of The Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, The Conseil des arts de Montréal and The Kunststiftung NRW (Arts Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany).


February 24, 2016

Always Closer to a Satire


A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook that I was seriously terrified that Trump had a real chance to win, and mentioned the history of Fascism in the twentieth century as a corollary to this fear. Then I had a few weeks of not really believing it was possible. It seemed too much like my worst fears come true, or even more improbably: a satire of my worst fears coming true. But now, once again, it seems to me that this satire is becoming more and more likely. The worst is always closer to a satire of the worst, which I suppose is what makes it so utterly terrifying.


February 23, 2016

What Pleasure Is (Unfinished Fragment)


There are two short quotes from Jean Genet that continue to haunt me:

Anyone who’s never experienced the pleasure of betrayal doesn’t know what pleasure is.


What is not futile in this world? I’m asking you: what is not futile in the last analysis?

These words express negativity. But negativity with energy, tangled up in the concurrent desire for something better. They are taken out of context, and it’s been a long time now that I no longer remember exactly where I first found them. (I believe in Genet’s final book Prisoner of Love.) Somehow, over the years, these two lines have become part of my life. I feel that I’ve betrayed people, and I feel that everything is futile, and Genet is there, somewhere in the back of my head, to tell me that all of this is almost all right. Of course, it’s not actually all right, not at all. But in such pure negativity there is will and there is struggle. Also: there are things I believe I might be able to change about myself and things it seems will most likely never change. Futility and betrayal fall into the later category. In the end, I probably have no choice.

When I write, I often try to balance it out, not let negativity always take the lead. As I do so, there is always another part of me that thinks: what if you were to completely let go, just write the most negatively, nihilistically negative texts you are capable of. What might happen then? The reason I believe I generally don’t do so is because, even though my experience of life is predominantly negative, I understand this is not the case for everyone, and I want my writing to reflect their experience as well. I want my writing to be larger than myself, to let in things that I see in the world but don’t necessarily relate to. Through editing, such things can momentarily become part of my worldview. It might be a trick but it is also strangely true. It is true as I’m writing, but when I’m not writing the negativity once again, for the most part, dominates. In writing this, I believe I’m attempting to get at something more general about art. Art is the artist plus the world, the artist struggling to let in as much of the world as possible. Or, at least, this is the art I desire. In doing do, it is more than possible that the artist betrays the world. And it is even possible that such betrayal is transformed into a kind of secular grace. Alchemists once hoped to transform lead into gold, and from this desire laid the groundwork for modern science. What do artists start with, and into what do they hope it will transform?

I want to believe that activism is not futile. I know it can accomplish things. When I think of everything that successful activism actually requires, I also think of the somewhat well-known Camus quote: “We must imagine Sisyphus as happy.” (It seems my entire consciousness had been overtaken by a series of short citations.) Sisyphus can never get that fucking rock to the top of the hill. It is an eternal undertaking. There are small victories along the way, but the struggle actually never ends. What would it mean for Sisyphus to betray this struggle. He cannot. He has no choice but to keep pushing.

It is often said that artists also have no choice but to keep making art. That if they are true artists, yet for whatever reason stop making things, they will be unhappy. To keep going, to persevere regardless of the circumstances, is a kind of happiness. Or pleasure. Or betrayal of the greater happiness to be found in doing nothing.



February 12, 2016

Introduction to Taking Care


[This text was originally published as an introduction to the Taking Care section of Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics.]

In my book Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, I wrote about a group of activists who attend something referred to only as “the meetings.” What exactly the meetings are is never made entirely clear. However, a few things are explained. The meetings take place in a dystopian near future in which the activists in attendance have good reason to fear that, if they were to engage in effective acts of protest or civil disobedience, they would be arrested, tortured and perhaps killed. Their weekly gatherings are therefore a kind of refuge from this harsh reality. A place to talk, reflect, attempt to re-invent the left and prepare for a time when activism will be effective once again. When that time comes, because of the ongoing discussions that make up the meetings, they will have considered all options and be ready. Many readers saw these meetings as a satire on the ineffectiveness of the current left, but this was definitely not my intention. (In fact, at the end of the book, I break the fourth wall to explicitly state that I do not want the book to be read in only this manner.) The idea for the meetings had far more to do with my own personal frustration, with looking at the desperate state of the world and not knowing what to do, where to start, how real long-term change might begin and continue.

I remember first reading The Critique of Cynical Reason by Peter Sloterdijk, how I was fascinated by the concept of ‘enlightened false consciousness’, that we can clearly see all the structural inequalities we take part in perpetrating but still do little or nothing to change them. Or, on a slightly different register, I often think of an anecdote I once heard about Charles Mingus, who regularly began his concerts by playing the Duke Ellington standard Can’t Get Started. When asked why, he would apparently reply: ‘because that’s my problem in life, I can’t get started.’ All of this is a way of speaking around the fact that I have enormous sympathy for, and curiosity about, anyone who can get started. Who finds ways to break the inertia of relative privilege and set off on the endless and impossible task of improving the world. I don’t feel qualified to judge what might be more, or less, effective strategies in such matters. I fear that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ but, at the same time, also embody a much greater fear of my own ineffective paralysis.

We might say that all of the texts and projects in the following chapter take place on the other side of the line from where I stand. I am on this side of the line, along with much of the world’s population, where I’m definitely not doing enough (if I’m doing anything at all), and they are on the other side, where they are doing at least something, if not quite a bit more than that. On the other side of the line many strategies are invented and become possible. From WochenKlauser’s “concrete improvements of existing social circumstances” to Minerva Cuevas’s offering of “unexpected products”; from Michal Murin’s rehabilitation of his old friend Milan Adamčiak, assisting him from homelessness towards a renewed artistic practice, to Christoph Schlingensief’s equal treatment of superstar and differently abled performers; from the vacuum cleaner’s act of starting his own mental health institution and detaining himself within it to the necessary design-based paradigm shift that is Permaculture.

Again and again, I feel I am reading about events a little bit further along the path than I am. (Or, since I don’t particularly believe in progress, a little bit further around the circle that will endlessly continue unless our complete extinction cuts its short.) This feeling reminds me of the well-known last lines from Rilke about gazing at the Archaic Torso of Apollo: “for here there is no place
/ that does not see you. You must change your life.” It might be a simplified reading, but I have always seen these lines to mean that experiencing great art leads towards the realization that the way one is living is not nearly enough. ‘You must change your life’ doesn’t suggest that there is only one right answer, only one possible change, a right way and a wrong way and you must choose correctly. It is more about opening possibilities, opening up a window and letting in some air, wondering anew what can and cannot become part of our more general reality.

Notions such as care, kindness and compassion might help us find a basis for where such personal shifts can take place. Here we are in a territory of fragile humanism, about as far away from the ‘no future’ punk rock nihilism that was one of my personal entry points into art and creativity. If I can get past my anxiety that all punks become boring hippies in the end, I can see that conceptual strategies that allow for more generous social relations, to put it rather bluntly, often feel good when you take part in them. In their book On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor suggest that Freudian or Hobbesian conceptions of people as inherently selfish or cruel turn our gaze away from something we already know: that behaving with kindness towards others occurs continuously, on all levels of society, and is in fact highly pleasurable. We are capable of selfishness but equally capable of generosity. The suggestion that we are not, or that one quality is more prominent in human nature than the other, is little more than propaganda for selfishness.

The strategies suggested in this chapter are varied, at times in conflict with each other, very much open to every kind of criticism. When you mix art and politics you open yourself up to a barrage of difficult questions from all sides: that the work is not political enough, that it takes the wrong political position, is naïve, is only a band aid on the problem it seeks to address. Because so many projects along these lines step outside of the safety of an autonomous artistic position, the grounds upon which they can be criticized become increasingly unstable. If I criticize a painting or a novel, the forms my criticism might take are fairly well established and, most of the time, reasonable limits are adhered to. But if I criticize an art project in which addicted, homeless sex workers and politicians are placed together on a boat in order to engage in dialogue, other levels of questioning rapidly, often confusingly, arise. How do I feel about the rights of sex workers? How do I understand sex work in relation to other kinds of work? How do I feel about activists (or artists) engaging with the state? How do I understand the social role of the state? Is it possible, in a short time, to set the parameters for a long-term solution to such a complex, ongoing problem? Where does charity end and empowerment begin? For me, such works have multiple agency: they assist the people more directly involved in the situation while at the same time opening a space in the imagination, suggesting that every social problem has multiple imaginative solutions if only we change our habits of thought.

Of course, changing our habits of thought is not nearly enough. Capitalism is a way of thinking, but is also a system that enriches the lives of few at the expense of the lives of many. To state the obvious: where there is suffering, most likely there is also economic profit. I suggested earlier that ‘kindness towards others occurs continuously, on all levels of society.’ I believe this to be true on an interpersonal level, but it does little to ameliorate the fact that structural inequality will put profit before kindness each and every time. If we start with the metaphor that I am on one side of a line, and on the other side are those who have taken at least the first step towards making small or large improvements; we might also suggest that along with me, on this side of the line, are many who take a considerably more vicious self-interest in maintaining the current status quo, who are working towards building up this metaphorical line into a totalitarian-capitalist prison from which they hope we will never escape. (And who likely wouldn’t put the matter in these specific terms.) Still, obsessing over these cruelties will get us nowhere. We are clearly not going to solve all the problems of the world in one fell swoop. Perhaps the only way is to start is as close to ourselves as possible, one small step after another, working towards situations in which possibilities might increase over time, looking around and feeling where our natural desire to care might be put to best use.

Criticality has become such an unquestioned staple of theory and art. However, it seems to me, a caring attitude does not require us to call upon our most critical selves. A critical outlook is often a defensive position, a desire to rip off the veil of surface appearance and get to the real stuff underneath. Yet not all truths are hidden. At times, surface appearances might be speaking to us so clearly and directly that, obsessed with what else might be there, we do not hear them. An art project that helps a friend in need, a friend who has fallen on hard times might, in offering another alternative, reveal some of the hardness present in this constant need for greater critical insight. To see someone in need, to try to help them, does not require the sophisticated critical apparatus that is so often celebrated as the only basis for complex thought. It only requires a belief that change is possible, the very belief that certain strains of critical thinking so often undermine.

Coming full circle, returning to Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, I can see now that part of the problem, part of the shortcomings within my own thinking, can be found in the title, since the characters in Revenge Fantasies are not truly dispossessed. They are dispossessed in the same way I feel myself to be, as a reasonably privileged, straight white male living in a wealthy country (Canada) currently being run by a government I completely disagree with. I have a certain amount of power that I could direct towards social change but cannot feel exactly what this power is or how I might use it, what other people I might form coalitions with and what specific issues we could organize around. I feel myself to be dispossessed but I don’t see how to bring myself into solidarity with those even more dispossessed than me. If I were to do so, it seems I would be setting off on an unknown path: most likely some (or many) of the people around me would change, as might my worldview. What are the things closest to me to which I can most usefully contribute? How does my misguided sense of dispossession, of alienation, prevent me from doing so? How does it short-circuit my compassion?

By each dealing with one small, yet specific, situation (and in the process bringing themselves closer to it), the projects and desires in this chapter remind us that focusing on immediate concerns, caring about someone or something within reach, can be a way of grounding ourselves. Reality is never just one thing. Luc Boltanski writes: “Reality suffers from a species of inherent fragility, such that the reality of reality must incessantly be reinforced in order to endure.” So many of the images and words that surround us continuously enforce and suggest the idea that, as Thatcher famously pronounced, ‘there is no alternative.’ There is certainly no heaven on earth we will all someday achieve. But there are as many alternatives as we are able to imagine, little pinpricks of hope, shifting moments for potential change. All we need to do is step over the line, take the first step. I wonder if some day I might.


We need a different...


We need a different vision of the world. A vision in which our survival depends on our symbiotic interdependence with other living things. A world in which, yes, we eat things, but other things also eat us.


February 1, 2016

Allison Hargreaves and David Jefferess Quote


How might we begin to imagine reconciliation beyond inclusion or loss – and instead as a transformed order of social relations? How might we come to recognize models for this transformation in what we typically understand as closed chapters or barriers? These models are articulated in treaty agreements and other nation-to-nation relations as understood in Indigenous traditions of diplomacy. Whether bonds of territorial, commercial, or political alliance and exchange, these pacts are ones for which we all inherit responsibility – Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike. When we, as settlers, misunderstand treaties as the lawful means by which Indigenous peoples “gave up” land for settlement and exploitative development, we legitimize what is in fact a history of theft and dispossession; when we misapprehend our position as one of inevitable ascendancy and belonging, we efface what might more productively be understood as one of profound failure: the failure to uphold historical agreements governing peaceful interactions between sovereign political bodies and their citizens. Against the nation-to-nation model, the story of “inclusion” and of “accommodation” has become the official story that gets told about our relation to one another, and about how reconciliation might work as “the ‘new’ way for Canada to relate to Indigenous people”. This is a continuation of colonial violence, as well as a dangerous violation of our own capacity to imagine and enact something different.

And so I think about barricades: the barricade as apparent threat, the barricade as unfathomable assertion, the barricade as the unwanted obstacle that stretches to its limits the tenuous fantasy of settler belonging. What if we instead understood the barricade – both as a physical barrier and as a practice of symbolic signification – less as an obstacle and threat, and more as something erected to protect “all of us”? In her recent interview alongside activist-thinkers Russell Diabo and Lisa Monchalin, non-Indigenous Idle No More activist Sheelah McLean gives the example of grassroots land protection struggles from Oka to Grassy Narrows and observes that, through such struggles and their mainstream representation, “The Canadian public are socialized to believe that barricades are violent”. As sites of seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, the barricade is mistaken in the mainstream as the violent embodiment of this impasse rather than an opportunity for its transcendence. After all, there is no violence inherent to the barricade itself; its threat stems from its capacity to highlight the violence inherent in the colonial nation-state. Like the example of the Buffalo Commons map, then, the barricade could provide an opening onto a different relationship to land and to one another – one that both acknowledges the violence of settlement and resource extraction, and that affirms shared obligations to care-take the land for the wellbeing of future generations.

- Allison Hargreaves and David Jefferess, Always Beginning: Imagining Reconciliation Beyond Inclusion or Loss

This quote is taken from the remarkable collection The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation


Sandra Semchuk Quote


You knew James [Nicholas], my late husband, a Cree writer, actor and government liaison for the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation. None of the video or photographic works that he and I did in the name of reconciliation for fifteen years ever seemed to sit still. I would think we were doing one thing and, unexpectedly, the work would turn upside down. I remember James and I talking about generosity with an elder at Waterhen Lake Cree Nation. I understood then that white government people turned things upside down by making themselves the generous ones. Generosity and power are so connected. I asked James if he could teach me how to say, in Cree, thank you for sharing the land. He responded, “You don’t understand. Sharing is the law. The land owns itself.”

- Sandra Semchuk

This quote can be found in the remarkable collection The Land We Are: Artists and Writers Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation