image: Catherine Grau reennacts a performance by Bogdan Cheta, Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto
May 19th, 2015 / a note I wrote to a friend about the difficulty I now have with writing, which then helped me to overlook unresolvable doubts in my ability to think and to write about the world, with honesty
I re-read my letter recently and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. I want to apologize for sending it to you in that state. For me it helps to send things midway from being done because it usually makes me change my perspective - even though at the time, in my mind it feels like a polished product. When I’m re-reading what I wrote I keep coming back to the following question — how can you write about poverty, when you are already poor? I feel like I don’t fully grasp the ethical implications of what happens when personal details are released. I had a conversation about a similar topic with a friend recently, and he is convinced that I’m manipulating him somehow, but I think his conviction comes from the fact that we are not of the same social class, and I think one of the things that happens, when talking about poverty from a position of poverty is this danger of coming across like you’re asking for help; or that you’re helpless, and therefore entitled to things and to help, a quality which I really dislike, but that becomes like an identifying label of sorts, and it is really hard to avoid. I am really curious about your take on the paragraph where I position myself - not as a critic, but as an immigrant. Every time I read it, it makes sense on the one hand, but on the other, I can see how it could be misinterpreted. I wrote that part in a bus stop as I was leaving work, and contemplating on weather or not I should quit my job and do something “normal”; and to me it sort of makes sense within that emotional setting - but on the other hand, I become anxious when thinking about the placement of that position in a critical context. Do emotions have a place in criticism? I’m also reading this book by Chris Kraus where she goes in and out of emotional things and then back into a more critical outlook — but I’m no where near where she is with what she does… thank you for your time with this.
Dear Programming Committee,
I am writing you this letter in support of my application to participate in the upcoming writing residency being held at the John Snow House, led by Jeanne Randolph and Jacob Wren, between July 19th and August 15th, 2015. As a Calgary-based contemporary artist whose practice continues to draw its references from a dialogue with literature, performance, sculpture, and queer & feminist theories, I believe that this unique opportunity to work with two of Canada’s most influential avant-garde writers in a collaborative setting will profoundly influence the depth of my ongoing research by providing the occasion to share my experiments with language and critical discourse, and the time to focus very specifically on this work.
Since graduating from the Alberta College of Art & Design with a BFA in Drawing, my writing has been published in several anthologies and publications, as I continued to explore philosophical issues by blending cultural theory with personal history and fictional constructs. The primary focus of my philosophical inquiry has been the relationship between human beings and the modern urban environments they inhabit.
Most recently, my texts have appeared in Atlas Sighed (2015), a satellite publication for the Calgary Biennial, and hello, parka (2015) a publication for the resolute parka, launched at the 12th Havana Biennial. I have also written for Out Proud (2014), and performed this text at the Mountain Standard Time Performative Art Festival (2014), as well as published work in Knock on Any Door, Art and Social Engagement in Calgary 1912-2012 (2013) and in Emmedia’s Grain Critical Texts anthology (2011). In 2014, I was invited as writer in residence for the UVAC conference, a joint partnership between Untitled Arts Society and Elephant Artist’s Relief in Calgary.
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work without work
Under the influence of 1970’s queer literature, with these projects, and with the work that I am currently focused on — through the metaphorical space of literary constructs, I continued to analyze the poetic potential and the complexities related to different forms of poverty. Often, my research will use as its starting point the relationship between access to income and our entry to systems of membership. Like a raft who’s occupants have long perished — but then continues to float alone as it meets the uncontrollable course of it’s journey, my research also moves along through it’s willingness to recognize the potential for meaning in every possibility that presents itself. Choosing not to be deterred by their prospect for failure, my projects move forward through unintended trajectories, and towards no immediate conclusions. With no superstructure in place, the role of the main protagonist then remains to be performed quietly and invisibly by the uncertainty of the encounter between my own interests, hopes and expectations and those of others.
Given the current trend in contemporary art towards the professionalization of every participating aspect in cultural production, one question I struggle with in my studio today, is how to continue to negotiate my relationship with objects if my aims are not organized towards the legitimization of their value as art but rather towards the social context they relate to; and in an equal measure, as I consider the thematic space for this upcoming writing residency, I also ask myself a similar question when it comes to the act of writing: how does one resist the impulse to professionalize how they write; and does that position of resistance even makes sense today, in 2015 — when anyone can publish and share content freely in real time, over the internet — bringing us, cultural producers closer to a reality that Chirs Kraus has described as a neo-liberal environment where “one must be [permanently] prepared to be displaced and learn to live that way” (1).
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how to accept poverty (and the related possibility for perpetual displacement)
Originally I wanted to continue by organizing my thoughts around a second, larger question: “How is the professionalization of production in the field of contemporary art influenced by the emergence of a global neo-liberal economic model?” but after thinking about it more, I started to imagine the kind of person that usually gets to pose these meaty questions — an art critic, and how I am not a critic — I am someone, an immigrant (and one without an MFA) as most will likely point out, at the bottom of the society’s food chain who can, and will ask all the questions that he is capable of asking, but that will never likely receive any substantial answers. I’ve been writing this proposal by adding and subtracting sentences, while reading from Jacob Wren’s novel, Polyamorous Love Song after finishing making burgers at a downtown restaurant for $12/h. Of course I don’t want to appeal to anyone’s sense of pity — mostly because I realize that it has been my decision to choose poverty over other more “professional” pursuits, a choice I made mostly because I wanted to follow the course of whatever job(s) were the easiest to get so that I can think of art as the main event shaping my life — a pattern that in an ironic turn of events, has also come to mirror my relationship to professionalism as related to art environments — where for the most part, I feel (and often without reason) dangerously out of context; a sentiment which of course I want to overcome, but often feel unable to resolve on my own as I, like many other emerging artists of my generation, struggle to “produce” and compete for opportunities as we face increased levels of unsustainable debt, unemployment, over-inflated tuition fees and a legacy of political mismanagement. Under the influence of these feelings of constant inadequacy and alienation, I wanted to quit writing this letter many times, but the next day, as I would find myself sleeping underneath the shadow of an old tree in the Union Cemetery after work (my now daily ritual, since I discovered that I can take undisturbed naps there and then continue to write after, as if my shift at work did not happen at all) I would feel a sense of satisfaction that my preoccupations were now organized towards the possibility of completing this letter because — I thought, maybe continuing with what I started will bring me a step closer to accepting life the way it is. In parallel, I also wanted to continue to think about the platform for this residency because in so doing, I began to visualize part of the difficulty I have with writing today through the following new questions: does being poor changes the way one writes, and if it does — does it make sense to conceal those differences; and then how does one participate with main-stream critical discourse from a position of poverty; would their participation also become marginal? Jeanne Randolph coined the term “ficto-criticism” as a style of writing that blurs the boundaries between document, testimony, and fiction, and I wonder if aspects of criticism today can continue to be repurposed and transformed so that criticism itself remains available to the changing complexities we all encounter, as we search for new and sustainable ways to produce, think, travel and collaborate.
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Current project: a travel book for those that have lost their way,
so that they can find their way,
even if there is no way.
In addition to the possibility of collaborating with the other participants in the residency, my hope is that through this experience, I can learn new and effective strategies for how to critique and to expand on ideas within an art-specific context. I would like to conclude my letter, which I hope that reached the right balance between personal insights and critical observations, by sharing with you details from a project that I am currently committed to. At the moment I am developing a script for a travelling book (travelling in the sense that this will be an audio-recorded text meant to be experienced in relation to performed walks), where I am experimenting with combining nonlinear and fragmented autobiographical details with fictional elements, as I discuss and re-arrange the lines from a recent project by Calgary artist Tomas Jonsson. The plot I am working with unravels through an invisible inner monologue, as performed by the thoughts of a fictional character — a nameless man, in his early 30’s, who is unable to leave his youth behind as he struggles to live inside this bubble of being a permanent student … pursuing his interests, as he travels from one interesting thing to the next. Set in a dystopian near-future where the present-day climate of unorthodox and uncertain living arrangements often prepares those at the margin to anticipate their displacement — he quickly realizes the precarious nature of his future and the looming certainty that his life cannot, and will not continue the way it has. While questioning his decision-making process, he learns that the only way for him to find a strategy of hope, is to accept his condition — that he is no longer a boy; a turning point in the story that also serves as an entry into Jonsson’s own project, which searches for ways to live through the consequences of time, both within social and emotional settings.
1. Chris Kraus, “Where Art Belongs”, semiotext(e) / intervention series #8, 2011.