DROPOUT PIECE: July Letter from Literary Arts
July brought sunset swims, moonlight above Arbutus trees, hugs, splendour, zucchini, the return of morning glory in the garden, library visits, and the impending change of seasons. The sun sets earlier, the grass is yellow; at season’s change I’m often reminded of what I was doing the year before. Last summer, I had just returned from Toronto to Northern Vancouver Island. The quiet of the island was a profound comfort to me after a few months in the throes of city-wide pandemic protocols and the collective anxiety of the circumstance. On the island, there was little stimulus, no one to look at and no one to be looked at by. I felt reassured by my distance from the city. As I dug up rotting rhubarb plants from my parents’ too-shallow raised bed, I thought about who I had been in Toronto, and who I might become in this new remote place. The solitude felt like a reinvention, like I had transformed by removing myself from the perceptions of the friends, community and passersby who had witnessed me in Toronto for years. Was there something more holistic or internal about personal change when it happens outside the city?
This summer, having left the island for Vancouver, I have been reflecting on those early days of privacy in my parent’s garden. I had dropped out of the city’s economy of looking and perceiving and identifying, challenging myself to be with myself rather than in front of a public. For so many people, especially queer folks, being oneself feels more possible in a place with a lot of people, people with whom to exchange glances and knowing nods of difference and similarity; for me, the current of self-hood seems to flow most naturally when I’m not being looked at at all. I’m reminded of artist Lee Lozano’s General Strike Piece which began in 1969, wherein Lozano effectively dropped out of the art world. Lozano was a conceptual artist who practiced at the precipice of art and life, her work taking on the weight of her existence through her temporally exhausting efforts. Lozano’s General Strike Piece is an instructional work, a common form of the era that offers instructions to the reader and are sometimes enacted by the artist. In Lozano’s case, she always enacted the instructions, notably in “The Halifax 3 State Experiment” at NSCAD in 1971, wherein she gave a lecture three times, once sober, once stoned, and once on acid. General Strike Piece was earlier in her career, during which she boldly refused to participate in the art world. The piece reads, “GRADUALLY BUT DETERMINEDLY AVOID BEING PRESENT AT OFFICIAL OR PUBLIC ‘UPTOWN’ FUNCTIONS OR GATHERINGS RELATED TO THE ‘ART WORLD’ IN ORDER TO PURSUE INVESTIGATIONS OF TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION. EXHIBIT IN PUBLIC ONLY PIECES WHICH FURTHER SHARING OF IDEAS & INFORMATION RELATED TO TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION.”
Lozano’s positing of a revolutionary life outside the typical economies of art world schmoozing, inspire me to question the meaning of being an artist, its importance (or not) in the world, and how at odds the process of creation can feel to the administration required by a career in the arts. In the city, there’s constant need to make oneself public, or to be visible in the “art world” as Lozano puts it, which can often feel contradictory to living and making work as an artist. Lozano proposes dropping out as a revolutionary gesture–that in refusing to make yourself visible, you might be free to cultivate an intellectual practice that can be brought into the public for the means of revolution. Is there some tension here then between the rural and the urban, the public and the private, the normalcy and the revolution? Lozano’s General Strike Piece puts into question the need for visibility and legibility in the arts, and how personal investigations come to take on public and political meaning, and even whether or not they have to? What would it look like for artists, writers and cultural workers to collectively strike against the conditions of labour in the arts that require ‘presence at uptown functions,’ as Lozano suggests? What would change if artists dropped out, became revolutionaries?
As these questions come up for me, and as I continue to read about feminist, queer, lesbian and trans people on communes, I wonder about the connected desire to drop out from gender, cities, and work, and to make oneself illegible within an identity or mode of living? These questions are taken up by Legacy Russell in her manifesto Glitch Feminism (2020) wherein she describes a generation of feminists whose online experiences formed their relationship to gender, sexuality and race identities. The short book is a cyberfeminist manifesto that proposes the glitch–or error, disappearance, illegibility–as a generative site for feminist recourse. Russell discusses contemporary digital art practices and new media works through the lens of identity politics, emphasizing how particular artistic practices draw on the glitch to centre trans and non-binary genders, which is a mode of feminist thinking that, I think, attempts to abolish the gender binary. The manifesto proposes an existence of in-betweenness, wherein identities are forged through or as the glitch, as varying parts of our experiences shape the fluid existences we inhabit both online and AFK (away from keyboard).
I’m interested in Russell’s notion of the glitch as an entry-point into gender, particularly as it relates to queer, trans and non-binary gender identities. I’ve often wondered about transness and non-binary gender as a mode of illegibility, a queering of the gender binary that opens gender towards a fluid in-betweenness, wherein an identity comes and goes, or might otherwise be (re)invented by the self infinitely. In this notion of gender as fluid, there is a certain kind of refusal or dropping out that’s necessary. These kinds of alternative modes of conceiving of gender through the glitch, remind me again of the digital utopianism proposed by early commune settlers and counterculture revolutionaries. In both Russell’s manifesto, and in the hopeful attitudes of back-to-the-landers, technology, and eventually the internet, proposed a kind of radical equity wherein universal access is possible within, and despite, how somehow identifies. Though this has been proven false in practice as technology and the internet have become independent bodies of discourse that dominate politics and create microcosmic echo-chambers of identify based groups, I think there remains something interesting and utopic about the notion of refusal as revolution. Only now the question of dropping out includes removing ourselves from the internet, which had once for back-to-the-landers been the hopeful mode of resource sharing that would allow more universal access to the knowledge and tools required to live off the land.
Russell’s Glitch Feminism offers the first in what I can only imagine will be a huge number of feminist and literary manifestos published by writers who grew up intimately with the internet. It offers a way out of the hegemonic structures of social media by imbuing digital mishaps with a kind of political potentiality. But I always wonder, despite the all or nothing perspective of this thought, what it would be like to give it up all together–the city, social media, an identity. While I think identity not only gives meaning to our lives, but through the specificity of language, can acknowledge certain histories and material conditions that continue to affect our lives, I wonder whether or not an identity can change the conditions of existence towards something more equitable. Would choosing not to identify be a futuristic mode of imagining the fruits of gender abolition? Or are the categories of identity still necessary to rectify the wrongs of the past?
And as always, a pointing-to to end the month’s diatribes. A diffuse reading group called Bread, curated for Virtual Care Lab by Aden Solway and mama collective in Tkaronto/Toronto; a poetry workshop called God is Not a Metaphor facilitated by Angelic Goldsky through ReIssue Publication’s Free School in Vancouver; Peripheral Review’s Summer Reading Series every Sunday throughout August, which was hosted by Fan Wu in its first iteration last week; the summer issue of C Magazine “Community” is out now; and a little bit more about Lee Lozano’s influence on contemporary art is here.
SEEKING COMMUNE STORIES: June Letter from Literary Arts
In the aftermath of the heat dome, my thoughts are ungathered. The bathroom, once visited by silverfish, is now infested with spiders, some of whom nest together in a web by the ceiling (another Vancouver polycule, I think). The others scurry up the side of the tub when I run a cold shower to clear my head. The heat reminds me of past year’s dystopian conditions–the sun glowing red in the hazy sky, smoke drifting North from California fires. Though we have not yet arrived at the height of summer wilting–really, we’re just entering the sweet growth of pea blossoms and tiny green tomatoes–the heat dome and burning towns across BC remind me of what’s to come.
Though I have always felt enlivened by heat, I’m fearful of the possibility that these thirty and forty degree temperatures might become permanent. It’s a bleak possibility that the ecocidal predictions of science fiction novels could be realized–birds dropping dead from the sky, pollinators extinct, air conditioned glass domes built over cities of the rich. I feel listless with complacency, and compelled to refocus that sensation. How can we care for each other within the intensifying cycles of weather, heat, life and death? Community organizers like Mount Pleasant Mutual Aid have placed coolers at parks across the neighbourhood for residents to take or leave a drink; Local Open Access Fridge is installing a freezer, fridge and pantry in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood for food insecure residents. Community centres, libraries and gyms have become cooling stations for those without air conditioning or other cooling means. The precarity of shelter, food, and health were urgent crises prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic, and persist as covid restrictions are lifted.
Much like in the early days of the pandemic, this month felt like a moment to reconsider the role of artists, writers, and cultural workers within community care and activism. How can the work of art writing, criticism, and art making, translate to community problem solving? I think one of the tasks of cultural workers is to promote and maintain a culture of sustenance, one that uplifts the well-being of one’s neighbourhood. In Toronto for example, many artists and cultural workers organize with the Encampment Support Network to protest encampment evictions, provide unhoused residents with water, and work on the podcast We Are Not the Virus. In the vein of thinking through the role of artists and writers in community care, I want to mention a couple of my reads this month that generated some of these ideas.
Outdoor School is a new book of contemporary environmental art edited by Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato. I attended a lecture with Morrell and Borsato hosted online by Doris McCarthy Gallery in Scarborough, ON. The editors foregrounded the role of artists as teachers and keen observers of their environment. Morrell and Borsato envision artists as those sharing with the world what might not otherwise be seen–artists look into nooks, see the invisible, and tell forgotten stories. Included in Outdoor School is the BUSH Manifesto, created by Tania Willard, Peter Morin, Jeneen Frei Njootli and Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill. Bush Manifesto calls for an artistic and critical site outside of the gallery, a land based practice where bears, dogs, children and grandparents are welcome in the actions; “BUSH Gallery…contributes to an understanding of how gallery systems and art mediums might be transfigured, translated and transformed by Indigenous knowledges, traditions, aesthetics, performance, and land-use systems.”
Also in Outdoor School is an essay by environmental philosopher Karen Houle. In “Farm as Ethics,” Houle reflects on her pedagogical practice using urban farming at Guelph University as a tool for student learning. She confronts the misogyny and cognitive/emotional dissonance of Western philosophical practice, and forges instead a holistic methodology that uses agricultural and outdoor sites to teach, learn, and heal collectively with her students. Outdoor School is an invitation for artists, writers and cultural workers to shift towards the outdoors, to cycles of life, porous practices, reciprocity with the environment, and a public intellectual culture outside of artistic and academic institutions. I should mention as well that Amish has been a mentor and friend of mine over the years, whose knowledge of communes, conceptual art and counter-cultural publications inspired much of the work I completed in my undergrad, as well as this project with Oxygen.
As I battled with the Himalayan blackberry and bindweed in my garden, I read Green Lines by Vancouver artist S F Ho, a chapbook that troubles the notion of invasive ecology and forges a lineage of decolonial gardens. Throughout Green Lines, Ho considers the relationship of invasive plants to politics of alienation, capitalism, and decolonial ecology. They note that both the Latin and English proliferation of plant names “render plants ahistorical” by erasing the uses carried by their native or colloquial names. Ho also notes that while invasive plants are named for where they’re from, “Himalayan black berry, Scotch broom,” what makes them invasive is not their foreignness, but their potential to limit capital; “a plant becomes a weed when it threatens intensive farming and industrial agricultural practices” and thus, when it threatens white, Western, capitalist culture. The bibliography in Green Lines is also an enriching starting point for readings on anti-invasion ecologies. Ho cites My Garden by Jamaica Kincaid, and the decolonial garden at 221a semi-public led by artist T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss.
In the realm of upcoming business, the Slocan Valley’s independent newspaper, The Valley Voice, is for sale! Though we dreamed momentarily of acquiring the publication, instead I offer our brief personals listing:
SEEKING COMMUNE STORIES: Do you live communally in the Slocan Valley? Have you been part of a commune, organic farm or free school? Would you like to tell your story? Oxygen Art Centre is seeking commune dwellers to contribute to a research project that maps the history of communal living across the Slocan Valley and BC interior. If you would like to be interviewed about your experience, please email Greta at firstname.lastname@example.org
And a couple viewings/readings of note for the month: Derya Akay’s Meydan at Polygon Gallery in Vancouver can be viewed until the first of August; the Contingencies of Care conference, hosted by OCAD U throughout the month of June, is recorded and available online; and UK based artist Sean Roy Parker’s newsletter, Fermental Health, is very good!
THE DAY WILL COME WHEN WE WILL HAVE TO KNOW THE ANSWERS: May Letter from Literary Arts
I’m penning this letter on a hot day with morning sun, shag carpet, Beverly-Glenn Copeland singing in the background, hibiscus tea cooling on the stove, and peeking out the window at the dye plants on the patio–the Indigo particularly bushy and needing repotting. This letter, and these letters (will), emerge from the contexts in which I am working across various small towns, islands and rented apartments in BC over the next ten months, conducting research for the new position Literary Arts Coordinator at Oxygen Art Centre. This project emerged through a shared desire between myself and Julia to develop a publication that took up the ethos and aesthetic of counter-cultural publications of the late 1960s and 1970s, including the Whole Earth Catalogue, Mother Earth News, Radical Faerie Digest, the New Woman’s Survival Catalogue, and the many independently published broadsheets and newsletters of that era, each offering various survival skills and DIY resources for rural women, queers, homesteaders, and organic farmers. We also bring together our individual bodies of research–Julia’s studies in feminist practices of curation across rural locales, and my desire to excavate a personal history as the child of a back-to-the-lander and wannabe-organic-farmer father.
We conceptualized the project a number of months into the pandemic, a moment in which many communities were organizing towards a shared sense of survival across multiple crises. We wondered what a contemporary revival of counter-cultural publications might look like, what resources most urgently need textual distribution, what issues remain unchanged. Through the coalescence of our research questions, we are attempting to develop a publication that deepens our understanding of the counter-cultural revolution’s failures and takes up its potential points of renewal. SALT VERY IMPORTANT is one such research aspect of this project.
In developing a publishing project that draws on counter-cultural and revolutionary texts, we are asking the following questions, among many: Why did the dream of co-operative land ownership, Buddhist economics, free love, and agricultural freedom fail in the face of neo-liberal capitalism and the personal tech industry? Why was the emergence of a mass cultural turn towards anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anarchist/anti-government, and feminist practice depleted by the end of the 1970s? Because the Whole Earth Catalogue was considered a precursor to the internet, what is the connection between the digital utopianism of 1960s California hippies and the contemporary tech dystopia currently unfolding in Silicon Valley? How can we continue to learn from counter-cultural thinkers while remaining critical of the back-to-the-land movement’s whitewashed and colonial concept of a “return” to nature? How do we acknowledge and honour the back-to-the-land movement’s debts to activists organizing around mutual aid and anarchism? How does the ethos of counter-culture fit into contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter and Land Back? What are some alternative histories that can decentre whiteness from organic farming, communal living, and our relationship to the outdoors?
These aren’t rhetorical questions, as so often questions are when posed in the arts. This project will forge ahead to answer these questions through traditional archival research, alongside more material processes like conducting interviews, visiting gardens, farms, and compost centres, and maintaining the methodology of an eco-feminist practice (whatever that might look like to me these days; I’m thinking about my dye plants on the patio again). Through the coming months, I aim to develop infrastructure and resources for a long-term educational program and publication at Oxygen that picks up the threads of the counter-cultural vision within the context of contemporary anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist practices. This might include reading lists, an interview series, print and publishing workshops, as well as creating a publication by and for rural artists and writers across BC. These letters, too, act as a form of institutional transparency, as I describe the changes and malleability of this project over time. (The letters also borrow the title from Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letter #3, the line, “SALT VERY IMPORTANT,” and this month’s title from Revolutionary Letter #6, “None of us knows the answers, think about / these things. The day will come when we will have to know / the answers.” Published 1968).
Alongside this research aspect of this publishing project, I’m spending some time considering what the tasks of a Literary Arts Coordinator are within an artist-run-centre, and what they could be. To name a few possibilities I’ve noted over the last month: to create financial and community contingency for the current literary projects including the author reading series, and the publication of artist monographs and exhibition catalogues; to develop educational programming on print practices and publishing; to acquire a library of artist books and multiples, as well as texts and publications relevant to the centre’s programming. While it may not be me who develops these resources in their entirety at Oxygen, I’m planting the seeds here.
This month I split my time between researching grants to develop a publication and educational programming for the upcoming year, compiling a reading list that includes texts ranging from conceptual art, to climate change, to the tech industry, and attending workshops on farming and co-operative land ownership. I had a short visit with Garden Don’t Care at Unit 17 in Vancouver. I attended the virtual launch of the Centre for Sustainable Curation at Western University with a panel on Curating and Radical Pedagogy including panelists Christina Battle, Gabby Moser, Ryan Rice, Eugenia Kisin, Tania Willard and Christiana Abraham. I also attended the virtual panel Doing the Work: Art and Activism at McMaster University, which featured short talks by Syrus Marcus Ware, Jenna Reid, and Ravyn Wngz. I read Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval, Mooncalves by Victoria Hetherington, I revisited the Maintenance Art Manifesto by Mierle Ukeles Laderman, and the first issue of MICE Magazine on Invisible Labour.
Want to get in touch? Have a story you want to tell? Want to contribute? Email Greta at email@example.com