Recess, Cultural Production, Checking Out
By Adam Barbu
Adam Barbu is a writer and curator based in Ottawa, Ontario. Deirdre Logue is a film, video, and installation artist and cultural worker based in both Toronto and Brighton, Ontario. They first met during the research phase of the group exhibition Empty History, presented at Vtape from November 20 – December 14, 2019. Curated by Barbu, Vtape’s 2019 Researcher-in-Residence, Empty History explored the ways in which artists use video to interrupt narratives of so-called ‘queer progress.’ Alongside contributions by Paul Wong (Vancouver, BC) and Lucas Michael (New York, NY), the exhibition featured Logue’s Home Office (2017). Shot on location during a residency at The Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City, the work consists of a single-shot, 3:33 minute recording of the artist attempting to balance on top of a slide-out shelf from a wooden writing desk.
Home Office does not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new utopias. Offering performances of solitary, inoperative gestures and activities, the works of Empty History construct impossible narratives without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is deemed recognizably ‘queer’ or ‘political’ content. In this refusal of resolution and finality, they occupy the difficult space in between meaning and dysfunction, acting out and stepping back, and seeking change and giving up. Within the frame of the screen, life itself is presented in a fixed state.
Barbu and Logue met on August 27, 2021, and again on November 19, 2021, to reconnect for the first time since the presentation of Empty History. In this two-part discussion article, the artist and curator consider personal changes that have taken shape over the past year and a half, including Barbu’s shifting creative practice and Logue’s decision to move away from the city. Together, they discuss feeling stuck, checking out, and moving on.
Adam Barbu: It’s nice to see you. I know that we planned on meeting earlier this summer. Life got in the way of that. I’m feeling somewhat rested, having just returned from Vancouver.
Deirdre Logue: I don’t know if you know where I am, but I left Toronto. I moved away to a hobby farm just north of Brighton, Ontario. It’s about an hour and a half from the city. My partner Allyson and I sold our house in Parkdale.
AB: I would love to hear about it.
DL: In some ways, what has transpired over the past year and a half will help us continue the conversations we started during your research residency at Vtape. We could continue to talk about doing nothing as a form of something. We could also talk about why no one is doing anything when we need to do more—more about other things other than this preoccupation with the self and the relative notions that surround the self, particularly in the context of an art career or a studio practice.
I love the idea of talking about recess, the kind we are introduced to as elementary students, as a moment of release from a regime known as education. Once we are outside of the classroom, what are those moments of freedom supposed to mean? Are they supposed to help us extend our servitude and fulfill the expectation that we [should] be productive? Or are they moments to teach us that we can be free? I don’t know. But I loved recess. You’re allowed time to experience something other than the system that you are stuck with, or, as is true for most people, perfectly content with in some kind of way. Your trapped-ness can feel good, right? So, during recess, you’re exercising a muscle within this system, asking: Can I move freely between absence and presence? Am I in or am I out?
At my new house, I have wild guinea fowl. There is always one that, when you set it free, just runs back into the cage. It huddles in the corner without any real desire to be free. And then there’s one that’s always fucked off, at risk of being killed. But it’s been in the cage too long. It has no skills for the wild. My desire is to protect them from being wild things because being wild things means they’re part of a system that I can’t control.
What you and I started talking about in 2019 has, in a way, led me to leave the city. It has led me to question the role that artists can play in providing respite for other artists, at a distance from some of the frameworks that both force us into production and expect us to do more with less. Two years ago, we started looking for a place where I could put up a tent and stop freaking out. Allyson and I found a house that had been on the market for a while. We realized that this would be a tectonic move. But being here has bought us a very sweet and extended recess from a routine that we were starting to feel trapped in—both of our commutes to work were becoming more like a demolition derby, with buildings coming down and condos going up all around us. Toronto is in a constant state of destruction. It was starting to affect me. Navigating those stresses within the context of climate change, I just couldn’t reconcile it anymore. I couldn’t live with so many people living in such deep denial.
Since we got the house last August, we’ve set up a bunch of systems. We heat our house with wood. We have water recovery systems. We have chickens and eggs and a giant garden that we eat from almost exclusively. And we renovated and reconstituted a woodshop that acts as the site for an experimental studio program called FAR (Feminist Art Residency). Imagine FAG (Feminist Art Gallery) shifting to feminist land art meets community of care. We’re not totally off the art grid. We’re hybridizing the idea of stepping off the treadmill and stepping onto a different kind of path.
AB: As you know, I have long fantasized about moving on and checking out, too. We share that. When we met at Vtape, I was just coming to terms with my fragmented work life and my decision to walk away from more grad school. We spoke about burnout and queer failure. Today, we’re speaking about choosing recess from the art world. Perhaps we can start to think about recess as a modality, as a means of open experimentation, without any determinate end or outcome—recess as unbecoming.
DL: At school, during recess, you’re also in a panic state—you’ve only got a short amount of time. It’s very Pavlovian. The bell rings and you all run outside. The bell rings again and you all run back in. We forget how much we have been trained to be trapped, trained to have difficulty making decisions about freedom.
I think it’s important for us to take time to find forms of recess, not abscess, and try to challenge ourselves as humans, as artists, to examine the systems within which we work and decide whether or not they work for us.
I’m not suggesting that we all need to drop out of the artworld. Nor am I suggesting that we spend any more time deconstructing notions of what art is or can be. What I do think about is our personal accountability to the idea of being a cultural producer and what it is that we allow or ignore in order to see our own cultural productions surface and survive while others are made invisible. I think it’s important for us to take time to find forms of recess, not abscess, and try to challenge ourselves as humans, as artists, to examine the systems within which we work and decide whether or not they work for us.
Oh, I see a fox. It’s actually not a good thing. Hang on one second, please.
AB: Is everyone okay?
DL: Yes. Well, not really. I mean, we had six chickens, now we have two. We had ten guineas, now we have four. We are definitely guests here.
AB: How do you strike a balance with the wildlife?
DL: I suppose you get a dog. Dogs and foxes have a common language. Our friends lent us their dog, and I watched what Clarence did. Now, I’ve been marking territory like he does. Observing and assessing is truly the hard part.
AB: In 2019, we spoke about grant writing in the culture industry as a means to an end. On the farm, life moves with a different rhythm. You are observing minor tragedies, making the decision not to intervene every single time.
DL: I’m distracted by the fox. Can I call you back?
AB: Yeah, why don’t you?
Deirdre calls back in 15 minutes. After reconnecting, she takes me on a virtual tour of her farm using her laptop camera.
DL: I want to invite you to come here and do a writing residency, or non-writing residency, or resting residency, or any number of experimental versions of a residency that would be perfectly suited for you right now in your life. As we develop this program, we’re using people’s experiences of residencies that they didn’t enjoy as a guide.
AB: It’s such a generous invitation.
DL: Look at your calendar. We want to encourage guests to use the farm as an open, unrestricted space. We just did the Witch Institute, an academic conference produced by Queen’s University in collaboration with the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. What is the opposite of an online conference? An outside conference, I suppose. So, we held an opening ceremony and introduced three projects made by people that are part of our ongoing life relationships.
Syrus Marcus Ware is making a garden of future Blackness. With our friend Tracy Tidgwell, we produced a 250-foot-wide meditation walk through the five points of a pentagram (love, connection, grief, accountability, healing, love, etc.). We also invited the FASTWÜRMS, who performed a live raku firing about death and wonder. As senior witches, they had the showstopper. A lot of the people that visited had been working in isolation for a year and a half. It was very moving to see everyone together, outside, reconnecting, as if emerging from a chrysalis or something.
AB: I wanted to speak with you about process, non-productivity, and worklessness—in short, how we might begin to reject conventional measures of art world success, choosing something other than desperation and burnout. I think we’ve done that in our own way.
DL: Everything needs a reconnect, and that’s what we did today. How are we doing? What are we doing? Where are we in the world? There are other questions that connect us as well—questions that were revealed to us when we first met during your residency. And to me, that’s a form of kinship. I do find your proposals compelling. I’m also compelled to speak again so that we might manifest something tangible that could be useful to you as a curator, useful to me as an artist, or useful to other curators and artists. Maybe more so than just me running around the house after a fox.
Read part two of the discussion here.