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 in 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.
AB: Rereading part one of our article, it seems that we were both in a different place. At that point, I was on the verge of checking out completely. However, I still believe in creating space for apathy in this conversation about ambition, productivity, and success in the artworld. How can we begin to address these pressures while occupying that space together? What do we do with that stress? How do we make sense of it? These are some of the thoughts I return to today—about three months after that earlier conversation.
DL: A few things happened to me after we hung up the phone. Sometimes, when something truly confuses you, it compels rather than repels you. It brings people closer. My questions are related to the potential of this discourse, as well as our shared interest in various topics that, if manifested in practice, could in theory erase each other. In this mutual commitment to exploring the limits of counterproductivity, we almost set ourselves up for the perfect failure. To begin, we should pool together works that might help us build a larger frame of reference for a kind of working that commits itself to recess, to unworking progress, works that undo themselves or resist a kind of accomplishment. I have a long history of working with futility in subject matter. So, my interest in checking out comes as no surprise. But it also occurs to me that we’re both going through our own transitions. We’re changing as people. Perhaps the most important question for us to consider is one of kinship. What could be gleaned from conversations taking place over a longer period?
AB: We first connected during my research residency for the exhibition Empty History, which included your video Home Office. As a reflection on solitude, labour, and recess, Home Office raises important questions that mirror life in a pre-post-pandemic world. Nevertheless, Empty History originally sought to address a different set of questions I faced following my graduate studies. Working on the exhibition offered me the chance to grapple with my toxic relationship to curating and publishing. I was so focused on being productive, creating more output, and filling a CV, that I lost touch with my practice. I burnt out. During my residency, I was drawn to Home Office because of how it embraces slowness, repetition, and worklessness, creating space for alternative counterproductive histories to be imagined. What continues to connect us is an interest in doing nothing as a form of something. Or, put differently, doing the action of nothing as an artist or curator. As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of grant money available for this kind of work.
DL: Maybe that’s the problem with curating today—it has more to do with art-ing than living.
AB: I’m ambivalent about the term ‘curator’ because it has come to signify something so operative, so productivist. A few years ago, I invited Feminist Art Gallery (FAG), founded by you and your partner Allyson, to contribute to a discussion article I was writing for Canadian Art. In response to a question about defining the term ‘queer curating,’ FAG argued: “We feel it is important to productively question the authority, economy and adoration of the notion of the curator—lots of people want to be one—we do not. Instead, we concentrate our queer feminist energies on enabling and nurturing queer and feminist art and ideas…” When you’re an anxious graduate student, trying to construct an identity at once personal and professional, it’s difficult to hear that. At that point in my life, I was living and working inside the artworld machine.
DL: I’ve been championing cultural production for a long time. Still, I believe in a regenerative approach. Sometimes you’ve got to burn it to the ground and rebuild the house you want to live in. That’s true for a lot of things, including our sexual politics, our relationships, and some of our artworld definitions. For example, in a recent interview, I proposed the idea that artists choose their curators and collectors, thus inverting the pyramid. They would make a choice to form a relationship that suits them. I said no to a commission during the first summer of COVID. There were very few restrictions—the work could have been anything I wanted. So, I must ask myself: Where does checking out really lead? What does recess do to reset the spirit?
Sometimes you’ve got to burn it to the ground and rebuild the house you want to live in.
AB: As a graduate student trying to find their way, I remember the thrill of an accepted proposal. It tickles the ego. Recognition is comforting as hell—it’s an affirmation of identity. But the relationship I built with that ‘yes’ was frenetic, if not totally destructive. So, I’m touched by your gesture of refusal. That ‘no’ exists so far outside the realm of where I used to be.
DL: Here, we can’t lose sight of the effects of the public funding system. Say I apply for a grant and receive the money, after which I change my mind. Well, I can’t. I’ve got to do the thing that I said I was going to do. Then I must show my work to prove that the work exists. These transactional relationships don’t just make problematic the relationship between artist and curator. They make problematic all our relationships with institutions, funding bodies, and consequently, each other. These problems are more systematic than they are simply individual. Oftentimes, we find ourselves operating within frameworks that don’t serve the goals we have. When it comes to the question of a living wage, for example, we’re looking at a system that is struggling. You and I have deeply individual responses to that system, which are specific to several different conditions under which we live. We’ll call it a combination of situation and circumstance.
AB: Preparing for our talk today, I thought we would finally understand why it is that we find recess, or, checking out, so compelling. Art doesn’t always have to be about changing the world. Sometimes, it’s simply an antidote that reduces suffering. These conversations are records of our attempt to reconnect and work on ourselves, together. As a result, we’re proposing a mode of workless collaboration in which we are connected by pure means, as opposed to ends or means-to-ends. This sense of connection, of mutual commitment, might allow us to rethink the kind of working relationships artists and curators are supposed to uphold within the system.
DL: I’ve experienced how the relationship between an artist and a curator can verge on the therapeutic. Inside those therapeutic moments, we face an intimacy that is not necessarily well defined. I’ve had powerful curatorial relationships marked by very un-curatorial moments. They’ve been emotional, they’ve been fraught, but they’ve been real. In a word, they’ve been tender. Certain works I have made bring up a lot of difficult feelings in the viewer. And they can create real discomfort for curators who choose to show the work. So, as artists and curators, we take on these difficult feelings together. But it’s also important to state that not many people think about what is happening to the curator personally—what brings them, in other words, to follow certain ideas or create certain exhibitions. You and I feel compelled to disrupt the conventional relationship between artist and curator because it appears to be completely un-feeling. I believe there is something our work shares that goes beyond mere subject matter. If we were to continue to explore this, we would have to do so knowing that it could lead to a bit of an undoing, right? It could be unintentionally upsetting.
AB: Speaking of means and mutual commitment, I can’t help but think of the new Jasper Johns retrospective, Mind/Mirror, co-produced by the Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. According to one New York Times article, during the planning phase of the two exhibitions, Johns maintained an “Olympian detachment from the preparations.” In response to the project, Johns himself stated, “These are not my ideas. The show is not my idea.” On the one hand, we see two exhibitions so stoic in their neutrality, so preoccupied with tired questions about what art is. On the other hand, we see the total fracturing of the relationship between the artist and the curator. And with this project, there are two curators, each with different creative visions, who also happen to be fighting. So, nobody’s listening, nobody’s talking, and somehow, a blockbuster show is created.
DL: I would struggle to think of an artist more collected or exhibited than Johns. What heights must one reach to be able to say no, and still keep going? However, I do appreciate that he made the statement and maintained a relationship to the actualization of the exhibition, instead of pulling out entirely. I’m interested in how that gesture serves the audiences that will interact with the exhibition. Further, what does it mean to the curators?
AB: This reading of intimacy, of kinship between artists and curators, is oftentimes overlooked in contemporary discourses on curating. I’m currently working on remaking an exhibition that was originally presented at Videofag when I first moved to Toronto and began graduate school. Recently, I lost the hard drive that contained all the images and documentation for the project. This is quite a private, personal endeavour. I doubt many will come to see the re-made exhibition. I’d like to use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the artists after more than seven years.
DL: I am drawn to the idea of curating for no one. Peeling back the layers, we begin to see how the activity of curating feeds the system. A museum is built upon various organized economies. In fact, museums are some of the most capitalist systems of all. You and I have tried to work ourselves back through the coat check, through the kitchen door, right at the restaurant. Suddenly, it happens that we’re out by the garbage. We’re redefining where we can feel comfortable in this system based on the choices we’ve already made. Because, in truth, neither one of us would be here, right now, if we weren’t invested in the system. We’re troubled by it, yet we’ve also been privileged by it. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t need to be seen by each other as troubling the system, because goddess forbid we do it alone. We are finding kinship in the complication of trying to get back to something we’ve lost. And that’s not necessarily about recovering the hard drive, for instance. It’s about memory and friendship. It seems we’re both looking for something that we think we can find through each other.
Read part one of Barbu and Logue’s discussion here.
 Solomon, Deborah, Seeing Double with Jasper Johns, New York Times, September 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/13/arts/design/jasper-johns-mind-mirror.html