Time Well Wasted: Yawn By Julia McDougall

Wasting Time by Yawn still. 2021.

By Harper Wellman

Yawn is the latest project for Vancouver-based artist and musician Julia McDougall, who began her musical journey in Saskatchewan before earning a Composition Degree at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. Post-University, McDougall pursued her career—living and performing in Berlin, producing her self-titled EP alongside Andy Shauf, a Polaris prize nominee, and working at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. Like McDougall herself, Yawn has seen a journey beginning in 2015. Initially recording and performing with other musicians, Yawn has been distilled down to its originator, following up a folk-influenced debut with a dream-pop statement of a new direction. With the release of Yawn’s new song, Wasting Time, and a new music video, directed by Leanne Kriz and starring dancer Shannon Gray, Yawn’s visuals and sounds are pushing their boundaries, exploring ideas of growth, isolation, and hope.

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

Thank you for talking with us. Can you tell us about your music career how Yawn as a project came to be? What was your vision when you started the project, and how has that evolved?

I’m originally from Saskatchewan, and I’ve been making music and playing shows since I was young. I grew up in a really small town where there was nothing to do. I have a memory of going into a wheat field to write poems as a kid. Writing kind of came first for me, then when I started playing music it seemed natural to me that they should come together. As a teen, my friends and I would book halls and organize shows and get bands from other places to come and play. I started recording and releasing music – it was all very cute and DIY. When I was older I left to study composition at SFU, continuing to write songs on the side. After university, I moved away to Berlin for a bit where I joined a psych-rock band, and then came back to go back to school for my teaching degree. It was around this time that Yawn started to take shape. It was a slow-moving project that began as a casual band in about 2015 and over the years grew into a more concrete ensemble. We released an EP in the summer of 2019 but for me, it never sat right. It felt close to what I wanted for a project but was somehow misaligned with my vision overall. I ended up parting ways with the band because I realized that I needed to trust my gut and not have to compromise on anything (so diva, right?). This is the version of Yawn you’re hearing today. A version that feels much truer to the project I’ve always wanted and more aligned with who I really am. 

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

Wasting Time is much different from You and I. Lyrically, things are much more pointed. Can you speak to this transition and why for you, sometimes less is more? What was your intent, or inspiration while writing and recording Wasting Time?

Wasting Time took a totally new and different direction than You & I, which I think you can feel in the music. I wanted to fall deeper into the electro dream-pop world and leave behind the folk side of things. Interesting that you should say it’s lyrically more pointed, maybe I’m just getting to the point more succinctly? For me, the way that I write hasn’t changed since I was a kid writing poems in the prairies. I try to be true and honest about what I have to say. Maybe with Wasting Time I have a better understanding of who I am and what I want to say, which is mostly that I want to capture the kind of human experiences that leave you feeling a bit lost or confused. It’s a way for me to air out my thoughts a bit. 

The song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity. 

My intent with Wasting Time was to bring a single from this new iteration of Yawn to the table. I had a really clear idea of what I wanted the song to feel like and what came out from this recording mirrors what I had in my mind. For me, the song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity. It’s also just a reminder to myself, to say “Hey, don’t forget, this is who you are. You can’t run or hide from it, it will find you.” My inspiration really stemmed from frustration. I often feel frustrated by how little artists are appreciated (economically) and how much work it is to push for what you want. Sometimes a song is a way for me to acknowledge myself and hold myself while I’m working through it all. 

Tell us about the video for Wasting Time. While you do make a cameo, it was filmed in LA, quite quickly, while you were in Vancouver. Can you tell us about the process of how this team and video came together? Were you involved in all aspects of the video, or were there certain things you had to entrust to your team? 

The director of this video, Leanne Kriz, is a friend from Vancouver who’s based out of LA. During COVID she started developing these cool music videos and I asked her if she’d be interested in working with me. The way that the whole thing came together really surprised me. It was so natural, Leanne and I were so in sync in our ideas and she has a brilliant mind when it comes to art direction and design. I wanted the video to border pop and art, and I wanted it to be moody and magical. Leanne had this idea of a flower monster that is at first lethargic but over time they kind of evolve into this inspired monster. We circulated around ideas of coming to a kind of higher self or just coming to own who you are which is the essence of the song. I loved the idea and the result was so close to our original concept it was amazing. We had a shoestring budget to work with but Leanne and the team did an incredible job. It was shot in one day, and I should also mention our dancer, Shannon Gray, did an incredible job capturing the emotions of the song and evoking the ideas that we wanted to capture. When Leanne told her we needed to be an apathetic monster she said “that’s great, I did a whole performance workshop on apathy!” (Like, what are the odds?) Paul Helzer was also our lighting designer and he helped with some of the shots. To the team down in California, I am so grateful to you! 

I was involved in all the conceptual aspects of the video but when it came to the actual shoot and execution Leanne and her team did all the work. I felt bad because she would text me photos from the set saying, “Do you like this?” Or “what about this shot?” I guess that’s how things have to work during COVID. I was lucky though because Leanne listened to me and was open to my input. It meant a lot to me and I could tell that everyone involved with the project was super dedicated to making the song come alive through this video.

Yawn, Wasting Time still. 2021.

I am curious to know how your work as a music educator has influenced Yawn, or your music generally. Do they inspire you? Or does your music provide a break from being an educator?

I’ve been a teacher at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music for about 5 years now. I think of teaching as very separate from the music I make but my students inspire me all of the time. They are always showing me new music and new ways of thinking. Or sometimes a student will say something so profound without even meaning to and it gives me life. The school is kind of my one working refuge that isn’t like real-world jobs and I’m very thankful for it. My colleagues also inspire me constantly – they are movers and shakers in the music world, each in their own way, and I look up to all of them.

With the year we’ve had, I think many people are looking for new music. Who are some of the artists that got you through 2020, and what does 2021 look like for Yawn?

That’s a tough one. I listened to a lot of different stuff over COVID but sometimes I found myself feeling like I wasn’t even listening at all, do you know what I mean? Like you’re so lost in what’s happening, so buried in it that really deep listening isn’t there for you? That’s what has been happening for me. Still, I listened to Caroline Polachuck a lot in the summer and Moses Sumney. I listened to Adrianne Lenker, perfume genius, Tirzah. Lots of things. Ethiopian jazz too. 

For Yawn, I hope I can get lots of funding and make a record in 2021. That’s my biggest goal and I’m looking forward to achieving it. This is the record I’ve been wanting to make for a long, long time. I feel ready. I also hope I can just continue. I hope shows and festivals happen again. I hope we get vaccinated. I hope life can resume but I don’t even know what that means anymore. I’m still hopeful anyway, and maybe that’s enough. 

The new music video for Wasting Time is out now. Connect with Yawn online to keep up with what’s next. 

Talking Death with Sam Moore: All my teachers died of AIDS

All my teachers died of AIDS by Sam Moore. Published by Pilot Press London. 2020.

Interview by Harper Wellman

CW: Death, discussion of transphobia

Sam Moore began their writing career while working toward their Master’s at the University of Oxford in 2017. While exploring various forms, Moore found their style, and success, with poetry and short stories, publishing pieces in Harts and Minds, DASH, Fearsome Critter, and Modern Queer Poets. Moore has developed a cross-genre style of writing that is on display in their book, All my teachers died of AIDS, from Pilot Press. Equal parts academic research, pop culture critique, and personal reflections, All my teachers died of AIDS explores the intersection of queer identity and death, and how the inseparable two inform each other. Below, Moore discusses Teachers, their process, their community, and what’s next. Moore is an editor for Third Way Press and a freelance journalist in London, UK.

Thank you for talking with us Sam. Teachers is a wonderful book that I think many people can relate to. Can you talk about how this project came to be? 

I spent a lot of time writing very traditional prose when I was finishing up my master’s degree – writing the first half of a novel for my thesis, something I keep saying I’ll come back to, and one day I will… but alongside that, I was also reading more and more experimental work, that existed between different styles and literary traditions. It was the first time I was reading Maggie Nelson, and diving into more of Chris Kraus’ work, and I basically ended up wanting to write something more along those lines, something that defied easy categorization. And then I went to a few of the Queers Read This events at the Institute of Contemporary Art here in London, run by Isabel Waidner, and Richard Porter (who runs Pilot, and would go on to publish the book), and was just incredibly struck by the range and strangeness of queer writing; Isabel read from their novel, Dodie Bellamy read from When the Sick Rule the World, Verit Spott read from Prayers, Manifestoes, Bravery, and it was impossible not to just be swept up in the power of this kind of writing, and wanting to contribute to it in one way or another.

Around the time I went to Queers Read This I also found the courage to start going to open mic nights (even after years of graduate workshops, the thought of actually standing up and reading poems out loud to strangers remains terrifying), and to begin with, I was reading lots of more traditional poems – all of which are from a book about bisexuality called Alex(andra), that I wrote between years one and two of my master’s degree and that I’m still hoping to get out into the world (so if anyone’s interested in publishing it, you know where to find me…) but gradually ran out of material and used that as an excuse to write something new and weird, which eventually became the first section of Teachers. I read it at a launch event for Modern Queer Poets (another book by Pilot that features a poem of mine, alongside some of my literary heroes like Eileen Myles and Wayne Kostenbaum), and jokingly said “it’s part of a longer, book-length poem, so if anyone wants to publish it come and talk to me after the reading.” Rich came to talk [to] me, and the rest is history.

I also think that Teachers kind of captures my development as a writer, in terms of this desire to write more experimental work; something that comes through in the sort of poem/essay hybrid (although structurally I don’t think it’s quite a lyric essay); poetry is the guiding force for the language when it comes to rhythm, line breaks, and the presence of rhyme in the text. But a lot of people have said that the depth of the book is more of an essay; rooted in an argument, in history and criticism, but written in the form of a poem. In their blurb for Teachers, Isabel (the author of We are made of diamond stuff, and Gaudy Bauble), calls it a “personal essay,” and the more time I’ve spent on the book the more I think that rings true. I also think that it’s ended up being a sort of signpost for how much more comfortable I’ve become writing about and through personal experience.    

Sam Moore, All my teachers died of AIDS excerpt.All my teachers died of AIDS by Sam Moore. Published by Pilot Press London. 2020.

Death is the major theme in Teachers. You discuss how there is danger in being queer and queer love, whether that is the physical act itself, or the threat of a bigoted society. How do you come to terms with the inherited history of HIV/AIDS, that still affects many members of our community? Was this book a way of navigating that?

It’s an incredibly difficult thing to come to terms with, and I feel like I also should acknowledge that it’s probably an easier thing for me to navigate than it will be for other queer people; living in the UK it’s arguably a relatively safe and liberal place (although there are still times when this theory is disproven), and I think as the continued fight for liberation goes on – which it very much is – we need to acknowledge that certain members of our community are more vulnerable than others. The continued quote-unquote debate around trans rights highlights the fact that while for some of us it’s become easier to feel safe, or assimilate, we still need to show up to fight for our trans brothers, and sisters (and those who are both or neither).

Teachers is something that’s more about navigating the past than it’s about offering any kind of roadmap for the present (something that feels vital but would probably be better off being written by someone else). A lot of the book is about coming of age – both from an individual perspective and across the wider landscape of queer history and culture – and is about the shadow of death that remains cast over the queer community. That’s what the book is about coming to terms with (or trying to come to terms with anyway; I don’t think it entirely offers neat closure, but I also think that that’s good), a way of trying to understand – if not accept – the generation of queer people who were taken too soon. And while things are better, the threat of a bigoted society remains; certain victories on politics or policy aren’t enough to erase the very real danger a lot of queer people still face, and I think that’s an easy thing to forget.

All my teachers died of AIDS by Sam Moore excerpt. Published by Pilot Press London. 2020.

Even with HIV/AIDS treatments progressing to where we are today, with viral suppression and PrEP, for some, especially multiply marginalized people, HIV/AIDS is not a thing of the past, and there remains a strong link between the queer community and death. Crimes against our trans and gender non-conforming friends are rising, while the number of hate and white supremacy groups increase.  What do you see as the next fight that queer communities must take on to stop these cycles of death and violence?

I think that the next fight for queer communities is one to defend the rights of trans people, which, even in supposedly liberal countries, are under attack; here in the UK, court rulings on trans teens being unable to consent to puberty blockers is a very real threat to trans people. Between that and the continued megaphones given to TERFs and transphobes, it becomes clearer and clearer that liberation is still a ways off, and we need to keep fighting for it.

And it’s things like this that restart cycles of death for queer people; I can’t help but go back to the puberty blockers court ruling, and can’t stress enough the kind of impact that this could have on trans people. Between rulings like this, the continued acceptance of transphobia in a lot of mainstream media, the atmosphere of violence and danger from a generation ago that’s in Teachers is still here today, it’s just that the violence has become more focused on a specific group of queer people. And as much as people like to talk about debating those who disagree on the issue of trans rights, this feels like an inherently disingenuous position to take; so often it forces people in marginalized positions to debate their existence as if it were some kind of Oxford union debating idea rather than the reality of people’s lives. 

It felt poignant to read Teachers during the current pandemic. The loss of life, marginalized communities being more harshly affected, and the loss of shared safe spaces, all feel somehow familiarly queer. What effect do you think COVID will have on queer communities moving forward? 

Back in Lockdown 1.0 here in the UK in the spring (which feels like forever ago), is when Rich and I first started talking about bringing Teachers into the world, and if this was the best or worst time to do it. In the end, I’m glad we ended up waiting a little while because I always wanted to bring it out on World AIDS Day. Having the conversation did make it clear how strange it might feel to bring out a book about plague during a new plague year (although I find the comparisons between COVID and AIDS to be a bit of a reach, especially when it comes to how politicians have responded; the rapid response for a vaccine is obviously wonderful and should be commended but it also seems to highlight just how stark and long-lasting the government inaction was during the height of the AIDS crisis).

You’re right about the way in which this current outbreak feels uniquely queer, like a kind of echo of queer history. And I think that COVID will impact queer communities in ways that remind us how precarious queer life can still be, and how vital solidarity is moving forward. The racial disparities in COVID mortality rates are something that we need to keep in mind, especially given the fact that communities of colour remain the most heavily impacted by continued cases of HIV/AIDS. This is something that should galvanize people to action, to continue fighting for members of the queer community who continue to struggle and face oppression.

All my teachers died of AIDS by Sam Moore excerpt. Published by Pilot Press London. 2020.

Have you found any new teachers during this pandemic? Have you read/seen/heard anything that has been inspiring you? 

I think my reading highlight of 2020 might be Writers who love too much, an anthology of New Narrative writing that was co-edited by Dodie Bellamy; it’s so uniquely queer to me in the way that it refuses to adhere to convention (especially when it comes to writing around politics and sex), and in the way it explores life and literature in inherently intersectional ways. I found myself reading more non-fiction, and specifically more political writing this year, and a highlight from that is absolutely If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, an anthology edited by Angela Davis about racism, activism, and the prison system that remains vital almost 50 years after its publication.

Finally, I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your next project, Search History.

I touched on Search History a little at the end of the Teachers launch reading I did on the Pilot Press Instagram (which is still available to watch there, and if people are interested in checking out the book then that’s definitely a great place to start), and just like I did with Teachers at the reading last year – and with Alex(andra) in this interview – I decided to say “if anyone wants to publish this weird book of essays, slide into my DMs.”

Search History is, as the title suggests, about history; both in the big-picture way that Teachers was, but also specifically in reference to a computer’s search history. It’s a series of experimental, lyric essays that each look at different ways in which sex and desire are acts of performance. So the book is about erotic archetypes (cowboys, bikers, schoolgirls), the performance of gender roles, and how that plays into sexual power dynamics, internet porn, and (auto)biography. Like a lot of my writing, it balances pop culture criticism with a dive into specifically queer aspects of cinema, theory, and porn. There’s one essay about catholic schoolgirls and bikers (the two archetypes are tied together through an autobiographical thread), and it touches on Britney Spears, Kenneth Anger, and Kathy Acker. 

I’d say about half of the essays have been written in one form or another, and the first one to be published – An elegy to the Nob Hill Theatre, an exploration of the geography of 70s gay porn, and the non-space of the internet archive – is coming out in early 2021 with Take Shape.

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With new work to come, Moore continues to explore more topics at the crossroads of queer identities, collective history, and personal experience. In All my teachers died of AIDS, Moore is able to weave together their research, exploring important and morbid topics in an earnest and engaging read that many queer people will find relatable. All my teachers died of AIDS is available now through Pilot Press, and Moore can be found musing on Twitter and Instagram.

Transitions by jailli

By Charlotte Rainville

Jailli. Transitions, Julie. 2019-2020. 35 mm film. Images Courtesy of the artist.

Biography

Charlotte Rainville (she/her), also known as jailli online, is a Montreal-based twenty-one-year-old freelance photographer, graphic designer, illustrator, and calligraphist. She is also a second-year Photography major and Psychology minor BFA student at Concordia University.
Rainville views experimenting with the mixture of photography, art therapy, event planning, cinematographic photo direction and psychology as her life’s purpose. Creatively, Charlotte focuses on storytelling portraiture, making people feel confident, educating herself on human psychology, and challenging her depicting and understanding of others’ selfhoods as well as her own. She defines her practice as creating light-and-minimalism-focused scenes, showcasing human connexions, and having a cinematic photojournalistic approach.

Project Description

 In “Transitions”, Charlotte Rainville analyzes self-shifting in women. She aims to immortalize teenager and newly “adulted” women in the middle of their own perpetual transitions. By doing so, Rainville wants to highlight the perseverance, instability, awkwardness, and vulnerability that growing-up shifts cause. Simultaneously, “Transitions” is her attempt at freezing subjects amidst their mutation, her invitation for them to look at their transitions from a more detached and objective perspective.


Unraveling our identity is a task which may seem very isolating at times, but in fact, it is tied to a broader and common search of each member of society’s goals and self-defining, marked by vulnerability and “existential crises.” With this project, Rainville, therefore, aims for the public to rally around the universal experience of transitional change, inviting the viewers to introspect about their own transitions: How has time imposed its oeuvre within you, how has it made you leave your mark on the world? What would you tell your fifteen-year-old self or future ninety-year-old self? Are you who you thought you would be? How have you changed for the better? For the worst? It’s worth pondering about.


Jailli. Transitions, Zelie. 2019-2020. 35 mm film. Images Courtesy of the artist.

Furthermore, “Transitions” is a reminder that what is even more unnatural than telling women that they are an object or that who they are is inherently sexual is stripping them of the right to represent their body as they please. Therefore, “Transitions” is also an attempt to establish a conversation around unjust censorship, specifically targeting social media’s censorship rules. Indeed, platforms like Instagram, whose censorship of the breast reflects the social norms that affect the female body, only contribute to the sexualization of women’s bodies. Through this series, Rainville addresses that the unfair censorship of women that happens online also impacts what happens off-screen, only feeding into an already vicious cycle of objectification and women’s self-hatred. 

Flowers are the stars of our fields: The Wildflower

In conversation with Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart

Installation view, The Wildflower, Hafnarborg 2020. Photo: Vigfús Birgisson.
 

The Wildflower, Villiblómið, was exhibited at Hafnarborg – Centre of Culture and Fine Art (Hafnarfjörður, IS) between August 29 – November 8 2020.

Artists: Arna Óttarsdóttir, Asinnajaq, Eggert Pétursson, Emily Critch, Jón Gunnar Árnason, Justine McGrath, Katrina Jane, Nína Óskarsdóttir, Leisure, Thomas Pausz, Rúna Thorkelsdóttir

Curated by Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart

By Juliane Foronda

Wildflowers can thrive without formal acknowledgement, reminding us how much effort is needed for something to appear effortless. Sprouting out of some of the toughest soils, wildflowers represent resilience and how much strength it takes to remain soft amid adversity. They can be constantly present and seemingly simple at first sight, but they’re rather innately complex and genuine.

I grew up believing that being born on Earth Day gave me a particularly special connection to nature and Mother Earth, and I still believe this to be true. My relationship with land and nature is complicated, constant, and intimate. It’s rooted in long walks, silence, and the smell of green in any climate. While I connect deeply to land and nature on an emotional level, I often struggle to connect to the cultural notions that surround it. Being a Canadian immigrant with neither Indigenous nor settler-colonial ancestry, I often struggle to speak about what anything Canadian really is —especially when speaking about land. While I don’t carry the same history, privilege, and power imbalance as those of settler-colonial descent, my family and I still immigrated to and eventually settled on stolen land, and I have lived in Tkaronto (Toronto) for the majority of my life. While I wholeheartedly recognize that my voice and the many voices like mine do not need to be at the forefront of the conversation regarding land ownership in Canada, neglecting diverse experiences entirely will only perpetuate the fact that any perspectives that exist on the margins of common convention are not valid or valued.

The multitude of connections between the Icelandic and Canadian landscapes are clear in their mutuality of large, open spaces and an abundance of dramatic nature. Both landscapes represented in this show are also personally familiar, having both been my home at some point in my life. I know nature at its core to be inclusive from my personal experiences of resting in fields or swimming in lakes, but my knowledge feels adjacent to these supposedly familiar landscapes, and my lived cultural experiences prompt me to question my permission for familiarity and sense of belonging in any conversation about land or nature.

Entering this conversation with curators Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart, I grounded myself into the ideologies of all that I have learned from wildflowers and their ability to care into being. Their recent exhibition brought together artists from Canada and Iceland whose works personally lean into the ongoing dialogue surrounding land(scape) and nature. Using the framework of The Wildflower as a seed to a much larger conversation about the climate crises, land ownership, gender, and privilege, we were guided by a shared investment into learning how to see and speak about land and nature along its entire spectrum. Our conversation was honest, contemplative, and challenging, demonstrating how radical care can prompt a ripple effect towards future and extended visions and understandings of land.

Juliane Foronda: What landscapes are you most rooted in and why? As two Canadians, what does the landscape mean to you?

Penelope Smart: The landscape that I feel rooted in is the one that I’ve (just) returned to, which is northwestern Ontario. Boreal forest, bedrock and coniferous trees, brush, lots of open space, snow, and freshwater. The Canada you see on postcards – the image that settler Canada has produced of Canada. I grew up in this region. I find myself grounded in things like pinecones and pine needles, the sound of water on a shoreline, and the first snow. These things feel very much like they’re a part of me when I’m in it again. Coming back to this landscape as a curator, in this profession, you’re always asking yourself: What moves me? And what is the meaning of it? I’m in an interesting moment of relearning my own connection to this landscape.

Becky Forsythe: I feel most rooted in the landscapes of Ontario. Fields, mossy forests and being out on the lake. I grew up in a farm-suburbia. My father is from “up north” in Muskoka, and it’s an area I feel closest to and where the lake water is familiar. But my sense of land and landscape is also influenced by the fact that I am of settler descent and come from a long line of gardeners and cultivators. Both plant nurturers and hobby food growers, the thought of settlement or transplanting interests me in these micro landscapes.

JF: Becky, do you connect with the Icelandic landscape?

BF: In my first experience of it, I was driving through fjords in the West and they were coloured purple by the lupins, and there were literally whales jumping in the fjords—all of these symbols were happening, and I just did not know it yet. Ten years in, I’m realizing that the sea and the change of weather is more influential than I thought – the way that you sense the change of time, the air, the smells. The forests are still more familiar though.

Installation view, The Wildflower, 2020, Hafnarborg. Arna Óttarsdóttir, Untitled, 2014, mixed media, local flora  pressed in plastic (foreground). Photo: Vigfús Birgisson.

JF: I want to speak a bit about the problems and possibilities in land and land ownership, in Canada specifically. How did you approach these notions in The Wildflower?

BF: This is a problem that is so much greater than we are, and of course something pressing and current, and its deadline passed a long time ago. In our responsibility as curators, we can’t walk into an exhibition like this, with the artists that we’re working with, without letting the space for this dialogue to come up and happen. For myself, I’m currently in the process of learning a lot about this and trying to open myself up to the other stories that are happening in the land, and have always been happening in the land, hoping that in that way, my scope and lens as a curator can be more of a spectrum rather than based on my sole experience. Of course, in The Wildflower, some of the works are directly about this, both in Iceland and in Canada. In Eggert’s works, for example, he’s speaking very directly to the environmental consciousness, or lack of consciousness, in Iceland and how that relates to the landscape that he’s witnessed from childhood. This theme is recurring in many other works as well, like Emily’s, Justine’s and Asinnajaq’s. What was most important to both of us is that the artists’ stories are put at the forefront and that it’s presented in a way that the integrity of their work and storytelling is present and accessible. One of the ways that we meditated this was directly through their own words, so we used exhibition labels to build off of dialogue with them.

PS: In the show, there is a desire to think about the landscape as something that’s changing and alive, and unknowable for humankind wherever your history— whichever land or landscape you’re coming from, attached to, and belong to. There is this definite anthropogenic or urgent moment of change that we’re living in and were interested in thinking about in The Wildflower. The artists, their work, histories, and their own visions of the future were reflected throughout the show.

The orientation of the show is a horizon, or we used the horizon as a motif. This helped us think about what works are looking towards, or where they’re coming from, where the artists are in their minds, and what they’re thinking about landscape and a relationship to the land.

Rúna Thorkelsdóttir, Sun-set (Solsetur), in process since 1986, sunprint. Photo: Kristín Pétursdóttir.

BF: At one point, we discussed a young woman’s bedroom, imaging the voices of the time we are in, but that morphed into a space where thinking about gender needed to be more fluid. It got too locked into its role of thinking of gender in nature as a female experience. It’s problematic, and we could have opened that up further. When you think about what Thomas is presenting, this research with insects, flowers, and the language around that scientifically is very gendered. Words happen to be around sex, or the act of reproduction, so there’s a lot of interesting words connected to female anatomy and thought on gender fluidity. There’s a lot present here that we have yet to fully reflect on or work through.

PS: We were making the show at the time where the voices of young women like Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Inuk MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, and Vanessa Nakate were the voices of climate change. There was a young female voice as this eco-warrior or archetype leading the language around climate and voicing up concern. There was something that fed into this feminine energy in works such as Leisure’s or Justine’s, which was stained glass body armour, and was worn by young women in her video.

Justine McGrath, The Judge, 2020, digital video, filmed in Stone Mills, ON with help from Evan Davis of Shortspan Media. Model: Adrienne Chalaturnyk. Photo: Vigfús Birgisson.
 

JF: I think it’s important to acknowledge that the fight for land and climate justice is deeply rooted in social justice, such as issues of race, gender and class. Did you see this exhibition or your collaboration as a means of, or platform for political activism regarding the ongoing land and climate crises?

PS: There was very conscious research into artists whose work related to nature and wildflowers, which connected us to other projects doing work in the area of food security and land rights. There was a curatorial intent to have Indigenous voices in the show because this is what’s going on in Canada and it would be irresponsible to not include Indigenous voices in conversations around land. I think the idea of land being shown through one’s own perspective is there in everyone’s work, but it is especially important to see and hear Indigenous views of their current relationships to land, ideas of ancestral connection to the land, restoring land and power, and reclaiming land and histories.

I think it’s also important to say that some artists, like Justine, who is of mixed ancestry, are still figuring out their relationships to Indigeneity and this is also part of the conversation about land and identity in Canada. This can be true for non-Indigenous people as well, for anybody. It’s nuanced, people are different, and there’s many layers to it. The show is also operating at a level of subtlety rather than overt politics in the terms of the subject matter itself: flowers and floral material. I think of Runa, or Arna’s works, made with flowers she’s gathered from where she and her family go walking. Eggert does talk about his work having a political message. There is an interesting place where flowers and politics meet.

BF: It was really exciting for us to be able to present different voices from Canada here in Iceland, because it’s not something that we see daily in the local galleries, or at least not that I’ve ever seen. The hope was to invite new conversation in a place where consciousness of the history of Canadian land is less present. But I’m not sure about whether or not we were successful in doing that because we weren’t able to mediate the exhibition in the way we had imagined for practical reasons and were not able to engage in dialogue to address this history with the public.

Emily Critch, Wetapekksi / crow gulch, 2020, photographic print on Hahnemühle paper (foreground), Katrina Jane, Tools of being, Portugese marble, 2019 (background). Photo: Vigfús Birgisson.

JF: What does it mean for you to work together as women in a leadership position or space of power, using your voice to speak about land and nature?

PS: It’s amazing to have a close friendship where you can also work together. Speaking for myself, as a white curator who comes from a culture of settler colonialism in Canada, I am learning how to acknowledge that the history that I come from is one that has caused harm in terms of land and landscape. I’m finding this place of acknowledgement is uncomfortable and scary, but also generative because there’s no way to do it perfectly. There was an Instagram post circulating this spring about how you never “arrive” as an ally. This really resonated and made me more aware of how I use or don’t use my own position and power to amplify experiences different than my own. I want to be a part of creating new common ground for diverse experiences of land and landscape.

BF: This idea of being a part of our own time and contributing to how things are represented, knowing that history has to be multi-voiced and that for the most part, we’re really only seeing a very small sliver of it now. Being able to challenge ourselves in and amongst that, as Penelope said, in curating, is a really inspiring place to be. I think that what is clear in our approaches to working with others in the field, is this sensitivity and desired awareness, and a need to see many sides of the sphere. This is an extremely exciting time, and one that I know means sitting back and listening a lot more than reaching out and shouting.

PS: As soon as you start to generalize or use what somebody represents at first sight as the only way to interact with them, that’s a problem. I’m always being reminded of that and want to be a person who is taking everything one step at a time – person to person. For some, I represent a history of power imbalance, and I’m learning how to stand in this reality in a field where things are changing. It can feel uncomfortable claiming my privilege because it’s not something that I’ve had to do before. I’m trying to learn for myself and from others what it means to do that, to understand it. This takes time. The humanity there is letting the fear of not doing it right and vulnerability be part of it for everybody.

———-

I have always had a fondness for flowers. While simply weeds to some, I know the wildflowers scattered along the meadows, fields and pathways that I often walk along like old friends. Their familiar, deep and profound silences continuously offer me lessons without needing to say a word, reminding me of the wonder of my own inherent capabilities. I can’t look at a wildflower without reflecting on hidden labour and the urgency of maintaining constant care. They prove that power requires delicacy as much as it needs force. Consistently working to give themselves to the world without asking for much in return, I find wildflowers to be the epitome of compassion and generosity, and I remain invested in their philosophy as they keep me mindful of how much there is to learn as long as we’re willing to take the time to see it.

This conversation exists in two parts, with the other being on Artzine.

Becky Forsythe and Penelope Smart met at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity in 2017. Their shared work is based in new and meaningful conversations about nature, materials and the feminine. The Wildflower is their first collaborative project.

Becky Forsythe is a curator, writer, and organizer in Reykjavík, Iceland. Penelope Smart is curator at Thunder Bay Art Gallery and writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Writer’s note of Land Acknowledgement:

For thousands of years, Tkaronto (Toronto) has been the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat, and it is still home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis from across Turtle Island (North America). Tkaronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit. I have lived on this land for the majority of my life, and it continues to significantly shape and impact my trajectory. I acknowledge and recognize the many privileges that I have because of immigrating to and having grown up on stolen land. I conducted this interview from Glasgow, Scotland, where I am currently based.

Penelope spoke to me from Thunder Bay, Ontario, located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, which is covered by the Robinson-Superior Treaty. She is grateful to live and work on the traditional territory of Fort William First Nation. Becky spoke to me from Reykjavík, Iceland. She acknowledges traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabeg, specifically Ojibway/Chippewa, the Odawa and Wahta Mohawk peoples whose presence on the land continues to this day, and where her time and experiences lived on this land continue to influence her person and practice.

Femme Art Review is based out of the traditional territory of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak, and Attawandaron peoples (London, Ontario). Artzine is based out of Reykjavík, Iceland.

Queer Identities at I.C. Contemporary

Queer Identities Opening Shot. Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

Queer Community in the Gallery: Queer Identities at I.C. Contemporary

Chase Joynt, Devin Wesley, B G-Osborne, Reitano Holly, Shane Oosterhoff, Joslyn Panasiuk

Curated by Ignazio Colt Nicastro

August 2020 – October 2020

By Rebecca Casalino

Queer communities connect like links in a chain, each circle intersecting with the next, spanning identities, generations, and geography. The tangles of my community lead me to art that reflects queerness in its ever-changing form. I met writer, singer-songwriter, and trans activist Robbie Ahmed, through my friend and fashion designer Adrienne Wu, in the cheap seats of Vivek Shraya’s How to Fail as a Pop Star (2020) in Toronto’s Distillery District. So, when I saw Ahmed’s portrait in my daily flash of Instagram stories, I had to click through to see where it was showing. The image is moving — purple haze warps the composition, so his nose is in focus and centred while the glow of purple blurs his features in a halo effect. A few quick taps lead me to I.C. Contemporary’s pre-recorded tour of the digital exhibition Queer Identities shown on their website through an embedded Youtube video. The wood floors of the gallery are pixelated, the ceilings are high with walls acting as stark panels of white and black. I hear people talking right away and the frame moves towards a black and white video in a dark alcove.

Queer Identities Installation Shot.Chase Joynt, I’m Yours (2012). Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

I’m Yours (2012) is an experimental short video by moving-image artist and writer Chase Joynt, featuring two people appearing in rotation, seemingly giving answers to unasked questions. They speak into the camera and introduce themselves, “My name is Nina,” says a woman with dark curly hair and dramatic winged eyeliner. Her lips are dark and shining, a delicate mole rests on her cheek, she’s wearing silver hoop earrings and an assortment of necklaces. “Hi, my name is Chase Ryan Joynt,” says a bare-chested man with tattoos and trim facial hair, he is wearing a thick silver ring on his hand. The camera flashes to performance artist Nina Arsenault again, “Before my name was Nina, my name was Rodney,” and my heart tightens, she’s blinking and looking away from the camera, but her voice is smooth and casual. The video cuts to Joynt, “I don’t tend to answer that question. Mostly just because people who know that name tend to start using it,” he’s shaking his head and looking away, blinking just like Arsenault but is more outwardly uncomfortable, shifting in his chair. He shrugs at the end of his answer.

The media, which Joynt casts as the voiceless interviewer in this performance video, is a frequent platform where people are deadnamed or misgendered because of the ignorance or bias of uninformed cis people. Both artists’ experiences are tied by the same questions posed to gender non-conforming people but split through their individual lived experience and identity. This video is not intended as an educational balm to correct cis prejudices. Rather, the video showcases the difference in trans people’s experience and the shared monotony of answering cis people’s questions. 

Queer Identities Installation Shot. Chase Joynt, I’m Yours (2012). Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

Both Arsenault and Joynt have extensively written and made work about their transitions. Despite prominent examples such as Arsenault’s solo show Silicone Diaries (2009), presented at Buddies in Bad Times, and Joynt’s co-authored book You Only Live Twice (2012), written with HIV-positive movie artist Mike Hoolboom, people continue to question their bodies and identities by making it the focus of every conversation.

Queer Identities Installation Shot. Joslyn Panasiuk, category: HUMAN. Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

            The walkthrough’s frame exits the dark alcove and backs up to view a series of portraits along a white wall. Photographer Joslyn Panasiuk presents their on-going series category: HUMAN, which centers on trans men as its subjects. The first three portraits are glowing with oranges and yellows blurred over the subjects’ faces as Panasiuk uses tilt-shift lensing and motion blur to complicate each composition. The next three portraits are blue and purple, and amongst them, I spot Robbie Ahmed’s image as well as the face of photographer Wynne Neilly, whose portrait is hung beside Ahmed’s. Half of Neilly’s face is blurred while he wears a silver hoop in one ear—an abstract effect is created by the repetition of the shining earring. Ahmed’s portrait is blurrier with only the center of his face in focus. Panasiuk has maintained her subjects’ auras as I can still recognize my peers’ faces in these distorted images.

Their voice begins to explain the work’s emphasis on humanness and the similarities that join people. The blurring and distortion function to protect her subjects from toxic stereotypes projected onto trans masculine people and to move away from documenting differences like surgery scars or hormone shots. They speak about the making process as a bonding experience between herself and community members, as well as an opportunity to engage with other aspects of her queer identity. Viewed together from afar, Panasiuk’s subjects look like a colourfully lit chorus on stage.

Queer Identities Installation shot. Reitano Holly, Metamorphosis I. Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

            The main room of the digital exhibition breaks off into a brightly lit room with blocks of poetry on each of the six panels on the curving white wall. Wide columns of thick glass bricks make up sections of the opposite edge of the space which creates an airy tranquil space for reading. Reitano Holly uses the collection of poetry, from his up-coming series Metamorphosis I, to lay out stages of queer self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through my headphones, the artist’s voice explains the work as a “schematic for the process of queer identity that can be used as almost a guide or a reference.” He uses coloured text allowing for moments of vibration, the word ‘faltered’ melts like butter into the white wall. I can spot myself and others in his words—forbidden longings, confused fumbling of young queers finding themselves, and self-love. His words trace queer lines of desire and push against perceived limitations of the queer body; “too far to try to reach” (emphasis added). Holly flips crude conversations or curiosity of queer people’s bodies into lust and love writing “[a]nd found Gold between the richness of your thighs.” His writing brings the works in the exhibition to thoughtful pause. What changes when queer subjects are portrayed by queer creators? Can sick curiosity become tender attention?

Queer Identities Installation shot. Image Courtesy of I.C. Contemporary.

Curated by fellow queer artist and curator Ignazio Colt Nicastro, Queer Identities is in response to the subliminal thought processes of queer artists. In email correspondence with Nicastro, he points to the exhibits’ unintentional weight on more ‘masculine’ artists, and the overall pattern of “the display of hegemonic gender roles [and] male dominance in art spaces” which he hopes to tackle more intentionally in future projects. This level of self-awareness in his practice was, to say the least, refreshing as a femme queer woman working in spaces dominated by cis men.

The artists featured in Queer Identities exist under minority stress in a heteronormative society that dictates so-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ norms. Nicastro includes moments of acceptance and celebration for viewers, and this inclusion provides a fuller spectrum of queer experience. No artwork is a token or stand-in for a whole aspect of the queer community. However, these artworks trace the interconnectivity of queer experience as bodies are linked through romance, friendships, encounters, and art.

Vivek Shraya made a play about her career in the Canadian music scene, including how Tegan and Sara helped her get her start. Robbie Ahmed is an alum of Shraya’s mentorship program. Adrienne Wu introduced me to Ahmed and takes me to plays when I’m too nervous to go otherwise. Spaces, online or in person, that carve room for queer voices to speak the truth freely without censorship or misidentification allows queer bodies to gather in community. It’s essential that queers make space for other queers, linking each other together across identities, generations, and geography.

Six Must-Read Books by Trans and Queer Authors

By Adi Berardini

To celebrate and recognize Trans Awareness Week from November 13-November 19, Femme Art Review highlighted some books written by talented transgender and non-binary authors and/or books with trans themes for what we deemed as “Trans Lit Week.” By sharing the books of transgender and non-binary authors, we hope it will help increase awareness of trans stories and experiences. Ranging from fiction to poetry anthologies, read on to see why so many of our favourite books are written by trans authors.

ZOM-FAM by Kama La Mackerel. Published by Metonymy Press.

ZOM-FAM

by Kama La Mackerel


The newly released poetry collection ZOM-FAM is by Kama La Mackerel, who you may recognize as a Montreal-based Mauritian-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist, educator, writer, and community-arts facilitator. Kama La Mackerel mythologizes a queer/trans narrative of and for their home island, Mauritius. Composed of expansive lyric poems, ZOM-FAM (meaning “man-woman” or “transgender” in Mauritian Kreol) is a voyage into the coming of age of a gender exploring child growing up in the 80s and 90s on the plantation island, as they seek vocabularies for loving and honouring their queer/trans self, amidst the legacy of colonial silences. (Adapted summary from Metonymy Press).

Little Blue Encyclopedia by Hazel Jane Plante. Published by Metonymy Press.

Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian)

by Hazel Jane Plante

Vancouver-based writer Hazel Jane Plante’s debut novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) explores a queer trans woman’s unrequited love for her straight trans friend who passed away. Acting as a love letter and homage, the story is interspersed with encyclopedia entries about a fictional TV show set on an isolated island. The experimental form functions at once as a manual for how pop culture can help soothe and mend us and as an exploration of oft-overlooked sources of pleasure.  Heartbreakingly beautiful, Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) reveals with distinct detail the level of loss she experiences in losing her close friend and love, Vivian. (Adapted summary from Metonymy Press).

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard. Published by Harper Collins.

Girls Mans Up

By M-E Girard

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard is a young adult novel that provides ground-breaking representation of a gender non-conforming teen named Pen. Dealing with not fitting the box of womanhood defined by her strict Portuguese family and a friendship with the local cool kid turned sour, Pen learns how to assert herself against people who don’t have her best interests in mind. 

Rebent Sinner by Ivan Coyote. Published by Arsenal Pulp.

Rebent Sinner

by Ivan Coyote

Rebent Sinner is Ivan Coyote’s take on the patriarchy and the political through personal stories of what it means to be trans and non-binary today. Coyote traces back a heartbreaking queer history while combatting those who try to misgender them and deny their existence. Through these relatable and often humorous stories, Coyote also paves a path for younger trans folk to realize that there is hope and a way out of the darkness. Coyote is a gifted storyteller who we recommend seeing speak live in person if you get the chance! (Adapted summary from Arsenal Pulp Press).

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom. Published by Metonymy Press.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir

by Kai Cheng Thom


In Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom, a lyrical and winding sort-of-true coming of age story, a young girl runs away from an oppressive city called Gloom where the sky is always grey in search of love and sisterhood. She finds her true family in a group of larger-than-life trans femmes who live in a mysterious pleasure district known only as the Street of Miracles. Under the wings of this fierce group, the protagonist becomes the woman she has always dreamed of being.

When one of their number is brutally murdered, she joins her sisters in forming a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk the Street of Miracles. But when things go terribly wrong, she must find the truth within herself in order to stop the violence and discover what it really means to grow up and find your family.(Adapted summary from Metonymy Press).

it was never going to be okay by jaye simpson. Published by Nightwood Editions.

it was never going to be okay

by jaye simpson

jaye simpson is an Oji-Cree non-binary trans woman writer who lives in Vancouver. Their debut book, it was never going to be okay, is a touching collection of poetry and prose exploring the intimacies of understanding intergenerational trauma, Indigeneity and queerness, while addressing urban Indigenous diaspora and breaking down the limitations of sexual understanding as a trans woman. As a way to move from the linear timeline of healing and coming to terms with how trauma does not exist in subsequent happenings, it was never going to be okay breaks down years of silence in simpson’s debut collection of poetry:

i am five

my sisters are saying boy

i do not know what the word means but―

i am bruised into knowing it: the blunt b,

the hollowness of the o, the blade of y 

(text via Nightwood Editions)


We hope you enjoy this selection and make sure to check out these books this Holiday season!

Impenetrable intimacies: the body as a fever dream

the body as a fever dream, 2020. Installation view. Work by Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Sheri Osden Nault, and B Wijshijer in view. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

the body as a fever dream

Xpace Cultural Centre

October 9 – November 7, 2020

Séamus Gallagher, Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Sheri Osden Nault, Camille Rojas, Lauren Runions, and B Wijshijer

Curated by Dallas Fellini

By Dana Snow

The back of my head rests at a right angle on shutters made of composite wood pulp, craning at my laptop screen—I have forgotten about good posture. Trapezius muscles in my neck hold the tension of overdue bills and the strain of a heavy grocery load. The sharpness in my tailbone presses into my partner’s firm mattress. My hamstrings are taut after a morning run in old sneakers. In the privacy of the bedroom, my body belongs to me, supporting and warming the person asleep next to me. I am fully present, existing on my own terms. I am safe from consumption.

The body as a fever dream teeters between thresholds of the corporal, constricting and constructing form. Spectral absences refuse the optical cannibalism lurking around every sightline in the gallery space. I have seen many exhibitions on the Body — in its academicized capital B — it has become synonymous with an essential identity, co-opted most frequently by a cis-white feminist framework.¹ The body as a fever dream works outside of this history, centring the body as an opaque form; one that honours trans experience. Using elements of absence, refusal and opacity, the exhibition refigures the body as something that exists in the slash between either/or, granting self-governance to a form that has historically been framed under the cisgender gaze.

Séamus Gallagher, THINKING OF YOU THINKING OF ME. Video. 2019. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Scarlet LCD screen emissions beckon me into the gallery—I think of Sara Cwynar’s Red Film first. An examination of ideal cosmetic femininity under late-stage capitalism, Red Film’s didactic lines have stuck with me the most: “Remember that dull scanners and digital cameras have problems with highly saturated reds.” Artist Séamus Gallagher plays with these “problems” in THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF ME. After an opening close up of artificial flowers printed on foam core, the camera cuts to ersatz velvet red shower curtains in the middle ground. Gallagher emerges as their drag persona, Sara Tonin, dripping in ruby sequins. Her Oz-worthy strapless dress blows out the focus on the torso of her performer, focusing the viewer’s attention on her paper maquillage. Under her mask, she— or perhaps Gallagher—speaks to biological “cheap imitations” in animal behaviour. Sara Tonin is a construction of mimetic lust. She moves just beyond reach, a technicality away from tangibility. “I am thinking of you, thinking of me. Watching myself the way you watch me.” In the wash of reds, I can’t tear my eyes away from her face, her décolletage. Gallagher’s use of red is a formal refusal to be completely captured as an object of desire. It’s a performed understanding of the freedom afforded by elusiveness — a refusal that grants breathing room. I think about my own red slip, a silky garment that lays in a whisper against my skin. A reminder of sensuality against exposed flesh that stretches over my bones and often feels like it does not belong to me, especially when it is on view. Wearing the garment becomes a literal exposure therapy. I think it is my form of a cheap imitation, that I am playing a vision of a woman that I will never be. But it also means that I do not have to truly reveal myself, I remain unwounded through performance. I re-watch THINKING OF YOU, THINKING OF ME hoping that I will catch a glimpse of Gallagher revealing an aspect of themself, something that will point me to the person behind the performance. I am unable to find anything.

Eija Loponen-Stephenson, Net Interface. Forest-green privacy netting, button thread, brass grommets. 2019. Photo Credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Eija Loponen-Stephenson’s Net Interface leaks into my space before I can tear myself away from Sara Tonin. A wheat-pasted image of a construction shroud veils while Sara bares her collarbones. As I wander over to the installation, I think that it might be out of place, until I see the four drooping gloves protruding like weeds from the netting. I feel like I am intruding on this work, like a voyeur unable to access their subject. Within the folds that reach the floor, I find a knuckly plaster mass. Sheri Osden Nault’s Mimic, Lake Ontario offers relief, an assurance that my own body is not implicated to fill the vacant gaps in the work.

The two installation pieces lap at each other’s edges in the gallery space. They contain complimentary absences— while the site-specific images of Net Interface sever a body into limbs, Mimic, Lake Ontario materializes the body as a larger contextual whole in the space. As I walk around gently heaped piles of sand, I imagine the animate plaster peeking through to have spindly roots, a nearly neural network of connection between the islands in the gallery. The piles lead me to Hold, a sculptural work from Osden Nault using the same technique of cast plaster fingers inside a burrowed-in log. Corroded by insect trails, the work centers the embedded remnants of bodies reliant on one another. I am looking at the intersection between the human artist and the movements of insects as artists in their own right, one tracing another’s presence. I am reminded that I am not the sole being in the gallery space. Underneath my feet and poured concrete flooring there is soil, microbes, water. I am reminded of the mask I am wearing in the gallery to keep out virulence, and the open wound in my hand the sanitizer sears into upon entry—we are all embroiled together. In the unease, I recognize the intimacies of interconnection.

Sheri Osden Nault, Hold. Log, plaster, acrylic medium, epoxy resin. 2017. Photo credit: Roya DelSol
Sheri Osden Nault, Sovereign Bodies 01. Found wood, human hair, epoxy, nylon rope.
2018. Photo Credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

Sovereign Bodies 01 hangs within the sightline of Hold, the boughed found wood and human hair evoke a closed eye with lashes looking over their fleshy parts. Osden Nault’s works contain what feminist scholar Donna Haraway would call a “becoming-with…  the cat’s cradle games in which those who are to be in the world are constituted in intra- and interaction.”² The independent works become an involved landscape. If Net Interface asks you to fill its voids, Hold, Mimic, Lake Ontario and Sovereign Body 01 interpellate the viewer’s body into their becoming. In their use of abstraction and union with the non-human, Hold and Mimic, Lake Ontario deny a singular corpus, allowing a horizontal relationship to the other bodies of the landscape (including the viewer’s) to emerge. I cannot distance myself from the objects as a singular viewer to gaze at the landscape the works create. I can only become a subject with an impact in their world.

B Wijshijer, How to Edit Your Selfies. Video. 2019. Photo credit: Roya DelSol. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

B Wijshijer’s How to Edit Your Selfies flashes west of Hold, jarring the world it has built for me. The artist sifts through filters on FaceApp, a popular application used to swap genders and ages, predominantly for social media posts. After each filter a screenshot is taken, moving Wijshijer further and further away from their origin point. Over time, the face of the artist becomes exponentially more bizarre, unrecognizable by mid-film and at the end, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s suffering figures. Wijshijer’s face is not absorbed by the algorithm, but defiant to the cis, neoliberal “beautiful” versions of the self the app was created to produce. In their exhibition essay, curator Dallas Fellini describes Wijshijer’s transformations as “monstrous.” As I embrace my own femme identity, monstrousity is somewhere I feel most comfortable. Tracing the scholarship of Judith Butler, the monstrous is “a way of writing ourselves out of the ‘bind’ of gender binaries, heteronormative desires and traditional forms of kinship.”³ Wijshijer has written themself out of the teleological nature of cis beauty the app promises to deliver, and into a cyborgian realm of possibility. How to Edit Your Selfies feels like a finale to Gallagher’s THINKING OF ME, THINKING OF YOU, a performance of data mined mimicry stretched beyond recognition.  A mutated, distorted face is one that has agency over its aesthetic co-optation, one that cannot be easily digested — it is what I would call a “power move.”

Quartet with “Net Interface” and “Mimic, Lake Ontario”, Performed by Camille Rojas and Lauren Runions. Work by Sheri Osden Nault and Eija Lopponen-Stephenson. Photo credit: Philip Leonard Ocampo. Courtesy of Xpace Cultural Centre.

             Quartet with “Net Interface” and “Mimic, Lake Ontario” punctuates the exhibition in its notable absence of action. The only ephemera left from the performance between Camille Rojas and Lauren Runions are fingers scraped through the sands of Mimic, Lake Ontario. The atemporal aspect of the performance is a spectre in the gallery, stretching from far before I arrived when the act took place, and realized in a video work I pulled up from the comfort of my own home. I could describe the curious movements made by Rojas and Runions, inhabitants of the work and the space before I, or any other viewer for that matter, saw the work. I could speak to their loving cradling of Mimic, Lake Ontario or I could tell you about the playful insights bodies in movement bring to Net Interface. But I think the work is at its strongest in its frustrating inaccessibility. What the viewer can know in the space is that an activation took place, but until they seek it out for themselves, they cannot see through anything but its remnants. In its frustrating opacity, Quartet is whole—a completely inconsumable body of work, a haunting refusal to be present. It reminds me that as you read my words, I am not the voice that exists in your head. Or, that I am becoming another as you digest me. And I can exist as both, unburdened.

¹Anj Fermor, “The Feminine, The Grotesque and the Reclaimed,” Canadian Art, November 24, 2020. 

²Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4-5

³Judith Butler, “Afterword.” In Animating Autobiography: Barbara Johnson and Mary Shelley’s Monster. (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2014) 40.

The Shrugging Lady Emoji and Russna Kaur’s Abstractions

Russna Kaur, Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid installation shot, the sky seems to be the only one to Notice, 2020. Burrard Arts Foundation. Photograph by Ada Dragomir.

Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid

Burrard Arts Foundation

August 29, 2020 — October 10, 2020

By Ada Dragomir

The first time I saw one of Russna Kaur’s monumental paintings, Ironing, Bored, I couldn’t stop staring. Sized at 12 feet x 9 feet, occupying a quiet corner on the top floor painting gallery at Emily Carr University, it was hard to leave, difficult to walk away. It wasn’t until much later that I understood why I felt that way.

When I first saw Kaur’s work, I was an exhausted third year BFA student, equal parts overwhelmed and in awe, walking through offerings at The Show—Emily Carr University’s graduating exhibition. Her work was a welcome reprieve from an onslaught of poorly executed new media works and frenetic installations filled with broken things, clumsily glued back together. Kaur’s work moved me, held me, and invited me in because it walked a tightrope across the complex political and visual histories of abstraction and representation. Though her work is situated in the realm of the abstract, she manages the concomitant baggage with intention and grace. While the art world reckons with representation, Kaur keeps on going—making work with the practiced pragmatism of the shrugging lady emoji.

Russna Kaur, Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid installation shot. They are midway between the sun and the moon, 2020. Burrard Arts Foundation. Photograph by Ada Dragomir.

That initial encounter was with a painting constructed from multiple abutting surfaces, strips of canvas, sawdust, and saturated acrylic paint. It was mimesis of absolutely nothing and an image of absolutely everything. It made sense to me and yet alluded to so many unanswerable things. My girlfriend thought it was a very ‘pretty’ painting—and her passing attraction speaks to the seduction of Kaur’s style, but all good work deserves a closer encounter, a longer breath, a deeper look. Ironing, Bored made me think of my grandmother ironing bibi’s fotă, the velvety red embroidery flattening under the weight and steam, a mostly-ash cigarette hanging from her mouth—dangerously drooping over the entire operation. I didn’t know Russna then, hadn’t heard the stories she tells about and around her paintings, hadn’t yet understood how someone manages the burden of representation, juggling what to reveal and what to conceal, forging a possible path forward for the rest of us racialized diasporic femmes, sharp as fucking tacks—especially, those of us who think carefully, skeptically, and often, about identity-based politics in art.

You see, much of 21st-century art history is filled with White men making abstract paintings. From de Kooning to Pollock, from Malevich to Yves Klein, an entire century’s worth of artists with class, gender, and most notably race privilege, have escaped the burdens of representation, marshaling abstraction into a purportedly universal language. How many White guys in modern, post-modern, or contemporary art paint consciously and representationally about the specific circumstances of Whiteness and masculinity? How readily can you name 10 White men working in abstraction historically or contemporaneously, and how readily can you name 10 racialized women doing the same? Go ahead, count them on your fingers.

If abstraction is coded as both White and male—and we can trace this back to Whiteness and masculinity situating themselves as central, normal, default, everything and everywhere—then inadvertently, the assumption falls that racialized and women artists’ purview is—or ought to be—representational.

Representation can be articulated as making mimetic work. That is, paintings and sculptures which aim to communicate likeness to life, but representation can also be inflected in order to increase political visibility, literally to see more racialized artists exhibited and collected. Abstraction, on the other hand, presupposes a stifling universality—a ‘pure’ and singular visual language, more connected to platonic ideals or some eternal spiritual principle than to the muddy meatspace we all live in. It’s messy since the politics of representation are just as dangerous as white-washed and colour blind universalisms, both in art and in life. Our political forms—and our artistic ones—need subtler inflections. In other words, why use a hatchet when a scalpel is needed? In other words, is justice for BIPOC better served by a cop with a dastār or an RCMP commissioner who thinks that systemic racism doesn’t exist?

In other words, are the politics of representation the road to liberation?

While I have serious doubts about the potency of identity politics and the real political power of representation in our current world, the fact that I’ve had exactly two instructors of colour in my six year stint in art schools (none of them women), and that a recent survey of Canadian art institutions breaks down a dismal percentage of BIPOC in executive leadership[1] all tell me that Whiteness is still very much the norm, the neutral, the abstract and amorphous center of the universe art world. Buricul Pământului.

What makes Kaur’s paintings worth the second look is that they imbricate this tension, navigating both the possibilities of the utopic and the political burdens of representation.

Russna Kaur, Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid installation shot, 2020. Burrard Arts Foundation. Photograph by Ada Dragomir.

When I sit with Suddenly her lips sharpened… it was splendid, Kaur’s recent show at Burrard Art Foundation, it feels like a breath of fresh air. For an exhibition which demands so much space—a monumental almost endless picture plane crawling across 13+ canvases and occasionally the walls—Kaur offers a surprisingly subtle political inflection. Sometimes reminiscent of maps, sometimes of rich velvets or shalwar kameez, and sometimes of a secret story held in too long, Kaur’s paintings invoke her “Punjabi-ness” without essentializing it and convey her stories without performing them. There’s a lot going on within those adjacent canvases, packed with colour and line, a feast of texture and material, but there’s also a lot of space for me, and in all likelihood, space for you as well.

On display at Burrard Art Foundation from August 29th to October 10, 2020, the exhibition consists of 10 works. Ranging from the humble 4 x 6 inch blinking your eye—an energetic painterly swath of milky acrylic and thread over burgundy pastel—all the way to the enormous 192 x 108 inch They are midway between the sun and the moon, the show towers over the viewer with discordant gradations of purples and greens, pinks and lime-yellows.

Kaur’s use of colour—that jarring, clashy, raucousness—recalls walls covered with the covoare and ştergari of my childhood in Romani homes. Abstracted tree of life motifs or screaming regional floral symbols reaching across and beyond the linen they were embroidered or woven onto, jumping from one surface to the next in a cacophony of colour and texture. The world never finished, the arrangement always growing. Kaur’s paintings work similarly, modular and mutable, puzzle-like in composition and title, enormous and ever expanding. Her use of multiple surfaces—in size as well as material presence—include the traditional canvas and cradleboard panel, but also extend well into the diversity of cloth that one would find in any self-respecting fabric store or bridal boutique in South Main. Ranging from silk, muslin, and twill, to paper and found wood, the substrates are rendered with thread, cold wax, acrylic, crayon, pastel, sand, and spray paint. In parts it’s sprawling and enormous, in parts tiny and spacious; all of it is full to the brim. Suddenly her lips sharpened…is a lot.

Russna Kaur, Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid installation shot, 2020. Burrard Arts Foundation. Photograph by Ada Dragomir.

It’s as if there’s just too much to pack in: too much life, too many imperfect abutting pieces in tension, too much emotion, too much colour, too much ornament. That too-much-ness exists in sharp differentiation from the not-enough-ness of Kaur’s titles. Constructed, like the work itself, from pieces—Kaur uses redacted poetry to generate titles like when the mirror, It asked for more—there is barely enough information to achieve anything but a short nod towards a hidden world of meaning.

It is this same dynamic, this too-much-ness wedged in beside a not-enough-ness, that compels me to sit with Kaur’s paintings. I do so because they make me think. I am reminded that it is a similar and simultaneous too-much-ness and not-enough-ness of which young racialized women are constantly accused. Too loud, too bright, too unprofessional, too rude, too angry, too emotional, too smart. Not subtle enough, not perfect enough, not rich enough, not enthusiastic enough, not bright enough, not White enough.

Remarkably amongst all that, Kaur’s paintings seem to be a kind of artistic manifestation of the shrugging lady emoji—and just to be clear, not the “default” yellow one. While the world wants racialized artists to wage political battles and carry around the baggage of representation, Russna Kaur choses to just do what she wants—what she has to do.

Certain elements cross the expanse of the broken-up picture plane gesturing the continuity and integrity of the whole, but there are just as many instances of imperfection, of line or shape or colour which don’t add up, popping up inverted, truncated, or somewhere where they aren’t “supposed to be,” but are so desperately needed. Imperfection is inevitable, and in Kaur’s work, it’s accepted—recognized as a necessary facet of existence—and as they say, so in art as in life. I imagine the shrugging lady emoji, too, when I think about the assumptions and associations made with such bright and profuse colour. While some of us live in a world where simplistic and essentialist cultural mores direct us to believe that vivid and loud colour equals exotic and signals happiness, others live by the adage “laugh so you don’t cry.”

Russna Kaur, Suddenly her lips sharpened—it was splendid installation shot, 2020. Burrard Arts Foundation. Photograph by Ada Dragomir.

The shrugging lady emoji is of that latter persuasion. Having exhausted her finite store of shits left to give somewhat early in life, she spends her time wedged in the fissures between culture, race, gender, and labour. The shrugging lady emoji is not so much about resignation as it is about the recognition of a cruel irony, a prosaic pragmatism—facing the way things are, accepting that shit is profoundly fucked, and figuring out a way to move on, move in, and move through.

The shrugging lady emoji is intergenerational trauma wrapped in eggplant purple embroidered with gold silk thread. She is sexualized abuse and the wounds of diaspora shimmying into teal silk with lime green and hot pink trim. She is my grandmother ironing bibi’s fotă, tired and hunched over. She is a human pyramid of tiny stooped women with kind eyes, or squat fat women with gnarled hands, or once graceful but now stiff women with tongues like freshly sharpened knives upon whose shoulders the rest of us stand. She is the person who pretends to not speak English to get a discount, who expects you to work till you drop dead and then rise from the beyond to put in just two hours more. She is far from perfect, but….

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

_________________________

Sometimes, I like to think about artworks making arguments. Not every artwork makes an overt contention, but there are almost always ideological underpinnings to the aesthetic choices we make, even if they are buried deep, instrumentalized later, completely unconscious, or intentionally concealed. Think about Alfred Loos’ essay against decorative adornment titled Ornament and Crime[2] in which he takes a moral (and extraordinarily racist) approach to the “degeneracy” and “wasted labour” of embellishment. Or Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors filled with hidden symbols and double entendres which reflect the politically and religiously treacherous waters in which it was painted.

A particularly apposite example, in our case, is Abstract Expressionism’s collaboration with the CIA during the Cold War. Soviet Era Socialist Realism, with its idyllic, heroic and pastoral inflections, ideologically presents an image of a united proletariat or sometimes their magnanimous yet salt-of-the-earth leaders living harmoniously, sucking from the fertile bosom of Mother Russia. As someone who grew up in Eastern Europe in the long shadow of the setting Soviet sun, I assure you that’s not quite how it went. Ideologically, Abstract Expressionism was America’s answer—a modern movement dominated by individualism, capitalism, expressive creativity, freedom of emotion and mark-making, monumentality, and masculine vigor. In Rockefeller’s words, it was “free enterprise painting,” and so it remains, a movement whose works are scattered across billion-dollar bank lobbies, executive offices, and prestigious galleries throughout America.[3]

What is Kaur’s work then saying if it speaks with the embouchure of abstraction, the scale of the monumental, the colours and rhythms of Punjab? What does it say when spoken in the halted staccato of redaction? What is concealed and what is revealed? What does it say about gender, and race and representation, about how much space there is, where, when, and for whom?

Her work says you can look but you won’t be able to see, you can consume but you’ll never be sated, there is a story but told only in fragments, it’s not perfect and was never meant to be. There is space for you, but not in the center.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

You can view the virtual exhibition tour of Suddenly her lips sharpened — it was splendid at Burrard Arts Foundation here.


[1] https://canadianart.ca/features/a-crisis-of-whiteness/

[2] Loos, Adolf, and Adolf Opel. 1998. Ornament and crime: selected essays.

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html

Celebrating the Work: Marlene Yuen at grunt gallery

Cheap! Diligent! Faithful!

Marlene Yuen

grunt gallery

September 25 — December 12th, 2020

Marlene Yuen. Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! installation shot. Image by Dennis Ha courtesy of grunt gallery.

By EA Douglas

Entering grunt gallery, I am initially struck by the kelly green and turquoise mural which occupies the entirety of the back wall. The mural is easily distinguishable as the facade of a building from Vancouver’s Chinatown, a neighbourhood a short walk from where I stand now. Simply illustrated in white and red, green and blue, the pretend storefront is a memorial to Ho Sun Hing Printers, Canada’s first Chinese-English print shop that was shuttered in 2014 after over a hundred years of business.

On the wall, a pretend awning stretches out over a faux garage door. A sign with red Chinese characters and green English font reads, “Quality Printing at Reasonable Prices.” There are painted plants in the painted window, beside a bold little placard that shouts “Colour Copies.” A nod to Marlene Yuen’s time spent in the letterpress studio creating her latest work, Ho Sun Hing Printers, is an artist book inspired by and made with blocks gleaned from the business the book takes its name from. When the established Chinatown print shop closed, there was a swoop of community interest in preserving the printing equipment that had been in use for over a century. Yuen added several woodblocks to her personal collection, on display in a glass case in the corner, and the WePress Collective, a community art space in the Downtown Eastside acquired over eight thousand characters of Chinese type which Yuen was able to borrow in her completion of Ho Sun Hing Printers.

Marlene Yuen, Ho Sun Hing Printers. Printed in collaboration with Moniker Press riso studio. Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! installation shot.Image by Dennis Ha courtesy of grunt gallery.

Yuen is a printmaker and comic artist, mediums that can be difficult to translate into physical spaces. grunt pulls it off by highlighting Yuen’s cheeky storytelling through a series of largescale comic posters, each one narrating the life and labour of a Chinese-Canadian. There’s Stewart Wong the begrudging restaurant owner, who ran Public Lunch Cafe in Olds, Alberta for nearly 30 years, Jean Lumb, the celebrated entrepreneur and activist working in Toronto’s Chinatown and John Woo, the dedicated launderer in Hamilton, Ontario. With storytelling that exists within the pictures as much as words, the linework is thick and distinct. Backgrounds of black juxtapose the simple outlines of the people featured. The overall impact is heavy, burdensome like the hours these Chinese-Canadians laboured to run their businesses. Still, emotion is conveyed easily throughout the poster boards. A frowny faced plate of bacon and eggs echoes Wong’s misery of having to wake early to run a restaurant he didn’t want. Lumb’s armfuls of children outlined in a rigid, jagged edge depict her dedication to a large, and perhaps chaotic, family. A clothesline of various outfits, including judicial robes and football jerseys, communicates the impact that Woo’s laundry company had on his community.

Marlene Yuen. Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! installation shot. Image by Dennis Ha courtesy of grunt gallery.

Accompanying these black and white pieces on opposing walls are two cheerfully screenprinted accordion books stretched out in a display case. Here, we find the colourful biographies of Mary Ko Bong, a military mechanic and watchmaker, and Cheng Foo, a railroad worker. Leafing through the display copy of Ho Sun Hing Printers the beauty of letterpress radiates. Yuen’s artistry occurs in the composition and patterning of the images as they dance their way across the pages. Weaving between a quick history of Ho Sung Hing Co. and an interview with the last owner of the print shop, Norman Lam, the effect is ethereal while grounding. The book emits a sense of timelessness with its spellbinding pull that causes me to lose myself as I become aware of the history these pages preserve. Through the prints, the importance of these woodblocks and their specific purpose within the Chinatown community is highlighted. Slanted rows of Lanxiang Snow Chrysanthemum tea parade across a lavender page. On soft seafoam, waves of a pictorial guide to using chopsticks flow in three straight columns. Prior to the interview with Lam, we are treated to a photograph of a heavy-looking chase prepped for printing. The English text reads, “SECOND BEAUTY SALON” in reverse.

Utility is the backbone of this work. Ho Sun Hing Printers uplifts tools formerly of the everyday into art. Within the art book, the prints from these blocks are displayed as graceful facsimiles but through the translation, their importance as tools rings clear—these blocks, although beautiful, were acquired to serve and support the Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver. When Ho Sun Hing Printers closed, due to the combined impacts of the digital age and gentrification, Chinatown lost a part of its charm.

Yuen’s work is a consistent endeavour to document the history of Chinese-Canadians, specifically their labour and dedication. Through the profiling of these business owners, she manages to capture both the sweet and the sweaty moments of a fading history. Yuen celebrates this value of industriousness, a trait that is clearly evident in her own practice. The hard work pays off—Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! is as captivating as it is informative, a true celebration.

Adrienne Crossman: Fake Childhood, No Future

Adrienne Crossman. Lavender Culture. digital render, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.

By Adi Berardini

CW: Brief mention of transphobic/homophobic media tropes; discussion of LGBTQ+ suicide

When my friends had discovered that I had never seen But I’m a Cheerleader, they were appalled and assigned the film to me as queer culture homework. After watching it, I could tell why—I had never seen a feature film that distinctly depicted the experience of being femme before. The protagonist Megan is a stereotypical blonde cheerleader; however, she doesn’t realize that the Melissa Etheridge poster in her room, not being that into her boyfriend, and checking out other women, points to the fact that she is a lesbian. Although with a light-hearted approach, the film, with its campy, John-Waters-like, pink and turquoise aesthetic, depicts her condemnation to a conversion camp where she learns the ‘how-tos’ about heterosexuality and gender roles. Any attempt to brainwash Megan into straightness dramatically fails, and (spoiler alert) she falls for the dreamy rebel, Graham. It’s no surprise that the film has now become a cult classic within the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also no surprise to me that I was late to learn about this film since I didn’t fully come to terms with being queer until early adulthood, and like Megan, I think my friends picked up on my queerness first. Although not to be mixed up with confusion, it’s more like a lack of realization as a result of under-representation and erasure.

Often referencing cult-classic films such as But I’m a Cheerleader, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and curator Adrienne Crossman both unpacks and reclaims the ambiguity of queer culture, in a heteronormative society that struggles to acknowledge and accept queerness. They are interested in critically analyzing how media largely depicts queerness as either “abhorrent or invisible,” with reference to what Adrienne Rich calls compulsory heterosexuality, the idea that heterosexuality is assumed and enforced by a patriarchal society.[1] Further, Crossman is interested in how the potential of queerness can provide space for exploration beyond rigid binaries and gender roles. They reference how popular childhood characters, such as SpongeBob or Furby, have queerness built into their creation or storylines but were protested by religious groups due to a sense of “moralism” and “protection” of children. As a result, these pop culture figures are often reclaimed or named by the community as signifiers of queer identity.


Crossman’s work heavily points towards queer iconography itself, whether it’s a virtual projection of a neon sign reading ‘lavender culture’ or felt pennants reading ‘Silence=Death’ reminiscent of the posters of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Just as the edited volume Lavender Culture attempts to explore, the neon sign had me thinking what I am always asking myself while doing a project like Femme Art Review—what exactly is lavender culture? The introduction to the book notes how more mainstream culture is influenced by queer culture, yet there’s a failure to name this influence due to homophobia.[2] However, Crossman is more interested in establishing a queer sensibility, or perhaps a shared frame of reference, than defining queer culture, recognizing that queer experiences are intersectional and widely differ. Although without this sense of shared understanding and reference, it can create a sense of isolation within being queer, especially when aspects of queer history remain in the background yet still influences our lives today. For example, the trauma of the 1980s/90s HIV/AIDS crisis that perpetuated, and still perpetuates, stigma towards queerness due to the homophobic media coverage and lack of government response due to conservatism. The Lavender Culture sign is digitally rendered instead a physical object in space, which speaks to the intangibility of lesbian culture often existing on the fringes of LGBTQ+ narratives.

Adrienne Crossman. Queer Still Life, digital render, 2016, courtesy of the artist.

In addition, Crossman is interested in challenging the binary of the real versus artificial, or fiction and reality. They form a 3D rendered stack of queer theory books as a still life, including a Furby and a Tamagotchi, that subversively reads an Audre Lorde quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[3]  They explore their relationship to these objects and texts, and the power structures that Lorde references in the quote, the force of the white, cis-heteronormative patriarchy that leaves little room for queer expression, particularly for racialized queer people. Crossman has a distinctly digital way of working to subvert the binary of digital and real, rendering in 3D, then casting in aluminum, then back to the digital plane, in order to transcend these binaries and fixed categories. They define these objects, such as Tamagotchis and Furbies, as “relational artifacts” that possess a sense of queer affect and intimacy.[4] The Furby symbolizes the potential for queerness since they are objects undefined by gender or race. Crossman also explores how certain technologies, like the beloved 90s toy Tamagotchi, require human care and attention as a way to exist out outside of the binary of real and fake.

There’s also a lack of representation of outwardly queer women and Non-binary/Trans characters in television and media which perpetuates this sense of isolation and erasure. There’s the obvious L-Word, or Orange is the New Black, however the lack of media representation from our own perspective haunts us with the misunderstanding of our own identities (and other people misunderstanding them, too). Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies carried a women’s handbag, potentially signalling his gayness and gender non-conformity, which was made out to be blasphemy. The original L-Word misconstrued Trans men as violent. Orange is the New Black has representation of queer and Trans women, yet in the setting of a women’s prison. How do we come to terms with queer identity when it’s not depicted at all, or if so, so inaccurately; being fetishized and sexualized, or being made out to be monstrous or criminal? The lack of queer media representations often leads to depictions that are able-bodied, cis-gender and white, which are deemed more ‘palatable’ under the male gaze and white supremacy. The erasure of queer experiences in pop culture and media ultimately contributes to the erasure of us.

Adrienne Crossman. Exist, video still, 2019, courtesy of the artist.

For this reason, the words I see depicted on Adrienne’s ankle tattoo of a flag reading ‘EXIST,’ and their leg tattoo spelling out ‘NO FUTURE’ in their film Exist, hit me hard. In the film, they tattoo their own ankle with a version of their artwork to address that being queer is an act of resistance in a heteronormative society, providing a new queer orientation.[5] The words of their one tattoo are in reference to the queer theory text No Future by Lee Edelman in which he challenges the archetype of the child symbolizing future and innocence, positioning the embodiment of queerness as anti-social and future-negating.[6] The self-inflicted pain of their stick and poke tattoo reflects the pain queer people experience, a pain that is often left undiscussed or brushed over. To ‘exist’ is to live under adverse conditions—it’s exhausting being labelled as resilient or strong in a world that so often deems queer as “abnormal.” The lack of the reflection of our experiences and the way that queer identity is depicted as too taboo to explicitly address in film and television, re-upholds the belief that it’s morally wrong for us to authentically exist as ourselves. This framework of thinking is so often why we internalize homophobia, it contributes to feeling ashamed to be who we are, and why we lose lives in the queer community to suicide. Countering this, the flag that reads ‘EXIST’ reaffirms that existing in a heteronormative regime is an act or resistance in itself for queer and marginalized folx. The flag signals a sense of protest, pride, and celebration, counteracting the sense of shame these harmful ideologies perpetuate. The film is a meditation that affirms that you are enough—you’re more than enough.

Adrienne Crossman, Heaven is a Place on Earth install shot, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

The title of Crossman’s 2019 exhibition Heaven is a Place on Earth at Patel Projects is not only in reference to the Belinda Carlisle song, but the Black Mirror episode, San Junipero. In this modern cult classic, the shy Yorkie, eventually meets the uninhibited Kelly, a soulmate connection that encourages her to let go. With its 1980s bisexual colour scheme, the episode details their relationship, including hookups in a beach house and convertible rides along the shoreline. Although, (another spoiler alert) the episode becomes a utopia within a broader dystopia—the couple is in a simulation that the dead can live in and the elderly can visit as part of immersive nostalgia therapy. In reality, their lives were much more plagued by hurt and pain. Trans and bi activist and scholar Julia Serano theorizes that the “bi” prefix of bisexuality is not between two genders, but of two worlds—navigating one of heterosexuality and one of queerness.[7] Although she was happily married to a man, Kelly, who is bisexual, feels the grasp of compulsory heterosexuality and never acted upon her desire for women during her lifetime. Yorkie was also never able to act on desire since she was brought up in a highly religious family. The episode uses imagined reality to create an alternate space, one that’s not confined by fear or repression, but love and connection that moves beyond gender and racial boundaries. In Heaven is a Place on Earth, Crossman references Toronto queer spots like the Henhouse bar, addressing how spaces that formed a sense of queer community are vastly disappearing at the hands of capitalism and gentrification. Crossman also subverts the rainbow ‘Cocksucker’ matchbox in But I’m a Cheerleader to the ‘Henhouse’ reflecting on how LGBTQ+ spaces often center cisgender gay men, perpetuating lesbian, bisexual and trans erasure. The necessary physical spaces also disappear, leaving little room for queer connection.

Adrienne Crossman. Dystopia, neon sign, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

All too reflective of the current moment, Crossman forms neon signs reading ‘dystopia’ and ‘utopia’ in Heaven is a Place on Earth. This touches upon utopia and queer futurity (the concept that queerness exists in a futuristic potentiality) with such reference to Cruising Utopia by José Esteban-Munoz, and how it’s necessary to form a sense of political imagination, particularly for queer people of colour.[8] The etymology of the word utopia is ou-topos or ‘no place,’ which is a void that queerness knows well—neither here nor there—but a space of infinite in-between. And with this potential ambiguity or space for liminality, endless possibilities beyond binaries emerge.

Additionally, Crossman co-runs an online publication called Off Centre with artist Luke Maddaford, which covers art exhibitions that exist outside of metropolitan city centres. In my own experience in London, Ontario, a mid-size, conservative city, my queer friends and I create small pockets of utopia in order to counter the outsider feeling of living in a city filled with frat bros and toxic masculinity (a personal dystopia). In the midst of a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests standing up to the injustices of a white supremacist police state, things seem rather dystopic. However, there’s an importance of having a sense of hope and collaboratively working towards a goal of a better future. An imagined place, a utopia, where everything is perfect may seem overly naïve, but demanding that queer identities are seen as valid and that our humanity is recognized should not be too much to ask.

Adrienne Crossman. Utopia, neon sign, 2019, photo by Polina Teif.

But I’m a Cheerleader likely resonated with young queer people since it was written and directed by Jamie Babbit, a queer director—the fact that so many saw their experience reflected back to them is meaningful when LGBTQ+ experiences are often erased and ignored. Crossman references visual imagery, from pop culture and cult-classics, to ground a sense of unity, countering how queer identities become fragmented due to erasure both in the mainstream media and in physical space. They refuse to let queer culture fade into an un-defined background by reclaiming it through the assertion that, try as you might to erase us, we’re here and we’re queer.


[1] Rich, Adrienne (1980). “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 631–660.

[2] Ed. Jay, Karla. Lavender Culture. NYU Press. 1994.

[3]Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

[4] Relational artifacts, also known as sociable robots, was coined by Sherry Turkle. Crossman speaks more to this in their artist talk as part of Art Intersections Meetup found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55PlIb5fHlY

[5] From Crossman’s description of Exist for Barbed Mag. https://barbedmagazine.com/Beyond-Measure-A-Performance-Art-Survey-in-Metro-Detroit-and-Windsor Likely in reference to Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke UP, (2006).

[6] Edelman, Lee. No Future. Duke University Press. 2004.

[7] Serano, Julia. “Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited.” 2012. http://juliaserano.blogspot.com/2012/11/bisexuality-and-binaries-revisited.html

[8] Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.