Today, a number of artists are transcending disciplinary boundaries in their work, shattering aesthetic values and grafting them onto social values, nourished by external viewpoints and by discourses that diverge from those that have dominated art history and sites of cultural legitimization. Indeed, we no longer think necessarily of the figure of the artist alone in the studio; rather, we imagine groups of people, rooted in communities, who engage in dialogue and address socio-political issues through art making. Examples include artists, with or without a common practice, who share a studio; researchers in the humanities, social sciences, healthcare, and museology who broaden the horizons of art; independent curators who contribute to artists’ reflections and produce new discourses through their curatorial activities, both inside and outside the institution; cultural mediators encouraging and facilitating conversations around art; and audiences and individuals to whom we are trying to listen more – so that they can be not only better served but also better represented through and integrated into cultural activities. In this context, working methods, approaches, and ways of disseminating art, or even sharing it, are being disrupted. Although inclusive and collaborative processes inspire many artists, much thought is also being given to the notion of care, which, according to Joan Tronto, can be divided into four moments: “caring about,” “taking care of,” “care-giving,” and “care-receiving.”1
I discussed the subject with Annie Wong, Curator of Programming and Public Engagement at Gallery TPW, in Toronto.
Sarah Turcotte – I founded the Projet commun organization to experiment with collaborative development in the arts and culture. This initiative allows us to reflect on organizational structures, the idea of community, and the place of each individual in the art environment. I often present the organization as an experimental and evolving device, as it involves a search for ways to value and implement the commons in the arts. But it’s a challenging process. There are also undoubtedly many expressions of the commons. That is why this research is ongoing and evolving. How do the ideas of collaboration and the commons resonate with you? Are they integrated into the activities and structure of Gallery TPW, or even into your own art practice?
Annie Wong – I had the pleasure of thinking about the concept of the commons during a panel discussion with Rinaldo Walcott; he imagines a “return to a renewed commons,”2 which is shared and equitable access to resources and new technologies that shape contemporary human life. He evokes this proposition as an abolitionist address to the racial capitalism and hyper-individualism that underpins white supremist society. In the context of the arts, I like to imagine a commons forming in the relationships among artists, artworkers, and collectives building informal systems of support to intentionally address the systemic exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and non-white bodies in the arts. A symposium organized by Gallery TPW last summer, we are what we care for, explored this by inviting two collectives, Guidance Council (Alexandra Hong and Peter Rahul) and Souped Up! (Geneviève Wallen and Marsya Maharani), to host dinners exclusive to BIPOC community members. Involving cooking, gossiping, feasting, and cleaning together, the dinner series provided moments of non-productive artmaking that gave shape to a kind of commonsthat occurs when we take the time to care for each other. I guess you could consider that kind of collaboration too.
ST – Currently, there seems to be quite a bit of enthusiasm around the idea of care in the cultural environment. With the Groupe de recherche sur l’éducation et les musées at UQAM, I recently worked on an evaluation project at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in which the notion was mobilized to analyze the uses and benefits of a mediation tool developed for people living with an autism spectrum disorder. During the study, we reflected not only on the sensitivity that must be developed regarding the realities and needs of neuroatypical people, but also on what contributes – or not – to the well-being of the staff responsible for providing a museum experience to these people. The subject was also addressed during We are what we care for. Can you tell me more about it?
AW – As a small artist-run centre, we are always asking how we can centre accessibility and disability culture, while also asking about how we care for our staff. A central question in the symposium was, how can we tend to our labour less like machines, and more like gardens? We were fortunate to have the staff of Tangled Art + Disability give a panel discussion on how they use “access riders” as a way to explicitly communicate their access needs. These can take the form of a formal document, a check-in, or ongoing conversations. A story that resonated with me during the discussion came from a Tangled employee who said that one of her access needs was for someone to watch her eat. She explained that she is unable to break her attention from prioritized tasks and will often forget to eat or not fully finish a meal and, as a result, become fatigued. I can relate to this through the difficulty of sometimes not recognizing what I need at a moment until I am cared for by another person. What is powerful about access riders as an organizational tool is that they centre conversations about our needs and the needs of those we work with from the start, when it is so often an afterthought.
ST–In art circles concerned with care or with inclusive and collaborative practices, it’s interesting to think about the dissemination aspect and everything that surrounds it. Do we present art, or do we share it? Do we collectively exchange around plural, even indefinite, art practices, or do we co-create in the context of common and open spaces? Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker evoked the idea of a “non-linear museum,”3 which ties in with the orchestral theory of communication (Palo Alto School) in which every element in a situation, present or absent, participates in the elaboration of the discourse that emanates from it4. The symposium, which took place in a specific, evocative context, focused on this very issue. Can you tell me about the environment in which the conversations took place?
AW – It was important to consider the spatial environment for which ideas, people, and conversations about care would sit. We decided to host the symposium in our gallery and worked with Rihab Essayh to transform the spaces. Inspired by memories of Moroccan markets at dusk, in the main room she created a large architectural installation made of several panels of pastel chiffon that draped from the ceiling to the floor. In the smaller gallery, she also created a cosy space with bean bags and a sound installation where visitors could to rest, nap, and take breaks when needed. I was excited to work with Rihab, who also thinks deeply about radical softness and the conditions for empathy through the built environment. Her installations operate as these incredible containers for memories, sunsets, and friendships. It was a bit magical how it all came together thematically, and a real pleasure to work with Rihab, who herself is a bit of a magical being.
ST – Some modes of dissemination and approaches to mediation, and art, curatorial, and museum practices advocate for social justice today, but we are also witnessing the presence of a softened form of commitment, even of socialwashing. Large Western institutions, in particular, have undergone considerable transformations in recent decades, adopting a business-like model in the wake of declining public funding. “Social innovation,” as conceived at Saint Paul University by researchers from the École d’innovation sociale Élisabeth-Bruyère,5 enables significant initiatives to be developed, although the ideas behind them may be utopian. How does one escape this utopia in the art environment? Is it more feasible to take up the challenge in a small organization such as Gallery TPW? Is it possible to get beyond these seemingly fallacious devices in the cultural ecosystem of current Canadian society?
AW – A line that lives rent-free in my mind is a quote from iLiana Fokianaki: “We must move from institutional critique to institutional transformation.”6 This is a very utopian idea, but it gives me hope. While I’m adverse to utopian claims, especially when they lead to the co-option of social justice initiatives, I feel that we do need the time and space to collectively dream, learn, and hold ourselves accountable. In the last few years, when TPW was being rebuilt by Heather Rigg, Noa Bronstein, and myself, we talked a lot about the potential for horizontal power relationships, the value of artistic processes and relationship building over deliverables, and other ideas about what an artist-run centre can be. Some things were very difficult to realize, some things did not go as planned, and some things went very well. I think there is value on taking risks on big ideas and seeing where they land.
1 Joan Tronto, “Care,” in Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for the Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 1993), 106.
2 The panel discussion, titled “A Note on Process: Public Art,” with Amy Lam, Rinaldo Walcott, and Jesse McKee, moderated by Heather Rigg and Annie Wong (21 June 2022), can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgZt3-y3oRA.
3 Marshall McLuhan, Harley Parker, and Jacques Barzun, Le musée non linéaire : Exploration des méthodes, moyens et valeurs de la communication avec le public par le musée (Lyon: ALÉAS Éditeurs, 2008).
4 Gregory Batesonand et Yves Winkin, La nouvelle communication (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2000).
5 Julie Châteauvert et al., Manuel pour changer le monde (Montréal: Lux Éditeur, 2020).
6 iLiana Fokianaki, “The Bureau of Care: Introductory Notes on the Care-less and Care-full”, e-flux Journal, 113 (November 2020), en ligne, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/113/359463/the-bureau-of-care-introductory-notes-on-the-care-less-and-care-full/.
The French translation of this article is also published in the 273 issue of Vie des arts – Winter 2024 and can be consulted here.