The Perfect Storm: Public Studio in the Midst of Strange Weather

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Fri, 06/12/2020 - 09:09

By Elle Flanders, Public Studio | JHI Artists in Residence 2019-20

At the end of our fellowship with the Jackman Humanities Institute we were asked a series of questions reflecting on our time here. Like most artists, we will begin at the end and work backwards: The last question asked was if we had any advice for any artists thinking about applying for the Artist in Residence program?

Our answer is simple: “Make it a full year.” We wanted more time. More time to process our thoughts, more time to process the work of others and its relationship to our own thinking, more time to be amongst scholars becoming friends. More time to be. If we have discovered one thing this year amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, it is what time looks like slowed down. When production halts and capitalism slows, the phenomenon of time lost to mass production becomes visible. The time–space compression we have been experiencing under globalization, and the rapidity with which capitalism now moves, has left most of us barely able to keep-up. For artists it has meant moving into a production mode that is antithetical to the process of making work. The JHI provides an antidote to this time-space compression, if only for a short while.

Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

While the Jackman Humanities Institute is a venerable institution known to scholars throughout the world, it may not be the first place an artist may think of to seek a residency. In our case, we were approached by a faculty member of the arts department from the University of Toronto Scarborough. Will Kwan, who was familiar with our practice on decolonizing and the environment, thought we might be a good fit for this past year’s theme, Strange Weather. Certainly, as a previous academic and as occasional lecturers at U of T, it was a comfortable and familiar enough surrounding, but we wondered how a seminar series at the fellows’ lunches, would mesh with our studio work, would it complement it? Would we in turn have much to offer the other scholars in the humanities?

Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

If we understand it correctly, the intention of the JHI fellowship it is to offer that very elusive time to scholars and thinkers to get further into their work, to provide an opportunity free of other constraints to explore. This is what in fact every artist dreams of.

As contemporary artists we often find ourselves working in an artworld that feels exclusive and removed. While the arts and humanities are indeed a pair, contemporary art has a language of its own that can be exclusionary. As artists who strive not just to “make meaning” but to “make meaning matter,” we believe our languages and methodologies must remain in concert, accessible and informing one another.

Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

The JHI offers artists the opportunity to engage with thinkers from a variety of disciplines and vice versa. This formulation complemented our particular working methodology in allowing us to teleport through time, working with classicists, literary critics, anthropologists and cultural theorists. It brought together the strands of our practice and the opportunity to think through complex issues arising in our own work and in particular, the exhibition we were to present at the end of the fellowship.

Our work has always focused on landscape and politics and perhaps more subliminally, what has been lost under the blanket of colonial narratives. For years we documented Palestinian villages that no longer exist for example, combing the landscape with cameras, looking for the forensic materials of past inhabitation, uncovering a colonial occupation’s attempt to hide an alternate history.

What Isn't There from Public Studio on Vimeo.

 

As our home base shifted to Toronto, we thought it was important to engage in the politics of the Canadian landscape. We felt strongly that it was incumbent upon us to enact the TRC recommendations through our artistic practice. But if we were to understand the impact colonialism had on the land and its peoples, we had to learn the land. We began with a 900km walk through Ontario. We walked for fifty-seven days and over the course of that time, we invited others to walk with us in an effort to understand our environment, the climate crisis and essentially to decolonize. One walk in particular introduced us to the Chippewas of the Nawash of the Saugeen Ojibwe Nation (SON). The SON are in the midst of a land claim against the Ontario Government. Our ties to the Nawash grew over several years and it was this encounter and these materials that were to form our work at the JHI.

Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

There were many aspects of this project that required thinking through difficult issues:

  • What does it mean for two settler-colonials to take on this project? We had to make sure we were speaking from our experience and not about the Nawash; we had to dig down into the Nawash worldview in order to understand the Nawash approach to legal justice and the place of oral history in testimony
  • What were the steps the Nawash were taking to mitigate the climate change that was destroying their land and water
  • What is the Nawash worldview as it relates to climate change?
Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

We were intent on understanding these issues from our own research and demonstrating through conversations what we had learned, but we also felt if those positions were to be put out in the public, they were best represented by members of the band, not us. Therefore, we invited an artist from the Nawash to collaborate with us to extend that view to the public. The result of our time at the JHI was an exhibition called This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing by us, Public Studio, and Nyle Miigizi Johnston.

Still image from "This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing" exhibition
Still from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

As artists we hope our work resonates as nuanced sparks or provocations – we hope to allow the public to see small corners or pockets they may have overlooked or not noticed before. Without walking the land, we would not have seen the autonomous parts that create the whole, our environment. We would not have walked with Indigenous artists talking about land acknowledgements, we would not have met the SON, we would not have witnessed the disappearance of the whitefish in Georgian Bay, we would not have seen climate change.

Image by Nyle “Miigizi” Johnston outside the gallery
Mural by Nyle “Miigizi” Johnston from This Place, Neyaashiinigmiing. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, Courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, 2020.

 

If it were not for our time at the JHI and the many conversations with the other fellows, we would not have had a platform to show you what we saw. So, yes, this is an artist residency well worth exploring.

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