Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hannah Black at the Toronto Art Book Fair

“...[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. ~ Hannah Black

This year, the Toronto Art Book Fair was introduced as part of Art Toronto (October 28-31). I attended the opening day strictly to hear Berlin-based artist and writer, Hannah Black, present as part of the PLATFORM lecture series co-hosted by Art Metropole and C Magazine.

In the image shown here, Black is speaking about astrology to a standing-room-only audience. She noted that she’s a Libra rising, and that the “Libra-Aries axis is kind of Self/Other.” This comment caught my attention because I happen to be an Aries. Although I don’t prescribe to astrology, I bought into this contrast immediately: Black’s mind operates at a rapid clip, evidenced by her swift movement between diverse topics like Canada’s birth chart, magic, robots, and Brexit; my mind operates at a glacial rate in comparison. C Magazine editor Amish Morrell observed at the end of Black’s whirlwind presentation that he was struck by her pace, which she revealed was due in part to a generous amount of caffeine.

Several minutes into the event, her pace became a contentious issue. An audience member in the front row asked if she could slow down. Unequivocally, Black clarified that the speed of her delivery was at her discretion. When the audience member persisted, she declined again. She continued her presentation only briefly before pausing, obviously affected; she then described the interruption as “[adjectival expletive] rude,” prompting applause from the majority of the audience. I could gloss over whether or not I joined in, but I think it’s more constructive to share that I did not, feeling as I did like a deer in headlights--or moose in headlights to draw a link to my last post. Aware that inaction and complicity are comfortable bedfellows, I would like to take this opportunity to explore my ambivalence. This is in the spirit of Black stating during the Q&A in relation to identity politics, “[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. By analysing why I felt awkward, in no way do I mean to minimize the awkwardness or any number of emotions that Black may have felt from the interruption. At the heart of the matter for me is that the power dynamic between artist and audience in a lecture-performance—which is liberated from the power dynamic between a speaker and audience in a traditional lecture and which often embraces conflict (1)—intersected with the power dynamic of race relations.

Before being interrupted, Black, a self-described mixed black person raised by teachers, had just been speaking about the working class (she shared an anecdote about a white audience member asking about the relatability of her writing to the working class, during a talk at her alma mater, Goldsmith’s, University of London). As a result, my mind went to an article by Holly Baxter in The Independent (2) that had been circulating over social media earlier that week about respecting the way working class women speak, which underscored the gendered element of the situation in question. Simultaneously, I was reminded of Chelsea Bourget, a recent graduate from the art department in which I teach. A Francophone First Nations artist, she strikes me as a kindred spirit of Black’s—quick-witted, articulate, and known for a layering of complex ideas. What I thought of specifically was a film that Bourget showed in the BFA graduate exhibition, in which she chose to have a male speaker with an alluring low voice narrate her ideas at a noticeably slower pace than her own. The difference here is that the switch was self-motivated. In light of these considerations, I was cognizant that the request to speak a certain way, although seemingly innocuous, could be interpreted as a form of marginalization when made by a white person, as was the case at the Art Book Fair. The request could be seen as pressure to avoid what Black would later describe as “deviation from the white male mean.” Relatedly, during the Q&A, she shared that in Germany, where there are “a lot of politics around race,” she has been mistaken for a rapper simply because of her rhythmic way of speaking.

It was unclear whether the applause was an act of public shaming of the audience member, of solidarity with the speaker, or both. If this situation had occurred in a classroom, ideally the initial interruption would have evolved into a more nuanced teachable moment. One could argue that it’s not the speaker’s role or even the co-hosts’ role to take this on, but without that discussion, increased awareness is unlikely; as Baxter notes, “not everyone has been given the tools to educate themselves” (3). The complication is that Black’s delivery has a performative quality, which Black alluded to by saying that the talk wouldn’t be the same if she were to slow down. Thus, stopping for a nuanced discussion would have been ill-timed. Perhaps if the presentation had been billed as a lecture-performance rather than a lecture, the importance of artistic freedom would have been more apparent. Different social situations call for different codes of conduct. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to interrupt a theatrical performance to ask the actors to slow down. And when fast-talking, ad-libbing Robin Williams was a guest star on the show, Inside the Actor’s Studio, instead of asking the actor to pace himself, they let the camera roll for five hours and doubled the allotted airtime in what’s reportedly the most requested episode from all 21 seasons. To bring the discussion of artistic freedom back to visual art, the combination of art and lecturing has a history of disruption; pioneering artist-lecturer Joseph Beuys encountered volatile confrontation (not to say that’s desirable, but ‘radical’ and ‘provocative’ are hardly mutually exclusive traits). The term ‘lecture’ may have caused certain expectations, since the academic environment—the setting most associated with lectures—is now stretching to accommodate diverse learning styles (for example, students can request note-takers or audio recordings so content can be reviewed afterwards). So, a more fitting term for marketing purposes would have been ‘lecture-performance,’ in which lecturing takes on a central role in artistic practice and the artist may riff on and subvert the traditional lecture model (4). It would also be more fitting of Black’s work; her MFA was in Art Writing with “writing as a mode of art practice” (5).

Further thoughts on adjusting expectations follow. Admittedly, part of me hoped that Black would consider adjusting her pace, as I had hoped to write about the substance of her talk. I strained to keep up while trying to avoid being distracted by the murmuring sounds of approval from my seatmate that exemplify what de Vientri describes as a quality of “charismatic mesmerisation” seen in the lecture-performances of artists like Beuys (6). A loanword I learned a few days later warrants mention: the German term, ‘Sitzfleisch,’ came into use during the 19th Century to refer to an audience member’s intense concentration while sitting absolutely still at a musical performance for the purpose of earnest self-edification (7). Had I known this term, I would have sent Sitzfleisch vibes to my seatmate instead of half-smiling with my head occasionally turned sideways to give acknowledgement and withhold offense. Maybe I am envious of Black’s directness and am bothered by the fact that I do little to counteract stereotypes of Canadian politeness.

The fact that Black referred to her notes throughout likely enhanced her pace, energizing her performance, but it didn’t lend itself to note-taking by the audience. However, de Vientri observes that “…the lecture-performance can present shards, fragments, suggestions and contradictions; a bricolage of stories that incite collective thinking rather than passing knowledge from source to receptacle[,]” (8) and taking comprehensive notes would have made me a proverbial receptacle. Black, with her “little exhaustions of words together,” spoke in a manner that was almost stream of consciousness, akin to poetry. Even direct quotations that I managed to record, such as “I forgot that sex doesn’t need cutlery,” don’t lend themselves to being excerpted. They lose meaning when decontextualized, when taken from the original constellation of ideas. To the best of my recollection, this surreal comment about sex and cutlery related to dream-like thoughts, which causes me to wonder if it is unsuitable to pin down something ephemeral with Aries-like structure. It’s telling that Black professed, “Writing should be disposable” and admitted, “I hate posterity,” when recognizing the irony of being a book author. She also revealed that her manner of speaking is a protective strategy—effectively, if no one can quote you on something, no one can call you on it either. This seems to minimize the radical nature of her work (an example of a radical perspective is Black stating, “We must get rid of cops, prisons, husbands, and landlords”). Then again, in mid-October, Black tweeted, “protective mantra: im [sic] always only really talking to myself (9),” which adds another dimension to the comment.

Enough with delaying! I promised that I would hold myself to account by engaging in self-critique. Black noted that “…the periphery can only become real by divesting itself of its centre.” More powerful phrasing I cannot imagine, but what I can imagine is the centre participating in its own divestment (having spent a large part of the summer reading and rereading the writing of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who implored men to play a role in their own demise). At any rate, the week after Black’s talk I decided to read Frances E. Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege (2013, Routledge). The author recommends identifying and reflecting on key moments in one’s life that have reinforced white privilege and racism, an exercise that reminded me of Black saying, “You cannot go around; you must go through.” Sharing with my husband my first memory of race relations brought about feelings of shame, but since I was around five years old at the time, my adult self could forgive my child self. The second memory is from the end of elementary school, when I should have known better. Coincidentally, it relates to the title of Black’s book, Dark Pool Party (Dominica & Arcadia Missa, 2016), so I’ll share it instead. A friend of a friend commented that she wouldn’t want to go swimming with the one student of colour in our class, because she thought he was dirty. Gobsmacked, I said nothing. Later, I raised the issue with my friend, who explained that the girl’s father’s beliefs were likely being reflected. Working through this exercise helped me to recognize a pattern: like the confrontation during Black’s presentation, once again, in the moment, I did nothing. I might derive some pleasure from the realization that I set out to gain perspective even at a young age, but ultimately, I let the friend of a friend off the hook. And why? Because she wasn’t my friend, so it wasn’t my place? Because she was repeating someone else’s racism? Racism is learned and everyone shares a responsibility to combat it, making non-response reprehensible. Kendall writes, “Allies expect to make some mistakes but do not use that as an excuse for inaction” (10). It’s a timely reminder: in the wake of the US election, the call to action in supporting vulnerable people is resounding on social media.

By its very nature, challenging oneself is never easy, whether it’s confronting white privilege or learning about the subtle difference between a lecture and a lecture-performance. It requires Sitzfleisch-like dedication. Since the setting for Black’s presentation was an art fair, let’s think back to the origin of the art fair. For the sake of argument let’s say it’s world fairs emerging in the mid-19th Century rather than the Salon exhibitions that preceded them. Weren’t they all about encountering the unfamiliar with the goal of advancing society? And based on that comparison, shouldn’t we reframe discomfort as rewarding?

Photo courtesy of C Magazine.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mary Sue Rankin (d. October 23, 2016), my former boss whose commitment to social justice will undoubtedly continue to be an inspiration to many.

(1) Gabrielle de Vietri, An Investigation of the Lecture in and as Art, Marash U., 2013.
(2) Holly Baxter, “If Labour Keeps Telling Working Class People They’re Saying the Wrong Thing, They’ll Start Talking to Theresa May,” The Independent, October 6, 2016.
(3) Ibid
(4) de Vientri, p. 6
(5) Chris Randle, “I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist: An Interview with Hannah Black,” Hazlitt, August 23, 2016.
(6) de Vientri, p. 38
(7) Jason Tebbe, “Twenty-First Century Victorians,” Jacobin, October 31, 2016.
(8) de Vientri, p. 39
(9) hanni b, @nanpansky, 10:10 AM, 13 Oct 2016
(10) p. 182.

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