Making it Work / Shifty Consent: Living in 10 Easy Lessons

Image Credit: Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone, Living in 10 Easy Lessons (2012). Installation shot. Image courtesy of Gallery 44.

By Maiko Tanaka

This FUSE article from issue 36-2 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

Making it Work

Through this column, I will document the particular economies of contemporary art that emerge through the discursive events that accompany and supplement exhibitions, curatorial projects and other mainstage productions. For many public art institutions, the presentation of workshops, roundtables, artists’ talks and the like is a mandated activity, one that is also crucial in terms of securing public funding. Despite the predominance of these activities, they are unevenly documented and hardly ever assessed critically. With this column, my task is to engage critically with the economies of attention, care and reproduction that are manifested through public programming. Discursive events are often expected to perform a buffering or recuperative action — to educate, create dialogue or mediate conflict. Through responses to specific programmed events, I will endeavor to activate useful concepts, images and actions that can lead towards creating a new vocabulary of solidarity between actors who are entangled in these economies.

Shifty Consent
Living in 10 Easy Lessons
Gallery 44 (Toronto)
26 / 10 to 01 / 12 2012

The event at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre was initially publicized as a panel discussion. However, from the beginning, it was clear that it had been modified into something less formal. There was no panel of experts on the stage but rather a circle of chairs implying that the invited speakers would be mingling with the audience. Another change was the addition of a third-party facilitator, who opened up the event with a request for the audience to participate from a place of respect. She also had us all take a minute to speak to the person on our left and right about our own expectations and hopes for the event — a moment that turned out very useful for me as I began to understand why there was so much tension in the room. Despite these efforts to open up a horizontal scenario for participation, the event seemed destined from the start to turn into a highly polarized discussion. Clearly there were participants who arrived with their minds set on condemning the socially engaged artwork in question, which had apparently crossed some ethical lines.

Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone, "Living in 10 Easy Lessons" (2012). Installation shot at Gallery 44. Image courtesy of Gallery 44.

Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone, “Living in 10 Easy Lessons” (2012). Installation shot at Gallery 44. Image courtesy of Gallery 44.

The concerns arose from a controversial exhibition featuring new work by artists Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone, Living in 10 Easy Lessons, exhibited at Gallery 44 (26 October–1 December 2012). A series of videos, posters and educational booklets depict the artists being instructed on everyday life by ten “street-involved” workers, on skills such as doing good business as a freelance drug dealer, faking sex with a client and panhandling etiquette. The controversy centred on the capability of the workers to give informed consent. The artists, along with the programmers of Gallery 44, and even the representatives from Ryerson University’s Masters of Social Work who co-presented the programme, were all targets of critique, and the condemnations came from various members of the social work community, as well as the press and general public. The debate around the exhibition featured critical questions that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the recent history of socially engaged art practice: Had the artists taken advantage of the workers’ vulnerable material and legal realities? Was the knowledge produced from the work gained at the expense of the safety of the workers? The panel discussion had been planned in order to draw out the debate, and perhaps dispel some of the tensions around the work. Unfortunately, the instructors from the videos were not present to give their position on the matter, as they had earlier that day opted out of participating.

The motivation behind outreach programming in the context of publically funded artist-run culture in Canada is to enhance accessibility to exhibitions and other core productions by educating publics and reaching new audiences. This trend is reflected in the aspects of Gallery 44’s mandate, which emphasizes maintaining an accessible, open space of exchange and dialogue. In relation to the programme for Living in 10 Easy Lessons, Gallery 44 director Lise Beaudry shared that the aim was to provide a space for concerned communities to address “what the exhibition proposed: to critically disrupt social assumptions and challenge us to question.”[1] Asking questions and disrupting assumptions is standard fare and a commonly accepted and reproduced ambition in the public sector of contemporary art. There is value in these practices of outreach in themselves, but when taken for granted as a standard, we risk missing out on the need to respond differently to other, more urgent, matters.

Does focusing on the questions proposed by this exhibition mean overlooking its claims? Embedded in Kingstone and Duvall’s work are the strong claims that the instructors featured in the videos do in fact have the ability to give consent, that they can consent to sharing their knowledge, and that the very fact of this sharing affirms the value of this knowledge. These claims and affirmations are evident through the materials and process of the artwork, and are supported by the Adelaide Resource Centre for Women, the community centre that mediated the artists’ interactions with the instructors. Despite their clarity, these claims were undermined in the programming of an event that failed to acknowledge them, thus losing out on an opportunity to develop a critique consistent with the strength of the artwork’s most challenging claims. What can we make of those claims put forth and retracted? Of the consent given, refused and still shifting?

In reading the exhibition text (a critical response from independent curator and writer cheyanne turions) and talking to the artists, one quickly learns about the efforts made to foster dialogue and consent during the making of the work. These included the very pivotal support of the Adelaide Resource Centre for Women. The artists worked with the centre to frame the instructors’ participation in the project so that each of them could each make a decision based on full, prior and informed consent.

During the public programming, it was revealed that although the instructors signed consent forms for the use of their images in exhibition material, objections arose as the poster series, which distilled scenes and quotes from the lessons, hit the streets in the neighbourhoods of the instructors. One of them objected to the specific image used, and despite the signed consent form, she managed to renegotiate the image with the artists, and was able to change the text into something they all felt more comfortable with. In this sense, consent was negotiated in varying degrees at different moments in the project. Not only was informed consent possible for the workers, but this case also demonstrated a position of agency by being able to contribute to critical matters of politics — the framing of their representation and making a difference in the artwork’s outcome.

The exhibition work itself represents scenes or expresses moments when the agency of the instructors themselves is quite evident, as can be seen, for instance, in the non-hierarchical videos featuring conversational Q&A sessions with the instructors. Consistent throughout all ten videos is a shot of either Duvall or Kingstone sitting side by side with one of the instructors, the seating arrangement signifying reciprocity or equity between parties. There are clues in the performative execution of the works as well. It becomes obvious in the videos that the questions were prepared beforehand, but the instructors are also clearly speaking from their own experiences, in their own words, sometimes even ignoring the format of the question and answering on their own terms.

Furthermore, the artists’ responses to each lesson are measured and calm, as demonstrated by their facial expressions and the genuine curiosity in their voices. The tone is consistent throughout all the videos, just as one would expect from a reaction to everyday living skills, no more special or shocking than other, less socially stigmatized skills. Rather than affirming outright the value of their knowledge, this consistent response helps destabilize the notion that the artists are providing some kind of service to the instructors via a legitimization of the knowledge they offer.

While these aspects of the work and process may support the agency of the instructors and redeem the artwork in some way, there are nonetheless certain flaws that should be acknowledged. Perhaps these can be best framed through the questions: Who is asking the questions, who is controlling the means of presentation, and who benefits in the end? For example, although set up to play off the archetypal student/teacher dynamic where the artist asks the worker to impart their knowledge for their own benefit, the former in fact has all the power in the presentation of this knowledge.

Also, by critically asking who asks the questions, we confront a hierarchy of knowledge, with serious implications for those giving the answers. When the instructors impart knowledge required for their street-work, they are simultaneously revealing the impact of the gendered, material and economic conditions of their work on a day-to-day basis, which are always attached to social stigma. A reciprocal revealing of the conditions of the “students” or artists does not take place.

These flaws were brought out during the public programming, particularly from the social work community. However, the potential constructiveness of these critiques was thwarted because the artists and the gallery staff were unable or unwilling to reinforce the artwork’s claims on the notion of consent. In fact, the programming actually worked to contradict and undo the strong positions that the work takes.

This resulted in creating further discrepancies between those whose knowledge was meant to be valorized and those whose knowledge was actually valorized. For example, at the beginning of the event, when asked by the facilitator what the goal of the evening was for them, Duvall said she wanted to learn, while Kingstone’s wish was to include more diversity in his community. What gets unravelled from these two statements is that learning from diversity is not an innocent endeavour, nor does it carry an automatic value. It reveals that this position is one that emphasizes questioning and learning more than providing answers — and this is made possible through the privilege that the artist affords, which is opposed not only to the street workers’ daily existence, but to social workers’ outcome-based roles. This says a lot about the differences between the material and working conditions and professional ambitions of the various workers involved. For instance, as one commentator observed during the discussion, the project may reap benefits for Ryerson’s Faculty of Social Work in terms of re-examining the nature of quantitative and qualitative research and challenging the foundations of neoliberal outcome-based education. But when it comes to the instructors themselves, as one social worker astutely pointed out, their material conditions remain intact despite the benefits their knowledge produces for other fields.

During the public programming, the reluctance of the artists to defend the claims of their artwork also paved the way for the opposing social workers to make assumptions and patronizing statements about both the artists and the instructors during the event. It was clear that an explicit recounting of all the measures the artists took to build consent would not have made a difference. In the discussion of the controversial poster campaign, the chastising of the artists went on well after Duvall’s explanation of the direct action they took to resolve the dispute with the instructors. One speaker pleaded for humility in working with such vulnerable people. “There is a lot of literature on this,” someone else added in a condescending tone. The disciplinary chauvinism these arguments engendered spoke much louder than any nuanced critique they encompassed, adding fuel to the shaming fire. Even when someone from the audience asked what the practical danger for the women being represented in the posters actually was, no one provided a thoroughly convincing response, and instead continued to resort to hearsay, scandal and moralizing to maintain their position and discredit the artistic work.

In response to an online thread on NetTime regarding the consent practices of sex work, Alessandra Renzi asks how consent informs our own lives: “Ideally, consent is not just about a yes or no, but about degrees of freedom to negotiate something, to ask questions that shape informed choices, to understand one’s own boundaries, to say ‘stop’ or ‘I changed my mind’ if necessary and, especially, to create safe spaces within which consent can be given and respected. How does consent inform our unpaid daily sex lives? And our labour lives” [2] Could this rich and politicized notion of consent ground a new position from which to counter the neutralizing and recuperative aspects of open-ended outreach mandates for artist-run centres? If anything, the definition of consent here suggests that what the instructors have been negotiating through their withdrawal and renegotiations for participation is founded less on whether they or their knowledge should be made visible or not, but rather on the degrees of consent in the framing and distribution of their knowledge and skills in various contexts. As such, their withdrawal from the public programming may have been the sharpest and most revealing intervention of all.

NOTES:

1] Email exchange with Lise Beaudry, January 2013.

[2] Alessandra Renzi, “Re: <nettime> Sex Work and Consent @transmediale” (16 February 2012; online).

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Maiko Tanaka collaborates on curatorial projects at the intersection of art, pedagogy, cultural politics and collective action. Since 2010 she has co-curated the ongoing research, exhibition and touring project “The Grand Domestic Revolution (GDR),” with Casco in Utrecht. Prior to that, Tanaka organized the international conference exhibition, “Extra-curricular: Between Art & Pedagogy,” which presented alternative structures for mobilizing radical pedagogical art practices, as part of her curatorial residency at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. She is currently an active member of the Read-in collective, participates in the Unlearning project group and serves on the Programming Committee and Board of Gendai Gallery. Tanaka is a candidate in the Masters in Visual Studies at the University of Toronto.

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