Nov 21

Danielle Nicole Smith on: privilege, positionality, and SITE-SPECIFIC

SITE-SPECIFIC: Who are you? Tell us about yourself. What are the big questions your explore through your art-making?

DANIELLE NICOLE SMITH: I’m a Drawing and Painting undergrad student in my last year at OCAD U; last year, I completed Directed Studio and took part in Grad Ex. Before transferring programs, I did two years of Graphic Design.

My work tends to focus on topics deeply personal to me, topics such as mental health and disability, queer identity and sexuality, and rape culture. I aim to create work that speaks to my own experiences, but also may resonate with others. I use a variety of mixed media and my work tends to straddle the divisions between art, design, and craft.

My politics play a massive role in how I approach and work within my own art practice, as well as how I approach the greater art and design community.  Critical reflection and engagement are key parts of this; understanding how my own privileges situate me within the greater communities I am a part of, and how I can navigate those spaces in a way that is safe and helpful to myself and others. Research is another huge part of my work, situating my lived experiences within a historical context and understanding of my topics- although this happens more behind the scenes.

HOW DO YOU PROTECT YOURSELF AT NIGHT with bat, 2012, image courtesy Danielle Nicole Smith

[image description: painting with bright pink background and black text reading “how do you protect yourself at night”, white hand holding a bedazzled, glittered baseball bat in foreground]

S: What is the SITE-SPECIFIC Guest Blog Series and why is it being launched?

S: SITE-SPECIFIC is a way to advance the dialogue around equity we’re having within the OCAD U community- curating it online, bringing together the perspectives of various community members via the Guest Blog Series, continuing the conversation through comments and interaction with the content presented. OCAD U, and the wider community, needs to be having an ongoing, serious discussion around art and design, education, social justice and equity, and we start that by assessing where our knowledge and understanding is at and making it accessible to everybody. Participation, generation, collaboration, critical thinking, reflection and action are all goals of the Guest Blog Series and SITE-SPECIFIC as a whole.

My job as a Student Monitor with the Diversity and Equity Initiatives Office is to help coordinate and oversee SITE-SPECIFIC- determine the monthly themes, reach out to potential Guest Bloggers, manage the online presence, and always critically examine our content in relation to our goals. My hope for this space is that it becomes both a valuable resource to the community- in that it brings knowledge to the table- but also, that it becomes a safe space to assess what we don’t know or understand yet, and how we might go about approaching potential solutions. I would love for it to become a place of engaging dialogue and thought-provoking ideas. As a student, I know this is a thing we could benefit from, and my hope is to leave at the end of this year knowing I’ve helped build a start to making space to have the conversations we deserve and owe to ourselves.

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Nov 20

David McIntosh on: digital media, research, and creativity

David McIntosh is a visual artist, film producer, scriptwriter and curator in film, video and digital media, as well as an Associate Professor of Media Studies in the Faculty of Liberal Studies at OCAD U. McIntosh was the recipient of the first-ever OCAD Award for Distinguished Research and Creation in 2008, and this year he is a recipient of a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant, for QUIPUCAMAYOC, a major research and creation project he is leading.

SITE-SPECIFIC: In speaking about your work, Judith Doyle, Chair of Integrated Media here at OCAD U has highlighted that you  “continue to contest and redraw boundaries between art and academic research, activism and theoretical analysis”. Can you tell us more about what inspires you to approach your work in this way, and how it impacts your research and practice?

DAVID MCINTOSH: Over the years as writer, curator, visual artist and academic, I have been inspired by and involved in such a range of practices, and yes theory IS a practice, that at times I felt that they were working against each other, that various political, economic, social and audiovisual regimes could not be reconciled. How do I put together experiences living and working in contexts as diverse as Franco’s fascist Spain, Juan Velasco’s Marxist military dictatorship in Peru, Fidel’s communist Cuba, Lac le Croix Anishnaabe reserve in northwest Ontario, the Funnel Experimental Film Centre in Toronto, and last but not least the seemingly endlessly morphing OCA/OCAD/OCADU. One of the most important lessons I learned in dealing with seemingly incommensurate experiences came from Cuban film artist Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s astounding 1968 film “Memories of Underdevelopment” in which a post-revolutionary bourgeois man attempts to come to terms with his privilege in the face of the devastating racism, sexism and labour exploitation that permeate his world. (This brief summary doesn’t even begin to do the political and structural complexity of this film justice.) The line that I retain from that film, and I’m paraphrasing, but this is a pretty close paraphrase, is: underdevelopment is the inability to make connections and accumulate experience. In this sense, I see myself as permanently underdeveloped, aiming at some form of self-determined condition of development, constantly in the process of making connections and accumulating experience. Another concept that underpins the integration I attempt in all of my work comes from network philosopher Bruno Latour, who suggests that, and once again I am paraphrasing: networks are simultaneously real like nature, narrated like discourse and collective like the society. Taking on Latour’s concept has been crucial for me in understanding and engaging in proliferation of even more diverse experiences and works, and suturing them together simultaneously in a network of materiality, storying and social engagement. I think it is important to lay out these research processes, experiential and theoretical, as they underpin all of my practice with new and old media. And it is this framework that has taken me to the position where I always attempt to locate my work in the immediate environment that surrounds me. For example, a mobile locative media work I completed in Cuzco, Peru in 2010 titled Qosqo LLika, was a distributed documentary. It didn’t happen on a screen in a cinema or in your home, it happened in the streets. I worked with street vendors who sell cellphone calls, not unlike human phonebooths, drawing in 30 such street vendors into a new form of network where each vendor and their cellphone became a site for the public to hear the lost history of the exact place in the city where they were standing. In addition to this creative engagement with local technologies and associated practices, the content of the project concerned local history that had been subsumed by the needs of the tourism industry in Cuzco. You can see an archive of the materials from this project at www.qosqollika.org , in English, Spanish and Quechua, but what you see and hear online is not the project, it is an archive of sound and image from the project that you can download to your mobile device and recreate the original ephemeral experience of the project.

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 Game controller prototype 1, wind instrument, image courtesy David McIntosh

[image description: painting depicting prototype of a wind instrument game controller, a grey and yellow body supported by four black legs]

S: Your previous research has explored the rise of decentralized media structures and distributed networks. What are the possibilities of digital media as democratic mediums for expression and knowledge production?

M: Everyone reading these words is doing so via the Internet, more than likely on a mobile device of some sort. Integration into the web is now a global reality. In fact, digital communications structures underpin the last 20 years of free market globalization that everyone in the world has experienced. Despite this global reach, the possibilities of digital media are still taking shape. In 1982 I worked with the Canadian Film Institute to research and report on the possible impact of digital media on the Canadian film/video production sector. At that time, computers were exotic and beyond the reach of most people and the Internet didn’t exist. In the course of that researching for that report, it became clear to me that one of the great potentials of computers was to deconstruct traditional forms of making things, to allow for a complete restructuring and democratization of industrial processes and ultimately to distribute self-determining, self-expressive agency to more and more people. Thirty years after producing that report, I look back and think that my initial thinking about digital media was pretty accurate in some respects, but a bit naïve in others. Distributed communications networks that are characteristic of digital media and the Internet are paradoxical. They have the potential for total horizontal distribution of self-determining local agency – when we think about the number of different accounts, names and personas we have for various social media, gaming and news sites, we quickly realize that our identities are multiple and we are determining who or what all those identities add up to. But decentralized communications networks also have the potential to facilitate absolute hierarchical centralization of command and control structures. This paradox is reflected in the current distinction that some make between state and industry collection of “big data” via digital media – state agencies such as the National Security Agency in the US are seen as spying on us while corporations like Facebook and Google are seen as providing better services for us, even though both are engaging in virtually the same data collection activities. We have to be on constant guard to insure that the paradoxical nature of the global digital communications structure operates in the interests of user self-determination and local agency. It’s good to keep in mind the crucial work on this struggle for democracy in digital media by people like Chelsea Manning and Aaron Swartz.

With this paradox in mind, it is good to see the work of a number of art and design students that I have had the pleasure to teach at OCAD developing a range of creative strategies that engage contemporary deployments of digital media. For example, Integrated Media graduate Mike Goldby repositioned instagram selfies as a new reproduceable style that was readily subsumed to corporate purpose that undermines self-expresssion, while DFI MDes graduate Faysal Itani created a hybrid game/blog for training activists engaging with the Arab Spring. To tie back to my comments earlier about hybrids and proliferation as the life blood of self-determining agency, we are seeing a proliferation of such hybrid works being produced at OCAD, by students at all levels and by faculty.

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Nov 19

Richard Fung on: experience, homonationalism, and equity

Richard Fung is a video artist who has taught, lectured, and exhibited extensively; currently, he is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Art at OCAD U, focusing on contemporary issues, video for artists, and thesis. He is also a recipient of a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant, for his project RE:ORIENTATIONS.

SITE-SPECIFIC: You are revisiting Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians with 30 years of art-making, activism, teaching, and research under your belt.  How will your experience since the initial documentary impact this project – both technically, and in terms of theory and content?

RICHARD FUNG: A lot has changed since Orientations was shot in 1984. VHS was still relatively new and I edited it myself on a very simple cut-only console.  HIV was only identified in the mid-80s and sexual orientation would only be added as a grounds for prohibited discrimination to the Ontario Human Rights Code two years later. Queer theory was not yet invented and activism was grassroots; today a lot of discussion on gender and sexuality has migrated into the university. Indeed, Orientations was supported by a small grant from the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal (now Community One Foundation), whereas ReOrientations is well funded by the national academic funding agency.  So the institutional and legal situations with regard to LGBT issues are quite distinct.

The community was also not nearly as racially and culturally diverse in the mid-80s. Orientations interviews the first generation of lesbian and gay activists of colour; trans issues were not yet central to the politics as they are today. At the same time, my graduate research assistants have just finished the first phase of pre-interviews with a current generation of activists and cultural producers, and they identify racism as central to their experience. While the state has made strides toward eliminating homophobia and transphobia, we are still dealing with racial profiling of black men by police, the subject of my documentary Out of The Blue in 1991. So an understanding of intersectionality is key: discrimination based on sex, race, class and sexuality do not operate independently of one another. Racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism are still present despite the formal protections, and there is greater poverty in Toronto and it is increasingly racialized. So there are continuities as well as shifts, and this is the focus of the project: to identify what has got us to where we are and how to map a better future.

S: You have mentioned that worrying developments in the role of rights in north-south politics have led you to revisit this project.  Can you speak more about [how RE:ORIENTATIONS explores] the role of rights in a transnational context?

F: There were differences among activists even before the 1969 Stonewall riots, which generally are taken to mark the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. But these fissures became more obvious when those advocating civil rights in the United States placed their focus on same sex marriage and the right to join the military. Early gay liberation inherited a lot of the language and the ideas from Third World anti-colonial and anti-imperialist national liberation movements as well as the civil rights and black liberation struggles of the 1960s and 70s. It was also influenced by feminism and sexual liberation. Gay liberation saw itself as radical. Post AIDS, however, there was a conservative cultural trend in gay discourse, and this newly dominant direction was all about becoming good citizens and assimilating into the mainstream of domesticity and consumption. US scholar Lisa Duggan critiqued this trend as homonormativity, and in the wake of 9/11 Jaspir Puar coined the term “homonationalism” to describe the collusive relationship between this gay rights stance and racism against Muslims and brown bodies within the US, and the advancement of US economic and military interests in the global arena.

In Canada we can see homonationalism play out in the way that the Canadian government led by a Conservative Party that consistently opposed gay rights up to and including same sex marriage, yet is now using gay rights to chastise countries such as Iran and Uganda and to justify uncritical support for Israeli policies. This stance is mirrored by countries such as Russia and Uganda whose politicians harness homophobia to nationalist platforms to distinguish themselves from the West or to claim resistance to neo-colonialism and imperialism—Uganda is particularly ironic since the sodomy laws were introduced under British colonialism and the anti-gay campaigns are underwritten and in some ways scripted by American Christian evangelicals. So lesbian, gay and trans rights are being appropriated and deployed in new cold wars. There is also a phenomenon labeled “pinkwashing,” and a poster for ethicaloil.org, which promotes Alberta’s Tar Sands, contrasts “Conflict Oil” from Iran, illustrated by an photo of two young men supposedly hung for being gay (Iran claims they were charged for rape), and “Ethical Oil” from Canada, illustrated by a close-up of two men wearing rainbow bracelets holding hands. The Iran photos bear the caption “Persecution,” the Canadian side “Pride.”

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Nov 19

November: Understanding Equity – critical art & design perspectives

Welcome to the launch of SITE-SPECIFIC, a space built to ignite, amplify and feed conversation that advances OCAD U and the wider community’s collective understanding of art & design, equity, and social justice. Through the Guest Blog Series, monthly themes will be touched on in blog entries by members of the OCAD U community – the dialogue is continued through comments by readers and their perspectives.

The theme for November is Understanding Equity– what do the terms equity and diversity entail, and what does thinking critically about the discourse around them look like? Also looked at is the importance of critical understandings of equity within the academic setting.

Guest Bloggers for this month are Richard Fung and David McIntosh, both Associate Professors at OCAD U as well as recent recipients of major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grants; also being interviewed is Danielle Nicole Smith, a current OCAD U undergrad and the SITE-SPECIFIC blog coordinator.

Interviews are below this post. Thanks for joining in the dialogue. We look forward to a year of insightful interviews, compelling conversation, and community engagement!