More Precisely

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by cheyanne turions

Born in Harlem, James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died in 1987, his life bearing witness to significant social upheavals including the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, the gay liberation movement, and the emergence of AIDS. Just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed Baldwin as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. A novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, Baldwin is perhaps best known for his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and his essay collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In London for a remounting of his play The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin joined Nicholson amongst a set of empty theatre seats. The footage is raw: a time code ticks the seconds away, noting that the edit begins eight minutes into recording. The conversation shows Baldwin ruminating on shifting distributions of social power and those that remain entrenched. He is irreverent, refusing to be sated by the revolutions he has witnessed for the deliverance he imagines. I cannot be sure why this interview, nearly 30 years old, re-entered circulation in November 2014, but with the title “Civil Rights” it is easy to register its resonance with contemporary events in the United States such as waves of protest against a racist, and specifically anti-Black, police state or the then-anticipated release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014). It seems that Baldwin’s ideas again aggravate, push, and prod: this is not yet the world we dream of.

Nicholson is a provocative if somewhat naïve interlocutor, asking frank questions about racialization, religion, and sexuality, and Baldwin is an affable subject. And yet, the interview comes to be characterized by his consistent reframing of the assumptions embedded in her prompts. For instance, when Nicholson suggests that the terror Baldwin felt as a young man was because he is Black, he resists: it was because he was despised. The fear he felt was not properly related to the colour of his skin, but to the base reactions it elicited from peers who did not look like him. Baldwin’s point is that the pathology of racism belongs to the inner life of each of us, not to the observable facts of the world. And, while he never says this explicitly, it’s not a generalized racism but white supremacy in particular that allows for the social legibility of such hate, then and now.

This point is taken further when Nicholson tells a story about watching Baldwin’s play the week before the interview was taped and witnessing an interaction between two families. The patriarch of one family she describes as looking “intelligent…well-off…liberal” and the other family she describes as having a crying child and being Black. Nicholson suggests that the inherited history of “racial prejudice” prohibits the man whom she implies is white from telling off the Black family for bringing their child to the theatre. But again Baldwin stops her: “Why don’t you examine what does the word ‘racial’ mean. After all, everybody is a race of one kind or another. We’re not talking about racial prejudice; we talking about the structure of power. The structure of power that has the right and the duty to tell other people who they are for very dubious reasons. After all, one of the reasons I am Black is because I had to be Black in order to justify my slavery. That’s a part of my heritage and a part of yours too. It has nothing to do with race; it’s a way of avoiding history.” Against Nicholson’s proposal that this nearly missed confrontation between families is a moment of post-racial neutering, Baldwin insists that the white man will simply find another way to punish the Black family, a worse way. Perhaps Baldwin meant to imply a direct reaction—an admonishment of parenting capability or a slashed tire—though more likely he was invoking systemic distributions of power—higher rates of incarceration, widespread poverty, obstructed access to education. Seeming to function without leadership, these ongoing phenomena are actually the perfect manifestation of a white supremacist fear of difference. Baldwin knows he is being provocative when he says that “the hardest thing for any human being to do is to forgive someone they know they’ve wronged… [and so] white people live with the nightmare of the nigger they’ve invented.” Patterns of racial discrimination are not ever the proper consequences of whiteness or blackness, but rather a product of social conditioning, where white people are unjustifiably understood as superior to others, and where this unfounded belief then maintains systems of inequality that effect the social, economic, and political lives of all other people.

Baldwin refuses what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice.” On his terms, racial prejudice is nothing more than “the most abject cowardice” of those who occupy positions of power—politicians, citizens, the bourgeoisie—to self-reflexively understand their standing as historically informed and arising through subjugation. To the extent that material and political equality is possible, it will involve a recognition of how fear shapes every member of a society, and to address shifting political subjectivities through some kind of embodied relationship to this complex truth. Race is absolutely a lived reality despite the fact that it is not real, at least not biologically as is now generally accepted in scientific fields. And yet, there are countless social consequences tied to our differing historical, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Racism has become shorthand for acts of fear or hate that unfairly cast their provocation upon the body of the person who must bear their cruelty. Baldwin’s tactic refocuses agency upon the perpetrator. He doesn’t say it, but in his persistent refusal of Nicholson’s terms I read a refusal of racism. Racism is a way of describing structures of power, but it is not a thing unto itself, not the way the word is commonly used. More precisely, it is a system predicated upon an insidious kind of make-believe.

In this precision, the complexities between the “you” of Mavis Nicholson and the “I” of James Baldwin (and vice versa) are drawn out, placing the capacity for great social change upon them both as social actors capable of responses based in sentiments other than abject cowardice. However, that this nearly 30-year-old interview still so urgently resonates points to the fact that any real confrontation of racism will require systemic dismantling of white supremacist power structures. We can begin (one place amongst so many) by following Baldwin’s lead and engaging with the repercussions of language. We can consider, at the urging of poet and scholar Jackie Wang in her text Against Innocence, that “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary.” We can refuse a rhetoric of innocence that serves to distance the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Pearlie Golden and Kathryn Johnston and Aiyanna Jones and Trayvon Martin and Nizah Morris from the murders of hundreds and hundreds of Black people each year by police officers in the USA. We can map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power. We can use language more precisely, in order to reveal. And dismantle.

1] I am unable to find a more complete version of the interview.
2] From what I can tell, the footage was not available online until 01 November 2014, published on Youtube by ThamesTv and then circulated amongst aggregation sites. However, the footage remains relatively unseen, registering just over 4500 views as of 24 February 2015.
3] For discussions on the persistent myth of biological race see Merlin Chowkwanyun’s 2013 article “Race Is Not Biology,” published by The Atlantic here; Agustin Fuentes’s 2012 article “Race Is Real, but not the way Many People Think,” published by Psychology Today here; or UNESCO’s 1950 document “Statement by Experts on Race Problems,” found here.
4] Jackie Wang, Against Innocence (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 7-8. The text is also available online here.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the video Civil Rights—James Baldwin—Interview—Mavis on Four (1987), found here.

Thanks to Gina Badger and Pip Day for editorial support.

GRACEFULLY POST-HUMAN?

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cheyanne turions

Paradigm shift is not the evacuation of power, but rather its redistribution. Speaking at the University of Toronto in early February, feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti speculated on the impotence of the classical humanities to explain the entwined nature of contemporary life, offering instead the post-humanities as an intellectual paradigm worthy of the times. She calls the method cartographic, implying an immediate use-value to the practice (imagine the post-humanities as a kind of intellectual Google Maps) in order to counter the retrospective theorization associated with classical modes of humanities scholarship (like a map to a city that no longer stands). Braidotti’s philosophy is new to me and my understanding provisional, but I’m taking her up on an offer to think with her, to investigate the points of rupture she provoked in me: can we ever be post-human?

As a type of academic discipline, the humanities are concerned with “the study of human culture,” or how it is that we are social beings—through language, music, religion, philosophy, literature et cetera [1]. Here, the individual (constituted through various social systems) is understood as fundamental, and the humanities a practice of mapping explanatory paradigms back onto phenomena that is both produced by and produces specific forms of collectivity. But, as technology advances and as ecosystems collapse, the conceit at the heart of the humanities—the human as a suitable unit of measure to register the complexity of social co-existence—crumbles. In response, the burgeoning field of post-humanities examines culture in its embedded becoming alongside other agencies and orders, such as technology, the non-human animal, and the environment. In doing so, the post-humanities displaces anthropocentric arrogance as the gravitational force around which understandings are constructed. Key early texts in the field include Michele Serres’s The Parasite (1980) and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), though the field of posthumanities did not congeal until much later, in the latter half of the Aughts. Cary Wolfe, the editor of the University of Minnesota Press’s Posthumanities series defines the whole endeavour as such: “When we talk about posthumanism, we are not just talking about a thematics of the decentering of the human in relation to either evolutionary, ecological, or technological coordinates (though that is where the conversation usually begins and, all too often, ends); rather…we are also talking about how thinking confronts that thematics, what thought has to become in the face of those challenges.” In practice, the posthumanities takes seriously the ethical consequences of how we humans think our relationship to non-humans, especially other animals and the environment; it considers how the field of disability studies forcefully challenges normative relationships between language and thought and identity; it explores the way the human experience is currently entwined in a mutual becoming with computer technologies.

Despite the critical self-reflection post-anthropocentrism generates (the human animal is greedy and violent, technologically mediated, and morally obligated to consider sustainability beyond our own species perpetuation), it does not offer an alternative orientation to knowledge production. At its best, post-anthropocentrism is a conceit. We do not suddenly become fluent in non-human ways of knowing by virtue of thinking it would be cool to do so. Even the gesture of prioritizing paradigms of understanding that diminish our self-importance still rely upon judgments made from the human perspective. At base, in a quest to position ourselves post-anthropocentrically, we must be suspicious of our capacity to think outside of our social conditioning and intellectual biases while simultaneously encouraging an awareness of what we may be otherwise be blinded to because of the nature of the self. Productively, this is to embody an interstitial space between anthropocentrism and its undoing: what is possible from this position of thwarted desire?

The limitations of cultural homogeneity were implicitly acknowledged in Braidotti’s lecture when she repeatedly pointed to non-western humanisms as “where it’s at.” This makes sense to me: I can trouble my western, euro-centric ways of knowing by inhabiting what Braidotti called trading zones: places where ideas are exchanged and disagreements occur. I can situate my intellectual activity as listening and I can attempt to increase the interdependencies between my patterns of knowing and other ways of making sense. But I’m really not sure how this resists becoming just another example of colonization, of seeking out the resources of other cultures and appropriating them for my own gain? There’s all of history to tell me that the human is a colonial machine, and to think that non-western humanisms can be utilized to recuperate the use-value of the humanities in the west is, once again, to use the resources of others cultures to rescue my own.

Listening to Braidotti’s lecture, I was was reminded of other instances where the demand for social change requires that I account for my own position within a shifting terrain in order to assume an appropriate and transformative responsibility. As protests swept across the US this winter to express outrage at the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, white people were asked to protest from their subject position: do not carry signs proclaiming that “I am Mike Brown,” but rather, carry signs that challenge white supremacy. As Braidotti encouraged me to recognize the value of destabilizing my own subject position in ways of knowing and relating, I kept asking myself: how to be post-human from the position I occupy as already always human? How to engage otherness in the key of anti-oppression? How can we translate what we already know about how we are human, in order to be post-human with a touch of grace?

[1] Carey Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), page xvi.

Image Credit: Shifty Packets by Colleen Wolstenholme

EXHIBITION ANATOMY

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by cheyanne turions

Dear Carolee: Carolee Schneemann in Letters
Organized by Kunstverein Toronto
G Gallery
27 November 2014–10 January 2015

CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN

Since the late 1950s, the life of Carolee Schneemann (1939–) has been expressed through her artistic practice, first with the medium of paint and then through the medium of her often nude body, though she has utilized objects, printed matter, moving images and the often nude bodies of others as well. Wikipedia suggests that Schneemann is a “first-generation feminist artist,” despite the fact that surely feminist artists have existed as long as there has been art. However, the claim does mark an intrusion into a cannon where recognition of Schneemann’s work continues to position her at a remove from the male artists she worked with and near, such as Stan Brakhage, Allan Kaprow and Claus Oldenburg. Her first major solo show was not until 1996, when the New Museum mounted a retrospective of her work. When her practice is invoked, two works are often cited: Meat Joy, a 1964 film documenting a cast of eight in the throes of an erotic rite involving raw meat, wet paint and rope; and Interior Scroll, a 1975 performance that culminated in Schneemann reading aloud from a script she was simultaneously withdrawing from her vagina.

WORK

For decades, alongside her embodiment through artistic practice, Schneemann has compulsively engaged in what she terms work: correspondence. Positioning correspondence as labour (and artistic practice as living) inverts a common work/life distribution where the maintenance of relationships is a thing of pleasure. However, Schneemann has been methodical in the construction of a written record of her life, saving copies of letters written and received. In Los Angeles, the Getty Research Institute holds an archive of these intimate documents, a selection from which form the foundation of the exhibition Dear Carolee: Carolee Schneemann in Letters. Additional materials were drawn from the Clara Thomas Archives at York University, where the papers of Schneemann’s first husband, James Tenney, are held. Addressed to and signed by an array of prominent artists in the international avant garde, the letters map relations of friendship and love, collaboration and critique. Even without knowing the work of Schneemann, this exhibition makes palpable the development of a mind through its encounter with others. Of course, any archive must be approached as partial and any image constructed of Schneemann through the materials of Dear Carolee must be measured against an imagination of what has been excluded. Was the labour of some correspondence too intimate to bear including in the archive? How does voice translate through time, across readers? What was deemed irrelevant or indispensable by the exhibition’s curators?

SPACE

Exhibition making, like writing, is the effect of composition and editing; every gesture is deliberate. Extending the analogy of exhibition making to architecture, both organize space with regard to aesthetic effect. As an epistolary retrospective, Dear Carolee had a double obligation: to negotiate engagement through space and with a concern for readerly stamina.

Letter

Inventive tactics included a series of original letters displayed at eye level in glass frames jutting at 90 degree angles from a long wall, allowing a viewer to step into the space of each letter, read through, and examine its recto and verso for the clues of the life the letter-as-object is living.

Plinths

Another tactic transformed the medium of the letters from paper into light, projecting a selection as slides, their scale becoming grand as they were beamed across the room. The plinths holding the projectors were staggered by height and within the space of the room, so that the projected letters were not perfectly aligned. The effect was a sense of envelopment, as if the reader were inside a ramshackle desk drawer full of correspondence. Standard methods of display were also used, such as a set of vitrines that cast the gaze of the viewer downward on a small collection of objects and ephemera from Schneemann’s life, such as a VHS copy of her film Fuses (1965) and a rare copy of her artist’s edition ABCWe Print EverythingIn the Cards (1977/1992). A few framed photographs and posters hung flush against the walls, the kind of presentation familiar to anyone who has been to a gallery before.

CÉZANNE

Cézanne, She was a Great Painter is a collection of letters, essays, and conceptual writings that were first published in 1974, and again in 1975, and again in 1976, and again as part of Dear Carolee, which compliments the exhibition and allows for an extended engagement of Schneemann’s work through book form. What is obvious in Cézanne as read in 2015 is the longstanding and mostly unchanged refusal that women must bear toward patriarchal forms of knowledge if they are to author the roles they play. As a girl, Schneemann knew she was an artist. Sensing something sinister she could not yet name, she did not ask if the great artists whose names she was learning belonged women and instead authored her own hero: “I decided a painter named ‘Cézanne’ would be my mascot; I would assume Cézanne was unquestionably a woman—after all the ‘anne’ in it was feminine. Were the bathers I studied in reproduction so awkward because painted by a woman? But ‘she’ was famous and respected. If Cézanne could do it, I could do it.” Today, “Schneemann” on the lips and tongues of female artists who need not invent predecessors is Schneemann’s sweet revenge.

ISTORY

Language is not neutral; the “his” in “history” is no coincidence. Attentive to the ways that language shapes its subjects, Schneemann has long practiced a rejection of the masculine assumptions of English, either through neologism or substitution. Schneemann prefers the term “art istory,” without the “h,” to counteract the “he” it implies, and in most cases “people” can do for “human.”

Through her letters, it becomes obvious that the complexity of her artistic production is steeped in an engagement with feminist politics, seeking a fundamental re-ordering of how value accrues in the work of women. In her early career, she was surrounded by men whose fame was ascendent. Though an integral part of the New York City art scene of the 1960s, the radical intentions behind her own work and the influence she had on the artistic production of her peers did not lead to recognition or material stability. In her letters, Schneemann repeatedly tells of experiences where “men [helped] me to sustain what I had but not to enlarge it in scope or enjoin them in their world…I WAS PERMITTED TO BE AN IMAGE/BUT NOT AN IMAGE-MAKER CREATING HER OWN SELF-IMAGE.”

This schism, between history and istory, between image and image-maker, is the result of what Schneemann diagnoses as the mixed inculturation women receive of OF COURSE YOU CAN/DON’T YOU DARE. This is the consequence of society adopting a rhetoric of equality without enacting the reciprocal systemic shifts required to make good on it. If the recent recognition of her work is understood as a consequence of changing standards of taste, where, say, depictions of desire from a feminine perspective are legible, it should not be confused with the triumph of social redress. Writing in 1974, imagining the year 2000, Schneemann predicted this: “In the year 2,000 books and courses will only be called ‘Man and His Image,’ ‘Man and His Symbols,’ ‘Art History of Man,’ to probe the source of disease and mania which compelled patriarchal man to attribute to himself and his masculine forebears every invention and artifact by which civilization was formed for over four millennia.” Writing from beyond the future that Schneemann anticipated, I shudder to say we are somehow not there yet.

(All quotes taken from the 2014 edition of Cézanne, She was a Great Painter except where otherwise indicated.)

Installation shots by Joseph Devitt Tremblay

Video Documentary of Ligorano/Reese “Dawn of the Anthropocene”, September 21, 2014

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An artistic intervention on the occasion of the Peoples’ Climate March and the Climate Summit  (New York City).

On September 21, 2014, artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese present Dawn of the Anthropocene a large-scale ice sculpture of the words “The Future.” The sculpture is 21 feet long, 5 feet high and weighs 2000 pounds. It will melt throughout the day taking anywhere from 8 to 24 hours to disappear.

They produced this video documentary featuring commentary by people on the street.

WHERE THE METAPHOR FALLS SHORT

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An interview with Gina Badger, the final editor of FUSE Magazine (1976-2014)
by cheyanne turions

In death, rebirth. Or so the colloquial sentiment goes. Nutrient recycling. Recovery. Surrender. Ecologically, this process is known as succession and it can be thought of as a map of sorts, describing the four phases through which ecosystems pass: rapid growth, conservation, release, and reorganization. Trajectories unfurl at different paces for different scales, and the phases need not always be sequential, but what is sometimes termed “creative destruction” refers to the release phase of the cycle of succession, describing “the disturbances that periodically punctuate the adaptive cycle. It breaks down stability and predictability but releases resources for innovation and reorganization.”[1] A familiar example is the restorative function of forests fires—what looks to be destruction in one moment can actually create a fertile zone for life cycles to continue.

In the face of austerity politics and the ongoing concentrations of wealth that characterize late capitalism, ecological examples of resilience are popular. And yet, plant, animal, and environmental actors—like rain, phosphorus, or wind—are not quite the same as human actors, who are capable of reason and can act empathetically.

This summer, after nearly forty years of production, the Canadian art periodical FUSE Magazine ceased publication. In an ecology of publication in the country, the loss is significant. Its final editor was Gina Badger, an artist, writer, and editor deeply engaged in the intersection of art and politics. During the three years of her tenure, the sensitivity of her thinking and the fury of her resolve could be read in her work on the development of the States of Postcoloniality series, which was later re-considered as States of Coloniality; a redesign of the magazine that productively pushed at the aesthetic understandings of what a newsstand periodical looks like; and a constant re-imagining of how to run an intellectually rigorous and politically provocative magazine with fewer and fewer resources. The existence of FUSE, to me, has always been a happy miracle. I register its cessation of publication as a small tragedy, but perhaps the end of FUSE has the potential to focus people’s attention on what they found valuable about the magazine and to feel a responsibility for shepherding the spirit of that project into the future. Perhaps this is where the “creative” potential of the “destruction” comes into focus. Its demise displaces the energy of running the magazine onto the people who recognize the value of FUSE’s activities. This conversation with Badger is my own first step.

What was FUSE? How do you understand its cultural value?

FUSE changed significantly, filling many different roles over its 37 years. That’s what a resilient organization does; it’s agile. I think the heart of FUSE’s mandate has always been to serve as a movement-building tool, though this certainly wasn’t always explicit. From the beginning, its editors positioned the magazine between people invested in social change at a grassroots level and people who create culture. I say “culture” and not “art” deliberately because for the first couple of decades at least, the magazine’s emphasis was equally on the visual and performing arts (theatre, film, music). FUSE’s specialization in the expanded field of visual arts is relatively recent.

As far as the magazine’s leftist political orientation goes, that’s another thing that’s never been precisely defined; its content has consistently demonstrated a commitment to feminist, pro-labour, anti-racist, and anti-colonial politics. And it’s always been a venue for critical analysis of public policies and funding. That positioning between activism and cultural production is what made FUSE uniquely valuable on the Canadian art scene. I consider this to be an important niche because of historical and present-day tensions between front-line organizers and people working in the arts, who share concerns and motivations, but who can’t always speak the same language in terms of tactics and strategies. Making connections is a hard job, but when I look at a project like FUSE, that is the potential I see and the reason for the magazine to exist. At its best, that’s what happened.

The baseline of this was simply addressing both audiences [cultural workers and activists] with the magazine’s content and distribution, but there were also more interactive ways for it to play out. During my tenure at FUSE, there were opportunities for extended exchange between an explicitly political event and an art world publication—for instance, when we partnered with Israeli Apartheid Week and launched our “Palestine–Palestine” issue at their opening event. Eventually, a year and half after its publication, during the 2014 siege on Gaza, we were able to contribute to a Palestine House fundraiser to support Gazans by building a small campaign around that issue. Other times, it didn’t work at all, which was frustrating for everyone. I think the point is to keep trying to get there, because you always build relationships in the process.

Is there something about the form of the magazine that lent itself to accomplishing these goals?

Ideally, a magazine is good for that kind of bridge-building because it is a space, not-quite-virtual and not-quite-physical, that can be simultaneously inhabited by people who wouldn’t normally be in a room together or who might have a hard time working together. One of the things that I tried to do as an editor to facilitate cohabitation was through the redevelopment of the historical “Short FUSE” section of the magazine. In the 1990s, Short FUSEs were little political rants at the back of the magazine. When I reintroduced them in 2011, I curated a collection of three or four texts and placed them up front so that they could serve as an introduction linking the theme of the magazine to current events. Each short FUSE was a contained news report or response to a specific event, and I often commissioned folks from outside the art world. For instance, we had a series of short reports on the Occupy Movement, when it was first gaining speed, critically reflecting upon the relationship of the movement’s rhetoric to colonialism. The rest of magazine was full of artworks and writing by art historians and art critics. In terms of immediate audience, this ensured that the magazine would end up in the homes of diverse contributors, accessible to everyone around them. And this is the thing about a magazine that is particular: it is a thing—it lays around, it’s portable, it gets left in a place as mundane as a dentist’s office or someone’s bedroom, and people encounter it by chance. I like to imagine FUSE being in the bathroom of an organizer, whose roommate is grumpy about art but who picks up the magazine and reads it, and can see that there are interesting ideas bouncing back and forth between these different ways of working. We interact with a paper magazine differently than an online publication because the content all comes together. It’s a collection of visual materials and written words that appear as a unit. Putting those things together is a deliberate intervention.

In the end, what was it that led to the demise of FUSE? Was it purely a financial consideration? Given that so much of the fiscal support for FUSE came from arts councils, do you think there is something shifting in the peer review process that is disconnecting the value of the activities that FUSE undertook from the medium of the magazine?

It’s so hard for me to say whether the peer review process is shifting; I have not ever sat on a jury, and the process just isn’t that transparent. What I do know anecdotally and subjectively from my position in art publishing in Canada right now is that there are a number of publications that are suffering, not specifically because they have a political mandate, but because their staff are trying to think creatively about their medium so that they can survive frozen budgets, decreased staff hours, et cetera. This means that their outputs are changing so that they don’t necessarily fit within the established funding streams anymore.

There are definitely issues with self-censorship in moments of austerity, where organizations become afraid of producing risky content because they just can’t afford to take any chances with funding. And we’re not only talking about a political risk—like publishing an issue called “Palestine–Palestine”—we’re talking about design risks, such as producing a magazine that doesn’t look like a commercial magazine. This latter issue was the most problematic for FUSE recently. We were moderately experimental in terms of cover design and typography and it is outrageous to me that this is even a thing, but based on the comments that I’ve seen from juries, it is. As far as I can tell, there was not a fair or measured comparison of FUSE’s mandate to its output; success was rather measured in its ability to perform like a commercial magazine in all senses of the word: numbers of subscribers, newsstand sales, the way the cover of the magazine looked. The fact is that FUSE was process and community driven, and experimentation was a priority. And those are things that caused problems during my tenure.

The explanation for FUSE’s demise is both complicated and banal. In these cases it’s never one thing or event, it’s a long process. Certainly, its closure was strongly foreshadowed by the policies of several granting bodies. One of FUSE’s major grants disappeared in 2010 when Heritage Canada changed its eligibility requirements for operating funding for periodicals; this represented a $30,000 loss. This happened just before I was hired and that’s the type of gap that very few organizations can successfully make up in a short amount of time. Instead, they just figure out how to make do with less. What happens to an organization that is chronically under-resourced is not unlike what happens to individuals who are personally under-resourced. It impacts their ability to make long-term strategic decisions because they are constantly in crisis management mode. It makes it really hard to do things that are otherwise normal for organizations to do, like have a healthy, regular fundraising program.

To be totally clear, the decision to cease publication of the magazine was directly related to a lack of financial resources.

Absolutely.

At a certain point, it became clear that ceasing publication was the only option left. Cutbacks were no longer possible because so many expenses had already been eliminated over the years. FUSE had already given up its storage space. Staff had taken over for the cleaning service, bike-couriered our grant applications ourselves, and had arranged for another organization to share our office. FUSE had literally cut down every possible overhead expense, just short of not paying people. And because of the granting structure, it’s not possible for a publication to cut back on its production. In general, publications that are trying to be creative about what they produce and how they produce it are more than happy to change the paper they print on, or publish more content online, but they are hamstrung because that can result in a drastic reduction of funding.

What do you think is at stake for the Canadian arts community in a general sense considering the role that FUSE played in the country’s artistic discourse?

Cynically, I know that artists and writers will always do the work, whether we are going to be paid or not. We might produce less or it might be less flamboyant, but as long as artists are breathing, we will be doing our work. But someone is going to make money off of it and it’s usually not the artist. Truthfully, is Canada losing the only place where people can talk about art and politics in this way? Obviously not. But it is losing one of the only places where you can get paid to do that. Because of frozen budgets, the amount that one would get paid to write at FUSE was stuck at $0.12/word forever, which is, at most, 50% of publishing industry standard. It’s a miserable pay rate, but it is a paid writing gig, which is extremely uncommon these days. The public funding model is not functioning well. Are artists and their organizations the entities that should suffer? No. But that is the consequence. Those are the people whose livelihoods are directly affected by this problem. In this sense, losing FUSE is a symptom of the scarcity of good, paid work for artists and writers.

As far as these death and rebirth metaphors go, I definitely think it is dangerous to compare the economy to nature. I feel I need to disclaim that I am not a purist about nature; I do not think that humans are separate from nature. But they just don’t operate the same way, so I think that ecological metaphors are inappropriate for the changes we’re seeing in the publicly-funded arts sector. The fact that people are losing jobs right now and that living wages are scarce is not a feature of the natural environment. This situation is created by our governments’ conservative policies that redistribute wealth to the benefit of corporate CEOs, banks, and mining companies. Maybe these metaphors make us feel better, like it is inevitable for us to lose the institutions we’ve lovingly built over the years, or it’s inevitable that we’ll be forced to work for less, but I think it’s a little bit dangerous to justify it to ourselves in that way. It obscures the political reality, which is that in this economy we don’t matter unless we’re attracting tourists or enhancing the profile of corporations; we’re just a liability that someone’s waiting to de-fund.

I don’t think that waged labour is the best model for human life to work on, but that’s what we have. So we need it, waged labour. We cannot live without it in this reality.

This interview was conducted on 08 August 2014.

Gina Badger no longer works for FUSE Magazine and statements in this interview represent her individual opinions only, not those of FUSE, its former staff, or its board.

Lead image: Never Lose It (Part 5) from FUSE Magazine

[1] Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press), 75.