What’s Missing

By Joni Low
March 10, 2019

Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy: Travels in Birdsong,” 2017. Installation and performance. Photo: Oakar Myint.

Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy: Travels in Birdsong,” 2017. Installation and performance. Photo: Oakar Myint.

Nine months after Flotilla, and much in the world has changed. The polarization of global relations, rise of the far right, a breakdown in constitutional and political norms, and a loss of faith in government and civic institutions as they forsake environment for profit. The #MeToo movement swept across many fields, revealing continued sexual violence and misogyny. We are experiencing a crisis in liberal democracy, a deterioration in communication and a lack of consensus on shared facts, amidst vibrant social movements in defense of human and environmental rights. Reality is fragmenting, showing that things are more than what they seem. Everything feels precarious – open yet uncertain.

Embracing provisional forms of organization seems wise in this shifting climate, though I find myself craving an anchor. I feel conflicted about how art can respond at this time, and how our tools need to change. I feel conflicted about writing on an online platform, when these mediums for engagement seem unable to accommodate the more nuanced conversations needed to keep divisiveness from winning. Occasionally, the network activates us to fight for change and gets us out of our heads and into the world, while simultaneously being manipulated, our data tracked and mined. The initial vision of the Internet as a space for free information, sharing, and connection has been saturated by other agendas. As artist Paul Chan has written, connection ≠ communication: “Time deepens connections, whereas technology economizes communication. Despite the growing number of ways to be seen and heard, tele-technologies have ironically made harder for people to comprehend one another. What matters in communication – understanding, relationality, interchange – has somehow gotten lost in the transmission.”  

FLOTILLA sought to create these spaces for in-person relational discussions and transmissions. Bracketing an ideal hypothetical space for art, over the course of four days it made the hypothesis a reality. Perhaps due to Charlottetown’s modest size, its openness to the Atlantic and self-embracement as a periphery, and the familiarity between artists coming together across Canada, the conversations carried an honest and open tenor. There was showing and also sharing: art on the streets, occupying storefronts, and on the Floating Warren pavilion which extended into Victoria Park harbour; and performances and intimate discussions in neighbouring houses over food. I fondly remember Jordan Bennett and Lori Blondeau’s Samqwan / Nipiy, a generous lobster boil offered to all who converged at Confederation Landing on Sunday morning. Linking together the Mi’kmaq and Cree words for water, and through a subtle collective pleasure, it lovingly brought new meaning and sovereignty to a site named for its colonial organization.

Yet how much real change can spark from a short-term utopia? How do we create and hold space for art within a loose network – what are our safety nets, and what is required to sustain it? How do the conditions need to change, to allow for a greater diversity of voices in the arts? Incidentally, FLOTILLA overlapped with a west coast gathering for Primary Colours, a three-year initiative designed by Chris Creighton-Kelly and France Trépanier that seeks to place Indigenous art practices at the centre of the Canadian art system, and to have artists of colour play a critical role in any discussion that imagines Canada’s futures. Were these two gatherings aware and connected with one another? How can such imaginings take place, apart and together?

Reflecting on FLOTILLA projects that left distinct impressions, I find myself returning to the relationship between internal and external spaces, especially amidst current social-political sensitivities. To what extent do we knit the two together, and when do they need time apart? Shifts in consciousness take time to materialize into societal change. Another question that comes up is: what’s missing? Be it certain conversations, representations, a type of accustomed comfort, or a moment longed for since passed. What’s missing may signal what we need to seek out and spend time with.

Artists took risks tackling an undercurrent of difficult topics, politics and emotions. Divya Mehra’s performance, grief flows very easily into anger and disdain, and creates a soft and radical rage, connected her father’s recent passing with incidents of ongoing racism, POC labour, and misunderstandings in the service industry and online. With brilliantly comic-tragic timing she had me laughing one second, and crying the next. Troubling whiteness, she professed frustration at performing ‘otherness’ at her family’s Indian restaurant (does my tone of voice or skin offend?) while sardonically resisting identities assigned to her. Her quips landed against a backdrop of personal snapshots, Bollywood movie clips, Yelp restaurant reviews, Tinder and other online forums that show “the public being public” – or rather, how uncivil communication has become in and beyond virtual spaces, and how these judgements now sit and haunt at the surface. She touched on internal spaces and inexpressible feelings (limiting, with dark, sharp corners) and questions on public grief: how much do we share, and how safe is it to share, even with those that ask, about how these inner spaces really feel? The act of refusal can be a form of self-care.

How can we learn to read within past absences and obfuscations a more balanced representation of histories, from the things that are not represented, invisible, or overlooked? Luis Jacob spoke on the metaphor and persistence of the vacant lot, examining how colonial and capitalist territories were visualized as empty spaces to be turned into something of value, rather than acknowledging existing inhabitants. Citing The Ward in Toronto, he showed an archival City photograph from 1957 depicting the area as an abstract white square. In actuality, The Ward was a working-class neighbourhood in the 19th to mid 20th century where many immigrants settled upon arrival to Canada: Toronto’s African-Canadian community, many of whom escaped slavery in the United States; Italian, Jewish and Eastern European refugees; it was also the city’s first Chinatown. When the City of Toronto authorized the expropriation of the area for business development in 1946, these communities were pushed out, replaced by the present-day City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. As with much of Jacob’s practice that destabilizes the act of looking, he revealed these perceptions of external space as projections of an erroneous imaginary, one that we acknowledge as no longer adequate. How might we re-orient our readings of space, visual culture and art?

Jacob’s research intersects with Charles Campbell’s “Actor Boy: Travels in Birdsong,” a project I curated for Flotilla. We discovered a similarly forgotten neighbourhood in central Charlottetown, The Bog - home to a racially-mixed community of working class poor and African-Islanders from the early 1800s to the 1900s, located near a pond where songbirds visited. Though labeled a slum, it evinced strong community ties, solidarity and resilience – including a free school, athletic clubs, and family lines that continue on island to this day. By the 1900s The Bog dissolved, dispersed by redevelopment, discrimination, and opportunities in larger communities elsewhere. It was largely forgotten until a local historian pieced together the outlines. (Incidentally, Charles had also grown up in Charlottetown, but had not been aware of this past.) We were fortunate to connect with historian Jim Hornby, musician Scott Parsons, and other members of the Black Cultural Society in Charlottetown who have been actively preserving and sharing these histories. With new migrants from Africa and the Caribbean arriving on island, they’ve been linking stories of past and present-day black communities to show how these multiple histories are continually morphing, complicating dominant Canadian narratives.

Actor Boy is a six-dimensional being from an alternate future who can travel time, pointing to different outcomes in other parallel universes, when disruptions open an array of possible futures and points of agency from which to act. Part trickster, his roots stem from the Jamaican carnival celebration Jonkonnu – when slaves upturned the social order by mocking their master’s dress. For the performance and installation, Actor Boy travelled time through birdsong to trace the histories of Trans-Atlantic slavery, emancipation, migration, and settlement linked to the Maritimes. Birdsong acted as both carrier of memories and a signal of ecological and cultural ruptures, pending imbalances. Interrogating these memories, he revealed the tensions of Black Canadian history – of violence, discrimination, denial and solidarity. As a one sided-dialogue, the audience was left to imagine the other side of the conversation, an internal imagining telling us more about ourselves than the other. Sound was a preferred medium, acting as anti-monument: a way of transmitting but not solidifying stories so that their open-endedness might transform us in more active ways.

The stories of The Bog and The Ward are not isolated incidents. Many racialized communities in Canada share a history of displacement and dispersal – be it under the pretense of reservations, internment, or gentrification. Campbell’s ongoing Actor Boy project resists historical amnesia, engaging with the histories of black communities across Canada – including Birchtown and Africville in Halifax, Amber Valley in Alberta, Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, Saltspring Island and Victoria – to activate open questions. His work, alongside other artists, writers, and filmmakers currently, are creating a greater public awareness of these histories, so that the longer continuities of these founding populations in Canada – and their struggles with discrimination – might be acknowledged and better understood.

Perhaps it’s the mediums which cannot be easily captured – sound, performance, discussions, and the temporary nature of FLOTILLA itself – that are what is needed in this moment. A different kind of transmission that requests presence: to allow for understandings to not become calcified by language or representation too quickly, so as to remain an energy that infuses action in time.

Joni Low is a writer and curator in Vancouver. Recent curatorial projects include What Are Our Supports?, a 6-month series of artists’ projects in public space; Afterlives: Germaine Koh and Aron Louis Cohen (2017); and Charles Campbell’s Actor Boy: Travels in Birdsong (2017).