Flotilla: Art work and art “work”
By Tarin Dehod
March 10, 2019
Each time I work with an artist outside of the physical confines of the gallery, I think about what it means to encounter art outside its knowable container. As an Islander, it was clear to me that Flotilla had a big presence in Charlottetown--performances, discussions, installations and parties were lashed together throughout a city preoccupied with the final days of tourist season. Part of Flotilla’s success had to do with a clear programming directive that allowed some moments to focus on the inner workings of artist-run culture, while others were open and unavoidable to a casual public. The performances and installations that integrated themselves into civic spaces, The Floating Warren, “Different Ways,” and my curatorial project on behalf of AKA, “Samqwan/Nipiy,” were at once relatable and strange. Removed from the realities of daily life, taken outside of the gallery and situated around Peaks Quay — an area of town set aside for docking tourist boats, evening strolls and boasting Canada’s 150 years of colonialism — forced a confrontation with dynamic Maritime-based artistic practices and the power of art in public spaces. That fall weekend, on the unceded Mi’kmaq land on which I was born, Flotilla made space for artists to be seen and heard throughout downtown Charlottetown, and I remembered a thought that had been following me in my own programming work: does it matter if the viewer doesn’t know it’s art?
I know in writing this question that my more scholarly colleagues will recall a multitude of contemporary theory on art in the public (and not so democratic) space, social engagement, and the vocabulary we choose in order to describe the viewer/public/audience. Not to mention the question humans have been asking since recording philosophical queries: what actually is art? I also recognize that work we might consider to be Socially Engaged Art, has the potential to pillarize the artist-as-saviour, a person who drops in and delivers a new understanding in the face of local communities and established experiences. In response, I get outside of the institution and into spaces where I as a curator am not bolstered by the context or self-appointed authority of the gallery. This is not new, or better, however, it might be suited to specific geographies and centres who find it necessary to interrogate what the sincerity of neighbourliness means. Neighbourliness, hospitality; these are qualities that Atlantic provinces rely on. So it makes sense that Flotilla would experiment with the form of a convening, bringing a national gathering into unconventional spaces and onto the city streets.
Artist-run conference as kitchen party, is just about the plainest explanation I could make for Flotilla. That description made the most sense to my family while they hosted sixty live lobster overnight in the back shed. Throughout the early programming stages, in conversation with the curatorial team, it became clear to me that standing outside of the physical artist-run space was a reality on the island — just look at the energetic work of this town is small — and that Flotilla would be adaptive and flexible. When I asked Lori Blondeau (Cree/Saulteaux/Metis,Treaty 4 Saskatchewan) and Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq, Ktaqmkuk/Newfoundland) if they would come together to create a performance inspired by their cultural and geographic relationships with land and water, they responded with Samqwan/Nipiy. Uniting the Mi’kmaq and Cree words for water, in what would become a performative feast held in Confederation Landing Park. Set on the Charlottetown harbour on an early(ish) Sunday morning, Blondeau and Bennett climbed up and down the steep rocks gathering buckets of water, starting the boil to prepare a meal of steaming lobster cracked and laid out on a wide wooden slab. Without the necessity of words, the practice of feasting naturally began with Flotilla-goers from across Canada, tourists and locals alike. As I watched, I wondered what the experiential difference would be between my artist-run colleagues and that of the locals who had stumbled upon the event. Within the context of the field, we know about the power of performance. Perhaps we think about the water and the lobster as materials full of sacred symbolism and feel the weight of the colonial setting on unceded land. Without this frame, we are simply sharing food and sharing space. Is that enough? Should the artists make a speech? Should I thank the funders? Lori and Jordan chose not to speak, not to describe with words to make plain what many of us could feel.
In May 2018, AKA, through our communities project Locals Only, worked to plant a misaskwatomina orchard. The local parks authority was on board, the City of Saskatoon supported us with funding, nearly one hundred people came to plant a bush. This event, this collective action, came from Kevin Wesaquate (Piapot First Nation, Treaty 4, Saskatchewan), a poet and artist who also participated in Flotilla through the Indigenous Peoples Art Collective. Wesaquate had a dream that kids could walk down to the river and pick misakwatomina;that this seemingly small act would be work towards reconciliation. As such it didn’t feel like a time to label the planting as artwork, a reality that was implicit through Wesaquate’s own practice and communities leadership. I have had the opportunity to work in various kinds of galleries, but since coming to AKA I feel the relevance of pursuing intersectionality through artistic practice, that immaterial space of tension is where I continue to see communities in dialogue with artists and their work.
Within the artist-run network there is a pursuit of a kind of newness, a constant ideal. As workers in the artist-run sector, we know our history. We know our radical roots, but now we are part of professionalized, institutional system where lines are blurred between artist-run and public galleries. The unorganized, unstable and self-defining cooperatives of the 70s morphed into defined centres. That is not to say that the institutionalisation of the artist-run system completely undermined the position of the ARC as an alternative space. But it is likely that we would be hesitant to use a term like radical, instead many galleries have become hybrids of who they were and the systems they occupied. The current reality does not compromise the pursuit of relevance, and sometimes relevance means that we don’t need to define everything we do.
Making space for the artist, fostering discourse and distributing/disrupting institutional authority, for me, is the responsibility of the artist-run centre. Right out of school, in my own naivité, I lived in the mindset that the gallery shows work to the viewer, punctuated by openings and artist talks. After working with a few earnest artists I saw the capacity to work with the viewer and ceased thinking about programming for and began the precarious task of programming with. The risk of working together is in the fragility and unpredictability of relationships, expectations and collaboration. There is risk in the unknown form. But the level of uncertainty that comes with truly engaged work either brings failures and lessons or dynamic, flexible projects that disrupt the construct of art work and art “work”.
I take that away from Flotilla.