Arriving at Nowhere: Reflecting on Chris Kraus’s Radical Localism
Writing from Nowhere
Today in the era leading to peak population, I picture nowhere to be a scarred and uninhabitable postindustrial space, much like what Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes (2006) captures as it follows Edward Burtynsky photographing some of the more than a million people who left their homes during the building of the Three Gorges Dam. The evacuation of people from places of resource extraction seems inevitable and inexorable in our age, and “what will be remembered about the twenty-first century, more that anything else except perhaps the effects of a changing climate,” posits Douglas Saunders in Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (2010), “is the great, and final, shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities. We will end this century as a wholly urban species.”1 This inevitability of a final global migration to cities, not exclusively Saunders’s idea, is being described with different inflections in various contexts these days.2 While current migration trends resemble age-old country-to-city journeys, in this version of it the world is in the midst of the final abandonment of nowhere, Saunders argues. How urban destinations form arrival zones to accommodate their newcomers is critical, because successful migrations hold the possibility of improving the conditions for newcomers as well as fuelling a city’s economy at the same time. According to Saunders, cities that fail to welcome their new arrivals—cities that isolate them in enclaves that become another nowhere—produce ethnic tensions and violence that can extend well beyond their borders. About the outcomes of accumulating, failed arrivals, journalist Matt Taibbi predicts the following in an epigraph that opens Chris Kraus’s chapbook Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories (2012): The next conflict is much more unnerving. That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless.3
Nowhere, therefore, signals depletion—ecological, political, and cultural—and as such it is not just a mega-project’s dead zone or a space of failed arrivals. Nowhere is then any place that lacks the promises offered by an affluent city. In the most privileged of migrations, nowhere is vacated in the quest for a lifestyle that offers an intangible mix of tolerance, diversity, and other creativity-enhancing opportunities—or so goes the logic driving Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), which identifies economic potential in the way property choices anticipate and thereby produce a city’s most desirable real estate. “Cities are the key economic and social organizing units of the Creative Age,” Florida argues.4 Following flights from nowhere countries and nowhere suburbs into more appealing, connected zones of gentrification, his thesis implies that the arrival and production of a creative class of inhabitants will ensure that a city will never become, or will never again become, a nowhere.
In a lecture that took place during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Heather Cosidetto and Stefan Morales took issue with Florida’s opportunistic logic, reflecting on the impact of revved-up creative production in urban centres, with attention to that which gets left behind—the surrounding region. During their talk, they noted that a “host city”—a play on the moniker worn by the City of Vancouver during those Olympiad weeks—is a parasite that inevitably consumes and depletes the region’s resources. In fact, it is the allure of cultural production that becomes the host city’s most validating attribute, they explained. Having worked as informal educators, agriculturalists, and arts programmers in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia and Victoria, British Columbia, they spoke with conviction about the regional depletion surrounding cultural centres.
“We think of cities as places where things happen. A city is a happening place,” Cosidetto chanted in a kind of mid-lecture interruption, invoking in an instant Allan Kaprow’s performative way of inserting the unexpected into public spaces (my italics reflect the emphasis heard in the performance). Because somewhere is a culturally happening place in the logic of “creative cities,” art and performance become implicated in the attribution of somewhere, as well as nowhere. “But there’s not that much happening in Vancouver right now,” Cosidetto proclaimed. Her performance formed an indictment of the 2010 host city’s cultural production, which had shifted financial support away from Vancouver’s long-standing artist-initiated institutions to a more temporary “Cultural Olympiad” festival structure, aimed at promoting the city and its livability.5
In an essay published in this journal, also around the time of the Olympics in Vancouver, Jeff Derksen quoted Henri Lefebvre’s declaration that “society has been completely urbanized.” For Lefebvre, the city’s eternal mutations offer a “radical temporality”—a situation in which arrivals and internal migrations enable the city to continually revise itself, thereby revealing its enormous creative potentialities. Contrary to Florida’s exclusive and contrived production of creativity and its relationship to the city, Derksen argues that creativity should be revealed everywhere in the city—in all forms of production, in collective organizations, and especially in ways of living and ways of making that lie outside of an economic imperative. His text is a reminder that creativity has always been a part of the city’s affective allure. People migrate to places where they can individually and collectively imagine, desire, and realize better conditions for themselves and their relations. In contrast to Florida’s limited take on creativity and the city, Derksen’s text advocates for an “artistic critique in the city,” which needs to extend well beyond Florida’s isolated and class-based approbation of somewhere.6
Over the course of 2014, I had been reading some of Chris Kraus’s recent texts as an artistic critique in—and around—the city, particularly in the way she uncovers art practices coming out of nowhere. Where Art Belongs, the title of her 2011 collection of critical texts, suggests that the situation, indeed the geography, in which art appears needs to be considered. A critique of the centralizing logic of international art cities was also a concern in Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (2004), a collection of her texts originally published in a regular column in Artext and other journals, from the late 1990s to 2002.7 In those pieces and in her newer work, Kraus situates the artworks that she critiques within the artists’, and her own, lived experience, thus encouraging a view of art that is politically active and inclusive. This is something that she has described as adding “a sense of wonder” to art writing.8 For example, in texts and in an exhibition project in Mexico’s northern border region—a place that could be described as an arrival zone, or a region of failed arrival zones—she describes her conversations with the artists who live and work there as they tackle such things as gender intolerance and the instrumentalization of their more critical practices, such as mural painting. It is a charged cultural environment that Kraus sees as relevant despite its isolation. For instance, in describing Radical Localism: Art, Video and Culture from Pueblo Nuevo’s Mexicali Rose (2012), the exhibition she helped to bring to New York’s Artists Space, she writes about how the artists’ expansive and inclusive understanding of culture reveals something relevant to a larger art world: In Spanish, the word “culture” connotes not just high art, but a person’s entire background and knowledge. Using the terms “art, video, and culture” in the Mexicali Rose exhibition title reflects the fact that the work of these artists—even those who have studied and exhibited throughout Mexico, Central America, and the US—is inextricably linked to the city’s geography, history, and politics, signaling the intangible value of culture beyond any one cultural product... What drew me to Mexicali Rose, beyond my admiration for all of the artists, was the sense that this singular enterprise was the realization of a desire, circumstantially manifested in less totalizing ways running throughout the centers of the international art world.9
For some in the art world, the current objects of desire might be itinerant social practices or community engagement projects popping up in art centres around the world. In reflecting on how artists in short-term international residencies sometimes enact a social intervention, with or without the help of a local constituency, Krauss has written: “The impulse is great, but the outcome is by necessity a bit artificial.”10 For the artists in Mexicali—like other artists working in isolation from Western art centres—relationality is not an aesthetic choice to be curated at the behest of an institution but rather unavoidably inherent in all of the artists’ and curators’ works.11 By circulating the artworks and experiences of artists from emergent zones or otherwise decentralized situations, Kraus is providing an activated artistic critique within the context of global urbanization. Echoed in this “radical localism” strategy is a feminist performance that, for Kraus, is a well-rehearsed method of artistic critique.
“Dear Dick,” I wrote in one of many letters, “what happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s least described.”
For all its specificities and undisciplined risk taking, Kraus’s writing has attracted disciplined attention.13 In “Female Trouble,” an article that makes a detailed overview of Kraus’s feminist contributions, Elizabeth Gumport surmises that Kraus has finally offered a workable philosophy that names, and thus apportions validity and agency to, the creative production of women and others who have so far been excluded from the literary grounding of American subjectivity. Gumport writes: Life—here, now, on this continent, in all its prosaic particularity—is something that can be known, is something we might reasonably be said to have knowledge of. There is nothing in the world without a name, or to which we might not give one, should we deem it worthy. What Thoreau, for instance, found worthy was his own life, as lived by him, in America. As a writer, editor, and publisher, Kraus takes up this native tradition, which historically has been best obeyed by those who defied it—by those who understood its meaning, and so sought to redefine it. Both her writing and [her creation of] the Native Agents series as a whole attempt nothing more or less than to cure us of our female trouble by making Thoreau’s treatment available to women, to whom it has so often been denied. To let, in other words, women treat themselves as worth treating, as Kraus does in I Love Dick: “She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was her specificity. By writing Dick she was offering her life as a Case Study.”14
Through the Semiotext(e) series Native Agents, and with her breakout novel I Love Dick (1997), Kraus performed a public naming of those subjectivities fated to be least described. In an often repeated story, the Native Agents series came about when Kraus confronted Sylvère Lotringer, her partner and the editor of the Foreign Agents series, to at least balance the exclusively white and male voice of his celebrated title authors with a feminist voice, one that could enact America’s own post-’68 feminist contribution to philosophy.15 Her proposition resulted in an ongoing series of books by writers who defied gender and racial barriers and that offered multiple forms of writing as living forms of cultural critique. Originally intended to enact the theories of the French philosophers that Lotringer’s series and conferences were importing with acclaim to US audiences, Native Agents effectively un-disciplined philosophy. In the novel Torpor (2006), Kraus approximated the Native Agents project with the character Sylvie, who echoes her own efforts: Since 1989 she’d edited a fiction series for Jerome’s press, a kind of occupational therapy they’ve devised to fill the (thousands of) spare hours she has while waiting for her movies to be funded. The series features first-person fiction written by Sylvie’s friends and former friends. Because most of them are women, Sylvie sees the series as a philosophical intervention. Though written in the first-person, the books are well-constructed rants, not introspective memoirs. Finally, she thinks, a female public I aimed outwards towards the world, more revolutionary than the 20th century male avant-gardes! This is the only counter-cultural trend worth mentioning.16
Characters in Kraus’s novels often speak her concerns with what seem to be louder, more insistent voices: “the only counter-cultural trend worth mentioning” is a shout out. The strategy of aiming her characters’ singular experiences “outwards towards the world,” into a public, produces the writing’s sometimes explosive relevance. For Gumport, the performance of a first-person shout out holds enormous potential—“nothing more or less than to cure us of our female trouble.” The publication of I Love Dick, Kraus’s contribution to the Native Agents series, materialized its own performance of female trouble. Composed around a set of letters written by the character Chris and her husband Sylvère to Dick, the object of Chris’s intense infatuation, the novel mysteriously fictionalized events involving Kraus, Lotringer, and an admired associate, Dick Hebdige. Inside of the novel, as well as through its publication, a woman’s desire for intellectual equivalence makes trouble for others. Irked by the book’s publication, Hebdige complained that it produced an indefensible violation of his privacy. In effect, the story inside and outside of I Love Dick spoke about privacy’s service to power.17 In an article written around the same time and later included in Video Green, Kraus describes Jennifer Schlosberg’s graduate school project, 78 Drawings of My Face (1988). The artwork archives the student’s social encounters, reflecting the intense relations surrounding the emergence of artists into a commercialized art world, with the effect that her disclosures produced insecurities and accusations of ethical impropriety from the school’s faculty. Chris Burden is quoted as declaring to the student: “Artists have to do their own work. Art should not be based on social interactions.”18 On the contrary, writes Kraus, the value of Schlosberg’s work is in the way it performs the lived subjectivity of a twenty-six-year-old struggling to access an art enterprise that was in many ways conspiring to exclude her. Kraus concludes: I think that “privacy” is to contemporary female art what ‘obscenity’ was to male art and literature of the 1960s. The willingness of someone to use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more so if she views her own experience at some remove.19
Indeed this strategy of social disruption by way of personal revelation owes heavily to the 1960s. In Where Art Belongs, Kraus elaborates on her indebtedness to acts of publishing during the sexual revolution, including Suck—The First European Sex Paper (1969–74), Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), Le Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire’s Tout! (1971), and “Three Billion Perverts: The Great Encyclopedia of Homosexualities,” an issue of Recherches edited by Félix Guattari and others (1973). Kraus explains: Suck’s authors viewed disclosure not as personal narcissism but as a means of escaping the limits of the “self.” Liberated sexuality was an exchange of information: ‘Confrontation,’ as Greer writes in Wet Dreams, “is political awareness.”20 And so, the public disclosure of non-normative sexuality seems at least as threatening now as it was pre-’68. Following the “May ’69” chapter in Where Art Belongs, the chapter “Detour” chronicles a month on the tour bus of the Sex Workers’ Art Show (2008). The story describes a troupe of performers who presented a kind of critical burlesque—sex work, on their own terms. The text describes how scathing TV talk show coverage eventually triggered a succession of cancellations and press harassments, and finally the firing of a supportive Virginia-based college president.
On two occasions in Where Art Belongs, Kraus quotes the statistic “at $12 billion a year, the American porn industry out grosses professional sports.”21 By taking up self-reflexive cultural production, the performers of the Sex Workers’ Art Show enacted a post-’68 liberation, and produced something other than pornography—which, alongside sports, seems to be what is most described.
Performativity and Precarity
Linking the conditions of “women, queers, transgender people, the poor, and the stateless,” those whose lives “do not qualify as recognizable, readable, or grievable,” Judith Butler’s notion of “precarity” implies a maximum vulnerability. For her, “precarity” designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.22 Drawing on the example of a performance of undocumented residents singing the US national anthem in Spanish in a Los Angeles demonstration, Butler describes how precarity is challenged by a public performance of rights. She might also have described “Los Infiltradores,” the young and educated American-born children of undocumented people in the US who conspired to be arrested and detained in order to prove the arbitrary application of federal guidelines concerning detention of the stateless. In 2012, their detention centre infiltrations were made public with noisy press releases and demonstrations staged outside the detention centre, while, inside, Los Infiltradores were providing expert advice on how detainees could access fair legal hearings.23 Invoking Hannah Arendt, Butler reiterates that freedom is only freedom when it is performed: “The ‘I’ is thus at once a ‘we.’”24 To make legible the “we,” Butler demands to know what kind of culture, and what kind of performance, will enable those who migrate from nowhere, or those who are least described, to gain legitimate status: “How does the unspeakable population speak and make its claims? What kind of disruption is this within the field of power? And how can such populations lay claim to what they require?”25 These have been prescient demands in Canada, for in 2012, legislation has made access to refugee hearings for migrants coming from south of the US virtually impossible.26
Mobilizing her formidable performance art practice to confront the precarity of the migrants from Central to North America, Tania Bruguera has produced the Immigrant Movement International (2010–). The IMI offers political party membership for illegible migrants and their supporters. Their manifesto demands: We have the right to move and the right to not be forced to move. We demand the same privileges as corporations and the international elite, as they have the freedom to travel and to establish themselves wherever they choose.27
In Mexico, PPM—Partido del Pueblo Migrante (Migrant People’s Party)—an offshoot of IMI, was formed in time for the country’s general election on July 1, 2012. For its inaugural public art residency, the gallery Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS) was the commissioning organization for Bruguera’s PPM project. When I visited the PPM headquarters in Casa Talavera, about a month after the election and at the conclusion of SAPS’s involvement, PPM had over two hundred card-carrying members. “It is not a real institution, just an artistic proposal,” Miryam Gómez Barriga, the PPM coordinator, explained to me. Its aim, she said, was to draw public attention to the migrant’s legal invisibility.28 The PPM offices were also offering services like literacy classes and food and clothing drives for Las Patronas, a group of daring women who distribute essentials—by any means, it seems—to migrants passing north by train. As an art project, PPM generated questions from artists I met in Mexico in 2012. How can this be a community project, if the community that it represents is nowhere to be seen? In fact, its membership was made up of advocates and sympathetic art audiences rather than migrants, who were to a large extent shuttling by, outside the city. Gómez Barriga described how this was a typical criticism of the project. The plight of the migrant in Mexico City, which could be called the largest and most historic arrival city in the Americas, appears not to be a popular topic.
During my time in Mexico City it seemed that the country’s narco-violence, while intricately linked to the situation of migrations there in general, commanded a greater relevance in cultural discourse. At the conclusion of Bruguera’s commission, SAPS was featuring in their front window the installation Muro Baleado/Shot Wall (Culiacán), a 2009 work by Teresa Margolles. Composed of one hundred fifteen bullet-riddled bricks in their original arrangement, the artwork presented the wall’s spray of gunfire and its subsequent use as police evidence as suggested by the light markings surrounding each bullet hole. Its window installation was a formidable imposition into the prestigious cultural zone of the city. As a silent and marred boundary, it made the migration of people through northern Mexico seem futile and terrifying. By contrast, Bruguera’s PPM was forwarding migrations as viable though demanding paths toward political legitimacy. In this way, PPM seemed to be a much more difficult performance to stage.
Depopulation and Romance
After a précis of the Mexicali Rose project in Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories, Chris Kraus abruptly introduces readers to Billings, Minnesota. In a reprint of an application for a Guggenheim Foundation visual art grant, she proposes to relocate MFA graduates to the vacated Kelly Lake store in Billings, as a kind of alternative service project. She describes the idea as entrepreneurial in the following: The business of Kelly Lake Store will be the store: selling gas, groceries, cigarettes, and other convenience store items. The store will not be used as a venue for art exhibition or performances. Instead, interns and staff may choose to keep and/or create documentation of the store’s work—photographs, drawings, texts, journals, videos, notebooks, and ledgers—that may be exhibited at a later time. However, the project’s primary goal will be to make the store’s business economically viable, and then transfer it to new, local owners at the end of the year.29
Kraus is not a visual artist, and the Guggenheim Foundation does not support small business ventures (as readers learn), and it is still relatively rare for MFAs to double as MBAs, or community economic development consultants. (For those who are, one expects that they are not articling as convenience store proprietors in nearly vacant towns.) The curt response from the Guggenheim’s grant officer, also printed, clearly situates Kraus’s grounded approach to social practice outside of the foundation’s mandate.30
On the contrary, in Vancouver, audience members at Kraus’s reading of the text offered other examples of places where artists had reclaimed vacated barns and stores—like in rural Saskatchewan, where artists’ initiatives have generated minor surges in the local economy.31 And, in Greensboro, North Carolina, there is Elsewhere, an art centre and artists’ residency situated in a former thrift store. An “immense 58-year collection of second-hand surplus” is a potential resource and inspiration for projects of all kinds, Elsewhere’s website promises.32
But in the text “Kelly Lake,” the vacated Minnesota landscape is montaged alongside the Mexican border region, thereby reinforcing the wide, cultural reach of Douglas Saunders’s prediction of a “great, and final, shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities.” Kraus similarly draws attention to the “depopulation and dereliction of small towns and cities across the US.”33 Not unlike the storekeepers at Elsewhere, she is suggesting a cultural relevance to that which is left to be forgotten as nowhere. If emerging artists are now global migrants, perhaps they can for a time occupy a place in dire need of occupants.
“Depopulation is Canada’s greatest threat” is something I recall my father saying, near the end of the Cold War. He had relocated his family to rural Canada, in keeping with a postwar post-urbanization trend. The out-migration from cities in the 1970s produced not only a suburban expansion but in western Canada also an exurb expansion. As a result, this relocation of families out of cities into nearby farming communities caused a net population loss in most Canadian cities.34 In some ways a romantic turn toward a more distributed population, the rural expansion of the 1970s was based in part on long-held nationalistic insecurities, and a tenacious capacity to imagine the country as an “empty” landscape that offered no resistance to industrial exploitation by way of farming, mining, recreation, or otherwise.35 Like my family, many Canadians invested in single-family farms or cottage ownership, embracing agricultural and commodity production as a kind of revival of settler ideals, including the emergence of organic food production alternatives. With a somewhat intact and subsidized network of distribution terminals for agricultural commodities, it was a viable way to raise a family, for a while. But by 2000, when I finally moved out of rural Manitoba, nearly half of the people in the town that I left were over the age of sixty-five. (More alarming was that nearly a quarter of the entire town’s population was over the age of seventy-five.)36
Perhaps for former Billings inhabitants the rural lifestyle is still romantic, but probably only in a retrospective or in a recreational way. A website created by the Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists bluntly asks students, “Were homesteaders really on the farm by choice?”37 The website draws awareness to the way industrialized commodity production, which had originally demanded the settlement of the Canadian prairies, had in most cases placed a heavy toll on rural inhabitants, many of whom would have chosen a less difficult lifestyle, if they had had a choice.
“Rural living is the largest single killer of humans today, the greatest source of malnutrition, infant mortality and reduced lifespans”—Saunders’s voice cuts through the idealizing of rural life to emphasize the importance of successful out-migrations from depleted and depleting regions. He continues: Urbanization doesn’t just improve the lives of those who move to the city; it improves conditions in the countryside, too, by giving villages the finance they need to turn agriculture into a business with salaried jobs and stable incomes.38 A Mayan settlement worker in Vancouver tells me that Guatemala’s economy has long relied on the remittances generated from its Canadian and US diaspora—those living as refugees, temporary labourers, and legal migrants, as well as those without status.39
“Both claiming their right for mobility, what happens when the figure of the artist and the migrant coincide?” asks Niels Van Tomme in the exhibition project Where Do We Migrate To? (2011).40 In the exhibition’s publication, Svetlana Boym invents the term “immigrant arts” to critically situate art that resists a non-immigrant longing for home (or, in a Canadian sense, a persistent longing for industrial occupation). Immigrant arts might be created by the immigrant or foreigner artist, or by artists who find the experience of dislocation within, and who, like the immigrant, refuse to lose their out-of-place accent or affect. For Boym, immigrant arts, through estrangements and “alternative solidarities,” enable an “off-modern” experience. She explains: Off-modern is a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project.... Off-modern immigrant arts are tricksters’ arts that play multiple estrangements and belongings, redefining the conception of intimacy and nostalgia that haunts contemporary art practice.41 The universalizing logic of art’s global migration to Western urban art centres is troubled—tricked—by immigrant arts. Near the end of Kelly Lake Store, Kraus describes how emerging artists, often geographically displaced through the obligatory succession of international residencies, take up the disciplines of writing, archiving, community development. She considers Jerry Saltz’s term “post art” in relation to these practices that seem to reject studio and even exhibition spaces. That these artists choose to situate non-art disciplines within art speaks to the alienation of those disciplines but also to the receptiveness of art to modernist detours. Eschewing “visual art’s intrinsically formalist questions,” artists continue to find opportunities to “know the world” through contemporary art methodologies, Kraus observes.42
Art that Cannot Speak
“Works of art, after all, are mute and can’t speak for themselves,” Kraus concludes in another Video Green essay, “Pussy Orphanage.” The article describes situations in which generosity and love from others become necessary to ensuring that artworks continue to be circulated and accrue relevance long after the artist is no longer present. At risk of being historicized in static “essentialist feminism” terms, the work of Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta, and others relied on others to reframe their relevance.43
During the week of Chris Kraus’s visit to Vancouver in 2012, I attended a potluck gathering with artists who had recently accepted a commission to produce a response to Background / Vancouver: An Artist’s View of the City, October 30, 1972, a photo project that had forty years earlier been executed on the streets of Vancouver by Gerry Gilbert, Taki Bluesinger, Glenn Lewis, and Michael de Courcy. According to de Courcy, who remounted the project on an interactive website, one of the original motives for Background / Vancouver was to create a historical record of the artists’ collective presence in what was then a wilderness-bound, emergent city. On the website, de Courcy describes how the romance of the city’s natural features (its beaches, mountains, forests) had a hold on the artists at that time: We had formed a tribe of sorts, an extended family who had in common not only what we did for art, but also a strong sense of identity with the intense geography of the place.... Given the significance of this ongoing romance between Intermedia artists and the urban wilderness in which we lived and worked, I felt that a telling of the Intermedia story should draw attention to this pivotal socio-geographic link.44
So, on a fall day, which also happened to be the day of a national election—a near tie that was only determined to be a Liberal victory for Pierre Trudeau after a night of vote counting and recounting—the artists split off from the Victory Square cenotaph in downtown Vancouver and headed in three directions to collect three hundred and sixty black-and-white photos of buildings, streetscapes, artists, and vistas. The resulting artwork became a large composite of the photos on a serial grid, with an alphanumerical system that made each photo identifiable by number, sequence, and title. A smaller map showing the paths taken on the three journeys was exhibited alongside the large poster. Forty years later, the project is a data mine. Anchored so specifically to the geography, Vancouver viewers easily get caught up in a search for recognition and perhaps recollection. But for our exhausted dinner hosts in 2012, the original work’s performative and relational methods were what captured their interests most. Someone at the potluck referred to the project as a “proto-photo conceptual project,” as if to reify the Vancouver photoconceptual artists in a trajectory with Intermedia artists. This historicizing was drowned out by speculations over the levels of privilege held by the 1972 photographers. The word “ethics” kept slipping in and out of sentences. I had trouble imagining that the original artists would have been considering the social or political implications of their representations of people and the land. Instead, I was noticing how the artists were picturing their friends and passersby in ways that framed and punctuated the newish city. (There is no indication that any of them took time to vote that day, though two of the photos show evidence of the occasion.)
The artists who were making a response to Background / Vancouver—Guadalupe Martinez, Emilio Rojas, and Igor Santizo—are each relative newcomers to Vancouver from Central and South America. They had spent the day of our dinner, and the forty-year anniversary of Background / Vancouver, on the streets performing an altered version of the original action. As they retraced the routes, they took photos and videos and stopped people on the street, asking them where they had been forty years earlier. Not surprisingly, the majority of the people they stopped were, like them, newcomers who offered abbreviated details about their immigration journeys. One respondent reported that forty years ago he had been in a residential school for First Nations children.
Like the Intermedia artists, Martinez, Rojas, and Santizo are negotiating their relationships with a landscape and history, primarily through their art alliances and creative methods. The way familiarity and intimacy—along with geography—get packed into the framing of their artwork is a fitting tribute to the collaboratively productive historical moment that de Courcy was trying to document and preserve in Background / Vancouver. He writes in his online statement that during Intermedia’s three most active years (1967–70), their “‘happenings’...dominated the artistic agenda of Vancouver.”45
In the final production of Background / ThisPlace (2013) at the grunt gallery, an explosion of found maps were artfully collaged into a reverse of the city’s shape on a wall across from the original work. In and around the gallery room multiple methods, including performances, meals, public dialogues, publication projects, media works, sound walks, and more, were made available to the gallery visitors. At the potluck dinner, the artists asked us where we would like art to be in the next forty years. I said that I was hoping for its decentralization. I felt weighed down by how art produced outside of a limited number of art capitals did not seem to generate much discourse.
A Sense of Wonder and Breathless
Where Art Belongs begins with an extended essay that chronicles the emergence of the LA collective Tiny Creatures. Kraus takes pains to describe their social arrangements and how their exhibition events played out, by measure of their sociability. Even her descriptions of their artworks are informal. A social story is spun—made up from a close reading of the interactions and collaborations that influenced and eventually produced art, music, performance, and publications. Readers learn about the geographic details of their shared spaces, the costs of rent, and where they travelled, for example. Headline political events from the time are analyzed for their shared psychic impact rather than any subsequent referential residue in artworks. At one point Kraus describes how the local context had more impact on the artists than the global: Tiny Creatures was born at the height of the Bush years: sometime after Abu Ghraib, after the arrest of Buffalo artist Steve Kurtz on terrorism charges, but most likely before the preemptive detention of the Muslim doctor in Boca Raton who was finally charged in a “plot to treat wounded terrorists.” These external occurrences poisoned the atmosphere, but on an immediate cognitive level; they mattered less to [Janet] Kim and her friends than the concurrent real estate boom that was transforming low-rent Echo Park—a haven for generations of immigrant families, artists and writers—into LA’s hottest new neighborhood.46
Tiny Creatures’ manifesto, included near the end of the essay, combines the artists’ desire to experience the world in a collective way, and to record the outcomes of that sociability, as art:
tiny creatures is
a desire to find a way to live our own way
to have a sense of community,
to see each other while on earth,
to share our lives, our pain, our talents, our thoughts,
to capture a moment in time that will be lost or forgotten,
and to package it with beauty, love, pain, and all that
we can feel as humans.47
“To capture a moment in time” could have been written by the Intermedia artists in Vancouver forty years ago, or by any number of artists’ collectives whose intimate relations have packaged into art things born of their “beauty, love, pain, and all that we can feel as humans.” It reflects a moment when, on the frontier of gentrification, artists live and work with an intense ethic of collegiality and collaboration—a moment from which some emerge as exhibiting and historicized artists and some do not. The politics happening outside of their gentrifying location seem not to mark their work, but as artists seeking to “see each other while on earth,” the politics of their location are everywhere. This moment reflects the alternative solidarities of Boym’s “immigrant arts” and Kraus’s “radical localism”: a moment when, like the Mexicali artists, artists privilege their social relations over dislocation.48
Early in the letters making up I Love Dick, the infatuated Chris gushes about the possibilities of a fully contextualized theory:
Politics means accepting that things happen for a reason. There’s causality behind the flow and if we study hard enough it’s possible to understand it. Can politics be articulated in a way that’s structural, electric, instead of being dug up again, the boring bit at the bottom of the barrel? I think the clue to this is simultaneity, a sense of wonder at it: that the political can be a PARALLEL SOURCE OF INFORMATION, & more is more: adding an awareness of politics, how things happen, to the mix can just enhance our sense of how the present is exploding into the Now Time. I’m thinking of the quote you cite from Levi-Strauss—“a universe of information where the laws of savage thought reign once more.” As if the instantaneous transmission of information can return us to the time-based finite and deliberate magic of the medieval world. “The Middle Ages were built on seven centuries of ecstasy extending from the hierarchy of angels down into the muck” (Hugo Ball). So when you introduce political information to your texts, it shouldn’t be a matter of “And yet—” “But still—”, as if politics could be the final countervailing world (I’m thinking of the essay of postmodern retro camp in your book The Ministry Of Fear.) Politics should be introduced: “And and.” Breathless, keeping it afloat—how much information about one subject can you juggle in two hands?
You write about art so well.
I disagree with you, obviously, about the frame. You argue that the frame provides coherence only through repression and exclusion. But the trick is to discover Everything within the frame.49
Inside of a novel, the character Chris is enthusiastic. She believes that, like the art coming from Mexicali Rose Centro de Arte/Medios or Tiny Creatures or Intermedia, artworks can capture an exploding moment in time. This potential is contained within a myriad of estrangements and solidarities. The artwork’s social and political location—its belonging—produces a voice that shouts out from nowhere.
- Doug Saunders, preface to Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010), 1.
- In “Charter Citizen” (e-flux journal, no. 52 [February 2014]), Tyler Coburn chronicles how the looming urbanization crisis was used to market the development of massive, new cities as free market zones in Honduras. The pitch is said to have begun in a TED talk delivered by economist Paul Romer, in which he used the undeniable intrinsic monetary value of cities (and, I note, a photo of a migrant child riding atop a train supposedly heading north from Central America) to persuade international leaders to consider his “Charter City” model. See Paul Romer, “The World’s First Charter City?,” TED video, 9:13, filmed March 2011, http:/fillip.ca/qcso.
- Chris Kraus, Kelly Lake Store & Other Stories (Portland: Companion Editions, 2012), 13.
- Richard L. Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 393–94.
- Heather Cosidetto and Stefan Morales, “Host City,” Afternoon School series, audio, 1:20:07, VIVO Media Arts Centre, Vancouver, February 17, 2010. This lecture by Cosidetto and Morales quotes Michael Serres’s The Parasite (1980), alongside Cities: Reimagining the Urban (2002) by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift. Their musings and performative presentation inspired for me a way of understanding the instrumentalization of participatory art in the region during Vancouver 2010. See also Lois Klassen, “Participatory Art at the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad,” in Civic Spectacle, ed. Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, Public, no. 45 (Spring 2012), 213–23.
- Jeff Derksen, “How High Is the City, How Deep Is Our Love,” Fillip, no. 12 (Fall 2010), 13–19.
- Also contrasting the expectations for those attending art institutions and the decentralized practices of some of their graduates, Kraus’s recent publication, Lost Properties, is number nineteen in a set of twenty-two booklets that Semiotext(e) presented for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
- Chris Kraus, I Love Dick, Native Agents (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 133–34.
- Kraus, Kelly Lake Store, 24–25.
- Chris Kraus, email correspondence with the author, November 21, 2012.
- A consideration of the production of relationality in art practices that exist outside of art centres deserves a much more extensive inquiry than I am describing here, or than what Kraus captured in her sideways provocation. I appreciate Kristina Lee Podesva’s suggestion that perhaps Viktor Misiano’s “Confidential Community vs. the Aesthetics of Interaction” (East Art Map, ed. IRWIN [London: Afterall, 2006], 456–65) offers a starting point. In it, Misiano describes how artists in Russia during the 1990s were producing works that were coherent within Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, but divergent, if one considered their ontology, and therefore the meanings they produced: In the Russian context relational aesthetics was not so much the limited artistic practice of a group of progressive artists as the collective practice of an entire community, of people who were imitating, through a system of group interactions, an institutional reproduction of artistic life (459). In the midst of the failed ideological apparatus, artists were creating works that were dependent on convivial communities. The “confidential community,” in Misiano’s words, in some ways served to compensate for the “flight of the institutions” (459).
- Kraus, I Love Dick, 208.
- In March 2013, the Critical Writing in Art & Design Programme at Royal College of Art, London, hosted “Aliens & Anorexia: A Chris Kraus Symposium,” in which academics reflected on her specific contributions to theory, listened to readings and performances, and watched some of her early video works.
- Elizabeth Gumport, “Female Trouble,” n+1, February 14, 2012, nplusonemag.com/female-trouble.
- Ibid.; and Henry Schwarz and Anne Balsamo, “Under the Sign of Semiotext(e): The Story According to Sylvère Lotringer and Chris Kraus,” Critique 37, no. 3 (1996), 205.
- Chris Kraus, Torpor, Active Agents (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 189.
- Gumport, “Female Trouble.”
- Chris Kraus, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 60.
- Ibid., 63.
- Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs, Intervention (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), 83.
- Ibid., 89, and in another form on 78.
- Judith Butler, “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” AIBR: Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana 4, no. 3 (September–December 2009), ii–viii.
- Michael May, “Los Infiltradores,” American Prospect, June 21, 2013, http://fillip.ca/egw6.
- Butler, “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” vii.
- Ibid., viii.
- Under Bill C-31 (December 15, 2012), refugees who have arrived in Canada by way of a Designated Country of Origin (DCO) will be returned to that country to seek asylum first, since the DCO list implies that these countries are “safe” and equipped to deal with incidents of persecution in legitimate ways. Mexico was added to this list on February 15, 2013, and Chile on May 15, 2013. If individuals claim persecution while originating in a DCO, they will have an impossibly truncated time (thirty days) to prepare the necessary documentation of their persecution before appearing before a refugee review panel.
- Immigrant Movement International, “Migrant Manifesto,” November 2011, http://fillip.ca/i397.
- Miryam Gómez Barriga, interview with the author, August 8, 2012.
- Kraus, Kelly Lake Store, 27.
- “Our Fellowships are not available to assist with the purchase and operations of a store or any type of business.” John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, quoted in ibid., 28.
- The Scrivener’s Monthly series at the Western Front (under the curatorial direction of Jesse Birch) in partnership with Emily Carr University and DIM Cinema (under Amy Kazymerchyk and Pacific Cinematheque) hosted “Three Evenings with Chris Kraus” in Vancouver, October 29–November 2, 2012.
- “Residencies: Overview,” Elsewhere, accessed December 19, 2012, http://fillip.ca/48vo.
- Kraus, Kelly Lake Store, 26.
- A. F. J. Artibise and G. A. Stelter, “Urbanization,” Canadian Encyclopedia, July 2, 2006, http://fillip.ca/6sl2.
- I am grateful to Glen Lowry, who recalled older and more official language than my father’s concerning Canada’s unpopulated geography by way of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters & Sciences 1949–1951, commonly referred to as the Massey Commission. This formative report by order of Canada’s Clerk of the Privy Council, perhaps indirectly influencing the decisions of exurb-bound Canadians in the ’70s, laid the groundwork for many federal cultural institutions and agencies, including the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, the Canada Council, the National Gallery, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, universities, and more. In the chapter “The Forces of Geography,” the Massey Commission articulates how the sparse population was both a universal feature of Canadian identity and a source of persistent insecurity: But this young nation, struggling to be itself, must shape its course with an eye to three conditions so familiar that their significance can too easily be ignored. Canada has a small and scattered population in a vast area; this population is clustered along the rim of another country many times more populous and of far greater economic strength; a majority of Canadians share their mother tongue with that neighbour, which leads to peculiarly close and intimate relations. (“Chapter II: The Forces of Geography,” Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences, 1949–1951 (archived), Library and Archives Canada, http://fillip.ca/6jy3). Lowry and others at the event (Parenthesis) Ideas Café, hosted by Donald Brakett and Emily Carr University on March 10, 2014, reflected on the persistent racism inherent in this notion of an empty geography—a mythology in which the First Nations inhabitants had vanished or were vanquished, so as to make available a country rich with natural resources ready for industrial as well as cultural exploitation.
- “2001 Community Profiles: Hamiota, Manitoba,” Statistics Canada.
- “Hey We’re Moving into Town: The Forces of Push and Pull,” Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists, 2006, http://fillip.ca/2xrh.
- Saunders, Arrival City, 23.
- The settlement worker reported that remittances accounted for about a third of Guatemala’s GDP. Kennon Pearre documents it at closer to one quarter. Kennon Pearre, “Central America’s Economic Diaspora,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 24, 2011, http://fillip.ca/u73l.
- Niels Van Tomme, “Where Do We Migrate To?,” in Where Do We Migrate To?, exhibition catalogue (Baltimore: Centre for Art, Design and Visual Culture, 2011), 16.
- Svetlana Boym, “Immigrant Arts, Diasporic Intimacy, and Alternative Solidarity,” in Where Do We Migrate To, 26–27.
- Kraus, Kelly Lake Store, 28–34.
- Kraus, Video Green, 74–77.
- Michael de Courcy, “Statement: Background / Vancouver,” Michael de Courcy’s personal website, 2012, http://fillip.ca/ek0n.
- Kraus, Where Art Belongs, 10.
- Ibid., 32.
- Kraus, Kelly Lake Store, 38.
- Kraus, I Love Dick, 133–34.
About the Author
Lois Klassen is a Vancouver-based artist and writer with a thirty-year history of producing collaborative and interdisciplinary artworks. In her work, she employs feminist strategies including group embroidery (in the project Slofemists with Lori Weidenhamer) and the distribution of alternative publications (as in Renegade Library). She writes about participatory art practices and researches ethical frameworks in creative practices. Klassen is the coordinator of the Emily Carr University Research Ethics Board and is currently enrolled in the Cultural Studies PhD program at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.