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May we suggest

Features / January 29, 2009

Symposium Report: We, Ourselves and Us

With Obama in the White House, and confidence holding in the Canadian parliament, it’s timely to discuss the intersecting possibilities of community and history. So it was at “We, Ourselves and Us,” a recent symposium on themes of community featuring talks by Simon Critchley, Maria Lind, Nina Möntmann and others.

This week, pundits puzzled whether Canada’s parliament would be able to agree on a budget, or whether it would dissolve into election-time factions. Though no mention was made of Stephen Harper (or Barack Obama, for that matter) at “We, Ourselves and Us,” a January 24 symposium in Toronto on the idea of community, recent political fissures and hopes for renewal offered a wide backdrop on which to situate such issues. (The symposium was held by the Power Plant in concert with the journal Public and the Goethe-Institut, Toronto.)

Following a keynote lecture on Friday night by New School philospher Simon Critchley, a Saturday session kicked off with a talk by Nina Möntmann, Stockholm-based curator of “If We Can’t Get It Together,” the Power Plant’s winter exhibition on community themes. Möntmann noted she found herself intrigued by “dis/membered communities, communities of people who have no community.” She was also intrigued by the idea that “community and isolation can happen at the same time,” and the possibility that galleries can be a place for transient communities to congregate.

Next up was a talk by New York-based artist Emily Roysdon, whose work is presented in Möntmann’s exhibition. Roysdon shared examples of her own collaborative publication work, LTTR, tracing its six-year history with slides naming every contributor ever involved. She noted that the queer feminist zine/journal grew out of a desire on the part of fellow co-founders K8 Hardy and Ginger Brooks Takahashi to create “not a protest group but rather to build the spaces you wish existed.” Roysdon rounded off her talk with examples of work from other artists she admired in this sense, notably Jeanine Oleson, whose Greater New York Smudge Cleanse brought new age healing rituals to the streets of Manhattan last fall, and Sharon Hayes, whose recent group protest performances at the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention led to public confrontations with anti-homosexual groups.

Follow-up discussion with Critchley, Möntmann and Roysdon touched on the idea that if representative democracy no longer functions, and there’s a strong desire for other forms of participation, perhaps exhibitions could offer that opportunity to participate. There was skepticism, however, on the part of Critchley and fellow visitor Maria Lind about whether public or institutional spaces—ones necessarily surveilled in this day and age—are really the best place to posit such possibilities. Möntmann seemed to agree that venues like Tate, the Guggenheim and other large museums may not fit the bill for same.

Next, a talk by Toronto artist Luis Jacob, also featured in Möntmann’s exhibition, focused on the necessity of historical continuity and knowledge in building a community. More specifically, Jacob said “historical continuity is the achilles heel of the Toronto art community,” and called for more exhibitions and texts—like AA Bronson’s “From Sea to Shining Sea”—that brought the past into the present. At the same time as he advocated for a more generationally and geographically networked understanding of Toronto art, however, Jacob noted a seemingly contradictory desire for hierarchy, one that was also exemplified by Bronson’s trajectory from Canadian community-builder to internationally known art personality.

After Jacob discussed writing and exhibition-making as means of building community, the Power Plant public programs curator Jon Davies (filling in for last-minute absentee Carlos Basualdo, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) took to the stage to present on the ways that gossip can be used in creating an arts scene. Davies drew out this theme using materials and research related to the current exhibition he curated for Oakville Galleries, “People Like Us: The Gossip of Colin Campbell.”

In further discussion with the Power Plant curator Helena Reckitt, Jacob and Davies seemed to agree that they preferred “culture by mouth” rather than “culture by media”—that is, culture and community created by face to face contact rather than third-party reports. Both also noted that they found queer communities particularly adept at intergenerational transfer of information and knowledge.


Next Maria Lind, now director of the graduate program at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and author of Taking the Matter into Common Hands: Collaborative Practices in Contemporary Art, delivered a powerhouse presentation attempting to outline the diverse subspecies of collaboration in art. Suzy Gablik’s connective aesthetics, Suzanne Lacy’s new genre public art, Wochen Klausur’s context-kunst and Pierre Huyghe’s No Ghost Just a Shell all got a mention—to name just a few. Lind did say that “collaboration is a central theme in contemporary art today,” but also took pains to note that collaboration can be used for ill as well as for good. In her view, “who, what and for whom” are issues that must always be assessed in evaluating collaborative art.

Final speaker Saara Liinamaa, a PhD candidate in social and political thought at York University, brought to light the international Complaints Choir project as a means of collaborating and creating community both through singing and through negative commentary. York University professor Janine Marchessault led a brief discussion following with both Lind and Liinamaa.

Near the end of the proceedings came a screening of Nicoline van Harskamp’s video To Live Outside the Law You Must be Honest, in which a male narrator walks through the town of Christiania, a radical free town at the centre of Copenhagen, and speaks to concerns around maintaining a balance between order and liberty.

The symposium closed with a reception at the Power Plant, which besides Möntmann’s exhibition features two other shows riffing on the idea of community and network: Goldin + Senneby’s “Headless,” which offers a cryptic installation on global capital flows, and Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby’s “Beauty Plus Pity,” which consists of video projections and sculptures suggesting gaps and collisions between the animalistic and the humane.

It’s an open question whether the symposium’s 100-some attendees—curators, students, artists and writers being their own form of “community without community”—felt a suitable balance of cohesion and isolation following the event. Still, it’s certain similar issues will resurge this Saturday, January 31. That’s when Prospect 1 curator Dan Cameron speaks at Harbourfront Centre in association with the Power Plant, and a dispersed array of personalities will once again gather to debate the possibilities of togetherness.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via