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Interviews / September 12, 2014

Garry Neill Kennedy: Taking it to the Banks

In a recent Berlin installation, Kennedy rejigged the logos of Canada's big banks to critical effect. And in this chat, he tells us why.

“What is going on here?” It’s a question that artist Garry Neill Kennedy has been asking for the better part of four decades, beginning in the late 1960s as president of the Nova Scotia College of Art (a post he held for 23 years) and continuing through to his recent Berlin installation The Big Five, which took Canada’s biggest banks as it subject matter. In all of his work, whether as educator or artist, Kennedy has maintained a consistent critical focus on the precepts of power. His tenure at NSCAD arguably redefined art-school pedagogies, making Halifax an international centre of conceptual-art making and teaching. Likewise, his large-scale wall texts, often painted in his signature Superstar Shadow font and accompanied by printed bookworks, have challenged the status quo of institutional bureaucracies and the inherent doublespeak of politics and economics—from Conrad Black to Maher Arar to Canada’s leading financial institutions.

Kennedy’s newest exhibition “An American History Painting (Continued)” and “AN EYE FOR AN EYE IN THE COLOURS OF CITIZEN ARAR (Recent Silkscreens from Malaspina Printmakers)” opens on September 24 at The Apartment in Vancouver, where he has recently relocated to take up a teaching position at the University of British Columbia. Here, Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin catches up with Kennedy by phone to discuss his wry take on the uneasy intersections between contemporary economics and art.

Bryne McLaughlin: For your installation at Emerson Gallery in Berlin this summer, The Big Five, you filled the space with large wall paintings of the logos of the top five banks in Canada. An accompanying booklet details the salaries and biographies of each of those bank’s CEOs. How did the project get started and how did you end up showing it in Berlin?

Garry Neill Kennedy: Cathy [Busby] and I have been friends of the Emerson Gallery for years through the owner/director Russell Radzinski’s friendship with our dear friends the late poet Emmett Williams and his wife, artist Ann Noel, both long-term residents of Berlin who taught at NSCAD many years ago. We did a show there in 2006 entitled “Two New Wars.”

I actually had another idea for the space this time. It was a version of Joseph Beuys’s JA JA JA JA JA, NEE NEE NEE NEE NEE (1968). I was going to do it all in text. Then I thought, “Wow, this space is so good with its high ceilings, and I’ve always wanted to do something about the big five Canadian banks, this space is perfect for it.” So it’s a site-specific work; of course The Big Five has nothing to do with Germany, but I thought that would be kind of neat to travel it.

BM: Sure, all of these banks operate in a global context anyhow…

GNK: Yeah. The other thing is that I wanted to play with the colours of the bank logos, which I did.

BM: What was the strategy in mixing up the colours?

GNK: Well, I wanted to do something naughty [laughs]. I mean most people in Germany wouldn’t pick up on what it means, but in Canada they would. So I think that was part of it. What I did was to shift the familiar colours of the bank logos…RBC has TD colours, and so on.

The display is determined by order of the bank’s importance in Canada in terms of assets, deposits and capitalization. For the colours, I shifted each of them one to the left.

BM: We all know that the banks and other corporations are very careful about image and how their identity is projected or managed. This project throws that into disarray; by shifting logo colours you’ve made their authority seem absurd. It makes you stop and think again about what you’re really looking at.

GNK: Yeah. The biggest shift is the Bank of Montreal, which I’ve painted in CIBC colours. It’s hilarious. It’s an in-joke that Canadians might appreciate, anyways.

BM: You mentioned that you’ve been thinking about a project on the big banks for a while now. Why?

GNK: Well, the salaries of the CEOs are unbelievable. It’s grotesque.

BM: Yes, the CEO salary figures that you’ve included in the printed booklet accompanying the project are shocking—from $9 million to over $12 million a year—though I’m not sure we should be especially surprised to know that bank leaders make outrageous salaries since the banks are posting record profits most quarters.

GNK: The interesting thing about Canadians is that we don’t really seem to care. Most people worship the banks as they do churches. It’s amazing how we let this stuff go by and don’t get upset about it. There’s a CBC program, I forget the name of it, and they talk about it as if to worship the banks is okay. Well, it’s okay, yes, but as we know from this guy Piketty—and that’s another story—the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. All the while we stand by and worship the rich.

BM: And what do you think that basic paradigm of inequality or sense of powerlessness in the face of these corporate-capital monoliths means in relation to the art world?

GNK: Well, as you know, the corporate monoliths have fully entered the art world. Maybe we should care about that. Think about how little they pay the art world and how much they get out of it. It’s a huge amount of PR.

BM: Right. It makes me think about one of the panels from Hans Haacke’s On Social Grease (1975) series, the one where he quotes David Rockefeller, then a Museum of Modern Art trustee and chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank: “From an economic standpoint, such involvement in the arts can mean direct and tangible benefits. It can provide a company with extensive publicity and advertising, a brighter public reputation, and an improved corporate image…” and on it goes.

GNK: Yes, well they’ve discovered that a lot of the people who have Swiss bank accounts are now putting their money into art because regulators are clamping down on the Swiss banks. Anyways…Haacke is a good reference, for me, at least, because I really respect his work.

BM: You’ve been working along these lines a lot recently. Take your PATTISON (2013) project, for instance, where you played on the wordmark identities of two of the most prominent figures in the BC corporate ecology: James Pattison and Bob Rennie, the latter of whom also wields quite a bit of art-world clout (and controversy) as a well-known collector of contemporary art. What is your opinion on the individual and corporate largesse that, especially in recent years, has become an increasingly important aspect of how the art world operates?

GNK: Well I think it’s a rip-off. Except for a few, like Jeff Koons or someone like that, artists are the most trodden upon people going…including Hans Haacke [laughs]. I mean really. We make nothing, yet full advantage is taken of us.

BM: To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, though, a lot of things that happen in the art world—prizes, residencies, exhibitions, buildings—are absolutely dependent on that support. Where would the art world be without it?

GNK: Where would we be without it…well, I think we’d be ahead of the game. I mean, the Sobey Art Award, give me a break. In my view, it ties up the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, all of the curators and the director, everyone there, with organizing and administrating the Sobey Award. What do Sobeys get out of it? Tremendous publicity, tremendous popularity and tremendous visibility. And what do they pay? Peanuts. Plus they get tax write-offs galore.

BM: Measured against the relative scale that you point out in The Big Five with the annual salaries of bank CEOs…it does seem a bit ludicrous.

GNK: I think so. On the executive scale I think our bank CEOs make the most. Yet the banks pay pennies to the art world, I mean they’re penny pinchers all the way. The big five take us for a ride.

BM: Your work is, and in many respects always has been, about challenging these systems of political and cultural authority. But there are artists who hesitate to identify themselves as activists or political artists, perhaps for fear of compromising future prospects or art-world connections, I don’t know. Would you say that you are an activist artist or that your work is necessarily political?

GNK: The answer is yes: I’m a political artist. What else is there? All my work is of that nature. I ask the question, “What is going on here?” I’ve always been asking that same question.

BM: So you feel that artists have a responsibility to address that basic question as a challenge to the institutional status quo?

GNK: Yes, absolutely. I think there are more and more practices where artists are completely self-indulgent, enjoying the ride that’s provided by the system as it is. There certainly aren’t that many political artists in Canada or the United States. Probably there are more in Europe, but I’m not certain.

BM: I think there are issues that demand more urgency. First Nations artists have been extremely resistant to the status quo of history and how the art world deals with that, for instance. How does the audience fit into this equation of resistance? You make the work and put it out there to provoke audiences to see and think about these issues differently…

GNK: That’s one reason why I almost always use printed matter with my projects. It makes the issues clear. If the image isn’t clear then the printed matter is. It’s another way of disseminating the ideas. When you read that a bank CEO is making $12,800,000 a year, well that’s pretty blatant. It speaks for itself.

BM: Last thing, and I’m thinking now of The Colours of Citizen Arar (2007), which to my mind is a really important project, though it seemed to be largely ignored in the art world, and otherwise, as well as the more recent works like PATTISON and The Big Five where you take on these corporate identities: have you ever had to defend or respond to the critical opinions raised in your work?

GNK: I would say not.

BM: That was my suspicion, but it amazes me. In the corporate climate of the art world that we work in, it’s so important that we have this counterbalanced perspective. Why do you think there’s been such a lack of reaction?

GNK: I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s interesting.

BM: I mean, these are big challenges to systems that affect us all in one way or another.

GNK: Yeah, these works are challenges and we’re exposing what the business world, the political world and the art world is really about. You wonder if it weren’t for us artists and journalists, where would we be today? It certainly could be a lot worse. We do have to be careful, though. I did see a very positive interpretation of PATTISON online. It said something like, “Here is a great guy, and here is an artist finally showing a great guy,” that sort of thing [laughs]. Of course that was not what I was trying to point out [laughs].

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Senior Editor at Canadian Art.