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Outside the gallery, artists need to watch where they're going

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/3/2015 (880 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The art world tends to be a "safe" place, and I probably spend too much time there. Buffered from the outside world, galleries and art schools provide venues for testing new and sometimes fragile ideas, attracting attentive, sympathetic viewers.

Outside that protective bubble, however, all bets are off. Putting work in the real world lets artists reach wider audiences and make bolder statements, but it also provides highly visible opportunities to get things wrong.

If you're reading this, you've almost certainly encountered the Perception series by local artist KC Adams, either in this paper, online, on radio, TV, or (ideally) in person. Rolling out as posters and billboards, the captioned portraits pair common slurs against Indigenous people ("dirty little Indian," "tax burden") with the subjects' own self-descriptions ("artist," "daughter," "grass dancer," "homeowner"). The contrasts are jarring, and they're supposed to be. The images are everywhere, and that's important. I've struggled with my own response to the project since the first images appeared on social media months ago. Before last week's opening at Hydro Place and before the posters started going up, it seemed obvious that the idea was important, but I found the execution lacking: I wanted something more nuanced from an artwork, something more polished from an awareness campaign.

What I want personally doesn't and shouldn't matter much, but the messaging seemed off. No one should look at a stranger and assume "welfare mom," but there's also no need to further stigmatize mothers on assistance -- or people born with FAS, or who get their tuition paid for, or who conform to other "negative" stereotypes that Perception aims to dispel.

I still have these concerns, but seeing the work installed around the city, I realize I was also missing the bigger picture: a shocking number Winnipeggers seem to have never even considered that Indigenous people might be human beings. As a white person, an "art person," and a relative newcomer to Winnipeg and Canada, I've been sheltered from that reality, but, like many residents, I've also chosen to ignore the evidence. Whether the posters come as a revelation or a reminder, images like these are vitally and sadly needed. They need to be inescapable, and for the time being they will be.

If Perception gains strength from exposure, another recent campaign doesn't hold up quite as well. In posters that Plug In ICA has been tacking up all over town, Vancouver conceptualist Rodney Graham issues a straightforward directive: "Send your child to art school."

The message plays well in some settings: among show posters near the U of W, on bulletin boards in coffee shops and the School of Art mailroom. It addresses a privileged audience, however, one that might "send" its children to art school, (presumably instead of "business school" or "law school"). Elsewhere, that message rings hollow.

I bused down Main Street this week looking for posters I'd seen earlier, a group just north of the tracks near Jarvis, and another further up towards Burrows. I am as true a believer in art school as anyone (I've attended a handful and taught at two). I want every North End kid who wants to go to art school to have that chance, and I want it for selfish reasons: it would make for better art schools and better art. But, realistically, art schools produce more student debt than transferrable skills, and what comes off as cheeky in Wolseley has, in other contexts, a sour undercurrent of "let them eat cake."

Anyway, the posters had all been torn down, but the few remaining scraps send their own message: artists venturing into the real world should watch where they're going and remember to look both ways.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.


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Updated on Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 10:24 AM CDT: Adds slideshow, replaces photo, changes headline

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