Breaking the Mould
This post is a summary of a presentation that was part of the Unmute: Virtual Artist Residency in March, 2021, critiquing norms that favour the privileged in arts and post-secondary institutions, as well as engaging in anti-oppressive approaches to making and sharing art as an individual artist. This post will paraphrase and explain what was said in the Artist Workshare by the same title, excluding the following discussion.
I’m a non-binary, queer, trans activist. I am fat, femme, disabled, and white. I come from a lineage of settlers and colonizers. I am a farm kid, who cares a lot about the land – I come from Treaty 4 territory, colonially known as Riceton and Regina (Riceton being my home town, and Regina being where I currently reside). This land is the traditional homeland of the Plains Cree (Nehiyawak), Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples, as well as the Métis peoples after contact. I don’t wish to simply acknowledge that there is land under my feet; I want to comment on how the stewardship of the land has been pulled out from under the traditional stewards of this land and passed to mostly white people, colonizers who have used the land in ways that are not traditional to the First Nations people of this land. My great grandfather “broke” the land on my family’s farm, and I think that’s a fitting way of phrasing it because in some ways we have broken this land. While we’ve done many things that could be considered positive with regards to environmentalism and land stewardship, it was whole and now it’s not.
In acknowledging that I’m on Treaty 4 territory, I want to acknowledge that this is the homeland of people who belong here, and didn’t force their belonging here the way that we did as colonizers and settlers. Instead of simply reflecting on the history, I want to focus on the present and what actions we are taking today. I would challenge you, if you aren’t an Indigenous person, to go out and give cash directly to an Indigenous person, to have a discussion with a non-Indigenous person about Land Back or Truth and Reconciliation or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2 Spirit people. Take action and speak words, and listen. It’s not about us as privileged people – it’s about making sure we repair the harm that has been done and help to heal.
I’ve already mentioned aspects of my identity and where I’m coming from, but to elaborate more I am from Riceton, SK., which is a town with less than one hundred people in Southeastern Saskatchewan, which is in the middle of Canada. It’s one of the prairie provinces. I am queer and trans in one of the most conservative areas in the country, arguably one of the most challenging areas to live as a queer and trans person in Canada. I come from a place where there is an expectation that if people are worth listening to and speaking to, they are generally a white, cisgender, heterosexual man with some income and savings, and likely older than 35. That’s who we would call the norm, regardless of statistics, and who we are expected to mould ourselves around and speak to. When I’m speaking to people who fit that mould, I’m expected to flatten myself, to take up less space, to let them have the space, because I don’t fit that mold. That’s what I wish to comment on today, in the context of life and in the context of art.
So I want to speak to privileged institutions (in my notes this section was called “Privileged Institutions and How I Failed At Them”). I went to a rural school, and I was the music kid. There were a few other people who made music, but I was leading the choir by high school, playing the piano most every lunch hour. I was the musical theatre person, the one playing piano and taking exams. When I left high school it seemed obvious and inevitable that I would go to University for music. I arrived in that space hopeful, and thinking that I could transform what I had been doing into something more refined and professional and acceptable. I was immediately told that I would never make it as a performance major and put into composition, which was my goal anyway but the delivery of this verdict stung, after so much time spent making music.
In a music degree, you take private lessons to hone your craft. For someone like me, this meant piano lessons and composition lessons. I left a substantial amount of those lessons in tears or close to it, not because I didn’t have anything of value to bring but because the standards of excellence for such things are based very heavily in old, cisgender, heterosexual, white, European men’s ways of looking at music, and at art in general. We expect that singers should sound like British choir boys regardless of the harm that it does to their voices and bodies, we expect that pianists learn the technical abilities that support the playing and composing styles of long dead European white men with very little thought or effort towards any other way of playing. Classes about world music barely scratch the surface of any other tradition, styles, or ways of being and are often elective classes.
We have a standard that we’re held up to that I failed at; I went in there as a queer and trans person, despite not having the knowledge, words, and courage to express myself as such at the time, but I was different. I went in and I wrote things for my composition lessons, trying so desperately to please my professor that I wrote almost nothing that I cared about, that I was proud of, that I was happy with, or that I felt represented me. When I did write a piece that I felt encompassed more of my own passion and self, it was labeled a “joke piece” and I was told that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I did things like that. For one particular piece which involved Sun Chip bags, the audience loved it and my professor was astounded at the positive reception.
This served to illustrate for me that there was a mould that I was expected to fit into, and when I broke out of it I was viewed as breaking unspoken rules, rather than being authentic to myself. I decided I wasn’t going to fit that mould anymore, that I didn’t want to work within such strict boundaries that were so far removed from who I was. I took elective classes in sound art and intermedia, where I found instructors and peers who were more open to my own practice and me learning what that practice could encompass, which taught me that breaking the mould is not going to alienate me from everyone, only from the people most invested in the status quo.
Breaking the mold is good. We need to be expanding our definitions of art. What is art if not cutting edge? What is art if it’s not representing the absolutely enormous swath of diversity that we have in the world? What is art if it’s focused completely on one specific lens of viewing the world?
Today I write for my own sake. I’m a singer/songwriter, and don’t do as much visual art or traditional art, but I am writing what comes from my heart and my soul. A pivot that I’ve been working to make is working towards speaking truth to power, punching up, and approaching art in a way that keeps in mind not only who I am, but also who I want to speak to in the world.
Let’s take the mould and not just break it, but throw it out! What’s the point of having a mould so that everything looks exactly the same, when it can be messy and fun and valuable and heavy and all these other things?
Which brings me to intersectionality. Intersectionality is defined in the dictionary as “the interconnected nature of social categorization, such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and/or disadvantage”. Personally, I view it a bit differently – I think we need to take into account the privilege and the advantage that can come with intersectionality. I am marginalized. I am also privileged. Intersectionality is the framework through which I view my interactions with the world – I’m a queer, trans, disabled person, I’m fat, femme, and so much more that isn’t normal or expected or valued, but I’m also white, relatively able-bodied, and I come from economic privilege. That gives me so many advantages, too. If you compare a white trans person to a cis black person, can you truly determine who has it easier or harder in life? I cannot agree with anyone who can say that these things are strictly measurable because intersectionality says that they’re different. They’re both privileged in some ways and marginalized in other ways, and it is only useful to compare in ways that are targeted towards fixing all inequality; it’s not useful to play at the Oppression Olympics, to say “this person has it worse, so stop complaining”. We should all be working on making it so that we don’t have to care about intersectionality, because in a perfect world every aspect of everyone’s identity would mean something to themselves and people who care about them, and not mean anything to the people who are trying to make lives miserable because of their victim’s identity.
So how can we use an anti-oppressive lens in art? Let’s talk about coming from a place of anti-oppression when we’re creating and sharing our work. For me, a simple thing is to change lyrics in old songs to make them gender-inclusive – I wrote quite a bit before I came out as queer and trans, and many of those songs are about cis-hetero relationships. They don’t have to be, so small changes can make my music inclusive to myself and other gender-expansive, sexually diverse people. People who are marginalized in those ways should be included and should be thought about.
Another way to think of it can use the example of a gendered lens – let’s say you’re making art for women. Have you engaged with what that means, who you’re actually making the art for? Are you really making art for all women, or just for cis women? Are you making art for women, or for people who menstruate? Those are not strictly the same group. People who have children and women are not the same group. When you’re considering who you’re making your art for and when I’m considering who I’m making my art for, am I using shorthands that are actually excluding vulnerable and marginalized people, or am I contemplating who it’s for in a real sense?
You can’t make an art piece that’s for everyone, and a piece isn’t going to say the same thing to everyone who engages with it. If you try to make art for everyone, it generally won’t really connect with anyone. When you’re making art and decide that you are going to focus on people who are aligned with the cis/het rich white guys that we often feel we must impress in order to achieve commercial success, that’s your choice and good luck. If you decide you want to engage with an anti-oppressive framework, you may want to consider making art that is for, say, sex workers or trans men. Engaging with people who aren’t traditionally engaged with in art can be so freeing and beautiful, because we can connect with people on a level that some of these groups of people may never have experienced. So many people think art isn’t for them, because it hasn’t been. Let’s make some for them!
Let’s talk accessibility. I like to compare it to climate change – there’s individual responsibility, and then there’s systemic problems. Individual responsibility is important to keep in mind. It’s something we can control, action that we can all take. It won’t fix the systemic problems – I can’t fix systemic problems by myself no matter how hard I try, how perfectly I do the work, it still won’t fix everything because there are systemic issues that are bigger than me. I should still do my part, though, because if enough people do their part and add their voices, we start seeing some systemic change. It’s a balance between doing what you can and adding your voice to the collective, and making sure that you don’t put the expectations of systemic change on one person.
When I’m looking at accessibility, particularly for people living with disabilities, we need to take responsibility to guide arts organizations into a place of change. If I’m hanging paintings in a traditional gallery space, I need to make it mandatory that not all of the art is at eye level for someone who is 5’6″. If someone is particularly tall or short, if someone is in a chair, if someone is a child, they’re not all experiencing it in the same way. I need to make active choices about how people are going to experience my art, and instruct the gallery space that it’s to be displayed in the way that I intend. If I’m engaging with a piece of art that might be triggering, I don’t want to leave it to the arts organization to think about adding a content note, particularly if it’s at the request of someone who has already been harmed by the piece. I would want the content note to be part of my work, and make it mandatory that it be included in every single place that the art is displayed. Then the arts organization isn’t in control of whether or not the content note exists and is used – I’m aware that most of our arts organizations are cognizant of this kind of thing, but it can be forgotten or not thought of, so a push from artists to include it may cause a shift that is needed. We can start this social change.
I mentioned earlier that art can’t be aimed at everyone. We need to decide who we’re including but also who we’re not including. An example would be an installation involving strobing lights – the artist is by necessity excluding people with epilepsy, but have they made this known so no accidents happen? Can they include some sort of documentation that isn’t triggering so that people can engage with the work in a different, accessible way?
I don’t have all the answers – we can’t include everyone in everything, and sometimes the choices are very difficult to make. This post, and the presentation it’s based off of, are meant to spark conversation and thoughtful engagement so that we’re considering perspectives that we may not have considered before.