Activist pasts, austere presents, queered futures: An interview with Emily Davidson

0 Posted by - November 26, 2014 - Conversations, Features, Visual art

“Imagine a new relationship to every aspect of everything.”

“Capitalism has fallen; Art must be redefined.”

“You get to pick your gender when you come of age, but feel free to change your mind.”

“Living together is still hard; Art makes it better.”

These missives from the Inner City Artists’ Commune arrive to us from a post-capitalist future, as envisioned by Halifax-based artist and community organizer Emily Davidson as part of her contribution to the Activist Ink exhibition in early 2013 at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery.

“I was frustrated with seeing history repeat itself in activist communities time and again, so I set myself the challenge of thinking of what could replace this system — I wanted to leap to after the revolution and what it would take to unlearn a capitalist mindset,” Davidson told me in an interview at her North-End Halifax studio in June. “I modelled it after conversations and problems that are currently happening, but tried to imagine what they would be like if we got rid of things standing in the way now.”

“Even if no one would make money on art, we’d still need to attack the idea that fame is to be sought after, or the idea that art is about individual genius. I voiced this through a series of propaganda leaflets and posters this group would have produced. One strategy I used to give myself from limiting factors is to imagine there’s no electricity, we don’t know why, so everything is handmade.”

Such radical time travel is a key dimension of Davidson’s approach, which combines printmaking, performance, installation, participatory art practice and other vehicles in order to draw and complicate the links between art, activism, community and individuality as they resonate through the past, present and future.

Summer of 1973

Summer of 1973: Documents and Ephemera at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, NSCAD. Photo credit: Emily Davidson, 2008

Mobilizing nostalgia

Hailing originally from Edmonton, Davidson is a graduate of Halifax’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a school world renowned for a period in the 1970s when it became one of the critical hubs of the then-cutting-edge conceptual art movement.

While it wasn’t this tradition that first attracted Davidson to the school, she soon found herself fascinated by the nostalgia surrounding the College’s glory days. In her graduate exhibition in 2008 she sought to transform her living space into a pastiche of the year 1973, and her gallery exhibit included original and recreated activist “propaganda” materials from feminist, queer and social justice struggles of the time.

“Much to my roommate’s chagrin I redid my apartment in the style of the day and shot these films and I wore big 70s clothes everyday — I was in 70s drag. I did some reproductions of some important documents from that time, and collected all these weird pieces of printed matter and displayed some material from local activists’ archives. Basically, I was trying to recreate those aspects of my life that were important in 2008 as an abstracted 1973 version: what was happening in activism, in the women’s movement, in the artist-run centres, at NSCAD.”

For Davidson, the acuity of this nostalgia was indelibly linked to the school’s ongoing fiscal and leadership crisis. She served for several years on the executive of the Student Union of NSCAD, an organization well-known in Halifax for it’s strong activist and feminist orientation. In that capacity, she got a under-the-hood look at the way the institution worked over the course of two administrations and, notably, through the fateful expansion of NSCAD to new premises on the city’s waterfront. Amidst the ensuing crisis, and the vociferous faculty and student response to it, Davidson became increasingly interested in the power of nostalgia to foment resistance, but also to limit the imagination.

“In 1973, Art in America posed the question ‘is NSCAD the best art school in North America?’ (though the article title frames it as a question, not a statement!) and that’s still on the school’s website. There’s a way in which, as NSCAD has shifted [towards a more neoliberal, bureaucratic institution], the faculty, in resisting that, have been backwards-looking to those days as the example of what a radical art school should be. I’m really drawn to some of those ideas and nostalgic, activist-related stuff, so I want to both celebrate and critique being stuck in the 70s.”

Polariods of the Turret Resurrection: Sweet Release Disco. Photo credit: Emily Davidson, 2013.

Polariods of the Turret Resurrection: Sweet Release Disco. Photo credit: Emily Davidson, 2013.

Queer spaces

It was in this context that Davidson acquired an abiding interest in the institutional politics of the arts in Canada, especially the politics of small, independent institutions and artist-run centres. In a March 2013 installation and performance piece, created as part of the 125th anniversary of the building which then hosted the Khyber Centre for the Arts (the future of which, today, is in limbo), Davidson, along with the NSCAD Queer Collective, conducted archival research and interviews to uncover the history of The Turret, a famous gay club that operated out of the premises from 1976-82 and served not only as a safe watering hole for the city’s queer community, but also a space and income generator for queer activism in the city.

Davidson and company temporarily recreated the club as exactly as possible, repainting and decorating the space based on archival photos, even bringing in the original record collection. They held a one-night disco and a cabaret event, which drew an intergenerational queer crowd.

“I’m really interested in using art to do other things. Because of the history of The Turret, people came out of the woodwork, it was amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it. The memory of the space made it happen. We didn’t figure out the secret code to create intergenerational links in the queer community, or link that to the arts community. What we did was play with a powerful idea. It’s not something that could necessarily be repeated; we were tapping into collective memory. ‘Art’ was our ticket to do something like this, to create this unique moment.”

“My draw to nostalgia is about how much history repeats itself, and I find both comfort and frustration in doing research about labour and how artists organize…It allows us to place ourselves in a previous moment in a tangible way, and that’s powerful, but it feels like we’re running up against the same wall over and over again. I feel I could take any issue, look into the archive and see that, while ground was being gained, it was simultaneously being lost.”

“Like the fight to decriminalize abortion — it was huge. Yet the fight for access has been 40 years of the same problem, over and over and over again. So things like that are inspiring, they give you a roadmap, but it’s also sort of heartbreaking. That’s why I’m so interested in commemoration, and playing it off against agit-prop. I’m trying to think about the visuals that go along with activism and their purpose.”

Anchor Archive Zine Library at Roberts Street Social Centre. Photo credit: Roberts Street Social Centre website, 2010.

Anchor Archive Zine Library at Roberts Street Social Centre. Photo credit: Roberts Street Social Centre website, 2010.

Community building in the gentrifying city

Davidson says she is most interested in art as one of many ways to build community, connections and forms of solidarity. She has been an important force behind the scenes of a suite of autonomous, participatory DIY institutions that at one time occupied a small, run-down house in the city’s North End: The Roberts Street Social Centre, a community meeting, educational and event space; the Inkstorm Screenprinting Collective; and the Anchor Archive, which boasts a lending library of over 5000 zines.

Recently, these institutions were evicted from their shared premises and, after a long search for a new location in a rapidly gentrifying downtown core, had to split up. The Anchor Archive is now located in the Plan B Merchants Co-op on Gottingen and Inkstorm paired up with Sad Rad, an all ages music venue and show space, to form a new collaboration: Radstorm.

“We looked at many, many commercial spaces. We have very specific priorities: we wanted to keep the projects together, keeping it in the North End, making sure the space was accessible, keeping it cheap so we could offer low-cost programming, and making sure it had a kitchen. And we couldn’t find that. In this city, accessibility is treacherous and the political will isn’t there. It’s expensive, so people don’t do it and it has to change.”

“There are actually lots of available commercial space but the rent doesn’t drop. What’s supposed to happen with capitalism isn’t happening. If there’s too much supply and not enough demand, the price is supposed to drop to true market value of the commodity. But in this case, where theres lots of supply and little demand, the prices stay elevated.”

Creighton Manor before, during and after 'renoviction.' Photo credit: Kaley Kennedy, 2013 and 2014 and Shay Enxuga, 2014.

Creighton Manor before, during and after ‘renoviction.’ Photo credit: Kaley Kennedy, 2013 and 2014 and Shay Enxuga, 2014.

Davidson explains: “It’s easier for a downtown developer to write their space off because no one is renting it than it is for them to rent it out and pay high taxes, but not be able to charge high enough rents to turn a profit. Basically now new commercial developments in the suburbs are being subsidized by the tax structure. So we could establish a system where property isn’t allowed to generate profit, but that will take a lot of work. A short term solution is a restructure to commercial property taxes, combined with penalties for owners who aren’t renting their spaces. That would make prices drop and allow artists, small businesses and others to set up.”

This, even in spite of a newfound fascination among businesses and governments about “creativity” and the ideal of the creative city. Davidson is unequivocal: “As artists and leftists we need to reject that conversation. It serves no benefit. It can be appealing — finally those in power are talking about creativity on some level, so it seems like a gain. People say ‘at least we’re at the table, maybe we can shift the conversation.’ But that conversation is so flawed it’s not even like we’re there. ”

Yet Davidson is keen to deepen the debate and the activism surrounding gentrification.

“There is a problem with the approach to gentrification that sees it as a problem of individuals and their tastes and the sort of businesses or streets people like. When that’s the narrative, it largely ignores the bigger structural issues. It’s just not possible that white people who love mason jars are, by themselves, ruining every city in North America. Because our culture is so focussed on individualism, it’s much easier to think of it as a problem of people with ‘middle class taste’ are shaping neighbourhoods, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

“It’s something that’s happened in every city thanks to a history of government policy, city planning, and the racialized movement of people, and the responses of people to those factors, which were responses to other factors. My desire to shift the discussion away from individuals and their tastes is not to deny my responsibility for my part in a system that is causing harm. But it’s too easy to ignore the structural problems, and then also actually ignore the communities that are actually being displaced.”

“There’s a way in which people who are part of an academic conversation about gentrification think it’s already over and done because we look around the neighbourhood and we see ourselves, but it’s a process that is happening still, poor people are still our neighbours.”

Agitate, Educate, Organise at installed at the Khyber. Photo credit: Brendan Anckaert, 2012.

Agitate, Educate, Organise at installed at the Khyber. Photo credit: Brendan Anckaert, 2012.

Art work, art workers

Davidson’s concern with community, institutions and urban spaces is intimately connected to her work on the connections between art and labour, both in terms of the way art and artistic work function in a capitalist economy, and the ways artists can imagine their work in solidarity with the broader labour movement and other workers’ initiatives.

She recently concluded a five week residency in the industrial border city of Windsor, Ontario (directly across the river from Detroit). The Neighbourhood Spaces residency, offered through a collaboration between the Windsor Arts Council, the municipal government and the well-known arts collective Broken City Labs, places artists in non-art spaces to build collaborations and serve communities. Unlike many residents, who choose to work in a particular institution (such as a youth program or a seniors’ centre), Davidson elected to focus on the intersection of arts and labour, broadly conceived, partnering with the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre.

In addition to working with the city’s Mayday march and Mayworks arts and cultural festival, Davidson also offered practical screen-printing workshops and community discussions about cultural work, the politics of urban space and the nature of capitalism. She conducted a series of interviews with community organizers, arts administrators and cultural activists in the city, which she published in a zine Let’s Work Together: Conversations with Windsorites on Art and Labour.

Let's Work Together zine from Neighbourhood Spaces residency in Windsor, ON. Photo credit: Emily Davidsn, 2014.

Let’s Work Together zine from Neighbourhood Spaces residency in Windsor, ON. Photo credit: Emily Davidsn, 2014.

Here, Davisdon found herself coming up against questions of audience, responsibility and effectiveness that are a recurring theme in social practice and participatory practice. “I had to come to the realization that engaging a community of organizers is still engaging in a community. There’s a weird way, specific to community-engaged art and some forms of activism, that activists aren’t considered the “real people” and there are workers somewhere else who we’re really supposed to reach. I’m really interested in those divisions. The fact that the division exists is a symptom or a way of showing us something isn’t quite working about our approach to social change. I can’t solve that in a five week art project. I had to focus on what I could contribute to the conversation.”

In her conversations with community organizers about the place of art and artists in labour struggles, Davidson discovered many connections to the conditions of precarious, service-sector workers. Yet, once again, she encountered and worked with a potent sense of nostalgia for a seemingly more straightforward or more authentic time. “The organized labour community largely ignores the service sector, and that’s especially potent in Windsor that has this industrial history. Theres still lots of machine shops and it still has the one Chrysler plant, so those people are the ‘real workers’ and everyone else is lost to the conversation. It’s shifting, but theres still a focus on who workers were not who workers are.”

Austerity Rules installed at Malaspina Printmakers, Vancouver. Photo credit: Justin Muir, 2014.

Austerity Rules installed at Malaspina Printmakers, Vancouver. Photo credit: Justin Muir, 2014.

Austerity Rules

Currently, Davidson is working on a new print series, Austerity Rules, based on her distillation of twelve rules that describe how austerity works, though articulated in a celebratory voice. The aesthetic plays with the well-known pared-down yellow and black No Name brand imagery, instantly familiar to most Canadians as the discount generic line at the country’s largest grocery chain, Loblaws. Davidson has already created posters based on this project and billboards and a book project are in the works.

“No Name brand imagery was first introduced in 1978, but then reintroduced in 2009, both moments of intense economic turmoil and the shift towards a rhetoric of austerity in government and financial worlds. Loblaws sought to profit through selling to people without money. It uses the most austere branding imaginable, and the message is ‘we didn’t spend any money on design to save you money!’ which is, of course, total spin.”

“The best way to combat ideas of austerity is to explain them. It’s a conversation that’s being dominated by right-wing economists and politicians. The effects of austerity are so harmful, but billed as if it will be better for people. The idea is to reveal the absurdity of the rhetoric.”

Max Haiven teaches at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

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