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Soak Black Worry in a Bath of Black Laughter

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Soak Black Worry in a Bath of Black Laughter
In this episode of With Opened Mouths: The Podcast, Kingston raised spoken word poet Britta B. talks to Qanita Lilla about her work, mentorship and navigating a White world while growing up Black.

SPEAKERS

Qanita Lilla (host), Britta B. (guest)

 

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Hello, and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host, Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The show, With Opened Mouths, interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate from outside Western knowledge making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with artists, spoken word poets, musicians and curators to discuss the expression of their practice and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard. 

[Music]

And today, I am delighted to have Britta B with us. Britta B is an award-winning artist, poet, MC, voice actor and educator. In 2021, Britta won the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award and was named COCA Lecturer of the Year. Her work has featured in print, in sound and onstage across North America in notable spheres such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, CBC Arts, Poetic License, the Walrus Talks, TEDx and the Stephen Lewis Foundation. As an artist educator, she facilitates artist training seminars, poetry workshops and social justice programs in partnership with organizations like JAYU, Poetry In Voice and Prologue Performing Arts. Britta also serves on the League of Canadian Poets Membership Committee for spoken word and is the interim director of Hamilton Youth Poets. Currently, Britta is preparing to defend her MFA poetry thesis at the University of Guelph in early August and is looking forward to joining the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto as a spoken word professor in the fall. 

Britta, I’m totally blown away by your accomplishments. Seriously, it’s amazing. And, like, by your body of work. Thank you so much for coming, all the way to your hometown and joining us today.

Britta B: Thank you for having me, Qanita.

Qanita Lilla: That’s a pleasure. Let’s dive straight in. I think it would be really great if you can share a piece of your work with us just so that people can get a sense.

Britta B: Yeah. Okay. So this poem is called Black Boots. Here we go. Snap, snap, snap. 

[Finger snaps]

Said no black and broke into black boots. Loosen the strings of my black, black hoodie, pulled my head see-through. Soak black worry in a bath of black laughter tucked into, tinkered out of black turtleneck fractures. Saw the spy on the other side of the tunnel. Spat purple black paranoia over boom bap stitches. Hunch pitch black helmet hips. Black shellacked fists rolled around black cotton sheets, the T-shirts till I snatched cavities on a black satin dress. Geez. Took it off, put on black track pants and black leather gloves. Pushed my way through the dark of a long black coat’s arms. Parked in front of the mirror with black wings of what little I got. I and a lot of blackish and black begin every day reentering this blacklisted grid. Black comes back. Black attracts black. Black goes with everything. Sure. But what would you give to be the blackest thing on earth? 

[Finger snaps][Laughs]

Britta B: I always want fireworks to go off at the end —

Qanita Lilla: No, no, no, no, no.

Britta B: — of the last line.

Qanita Lilla: Wow, man. Wow. The blackest thing on earth. What are you thinking about? What are your thoughts? What is in your mind?

Britta B: Yeah. So, well, actually growing up in Kingston, yeah, I was one of very few families that had black and brown skin. Growing up in Kingston, there wasn’t a lot of other black or brown families to relate to and look at and be recognized by. I was used to be the only black kid in my school or in my class or in a room. And so often, I think about what it means to, like, stand out and be invisible at the same time, to not really be seen, to not really be recognized in terms of your full presence, because there are stereotypes. There’s biases or biases. And yeah, with this poem, I really wanted to complicate — not complicate, but look at the trouble of showing up in, like, your fullest self but having that pride, that inner pride that keeps the momentum, that keeps you moving, even when, you could say, adversities are against you or people’s opinions, people’s thoughts, people’s judgments, people’s discrimination or any of the -isms are thrown on to you. And so yeah, with this, I just — I think this piece just wants to see itself in its blackness and to understand also, like, blackness isn’t just one thing and to be available to that full presence. 

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, I really like how you use, you know, black clothes and the fact that, you know, everybody regardless of, you know, skin colour adopt some kind of — 

Britta B: Yes, but, yeah, the clothes.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that is like it’s a — something readily adopted, you know, and how you transition that into, like, sharply into actually, like, being that, you know, and how that is so difficult to be accepted. And, you know, just how, like, the codes work. The fact that you can, you know, you can wear all these black things. And, you know, they might be cool, might be elegant. You know, they’re read in all these different ways if people wear them. But, like, being in the body is totally, totally different. And I think that spoken word poetry has something to do with, like, poetry being embodied. When you’re speaking now, it came from deep within. Can you please explain — it’s the first, really, the first time. You’re the person who’s introduced me to spoken word, really. There’s been a lot of — there’s a lot of traditions in Africa about pray singing, for example. And this is the closest thing that it comes to, like, pray singing. You know, and I find a lot of similarities between your work, your practice and pray singing. Could you talk to — tell us a little bit about that.

Britta B: Yeah. I think, too, with embodiment, what it — what is it that you as the artist can’t take off? So when we think about, like, apparel or swag, armour, masks, when we think about these things we put on to show up, but what is it that you can’t take off? What is the thing that you are left with when you are vulnerable but when you are generous in being able to gift yourself to people? And for me, spoken word is my way of letting others receive me because I’m able to hear my voice and control my voice. And if I’m not able to control maybe my surroundings, my environment, my company, my era, all these other things, so much of the world I can’t control, my voice is something that is mine. It’s my thing that I’m at least left with. It’s the thing I hear when I’m alone or when I’m isolated or when I feel lonely or when I feel confused, caught up, when I feel these intense, complicated emotions. And that I’m not — at times, when I’m most not able to use my voice, then I’m able to curate and write. Of course, writing is a part of it too because I’m curating what it is that I want to be able to express. So I think spoken word — a lot of people show up to spoken word wanting to be able to get something off their chest or to kind of clear a cloud that’s fogging their mind. And a blank page, for instance, is a place where you can begin to pour those thoughts, pour those feelings. And what’s maybe really attractive about spoken word is that everyone — a lot of people are really afraid of being in a room and having the attention, like, being able to speak in front of a roomful of people. But with spoken word, you’re not just like giving a speech. You’re putting some music into it. You’re putting some rhythm. You’re putting some motion, some body movements, facial expressions. It’s theatrical. It’s dramatic and dynamic. And you get to kind of stage how that expression gets to be visible, gets to be heard. It gets to be sensed by the audience. Whether they interpret it the way that you want them to or not, it’s still a play and an experiment and a way of either telling a story or contributing like a piece of art to a scene or to a moment. I think of poetry in terms of moments and how you are reflecting value onto a particular moment with what you choose to say. It automatically becomes valuable. And so yeah, I think poetry and spoken word specifically is very attractive because it’s a chance to use your voice as you would want to be heard and as you would choose to have it experienced.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And it’s very — it’s like a very overt form. You know, it’s like —

Britta B: Overt. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. It’s, like, this is what I — which is fantastic, which makes it really evocative. You know, it’s like this is me. And either accept this or not.

Britta B: Yeah. It can be the opposite too. Like, I imagine, like, overt as in you’re going to take what I’m giving you. But it could be the opposite of it, too, where it’s like I want to bring you in. I want to have you go introspective. Like, go inside your mind. Go inside your faculties, your ability to intelligibly decipher the language, the sound of the language, the cadence of the language. And I want you to be able to — with where I’m going to land you or certain landscapes, parts of words or even images, I want you to be able to meet somewhere in the middle of all that tension and remedy a thought of your own and get to a thought of your own that maybe I can’t tell you exactly what you need to be thinking right now or reflecting on. But you’ll get there. And that’s a really beautiful thing about poetry too is how you’re able to gesture towards something without imposing it, without, like, really pushing somebody to see it.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But also, it takes, like, movement on the part of your audience.

Britta B: Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: It’s not — it’s not, like, you know, opening up a book of poetry and reading it and then deciding, you know — or I’ll pick it up, whatever. This is like, here I am, you know, regardless of the type of experience. But here I am, and this requires movement, you know. And I want to ask you, how did you start on this journey? Because this is a dynamic journey. And it’s — you know, it’s kind of — absolutely, it’s completely activist. You know, it’s activist like for the spoken word artist and for the listener. How did you arrive, like, on this journey from Kingston?

Britta B: Yeah. Growing up, I spent a good quality amount of time with my mom reading, reading and writing. And I remember the day she taught me how to spell my name. Like, that’s something that will live with me, like, feeling the pen in my hand and her hand around my hand and teaching me how to draw the shapes that would create the letters to spell my name. And that, for me, was this internal, like, little switch that went off in my mind that just without knowing it full on in that moment, but looking back, I could tell myself, oh, I knew that writing would be a way for me to achieve some kind of power, some kind of magic, let’s say. And growing up, my mom would spend time reading out loud with me, teaching me to pause and use my breath and be able to look at an audience and address them. So we would stand, my little brother and I, sometimes in the middle of our living room and just pretend we were kind of giving a speech, but really working on the comfort of being up at the front of a room so that if we were ever given a chance, we would never be afraid to do that. We would always have this ingrained confidence of being at the front of a room and speaking our mind. And I got really into it because of my mom, like, sharing those skills with us and spending that time with us. Then when competitions would come up, like little speech competitions at school and stuff, it would be a really easy thing for us to do because we had this quality of confidence that other kids didn’t have. And regardless of what we were talking about, we had conviction. And so it made it interesting, you know, entertaining for an audience. Also, being, like, the only black kids at school, it made it doubly interesting. Like, look how confident these exotic children are. And as I grew older, I had always been writing. Writing poetry was something that started as, like, a letter to a pen pal from a very young age, because I had a best friend that I had growing up ever since I was little. But then she moved away. So I would write her letters. And then it was later in elementary school that I found out about poetry. And when my teacher explained what poetry was, I realized that I wasn’t just writing letters to my best friend, I was writing poetry. That’s the way that my mind worked. And so I saw the connections from a very young age, like, 10 years old. But I didn’t know about any poets, especially any poets that looked like me, that were, like, making a life out of writing poetry. And I didn’t know of any poets that were performing their work. That didn’t come till much later in my life when I was leaving high school and going off to university. I started to be more on YouTube because YouTube was coming out by that time. And seeing that there was places, especially in the States, where artists would mingle, get together, share poetry out loud. And there was specifically one poet that really lit my mind up. Her name is V Young. And I saw her on Def Poetry Jam on YouTube. And the way that she was, as you say, embodying moving across the stage, her stage presence, the character of her voice, the sort of music, musicality of how she was telling a story, but it was very poetic because of how expressive and lyrical it was. When I saw her do it, I was like, yo, I want to do poetry like that. And so that’s sort of what I would try to mimic in the way that I would now share poems with my friends, just gathering them together and be like, “I have a poem I want to share. Let me know how you feel about it.” And for a while, it was just like a friendly thing. Like, I would just share a poem in front of my friends. And then throughout university, later at university, I saw that there was, like, open mics and poetry club meets. And that’s really where I would start to have a community of writers because at school, I was studying biology. I wasn’t in English or theatre or anything like that. I was just a very private act for a very long time. And so once I started to see other examples, that’s when it gave me permission to attempt this more staged act of — it’s not an act, but just the stage ability to perform a poem in front of an audience, in a roomful of people. Something that I wrote that came from my heart, came from my experience. And as you say, spoken word in terms of activism. For me, spoken word was the place that I could talk about the truth about, you know, dysfunction in my family. I could talk about issues I was dealing with in terms of mental health. And that’s where I would be able to really understand more deeply for myself what accountability I could take for that sort of experience, but also ask the world, let’s look at this together. Why is this happening to me? Why is this? Why is this violence going on? And who else is dealing with it? Why are we so ashamed to talk about it? And it really would help me to communicate to people just in a better way than any conversation ever could.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. You know, it’s — what strikes me is that you often tackle, like, difficult issues, you know. Where did you find your strength to take that on, head on? Because, like you said, it’s not — people don’t, you know, gravitate towards, like, difficult issues. How did it — like, what held you up? Were there people? 

Britta B: So I think in my younger years — no. I think even when I was young, I wouldn’t look at it as strength. For me, it was how am I going to survive? And if I was going to hold it all into myself, I wouldn’t survive. I wouldn’t make it through. And I would harm — I would do more harm to myself. And even though it might hurt a little bit for others, such as people in my family, for me to talk about what was happening, it would at least give me a creative way because I’m not trying to hurt people. I’m talking about something that has actually happened, to me, in my experience. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But if it happened to hurt people along the way, it would hurt way less than what I was doing to myself if I kept it in. So I think — I don’t — I mean, we look at resilience. We look at strength. I don’t really think I would use those words. I think it was self-preservation. I think it was a way of keeping myself together.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah. I understand that totally. For myself too, it was just never — I couldn’t — I needed something. Like, I needed something in my life, because, you know, yeah, there were just, like, obstacles and stuff that I just needed to deal with. And there was only — I had to be creative to kind of deal with it.

Britta B: Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: But I mean, like, your — you said your mother gave you a lot of encouragement and support. And, you know, you had a circle of friends. And then, you know, it kind of grew.

Britta B: Yeah. Both my parents actually — like, my mom and my dad, despite — you know, we all have flaws. We’ve all made maybe some serious mistakes in our life. Through all of that, both my mom and my dad have forever been encouraging of their children, myself and my brother, living life happily. And so I think by way of little things that they would do. So making sure that we had — we would have time outside. That might seem, like, really simple, but —

Qanita Lilla: No, that’s a big deal.

Britta B: It’s a big deal.

Qanita Lilla: That’s a big deal.

Britta B: Having time outside, making sure we had something to eat, travelling when we could, doing little road trips, going to amusement parks. We didn’t have a lot. And I think now that I’m older, I can see how much living as working class, people living sometimes in poverty, like, not knowing when — if you’re going to be able to make it to the next check. I can see how much damage that does to the mind, how much pressure and stress that puts on people, many people, every day and how that can affect the quality of your life and just your own mind. And so I think when we get to a place where now we have dependents and things aren’t going as well as we would hope they would be for the people we are raising and supporting and surviving, a lot of that can be expressed in ways that are more reactionary and ways that — definitely not ways we mean to, but just in ways that want to show us that we exist.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, I think most people around me growing up decided to, you know, kind of adopt quite negative strategies, you know, because they just weren’t seen. They weren’t seen in the world, in, you know — as, like, poorer, as, you know, just, like, coming from tough backgrounds. But I also think that what I really love about your work is that you take those challenges. And you, you know, you kind of rocket ship them up so that you make them visible. But also, there’s the sense of movement. It’s not just, you know, this is where we are. And it’s tough. And it’s shit. And we hate it. You know, it’s — that’s what I kind of want to, like, get at. What, like, propelled you? Like, what propels you?

Britta B: Yeah, I think I’m influenced by a lot in terms of teachers I’ve had in my life and I think maybe an innate sense of wanting to provide something for someone, somewhere. Like, not always knowing who that is or where they are. But having a sense of, like, you could get through this better than I did. You can trust that even though you might be in a situation right now, your mindset is what’s going to help you to come out on the other side of it and be maybe not always grateful that you had to go through it but at least grateful that you got through it. And you can use it as fuel to create something forward, create something moving forward. Yeah, I just imagine. You know, I don’t — I look at legacy a lot. I don’t imagine legacy so much in terms of, like, blood relations, heritage and, like, family stuff. I look at it in terms of community. And so I know that if I’ve experienced whatever I’ve experienced, I know that there’s at least one other person that feels the same way I do, regardless of if we have the same exact experience or not. They feel — they feel how I felt at a particular time. Now how do I speak to them? How do I send those whispers, that voice of encouragement to keep moving? Because luckily, I had whispers. Whether I recognized them in the moment or not, I had whispers and mentors and guides in my life that were saying, “Keep going. Keep going.”

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I think, also, just, like, the power of seeing your face, you know, for a girl, little girl. It’s enormous and —

Britta B: I wish I saw my face when I was young.

Qanita Lilla: Me too. I wish I saw your face when I was young, really, because it’s really lonely. Like, just, like, physically lonely. And you think, you know, there’s just me. This is crazy. And all —

Britta B: Hundred percent.

Qanita Lilla: And society is telling you this all the time.

Britta B: Absolutely.

Qanita Lilla: You know, like, why go that way? Why not just go this way, where everybody else is going? And it’s not — you know, for me, it wasn’t just society. But it was my own family and culture and all that stuff. But to just have one, just to have, like, even one YouTube video. And you think, you know, you kind of make that connection. That is really, really powerful.

Britta B: Yeah.

>> And I think we kind of overlook, like, the very, very simple things, you know, that kind of hold us up —

Britta B: Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: — and hold us together.

Britta B: We want to see ourselves reflected.

Qanita Lilla: Yes.

Britta B: I think we need to. Especially if you’re a minority group, you don’t see yourself at all. You need to see something that represents you, represents a part of you at least because that will be more motivation for understanding that there’s more than one possibility of what this outcome will be because patterns will tell you, well, if you come from a broken home, you’ll end up an addict or, you know, an abuser —

Qanita Lilla: Or pregnant.

Britta B: Yeah, teen pregnancy. There’s all these, like, patterns and stereotypes and that societal, I guess, tension of you had a bad environment, so you’ll be a product of that bad environment. And there’s less, like, humour. There’s less, like, satire. And there’s less, like, meaningful examples, I guess, meaningful examples of, like, what all the other infinite possibilities and options are.

Qanita Lilla: Like, infinite, infinite possibilities. And when you are — when you’re kid, you just cannot see that. You cannot see that. I just felt like, oh, my God, I just have to get away from that little environment. I just have to. I have to, because it’s not possible for me to do what I need to do there, you know. And I need to kind of make, like, alternative options for myself —

Britta B: Absolutely.

Qanita Lilla: — because it’s not going to — yeah. And at that time, I didn’t see a face like yours. But I’m really interested in thinking about how you translate your lived experience into your creative process. So what does that look like physically? Where does it start? Like, how do you — where do you get, like, the impulse?

Britta B: I mean, impulse is happening all the time. Like, that’s why I always have a notebook in my purse, pen in my purse or like in my pocket, in my back pocket, because anything — like, I get — I guess I get triggered by, like, positively and negatively by things that I’m just sensing. And so my lived experience is very important because I have a hard time imagining things. I’m not the kind of creative that will imagine or, like, fantasize or just, like, invent a world. I’m living in whatever make-believe of this world that I have in my mind. And I am trying to process it. So– so much of my truth is in my poetry because I’m processing it. And little by little, I’m learning how to reference and use references to things that might not be so personal to me but use references in a quality way, in a good way that will help and serve my readers or serve my audience so that they have more entry into my work. Not to make it more accessible, but just so that — just so that the things that I’m writing are just better. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: So who is your imagined audience?

Britta B: My imagined audience? That’s tough because I think in terms of, like, vibe, my audience is, like, on a level of energy that wants to feel good, wants to feel good in a way that’s not superficial and wants to rally and also be good being alone. So it’s kind of like — my audience loves to be separately together.

[Laughter]

Qanita Lilla: That’s great. That’s a good answer. Yeah, like, I want to talk about your role as an educator because, you know, like, just thinking about the audience and about the social role of your work. How does this, you know, especially with, like, social justice programs —

Britta B: Yeah. Teaching is a way for me to learn even deeper what it is I’m attempting to do in my work. And so when I get excited about teaching something to a group or even to a mentee, it’s because I’m learning it at the same time as them. So if I were to look at, you know, my notebooks from what I was teaching last week to last year, it’s very different where — it depends on where I’m at in that time in terms of my own craft and my own process. And social justice is important throughout all of that. It’s a major thread through my work because for my own personal values, I constantly think about what respect looks like and how people can exist sharing mutual respect for one another. And if I am going to be in a space, I will want to ensure that I’m respected and that people who are, you know, sharing my company also feel respected and have a sense of respect from me as well. So social justice looks different for everyone, depending on how much knowledge they have about the world and their community. But I think that with the help of social media, like, even TikTok is fascinating. But Twitter is huge. I get all my news on Twitter. And Instagram — things like this. I think the younger generations are way more in tuned —

Qanita Lilla: And demanding.

Britta B: And demanding. Like, what is this called? They have more agency.

Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. And they are advocating for change, seriously. For the first time really, they mobilized, you know, in a new way.

Britta B: Yeah. They’re way more aware than my group of friends were. And maybe that’s also because I grew up in Kingston. Like, we didn’t — it wasn’t very diverse growing up in Kingston, right? So our issues were little more just small town stuffs that would happen and not so much, like, thinking about the world and, like, what was going on. News is something you did when you got to be an adult. You don’t look at the news. But social media is the news. You know exactly what’s happening all the time. I think I look at social justice — it’s really important to me in everything I teach, though, because it’s a way of being responsible for yourself and also for how people are impacted by you having this time on Earth.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Like, how do you see your students, like, responding to this? I mean, are they very responsive?

Britta B: Oh, yeah. The younger ones, especially, like Grade 5s and Grade 6s. They know so much. And they are so clear about their values and their morals. And they are so wonderful to listen to because it’s so simple how to be here for each other. And they — the younger ones are just so open about talking about it. They’re not afraid to talk about these deep violences that are happening and how things are unfair and how we’re missing the point of living in this time together. And then as we get older, I just find there’s a mix of, let’s say, young adults and, like, early 20s being so — like, having a lot of energy about pushing, like, justice for a particular issue. But at the same time, because it’s probably tied to so much of their personal experience, they’re also being really burnt out by talking about it.

Qanita Lilla: And also just day to day, kind of —

Britta B: And the day to day.

Qanita Lilla: — being exposed all the time.

Britta B: Hundred percent. There’s, like, almost too much responsibility that they’re taking. So it’s like, as a mentor and as a teacher, how do we also continue the conversation on how to take care of yourself, how to make space for yourself and, you know, to also step outside of the activism a bit just so you can refuel, recharge and be able to show up fully and fight. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: That’s really important, like, that idea of, like, selfcare and teaching it to kids. It’s really inspiring to hear, you know, that, yeah, the younger generation are there, like, for sure. But it’s tough on them.

Britta B: It’s tough on them because then, again, social media works against that. It’s like, what are you doing right now? Where’s the instant gratification?

Qanita Lilla: And it’s always — yeah, yeah. It’s kind of like, you know, pumping them all the time.

Britta B: All the time. But that’s why you have to take the tech breaks, I love my tech breaks. You also have to find ways of finding — like, self-care can be really expensive, especially the way that our culture wants to show you self-care, you know. So now, again, like, how do the whispers work in terms of how you are good by yourself when you are alone? How you be yourself when you’re by yourself and find yourself and love yourself and celebrate yourself and not, like — not put yourself down but be gentle and be kind to yourself.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. How do you do that, Britta? Tell me. Share that fount of knowledge of me because I just —

Britta B: I journal.

Qanita Lilla: Okay.

Britta B: But I also like — I love — I’m — I love burning bridges. So, like, I love, like, setting up this, like, goal in my head for things that I’m going to do for, like, let’s say for a month. Like, okay, for a month, I’m not going to eat Cheezies. So now I have this goal in my head —

Qanita Lilla: Or chocolate.

Britta B: Or chocolate. And then if I break that rule, I’m like, haha.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Go easy on yourself.

Britta B: I’m like, yo, I’m doing good. I did it for two weeks. I’m happy about it. Now I’m going back, and I savour it even more.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah, you’ve got to — you’ve got to just build yourself up, you know. That’s so important. Like, how do you teach that? It’s so crucial. Like, how do you teach a child of colour, black child, to love themselves when so — like, so many generations before just haven’t? Like, we struggle with it.

Britta B: Right.

Qanita Lilla: Because everything is, like, against us, you know.

Britta B: Right.

Qanita Lilla: I think it’s just —

Britta B: We’re against us.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, we are. We are completely. And we’re completely complicit. It’s not as if it’s this, you know, like, outside. I mean, they can’t care. Like, the outside really don’t. That’s the problem. You know, they don’t include us in an imaginary even. But I think, yeah, we definitely have to make that like a priority, definitely in various ways.

Britta B: It sounds maybe exactly what a teacher would say, but. I think if we read more and read more regularly, it doesn’t have to be an everyday thing. But the more we read, the more vastly we read, the more writers of colour we read, like, I just think that that will help so much. And different genres we read. Yeah, that time.

Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. I get you totally. Totally. Totally. I mean, that is what saved me for sure. Like, public libraries saved me totally.

Britta B: yes. Shout out to the public libraries. Absolutely. I’d be borrowing books, and not bring them back on time. I’m happy about it. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: No, for sure. I mean, it saved me, like, as a kid. And it was — that was the door, like the opening to see other people’s minds, you know, to realize that, like, what I see and what I experience right here and right now is limited and crazy. And everybody is crazy here. That’s okay because there’s a whole room full of books that helps me.

Britta B: Yes. There’s a whole room full of books and worlds and universes —

Qanita Lilla: And voices.

Britta B: And voices. And that will also open up that imagination. It will open — that will help your critical thinking because you’re being shown different perspectives. You’re being shown different voices and different personal traits that you can be more like or you could be less like. Like, I just think reading and that opportunity to also read with others. It’s a way of doing that self-fcare and the community stuff at the same time. Yeah, I think we definitely — I need to read more. I’m reading way more than I ever have. But I still need to read more and more and more.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And it’s amazing. It just gives you a sense of, like, just how much. And that is just so empowering, you know, that — and that you can be part of that conversation. And, you know —

Britta B: Yeah. It’s lovely. Like, I love when I overhear people talking about books or when, you know, back in the day, when we used to ride public transit —

Qanita Lilla: No, this is my day. I’m riding public transit.

Britta B: No, I just mean because of COVID and the pandemic when we used to ride public transit. But I see people with a book in their hand. And I, like, oh, what are you reading? I like seeing the cover and the title and everything.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And you immediately know that’s a certain kind of person.

Britta B: It’s a certain kind of person.

Qanita Lilla: It’s a certain kind of person, which is amazing.

Britta B: And then you can make recommendations. Yeah. It’s so cool.

Qanita Lilla: It’s awesome. You — it’s amazing. Like, your future. You’re going off to be a professor of spoken word. Britta. Man, that’s awesome. That is so totally awesome. I wish I could take your class.

Britta B: Yeah, me too.

Qanita Lilla: Oh, yeah.

Britta B: I’m, like, writing my course outline. I’m, like, “Damn, I want to take this class.”

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah. No. Geez. Yeah. Like, tell me about it. Tell me about your journey there and how you see your role.

Britta B: Yeah. I think as an artist, you’re — a lot of artists that I know, especially myself, I love living in the unstable conditions, not knowing what’s going to happen, where my next job will come, the next opportunity, how much money I’ll be able to make from it. Will it pay my rent? And will it pay my bills?

Qanita Lilla: I don’t know if you love it.

Britta B: I love it.

Qanita Lilla: It’s a bit thin, like 10 years later.

Britta B: Yeah. I love the unpredictability because it’s such a surprise when things grow and things evolve. Things have — my trajectory has always just, like, doubled every year, like more and more, little by little, but more and more every year. And so when I started thinking about I have a husband. And, you know, if we were to start a family, what sort of security can I bring to our household? I started thinking about, well, what would that look like if I’m — if I don’t have anything published yet and I just keep touring or keep performing, like, what’s the thing that will hold us together? So I started thinking about, you know, publishing, but also going back to school and teaching and what — I don’t know. I don’t really know if I exactly chose this route because what’s funny about this particular job at Seneca is that I was hosting something earlier this year at Seneca for Black History Month. And a professor there happened to love me. And I was asked this summer if I would be interested in teaching. So it wasn’t even something that I had sought after —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, but it found you.

Britta B: But it found me for a very, like, beautiful, particular reason because it’s exactly what I  want to be doing. So much of my life is that. So that’s why I love being open to the opportunities, the unpredictability of it, because I just want to be able to choose it myself all the time. I love what finds me. And this is another one of those — one of those moments. It’s definitely full circle, too, because — and it’s an opportunity for me to be in a room that I didn’t have when I was on my spoken word journey and now curate the next person, the next artist’s, the next poet’s journey and their trajectory into performing and doing spoken word on a whole other level and contributing to the culture of spoken word in a whole new way. So I’m very excited about it. And who knows, like, what will happen from it. Like, you know, we’re talking about, like, oh, I wish I could take this class. I literally want to take this class. And because I want to take a class, I’m like, okay. Everything I’m going to get the students to do, I’m also going to do it. You know, if there’s goals that they’re making, I’m going to make goals. I’m going to achieve those goals. So it really reinforces again. It helps me to learn more on a deeper level what it is I’m teaching but also reinforces how I’m also contributing to the culture of spoken word.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. That’s awesome. You’re going to have such a fantastic time. And they are going to love you.

Britta B: Yeah. I hope so.

Qanita Lilla: Thank you so much, Britta, man. Geez. I’m just so happy that you could come here to Kingston —

Britta B: Thank you.

Qanita Lilla: — and join us today.

Britta B: Thank you for having me. And shout out to the 613. Shout out all my high school, my alma mater, Loyalist Collegiate, Vocational LCVI Lancers. What up? Legacy.

Qanita Lilla: Cool. Thank you so much.

Britta B: Thank you.

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouth: The Podcast. Special thanks to our guest, Britta B, for speaking with us today. This podcast is hosted and produced by myself, Dr. Qanita Lilla, and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jamil 3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast on Digital Agnes, CFRC’s website and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time. 

[Music]

Intimate Recollections of Black Lives

Transcript

Intimate Recollections of Black Lives
In this episode, artist Oluseye talks with Qanita Lilla about his enduring ties to Africa, to black rubber and to things that give both pleasure and pain.

SPEAKERS

Qanita Lilla (host), Oluseye (guest)

 

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Hello, and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’s exhibition of the same name. The show With Opened Mouths interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside western knowledge making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast I sit down with artists, spoken word poets, musicians, and curators to discuss the expression of their practice, and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard. 

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Today, we’re talking with artist, Oluseye whose work Eminado is part of the show at Agnes, With Opened Mouths. “Eminado” is a Yoruba word meaning good luck charm. In this series, Oluseye re-imagines the talismanic objects that African past and present carried across the Atlantic for protection and for comfort. In his practice, Oluseye travels across the Black Atlantic collecting and re-purposing the diasporic debris that makes up his oeuvre. The term diasporic debris refers to the remnants, the discarded parts of life, out of which he attempts to resurrect and acknowledge people and histories. Oluseye’s work embraces the magnitude and polyvocality of Blackness and the way in which it moves across space, place, and time, shaping and shifting in the world. Centring Yoruba cultural references, he blends the ancestral with the contemporary, and rejects the binary distinction between the traditional and the modern, the physical and the spiritual, the past and the future, what is new and what is old. He imbues everyday objects with the mythic attempt to reinforce African rituals and philosophies as living, complex, and valid traditions of the human consciousness. He has exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Patel Brown, and is debuting a new body of work at MOCA Toronto until January. Welcome, Oluseye!

Oluseye: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I was on mute.

Qanita Lilla: I’m so delighted to have you. I’ve been looking forward to this for ages. There’s been so much, you know, good feedback like with Eminado. And so it’s — I’m just really excited to be able to talk with you today.

Oluseye: Thank you.

Qanita Lilla: So Oluseye, your work – is incredible. And when I was choosing work to exhibit alongside the African masks of Lang collection your work really spoke, to the central themes of the show. But it’s also very unique, and I’d like you to tell me a little bit about what drew you into art in the first place.

Oluseye: Wow. [Laughs] I mean I always I guess painted as a kid and like, you know, sketched. I really enjoyed biology class because we had to do all like the sketches of like the human body and like the muscles and the nerves and the plant drawings. So I’ve always had an inclination towards the arts. But I think, you know, art as I know it like as a professional artist I think for me started in 2013 when Nigeria passed an anti gay bill, and I was in Nigeria at the time. And, you know, I was really hurt by it. I just found it very unnecessary especially because it was like part of a plot for the president at the time to get a second term. So I came back to Toronto and that pushed me to create and I started doing these drawings, these charcoal and pastel drawings, that actually took the Yoruba creation story with the different gods and deities and I kind of turned it on its head and I made some of these deities like, you know, gender fluid, and homosexual beings. So they all sort of engaged in acts of love. And that was how it started for me. I — I wouldn’t say I ever set out to be an artist, but I knew that I wanted to express the discontent I was feeling at the situation in Nigeria. And then I got invited to show some of that work in New York and I did that again not thinking of myself as an artist. It wasn’t until after that show people started asking “What’s next?” and I was like, “Wow. I guess — I guess this means this is what I’m doing now. I guess this means I’m an artist.” So yeah. That’s how I, you know, got in to the art world per se. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: I think what’s amazing is thatAfrica stimulated that need, you know. And I feel that it doesn’t feel at all as if your artistic practice is so new. It feels as if it’s been living inside you waiting. It’s been kind of like incubating for a long time because it’s — and then also, you know, I get a sense that it’s definitely evolving and it continues to evolve and change. Yeah. So do you always — do you start off with like a long term project in mind? How does your practice evolve?

Oluseye: I’m definitely inspired by the things that I see. I’m very heavily inspired by objects. In the last — more recently I’ve moved in to like object based work. And a lot of the times it’s the objects that will almost dictate to me what I’m going to make. Of course there’s always going to be ideas that are floating in my head. You know, I’m very inspired by my conversations with people, so I look heavily at oral histories, like the stories from my family, the stories from the Black people in the Black communities that I’ve been fortunate to travel to. So these ideas are all sort of in my head, and then I’ll see an object that sort of, you know, triggers a memory of a conversation I’ve had. And then I start putting those two things together and then I start doing some research into what these — you know, what’s the origin of the objects? Why am I interested in this object? How do these objects relate to some of those oral histories that I’ve stored in my head? So that’s typically how it starts for me. I don’t think that I ever have this sort of like grand idea that I’m thinking of and then decide, oh I’m going to work on this now. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, but you know with Eminado, for example, the slave ship Friendship, that is such an amazing concept to kind of bring everything together. How did Friendship — where did Friendship come from?

Oluseye: So with Eminado I had actually started collecting objects like maybe two years before I even started making that body of work. And this is just me like — I had — how this happened is actually pretty funny. So I used to drive and I had a few instances with being a not so good driver so I lost my licence. And then I just decided, you know what? I’m going to sell my car. So I — so that’s actually how Eminado was born. I didn’t have a car so I now had to start walking everywhere or taking TTC and I started seeing all these objects and like I’m clearly attracted to black objects. And I noticed everything I was picking off the street was like black rubber, black plastic, maybe some metal accents. But everything was like aged and, you know, black was sort of the common theme as far as colour goes. So I amassed this like junk — or this was even before I coined the term ‘diasporic debris’. Right? So I had this for two years and I took a trip to North Preston in Nova Scotia which is one of Canada’s first Black communities. And found some more objects there. And then when I came back from that trip I was like, “I need to do something with these objects.” And I sort of started playing around with them like piecing one thing with another thing. Some things were perfect on their own. And I maybe made about 26 of those. And maybe a few months later I started — I actually don’t remember how I — how the interest in Canadian built slave ships started or where that came from, but I think I found like a database and I think it’s on the Harvard website that has like a full list of all the slave ships that were ever built. And then I was like, “Wow. There are some that were built in Canada. Some were built in Nova Scotia, in Newfoundland, on our east coast.” And I had — I was just there in Nova Scotia. Right? So I think I started chasing my own travels to Nova Scotia and to Canada’s east coast with some of the places where these slave ships were built. And there’s 27 slave ships and going through the list I was like, wow, there’s actually a ship called Friendship. Like the irony of this. So that irony is what, you know, drew me to that ship. And then, you know, learning more about that ship, and then finding out that it actually sailed from — it was one of the ships that took enslaved people from Nigeria to Montego Bay, Jamaica. And then obviously being in Canada where like Jamaican culture is probably the most noticeable Black culture. So there’s those kind of connections that for me inspire my work. And at that point I had made 26 of these objects and I knew I wanted to carry on making them and I was like is there going to be a cap or do I just keep doing this for the rest of like — is this a product that will be like a lifelong — or career long project? But then I was like no. I could sort of for lack of a better word package this or honour the lives of those enslaved people by making this work about them. And then there’s also the fact that all these objects have come from several different places which also mimics the different places and the movement of enslaved people throughout history because you have like the Jamaican Maroons who were taken from — obviously from West Africa to Jamaica. And then there’s a history of Jamaican Maroons being exiled to Nova Scotia. Right? And then from that group you have some of them who would then decide to make the trip back to Africa to Sierra Leone, to Freetown. So all of those connections really mimicked my own personal journeys, my own personal travels within Canada, across the Atlantic and back. And I wanted to find a way to link that to the lives of enslaved people. And that’s how Eminado was born like in a nutshell.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And the fact that you’ve got such a strong link to the African continent, that you’re always going back,, how do you feel this impacts on your practice?

Oluseye: It definitely — Wow, how does it impact on my practice? I think for me the journey itself is the art practice. So as I work on like a revised artist statement now like traveller, collector, those are all words that I want to include in what this artist statement will be. So like yes. People get to see the finished product, but it’s about what has the art done for me. And part of my process is travel. Right? So I also think that it helps keep my connection to the continent. It keeps my mind fresh because I’ve been able to do these two or three trips a year. It also — there’s sort of like a cultural  mix and matching that happens as I make that journey across the Atlantic several times. And then the objects that I’m working with are also in some ways like symbolic of that, you know, transfer of cultural knowledge, transfer of aesthetics. And then you also start thinking about like, you know, the transfer of — or even just like the transfer of like certain types of food from West Africa to the North America. So like okra, for instance, certain types of rice originated in West Africa and found their way to the Americas because enslaved people took it with them. And then now you have this like really rich North American — African American cuisine that, you know — that is — has origins in West Africa, in Brazil, in the Caribbean. But so there’s that sort of [inaudible] of like cultures and ideas that I’m able to live, you know, through my own travels, and then I’m able to sort of embody that in the objects that I make.

Qanita Lilla: I think also you once spoke to me about this idea of waste in Africa. You know, not waste, but like things like recyclable or, you know, reusable culture. And how you visited —

Oluseye: In Kenya?

Qanita Lilla: Yes. Yes. Yes. Can you talk about that a bit because it’s really incredible? the way that you’re talking about the differences in culture and the differences just like in use and reuse of objects.

Oluseye: Yeah. So during my time in Kenya there’s a tribe or a group of people called Akala, I believe that they’re called, A-K-A-L-A. And they’re known for re-purposing tires, rubber tires. So they strip the tires. They turn them in to sandals. They turn them in to art, in to all kinds of things. So I was fortunate to meet a man, Mr. Sampson, spent some time with him, and he actually gave me like a stack of a lot of the things that I’ve come to use in my work. So rubber — and I think this is also linked to my interest in like rubber, like black rubber specifically is — it’s durable. It stands the test of time. Rubber can be in the sun. It can be in the snow. It can be in — like regardless of what the climate is, rubber will always sort of survive. And I was interested in how that could — how that could be a metaphor for the lives of Black people, for the Black experience. You know, you think of enslaved people being brought from Africa to colder climates, oftentimes completely naked, but survived. You know. And then you have rubber that’s able to survive in all kinds of climates. And then you — and then I’m putting that in conversation with how Africans — the ingenuity of Africans and being able to take things that are, you know, “discards.” And, you know, breathe new life in to them. And that’s really what Eminado, that body of work, is about. It’s about taking things that we recognize that have been thrown out, that have been discarded, and like, you know, giving them a new — giving them new life. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: You know, when I took the students around that body of work they also — they  picked up on a sense of humour that lives alongside it. And I’d really like you to talk a bit about that, you know, the fact that there are spikes and there are things that can cause pain, but there’s also things that can cause pleasure like fringes and, you know — and also like the cowrie shell itself is an ambiguous kind of object. You know, the fact that it was used as a form of exchange, but also, you know, it kind of mimics the shape of a vulva and a fingerprint and teeth and all those kind of things. So can you talk to me a bit about how BDSM plays kind of, havoc in your work?

  Oluseye: So definitely as I’m making the body of work in Eminado I’m having fun with it. You know, like it needs to be enjoyable for me even though I’m speaking about, you know, ideas that are quite serious. So there’s a sense of like humour and fun and also, like you said, there’s like sharp things that can possibly hurt you. And I think as I was making the work I was also thinking about what some of these enslaved people — the comfort that they might have wanted to like access through these objects. So, you know, reminders of home, things that might bring them a smile. You know, remembering a certain person. But at the same time I was thinking of objects that could also not just offer comfort and protection, but you know defence is also part of what I was thinking about. And, you know, protection. Being able to defend yourself is also a part of — it’s also a type of protection. So I imagine that, you know, there would have been times where they might have needed objects to attack and like to protect themselves and their families. So I was thinking of all of those ideas as I was making the objects. So how can, you know, a piece of rubber feel like something that’s comfortable if held a certain way, but maybe if you hold it from the other side it can then become something you can use to attack someone who’s, you know, threatening your own safety? So I like the juxtaposition of sort of the fun and danger, and I think I was — I then started to look to like BDSM as a way to sort of like bring those two ideas together. So this idea that something could be a form of pleasure, but it could also be a form of pain. And sort of pain and pleasure being like one and the same thing or, you know, different sides of the same coin.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I think also it gives like a complexity to those imagined people, you know, that hasn’t been kind of thought of. You know, when people think of — memorializing people they think of a kind of strong body and, you know, not — focussing on kind of diversity and fluidity and things like that which I think that this, yeah — this really like picks up on.

Oluseye: I think that sometimes, you know, when people explore like, you know, slavery, yes. They often forget the humanity of these people. You know, the fact that these people laughed and they told jokes and, you know, they had dinners with their families. And they gave each other gifts and like, you know, some of these talismanic objects would have been given by say a mother to her daughter or a grandpa to his, you know — his grandson. So those are the kinds of things that, you know, I’m — sort of the ideas thinking about the humanity of these people as I was making the objects. Just so they’re not one dimensional objects that are — they’re not intended to just reflect the hardship of what being an enslaved person was. They’re meant to reflect, you know, just how varied their life experiences were.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Also maybe the kinds of things that people do to survive.

Oluseye: Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: And part of that is humour and, you know, the — no matter how difficult things get, you know, we think of ways of kind of rising above or kind of, you know, negotiating that kind of thing. Your practice is not always easy. It can’t be easy because it’s really conceptual. You know? What are some of the things that you struggle with?

Oluseye: Some of the things that I — wow. I think trusting — I think time. Time is a thing that I struggle with because some things are conceptual and I think they need time to really like crystallize, and I can be quite an impatient person. So I’m learning to like just trust that everything will reveal itself in the right time. So like with “Eminado,” for instance, I started making these objects. And the fact is I actually started making the objects almost like — I wanted to make my own alphabet system. And that’s how this idea really came about, you know. But then when I got to the 26th I was like why am I basing this on Western ideas of what an alphabet system is. And then I was like I need more time. I need more time to think this through. And then I was like so how many alphabets are there going to be in this system. And then I was like why am I even basing this on alphabets? Why couldn’t I be maybe trying to express feelings through these objects versus like having a — you know, an object represent what would be an A or B. It’s like, you know, a lot of African languages, you know, are just very complex and one word can, you know, mean like five different things as objects or five different feelings. Like Yoruba is the same way. So it really — I really started to think that way and I realized that time is what I need to give myself. So learning to be patient is a — has been a challenge of mine. The other challenge that I face is because I scavenge like going through customs and trying to come back in to the country with all — that’s a very — it’s a very real life challenge for me. But, you know, I’m coming back with like all kinds of like, you know, junk so to speak. But I find that part of the — that’s part of the process. That becomes part of my practice like having to explain to people at customs why I’m bringing in all of this stuff, what it is. It gets easier. Any other challenges I —

Qanita Lilla: Do you have a problem with kind of framing things like in your mind? Because it seems as if, you know, these ideas are really big, and they’re really expansive. And the more you work on them, they just grow and grow and grow. How do you kind of reign it in a bit?

Oluseye: I try not to reign it in. I just tell myself that there will come a time when I can create everything that my mind, you know, is currently thinking about, currently working through. I might not have the financial means right now or even just like the logistics to like bring back some of the things that I’ve found that I want to work with, but I just trust that it will happen. And I’m already seeing some of those things happen. Like with Eminado, it’s grown like, you know, into 208 objects, but the concept is much bigger than the physicality of the objects. Right? And when all of these objects are together in one room it’s way bigger than I even imagined it would be. And every time I see people experience this work in person, I’m like, “The universal connection that they’re having is just as big as I want it to be.” So I never think that any idea is too big for me because I think it’s the collective sharing of the idea that kind of makes it be as big as, you know, I want it to be or it needs to be.

Qanita Lilla: Who would you say enabled you as an artist? Which people in your life helped you to develop and, you know, nurtured your ideas?

Oluseye: Yeah. So the first person that comes to mind would be Anique Jordan. She’s a peer of mine and she’s just been the most supportive. Like I’m getting goosebumps because it’s just every time we meet her — the level of encouragement she offers me is just — is just for me is just out of this world. For someone to like, you know, see me and like believe in what I’m trying to do, I just I mean I’ve had that before, but not in the way that Anique does it. She’s just very —

Qanita Lilla: Anique is an artist herself.

Oluseye: She’s an — yes. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: And, you know, she’s also, you know, thinking about really intense issues, and working through, you know, ideas of memory and the archive and ontology. You know, so yeah. But she’s also she’s got a very generous spirit.

Oluseye: Yes. Yes. Very generous, and just very — like her practice is very much rooted in community building. And so for her I believe like that encouragement of me is also because she wants to see her community like, you know, operate at the highest level possible. That was a thing she told me that really stuck with me and she was like, “Oluseye, you need to situate yourself in your work.” That’s exactly how she said it to me. And like the meaning of that changes over time. You know, and it just — it just — has just sat with me. It’s been about two or three years since she told me that, and I think it was at that point that I really started to like throw myself in to my practice in a way that I hadn’t. And what I started doing was just taking the everyday things that I enjoyed and making that my practice. So like I like to travel. I like to wander around. And then, you know, now I’m doing that as part of my practice. You know, so my everyday life is my practice.

Qanita Lilla: That’s really powerful. situate yourself in your practice? How — geez. That’s amazing. That’s really — that’s really insightful that like everything you do is artistic practice, everything. You know, it’s — and I think especially for, you know — I come from a family that doesn’t — that is not in the arts. So I had to kind of define how, you know, I do it for myself. And kind of thinking about everything that I do as part of that is really, that sounds amazing. Thank you very much for sharing, for sharing that with us. [Laughs]

Oluseye: Thank you, Anique. [Laughs]

Qanita Lilla: Thank you, Anique. So tell me about like — a bit about your life growing up [inaudible] on this path.

Oluseye: I grew up in Lagos in Nigeria. I [laughs] wow. I dabbled in a lot of things. My mom really like wanted us to I guess do as much as we could. I never did quite specialize in anything, but like we did a little bit of tennis. I did take ballet dance classes. Swimming was I would say the one thing that we all enjoyed together as a family, and that we actually like really focussed on. So I come from a swimming family. I like being outdoors. Like I like collecting things. I always would be trying to build things. I remember trying to like build my sister like an outdoor kitchen like using scrap materials like things I —

Qanita Lilla: Wow. You’re a good brother.

Oluseye: So I’ve always been kind of hands on in that way. And I’m also stubborn in the sense that I don’t like to use — like if I know there’s a tool I can go and buy from Home Depot that will make this problem I’m trying to solve easier, I don’t know if it’s just me being cheap or not wanting to like do it the easiest way possible, but I will always try and do it with my hands first and do it with things that I can find readily available at home. And I think even like as I made the Eminado sculptures I’ve tried to maintain that because I think I keep going back to like okay, when Africans are making like the leather goods and things that, you know, I love to collect, they’re not working for the most part with like any like high tech advanced tools. They’ve found ways to make these things durable, and they last. And they’re much stronger than, say, if you’re using like, you know, new methods. Right? So I’m always trying to like sort of tap into that sort of like ancestral way of creating would have been when I’m putting things together. So yeah. I definitely enjoy being outdoors and like playing in the sand, and like I biked a lot as well which I currently do. And, funny enough, I find a lot of the objects that I used in my work as I bike. So yeah.

Qanita Lilla: So does that like feed in to how you take care of yourself, how you kind of nurture — you nurture the artist. Like how do you nurture yourself?

Oluseye: I nurture myself. I try to give myself — so I bike everywhere. But then I will set aside bike time that is just for my own pleasure. It’s like I’m not biking to run errands. I’m not biking to go to the clinic. I’m just biking because I want to bike. So I’m finding that as I get older and as I work and art, you know, gets busier, I need to be more intentional about my time. Like if this is time for having fun then I need to just have fun. Art will always be on my mind because there’s no avoiding that. Right? So but I also find there’s a quote by El Anatsui where he says, “You are more — when you play, you’re more honest.” So I’m also finding that I need to set time to play and have fun because the art will always be there, and the art is more likely to be honest, you know. Like some of the things I find when I’m not actively thinking about art turn out to be some of the best things I’m seeing. I just feel like my eyes and my mind are seeing and hearing different things when you’re just kind of like living, you know. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But I also think that your practice is so inherently playful. It is so playful, you know. Even though it’s — so much of it is kind of heavy, you know. That kind of sits side by side and it really it sits comfortably. It sits really comfortably and well. Yep. So I think — I think it’s just it’s awesome. And I’ve loved speaking to you Oluseye. It’s amazing. Thank you so much. 

Oluseye: Thank you.

Qanita Lilla: Thank you so, so much for talking with us today. It’s been awesome. Yeah. And I’d love to work with you again. It’s been amazing even though it’s been tough. You know, especially during install. Jenny [assumed spelling] is amazing, and I know that she’s listening to this. You know, like shout out to Jenny. She’s — it was amazing. Seriously like she came in to an environment where she’d never been before and she just kind of took hold You know, said this — yeah. Man, like this is how you want it. This is how we want it. And that’s awesome. And, you know, like one of the like students who came to see the show asked me like “What, you know, if an artist wants something and you do not want it in the same way, if you don’t share the same vision, how do you like, you know, reconcile that?” And, you know, I told them like very honestly that I approach artists whose vision I share. You know, and in order to be authentic to that vision it often means that curators have to bend and compromise. And yeah. I didn’t have to do much of that with you, but it was really cool that you stuck to certain things that you wanted because I felt it really made things beautiful, made the show beautiful. So thank you so much Oluseye.

Oluseye: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. And special thanks to our great guest, Oluseye for speaking with us today. Thank you.

This podcast is hosted by myself, Dr. Qanita Lilla, and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jamil 3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast on Digital Agnes, CFRC’s website and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time. 

[Music]

Our Journeys Are Our Stories

Transcript

Our Journeys Are Our Stories
From shoe-making to working at Agnes, Sebastian De Line speaks with Qanita Lilla about what gives them their voice in their work as an artist and curator.

SPEAKERS

Qanita Lilla (host), Sebastian De Line (guest)

 

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Hello and welcome to With Opened Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host, Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The show, With Opened Mouths, interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside Western knowledge-making systems can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with artists, musicians, curators, and spoken-word poets to discuss the expression of their practice and to find out what inspired them to open their mouths and to be heard.

[Music]

Today, I’m very fortunate to be joined by my colleague, Sebastian De Line. Sebastian is an artist and an Associate Curator at Agnes Etherington Art Centre. He/they also works as a teaching fellow for the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Queen’s University. His/their doctoral research focuses on the manufacturing of capitalist values and economies that transform agential, Indigenous and racialized Ancestors into labouring objects of extraction, accumulation, and consumption determined by the acquisition criteria within museum collections. His/their publications include The Journal Official Cultures and Junctures

Hi Sebastian, how are you doing today?

Sebastian De Line: Hi Qanita. Hey.

Qanita Lilla: There you are.

Sebastian De Line: Hey, there I am. Thanks for inviting me.

Qanita Lilla: It’s a pleasure. I would like you to introduce yourself since I introduced you.

Sebastian De Line: Oh yeah. Great. Hi everyone. I’m Sebastian De Line, as Qanita had shared earlier. I am a newly appointed Associate Curator at the Agnes Etherington. Previously, I was a Research Associate, and I primarily work with the Indigenous collections and in building relationships with community in terms of care for the Ancestors in the collection and in their return, and in the ways in which community — taking community-centred, community-led approach to the care of their Ancestors that are currently housed at the Agnes Etherington. So that’s, you know, the bulk of what I’m working on here at the Agnes, as well as in the future, working on some curatorial projects. So, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today.

Qanita Lilla: Thanks, Sebastian. I always, I like to start with, you know, going back into people’s life to see how it is that they came to be the people they are and the creators they are. Could you tell me a bit about growing up?

Sebastian De Line: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. Where does one start? I don’t know about you, but if anyone asked me when I was younger, if I — you know, what my life plan was, I don’t think at that point I would’ve told you that I was going to be a curator or even an artist actually, probably at that point. So, my life, like some people have — has taken a bit of a windy trajectory to where it has become — you know, where I am at this point today. But I started out early on, in my 20s, actually, as a craftsperson. I was making shoes and I did that for nearly 20 years. And then that evolved into design, which evolved then into going to art school and moving more into other installations, sculpture and visual art, and now a little bit more actually performance is kind of the direction it’s going at this point. So multimedia and from there the trajectory has shifted also to include interest in academia and theory and curation. So, I don’t know about you Qanita, how your direction was, into your doctorate, but I’d love to hear about that too, if you —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I’m fascinated by the shoes, Sebastian. I’ve always — you know, I think that, yeah, they’re part of our stories that we kind of, you know, don’t think are as important. You know, especially when you are in academia, you kind of focus on things that make sense at a particular time, but that — but the shoe story, you’ve got to tell me how you ended up making shoes. It’s a very unusual craft.

Sebastian De Line: Yeah, that’s true. Everybody always wants to know about the shoes. [laughter] Well, we all have them. We all — most of us need them. So, you know, that was a big part of it too, right? It was when I was finishing high school, you know, like some people, I really didn’t know what I wanted to study in university. And, you know, the thought of going to university at that point at a young age and not knowing what I would focus on, and seeing people that I knew end up with very large student loans afterward, and which, you know, they’re paying for, you know, a decade of their student loans and still winding up with a degree that they were not necessarily happy with or didn’t end up leading them to a career in which, you know, was meaningful, didn’t sound for me, at the time, like a good decision. And what I knew then was that what I was seeking was competency. And so that — that’s how I actually started getting into shoes, is that I first went to trade school and I studied sheet metal. And I found that it was easy to pick it up, but it missed, like that creative aspect of it. And I actually became bored quite quickly. And so, it was a friend of mine that suggested, you know, we were talking about different professions and different trades, that said, “Well, you know,” we’re kind of tossing different ideas around. And she said, “Well, what about shoemaking?” And I thought, wow, that sounds very kind of a dying art, you know, in Canada [laughter] as not many people pursue that, you know. And so, I didn’t actually know how I’d go about it, but I, you know, I remember saying to her that, “I’ll give anything a shot at this point, you know, for six months and to determine whether or not it’s a good fit for me.” And the rest was history. You know, it took a while to get a job in that field. I started out repairing shoes and I worked for a Dutch Canadian employer who came from a long line of shoemakers and had moved to Canada when he was young with his wife and took over a business for a man that was retiring in Vancouver. And then so, he ran that shop there. They ended up staying and raising their children here. And so, from that, I ended up later on moving to Europe and working for his family, who are all shoemakers on both their sides. So I worked for his sister and brother-in-law, who were sixth generation shoemakers. So that was the — what they had said was that’s the best place to go to learn if I really wanted to learn the actual craft from start to finish, because, you know, we don’t have a shoemaking school in Canada, so. And shoe design is kind of its own other trajectory. It wasn’t centred necessarily on the craft. And I, at that point, I really, I enjoyed — what I’ve enjoyed about shoemaking was that there’s so many different aspects to the craft. I never got bored. You know, so there’s pattern making, and then there’s also the sewing of the uppers and the finishing of it. And then there’s the soling. And eventually, I got into the last making, which is what I ended up specializing in later in my career. I worked in orthopedics a lot, and so.

Qanita Lilla: Sebastian, who wears handmade shoes? Who — I mean, it’s an amazing idea. It’s lovely that you can, you know, go to somebody and have your foot fitted for your own particular pair of shoes, but who, like in reality, besides people who have like medical conditions and stuff, who are these people?

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. In reality nowadays who makes handmade — well, it’s — okay, if I — the theorist in me has other answers. [laughter] Really, we can get into the whole complicatedness of actually the handmadeness of factory manufactured shoes. But I think where you’re going with it, yeah, primarily the people that can afford shoes that are handmade, like bespoke shoemaking, are generally people that have — are of a higher income, that they can afford to buy those kind of shoes. But, yeah, primarily nowadays, the bulk of who buys bespoke shoes are actually orthopaedic clients, you know, and that was the field that I worked in. And even that shift in Europe, I had heard a lot from other colleagues in the industry that there was a big transformation that actually happened in the 20th century, it moved from bespoke to orthopedics because of insurance. And so large countries like Germany and the Netherlands who have orthopaedic shoemaking, you know, covered by insurance, that was — that was a — there was a big move in the industry towards that direction. So that is primarily who buys handmade shoes nowadays. Yeah. Or like clients with diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and leg shortages and other needs that require that, that go beyond the capacity of the conventional shoemaking.

Qanita Lilla: How did you make the transition from shoemaking into conceptual art?

Sebastian De Line: That — but that was art school [laughter]. Yeah. Yeah. I went to art school in the evenings when I was working as a shoemaker. So I used to work in a factory in the mornings, and then I would go to school at night. There was an adult, you know, mature student program. I did a BFA for five years, and a lot of the artists that taught the course were also interested in conceptual art. And the school I went to in Amsterdam was called the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, but it was — had a lot of conceptual artists there and in their interests. So they never taught craft in that way. They always said, “You’ve got to go out and learn that yourself.” They just expected you to be more autonomous in that way. But in the school itself, they didn’t focus on that. They focussed on teaching what art is and all the kind of more theoretical questions around art in order to contextualize what we were doing.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: And then, so that’s how I ended up taking that trajectory.

Qanita Lilla: But did you somehow — were you able to transfer your kind of craft-like skills? I mean, you have — I mean, I’m sure you did, and you were in the field for 20 years, you know, and, you know, like how did you translate that from doing something that was so particular, you know, handmade, like it had to just be perfect. How did you translate that? How did that kind of fit together, you know, like the physicality that you were used to, you know, working with and kind of translating those kinds of things into ideas, perhaps you can kind of talk around like a show that you did or some particular like works or pieces?

Sebastian De Line: You know, maybe in a way, I feel like I kind of took a different trajectory in the sense that I saw art school as a place that I could try other things, you know. I saw it as a way that it could open up my practice, that I wouldn’t — that what it had become at that point. So, kind of fixed in a certain process of making shoes that then it was actually very hard when I started art school to open up my mind a lot more and expand my practice to something that, yeah, was very, you know, with making shoes, it is so tied to the function that, you know — you know, mind you, there are other shoe designers that designed first from a conceptual basis and then try to manifest it, let’s say, materially. But because my practice first was grounded in the craft, I could never free myself entirely from it. I always, you know, whenever conceptualizing something, I’ve tried to imagine how it would be made, what it would be made with, and, you know, that I had been keeping the engineering of it in mind all the time and the ergonomics of it. And, you know, biomechanics was always my background as an orthopaedic shoemaker. So, in that sense, it was actually challenging when I went to art school to — even when I remember many moments I’ve had in my life where I thought that I would — was somewhat free from it in my practice, there are always people that still remind me that there’s an aspect of a shoe still in a lot of the, you know, sculptures I make and stuff like that, even if I don’t see it myself. And so, you know, sometimes I actually feel a little bit kind of kicking myself, you know. [laughter]

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. No, but I’m sure that it’s just, it’s so deeply buried that it’s subliminal. It must be. You know, it’s kind of like, if you — like for example, I was taught fairly early, like how to cook, like at 10 years old because I had to kind of help everybody out, and we had a big family and so forth. And then later, like, you know, in my 20s, I was like, “No, you know, this is not a woman’s role. This has like been stifling me, like completely.” But, you know, in my heart of hearts, it’s something that I really love and enjoy, you know? So it’s kind of like trying to find a balance between the things that, you know, you choose and the things that are like inherently there. They just like part of like it’s — and it’s beyond us. It’s kind of like ancestral, even, you know, like the kind of things that we were taught or that we just genetically programmed into doing or something, you know. I really get that sense and, you know, the things that we kind of have to also just like make peace with, you know, kind of move beyond those things. So I can definitely understand why they just said that it comes back. I mean, the shoe is just — it’s just such an incredible kind of metaphor for, you know, life’s journeys and things. And it was an amazing place for you to start, you know? Yeah. And also, I don’t believe it’s, you know, these things kind of fall from nowhere, you know. They just must’ve been something that made you like, so attuned, you know, to that. So, like what do you think — like, what was a particular project at that time that you felt proud of?

Sebastian De Line: I, you know, I have — I tend to try to tie things together. So, my mind is trying to tie everything together a little bit, which is why I’m just taking a moment to pause.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Oh, it’s fine.

Sebastian De Line: But — because I’m thinking about what you’re saying, you know, about how maybe sometimes when we come into learning something that is a labour, you know, and we might not — there’s kind of that tension of appreciating the joy of it or the artistic part of like, let’s say with cooking, you know, but it’s never, you know, inseparable from the consciousness of being a woman and labouring, and that kind of form of domestic labour, you know. But there might be moments of like, I can imagine, I love cooking too. Like when you’re, you know — it’s highly creative, you know, to be able to, but then, you know, when you’re cooking for your family, there are just days where you’re really tired and —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — you know, you might not have the creative capacity to —

Qanita Lilla: Oh yes, yes. And it’s going to be kind of fish burgers in the microwave.

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. [laughing]

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. It’s kind of been going like that.

Sebastian De Line: I feel like the shoemaking journey was a bit like that in a different sense that, you know, like getting back to like maybe, you know, being young and not growing up with a kind of competency. And then I lost my father when I was very young. And so, growing up and not having someone around to kind of teach me that sort of tradition of a craft or what, you know, what your parents would pass down to you. I’ll get to that part of the story later, because actually my mother is an artist, so I ended up inheriting in a way her tradition —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — as a narrative, but I didn’t start out in that direction. You know, I think I leaned towards wanting to learn what I was missing. Right? And so, and part of that was, I think part of my healing journey and learning, you know, was to carry on as a young adult and find a way to take care of myself that I could live and work anywhere, everywhere, everyone needs shoes. Right? And that was part of, I think, you know, the psychological, at least, impetus behind picking a craft like that, that I could carry that competency wherever I went and take care of myself, and finding joy in it, you know, where those moments were finding the joy and the creative aspect of it that allowed it to become much more, you know. And there was that kind of, I definitely went through a period in the years I studied and made shoes too. I think I was interested in a kind of self-mastery, you know, and I liked that this craft, everyone that I know who makes shoes, it’s a lifelong journey, and no one ever becomes in that. I would argue to say that most people are never fully a master at making shoes because there’s so many different aspects to learn about it. You can constantly improve, you know, and so we’re — when you meet other shoemakers, you’re sharing tips and tricks and, you know, you’re constantly learning better ways to make things more refined and et cetera, you know? So, there’s — it’s a long learning curve, you know?

Qanita Lilla: That’s great.

Sebastian De Line: I missed, sorry, the second part of the question.

Qanita Lilla: I can’t remember — I can’t remember. I was just thinking how, you know, like for myself, I went to art school almost on the opposite, kind of — with the opposite kind of impulse not to do something practical, like not to, because I felt that, you know, like when I was at school, I got introduced to art and I thought — and to museums and I thought this is like a completely new world that I just never understood existed or, you know, at all and was very foreign. Like my family is very traditional but luckily, they let me kind of do this somehow because my dad felt, you know, you kind of had the same, said girls needed to be educated, which was incredible, you know, coming from a really kind of a traditional person. And so, when I went into art school, it was so peculiar because it was a very, a highly traditional classical art school. And I was — I also came into it like from I just had no experience like growing, plus the costs, you know, like [Michaelangelo’s] David, and, you know, all these, you know, the time slavery and all these crazy things that, you know, where kind of transposed into Africa. And then also life-drawing, you know, naked domestic workers. It was just all this kind of — and it was so alien and alienating that I found solace in theory because I felt I was kind of hidden there, you know, like my — and I was safe. It was kind of like a safe space to practice and kind of develop my ideas and, you know, the art classes — art history classes were so enormous, it was almost like a thousand students. And like, you never wrote your name on a script, so nobody knew who you were, which was fantastic for me, you know, because I would always stand out when I was in that lecture hall, you know. It was like 99.9% White, so people could always see me, but when I wrote, nobody knew who I was. So it was, you know, this kind of like freedom in, you know, being anonymous. But then, yeah, it’s really, really interesting, like, you know, this fact that you felt that you needed to do something that people needed, you know, which is so important. I felt that people needed to — like I needed to be in a space where people could just like hear my voice, even if I — you know, with just reading what I have to say, just because of the kind of traditional constraints like on me and, you know, the racial constraints and all of those kinds of things. Yeah. And I think it’s interesting because mostly people find that space in creative art, you know, like you kind of went through like to conceptual art and found that kind of freedom, and that you’re kind of struggling with those, you know, constraints that I was introduced to right in the beginning and thought, “No, this is like absolutely not for me. I cannot do this because I’m kind of fighting too many barriers besides my own kind of incompetency, because I just don’t have the background,” you know?

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. You know, you’re reminding me of is in a different sense, when I was working in the factory and studying art at night, I remember most people where we all worked there were all immigrants, most of us, because living in the Netherlands, I think probably about over 75% of the craftspeople working there were folks of colour, you know, from different Dutch-colonized homelands that came there with their families. And so, I can identify in a way, what you’re talking about, as theory being a kind of solace and freedom to it that, you know, when I would be sitting, sometimes I would listen to podcasts or I would listen to lectures a lot on, you know — in my ear buds and on YouTube, and be able to dream, you know, and listen to philosophers. And while I was, you know, standing in the factory, it felt like it was a freedom, you know, that I could dream bigger and how to get out of there, you know, because of the classism and the racism. Whereas I felt like when I was making shoes, part of that what had helped me go to, you know, pursuing academia was because some of the barriers that I experienced in that industry, you know, where I was never promoted for jobs, and I had the highest education in the factory by — with my BFA, and then my MA, I did there too. And I could never even get a job as a, you know, just a supervisor or anything outside of that craft. It was very masculine. It was very male. There were only a couple of women shoemakers that worked there. And so, there was a lot of sexism and homophobia, and transphobia, and it was, you know, very racist. So, it was challenging. And I hear you in that way, like there was that, you know, there were moments where I could be in my own little world with my earbuds on, you know, and, you know, listen to my favourite theorist at the time or people talking about art and it was the gap, the class gap between my colleagues, really, I noticed increased a lot over time. Like sometimes, you know, I think after my second degree, my colleagues still never really understood what I was doing and they kind of equated it to doing Sunday painting classes. So sometimes they’d ask me, “Are you still –“

Qanita Lilla: Doing that thing?

Sebastian De Line: — doing that painting?”

Qanita Lilla: Oh, yeah. No, no, no. Like I get that totally. Like, I got that from my grandmother, from my parents. Like, “Are you still doing this thing?”

Sebastian De Line: This art thing, like —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, like, you know and it’s yeah, like basically anything — like, nothing is basically worth doing, unless you can — you — it’s employed. You know, you — it makes you employable. And I completely understand that. I completely, you know, understand that like coming from my mother, who she left school at 14 because she had like seven siblings to kind of help take care of. And it’s just, yeah, like why would I? Why would I like write the papers that nobody pays me for? Like what — you know, like my grandmother, you know, she was like, “When are you going to have children at 24, 26, like high time?” you know, those — you know, those kinds of things. And yeah, but you know, theory kind of just does — it gives you that space. It gives you that space to be, you know, like a potential of who it is that you imagine. And then like curation like opens up a whole new field, you know, to actually making that visible, those ideas, like trying to — and try to share it with like new audiences and people who might never have thought about seeing things the way that you, you know, can show them.

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. I think that was part of one of the — I mean, I have a different appreciation of art now than I did when I was young, because, you know, when my mom, after my dad passed away, you know, my mom raised my brother and I, and she was an artist, and actually went to art school and did her BFA. But watching her struggle as a single mom and not being able to then choose her career, you know, and have to put that aside to raise us and take a “normal job,” that was a big deterrent or a discourager, you know, for me getting into the arts later on, because to see her not be able to, you know, finish pursuing her dream at the sacrifice of taking care of us, you know. So, you know, and growing up and having family members too that would say, “That’s not going to make you any money.” And like, “That’s not going to put any food on the table. Why do you want to be an artist or yeah, draw on Sunday, but get a 9 to 5 job?”, you know, and having that 9 to 5 job, but then feeling really impinged by it and not feeling that it really nourished my growth and my spirit. You know, that was that shift. And I don’t know about how it was like for you, but I think maybe it was that being also supported enough, you know, by my mom too, to pursue that even though it seemed impractical, you know, and a little bit risky probably for them, you know, risky for her in that regard of, I, you know, definitely think like she saw it as a kind of investment in her children, you know, to not have to struggle the same way that she did, you know. And it’s been a long, long journey [laughter] —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — you know, only now kind of finding its legs and where that leads.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Like totally. Like I could completely and totally understand. It’s not, you know — I mean, like you too, I had to work. I had to work like long hours because I had to support myself. And so, it takes long. It takes like really, really long, you know, and life happens, things happen, children happen, relationships happen. You know, and I just — this kind of idea that you kind of have to, like, as a woman, lock yourself away in a nunnery and do your PhD, and then you kind of emerge, you know, and you know, suddenly you kind of have like an epiphany, and then you kind of get, you know, chosen to go and teach somewhere. It’s just, it’s completely alien and impractical, and never — most of the people I know, it just doesn’t work like that at all. You kind of just, you struggle and struggle, and struggle, and you know, every now and then you get like a break and an opening, and like encouragement, like from people, you know, who, yeah, who’ve kind of been through, you know, on the same path or, you know, kind of tell you that you’re not insane, basically, because they’re just so — there’s so few people who you kind of you can like aspire to whose life you can kind of, you know, follow. It’s just, yeah. But yeah, I just — like, after, you know, many years, like in my community museums, because in South Africa, like after ’94 with like apartheid being disbanded, there was this, you know, increased appreciation for people telling their own stories and telling their own histories. So, it was a really exciting time to be like involved in museums. But then I realized that, you know, I was always telling other people’s stories also, you know, that that — and that was good, you know, in a way, except that there was like limited resources. And as time went on, you know, those kind of resources kind of got more and more like constrained. And I felt, no ways. Like, I, you know, surely, like I need my own space to be able to kind of develop my own ideas. And yeah, that was like with two kids and both of them say now, you know, “You would like really — you were like a bad person at that time. Like during your PhD, you were like a terror, just don’t — you know, when you go and work, please, don’t become a terror again,” because it was just it’s so like emotionally taxing, you know, but I just had to go through that. I had to go through that and that’s insane. It’s insane to have to go through that process to just tell yourself you’re okay, like you — like, just to validate your existence, that’s insane, but that’s just kind of what I felt I needed to do. And, you know, I’m like at peace with all the mess and all the, you know, the broken stories, and things that just don’t make sense, you know, in my life, because that’s just what it is. It is what it is.

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. They say that a lot, how PhDs are really very hard on families. You know, it’s a really challenging time when you have a partner and children, it’s a lot for the whole family.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: You know, goes along on the ride, you know? So, to be finally, you know, of that long investment free of that, you know, but still the reality of what it is to do the actual job is a lot different. Like you said, you know —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — then the fantasy of what it means to become the scholar. You know.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. So, like you — we left off at you like, you know, pursuing like a bachelor’s and master’s in fine arts, and then like you continued. So, you’re busy with a PhD, you’re busy with Agnes. And so, let’s talk a bit about that. Just a bit about how you kind of found your feet in a different way.

Sebastian De Line: Yeah. Well, when I was finishing my MA, I was — it was part of my thesis, was I was interested in stories by Cornplanter, and I realized that being in Europe, you know, I had a great supervisor, but that wasn’t her specialty, you know. Her specialty was feminist Marxism, and labour, and art. And so, she could only support me to a certain degree, but I realized if I really wanted to continue to learn more about the things they cared about that were related to my dad’s culture, being a Mohawk, and that I needed to go home —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — if I wanted to learn more about that and I needed to be in community. And those were things that I missed out on growing up and I didn’t grow up on the territory. And so, yeah, it just seemed like the natural thing, actually, to come back to Turtle Island and to put my roots back here, you know, and to be able to learn about our culture. So, that’s why I ended up actually taking that turn after I finished my MA, then it seemed like, “Okay, I really got a taste for theory and I know I got the theory bug,” so now I wanted to go on, you know, and pursue that more but I needed to be grounded in home, you know, and learn that from here. So, that’s how I ended up coming to Queen’s. It’s ’cause I had extended family that lived in the region. And so, I felt like if I applied here also, I could learn Mohawk in university, which is amazing. I never got a chance to learn that growing up in Vancouver. And then I had cousins and my cousin’s family, you know, were close by, so I could go visit. And, you know, when I had time off, I could go on even with the family and, you know, just feel I had some support, you know. I wasn’t alone. And through that, you know, I started doing my PhD in Cultural Studies, which is the program that I’m in now on, a candidate in Cultural Studies. So, with Cultural Studies, you know, the — there is — it is kind of a natural fit a lot of times with art theory and visual culture. And so, my — the theory that I studied in my MA was grounded in Cultural Studies because a lot of the professors work at Goldsmiths and then they were adjuncts at the Dutch Art Institute, which is where I did my MA. So, having that kind of, I want to say unofficially a Goldsmiths’ stamp, but a number of them coming, you know, working at Goldsmiths, it was very much kind of grounded in Cultural Studies. So that was a kind of a natural fit to apply for those kinds of programs. And it gave me, you know, the freedom to be able to focus on subject matter that related to art and have a practice if I wanted to do a research creation kind of project or like the artistic research while I pursued, you know, a longer dissertation, which was something that I wanted to learn, which is to write a lengthier, you know, written document of research, to learn how to write also the craft of writing, right, and the craft of writing theory in that way. So, I guess there would go back to that theme, again, of being interested in some form of a craft of its different mediums. And with the Agnes, you know, actually the Agnes originally approached me a couple of years ago and asked if I’d be interested in pursuing a position as a research associate, and they wanted to spend time more dedicated to Indigenous collections and the lack of documentation about a lot of the Ancestors in the collection. And as part of the one of the things that we talked about if I were to apply to that position, and when that came up, was that what I had been interested in, too, was that well, it was important to me that we also focused on rematriation and repatriation, and that was — that would be a part of it. Just how — you know, how I have been taught and what I know for our communities what’s important to us. And so, I was very pleased, you know, to hear that they were very open to that. They didn’t actually have anyone on staff that was dedicated to the — you know, what that entails and I didn’t have experience in doing that. I have learnt on the job and I still am. And I have a lot of community support, thankfully. So, we’ve set up ways in which it’s not focused on me, but I found that my role in doing that has been to bring community in. So, one of the things, you know, we have is an Indigenous Arts Advisory Circle that we set up last year that was, you know, our discussion and what our focuses are, annually. And so, we’ve been starting that work. And so, they are who I turn to. And then when we have projects that people bring to the museum, like other, say, professors that, you know, want to invite their students to engage with the collection or graduate students who are interested in projects that involve conservation or autonomous studies. And that’s what my job has become, is to bring them together with our own people to be able to hear from them what our needs are, our community’s needs are, then getting — guide that process rather than the other way around, which is, you know, commonly the way in which things are operated in museums, where especially in the logics of museums and the logics of universities, you know, where research is often something that is someone’s idea within the Institute, and then thinking that that might serve community. It’s — so we try to take an approach the other way around. So yeah, that’s how I ended up here.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I’m interested, you know, in your bio, you mentioned that you’re interested in how Indigenous Ancestors are transformed into labouring objects of extraction. That’s really interesting. Could you talk a bit about that?

Sebastian De Line: Yeah, sure. Maybe with that, I’ll try not to use such inaccessible language as I wrote in my bio [laughter]. Basically, what I’m interested in, is I’m interested in ways in which different Indigenous and racialized communities, how communities understand their own Ancestors. And what I — what we mean by that is that not only when you think of the word ancestor oftentimes if you know the word, we’re referring to human Ancestors, so human remains, but, you know, from my culture and from many other cultures, a lot of people understand Ancestors to mean also what the Western logics are often referred to as “artifacts” or “objects.” So, non-human beings, you know, that are embodied in a different way. And so, when we think about it from those kinds of perspectives, which is at the heart of my dissertation too is basically, you know, referring in different ways to our different cultures, having that understanding of that aliveness of relatives in museum collections that’s really counter to this kind of Western logics of objectivity and objecthood. Then when we understand that, we can see in other ways in which they’re performing a form of labour as well, you know, within collections, within exhibitions and what does it then mean to be alive and to be remembered, and known, and have a role in community, but being not in community, but then being extracted from community and being accumulated, you know, within collections and archives, and performing a certain kind of function, right, and creating validity, right, or having value extracted from them, like from their — literally their embodiment, you know, within those collections, has been the focus of my interest in telling those stories, you know, and telling the way — telling the story in which the way at how that operates and how that is counter to the ways in which they live and how the repercussions of those choices and the harm, the impact that it has on them in their, oftentimes, inability to be returned home, are the moment before return, you know —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — and what they’re doing in that — in those places. So, yeah, what it leads a lot of, you know, in that direction, in that way too, when we, like, when we’re — you know, those Ancestors that were also connected to those ancestral — those Ancestors in the museum, their embodiment, let’s say, as a mask, or, you know, as a ceremonial pipe, or as medicines, as beings that questionably are not necessarily — well, they may be highly artistic, you know, and highly, you know, highly beautiful in that way that they really need, you know, with the creator’s breath in mind, their, you know, their purpose in life was not to be a “artwork,” you know, in a museum. Right? They serve another role, right —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — in their societies. And so, you know, and those spirits that are still connected to them that lived with them in that period that they were alive, and that have used them and that made them, and passed them down to their relatives and, you know, they still have a connection to them. And so, the way I’ve come to understand things is that when they’re awakened to perform labour, you know, in museums, like, say, on exhibition or even on a permanent display in a vitrine, you know, in which they’re then awakened, you know, then it’s really activating and not giving rest to those spirits that are connected to them because most of them, right, they were found — you know, they’ve been on earth, right, from a lot of them from burial places. Right? And where spirit was meant to be resting at that point, you know, and not being called upon to labour, you know —

Qanita Lilla: To do stuff.

Sebastian De Line: — certainly not in that way. Right?

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. So, how do Indigenous people experience these collections? Do they feel as if they are living Ancestors?

Sebastian De Line: I mean, people have different beliefs, so that’s something that I have to preface. You know, I can’t speak for every nation. Every nation has their own understandings and protocols, and their own ways. Right? I’m primarily taught from a Mohawk or a Haudenosaunee perspective. So, that’s how I understand things, but, you know, even as an urban person, right? I’m an urban, mixed race person of Indigenous descent. I didn’t grow up, you know, learning those things. I learnt them later in life. And so, there’s a lot of people that also, you know, in community that might also still view them as non-agential, and as objects. And that’s — I feel like that’s a product of colonization. That’s one of the ways in which we’ve been assimilated. So, there’s really — you know, we have lost an everyday memory and understanding of those things. But the way I’ve been taught about that is that, you know — they are alive and they have a spirit, you know. Everything has a spirit, this table has a spirit, right? This table I’m sitting at, you know, it’s also made of wood. You know, it also came from beings that are alive. Right? And then they’re — if their body’s been sacrificed to now, you know, becoming — come to this table that I sit here at, you know? And so, in that way, how does it affect communities? I think it — I know it affects a lot of communities, especially it affects communities when the Ancestors are ceremonial, when their purpose in life was to be a medicine. Those are because if you think of it that way, then they’re not — when they’re in a museum, are they really having the ability to then be that medicine to community?

Qanita Lilla: Mm-mm.

Sebastian De Line: No, they’re not. And so, they miss out on being able to be — fulfill their role as a medicine, right, in the community, or their ceremonial role that then, you know, revitalizes and supports, and nourishes community. So, yeah, community really longs for the return of those Ancestors, because they fulfill a really vital role that they can’t fulfill when they’re in a museum, because the idea of museums, again, maybe coming back to like what it — what we think of what art is, you know, that there is a — that there’s a certain idea and purpose in which, from a Western perspective, what is the kind of labour being asked of those Ancestors? Right? But I also know that like sometimes community members, you know, the people also feel, you know, happy about seeing some of their Ancestors represented in a place in which is predominantly very Western, you know, and to see a pride, right, in the artistry and in the deep spiritualness, and, you know, the knowledge and beauty of one’s Ancestors is —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — can feel really good, right, to come into a space and to feel that if it’s done respectfully, you know, and if they’re shown respectfully to that — that’s conveyed, you know. I, you know, I don’t know, I was wondering about, you know, your thoughts about that, too, but I really feel like any of these kinds of decisions that we make, you know, in museums and in making art as artists, how something is made with a certain intention, is really conveyed in the whole process and that’s felt, you know, by the visitor, you know? So, I think it’s complicated in that way. It’s not a — I don’t have one answer for you other than it’s quite context-specific, it’s person-specific, family-specific, nation-specific, you know.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. But yeah, and I also think, you know, as curators, as academics, you know, where you’re coming from and your, you know, your place, and then where you kind of, yeah, where you’re speaking from, is it’s very like important to kind of make that clear and to make your, you know, your positionality so that people have a sense of that. Because like very often in museums, just kind of covered up, you know, behind this veneer of doing things in a particular way, you know, of presenting thin glass cases and having wall panels, you know? But I think it’s really, especially for people who are coming into the space as — like a real alien space, it is, it’s an alien space for many, many people. And, you know, they want to know who’s speaking, like who’s speaking to me, you know? Whose voice is speaking to me and telling me the ideas, like who — you know, because yeah, for example, in South Africa, official spaces are like everybody knows they are highly politicized in political spaces, you know. So, who is it? Like, who is the official voice? And I think once you make that clear, people can transition, like, you know, it’s like an easier transition. So, Sebastian, like lastly, I’ve kept you here for — and it’s been fantastic. It’s been so amazing speaking to you. I wanted to know how would you say you found your voice now that you are conveying like the voices of Ancestors of many nations? Like how do you see yourself like in that process and how do you — you know, is this a creative process? Like, how do you kind of, you know, like reconcile that?

Sebastian De Line: I mean, I just see myself as a helper. I think that’s my role. That’s a role I feel I’m coming into in community. My role is to support communities and getting back in touch with their Ancestors here at the Agnes, and learning from them, how they wish to ceremonially take care of their Ancestors from their own perspectives, that are from many different nations. So I’ve always been reluctant to take on this idea of what I think a lot of institutions often do, where they’ll place a person in a certain kind of job and say, “Okay, now you are the “expert” on something.” And in reality, I could never be an expert on everyone else’s different nation —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — you know, let alone my own as a learner, you know. And that to me is that’s being authentic in our roles in which what our capacities are as people who work in museums oftentimes with Ancestors from other cultures and with artists from other nations, and who have different life experiences, and come to the decisions that they make based on, you know, all of that. So that’s my role, I think, as a helper in that way and to help those Ancestors too, and to help them bring that communication, you know, make that smoother between them and their beloveds, and centre, you know, their needs, centre communities’ needs, centre those Ancestors’ needs. And that informs the kind of decisions that are made in terms of what — how they want to be while they’re in this museum, who they might want to teach, who they might not want to teach everything about their life —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — what is appropriate and what is not, you know. And so sometimes my job has been to kind of navigating those challenging questions of relearning and unlearning certain kinds of very Westernized ideas about knowledge production in spaces like museums, where even, you know, in this university, too, and probably safe to say all universities across Canada and throughout the United States, you know, there is very much grounded an idea, I think, that’s tied to enlightenment, you know, European enlightenment, and this idea that knowledge is universal, and it’s meant to be accessible to everyone. And not all knowledges, from the way I was taught, are actually meant for everyone. And the reason why is that I think back to one of my elders, Al Doxtator, you know, he often teaches me that, you know, with knowledge, what we learn carries a responsibility and especially when it comes to Indigenous knowledges and carrying certain knowledge, is that with that, there is a — there’s a role, there’s a kind of a job or an obligation, you know, to the whole of that. And so, we do not want to know everything because that would be a huge burden to carry, to be responsible for, not just for ourselves, but then our whole community and giving that back reciprocally, you know, and thinking about that seven generations ahead and how that affects the next seven generations is an enormous responsibility even to then carry one thing. So, you know, if I see it the way I’m taught in that way, to be a helper, I still have to think of it in that perspective. What does it mean to be a helper that makes decisions and choices in my life that affect, you know, the next seven generations in our community? Is something that I have to hold and I have to keep in mind whenever I navigate decisions. And that’s why we have a process that involves having a circle that I can turn to with people who have a lot more knowledge —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — you know, that our elders and knowledge keepers, and people who have worked also in the arts in many years, and have had to deal with similar challenges and have ways of navigating them, and good ideas on how to go about doing that in a good way. So that’s the way I approach it and that’s how I’ll probably always see my life, you know, as a helper —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — and a learner, because I don’t know about you, but I never want to stop learning, you know. That’s I think when we stop learning even when we’re older, you know, then we’ve closed something off —

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Sebastian De Line: — you know, that we’re not being open, you know, and being humble in that way, so yeah.

Qanita Lilla: That’s awesome. Sebastian, thank you so much. You know, I totally agree. I think that, you know, the more people you have on board, you know, when you are dealing with such potent, heavy, you know, rich knowledge, is it’s really important. It’s really important to have your support system because, yeah, it’s just too much for one person. And also, I think, you know, this idea of, you know, the artist is genius, the artist as an individual is just something that we have to break down and to open the field up and to let more people in. So thank you so much. Thank you so much. It’s been fantastic and it was worth waiting for. Thank you so much, Sebastian.

Sebastian De Line: We were long overdue for conversations.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Like months and months. Yeah. Like across oceans and so forth but thank you so much. Thank you, Sebastian.

Sebastian De Line: I’m very grateful. Hey, thank you very much too. Take care.

Qanita Lilla: Thanks. Bye.

Sebastian De Line: You’re welcome.

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: the Podcast. Special thanks to our guest Sebastian De Line for speaking with us today. 

The podcast is hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla and produced by Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. 

The music is composed by “Jameel3DN” and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III. 

Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time! 

[Music]

 

The Art of Black, by Jameel3DN

Transcript

The Art of Black, by Jameel3DN
Commissioned by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2021

“The Art of Black” by Jameel3DN (2021) Lyrics

 [Intro]

Protect the fold

Yeah yeah

Protect the Fold

Protect the Fold

 [Verse 1]

As we fight to be heard

Black bodies in the earth

Creators of culture

Disconnected from birth

So we let them sell us worth

Sold us fables and it worked

So we masking pain cause it hurts

Black pain being hanged like some merch

They tell our story

But let us tell you first

We was stolen put on display

Taught a new language

Distorted our face what a shame

We was shinning

They wanted us in shade

They thought we would stay slaves

One chapter but this novel has many

You know first peoples really look like pennies

This bronze skin

This is what they envy

And the culture that’s within me

 [Chorus]

Know your worth sister

Protect the soul

Know your worth brother

Protect the fold

Know your worth Sister

Protect the fold

Know your worth Brother

Protect the Soul 

[Outro]

Today I was thinking

What it would feel like

To be outside this flesh

For my spirit to be flying high in the sky

Above the clouds

At the Doorsteps of heaven

Hm..

Freedom.

Yeah

Protect the soul…

Protect the soul…

 

Credits

Song Writer: Jameel “Jameel3DN’ McPherson

Producer: Elroy “EC3” Cox III

Commissioned by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2021

 

The Art of Black

Transcript

The Art of Black
In episode two of With Opened Mouths: The Podcast, Qanita Lilla chats with Jameel3DN, the artist behind the podcast music about his life journey and of developing his voice as a Griot (storyteller).

SPEAKERS

Qanita Lilla (host), Jameel3DN (guest)

 

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Hello and welcome to With Open Mouths: The Podcast. I’m your host Qanita Lilla. This podcast runs alongside Agnes’ exhibition of the same name. The exhibition interrogates conventional museum practices. It asks if objects that originate outside Western knowledge making systems, like those from Africa, can find their voices in new ways. In this podcast, I sit down with musicians, artists, curators, and spoken word poets to discuss their expression of their artistic practice; to find out what inspired them to open their mouth and be heard.

[Music]

Today, I’m excited to meet Jameel3DN. Jameel wrote the incredible music for this podcast. And when I first met him to discuss the project, I knew that I had to include him and talk with him again. Raised in Toronto’s West End, Jameel3DN discovered solace through storytelling at a young age. His Jamaican background instilled in him the importance of feeling in the performance arts. It is something he has carried with him closely while making music throughout his career. What began as an outlet for jotting down the goings on of every day as a child, transitioned into poetic stanzas that unveiled the observations of life lessons of adulthood? Holding nothing back, Jameel3DN rhymes or candid spitfire tales of his experience as a black man. He takes listeners on a ride as he sheds light on the obstacles he has faced that are often tied to the colour of his skin. His last four projects was a four-part series called Letters Form, Words Speak. This project invites you to take a journey with him through his most trying experiences. Though he doesn’t come out the other end unscathed, he is a better man for it. As a father of three kids, the emcee understands the weight of his words and uses them to share messages that encourage personal and communal elevation rather than conformity, especially within the black community. Flipping to the next chapter, Jameel3DN has faith in the path he has chosen and wants his music to be received with an open mind and a clean heart. Welcome Jameel.

[Music]

Jameel3DN: Hi, how you doing, how you doing? That sounds so beautiful [brief laughter].

Qanita Lilla: It was beautiful. That was awesome. Thank you so much for providing such an honest introduction for me.

Jameel3DN: No problem, you know.

Qanita Lilla: Okay, so I wanted to talk about this first sentence, how you discovered solace through storytelling. Can you start by giving me a background of what it was like growing up?

Jameel3DN: Yeah, no problem. Well, I’m the only boy out of three, you know, three children in my house at the time, because my father went on to have another child. And I was the middle child. So for me, you know, I would say it was difficult, because my eldest sister, she was my mother’s favourite and my youngest sister was my father’s favourite. So I was kind of just, you know, not only being the only boy, but feeling like nobody’s favourite. You know, I was angry to be honest. You know, I felt as the boy child, you know, I should have been my father’s favourite [brief laughter] as dumb as that sounds. But it never went that way for me. So early on I would act out. I would act out a lot actually, I had anger problems, had a terrible temper tantrum, not in the way, like, you know, the media kind of explains it, because, you know, in a Jamaica household, you can’t be too what we call bright. You have to have manners and respect, but when I would go outside and with strangers, you know, the littlest thing would kind of set me off and I’d get in trouble. But I would say my mother saw that within myself, within me, and she tried to — and she did actually successfully get me to understand my emotions and my feelings. And she would ask me what I know now as, you know, difficult questions, you know, as a mother with a son, you know, how I felt about my relationship with my father from like a very young age, like from six-seven years old. And I think that’s what kind of started off, you know, my story, because through that I was able to understand some of my feelings, not completely because I was still a child, but, you know, through that, I started writing short stories literally about my home life. I went to Calico grade five, you know, after being kicked out of so many schools that my teacher, Mr. Daley, you know, started me off, you know, by writing short stories. So I used to have this thing called — even though this is, you know, I can’t be sued for it, but I was a kid. I used to read a lot of Jigsaw Jones books. So I had my first story ever was Jigsaw Jones, Jameel Cones [assumed spelling]. And [brief laughter] pretty much I used my home life and things that were going on in my house to write these stories. And it was a way, you know — it was serious, but it was a little comedy. And that’s how I kind of started getting out my feelings and finding peace within, you know, some of the things that were going on. And from there, it just developed into poetry. You know, and then from poetry, I went into rhyming. So a lot of times when I’m going through hard times, and I’m not understanding certain emotions, you know, I use my writing ability to find peace in my situations, whether it’s a short story, a poem, or a rap or a song. You know, I write a lot of songs too that I don’t sing, because I don’t believe I can sing, but [brief laughter] you know what I mean?

Qanita Lilla: That is not true. That is not true. You have an amazing voice. And like in one of your emails, like in one of your emails, you actually said, you know like that you didn’t want to sing. And you know, like who in heaven’s name said that you could not sing? When did that happen?

Jameel3DN: From a kid, so from a child. Again, you know, I’ll say this, I’m a big believer in anything we face as adults, you know, within ourselves or any struggles, I do believe it starts from childhood. You know, from a child, they would say I was talented, and I could do almost anything I put my mind to, but sing. So it’s like you know, Jameel can do everything, but he can’t sing [brief laughter]. And that stuck with me to be honest. To this day, I go to the studio and a lot of singers and even my engineers are like, Jameel, you can sing, you just have to like practice, you know, get a little bit more training. But even if I went to training, I couldn’t take myself serious, because I feel like, I think I’m a singer and then I get too full of myself. And then I just feel like that would happen to me personally, because, you know, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but that song specifically, it was — like I said, I like to — emotion is important to me and people and even just myself feeling a song, like that supersedes everything. So that’s the why I did it, you know. I just turned the lights off and I kind of just, I like to, I feel like I — I get in touch with my story and I deliver what I think is necessary.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Yeah, I wondered. I wondered like what, you know, what like inspired you? Like what — you know, was it the subject matter? Or, you know, it just felt like really close as if it was the sound that was being bottled up for a long time and then it just — you know, you kind of finally just opened up that bottle.

Jameel3DN: That conversation we had that day when you explained the podcast and the exhibit. And I don’t want to butcher what you said, but it was along the lines of — well, the part that was inspiring to me was, you know, the similarity between what the mass went through and what African people went through in terms of, you know, slavery. And for me, that’s something that’s very dear to me, because I was directly affected by that. And that’s something like kind — I don’t struggle with it, but it’s hard for me to understand why, because of the effects. Like I still feel the effects, you know, my children feel the effects, you know? And it sounds like, “Oh, it’s so long ago, how do you feel affected?” Just that it was trauma passed down. You know, if you want to think about trauma is passed out also through DNA. So —

Qanita Lilla: And it’s like it’s intergenerational, you know. And if we don’t talk about it, then it just gets buried, and we don’t — you know?

Jameel3DN: Exactly.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: And so yeah, so like, so for me, like I said, you inspired me, because like, it was a story that I felt I wanted to tell. Well, I didn’t know I wanted to tell. So when you sparked that — when that creativity was sparked by what you told me, I felt it, it sounded like something I thought about, you know what I mean?

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: It felt something like — you know, a lot of times you write, you know, you’re thinking about a story. That was different. Like, it was almost like spiritual maybe.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And yeah, like I got that feeling that it was there. You know, with a lot of you know, the people that I talk to, but even like that’s why I knew I had to bring you back, because I got that sense that it’s been there, you know, it’s stuff that’s been there and that needs to, you know, it needs like an outlet. So anyway, but I’ll talk about the song again. I want to go back to your childhood and, you know, what were your challenges, you know, because it’s — I get a sense that it was tough. It was, it was difficult to find your voice, even though you were, you know, doing a lot of story writing, but it wasn’t as easy as that, you know. It must have been really tough, like growing up as a boy, you know, having a creative outlet at all, it’s unusual for, you know, boys to kind of — to write, I think.

Jameel3DN: [ Brief laughter ] I would say, you know what, I never thought of it like that. When I think about it, you’re right. I was probably one of the only male writers when I think about it. Like I said, I can credit my mother, because my mother — I think first — I think the reason why there’s not a lot of boy writers, is because we’re not really in touch with our emotions, you know, from young. But my mother, she made it a priority for me to understand my feelings. I think once you begin to understand your feelings, you can kind of write about it, whether it’s personal or for, you know, public consumption and — I would say that growing up, I did feel like I wasn’t heard. You know, I felt like life wasn’t fair to be honest. My older sister — so this sounds terrible, honestly, and I apologize to my older sister. So my oldest sister’s father, he passed away before she was born. And my father and my mother got together and then three, four years later they had me. But no, no but, but no well, my father, you know, paid a lot more attention to my oldest sister. So me knowing all the details as a kid, I always felt like, and this is very selfish of me, which like I said I apologized to my sister when I got to like 18, 19 years old. I always said like, man, this is my real dad. And real my dad loves me less than, you know, the adopted daughter. I couldn’t understand as a kid. Like anything my oldest sister asked, she got. If I asked for anything, it’d be like, what do you want it for? You know, I played sports to impress my father. He never was really — never paid attention to me. My mother was so consumed with my, you know, my sisters, because they’re women, you know? And this is like; I was on the back burner for like — honestly all my life I felt like that, to be honest, you know, in terms of my parents. So the only way I felt like people listened to me was when I did write, you know? And maybe it was a way to kind of get attention maybe I did that. I was good at it. For the first time I wrote my story, you know, everyone was like, “Oh my God, Jameel is so good.” You know, but it was real for me. But my real story was good to be — I don’t know how to explain it. It was people found — people found — I don’t know how to explain that. Even though these are my, you know, true stories and through I express myself and the way I was heard I felt, I kept on doing it because I felt like I also received the attention I didn’t get at home. You know, I won awards for these things. You know what I mean? So maybe it sounds a little messed up, but as a child, you know, when you don’t get — you know, when you don’t think you’re — you don’t think your parents love you in the way you expect them to love you, you kind of look for it in other ways, and sometimes unhealthy ways. I’m just thankful that I picked up writing and not something else honestly, if that answers your question, I’m not sure if that answered your question [brief laughter].

Qanita Lilla: Being a man and like having like a lack of like a role model, you know, like really wanting that from your dad? How do you think this played in to like your idea of like wanting like positive reinforcement?

Jameel3DN: I think I was lucky. I think at 13 years old — so I was expelled out of my middle school. I went to another middle school, Pierre Laporte, and there was a vice-principal there, Mr. Malabre [assumed spelling]. He kind of took me, he changed my life actually. He changed the trajectory of my life. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Mr. Malabre, I would probably be a jailbird [brief laughter]. No, honestly it was a Jamaican vice-principal and most teachers saw me and didn’t think nothing of me. But Mr. Malabre, you know, he saw more than like the athlete or the troubled kid, you know, he saw like potential almost. And it was in grade eight when I decided to be a better version of myself, and that I didn’t have to kind of be — I didn’t have to be the person I was becoming, the bad person I was becoming, because definitely that person was bad. So the lack of role model, I would say that, you know, I was lucky to have people come in my life at certain key points to where I can always look up to somebody. As far as it not being my father, it did affect me. I think it still affects me a little bit, you know. I don’t understand that story. I love my father, we’re on a good — both my mother and my father, we’re on good terms, because I understand we’re going to get one. But to be honest, it’s still affecting me, you know? No, you can’t — you know, you only got one father, you know, and as a kid, you know, my father was like a superhero to me. And I can remember my mom kind of used to say, why do you love him so much? Or why do you look up to him like that? You know, he doesn’t really do much for you. It wasn’t till I was like 12, 13 years old when, you know, I think I needed some school clothes, and he didn’t buy them from me. And then I did develop like a small hate for him for a short period of time. And, you know, it was like a reality check for me. And then, yeah, and then when I moved away, you know, I think — I thank God for wisdom. Wisdom kind of showed me that, you know, regardless, you know, your parents have their own traumas and their own struggles; I guess I’m a child. I really shouldn’t have — I should consider them, but wisdom allowed me to consider their issues and what they had to go — you know, going through. And, you know, through that, I’ve been able to find peace with both my parents and just accept them for, you know, who they are and what they’ve done for me, regardless of how, you know — you know, if there was minimum — I don’t think it was minimum, because I’m here. I could have died or they could they could’ve gave me up, you know. So much things could’ve happened, but you know, at least they did give me 15 years where they were there for me, you know, and that’s more than what a lot of other people get.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: But it had a big effect on me.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah and it sounds just — it sounds like tough. But you know you made it out the other side really. You know, especially like during that difficult time, like adolescence, you made it, you know, out. Besides like your school teacher, who were your other inspirations? Like who did you look up to, who kind of gave you a window out of your situation?

Jameel3DN: So Mr. Malabre, he was one. That was when I was 13 years old. I would say as a kid — so as a kid, I would say only probably Mr. Malabre as far as inspiring me. And then as an adult, you know, I met a gentleman named Rob Thorndyke, you know, a good friend of mines. You know, always believed in me, you know, always invested in me. He also showed me like light within myself. Sorry. As a kid, there was a friend, this girl I used — this friend I had, her name was — I don’t want to name drop her name.

[ Laughter ]

Qanita Lilla: Come on?

[ Laughter ]

Jameel3DN: I don’t want to name her [brief laughter]. But my friend Holly, she met me when my mother left. My mother left to go live in Miami and my father got remarried. And so it was just me and my little sister in our house. It was government housing. And she kind of would always talk about being selfless, right. And —

Qanita Lilla: Wow.

Jameel3DN: Yeah, young, 15, 16, she was beyond her years. She always talked about being selfless. And I never really understood it, but it always interested in like yes, being selfless. And she’s like, oh, you’re selfless. And I’m like; I didn’t even know what that meant. You know, for somebody told me I’m selfless, I don’t know what that meant. I was confused. It wasn’t till I was a little bit older where I started to kind of understand a lot of her conversation, but she made me see beyond myself in a weird way. I don’t know how that makes — or she made me want to see beyond myself and like, not always be fully concerned about my situation, no matter how bad it was. You know what I’m saying? I don’t know how to explain it. Like, I think —

Qanita Lilla: No, I think you’re explaining it perfectly. And I think that idea of a collective good kind of thinking of the bigger, greater picture is like a profound thing for like a child to communicate to another child.

Jameel3DN: Yeah. I mean, I — — I always say like at that specific time in my life, that was definitely a needed message, even though I didn’t act on it fully then. As I got older, it became very important to me, kind of like my purpose, you know, when it comes to, you know, my people, to be honest, you know? Like I said, I always give that girl her, you know, her flowers, I try to give her a flower. There was a time that we didn’t talk for a while, but you know, recently, you know, I had to, because I don’t know, you never know who’s going to pass away. You know, I reconnected with her and just let her know like those words and just the conversations we used to have, it was another bright spot or light in my life in a very dark time, you know? So I would say her, Mr. Malabre — and it’s funny because she’s a woman, but like she really did — some probably looked up to a little bit, you know, kind of like inspired to be like, you know spiritual-wise. And then as I got older Rob Thorndyke and then I think that’s pretty much it, to be honest. You know, yeah. That’s pretty much it though.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. I think, yeah, it comes through, you know, it’s like really like her influence especially, it comes through. And it’s interesting how like the people that we meet along the way, just shapes us and shapes who we are.

Jameel3DN: No, I agree because at 16, like she said some stuff to me about myself that today I’m looking like, yo, I don’t know how she kind of knew that or saw that, you know. I don’t think — I think people don’t really — I think sometimes people can’t see themselves. But to see someone in the way she saw me at such a young age where I wasn’t even developed, I wasn’t even near who I am today. That’s like I don’t know vision, foresight, I don’t know [brief laughter] all of them in one, you know, so yeah, yeah, yeah.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. That’s amazing. So now I want to talk a bit about like The Art of Black.

Jameel3DN: Yes.

Qanita Lilla: And how it came to be like your creative process, how did everything come together? Could we talk a bit about that?

Jameel3DN: Okay. So it’s actually funny, because the song originally had a whole different — the music was different at first.

Qanita Lilla: Really?

Jameel3DN: Yes, it was.

Qanita Lilla: I can’t believe that.

[ Laughter ]

Jameel3DN: I’ll send it to you. It was different. It was completely different. And I actually put my brother, not by blood, but by choice, you know, Tobias, NamedTobias, he’s also a phenomenal artist in my opinion. And I got a name drop [brief laughter]. And he was singing on it at first, but the beat and just the way it felt it didn’t — I didn’t fully express the way I, you know, the way I wanted it — the way I wanted to express the feeling I got when you first inspired me. So it was telling me, I’m like, man, I can’t send this to you. There’s no way, you know. So that was the first day I went to the studio. It was April 7th if I recall. April 7th? No. When did I sing? Oh, beginning of April, maybe April 1st or 2nd, I think. But I’m like, you know what, I love the words, but I don’t like the song. Like the words were it.

Qanita Lilla: That melody is so smooth and it’s so gentle and, you know, it makes such a contrast to the words, you know, the words are really — it’s powerful, but it’s more kind of thoughtful, you know. But that melody really carries it through and it makes you want to listen, you know, because it’s just such — it’s so smooth. It’s just such — it’s sweet. It’s a sweet — it’s sweet.

Jameel3DN: Thank you. Thank you. I also was very considerate about this being a podcast, right? So I’ve thought about what information would be shared and how do you get listeners to kind of lock in to receive, you know, you know, this type of information, you know, because you have to pique the interest in my opinion. So I said to myself, if you’re hearing my voice first or last, how do I make it memorable, you know? So the music was important. I remember you said you like the Letter J a lot. So at first I’m like maybe a little different, but then when I heard the different I’m like, I don’t like it. Let’s go back to the letter J feeling. So by that music, and then I formed the words around that music or it’s instrumental, it’s a beat. I formed the words around that and I kind of just took my time. I really do believe sometimes when you rap, if you slow it down a little bit, you can digest what’s being said, you know, better rather than be so caught up in what we call flow, you know what I’m saying, and you missing an opportunity to reach a listener. You know what I mean?

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: So I feel — like I said, there was no singing even on that version. And then when the rapping was done, I’m like, man, there’s still something missing. And I was like, wracking my mind. I’m like, you know, Mike, just let me sing [brief laughter]. So then I sung, you know, from the beginning to the end.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. Wow. So the singing came at the end of the process. And you thought, well, you know — yeah, that’s — yeah. It seems like the —

Jameel3DN: That was like the glue.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah, it really seems like that. You know, I really love this like the letter of the letters of the alphabet, Letters Form, Words Speak. Can you talk a little bit about that, because it’s a huge project and it’s amazing? It’s very diverse, you know, it’s got so many different themes and things going on there. Can you just kind of going back to that as an inspiration for this Art of Black?

Jameel3DN: Yeah. Well, when I first started — well, when I first got the idea for the project, you know, I’m kind of — I’m like — I would say I’m a visionary, you know. I try to have meaning to everything I do. Actually don’t try it, that’s the purpose. Everything I do has to have some kind of meaning. I was 22 years old at the time, 2012. And I was in a very complicated situation, a very stressful situation. And I just didn’t understand the people around me. I didn’t understand at the time why I had to go through so much. And how was I going to express all my feelings and all of my — — all of my journey from that point forward to where people could digest it the way I wanted them to digest it, you know, not just, I feel like complaining. I do complain in my first letters. That just make it sound like complaining, but you know, bring them through the — bring them — what’s the word I’m looking for?

Qanita Lilla: Pain. Pain.

Jameel3DN: Pardon? Go ahead.

Qanita Lilla: Pain.

Jameel3DN: Pain. Yes. Let them understand my pain [brief laughter]. Yes, exactly. And then bring them through my evolution or let them see my evolution through the music. So I remember the first song, Letter A, I was sitting in my friend’s basement, I’m broke, I got no money, nobody got money. And I’m thinking to myself, man, you know, I got three friends, all broke, curse word [brief laughter]. We lost hope. At nine to five, that’s how I die slow. At nine to five, that’s how I die slow. I can’t remember. I’m tired. I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics, but it was pretty much explaining my situation and just being frustrated at the — you know, like we’re all sitting here, all broke, no hope all working nine to five, we all feel like slaves. And it’s just like, where did we go from here? You know what I mean?

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: Kind of mad at my friends and mad at myself, mad at my family, mad at my girlfriend at the time. I’m just like, man; this is a big waste of time. And as for me personally, I’ve always had aspirations. You know, I’ve always said, you know what, we got to build businesses. We got to do this. We got to do that. And I felt like I always dragging people. I was always trying to push people to become more than what we were at in the moment. And at that point I was just tired.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: So, I wrote letters and then — sorry, let me go back. Oh, I apologize. The entire project was basically a way for me to make songs using the alphabet, give it to people. And hopefully for me giving my emotion through alphabet, people can start talking about their emotions and what they’ve been through, because the common thing in the black community is to not talk about what you’re going through, to not be transparent. I’m super, super transparent. And I feel like it’s helped me. It’s been its own therapy, even though I do believe people should go through therapy, I’ve been to therapy, I still go to therapy. Learning to express yourself and learning to be transparent about what you’re going through in the moment is therapy in itself. And it would help a lot of us not to be angry all the time, like I used to be. You know, so the Letters Form was just my — it was like my gift to my, to my people. Like this is exactly — because everything in that project that I was going through, I was going through at that moment. Every single thing is true.

Qanita Lilla: Whoa.

Jameel3DN: You know, at one point letter F I questioned God. I believe in God. I was questioning God. I’m like, yo, I’m going through all these things. Where are you at [brief laughter]? You know, like where are you at? Like, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, but it feels like you leaving me out in the dry. This is Letter F. Letter G, another song I talked about, I was talking about the mentality of the ghetto and you know, the gangster culture and the hazards of that, and wanting to be free. Like, is there a place where, you know, where dreams can last forever? You know what I mean? Like it’s a range of emotion, testimonies, you know thoughts and just, yeah, I hope that answers your question. I’m sorry.

[ Laughter ]

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. I mean, I think, and I think, you know, something that you pick up again in like The Art of Black is the idea of the fold that black people inhabit. Like, what is this? What is the fold that you have to protect, like protect the fold? I kind of get an idea that it’s kind of about like space and a safe space, but can you talk a bit about that?

Jameel3DN: All right. So I purposely — when you sent me the questions, I purposely tried not to look at them so I can give honest answers, you know, because for me, I overthink everything, you know. And then by the time we got through this, I would’ve just been giving you like a rehearsed answer. So for me the fold, you know, so that’s a very good question. Like I said, that wasn’t a — that lyric was not written down. That like was a freestyle.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah.

Jameel3DN: And like I said, it came from that same place where you inspired me. So for me, the fold has always been like, you know, my people, you know, from old to young. You know, I feel like throughout history, we’ve done things for ourselves, you know, not all of us, but there’s been particular people who’ve looked out for themselves and kind of didn’t care about the “fold” or the rest of the people. Now, a lot of people would call them sellouts, you know, but I don’t want to focus on the sellout. I don’t want to focus on the mentality. You know what I’m saying? Like, when are we going to get to the place where it’s not just about me, it’s about us, you know? You know, for me, it’s always been about us. Everything I do is for us, you know. And when I say us, you know, it goes deeper than like, you know, we have children — yes, I have my children, you know, I love my children. But do I save my children and kill my people? You know, I feel like — I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but these are conflicts that I have with myself for my kid is its like, you have to make the hard decisions to protect the fold, to protect the people. You know, we give away a lot of us, we give a lot, we give away a lot — we give ourselves away a lot, you know? And we don’t concern ourselves of the future a lot of the times, not all of us, but you know certain people. And I just feel like, not just like the people, but the things, the culture, you know, like art, you know, like cuisine, like everything that is attached to us as a people we need to protect, because in protecting those things, we protect us. And because we didn’t protect those things, we destroyed ourselves. You know what I’m saying? Obviously, we understand the history and it’s not necessarily us destroying ourselves, but you get what I mean. That’s my idea of the fold; you know everything pertaining to us as a people, not just the people itself.

Qanita Lilla: And then like in the — you know, towards the end, you talk about, you know, like the worth of a sister and the worth of a brother and protecting the soul and protecting the fold, you know, and how it’s kind of — how it’s bound together, how it’s all bound together, like your sense of identity and your soul and your sense of belonging and all these things. And you know, I wanted to — like earlier you sent me an email with this idea of the griot.

Jameel3DN: Griot.

Qanita Lilla: Griot, yeah, griot. Yeah.

Jameel3DN: Yes, the West African language.

Qanita Lilla: Yeah. And I wanted you just to, you know, end off by talking about that because I really — I got a sense that, you know, there is so much of this kind of this person, this person in your writing, especially in this piece, you know, about like messages and about like history and sharing, sharing with like, you know your community about, you know, like your ideas.

Jameel3DN: Okay.

Qanita Lilla: So who is the griot?

Jameel3DN: So how I has introduced to that term, my brother NamedTobias again, he used to be a producer and he turned a rapper, but we had this project called The Rise of the Nation in 2011. And the last song, he said, he named the beat Griot. And I said, what does a griot mean? He goes; it’s a West African word for storyteller. And I’m like, oh, that’s like — that’s dope. And from then on, you know, I researched what the griots were. And the griots were pretty much like, like I said, that the people in the tribe who would pass the stories now, you know what I mean, to generations and stuff like that. And that’s what I feel like I do. You know, I don’t really consider myself an emcee, like in the email we were talking about our master of ceremony. I really do consider myself more of a griot, because all my music, they’re all story-based, you know, they’re all intentional, they’re all speaking of our history, or I feel like writing about our future, you know. So for me, who the griot is like in terms of — do you mean like who do I feel I am as a griot? Sorry, just to clarify.

Qanita Lilla: Yes.

Jameel3DN: Yeah. Okay. So that’s a good question.

[ Laughter ]

I feel like — — for my generation — I feel like — I don’t know if this answers the question, but this is the answer I do have. I feel like through my stories and through the music, I’m showing other men that it’s okay to be, you know, emotional. It’s okay to be in pain. It’s okay to love. And at times you’re going to go through heartbreak, you know, everything is not going to be okay, but, you know, keep telling your story. That’s hard. That’s who I feel like that’s my identity as a griot, you know, just showing the full spectrum of being a black man, and sometimes a black person, you know. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s my answer [laughter].

Qanita Lilla: That’s perfect. That’s perfect, Jameel. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you so much for like writing this incredible song. It’s just so beautiful and, yeah, it was amazing. And I’m so happy that you agreed to come and talk with me today.

Jameel3DN: Thank you for inspiring it. I promise you if we didn’t have that conversation that day, and you know, you didn’t share with me — I do believe it’s how you felt as well as the history of, you know, the mass, I wouldn’t have never — I don’t think that song would have ever came to existence, because as a writer, as a griot, that’s how I work. I need to be inspired. Something needs to be sparked within me. And I’m glad that we were able to create such an impactful song. Yeah.

Qanita Lilla: Fantastic.

Jameel3DN: So thank you very much. I appreciate you.

Qanita Lilla: Thank you, Jameel.

Jameel3DN: No problem.

Qanita Lilla: Thank you so much.

Jameel3DN: Have a wonderful day guys. Take care.

[ Laughter ]

[ Music ]

Qanita Lilla: Thank you for listening to With Opened Mouths: the Podcast. Special thanks to our guest Jameel3DN for speaking with us today.

The podcast is hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla and produced Agnes Etherington Art Centre in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM. The music is composed by Jameel3DN and produced by Elroy “EC3” Cox III.

Subscribe now so that you don’t miss our next episode. You can find the podcast at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. We’ll see you next time!

 

[ Music ]

 

The Hidden Museum

Transcript

The Hidden Museum
Listen to the inaugural episode of With Opened Mouths: The Podcast where host Qanita Lilla and Agnes's Collections Manager, Jennifer Nicoll visit the subterraneous terrain of the vaults
With Opened Mouths: The Podcast

Transcript

With Opened Mouths: The Podcast
Introducing With Opened Mouths: The Podcast hosted by Dr Qanita Lilla. Listen to the trailer!

[Music]

Qanita Lilla: Hello, I’m Qanita Lilla, curator of the new show With Opened Mouths.

This show interrogates conventional museum practices by incorporating African ‘traditional’ art from the Lang Collection with art by contemporary Canadian-Nigerian artist, Oluseye. It asks if objects that originate outside western knowledge-making systems can find their voices in new ways.

In this podcast, I sit down with artists, musicians, curators and spoken word poets to discuss the expression of their practice. How did they find their artistic voice? Which life events shaped them? And who are their inspirations?

Over the course of the series, I chat with Toronto-based contemporary artist, Oluseye. He discusses his Eminado series, a collection that pays homage to the individuals of the transatlantic slave trade. Rapper Jameel 3DN shares his creative processes that germinated in a tough childhood. I will also talk with Kingston-raised spoken word poet Britta B who uses her voice to confront the realities surrounding her.

Métis artists Jessie Ray Short and Amy Malbeuf talk about curating their show, Other Worlds. And Jason Cyrus and Ezi Odozor discuss the themes of the show History is Rarely Black or White.

Associate Curator, Sebastian De Line discusses what led him to their Ancestors at the Agnes. And in the first episode, I search for the museum’s voice and visit the hidden terrain of collection vaults with Agnes’s Collections Manager, Jennifer Nicoll.

Catch With Opened Mouths: The Podcast for some moving and inspiring conversations. This podcast is produced in partnership with Queen’s University’s campus radio station, CFRC 101.9 FM.

With Opened Mouths: The Podcast will be available at Digital AGNES, CFRC’s website, and on popular podcasting platforms like Apple, Google and Spotify. See you then!

[Music]

Programmatic Stereoscopy

Transcript

Programmatic Stereoscopy
Episode 4 | Vibe Check with Neven Lochhead

Neven Lochhead:  You’re listening to CFRC 101.

Check.

Point 9 FM.

Check one, two.

Located in the basement of Carruthers Hall on the Queen’s University Campus in Kingston, Ontario.

This is the mic for the camera.

This is the mic for the performer.

You’re listening to.

This is the mic for the camera.

Two, three, three.You’re listening to.Two, one, two.Check. You’re listening to Vibe Check.

This is the mic that will describe the images.

This is the mic for the performer.

And the movements of the camera.

Where the performer will ad lib, will pull thoughts together, will perform magic.

This is a recording.

The camera.The movements of the camera.

This is a re-recording of an event.

The setting of the scene.

This is a re-broadcast of an event called Fieldnotes, a performance that was streamed online for viewers.

This mic will give a live transcription.

On May 29th.

Of the movements of the camera.The images.

It.

The motions.

Was made as.

The transitions from one room to the other.

A closing gesture to.

It’s going to give you everything.

The exhibition From the vibe out presented at Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

[ Music ]

It was recorded at my studio.

Everything.

On Brock Street, an empty space around which.

You’re going to hear.

The exhibition.

See.

Orbited.

Sense.

For its duration.

Everything.

This broadcast and the Fieldnotes event were held.

Everything the camera thinks.

As a programmatic stereoscopy.

Describing everything it sees.

Two events.

You see. You make.

Dissonant. Intermeshed.

Intermeshed.

Making a three-dimensional.

Every image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image, image.

[ Music ]

Every fade.

[ Music ]

Just me in a room. With a camera.A mic.

Thirty seconds.I’m all tangled up.

Too many cables.

[ Music ]

The performance begins in complete darkness.All you see is black.

Thanks, everyone.

And you hear the sound of this voice.

For coming to Fieldnotes.

This voice that will describe the movements of the camera.

That anyone signs up.

As the performance develops.

For another Zoom call in this moment.

The darkness lingers for a while.

Is to me.

And it seems like it’s some kind of technical glitch.

A major act of generosity.

Until the camera person takes off the lens cap, and the camera adjusts to the scene in front of it.

I’m speaking to you from my studio downtown.

It’s a shot of a window.It’s sort of midday.

I know it’s a weird time to start an event.

Three o’clock.

But.

There’s some kind of stairway in front of a large, horizontal window.

These logistics are a kind of.

A garage door kind of thing.

Vestige of.

And the camera instinctively starts to.

A prior hope.

Look for blue sky.

Back when my exhibition was still open.

And it zooms in on the parting of some clouds.

I had the naive idea that maybe.

And this makes the kind of images that you’d encounter in an opening credit sequence.

Some friends could visit from out of town.

You can sort of imagine names appearing over these soft images of.

Make a day trip.

The clouds and the sky. Maybe a bird flies by.

I imagined a procession of attendees.

You can imagine the names of people who contributed to the making of this project.

Friends walking from the gallery.

Their roles.

To this space where this performance would be unfolding.

After searching the sky for a while.

As it is.

The camera eventually pans down.

It’s just.

Towards.

Me.

The floor.

And Matt.

And.

Here in this room.

And it reveals that the floor is.

Making this.

Covered in a kind of Astroturf-like.

Video broadcast.

Material.

A kind of dark green that’s glittering underneath some overhead fluorescent lights.

This has left me with an unusual situation of closing an exhibition that.

Soon the camera encounters a kind of object.

Has already closed.

And it pans left, towards that object.

I know it’s closed because.

Until it reveals the performer sitting on top of a large, grey box.

Because I’m sitting on top of it.

And it’s sort of on its side.

These objects that you’ll see over the next half-hour.

Geometric.

Are the screens that were made for the exhibition From the vibe out.

To speak.

And have been repurposed here for a new work, and possibly new types of presentations in the future.

As they continue speaking, they start to set up microphones and pull cables to a specific area on this large object, where there are two stacks of paper about an inch thick, containing a number of different types of papers they would see.

And so, the performer is setting up microphones in order to sit and speak right in front of these stacks of paper.And so, they set this up and they get into position.

This first part of the performance.

Where again they begin to speak and manipulate these, these documents.

Focuses on this collection of documents that I made during the pandemic.You know, it was a time of reading and, and, and, what I ended up doing was reading just a ton of PDFs.

[starts singing the words]

And I began to capture.

Began to capture.

Various screen captures of.

Various screen captures.

PDFs that I found to be.

Found to be.

Attractive.

Later, I took these pages and.

Took these pages and.

Turned them inside out.

Turned them inside out.

I took the title of chapters and.

The title of chapters.

Made them trip over themselves and.

Made them trip over.

Turned their meanings inside out.

The camera hovers over.

Through this act I assembled a collection.

An assembled collection.

Of unruly and fictional scholars and researchers.

Scholars and researchers.

I made this lexicon.

I made this lexicon.

An operative vocabulary.

Vocabulary.

It transformed my research practice.I learned to read sideways.

Soon, the camera begins to lower itself until it’s right down at the surface of the object.And it’s from this position that we can see that the object is, in fact, hollow.And that one side of the object is completely open.And so, instinctively, the camera begins to explore this strange interior.And they peer inside the object, where they’re confronted with a dizzying array of materials.There are stacks of books.There are instruments for playing music and cooking.But most centrally and most disturbingly, is a large seashell that seems to be hovering and aglow.

Listening to this, I inferred one from the joy driven, post-anxiety, para-academic, persistently-persistent. I inferred an institute that was sceptical about the academicization of artists that had no limit concept.It functioned at and beyond the site of exhaustion.

Behind the performer, there’s a door that’s opens up into the neighbouring room, and this room is very dark.But as the camera turns its attention to this doorway, a video projection begins playing on a large rectangular screen which goes all the way to the floor.And this sort of mesmerising image of pages flowing into each other draws the camera into the other room as it leaves the performer, and enters this second space, and begins to observe this image, and it hears its sound emanating from inside of it.

[ Natural sounds ]

The image seems to contain thousands of pages, pages, pages. Like the ones just manipulated by the performer in the other room. The pages are in motion, and a spine separating them seems to be pulling them in as they fall into this crease, this fold, this shadow.

What’s going on in here?I was just in the other room.

The performer reappears to the right of this video projection, and they’re peering again inside this object.

What’s in this object?

They look towards the camera and signal for it to follow.

Why don’t we go in?

As they begin to climb inside the object, an action which the camera instinctively follows.

Instinctively follows, follows, follows.

I’m in the object.Are you getting this, Matt?

Now huddled deep inside this object, the performer begins to speak as they also pour water onto their hand.

I was trying to think about.

And rub that water onto their forehead.

You know, what would be an appropriate thing to talk about here in this image inside the projection. And I thought I might try to address this idea of, of “vibe” and this type of.

The performer grips the mic that they are holding and positions it on their right temple. And as they do this, they begin to move the microphone across their forehead from right to left.

One second.

[ Music ]

With every pass of the microphone on their forehead.

Its this idea that.

The sound seems to emerge like the groove

A literary text has.

Of a record.

Has. One second.

[ Music ]

Within it a kind of magma.

The performer.

A kind of.

Washes their forehead with water one more time.

Vibe that can.

Before looking at the camera

Project itself.

And saying.

Let’s get out of here.

The performer and the camera begin to climb out of the object.And re-emerge into the room of the video projection, projection, projection.

[ Natural sounds ]

The camera travels far into the space, revealing the full width of the room. There’s a brick wall on the right. There’s wood floors. And as the video begins to fade away, the lights to the space begin to turn on and illuminate the full dimensions, dimensions, dimensions of this room.

It’s more spacious here.

As the camera.

Pans and explores its various walls.

It’s more spacious outside the vibe.

And contours.

The performer moves to a large vertical garage door.

Let’s go outside.

At the opposite end of the room.And they pull open the curtains to reveal a sunny mid-afternoon light.

It’s so bright out.

And they pull open the garage door. Taking their microphone, they walk.

Well listen.

Outside about 10 feet from the garage door.And they kneel on the pavement just outside the space.

We’re kind of reaching the end of our radio show and our, our performance here. And I just, I just had one last trick to show you. It’s, it’s what I’ve been working on the most. And I’ve been reading a lot about seashells and the physics of seashells. And I’ve found a way to make my hands into a shape that creates the illusion of the ocean being in your hands.And, well, for you, it’ll be in your ear. I’ll show you.

The performer places the microphone on a small strip of Astroturf.

All you have to do is.

And they begin to.

Is listen, listen, listen.

Cover the microphone with their hands.As if putting it in a bowl.

You don’t even have to watch.

Or trying to warm it up.

I’m just going to show you this trick.

And the microphone disappears.

Thanks for listening and watching.

In this interweaving of.

And being here this whole time.

The performer’s hands.

It’ll just take a second.

[ Natural sounds ]

[ Muffled, ambient sound of ocean fades in ]

[ Distant roaring of ocean fades in ]

[ Ocean waves crashing on beach ]

[ Music fades in ]

Immersion. Impression. Immersion. Impression. Immersion. This is your immersion.

Vibe Check.

Vibe Check.

Episode four.

For and with, with, with, with, with, with, with, with, with, with.

Immersion. This is your immersion.

A trajectory resulting from a three-way assemblage: the work in the making, the one who puts to work, and that which calls for its own existence.And in doing so, keeps the one who puts to work guessing. Not in the sense of a secret to be discovered.But in the sense of a tension between succeeding and failing.And in the sense of a situation that is questioning, that obligates us. Isabelle Stengers.

Featured Songs:

Julia Govor: Drama C (2021)
Nun: Immersion (Enderie remix) (2011)

Diagrammatic Melodies

Transcript

Diagrammatic Melodies
Episode 3 | Vibe Check with Neven Lochhead

Neven Lochhead: You are listening to CFRC 101.9 FM, located in the basement of Carruthers Hall on the Queen’s University campus in Kingston, Ontario, and online at CFRC.ca. My name is Neven Lochhead, I’m an artist in Kingston, and this show is called Vibe Check. So, this is a four-part bi-weekly radio art program that was made in relation to my video-based exhibition at the Agnes Etherington called From the Vibe Out. That show opened in late February, and it had to close in early April due to the lockdown measures. And so, this radio project was initiated with the generous support of Dinah and CFRC as a sort of pivoted programming strategy for that exhibition, which would allow me as an artist to keep some of the threads or ideas from that work in motion and to share them with you, with a public.

So, this is episode three, and the past couple of episodes have been pretty talky. And so today I’d like to take a bit of a back seat, at least vocally, and get into some more music-driven radio making. I’m going to play a collection of music, or a mix of music that was written and recorded over a pretty immersive two-week period in Tamworth, Ontario in summer 2020. This is a collection that I’ve been naming with the wordy title of We Consent To Maintain This Feeling In Us. I should say that what you’ll hear are songs that aren’t really songs, they’re barely holding themselves together as songs. They attempt no hook; they offer no central or steady rhythm. Instead, the songs you’ll hear are what I think of as audio sketches, sort of provisional, time-based experimentations with sound and music, that directly informed the work that was later presented in the Agnes exhibition. So it was through making this set of non-songs that a poetics, or a set of strategies with time-based media were formed and became operational, and later got scaled up into the installation structures and videos of the show. So, maybe we can think of this show, or these songs, or this music as diagrams, as melodies with a projective or constructive capacity.

[ Music ]

Fieldnotes. Fieldnotes. Represents. The closing gesture. Streamed live. Represents the cumulative closing gesture of the exhibition. May 29th. Saturday. 3pm. On Zoom. Streamed Live. The exhibition. The radio show. The learning experiment. The publication. 3pm. Free. Register at agnes.queensu.ca. We now return you to Vibe Check.

[ Music ]

Begin slow zoom.

[ Music ]

Moving in on the window. Focus on the writing on the window.

[ Music ]

The performer writes fieldnotes in marker on the window. Pull back to see AstroTurf on the ground. The performer reaches for 1000 sheets. PDFs. Zoom in. Focus. Cut. Tilt. Shift. Zoom.

[ Music ]

Vibe Check, episode three.

[ Music ]

Speculative Itinerants

Transcript

Speculative Itinerants
Episode 2 | Vibe Check with Neven Lochhead

Neven Lochhead: You are listening to CFRC 101.9 FM located in the basement of Carruthers Hall on the Queen’s University campus in Kingston, Ontario and online at cfrc.ca.

 My name is Neven Lochhead. I’m an artist and curator in Kingston. And I’m feeling again quite lucky and grateful to Dinah and CFRC for this opportunity of doing a bi-weekly half-hour radio program that I’m positioning in relation to an exhibition of mine called From the Vibe Out which is at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, but which is currently closed due to the lockdown. So this program was made as a kind of pivot point that has allowed me to keep some of the ideas and strands of that work in motion and in relation with a public.

 Last week, I tried to translate some of the poetics of the exhibition onto the airwaves through musical composition. This week, some of that will carry over but it’s mostly going to be focussed on a learning experiment that I’m conducting with the Dark Matter Playgroup, which is a project initiated by Sunny Kerr and Michelle Bunton at the Agnes. And they frame the Dark Matter Playgroup as “a nomadic mentorship-based program supporting adaptive forms of collectivity and art-making, under the conditions of the pandemic.” So, I’m a kind of mentor in this program. And I’ve been designing with this wonderful group of artists, a sort of modular assignment-driven peer-to-peer learning habitat. Which is, I should say, also a modified remix of an open educational resource that was designed by Neil Mulholland at the Edinburgh College of Art called Contemporary Art and Open Learning.

 So, in this episode, you’re going to kind of eavesdrop on a module that I just completed with the Dark Matter Playgroup over this past week. And as you’ll hear, I’m taking this context of the radio very much into account. And thinking of how it can be a platform to both allow this group to come together in some kind of way in the absence of working in physical space, but also to open up the mechanics of this open learning experiment to you – to the public that I encounter on the airwaves. And so, it’s a kind of experiment in interrogating the potential openness of these educational models. So I encourage your attention, and if you feel up for it, also your participation in the module that you’re about to hear. So thanks for listening, I’ll hand it over to myself, in a different hat.

 Vibe Check

 Hi everyone, it’s been a while since I — — put together — — a module for the group. But I’m keen to sort of turn back to — — our learning experiment. Now that term is wrapping up — — just walking on my way to the studio now. Unfortunately, that idea of the shared studio space is going to have to be paused until the stay-at-home order lifts. But not to be deterred, I have devised a little activity — an exercise here in Module Two that will, I hope, give us a kind of alternate context to do some embodied learning or haptic experimentation. And also a becoming public to each other. It’s an assignment that is built off of a couple of exercises from Neil Mulholland who offered a couple PDFs in the last module. Anyways, I’ve been talking to Neil and I asked him to record a little prompt of himself walking around Edinburgh. And this sort of recording he sent in a way kick-started my thinking for this module. So I’ll just hand it over to Neil briefly.

Neil Mullholland: I think what I’d like to try and talk about is this whole idea that I mentioned in this talk about the creation of open research objects, following what Boshears has to say about that. So his idea is that you create an open object, that could be an artwork or it could be something that you write, could be anything really, so long as you can license it with a Creative Commons license that allows it to be repurposed. So it’s really a question of thinking of what it would mean if we took Boshears at his word and we tried to apply that sort of logic to the creation of works of art. And I think also, with that in mind then, thinking of these artworks as somehow being things we can repurpose to build other artworks or possibly to use them for other ends and means. So thinking about them as being like reciprocal readymades. You know, Duchamp used Rembrandt as an ironing board. That sort of idea. So I guess there’s the potential to think about how these open research objects can become something that you… you know you could use them for other purposes than as artworks. I suppose there’s also the thing to consider here whether artworks are research objects at all, whether they are something other than forms of research. So maybe that’s contestable, but I think the basic premise is that somehow we can license things in such a way that makes them open and inter-operable. So his other caveat here is that he thinks it is slightly pointless doing that unless we are focused on creating new publics. So the key thing here is that as people use and engage with these open objects that they become new publics for whatever it is that the object does, whatever it intends to have as engagements. This is about affordances, maybe. Like, what does the open research object afford and enable in this kind of interaction between the people who engage with the object, and the object itself? The object is constantly being changed through that interaction and it is always in the process of becoming something else. – – [noise] Oh… okay…

Neven: Okay, so what Neil’s talking about there about the open research object, and this emphasis on it needing to produce new publics — — has made me start thinking about this radio program that I just started a couple weeks ago called Vibe Check, as a possible tool for us in lieu of sharing a physical space that we could occupy the radio airwaves, and this very transmission to coexist as a group and carry out a set of related but dispersed activities and come together within the space of the edit of the radio show. So, it’s an open question and idea of how we might occupy the radio in this way. And I’d really like to try it with you guys if you’re open to it. Yeah part of the challenge of what I’m proposing would be to not just upload the outputs of our workshop, but actually to transform the radio program into an open educational resource. So that would involve me repositioning and recodifying the outlines of the activity called Speculative Itineraries, which I’m hoping you’ll carry out, into a kind of public facing resource that would have the ability to be taken up by a listener — by a public. And it would invite people to remix or improvise upon the contents of the transmission. So it’s pretty interesting to be talking to you actually: I’m, of course talking to you directly as a group — as the Dark Matter Playgroup — but simultaneously, I have one eye on the listener to the radio show Vibe Check. And potentially of other publics that I will encounter there, cohorts of co-learners that could form around this very broadcast. I think that’s what it would mean to do open education on the radio and indeed I feel a bit strange, the kind of boundaries of our virtual classroom are exposing themselves to a public audience. So we’re both learning and teaching in and through a public platform. So with that I’ll just frame the assignment Speculative Itineraries, its various steps. For the Dark Matter Playgroup, you’ll be able to just read all that below. And for the listeners at home, I’ll be reading the instructions out on the air in just a few moments. And then we will shift to hear, I hope, a collective edit of the documentation from running this assignment within our group, which we can share with the listening public of CFRC.

 So, this assignment is called Speculative Itineraries. If you’d like to do it, you need to find a peer or a friend who is willing to commit with you to the prompts, which I will outline in detail. You can also find a transcript of these prompts on the Agnes website alongside archival audio of this very radio show.

 So:

Step 01: Essential Activity identification.
This step should take 30 minutes of individual reflection.

Identify an essential activity or errand that you need to do or would like to do that will take place at some point this weekend. Make sure that this is an outing that will require you to leave your place of residence, ideally involving a walk or even a drive of some kind to another location that is separate from your interior domestic space. Ideally, the essential activity that you identify will be something that will take no less than 30 minutes. Its purpose could range from the practical (such as grocery shopping, mailing a package), to the personal (such as getting a bit of fresh air, doing some exercise, visiting a loved one), to the creative or cognitive (such as walking to your studio to make an artwork or going somewhere quiet to read a chapter of a book). But whatever it is, try to choose an errand or essential activity that is not going to be particularly stressful or rigid when you carry it out. As these activities will eventually be altered by your peer learner, which would mean that they might need to potentially unfold in a slightly unexpected manner. And so this requires some flexibility on your part.

 All right. On to…

Step 02: Essential Activity Transcription.
This step should take no more than 45 minutes of individual reflection and some writing.

In an email to your peer learner or your friend – your partner in this exercise – inform them of your chosen essential weekend activity. Explain to them when it is likely to happen, as well as its desired goal, such as, “I need to get some fresh vegetables,” or “I’ll need to clear my head,” or “I need to go make an artwork,” things like that. In the format of an itemized itinerary, similar to what you would receive from Google Maps when you plot a trip, detail for your partner the route, or the a series of steps or actions that you will be taking on the weekend to complete your essential activity. So, try to explain this route to your partner in meticulous detail, going over its basic motions and durations, for example, “eight minutes walking along Gore Street.” But also try to describe potential secondary sites and features that you expect will occur along the route. So, in other words, try to give attention to the scenic or peripheral areas, the sense experiences, the other characters that you may encounter on the way for your activity, but what you may not typically perceive as the core parts of its completion. You know, these additional descriptions of secondary sights or things, they don’t need to be overly immersive. You can simply mention to your partner aspects like, “Here I will pass a magnolia tree,” things like that.

 So with that kind of mode of thinking carefully move through your essential activity and make an itemized transcription of that activity describing the full scope of your trip and its logistics. When you’re done that, send this as a document or email to your partner.

Step 03: Speculative Itinerary Creation.
This step should take no more than 60 minutes of individual thinking and writing.

So after receiving the itemized itinerary from your peer, in which they outline their essential weekend activity, spend some time reading it and contemplating its context and dynamics. Imagine the trajectory of your peer as they are carrying out their task. If needed, maybe Google Search the site of their activity to get your bearings if their particular locale is different from your own. You know, this could take place anywhere from Kingston to Berlin, Paris, depending on where your partner is. Consider the stated goal of their activity and ask yourself whether this will factor into your response. So, consider what you know about your peer already, their general vibe, their interests, and reflect on whether these will be ingredients for you to use or tap into as you go about your next step, which is to start thickening and modifying their itinerary through a process of speculative annotation and itinerary editing.

This part of the assignment is a unique opportunity for you to directly inflect the logistical dynamics of your peer and their goal-oriented errand. Your modifications will potentially affect, improve, or simply make strange their otherwise regular everyday outing. The modifications and additions that you make to their itinerary are open-ended for you to play with and improvise upon. Although, there is one rule that you must abide by, and that is that you must not interfere with the completion of their stated goal. As in, you can’t modify whether they go to the grocery store or not if that is the stated essential aim of their activity. This means that the focus of your additions and creativity and logistical experimentation must occur on the route of their essential activity. So, in other words, you will be modifying and designing aspects of their journey rather than their destination. Or you’ll be building a learning habitat, rather than identifying the outcome of that habitat, which just predetermined.

So yes, using their itinerary of their essential activity as a kind of frame, begin adding in speculative, playful annotations and edits. Thickening their schedule, as you adjust or add in text, such as instructions, prompts, and descriptions of peripheral tasks that you’re inviting your peer to take up as they go about their activity.

So, for example, in your acts of annotation or modification, perhaps you’ll introduce alternate routes for your peer to take, encouraging their diversions into peripheral or secondary spaces, such as those they’ve named in their itemized itinerary. You might decide to add in interruptions or moments of pause to their outing. For instance, proposing that your peer carry out a brief, immersive sonic experience, writing in something like, “Before entering the grocery store, please sit in your car for five minutes listening to the attached song.” Perhaps you’ll direct your peer to search an outdoor site for a certain material or collect an object of a certain size. Or maybe read quietly a text that you deem is relevant to a specific location that they’re travelling through. Alternatively, you might opt to be quite subtle in your speculative itinerary writing. So for instance, you might simply assign a calming playlist for your peer’s head-clearing walk. Or you might instruct them to carry a specific object in their pocket as they grocery shop. But whatever your approach, when you feel that the itinerary’s thickened enough or modified to your liking, then send this edited, annotated document back to your partner.

A note is that it’s important that you send this to them at least a day before they’re meant to carry out their essential activity so that your peer can schedule in more time to carry out the modified trajectory that you’ve designed for them.

Step 04: Conduct your Speculative Itinerary.
The duration of this task will vary depending on the original scope of the central activity that you’ve offered to your peer for alteration, as well as the volume of the alterations that your peer has made on that activity.

Bring the speculative itinerary that has been designed for you by your peer as you set out on your essential activity. Use their itinerary as a guide as you embark on your outing. As you go, you’ll start to make decisions about whether you will adhere to or pass by the altered itinerary that your peer has made for you. You should also feel free to improvise on their written instructions or to pursue unexpected tangents that might arise out of your tweaked, logistical choreographies. When it’s possible in your outing, try to record video or audio of moment that you’re encounter, as you carry out the tasks on your itinerary. So for example, if there’s a task for you to collect an object, then take a moment to make a short video on your phone of that object or record yourself describing something that your peer asked you to witness… [ voice fades out ]

[ Music fades in ]

Neven singing: Study is talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing and suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of a speculative practice. (a quote from The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, published by Minor Compositions in 2013).

Were there any thought processes set in motion by your peer’s alterations?
Were there unexpected encounters on your route that altered knowledge of a specific space or object?
Were there any reactions that you witnessed from bystanders or unforeseen characters who came into and inflected the activity?
Was the stated goal of the errand still able to be completed, and was its outcome enhanced or hindered by your peer’s altered itinerary design?

The thing to do with a recording of yourself reflecting on these questions is to send it back to your peer along with any media that you may have recorded during the itinerary informing them about the effects of their itinerary design.

 So, with that now published, we can turn our attention back to the Dark Matter Playgroup, and check-in with them in this final section of Vibe Check, to see how they fared, and what came of their initial playtest. The keen and capable group that they are, have taken it on with great generosity and imagination and sent along a bunch of recordings as well as scripts and scores, that I’ve taken the liberty to sort of fold together and re-inscribe here into a radio format, making an edit that I hope the group and I will continue to modify, and perhaps build from. So, we go and encounter Bicky, who’s doing some — — some speculative grocery shopping here at the Metro.

Bicky Marquez: This experiment will start with the basics. Let’s find fresh bread. As you can see here, there is nothing fresh yet. So there is nothing to smell, actually. I can’t find anything that can — — let me know if — — the product I’m finding or I’m buying is completely fresh. But I will — I think I will just choose a random thing. Let’s say, a plain bagel. This is disappointing because I can’t actually — — perceive the molecules that this kind of bread are releasing when they are fresh. So the next step is to find something of another colour.

Dorothea Paas: I dress for time travel. I imagine a line connecting me from my starting point to my destination, the small park. I consider this line to be the radius of a circle, and the small park is right at the centre of that circle. I think about what might have lived inside this circle 300 years ago, 3000 years ago, 300,000 years ago. I do this through research and fabulation, some irreducible combination of both. I leave through the North door. I get in the car and drive it down the gravel road towards Highway 2. I turn left onto the highway. I fill my car with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” I listen as I drive through the rain. I consider this car to be a mobile atmosphere. Something material enough to coat my clothing, stick to my skin even after I will exit it.

[ Music ]

Bicky: So, let’s say I want to add some lemons to it. As you can see here, lemons are like kind of rounded structures, right? They are not perfectly rounded, but that’s the point… that’s the — they don’t need to be. Otherwise, — — we wouldn’t have multiplicity in the world. And — so the weakest and the strongest wouldn’t be possible, right? So — — we’ll be like a boring planet with same structures, with no complexity. So, if we are talking about the strongest and the weakest, let’s choose tomato, which is the most rounded tomato that I can find which would indicate that I’m choosing the strongest — the more, the more perfect structure, if that makes sense. Let’s say this is my tomato — my perfect tomato. So the other indredients for a tuna salad [ voice fades out ].

Neven: When walking along Brock Avenue, make a quick detour to Noble Street. Stop in front of the gallery and check out the black and white pictures hanging outside on the fence. Consider making a short story with the images you’re perceiving and the environment of the cafe.

Noah Scheinman: It’s maybe late summer, and it’s still really warm, and the big garage door is pulled up. So there’s an easy flow between inside and outside and just this nice kind of — you know, kind of rhythm sort of… Well, it’s actually more of arhythmic, or kind of movement between people inside and outside. And just people generally feeling a kind of sense of bliss. And there’s also just this kind of new appreciation for these kinds of moments. Because this was something that was such a simple pleasure, for so long for most of their previous experience of these kinds of spaces and moments within their life. Now, there’s kind of this sort of meta recognition that this is something, that is, the kinds of small pleasures that essentially are kind of incrementally kind of accrete into sort of a kind of a full life. And in fact, as is so often the case, it’s these kind of intervals that we kind of build the supposed more kind of grander moments of our life around. And I find that people kind of within the space are kind of feeling that. So — — that’s very kind of kind of present in the kind of mood, I would say. I would say it’s — — not a kind of exuberance. It’s not sort of ebullient, a kind of overflowing. It’s sort of a much more, sort of — almost a polite kind of processing that is on the one hand social in the sense of people acknowledging this sort of… rediscovered novelty.

Neven: Vibe check, episode two.

Underworld:  Life. It’s a touch. Everything is golden. Open. Wider. Stumble. Catch. Yeah! (Song: I Exhale [DJ Koze Remix] – Underworld)

Neven:  Special thanks to Andy, Noah, Gabe, Bicky, and Dorothea.

Fictioning Marginalia

Transcript

Fictioning Marginalia
Episode 1 | Vibe Check with Neven Lochhead

Episode description

In Episode 1 of Vibe Check, a gently building soundscape introduces listeners to Neven Lochhead’s process of ‘sonic scaffolding’ and its effects. An interview with the artist about his currently closed solo exhibition From the vibe out becomes a base for auditory renovation, as the approaches driving the two-channel video installation gradually adjust to CFRC Radio’s immersive stereo habitat.

transcript

Neven Lochhead: You’re listening to CFRC 101.9 FM, located on the Queen’s Campus in the basement of Carruthers Hall and online at cfrc.ca. My name is Neven Lochhead. I’m an artist and curator based in Kingston. And welcome to the first episode of Vibe Check. This is a four-part radio art series that is being produced in relation to a solo video exhibition of mine called, From the vibe out, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. I’m so grateful to Dinah Jansen who agreed to and encouraged this idea I had to produce some kind of “radio-fied” version of that currently closed exhibition, that we could air on the CFRC airwaves over the next couple of months. I’m not really quite sure what a radio version of an exhibition is or could be. So I’ll say that partly this will be some kind of experiment in navigating an act of translation or transposition between art forms or art contexts. The first strategy that I’d like to try today will be to extend the sort of spatial poetics, or the density of the viewing experience of the installation, into musical formats and sonic arrangements. So you’ll hear a lot of that today, through the kind of incessant sound tracking and layering that I’ve composed underneath and over top of the spoken content for today’s episode. That spoken content for today is a bit strange in that it’s basically an interview with myself, which was conducted by Dinah Jansen, shortly after the opening of the exhibition in late February. If you can manage to make it through my meandering responses to Dinah’s questions, then at the very end of the episode I’ll be featuring a recording by a wonderful local artist named Andy Berg, who’s part of a group of artists that I’m working with as part of a learning experiment that we’re designing together called Fabricating Vibe. And so, this recording from Andy is from a workshop that they did called “Calibrate-Your-Gravity.” And it’s my hope that we might hear more from that group in future episodes, as that project develops as well. So I’ll leave it there for now. And I wish you luck with the episode. Thank you for listening in. And with that, I’ll hand it over to my good friend, Dinah.

Dinah Jansen: Hi Neven.

Neven: Hello Dinah. It’s great to be back on the air.

Dinah: It’s great to have you back on the air. And folks, we are talking with this fabulous CFRC alumnus about his new exhibition that is happening at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, over the next couple of months. And we’ve got a lot to talk about with this exhibition. Neven, but before we get into all of the fun things that we’re going to learn about from you today regarding your exhibition, can you remind our listeners, maybe, about your time at CFRC back in the day. Some of our listeners might remember who you are from our airwaves.

Neven: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to revisit those years. I guess it would have been 2009 to 2013. I was involved in the station in a number of different ways over that period of my undergrad. Started out as a volunteer and actually had the chance to be Music Programming Manager in my second year of school, and revisited that role again in my fourth year. Yeah, I think about that time with a lot of fondness! I mean, I grew up in Kingston and I remember the feeling of being introduced to CFRC and the community, as kind of unlocking Kingston for me in a whole new way. And I came to realize how much — How many different communities pass through that basement. You know, artistic communities, for sure. Music communities. Also, academics. A lot of the activist community Kingston was involved with programming and things there. So it was — It was so transformative for me. It really defined my time at Queen’s. And I later realized how much I was learning, in that time, also about curating — And we’ll probably get to that later. But the role of being a programming manager called upon me to really think about curatorial practice and engagements with publics and just sensibilities, like how to produce the appropriate flow in a schedule, really influenced some of my more recent curatorial projects, where I’m looking at exhibition making through a kind of time-based lens and bleeding different media together and things like that. So, yes. That’s a bit of a long answer, but I just — I was so fond of CFRC and we were just reminiscing about you having a show back then called Primordial Soup and being one of those veterans who welcomed me in and made me feel comfortable and lucky to be working there — So, yeah. That’s my flashback.

Dinah: Well, for listeners out there who may not remember my show from back in the day, Primordial Soup too. When I retired my show and went on a temporary hiatus, I was finishing my doctorate at the time and had obvious things to take care of at the university in terms of –As well as student governance and my teaching responsibilities at the time too. So I went on hiatus. And as I’m walking out the door, Neven was the last person I saw at the station when I was — On that very sad day. And he gave me a very kind thank you card, which I still have. So it’s a real pleasure being able to welcome Neven back to our airwaves folks. A real treat for me. And I hope it’s a real treat for our listeners too.

Neven: They must be tearing up at this point.

Dinah: [ Laughter ] I feel great. I’m just — Yes, I’m so happy. So, Neven, let’s hear a little bit now about your work. You touched on it, even just in your last response there. Can you share a little bit about your artistic background? The work that you’ve been doing in your past residencies and installations. And even your teaching as an artist. Let’s hear more about what you’ve been doing since your time at CFRC.

Neven: Since I walked out the door.

Dinah: Since you left.

Neven: Yes. Well, really it was during that four-year period at CFRC when I really started to engage with, or see myself as an artist. Another kind of local connection I want to name is the Artel Collective, where I lived during that period as well. Which was a kind of gallery, also a house for artists in Kingston to collectively operate this programming entity. But, you know, in that period I was doing an English degree and I was making these performances and videos on the side and had professors who were encouraging me to apply to art school. And I did that in my fourth year. I ended up going to Syracuse University, in a sort of small MFA program in video art, kind of retro word. But it was very specifically focused on time-based media. And the teaching component down there was mostly TAing and running sort of crit environments with undergrads and things. I was lucky to get a job at – SAW Video in Ottawa, which is an artist-run centre, a longstanding one. It’s been around for almost 40 years now. And found myself in a kind of curatorial position. Yeah. Again, where I was kind of a director of programming, like I was at CFRC. Like many artists who find themselves in curatorial positions, it’s kind of — It can be kind of difficult to separate out your artistic practice from your curatorial practice or to like not have them contaminate each other too much. But gradually I figured it out, and I was involved in so many interesting projects at SAW, the main one being the establishing and operating of its new venue called Knot Project Space.

Dinah: So what brought you back to Kingston?

Neven: Well, I left — I left the job in early 2020. And I had some, you know, overseas projects and other things. But the pandemic hit. And I have family here and I just sort of moved back to have some stability in those early — Those early months. And I ended up enrolling in the PhD program at Queen’s in the Screen Cultures and Curatorial Studies program. And so that’s the reason I’m sticking around now. Is that I have — I have a position there and I’m again being able to do some TAing and working with students and so —

Dinah: And maybe we’ll entice you back to the airwaves.

Neven: I know! I was going to have a sub-meeting with you about how do I get on the — How do I get back on the air? [ Laughter ]

Dinah: Come to me!

[ Laughter ]

Dinah: Well, congratulations to you on returning to Queens University and entering into your PhD program. That’s wonderful news for Queen’s University and our community too. So, okay. And you’re doing some other really great stuff right here at the university as well. You have an exhibition underway now at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, entitled From the vibe out. So Neven, let’s learn about the new exhibition. And from the Agnes’s description online, if I may check it out here, I understand that From the vibe out brings together your language propelled approach to the moving image, with your curatorial space making practice. A project that summons a semi-fictional, artist-led research Institute, as interlocutor. So Neven, in plain terms, break it down for us. What are you exhibiting at the Agnes? And what does it all mean? Boom!

[ Laughter ]

Neven: I could — I could try – You know, primarily I’d say this show is — It’s a solo exhibition of some work that I’ve made over the past eight months. So at a basic level, there is video work. It’s sort of dominated by these two large vertical projection screens that are the identical size of the doors to the room. So they kind of have this appearance of being cut out of the wall or otherwise being blockades to be put back into the wall. There’s also some print works. There’s sound components, speakers that are embedded in these objects that are kind of resonating from inside the image. And some text works on the reverse panel of these screens. That’s a kind of basic, what it is. I mean, what it also is, is, you know — It’s work that was made during a pandemic. And I feel like that’s important to point out that this isn’t a kind of project that was carried over from the before times. It was me revisiting an artistic practice in this period where like the art world, as we know it, was really upended and paused. And the relationship to publics was changed, and things like that. So I’d say that I really opened myself up to, okay, this is a destabilizing moment. How can I make a work that has traction in this time? And so it’s very much an experiment with this context. But as you also pointed out it — All of that gets wrapped in this semi-fictional frame of this Institute. And we could get into that. I think that that was, in some way — Yeah, a response to what I was just saying about how do you produce traction for your work? Or how do you kind of — How does your work land somewhere, right now? And as I was working, you know, I was making a solo exhibition work and working on these kinds of self-contained artworks. And I was kind of not getting excited by that. And I thought, this is not really pivoting enough in response to this moment. And, yeah. I kind of started to [ Laughs ] hallucinate this fictional institute that was based in Kingston. I was writing, I was doing a bunch of text experiments, writing with the voice of this institute. And that was producing a kind of more interesting dynamic for me, in that, this entity was demanding to institute itself through the work. It wanted to kind of emerge. And it was applying pressure to me, in the making and kind of saying, this is — We want to carry this kind of emphasis. Or we want to have a really specific focus on Kingston and things like that — So, it just became a kind of helpful tool for me to tether the work to some kind of — Some kind of sense of traction. I hope it’s making some sense.

Dinah: This really fascinating. I love how multi-tiered or multi-layered — Maybe tiered is the wrong word. It sounds a little too structural, I guess — But multilayered, anyway, the motif that’s happening here. But also I think that the media that you’re using — You use several different kinds of media to –

Neven: Yeah, absolutely. So I could talk to that. I mean, I think that that’s important because, I should also say that, you know, when you go to the show, you’re confronted with a lot of paper. Like it’s a digital work, but there’s this stream of documents that you are confronted with on the screens. And this was kind of my response to this fictional institute wanting to assert itself. So, I thought, what are some tools that I can use to do that? And I had just, as I said, moved back from Ottawa. And I had this kind of archive of notes and meeting minutes and PDFs that were the kind of grey literature or the kind of marginalia of an actual space making project that I was engaging in, in Ottawa. And I started to think of these in the same way of how, you know, in climate science we have these data points that we can locate in the now. And how these data points or these trends, in the present, can infer a kind of image of where we might be in 10 years, 50 years from now. So this kind of — I don’t know if it’s deduction or inference or something. But using a kind of set of coordinates to produce an image of some kind of future state. Or in this case, a kind of future institute. And so I started working with these documents. And I didn’t just scan and reproduce them. I altered them. I kind of would take PDFs and perform a kind of grangerization – a thickening of these documents. And through that, I started to see this institute forming. Through how they were making these documents, you know?

Dinah: Yeah. That totally makes sense! Yes. Okay. So I’m kind of curious then if we can — If we can explore a little more about the media. So your — Your work is drawing on like text on screen with moving images. There’s some minimalist music involved.

Neven: Right.

Dinah: Lots of colour. How do your media forms convey ideas and messages in the way that you want them to? In ways that other media cannot, for example, like a painting.

Neven: Yes. I wish I could paint…


Dinah:
Maybe this is like the kernel, like, what does it all mean? What is art, kind of stuff, right? But why did you choose — What is it — What is it about the media that you use that conveys messages that other media cannot, at least for you?

Neven: I wonder if I know exactly how to answer that. I mean, you mentioned the minimal music thing and it makes me think of how, you know, I make work for a gallery context often. And work with time-based media for a gallery context. And that situation of a gallery, it has a very specific type of viewership in it. You don’t know when a viewer will enter the work. You don’t know if they are even there to see your work. They might be passing through to look at the Rembrandts or whatever.

Dinah: Yeah. As some people at the Agnes do. [ Laughter ]

Neven: Yeah. As they should. So I’ve always thought of it as a challenge actually, for time-based work. And at the same time, I am sort of not a fan of seeing cinematic style works in a gallery, where you have to sit down for 45 minutes or something to take it all in. Or see the second half first and then see the first half later. So this can be challenging. It can also be liberating. You then don’t have to worry about your work having a beginning, a middle or an end. You have to kind of produce strategies in the work that will win the attention of that viewer and sort of compel them to commit to the work. That is really the starting point for me, when we talk about these other strategies of like minimal music or using text. I want to produce that commitment. And so I want people to encounter the work, be addressed by the work and to be kind of pulled into it. And also to feel like that there is some kind of system happening. That if they spend time with, they could sort of figure out that system. So I think that’s my connection to the minimal music. Is, how it’s different from kind of ambience in that — We do have a sense that there’s some kind of compositional strategy happening here. Like I think of the work of Julius Eastman specifically. A kind of more militant form of minimalism, that encourages — Encourages a form of committed listening, or committed viewing, things like that.

[ Music ]

Dinah: I’d like to learn a little bit more too, because we’ve talked about the text, as well, that appears in this work. Do you — Are you — What kinds of — What text are you using? You don’t have to give it all away to us, but are you writing specific like prose or poetry and then adding it in? Or are you selecting meaningful passages from Moby Dick or something? [ Laughter ] What is the text that you’re using?

Neven: It definitely varies from project to project.

Dinah: Okay. Is it your own creative work or are you using, or modifying the work of poets or authors elsewhere? Or you saw some news clips or something?

Neven: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, let’s take this project as the one to look at.

Dinah: Okay.

Neven: It’s definitely a blend of what you’re describing. There are a lot of PDFs in this work that have been rearranged. And titles of works that have, yeah, have been sort of turned inside out or are tripping over in themselves, and things like that. So there is definitely an element of having a relationship to texts which already exist. I became interested in this work specifically, with like the experience of like skimming through a book like this and how that’s a form of reading because you pick up the text that is in bold font. And it kind of — It carries like just the aroma of the concept or like the vibe of what the author is trying to do. And I wanted to try to privilege that type of skimming of — Or like speed reading a bunch of documents. So that strategy makes me want to write, or rearranged those texts, in a certain way, in that they need to sort of transmit something when they just move across the screen for two seconds. There’s also a form of writing in this work of marginalia, like where you have a text and you see the way a reader has thickened that text with their own private notes, or they put a heart somewhere or a star. And I became interested in that too. Like leaving this trace of the imagined institute and portray something about them as a thinking body, where there’s kind of thought at work in the archive — In the imagined archive, and things like that. But you know, unlike other projects that would require completely different – [ voice fades out ]

>> Nobody knows what an institution can do, just as nobody knows what a body can do. Only the practice of exhibition-making gives the organization a sense of what it is capable of inventing, of its range, of its reach, its core, its expertise, its strength, its focus, its sense of what is possible, feasible, imaginable, inventible. Kodwo Eshun.

Dinah: The current exhibition too is based — Like this is work that you’ve just created within the last year, since the pandemic became an everyday part of our lives. But it also sounds to me that the textual aspects are almost a little bit autobiographical, if I may, because you are a pre-comp, PhD candidate. You are speed reading at the moment and doing a lot of marginalia. And it’s going to get weirder and heavier as you move towards your comps too, right? [ Laughter ] So, was that intentional? Were you thinking about that as you were getting the texts together? Were you like, this is what I do. This is what I’m doing every day.

Neven: I mean, that’s a good point to bring up. And another layer to add to that is that, it is drawing from an actual archive that I produced by doing actual work as a curator. You know, actual work. I mean, I think it has autobiographical elements, but tries very hard to move away from those.

Dinah: Right.

Neven: That’s kind of a direction of it. It tries to draw a line with an arrow, away from those sort of specific autobiographical components, to point towards this other entity.

Dinah: Yes.

Neven: But you know, another thing that’s great about that is that, it means that making the work is possible because — Yeah. I think it just kind of folds into work that you’re already doing. And I found it a lot easier to sustain that behaviour I was mentioning, because it just sort of required tweaking a certain form of study that I was doing already, and will continue to be doing. And it does create a kind of strange relationship with that work in that, when I’m making notes, I sort of think, oh, maybe this is something for the institute. I’ll photocopy this and I’ll make another version that has it annotated in their voice or something like that. So it makes it — It kind of — It adds a bit of fun. [ Laughs ]

Dinah: Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing so much. We appreciate it.

Neven: You’re welcome.

Dinah: So, does the exhibition itself have local connections as well? I also understand that part of the theme is — Part of the theme was, as described on the Agnes’s website, it was something about an empty art space in downtown Kingston. Are we thinking of the Artel here? Or an imagined space? So, I had to ask!

Neven: No, of course. Of course. It’s explicitly stated there and also in the show that there’s this local connection. I think that choice goes back to something I was just saying earlier about the way that the pandemic has upended usual circuits of the art world, you know. I remember early on, in like April, watching webinars and things by curators and people running galleries that — I mean, while it was really a terrible situation, there was also this feeling of relief that — I remember one curator, Clementine Delice, she said, “We no longer have the pressure of the motherships, the biennials, the commodification of the museums, the residencies, the auction houses and the art fairs. The galleries are going to have to rethink what they did. It’s time to sharpen our pencils.” And so I felt that I — You know, I was in Kingston. And I wanted, as I said, this work to have some kind of traction with where I was and in this moment. And so I made an active choice to tether it to this city. And again, to transform something which I was experiencing, which is this space that I’m in right now. It’s an actual space downtown. It’s a studio space. It’s large enough to host events and exhibitions. So I wanted that to become a condition of the work too. That I could speculate about what this place could be in the future. Maybe this is where the institute would set itself up. So if I was in a different city, I might make that explicit connections to the local place as well. But it’s just because I am here that I wanted the work to behave in this very direct relationship with the Kingston. And now that it’s open, I feel quite happy about that, because I feel uneasy about inviting people from out of town to come to Kingston and see my show. But I can engage with artists who I know here. And we can look at the work together and extend things from that work. So I think I’m happy that it has been kind of scaled to the situation that we’re in. And we’ll see how that plays out now, over the course of the coming months. That’s kind of the exciting thing about making that move is that, the show is open, but now there’s like more work to do. And it kind of hangs in the balance, whether it does have traction or a kind of projective behaviour as a work. That’s up to the coming months, you know?

[ Music ]

Andy Berg: This is an energy force — — coming up out of the ground.

[ Background Sounds ]

>> Partially buried — — partially exposed. It is a strong communicator. It is accessible. And it has nutrient density. It is a rather odd thing.

[ Background Sounds ]

>> The question is, can this repel exclusionary language? Arrogance, doomsaying, exploitation, or disempowerment?

Neven: For sure.

[ Background Sounds ]

Andy: If it will function of selfishness — — bad lighting — — broken hearts — — billionaires — — fascism?

[ Background Sounds ]

>> Tried to figure out — — the blame game here. Is there a blame game? We talked about it.

Neven: We spent years labouring over —

Andy: We talked about childlike wonder.

Neven: A possible construction of a realizable site.

Andy: Curiosity.

Neven: We tested out video art strategies, group visioning exercises–

Andy: Generosity.

Neven: — and other celebrated assemblages, in hopes that they would guide our blueprints, grant applications.

Andy: We talked about efficiency.

Neven: We listened back to hours of field recordings and webinars, scrubbing through audio in search of some kind of directional…

Andy and Neven: Possible.

Andy: The unknown.

Neven: Eventually, we started to sense the presence of a constant lateral emotion, a vibe. Which at times seemed as big and as uneven, as the whole world put together.

Andy: We talked about the possibility of shape shifting.

Neven: We all consented to maintain it in us.

Andy: Strengthening — — and transforming.

Neven: We took to rotating simple objects in our hands; rocks, lanterns, pipes, all talking together about what we were seeing and not seeing.

Andy: When looking at this- — spewing out water — — is there a blame game?

Neven: Through rounds of observation, our mediations were activity recalibrating.

Andy: Why is there so much orange?

Neven: Our knowledges.

Andy: Under this water?

Neven: Rendering social, once atomized crafts of interpretation.

Andy: What discernment can we bring today upon this scene?

Neven: Our learning is changing the very thing being learned.

Andy: The fact is, that this is sitting on top of an artesian well.

Neven: We spend sleepless nights here.

Andy: And there is a large underground river —

Neven: Transforming.

Andy: — just above the little hill, where this pipe is.

Neven: These flows into a launch pad, a binaural habitat.

Andy: The water is rich with iron –

Neven: It’s not easy to hear the currents of our reality.

Andy: — and calcium.

Neven: Before it has happened to us.

Andy: That is why you have this beautiful orange colour today.

Neven: But it has become a necessity.

Andy: It is draining out.

Neven: A way for us.

Andy: And it is flowing into a bigger river.

Neven: To ground ourselves materially.

Andy: Which is flowing in.

Neven: In.

Andy: To.

Andy and Neven: The sea.

>> Vibe Check, episode one.

[ Music ]

>> Special thanks to Andy Berg.

A striking variety of line

Transcript

A striking variety of line
Rebecca Cowan, Artist, Kingston

Rebecca Cowan: I’m Rebecca Cowan, I’m an artist, primarily printmaking but also book arts, here in Kingston. I have been printmaking for over thirty years. And I actually had no idea what an etching was when I started art school. And I took an etching class, and I just fell in love with it.

I thought I would start out by just taking a minute to talk about how an etching is made. A copper plate is coated with a resist or ground. Originally these resists were mostly wax but in 1645 a French artist, Jacques Caillot, published a manual of etching that recommended using the kind of varnish that instrument makers used. Once coated, a sharp tool or needle scratches lines through the resist to create an image. And there are a variety of different needles that you can use and they give you a different thickness of line. You can also vary the pressure to change the thickness of your line. The plate is then placed in a bath of Dutch mordant, which is a mixture of potassium chloride and hydrochloric acid. Any mark on the plate that is not covered with the ground is etched and creates a line. This process can be repeated more than once. And finally, the plate is cleaned off of all the resist, and inked, and printed using damp rag paper on an etching press. And the reason that damp paper is used so that the ink goes right into the fibers of the paper.

The first thing that struck me was really the variety of line. So I wondered if she used different needles, or if she put the plate into the acid more than once. Or if it is a combination of both. So I suspect it is a combination of both. Because there are very fine lines in the foreground of the image, for example Mary’s feet and the pillow. And also very fine lines in the background. And then the lines of the drapery and the babies and of course Mary and St Elizabeth are much darker. So, I can only imagine this if I were doing this etching. I would probably start with a very fine needle and do an initial etch of basically where I want everything to be. I would etch it, take it out of the acid, clean it off, maybe run a proof, and then recoat it. Now the great thing is that the resists that Elisabetta was using were transparent. So she could see the lines she’d already created. So I think then she would go back and redraw the lines that she wants to be darker. Of course the other option is she may have simply been such an adept draughtsman that she was able to control the pressure she used on her tools as she was using them.

One of the things I would say about when you are etching in black and white like this, there is a constant tug, when you are creating images like this, between the foreground and the background. I think that the stairs were added afterwards with a very light etch to push the image of Joseph further into the background. If it had been a light background he would have taken more prominence. It seems to me like the two women and the little pillow, everything we really would consider foreground, was done first. And then you would start working on the darks adding more lines where you want the darks and that might be a second etch. That would include of course all these crosshatching of the shadows and I noticed that Mary’s neck is very dark and the outline of her face is very dark. If Elisabetta wanted to add something in the background but felt that the foreground was complete, she would simply have to make sure her varnish was very heavy there, was very thick so that the acid would not go into it.

What I love the most about etching is that you never know exactly what is going to happen in the acid bath. I mean you have a plan, but the acid strength varies depending on the temperature, how many plates have gone in the acid, how long you leave it in the acid, you know, and so you can think that you have a certain image, and then when you clean off your plate and you print it, it might not be what you had planned. So I always feel like I’m in a conversation when I’m making an etching, I’m not working alone. And when I’m teaching in my own studio, I sometimes think that I would like to have a little recording of a fanfare that happened [laughing] you know [laughing] after—after somebody has pulled something. Because so often people pull a print and they’re like “wow I didn’t think it would look like that!” or “oh my god that’s horrible!” [laughing] you know but more often happy, right, because you don’t— even if you are very experienced there are always surprises and that is one of the fun things.

Featured Podcasts
Curation and Exhibition: Dr Jacquelyn N. Coutré and Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges
Dr Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art in conversation with Dinah Jansen, CFRC

Transcript

Curation and Exhibition: Dr Jacquelyn N. Coutré and Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges
Dr Jacquelyn N. Coutré, Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art in conversation with Dinah Jansen, CFRC
The Art of Her Craft: A Conversation with Tau Lewis
Tau Lewis in conversation with Dinah Jansen, CFRC

Transcript

The Art of Her Craft: A Conversation with Tau Lewis
Tau Lewis in conversation with Dinah Jansen, CFRC
Collection Highlights
Godfrey Kneller’s Scholar in His Study (About 1668)

Transcript

Godfrey Kneller’s Scholar in His Study (About 1668)
Dr Maxime Valsamas, Curatorial Assistant, European Art and Exhibition Curator, Agnes Etherington Art Centre

>> My name is Maxime Valsamas and I am the Curatorial Assistant, European Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, and I am the curator of from Tudor to Hanover: British Portraits, 1590 to 1800. One of the works in the show that I am thrilled to highlight is Godfrey Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study, painted around 1668. Of the three works on display in this exhibition, this is the earliest example of Kneller’s work, and it shows exciting connections to two Dutch masters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Ferdinand Bol.

>> While Kneller is not an artist whose name is well known today, he was a sensitive and celebrated portraitist during his lifetime. In this audio guide, we will hear from experts from diverse fields from within the Queen’s community who will delve into the deeper connections and meanings found within this early work, focussing primarily on the connections it has to 17th-century Dutch art and society.

>> So, who was Godfrey Kneller? He was a German-born artist and completed this painting while studying art in the Netherlands. He was in both Leiden, and later in Amsterdam, where he studied under the celebrated artists, Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt van Rijn. The impact that these two Dutch masters had on Kneller’s stylistic development are apparently in A Scholar in His Study, in both composition and subject.

>> After his studies in the Netherlands and a stint in Italy, he established himself in England during the mid-1670s, becoming the dominant portraitist of his time and as the court painter to the English monarchs, following the footsteps of such notable artists as Hans Holbein the Younger and Anthony van Dyck. In England, Kneller received a tremendous amount of praise and was hailed as the Shakespeare of English painting. A Scholar in His Study shows his tremendous talent as a young artist and also demonstrates a key moment in his early career when he painted in a Dutch Rembrandtesque style.

>> Looking in depth into A Scholar and His Study, will draw attention to the importance of this painting, its subject matter and iconography, and the artistic ties between Kneller, Ferdinand Bol, and Rembrandt. I’m joined by art historian, Professor Stephanie Dickey; historian, Professor, and Principal Emeritus, Daniel Woolf; and conservator, Natasa Krsmanovic.

Sandra Brewster’s “Blur” (2019)

Transcript

Sandra Brewster’s “Blur” (2019)
Sunny Kerr, Curator of Contemporary Art

>> Hi, there. My name is Sunny Kerr. I’m curator of contemporary art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. And we are here in the Agnes Atrium to talk about a new installation by Canadian artist, Sandra Brewster, called Blur. And Blur is, first and foremost, a bold statement regarding black Canadians, black Kingstonians, almost as if it’s saying, “We are here.” Really asserting a kind of presence of black people in our communities. And this is important because we live in a climate that can be sympathetic to a kind of postracialist idea, a post-racialism idea wherein it’s almost as if normative cultures, white centred mainstream cultures, are saying racism is historical. We’re not racist. But at the same time, one often hears broad assumptions or one makes oneself broad assumptions like, you know, Kingston is so white — Canada is so white, which enacts a certain kind of erasure of racialized peoples and black Canadians, particularly. And so with this work, especially through her material choices, Sandra Brewster is making this kind of strong assertion at the same time that it’s — it has many layers of complexity. So at the same time that it’s making this bold assertion, it is also doing it in a complex way that, I think, eschews the politics of tokenism, and makes more complex the, kind of, demand for multicultural representation. And I think, through her material choices, Sandra Brewster is also — one of the keys to the work is that certain things are always kept hidden. So essentially, the work is images of three black community members from Kingston. One of them, of course, appears twice. There are four figures, as you can see here. Brewster is depicting them here in blurred motion. And in — and that’s the way in which she really gets at a kind of transitional state at the same time as there’s this, kind of, sticking to or presence, there’s also a sense of movement and transition within. Really influenced, I think, by Sandra Brewster’s own heritage. Her — the legacy of her own parents’ migration to Canada from Guyana in the 1960s. And it’s through precisely the — the material process, which is a gel transfer process. Ink is printed right onto the walls in a quite unpredictable and labour intensive process. And — and through this they come to look almost like old, worn photographs because of the kind of tearing, creasing, and folding that happens during the gel transfer process. I should say, finally, that the installation was also designed as a commission for the collection, whereby Sandra Brewster visited Kingston and, through an open call, photographed members of Kingston’s black community and made these new works, one of which will be entering the Agnes collection and then can be remounted at — at this scale in the future.

Digital Possibilities: Danuta Seirhuis on New Digital Strategies at Agnes

Transcript

Digital Possibilities: Danuta Seirhuis on New Digital Strategies at Agnes
Danuta Seirhuis, Digital Development Coordinator in conversation with Dinah Jansen, CFRC
Gallery Guides
Meet Emelie Chhangur, Director, Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Emelie Chhangur, Director and Curator, Agnes Etherington Art Centre in conversation with Dinah Jansen, Campus Beat, CFRC 101.9 FM

Transcript

Meet Emelie Chhangur, Director, Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Emelie Chhangur, Director and Curator, Agnes Etherington Art Centre in conversation with Dinah Jansen, Campus Beat, CFRC 101.9 FM
The radical possibilities of art
Katherine McKittrick, professor in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies, speaks with Michelle Bunton, Elvira Hufschmid, Sunny Kerr, Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley and Jol Thoms.

Transcript

The radical possibilities of art
Katherine McKittrick, professor in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies, speaks with Michelle Bunton, Elvira Hufschmid, Sunny Kerr, Nadia Lichtig, Josèfa Ntjam, Anne Riley and Jol Thoms.

Note: This conversation was edited for content and length.

Katherine McKittrick: And for me the radical possibility or what I have learnt from Black studies, particularly from people like Sylvia Wynter, but also Gilroy and Fanon is the role of art and cultural production. And the one question that I have for myself is how do we, — how do non-artists and artists have conversations where the artists’ work isn’t the object of analysis, but is instead part of the theoretical conversation? So, is there a way to think about art as theory and theory as art? So, the typical example that I give in my work — — when I am giving a presentation on interdisciplinary is how do we read Toni Morrison’s novels? Not her essays but — how do we read The Bluest Eye as a theoretical text? But that isn’t to discount the theorist, right? So, Judith Butler is usually my example. So, the example is what can Judith, — what can Toni Morrison teach Judith Butler, but also what can Judith Butler teach Toni Morrison? So, it has to be a conversation.

>> I think there is a tendency, particularly with black art to, — and I see this in the courses that I teach so, so often, to only position the art as object. And for me, the only way I could have survived this world, this academic world, was to believe with everything in my heart that black artists are intellectual interlocutors and brilliant. And often anticipate theory.

Jol Thoms: Yeah, that is something else I would — you know, which is part of like feminist decolonial practices also is this rejection of these universalizings and absolutes and rejecting the idea of, — you know being able to exactly define, which came up quite — it was quite apparent in your text. And we are having these situations where as artists, we are working in the science fields and kind of rubbing up against these onto-epistemic divides which are sometimes kind of generative, but I just — am worried which — in which direction those generative things are flowing.

Josèfa Ntjam: Because I really like the concept of indiscipline. And for me indiscipline is the porosity between multiple and different discipline in how you can connect history with poetry, with sociology and music and everything. And when I started to make some research when I was in my first year of school of fine art I made a lot of research about Afrofuturism and what is Afrofuturism. And for me, this is the same for you when you say about the concept of collective and not the individual concept, because Afrofuturism is not a movement and is not even a concept, but it is a kind of a flu [unintelligible] — and like you cannot touch the shape of Afrofuturism because it’s always in movement. So, you always have a new reference to put in Afrofuturism. It is – you will always have a new story and subjective, and maybe global story to put in Afrofuturism. And this is how I can connect your texts and your concepts. Even when you speak in your text about the shadows, it is also a concept I use in my work because we do not pretend to create in the shadows and maybe not in the lights. I have developed a lot of concept about the shadows and melancholy and like the soul adage. This is how you can create around this, — around the, — and in the darkness sometimes. This is maybe a really particular place to create revolt and build a new revolution away from light and public.

Katherine McKittrick: We use scientific concepts in a way that is — that enmeshes with our liberatory project in our art worlds. So rather than inserting, like for example, rather than hiring a black scientist, right? So rather than sort of looking for the black person, who is going to fix the problem and instead, like, are there any scientific concepts or ideas that we find useful around openness that can, — that are in conversation with the work we are doing, the anti-colonial work we are doing? So here, — you know, I am very interested in Glissant for example, and his relationship with computers. He is interested in computers; he is talking about computers. Sylvia Wynter’s very interested in AI as a recursive system. So, is there a way for us to sort of have a relationship with science that, — where we are not just talking about how we are oppressed by it?

>> And I think, I mean, because you are an artist, I feel like you have, — you know, at your fingertips creative ways to integrate this into a visual project. So is there a way for you, like, as an artist to sort of, — you know, use these tools in a liberatory, — like in a practical, concrete, liberatory fashion. So, what happens when you go up and you do an eye scan, right? And, or fingerprinting? So here Simone Brown’s work is really important to me. Like, fingerprinting, branding, tattooing, all these types of things that are produced. That produce the black subject and other marginalized people as always oppressed. How do we turn that around and subvert the very system that is seeking to enclose us? So those are the kinds of questions that I think about a lot — — in relation to science. But I don’t, — but I mean, I think the other thing that, — you know, that you said, and I think it’s important. And I think it’s something to keep in mind is that that’s hard work, right? Like that this isn’t, — it’s not easy to go up against science. It is not easy to sort of — because it — because science is a god, right?

>> There is that supposed neutrality that is very, very hard to — — call into question, I guess. But again, I’ll call up Sylvia Wynter in her reading was Aimé Césaire which is — this is what Césaire’s project is and this is what Sylvia Wynter’s project is, is that the sciences are half starved and they need the creative text in order to provide us with a fuller definition of what it means to be human. We need to parasite the scientific and the creative or Césaire said the science and the poets. That the poetics and the science, they have to be understood as always in conversation with each other.

>> So, to imagine the artist as the, — as someone who conveys an — like a rigorous intellectual theoretically nuanced project is I think part of — — you know, something that really — is something that is really helpful for interdisciplinarity and for practices of liberation. Because it — dislodges that idea around science as the only knower.

>> But also, in my research, I learnt that there are a lot of really interesting ideas in physics or in mathematics that are about openness, right? So, I feel like as a non-scientist. I am trained to understand science as a practice of — — finding definite answers. But then I started like looking at like the theoretical physics, like theoretical physics like the, those folks that come out of university of Waterloo. And they are like thinking about like endlessness and like mathematics that go on forever and infinity. And so, there is this generosity there that is really useful. And it is something that like black scholars talk about. Like, they write about this and artists, — you know, produce work like that. So, there is a conversation there. So, I think it is great that — if we are making those links.

Sunny Kerr: You – Katherine brought up this idea of kind of grabbing metaphors that are useful and beautiful and generative in the work.

Katherine McKittrick: Yeah.

Sunny Kerr: And you also at some point mentioned the idea of, — you know, recognizing or agreeing together on what we cannot tell and what maybe we should not know, or we should not even try to know. And then at another moment, — you know the idea of creating in the shadows of or using the darkness as a place for building a revolt. And so, — you know, there is a sense I think from our science partners that artists are going to make visible dark matter for us.

Katherine McKittrick: Right.

Sunny Kerr: — from this — the basic terms. And — you know, their understanding is a lot more nuanced than this I know. But there’s — it always seems to be the kind of default nature of this relation. And so, I am curious to know how this metaphor of dark matter resonates for you? And what does it — how does it relate to this question about why are we looking for dark matter?

Katherine McKittrick: Uh-hmm. That is a hard question for me to answer. So, — I mean, I don’t know much about dark matter, but I think it’s like fleeting and it’s not material, it’s not touchable, correct? So, for me, the materiality of that, — of the dark matter would be the narrative that produces it as what it is, right? So, which is manmade right? So, I think, — I mean, I think that I would think along those lines. Like I would think of it as a narrative that is produced by science, and itis also produced through the desire to know and pinpoint. But what does it mean to desire to know and make material dark matter? Why can’t we just sit with it and be okay with the fact that it is not knowable? Can — or can we — are we not designed to do that?

>> So is there a way to sort of keep these, like some sort of relationality, even though it is going to be uneven and clunky where the art is not beholden to the science.

 

Footnotes
Image Credits
Queen’s University
36 University Avenue
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6
T (613) 533.2190
F (613) 533.6765
aeac@queensu.ca
Agnes Etherington Art Centre is situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory.

Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway): Gimaakwe Gchi-gkinoomaagegamig atemagad Naadowe miinwaa Anishinaabe aking.

Kanyen’keha (Mohawk): Ne Agnes Etherington Art Centre e’tho nońwe nikanónhsote tsi nońwe ne Haudenasaunee tánon Anishinaabek tehatihsnónhsahere ne óhontsa.
© Agnes Etherington Art Centre 2021

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