This is a transcription of a panel discussion that was held at Goddard College, September 25, 2018. The conversation ranges from collaborative dynamics to African spirituality to the ethics of puppetry to illegal sex parties to occupying police headquarters to maintaining a daily making practice.
The full video can be found here: https://www.orcamedia.net/show/art-uprising-panel-radical-politics-and-creative-practice
As some of you might know we’re launching a new BFA in Socially Engaged Art here at Goddard College, this semester, right now. And that has brought up some interesting questions that we’ve been wrestling with.
These are times of rising fascism and violent racism and ecological destruction, spiraling inequity, and a culture of collapse, in which we need art because the systems of conquest and oppression are so pervasive that the act of imagining different ways of being together requires cooperation beyond the limits of our reason alone.
We need to make and share stories songs, dances, and images that connect us, with ancestors, with each other, with our own depths, and possible futures—Art that liberates.
But the artworld is also a market of luxury commodities, experience subsidized through elite institutions, enshrining concepts like “genius” and “the masterpiece.” Art is also a fortress where cultural hierarchies of patriarchy, racism, and imperialism are conserved, are framed in gold and docile silence.
So this leads us to ask: how can a BFA program that is at a college, that is situated within an institution, within this institutional artistic legitimacy, actually work to dismantle those systems? Or more broadly how can art affect real and meaningful change and transform its understanding of itself in the process?
And those are questions that require deep thought, and so here we have some amazing scholar-practitioners, artists and change-makers to think through them.
I want to introduce these folks. Dr. H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams is a cultural studies scholar, a sex researcher and educator, systems theorist, filmmaker, playwright, poet, and performance artist, whose work operates at the intersection of race, culture, sexuality, and spirituality. Two of his plays have been performed at the New York International Fringe Theater Festival. He studied with the renowned Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal, and has performed at the Bowery Poetry Café and the world famous spoken-word incubator, Brooklyn Moon Café. A scholar in sexuality studies and advocate in bisexual awareness, Herukhuti is working on the film No Homo / No Hetero, a documentary about sexually fluid black men in the United States, and this semester at Goddard College where Herukhuti also is faculty in the new BFA in Socially Engaged Art, he co-founded the world’s first sexuality studies concentration dedicated to decolonizing sexuality and challenging the whiteness and Eurocentricity of the field.
Syrus Marcus Ware is a Vanier scholar, a visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth advocate and educator. Syrus is currently a facilitator/designer for Cultural Leaders Lab and was the inaugural artist-in-residence for Daniels Spectrum. As a visual artist, Syrus works within the mediums of painting, installation, and performance. His work has been exhibited at the art gallery of Ontario, the art gallery of Windsor, the University of Lethbridge art gallery, the art gallery of York University Harbourfront Center and other galleries across Canada. In 2012, he was awarded the Steinert and Ferreiro Award for LGBT community leadership and activism, the largest award of its kind in Canada and in 2005, Syrus was voted Best Queer Activist by Now magazine. Syrus is a core team member of Black Lives Matter Toronto. For 14 years, Syrus has worked with Blackness Yes! to produce Blockorama, the black queer and trans stage at Pride and other related events throughout the year. Justice is also a founding member of the Prison Justice Action Committee of Toronto. Syrus holds degrees in Art History, Visual Studies, and a Masters in Sociology and Equity Studies, and is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.
Clare Dolan is a painter, director, and performer of cantastoria, toy theater, outdoor puppet pageantry, and stilt dancing, while simultaneously leading a secret double life as a nurse in a small Vermont town. She’s a veteran of the Bread and Puppet Theater, co-curator of Banners and Cranks, an annual festival of cantastoria performance, and founder and chief operating philosopher of the Museum of Everyday Life, an 8-year old museum experiment in Glover, Vermont, whose goal is to explore, analyze, and celebrate everyday life objects.
Welcome to you all.
I wanted to start out by just asking each of you to describe a project that you’re working on right now and some of the thinking going into it: its aesthetics as well as its aspirations, and what you hope to achieve disrupt or clarify or complicate through this work, and who the audience for this work is. That’s a lot, but…
First I want to acknowledge and recognize the Abenaki people on whose land we now reside. Also I want to recognize the thousands of African people who have been incarcerated in Vermont because of settler-colonial-imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-cisheteropatriarchy. I want to thank Suiyee Wong and Otto Muller for inviting all of us into this space to have this conversation tonight, and I want to thank all of you for bringing yourselves, all of yourselves, the fullness of your embodiment into the space. My current projects include No Homo / No Hetero, which is an anti-stigma campaign of social practice focused in black community. It involves a documentary film, one of my plays “My Brother’s a Keeper,” and paintings that are geared to instigate conversations in black communities that unearth, challenge, and heal bi-phobia in black spaces. My two collaborative partners, David J. Cork and J. Christopher Neal, are also sexually fluid men of African descent, who have come on board to work in community with me to inspire these conversations. And then, the “Telling Our Stories” project, which is rooted here in Goddard College. My co-director and collaborator, Gail Jackson, who’s also a powerful, amazing artist, and I are working to instigate, inspire, challenge and support and nurture this community into greater racial equity and racial justice, through, in the beginning, the centering of black, indigenous, and people-of-color voices and spaces through an oral history project, and then expanding out to include a wider and wider circle of folks.
Syrus Marcus Ware
Well I guess I would say, as an artist I’m always doing a million projects, so it’s kind of hard to pick one to talk about, but I would say right now I’ve been working kind of fast and furiously towards this exhibition that’s opening in November in Vancouver in the west part of Canada. And the exhibition is an exploration of black activism in British Columbia, which is a province in Canada that is known for being very white. It’s called British Columbia for a reason. And yet there’s a sort of tradition of black activism that spreads back to before the Emancipation Proclamation, when a lot of free blacks moved to the Queen Charlotte Islands to set up free black colonies in the north part of Turtle Island. So I did a month-long residency there last year, researching black history in that place and meeting black queer and trans people who were living and working in the Vancouver area, and I did a series of portraits of these people and so this exhibition is going to involve portraiture, very large-scale portraiture. I’m working on a wall that’s about 20 feet high and I’m drawing directly on the wall. I’ve never done that before so I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited.
And the project is about time travel, so the people that I’m drawing—I’m imagining that it is 50 years in the future and I’m looking back at this moment in 2018 of black activism in British Columbia that was also looking back 150 years. So, thinking of this project as an act of time travel where activists from the past, the present, and the future will meet on this wall. There’s also going to be some artist’s multiples and other things. So that’s one project I’m working on and I’m really excited and very nervous about, yes.
Wow, that sounds really fun. I also do a lot of different projects. Recently, I’m sort of in between projects right now. I just got back from spending four weeks in New York where I was working with Circus Amok, which is a queer political circus that performs outdoors, free in the parks in all the boroughs of New York. It’s directed by the brilliant theater artist and sideshow performer Jennifer Miller, and it’s been going on for a long time now, since ’92 I think. I first got involved with Circus Amok in 2004. I started out making props and puppets for the circus and now I’m more involved in performing and creating the show. And that just finished and now I’m organizing; I’m about to go off and do a collaboration with a theater company in Seoul, Korea called Namadok theater. It’s a group that I’ve worked with a couple of times in the past, and they are deeply involved with the peace movement there and they are part of the World Peace Forum that’s happening in Seoul October, and together we’re collaborating on some exhibits and some street actions, making a lot of puppets together for a parade and a bunch of things that they’re involved in, a bunch of groups that they’re involved with there. So we’re getting ready for that. So I’m between those two different things, which are both really urban in a way. Urban-based, you know, going from New York City to Seoul. And then I have my funny little rural Glover life where I have my little museum which kind of keeps on chugging along.
Why make art?
Thank you. Thank you all. I guess, I’ll ask just questions and whoever wants to answer them can just jump in.
Among all the possible techniques and tactics for achieving liberatory social change, why make art?
Syrus Marcus Ware
To me, art is the most logical strategy for achieving social change or working towards social change, because in in my case, I think I can literally draw into existence a potential future or a potential other reality. It’s such an accessible format for imagining and dreaming the possibilities. Like I’m a prison abolitionist, I’m an activist who works around disability justice, trans justice, you know, other liberatory struggles, and we need imagination so desperately within those movements to be able to try to imagine our next action, our next move, our next step. Art is such a beautiful way to help us to create possibilities. It’s also—to take a very complex consideration like something like prison abolition—using the arts can be such a beautiful way to get people to kind of have a road in, whereas otherwise they might be a bit jumpy or skittish about the issues.
So I think it’s just the most logical thing to do. Why not art?
On a personal level I would say that art is a means for me to come to know and understand and to be and live and love in the world. So that’s why I practice art and I would practice it regardless. I would practice it if we lived in a socially just and ecologically well world. The fact that we don’t then mean some other things, and for me, black feminist thought has helped and black womanist thought has helped me understand the world in some critical ways. So Tony Cade Bambara has this quote. There’s this quote from Tony that I want to share in response:
The tasks of the artist is determined always by the status and process and agenda of the community than it already serves. If you’re an artist who identifies with, who springs from, who is serviced by or drafted by a bourgeois capitalist class, then that’s the kind of writing you do. Then your job is to maintain status quo, to celebrate exploitation or to guise it in some lovely romantic way. That’s your job. As a cultural worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.
The art world
What you just read also relates to this question of what is sometimes called “the artworld.” Pablo Helguerra, who writes “Education for Socially Engaged Art” writes that “when we make a socially engaged art work we’re not just offering a service to a community, we’re proposing our action as a symbolic statement in the context of our cultural history,” and also writes
the contemporary art milieu is most distinctively about exclusion not inclusion, because the structure of social interactions within its confines are based on a repertory of cultural codes or passwords that provide status and a role within a given conversation.
And so thinking about art making and being an artist as something that also does exist within the world of capital and within a world with grants and markets and these sorts of things, what relationship do you all strike with the art world, whatever that means to you?
I think there’s a lot of different art worlds, so I have different relationships with the different ones and also different moments.
I sort of grew up at the Bread and Puppet Theater and Bread and Puppet is one of the oldest self-supporting theatre companies in the country, and Bread and Puppet does not receive grants, doesn’t have a development department, doesn’t do marketing, doesn’t, you know, receive support from corporations or anything like that. So, becoming a grown up artist in that world, immersed in that world, in a way I think let me forget about the ways in which art making can be really tied to capital in this country. It was a very special system there and very self-sufficient in a really interesting way. So I think that spending so much time there in my youth was a really tremendous privilege and gave me a great education on how making art and making culture doesn’t necessarily have to be chained to those structures that you were just talking about.
Of course, I do all kinds of work in all kinds of contexts and because we live in the world, there’s no way of untangling all that. You know, I’ll perform in a place because I was invited by a college or a university or something, and I know that that university is getting money from entities and that those institutions are enmeshed in the entire capitalist rubric which I chafe at so much. Sothere’s no way of like being quote-unquote “pure” and disentangling or saying like, “I have nothing to do with all of that.”
So I guess I’m involved in a lot of different art worlds in different ways, and I try to stay focused on the art worlds that are the vibrant, grassroots, sort of messy, anarchic, homemade kinds of art worlds, that I see and encounter all the time.
Syrus Marcus Ware
I come from a lot of different communities that have been traditionally marginalized within the art world and have been traditionally marginalized from art institutions and so, as an artist, it’s a real challenge to be black, to be trans, to be disabled, to be making work about my communities you know within, absolutely within, a network that is traditionally marginalizing of those places.
But there’s an interesting phenomenon in this current moment. Susan Cahan writes in Mounting Frustration about the trajectory of limited interest in black art and then disinterest, and limited interest and then disinterest, that sort of follows social movement patterns, and how the uptick or interest in black artists during particular moments of civil unrest or movements for black lives doesn’t actually translate into actual changes or systemic changes within the art world that would actually make a viable livelihood possible for black artists.
So here I am, in this moment as a black artist making work that is palatable and interesting because of the social climate that we’re living in, but that is easily commodified and sort of taken up by the institution in a kind of smarmy way. I think the same thing is happening with disability arts as well, particularly in Canada. There’s a new interest in funding and supporting disability arts and in a way that that can be very easily commodified by the institutions. So you see institutions suddenly now grappling to try to find ways to write grants to access disability funding, even though they’re not actually hiring any disabled artists or people to actually work in the institution with disabilities. So that’s a very complex question.
It’s interesting, because I was listening to you as you were reading my bio and I thought about how that bio is there to speak to particular audiences and creates significant absences in my work. I talk there about stuff that I think will make up for the fact that I did not have traditional training. I don’t have an MFA, so in those ways I am excluded from certain discourses and opportunities and resources. So it’s a way to compensate and overcompensate for that, and then what that obscures are things like the sex parties that I ran in New York City for X number of years, in which I had to curate sexual community and sexual space that was welcoming and inviting and erotic in the Audre Lordean sense of the erotic: the ability for us to share what is deepest and most meaningful and express that in that moment. When I would have sex in the sex party with patrons, thinking about how I can have sex in a performative way to help inspire and encourage and excite and have people think and imagine anew what sexuality and sensuality can be in that space.
When our community was facing the finding of a young queer man Rashawn Brazell, who had been murdered, and whose body had been chopped up and left in different parts of the city, and the trauma and the grieving that came out of that—creating ritual space for us to come together as community and grieve around that, and curating those kind of spaces that were temporary and ephemeral and permanent in different ways, that the materiality of it was for us in that moment, and that was just as valuable as a piece that can be transported over and over again to various communities to be to be consumed.
So yeah, your second question was really hitting at this interrogation of self I was doing while you were reading a bio that I produced, of what was going on there: the present absences and the absent presences within that, because of the “art industrial complex,” to overuse that industrial complex thing, but the art industrial complex and my own relationship to it.
Thank you. In line with this conversation, I guess the question I want to ask, because you’re talking about audiences, different audiences not only for the work itself, but the way you talk about the work and the way you locate or identify yourself. I’m curious to hear a little bit about what roles imagined audiences play in the creative process. When you imagine who is seeing your work or hearing it or experiencing, how that affects your approach of the work in your process.
Syrus Marcus Ware
I go back and forth between being very, very interested in who the audience is and that’s a driving factor in the work, and not being interested in it at all. So on the one hand in my artistic practice I’m trying to answer a series of questions. I’m a very curious person. I really am trying to understand the world around me and I do so through creating things, through drawing. That’s the best way for me to understand someone is to really look at them for eighty-four hours and draw every inch of their face. It’s just such a process of exploration. So in those ways I’m doing it for me and I’m really interested in just trying to understand something but in other ways, my work is in direct conversation with an audience to create an affective response. I want people to look at giant portraits of activists and want to get to know these people as people. I want to create an emotive response that makes people want to care about their livelihood, makes them want to ensure their survival as much as I want to ensure their survival.
I’m in the in the process of doing a project called Activist Love Letters the audience is eminently important to that project. I mean without the audience there would be no letters. The idea of creating a relationship between strangers or starting a relationship between strangers is absolutely about the audience and I’m really interested in that.
So I kind of go back and forth. I think that the audience obviously plays a huge role in why I make what I make but I’m also driven by a curiosity that has nothing to do with the other humans. I’m just interested in being in the studio and just kind of figuring something out.
And from me, 99 percent—maybe 100—of my intended audience are black folks in some place on this planet. Black folks. And that raises particular kinds of questions for me. So for example in the documentary No Homo / No Hetero, I want to have this poetic, performative approach to documentary filmmaking which is nonlinear and resists a narrative, and I know that the masses of black people are very much narrative, generally—like there needs to be a grounding there.
Excuse my racialization, but that artsy intellectual stuff that white folks do: it could be like, a can and it’s just: “ooh yeah.” You know, that kind of thing, for the masses of black folks, that’s not their thing—they need something else , and so I am working on how to maintain that performative, poetic position in the creation of film in a way that the masses of black folks can receive and digest and engage because if part of the aesthetics has to be that my intended audience can be in conversation in this work then I cannot, from an idiosyncratic place, just be creating off of my own whims and all that because that’s not enough for me. My aesthetics require some engagement with that community.
Similarly in the play My Brother’s A Keeper, I am I’m trying to capture the beauty of black speech and black speech of a particular class of black folks at a particular time, writing that and refining the language to get that, understanding that for the most part, audiences are not used to black people speaking thoughtfully. And I’m not talking about it from an academic place; I’m not talking about using lofty of big words. I’m talking about breaking shit down, and we have multiple places in our community where we break shit down, but it’s not necessarily represented in our popular media and so working on that language to get that. Some folks are saying “well your lines are too long” and it’s like, I know folks. We speak that long. It’s not something that’s just quick—it is a long line.
So dealing with that visually, again with the documentary: getting the beauty and the complexity of black skin and all of its hues and finding ways to capture it, even thinking about the camera (like at first we were talking about a Canon because we were told that the cannon captures people of color’s skin better than other cameras. Then we got in there and we got sold on the Sony for various reasons) but thinking in post-production how we how we attend to the beauty and the complexity and the diversity of black skin tone because that’s a political comment. That’s an aesthetic comment.
For me the audience question is kind of complicated because most of my work doesn’t have a product. I mean, I consider the main bulk of the work that I’m doing engaging with people. So, I’m engaging with people and it’s not like I have an intended audience. I’m there with people. I’m not making a product that some imagined audience is going to encounter later. I think the work is happening right now, when I’m working with people making things. So, whether it’s creating a new exhibit for my museum—what’s interesting to me about the museum work is how do I reach out and involve people. Both how do I create exhibits that that involve a lot of people; how do I reach out in ways that people are starting to write to me and send me objects and tell me their stories and send in stuff and do research feed into the exhibit that way, or in this upcoming collaboration with this theater group, I’m gonna be immersed in a in a city that I don’t know, making lots of puppets with lots of people who I don’t know yet. But that moment of being in there and doing that making—that is the audience and is the engagement. So that’s sort of how I’m thinking about what audience is.
The conversation about audience, the community that your audience belongs to, the communities that you belong to as artists, brings up for me questions around representation and appropriation as well. I’m curious: do you think that there are certain materials that can only be used by artists with certain identities?
I can talk about my practice and as an artist or as a scholar. I create and I research within communities of which I am a member because that’s a part of my ethics and politics. It’s because it maintains a level of accountability. If you fuck up in your community, you got to deal with that in a way that you don’t when you fuck up in somebody else’s community.
And it can also be very frustrating because, again with the documentary thing, people have taken ownership of this documentary in the bisexual community, and as the executive producer co-director I have to recognize that and attend to that and it affects my decision-making creatively, artistically. Even when it’s frustrating, I appreciate the fact that I have to have that conversation.
So that’s what I do and the benefit from me is that I also then get to discover my community in ways that that I had not before. It gives me the opportunity to see the ordinary as extraordinary and see the extraordinary aspects of the communities of which I’m a member as ordinary. So yeah, I can speak to my own practice.
Syrus Marcus Ware:
Similar to my activism I’m involved with things that are directly related to my life. I’m working from a place of lived experience. But I absolutely think that there are things that should really only be kind of handled by particular communities. I absolutely believe that. I’ve seen way too much cultural appropriation to ignore this.
I think particularly within disability arts, seeing the appropriation of particular technologies as an aesthetic decision, you see this a lot. So, for example dancers who are non-disabled dancers dancing with crutches and you know just appropriating things that are essential to our everyday lives and using them as a purely aesthetic form with no connection to the community. I find that to be highly problematic so I make a definite effort in my work to center my work around my own lived experience
In the world of performance and live theatre there’s ongoing, really deep examination and discussion of those questions. It’s like who can do what with what? And in the world of puppet theatre I think it’s even more complex and intense because puppet theater is about moving objects. It’s about manipulating objects so the performers are not performing just with their bodies but they’re also performing with other objects, with other bodies.
There are so many discussions about, you know, first off about puppets representing things or people in quote-unquote “realistic” ways and quote-unquote “abstract” ways, and then the extra layer of questions about the puppeteer, the layer behind that also representing or moving that object or that puppet which could be representing something. So it’s kind of like layers and layers.
I think in this world of performance, and puppetry especially, I see right now a really intense scrutiny of that and discussion about that. I find it really heartening that that’s happening and just try to be as involved in that as possible. I think it’s what I try to do when I’m working in that medium.
It’s interesting because I’m thinking about who’s having those conversations, and from my observation, the people who are having the conversations about how to represent, whether to represent, are people from privileged groups asking each other and themselves, and they’re the folks who are questioning it and the folks who are trying to explain, justify, rationalize it.
Coming from a marginalized community, I don’t have the luxury or privilege to represent privileged groups in the sense that I can try to do it, but the mechanisms in place in terms of exposure, distribution, access, promotion—all those kinds of things—will be limited to me in my representing the privileged.
Because those mechanisms those mechanisms are in place to maintain the privilege, the access, the resources of those who are privileged. In black, indigenous, people of color spaces, I rarely hear a conversation where we’re talking about that about each other. It’s usually about white folks representing and appropriating, because we don’t necessarily even think about doing that.
Certainly there’s discussion about gender as well. I mean, I was just working with group called Papel Machete, they work with puppets, and I witnessed a really amazing discussion there about whether male puppeteers could puppet female puppets and particularly in this one particular show that was about feminist heroes, and did the women of the group want to make that show exclusive, without the men in the group. That, to me, was an example of one of those intense moments trying to sort out: what does it mean when a person is manipulating an object and it’s not that object, but what that object is representing. So I think it happens in a lot of different levels.
Participation and Collaboration
In response to a few of these different questions there’s been a conversation about different types of collaboration and participation, bringing down that barrier between audience and artists. I would be really interested to hear concrete advice from your own experiences about working with communities, about inviting audience to participate, and about creating space, through your artistic practice, that is inclusive and collaborative.
Syrus Marcus Ware
My practice is very collaborative in terms of my performance art practice, but even in my drawing practice I would say it’s fairly collaborative and I work specifically with communities to conceive of the project from the beginning as a collaborative process. I’m very interested in in the kinds of collaborations that are true collaborations rather than the kinds of collaborations that are like “Hey, let’s do something together but I’ve already defined the whole project and so here’s what we’re gonna do.” I’m very interested in creating the kinds of conditions where we get to collaborate from the start.
I do a lot of that in my performance practice, and I’ve also worked a lot with other artists as collaborators and I’m very interested in the idea of reaching across difference reaching across distance and that process of collaboration allows me to do. I’m very interested in that.
I think collaborating is a lot about play and a lot about listening, and those are the two things I focus on when I’m working with people: really listening and really opening up the space for anything to happen. I think that when you have the fortune to be working with your hands, to be actually making things more than just talking, I think the action of building things together and of creating things with your hands and working in materials and with materials, alongside each other and with each other, is a really powerful and alternative way of relating. It kind of opens up a different space for relating that really goes beyond the limitations that language sometimes has for us.
I’d say in terms of doing internal work: to be clearer and clearer about your relationship with ownership, power, and trust, so that in the collaborative process you can be metacognitive, do what Carlos Castaneda calls “stalking.” You can be observing yourself in the process and be in conversation when things are like: “I really don’t like that idea. Is it worth me having my way right now? Can I let that go?” because for me those things come up. It’s like “okay.”
When I and my collaborative partners reach a disagreement, what comes up for me, and what’s my relationship to ownership and power and trust and can I decide “okay, yeah, I’m gonna let that go” ? Because any other time, collaboration is great. Like when you’re all on the same page then its fine.
It’s those moments when y’all are at an impasse, so y’all have different needs or your spirits are saying different things, then who are you in that moment and how can you be in community and be in collaboration with those folks in that moment just to find your way through? For me it’s about being able to sit with my own stuff and recognize what’s my stuff and what’s going on in the situation. It’s recognizing, okay how invested am I in this particular moment.
Syrus Marcus Ware
I also sometimes make collaboration agreements with people. When you really need one you usually don’t have one and you wish that you had made one six weeks earlier. But anyways, sometimes I am proactive and I make collaboration agreements in advance that specifically lay out things like how I deal with conflict, how I respond in a crisis. And you lay those things on the table for each other to help each other to kind of know and anticipate that when shit hits the fan, this is how we’re gonna deal with it.
I think it’s really interesting what you’re talking about in terms of power because I’m a curator as well, and I like collaborating in situations where there’s normally not collaboration. Curatorial relationships with artists are not normally very collaborative, by nature, and I love creating collaborative curatorial processes for exhibitions. I just did an exhibition that had 14 artists and it was specifically looking at queer and trans liberatory practices amongst communities of color in Toronto, and I had the artists collaborating on group calls leading up to the exhibition. We had group visits to the space so that they could have input in decisions in where they were located in the exhibition. So, sort of giving up some of the power of the curator and interrupting that and making it more of a collaborative process, to me is so exciting.
I’m working in two areas where those hierarchies are also set in terms of filmmaking and in terms of theater. In the filmmaking I’m working in a co-director place and I’m loving that because it’s not just filming a scripted thing. We’re also creating spaces that dig into the social, cultural, psychic, spiritual, moment, and I can do that when my other co-director then is actually working with tech folks.
We did this one retreat using Theater of the Oppressed with a group of sexually-fluid black men and some women who came to help us work with them, using Theater of the Oppressed to narrate and dynamize their stories. And there was a moment in the replaying of one of the men’s stories: spirit came in, he broke down, everybody broke down. We then were in this moment and I then had the rest of the participants come. I gestured to them to come, so that we could all be together in that space at that moment, and so that happened. But then all of a sudden like the crew came too, and so my co-director, he came, but then he realized—he went back because no one was operating the camera. So he went back to get on the camera.
But those kind of collaborations as well because from me I’m trying to also do ritual—in an African context to do ritual with this work as well—and there are times when it is important for me to give up that hierarchical Western control of the situation and allow for these other forces and spirits to come in, whether they be a human being or non-human to do that work.
Can I ask a clarifying question? I guess I kind of conflated the terms “collaboration” and “participation” in the last question, and so I’m curious how you guys see overlaps and differences between those two concepts.
Syrus Marcus Ware
Yeah, I mean participation isn’t always collaboration. Obviously it can be a very different thing. I invite people to come and participate in projects all the time. I’m going to invite all of you to come and write love letters to strangers tomorrow because that’s a really fun thing to do. So definitely there’s lots of different kinds of participation that aren’t collaborative necessarily, so I can see that there are separations in those terms.
I think about where one enters. So for me, like you said earlier, collaboration is usually as early into the process as possible, and it’s an ongoing relationship with whatever the thing is. Participation you can come in and out, and you may or may not have any relationship to it at any other stage beyond your participation. So that’s one distinction.
What about for you Clare? It sounds like in a lot of your practice, maybe some of the lines between participation and collaboration might be blurrier?
No, I think it’s the same. I think of collaboration as being involved from the beginning. I think it’s a really time-based kind of thing too: being involved from the beginning and really working together to even form the idea of what the project is or at least early on. I’ve had collaborations where I come in and I haven’t dreamt up the project, but I’ve come in early on and it’s really been a back and forth and all-around process.
I’ve often also worked with theater companies where there was no director, where there was no scene designer, where the roles just weren’t divided up that way, where it was a much more anarchic and organic way of the show coming together and that’s more the way that I’m used to working. I get very lost when I find myself—every once in a while I’ll find myself in some context where there’s the more traditional theater structure and I get very shy and I don’t know what to do because I’m not used to that structure and I’m not familiar with it enough to even know how to navigate it.
But again I think it’s obvious: collaboration is like real exchange and participation is sort of jumping in, doing a little something, jumping out again, and that’s a different thing, I think. With many of my projects I think both things are going on but they’re not the same.
Thanks. I want to open this up for questions but I have one more question first. I just want to talk a little bit about pleasure, and what in your practice gives you joy.
Syrus Marcus Ware
All of my practice gives me joy, absolutely. I am very interested in celebrating joy and love and relation in my practice and I’m very committed to that actually. I love celebrating black crip joy, black queer joy, and in spaces and places where we don’t always get to be, but nonetheless to have our joy expressed or shared.
Pleasure, what gives me pleasure? I think for me the most pleasurable day would be to get up to have a huge amount of coffee and then to go and just draw for hours without an end. I don’t have to rush to pick up my kid from school. I don’t have to rush to an activist meeting. I can just draw and just get lost in it. So for me my practice still gives me so much joy. The ability to just sort of be lost in the act of creating is something that I still am in awe of. I’m still overwhelmed by the fact that this gets to be my life, so my entire practice gives me pleasure.
I’m going back to the last question about collaboration. I’m also polyamorous and so when that collaboration is at its height, when everybody is on their game and we’re just—oh it’s so orgasmic.
It could be in a production meeting; it could be actually on set; it could be in rehearsal; it could be during a performance, but when I can feel all of our energies vibing at that level and we’re just all just doing out thing, it’s like when being an African drum circle and the polyrhythms are happening and all the drummers are just—mmh, that’s it.
Joy. Lots of things give me joy. I like to make things and I really like connecting with people, so if the activity involves either of those things I’m very happy.
Question and Answer
Art and Protest
Thank you so much. It was so nice taking this little stroll with y’all tonight. Good to be a fly on the wall for your conversation. I’m really psyched about using art and performance to do things you’re not supposed to do, like misdemeanor criminal things in spite of the people who would rather you didn’t, specifically. Sorry if that’s obtuse, I mean using art as the implement for protest. Instead of the face of a bunch of people repeating their phrase over and over again, actually using some visual arts and performance to interject into a place that we probably do not have permission to be, and do you guys ever do anything like that or what do you think about it?
Syrus Marcus Ware
So, it’s like you know do we use art as a way of sort doing some sort of civil unrest or activist movement? Is that sort of the question? I did a project last year that was called the stolen people and it was a collaboration with another artist named Melisse Watson and in the middle of City Hall, for this all-night art fair we created this fictitious futuristic government work station that was sort of making fun of the very real government work station that we were located within, which was City Hall. And in this government workstation people did mundane tasks in the sort of post-apocalyptic future, and by night, there were activists that came up through the bunkers and took over the government workstation and did all sorts of rebel things.
So we created this fictitious world where that happened, but was what we were actually saying was that’s actually what’s happening. We actually are at City Hall and we are rebels, and we are coming at night, and we are actually taking over your workstation, and we are actually making it into something different. So yeah, absolutely I love doing things like that.
Can I ask a follow-up question on that? Did you have permission to do this?
Syrus Marcus Ware
I did have permission to do this, yes. I get asked to create work in public art contexts or in public galleries quite a bit, and I always think how can I use this moment how can I use this platform or this profile to do something that will be disruptive to the status quo. I always think that. Whether or not it’s a super political project that ends up being the outcome, that’s always something that I’m thinking about. So in that context, I was asked to do something for Nuit Blanche that was going to be happening at City Hall, and I was like, okay I have to use this as an opportunity to critique what’s happening at City Hall and some of the things that were taking place.
And when you are doing things that you don’t necessarily have permission for, like fourteen-day protests in front of the police station in Toronto–
Syrus Marcus Ware
As you do, fourteen-day police occupations, or you know, stopping a parade of millions of people for 30 minutes while the prime minister gets held up under a banner that says “The opioid crisis is killing people.” Yes.
When you’re doing things like that, do you have any thoughts on how using the idea of art and the status of an artist is helpful in terms of negotiating little things like the fact that you’re breaking the law?
Syrus Marcus Ware
Yeah, absolutely. Being an artist does kind of give me an opportunity to poke in certain directions that I would otherwise not be able to do. Yeah I think that being an artist does give me an opportunity to kind of push in a way that I would otherwise not be able to do if I was just doing it as an activist for example.
Such a great conversation and I think I’d like to take that question that you posed to another level because Herukhuti mentioned this notion of privilege, and especially from the position of an artist of color, it’s a really great thing to kind of feel that I have the right and ability and the courage without fear of arrest or incarceration to just go and blow art all over the galleries. One of the reasons I became an artist, I think, is the fact that that gives me some agency.
But to be quite honest ultimately even as an artist of color who may have some agency, there are all kinds of strategies that one can utilize to affect those kinds of institutions without necessarily using, and I’ll quote Herukhuti, the “white methods” of stand-up, shout, be loud, and that’s the way we affect change. Because I think subtlety and poetry are also political. So putting a flower in the corner of a museum and then letting people find it, is that any less valid, is that any less challenging in terms of confrontation, aggression?
Of course, I think they have to stand side by side. I think that one of the mistakes that we make as artists or even in the world, when we speak of the systems we affect, is that somehow there’s always this one thing that’s better than another thing. And that’s why art is what it is: it says no it doesn’t have to be any one thing, in fact if we all did what we do best, that’s when voices are heard. I want to invite the artists to speak to that.
Syrus Marcus Ware
So I was invited to show some work at the Art Gallery of Ontario and that’s like one of the largest, if not the largest gallery in Canada, and the show was called “Every. Now. Then.” and it was looking at Canada at this moment of its 150th anniversary and the show was very much in critique of that and challenging that celebration that Canada was undertaking. So the fact that it was critical allowed me to even consider being in the show at all, but I chose to center my portraits—ostensibly you could say that I just did a series of portraits for an exhibition, that doesn’t sound very radical—but I chose to center my portraits around this idea of challenging who we imagined to be Canadian. I chose to center my portraits around the an image of Yusra Khogali who’s a Black Muslim woman who had done a lot of direct action and a lot of work within the Movement for Black Lives and with Black Lives Matter had been really vilified in the media because of the things that she said. She famously said that Justin Trudeau, our prime minister, was a white supremacist. Well, he is, actually. But it was so radical that she said it, and she was really vilified for saying that, so I was like okay, I’m gonna use her portrait as sort of a center for this conversation, and then did other images of black trans people of black disabled people and really tried to challenge this idea of who we imagine Canada to be.
So I think that it’s really useful to be able to use your role as an artist to kind of push in whatever area, and I think absolutely Suiyee, that was a very subtle intervention that I did, but it was absolutely an essential intervention and for me it was the only way that I could have participated in the exhibition. Politically I couldn’t have done it unless I was doing that kind of an intervention.
The sex parties that I referred to earlier were illegal because of the prohibitions against commercial sex. So the fact that we were in a private space and people were paying admission to come in to have consensual sex with each other was illegal because of prohibitions about commercial sex. So we were risking a raid and arrest and incarceration in that context. The fact that we were doing this in private and yet it is criminalized by the state, and it was a private act rather than a public act of protest turns this notion of protest on its head. Because of the ways in which certain acts and certain bodies are criminalized, our private moments can be just as much acts of protest as larger public moments.
Did the criminality increase fun?
The fact that we didn’t give a fuck about the criminality increased the revolutionary nature of the acts that we were engaged in.
Syrus Marcus Ware
When we did the did the fifteen-day occupation of police headquarters the criminality definitely increased the fun.
I have sort of more of a comment to share a little bit of my experience as a mixed indigenous, two-spirit person. What I’ve noticed in looking at humans, is that artists of color are often deified and then demonized for their art, and in my practice as an artist it’s completely spiritually driven and it’s a constant cry for connection and healing, and the art that I do is so exposing of myself and I feel that, in the eyes of settler-colonial people I’m light-skinned, but I’m not. So because of that perception I have a duty to continue to expose the messages that are in my body and use this given privilege, and what’s kind of come up for me in some of this dialogue is: art is like the only way I’m going to be able to be a person in the world. It’s the only way I can look at someone who is so different from me and see that their pain is my pain and transcend this colonized bullshit that I’ve been forced to eat.
And yeah, I think it’s very important for European-descent artists in this country to give back space, and it’s not like, “I’m gonna move out of the way”; it’s like, “I’m gonna get on the plane that has no hierarchical nothing.”
And as a person living in Canada—I have an Australian white mother, so the politics are sort of similar—yeah, I think it’s so important for people of color and indigenous people to have that space respected and not tampered with. That’s kind of what’s coming up for me.
Thank you. Your comments remind me of the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was a bisexual, Haitian-American young man, coming from a middle class background, embracing poor or homeless, working class culture for many years until he was “discovered” and commodified and monetized to death, literally. He’s one of my inspirations artistically, and when I see films made about him from people of European descent and go to exhibitions with people of European descent that are encoding and decoding his work for audiences and missing—like you cannot understand Jean-Michel Basquiat without understanding Vodun and Haitian culture. And they completely miss—can’t see the vivid in the work, and the fact that he was grappling with spirits and energies that that were speaking to him, but because he hadn’t been initiated carefully into a system where he could be in conversation and communion with those spirits, and was taken off into this art world that didn’t allow him to have that grounding. It speaks very much to what you were talking about in terms of being deified and demonized for the purpose of the wealth production of the same folks.
Part of my work as an educator and also as spiritual godfather of artists of color is really to help provide that space for them to be initiated in their traditions, to have that grounding, that foundation, so they can be in conversation with the ancestral spirits and the elemental spirits that are speaking to them. Talking to them so they can that have that clear voice as an artist to express that to the world, because I believe that we have access to these gates. In the Dagara context we call it “bodeme,” the gatekeepers with access to these gates of other worlds, and you have to be trained in how to be able to transverse these gates without taking too much from ourselves, without depleting ourselves, without disintegrating ourselves, so that we can pass through, and come back and forth and travel and bring the gifts and the resources from those other spaces into this one, and bring back the messages and go back and forth, because I’ve found that so many times we don’t have that, and we get caught up in these European, Western art worlds, we are so vulnerable and so exposed.
I’m just curious to follow up on that last thing. Do you think that there are also artists of European descent, unable to interpret and respond to what they’re receiving because they lack a cultural context that acknowledges that?
If art is the practice of sensitivity, I wonder what it must be like to be so sensitive and live in a world in which your people are practicing such great violence to themselves and others historically, to hear the ancestral voices of one’s ancestors who were guiding the ships of the Middle Passage, were forcing families across lands and waters into genocide, who were consuming resource after resource after resource to fill a void inside that can never be filled by the consumption of those resources. What it must be like to be a being sensitive to those voices and hear them and not have systems in place to manage the speaking of those voices on a daily basis. And so I do believe that there is work for artists of European descent to do in that regard.
And the privilege that I have is that it is unlikely for me to be faced with the distractions of wealth and notoriety and fame that would take me away from those resources.
So if there aren’t any more questions, can we get a final piece of advice from each of you about using art to tear down the system?
Art has historically been a foundation of culture and expression and learning, like basket weaving, And now it’s not—I mean it is, but not in an academic sense.
I’m really curious about using this space, the BFA space, to reignite art as the experiential learning that is predominant in all of our DNA. How do we do that?
I need support in maintaining my art as experiential learning.
Syrus Marcus Ware
I mean, I would say that there is something to the idea of having a daily practice that just brings it into the everyday life, that’s just part of every day. So building a daily practice that involves making something every day, writing with no intended purpose, drawing with no intended purpose, but just making, making, making something every day. It brings it back to this core fundamental part of being alive. I make my giant coffee and I start my day and that’s just part of my routine now and making is part of my day. It’s part of what it is to be alive today, that I’ve made something and that’s part of what I’ve done. So I would say to keep making keep making things.
I couldn’t agree more. I think making things is the only thing.
I probably shouldn’t say this in this context but I really am, in general, skeptical about art school and BFAs and MFAs and PhDs, like I’m not into any of that, but I understand that there might be very good and important reasons for pursuing that. So I’m not saying anything about those choices that people make to pursue those things, but for me the making of things, just constantly to make things, this is the key to life.
So, I studied martial arts since I was a kid and the distinction we make between a martial artist and a soldier or warrior is that a soldier a warrior is trained to fight and to kill. A martial artist is trained to use the art as a metaphor for life and to be always engaged in a practice. So whether you are pouring a drink of water or whether you are making love to your lover or whether you are reading a book or whether you were skiing or whether you are sitting on a panel with other artists talking, that everything you do is a practice, is a performance, is a craft. Again, going back to Audre Lorde’s understanding of the erotic, it’s an expression of what is deepest and most meaningful in you and so doing that in everything you do. Making the art daily, in that everything you do from moment to moment is an art, is a making, is a creating. And so you become a mixed-media artist because all of it is, and not in this kind of lofty, cool way, but it’s about being in the world and feeling, feeling the energies, feeling of relations, feeling what is going on, that sensitivity and that expression of it.
Syrus Marcus Ware
In relationship the question you were asking about advice around art and activism the thing that I would want to say would be that if you are interested in creating art that’s rooted in an activist practice, that you start with an activist practice. We talked a lot today about appropriation, but there’s a way that activism can be appropriated and taken up in a particular way within the art world, particularly now, where social practice is really hip and socially engaged practice is really hip, and activist aesthetics are something that people are kind of wanting to showcase.
If you’re interested in making socially engaged art, root it in an actual activist practice, because it breaks my heart actually to be honest to see the way that artists appropriate marches or appropriate forms of activism when there are activists out there whose lives are on the line every single day, who are receiving death threats, and this is not an extreme way out there, this is the daily experience for a lot of activists, activists that you know, and the labor that’s involved in that—I’m so attentive to that, so the appropriation of that really breaks my heart. So I would say that when you’re thinking about art and activism, to really root it in an activist practice if that’s what you’re trying to do.
And in relation to a community that can hold you accountable.
Syrus Marcus Ware
Yes, and that accountability, like you were saying earlier, you
know working within your own communities because you know they’re gonna hold
you accountable. That is so essential. If you’re just piloting into a community
to do an activist art project that’s not actually connected to anything, if
you’re using the tools of activism but you’re not actually connecting it to you
know the work that’s happening on the ground. It’s just such a futile effort and
it’s such a dangerous practice, actually. It’s very dangerous I think, not
having that sense of accountability.
 Bambara, Toni Cade, and Thabiti Lewis. “An Interview with Toni Cade Bambara: Kay Bonetti.” In Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
 Helguera, Pablo. Education for socially engaged art. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.