Reception: November 7, 4 – 6 pm
Artists/Researchers: Wendy Coburn, General Idea, Tiffany Muller Myrdahl
Acting Out is the first exhibition produced within Complex Social Change: teaching, performing, exhibiting, designing, mapping – an interdisciplinary research program and collaborative partnership involving Bruce MacKay, Louise Barrett, Lisa Doolittle, Emily Luce, Tiffany Muller Myrdahl and myself. Complex Social Change includes a range of activities: connected research projects; exhibitions, performances, and video screenings; a Liberal Education course on activism; a website and social media posts; an activist theatre project; a series of panels and speakers; and a major publication for 2014. For this exhibition in the Main Gallery, there are three aspects: new work by Toronto artist Wendy Coburn, work by the trio General Idea (from the U of L Art Collection), and a “reading room” that includes video works and an overview of a local research project by Muller Myrdahl. In addition to this exhibition, the components produced by the U of L Art Gallery are a second part of Acting Out in the Helen Christou Gallery featuring Wendy Coburn’s “Slutwalk” project (Nov. 7 – Dec 20, 2013); curated sets of video work in Project Channel (located on the 11th floor of the library, a selection of which is included in this exhibition); a performance by Lori Blondeau and Adrian Stimson (Main Gallery, Jan. 16, 2014); and “We Can’t Compete,” a Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) satellite project (Jan. 23 – Mar. 6, 2014). As well, DodoLab will return to campus (Nov. 18 -21, 2013) to conclude their public-engagement project on the state of adaptation and change at the U of L.
For the Complex Social Change group, our approach to working together arose from serendipitous crossovers in our work, as well as planned partnerships that have grown in scope over time. In 2008, MacKay offered a senior Liberal Education course on the social and political aspects of land, at the same time that I, quite fortuitously, curated a series of exhibitions on the same topic. The potential for exchange was readily apparent and we decided to repeat this kind of investigation, this time on purpose. The resulting Food series (Fall 2011) was a resounding success with the rapid expansion of our team as Doolittle, Luce, Muller Myrdahl (then at the U of L), and Barrett came on board and we generated in-depth exchange of ideas through a successful Liberal Education course, an activist theatre performance, a series of exhibitions at the U of L Art Gallery, a project by DodoLab, a touring exhibition with a publication, and two panel discussions. The ad hoc partnership leapt to the level seen here with funding from a U of L initiative aimed specifically at fostering interdisciplinary research. This generous funding supported the founding phase of the Complex Social Change project and allowed us to bring in undergraduate and graduate student interns (Taylor Ackerman, Christine Clark, Shelly Dunsford, Jana McKenzie, Katie Musgrave, Alan Santinello, and Colton Whelpton) along with Jean Harrowing (Health Sciences), Alicia Visser, SAIPA (Southern Alberta Individualized Planning Association), and LACL (Lethbridge Association for Community Living) to produce the myriad of projects involved with the series.
Our interest in making sense of strategies for social change arose from both popular and scholarly critiques about the Occupy movement – and then about Idle No More; in particular, whether these movements represent a productive form of activism, given their single-issue focus and the lack of an identified leader. Our discussion of this issue made us realise that, rather than studying the specific concerns of these movements, we wanted to investigate the larger issues surrounding them: the mechanisms used to address social problems, their effectiveness in terms of galvanising support, and what it means to encourage people to become involved in social issues. Our response to Occupy and Idle No More was to ask whether a lack of the theory, knowledge, and skills was hindering sustained active engagement against the discursive, political, and economic pressures that encourage passive acceptance. As University faculty members, this question is also key to the concept of liberal education, with its desire to create active citizens who participate in their society. Complex Social Change thus aims to speak with and beyond the university community. In addition to contributing to a contemporary definition of liberal education, we aim to elicit a better understanding of what is at stake in social activism in the current social climate. We ask: how is social change made and sustained? What does it mean to encourage people to be involved in social issues? And how do “participatory” practices (within and across multiple sites, including the gallery, the classroom, the research field, the community) help us to conceptualise new ways of engagement?
As the Director/Curator of an art gallery, the success of the Food series made it clear that it was the only way that I ever want to produce major exhibition projects. The exploration of important issues that matter to people generated strong interest in the exhibitions and multi-faceted engagement with the art works. As well, the connections with various units on campus ensured that people knew about the projects and were interested in attending. Furthermore, working with the other members of the Complex Social Change group has challenged the idea of what an exhibition in an art gallery can do. With Acting Out, the thought and discussion that happens behind the scenes is visible in the “reading room” section which includes Muller Myrdahl’s innovative approach to making her oral history-social geography research visible and accessible along with formative books related to the ideas addressed in her research and the artist’s work. With the inclusion of art work from the 1980s, and a return to themes that were addressed in sophisticated ways in that era, the “reading room” also pays respect to the kind of intellectual and theoretically focused approaches that were popular for artists and curators in the era. However, instead of having me as the curator write a text that provides context (that would inevitably be dense and laden with citations if it was true to a 1980’s style curatorial panel), Muller Myrdahl’s research provides another point alongside the art works that demonstrates the local perspective and expands the ideas for visitors to the gallery. This discussion will continue to expand with the other public components of the series including Coburn’s additional work in the Helen Christou Gallery and DodoLab’s return visit in November.