I've dedicated 25 years to my career as an arts professional, and I'm currently feeling exhausted and disenchanted with the system. Despite the rhetoric surrounding equity, diversity, and inclusion, I, even with my privilege, encounter acts of oppression within the art world. The struggles shared by Indigenous people about stolen land and culture, their truths dismissed, and the myriad barriers hindering recognition parallel those faced by settler artists.
This isn't to downplay the impact of colonization on Indigenous communities but to emphasize systemic issues. The arts, certain artists, and institutions are often placed on white pedestals, untouchable and unwilling to acknowledge their role in perpetuating societal divisions through art as a capitalist endeavor rather than a means to understand humanity.
As a performance-based artist engaged in research and community practices, the essence of my work lies in its process. However, the issue arises when others, who witness or participate in my projects, quickly incorporate elements of my ideas into their work without proper acknowledgment.
The narrative rejects the prevailing capitalist notion that every creative idea or project must be owned exclusively, profited from, and that forgetting or overlooking shared influences is an acceptable practice. The perspective presented aligns more with the understanding that artistic ideas evolve through inspiration from other artists and ideas that came before. Rather than claiming sole ownership, the emphasis is on the responsibility of artists to honor their teachers and inspirations and to transparently communicate how these influences shape their work.
The critique extends beyond the individual artist to challenge the broader systemic issues within the art world. It questions the prevailing belief that ownership and profit should be the driving forces, highlighting how this mindset aligns with broader colonization projects. This critical examination underscores the need for a shift in perspective, away from individual ownership and profit-driven motives, toward a more collaborative and transparent approach that acknowledges the interconnected web of artistic influences and ideas.
The acknowledgment of artists as fallible individuals is a crucial aspect often overshadowed by the necessity to project confidence and certainty within the art world. The demand for artistic expression to be bold, assertive, and seemingly flawless perpetuates a culture where admitting mistakes or acknowledging harm done becomes challenging. The pressure to maintain an outward facade of unwavering confidence can lead artists to neglect the impacts of their actions on others and the community at large.
This dynamic is exacerbated by insecurity within the artistic realm. In an environment that often values competitiveness and comparison, artists may feel compelled to present an image of infallibility to establish credibility and recognition. This insecurity-driven need for validation can create a barrier to authentic self-reflection and accountability.
The real issue lies not in the inherent fallibility of artists but in the reluctance or inability to recognize and address harm. Artists who perpetuate a facade of invulnerability out of insecurity contribute to a toxic culture that hinders growth, collaboration, and the overall well-being of the artistic community.
Encouraging vulnerability and humility within the artistic sphere can pave the way for a more empathetic and understanding community. Embracing the acknowledgment of mistakes, learning from them, and openly discussing the challenges faced in the creative process can foster a healthier and more supportive artistic ecosystem. By dismantling the expectation of infallibility, artists can create a space that values authenticity, collaboration, and collective growth, ultimately contributing to a more inclusive and resilient artistic community.
Centuries ago, artists thrived within a society where patrons supported their work and seamlessly integrating the arts into everyday life. However, the contemporary art scene is now dominated by large institutions, prompting artists to seek government funding, thereby creating a palpable disconnect. This shift distances artists from direct community engagement, potentially diminishing the perceived relevance of their work in daily life and contributing to a devaluation of artistic contributions.
In times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, artists have demonstrated resilience by providing content that seemingly emerges from thin air, offering solace and reflection to the public. This echoes the expectations placed on Indigenous communities to freely share their knowledge without proper compensation. The parallel underscores a broader struggle for fair recognition and support within the artistic community, as both Indigenous knowledge and artistic contributions face undervaluation.
To revitalize the arts, there is a call to reconnect with the roots of artistic patronage, embracing a renewed relationship between artists and the public. By recognizing the intrinsic value of art in everyday life and fostering direct community engagement, we can ensure that artists receive the appreciation, visibility, and fair compensation their contributions deserve.
The call to redefine our relationships as artists is a plea for a fundamental shift in how we perceive and cultivate opportunities within the artistic realm. The prevalent belief that validation and opportunities must solely come from institutional and granting sources has left the majority of artists grappling with a sense of struggle and exclusion. By reframing this relationship, we have the potential to foster an arts community where artists not only survive but thrive, contributing explicit value to the public.
This redefined relationship envisions an artistic landscape grounded in principles of earth-care and human-care. Returning to the land and actively listening to Indigenous voices becomes a crucial component of this transformation. By prioritizing these values in art-making and community building, we embark on a journey of re-rooting and re-membering, acknowledging the interconnectedness of artistic expression with the broader context of our shared humanity and the environment.
As this shift unfolds, it promises a future where artists break free from institutional constraints. They will choose to honor their inspirations, openly acknowledge past harms, and celebrate with the public in a way that transcends hierarchical structures. This vision anticipates a day when individuals within the artistic community recognize each other's humanity, embracing the complexities of their experiences, and understanding the interdependence necessary for collective thriving. It is a call for a more inclusive, sustainable, and harmonious relationship between artists, their creations, and the communities they serve.
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
I don't think any artist is merely just one type of artist. We are constantly exploring new things, whether it's adjacent practices to our base practice or venturing out into new disciplines. My tension has always been in every growing curiosity I have, reaching out, growing, and losing my base practice. What is my base practice and how does it restrict me but also allow me to find the ground from which I can explore?
I write this in an attempt to both map out my 35 years of artistic practice and also to explore what those tensions and moments of release are as I gather and expand different disciplinary practices while returning to the practices that I know best. I will detail the different work I have done over the years and then end with explaining a graphic score that I have recently devised to outline how the different works and disciplines I engage with dance with each other.
My art practice has evolved over time. My mom put me in Portuguese folk dance when I was five years old. Learning the dances of my culture was foundational to my understanding of who I am today as a performer and community-engaged artist. But, at the age of eighteen, I wanted nothing more to do with the 'old school dances.
I thrust myself into the theatre landscape -- going to musical theatre school, writing shows, and acting in shows. At this time I also began exploring mask work, and physical theatre and was testing what public interventions & engagement were as I dawned masks and strange costumes and set out onto busy streets to interact with the public.
At twenty-three I moved to Thailand to teach English (post-theatre school graduation) and expand my understanding of the world. It was there that I found restriction in my practice; I could no longer rely on English text & storytelling. There was also no space for auditioning in English. I did eventually find an outlet with a group of ex-pats who ran the Bangkok Community Theatre out of the English Club. This didn't feel enough. It was limiting. I wanted to create my own work. I was then approached by the curator of Whitespace Art Gallery, Maitree Siriboon, to present a performance at their anniversary party. I took up this challenge and gathered a mix of foreigners and local Thai performers to put together "29.30.31" . The piece was intentionally political and looked at the freedom of speech in Thailand associated with lèse-majesté laws in the country. This work ignited my creativity and from there I started New City Collective, a devised performance company that worked with physical performance, images and collective creation. Integrating video projection and live performance into site-specific work was the essential art ingredient for these works at the time.
During this time, I encountered the dance of Butoh through a workshop led by Terry Hatfield. Butoh Dance was born in
Japan in the late 1950s by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. What struck me by this dance form was the difference in structure from the '5,6,7,8' jazz, tap, and ballet forms. Instead, this form, or at least the way I was taught and interpreted it, focused on bringing images of nature into the body as choreography. Imagine: ants on the face; wind through the trees; bird on a rock near the coast. This method of interpreting natural objects in the body gave me a new language to create choreography and text.
Eventually, I was called home, back to Canada. I had reached my capacity for learning and teaching overseas and wanted to finally attain my undergrad Bachelor of Fine Arts. I didn't want just another acting degree. I wanted to create my own work. I was granted entrance into the newly established BFA in Interdiscpianry Performance at The University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. This was a major turning point. I began to truly embrace my interdisciplinary nature, which at the time was a mix of physical performance, video, and site-specific work. I ended up exploring beyond that, taking my work into sound installations, internet live stream work, graphic design, sculpture, and painting. Tools that, at the time, I felt I could maintain. However, I was so eager to keep learning more art forms that I was beginning to focus on what was sparkly and new, rather than remembering what my base was. When I graduated I described myself as a projection design expert focused on live art and new media. I did a series of residencies in Portugal in this vein but something wasn't feeling authentic to me. I was reaching for stars and forgetting about the Earth I come from.
I moved to Calgary, Alberta when I graduated. It was here that I was hired at Antyx Community Arts by the Executive Artistic Director, Richard Campbell. In this environment, my work pivoted entirely toward community-based practices. I worked with LGBTQ+ teenagers on video projects aimed at being a campaign to advocate for the importance of Gay-Straight Alliances in Alberta Schools. I worked with homeless teens to develop video projects about the day-in-the-life of someone on the streets. I worked with newcomers to Canada to create video animations on the barriers and challenges they face integrating into Canadian classrooms. All of this work was incredibly rewarding. In attempting to understand the context of the work I was doing, I began researching the field of socially engaged art, eventually learning about artists like Tania Bruguera, Bread and Puppet Theatre, Jeremy Deller, and Suzanne Lacy. I was inspired to make art WITH the public and not just perform FOR the public.
I eventually was hired by the Crescent Heights Community Association to tackle community engagement through placemaking and arts & cultural development strategies. I worked with residents of this inner-city Calgary neighborhood to tackle things like crime, vandalism, and safety. We examined the function of a community association, what its role is in the community, and how we get past this notion of a derelict building that hosts wedding rentals. I worked with low-income residents to examine the income divide that was obvious in the neighborhood -- a community that has both billion-dollar mansions with huge private backyards and low-income/high-density apartments. We did this all through art. And I moved my language from "I make art" to "We make art". This three-year-long project was an incredible success and a number of initiatives are still running beyond my time there such as the Crescent Moon Festival and intersection mural projects.
In 2019 the world was hit by a pandemic. I returned inward to ask myself what I truly wanted out of being an artist. I had spent the past seven years focused on community-based projects and I had forgotten what my base practice was. This is when I turned to the work of Anna Halprin.
Anna's life-work was a mix of the sensing-body in context to natural and urban spaces. Along with her daughter, Daria Halprin, they founded the Tamalpa Institute. Over 40 years, they gifted the Tamalpa Halprin Life/Art Process to the world -- opening up doorways to expressive movement and authentic voice. I enrolled in the one-year-long process which was now being offered via Zoom due to COVID-19. I was taken through body part after body part and offered tools to sense what those parts of me wanted to sing, speak and move. I made countless visual scores and filled out pages of journal entries. The class culminated in the creation of my most daring work and personal work "Way Back Home" . Eventually, I went on to complete the Teacher Training program and was certified by the International Somatic Movement Education & Therapy Association.
I needed to give a long-winded explanation of my journey because I am now curious about where my artistic practice lives after all this. The need to define myself as an artist comes from institutions and colleagues requiring me to define my work in words. This desire to validate my work takes me to places where I often feel like I am continually changing how I define myself based on what is sparkly and new along with who I am speaking to.
This morning, prior to writing this blog post, I danced. I explored tensions/restrictions and expansions/learning. The below visual score came out of this exploration and demonstrates, to me, and possibly to you, the reader, those spaces of going inward and discerning (Who am I? What is my base art practice? What do I take back to my practice after learning and expanding?) and expanding my practice (What am I curious about? What are my adjacent practices? How far away from my practice can get to be inspired interdisciplinarily ?)
We often think of life and our practice as something linear. However, I find there is an ebb-and-flow to my work while also existing in a constant field that expands and contracts. How might I hold the central practice of the body, in relation to others, objects, and nature, while also working with people and sites through video, placemaking, sound art, writing, drawing and graphics? I imagine that I am a male clownfish. I am small in the midst of a vast ocean. I spend my life in relation to my colony of fishes, the food I eat, and the expansive landscape I live in. There comes a time when through the act of creation (in this mating system) the male clownfish may be asked to transform into a female clownfish in order to keep the colony alive. (Look up this process if you are interested in the mating systems of clown fish).
I can be everything all at once -- truly an interdisciplinary artist. But I think it's important that with every expansion I also return inward to discern what is important from my expansion outwards and how it relates to my practice.
We live on this Earth. And we can send Voyager space missions well beyond our galaxy. We can explore the surface of the moon. We can send scientists to Mars (one day). But ultimately, all that research will not mean anything if we don't apply what we know to our existence here on Earth.
As far out as we go, we must go equally, if not deeper, into ourselves.
Two weeks ago I presented the first part of two blog posts highlighting certain socially engaged art pieces that I experience at Assembly, a four-day conference in Portland, Oregon featuring presentations, discussions, interventions and activities that look at topics related to art and social practice.The conference is hosted by Portland State University which has a Master in Fine Arts program dedicated to art and social practice.
As I mentioned in the first of these two blogs posts, it’s incredibly difficult to share the experience of social engaged art through 2D images or write-ups when socially engaged art relies heavily on the experience the participants had with one another and the event. So, I will inevitably fail at defining fully each of the following pieces I experienced. But, let’s try!
Kimberly Sutherland and Paul West
How often have you walked down your street block and taken notice of the types of trees and shrubs that also live near you? In this educational walk around a Northeast Portland block, longtime resident, arborist and musician Paul West, took us on a tour showing us the trees that inhabit his block. Each of the trees play a specific role in the urban space and many of them have medicinal qualities that I didn’t know. Upon returning to my own city block in Calgary, Alberta I pondered the tree and shrub neighbours that are in my backyard and down the street. Many of them I don’t know but, it made me have a far more bigger appreciation for them and the larger ecosystem I live in.
Some Time Between Us
Emily Fitzgerald, Honnai Aguado-Nielsen, Delaney Alvord, Jackie Anderson, Antonia Beil, Cindi Burgos-Be, Brenda Culhane, Judith Ford, Harvey Garnett, Tom Getts, Frank Gorretta, Lanaireoje (Bubbles) Hayes, Raina Heilman, Jacqui Jackson, Allen Julian, Marel Kalyn, Benjamin Kirchoffer-Talbott, Ausha Lathan, Dolores M. Peters, Lucia Sanchez-Ventura, Jan Starnes, Maria Tran, Jackson Wolfe
There are two things that everyone has in common: we were once young and we we will eventually all get older. This project brought together a group of students from Beaumont Middle School and seniors from the Hollywood Senior Centre to create an intergenerational exchange. Over six-weeks the group explored their individual and cultural expressions initiated by questions they had for one another. What is the hardest part about being you age? What is the happiest memory you have? What are your fears for the future? Relating to each other through storytelling, writing and photography the teens and seniors built a relationship over the six-weeks that provided space for empathy and learning from each other. The culminating presentation of this project was presented at the Hollywood Senior Centre and featured photography, music, performance, poetry and dialogue amongst strangers.
Collaborative Learning for Physical Prowess (on the dance floor): How to Dance Like a Boss &
The People’s (dance) Party
Jens Hauge & Renee Sills with guest presenters Leif J. Lee, Tonisha Toler, and Padraic O’Meara
This was a two part project.
The first. Have you ever wanted to learn to do a specific type of dance but were to afraid to go take a dance class because of the possibility of failing or looking like a goof? In Renee Sills & Jens Hauge “Collaborative Learning for Physical Prowness (on the dance floor): How to Dance Like a Boss” three non-professional dancers were asked to research and present their favourite “How to Dance” YouTube videos and teach the group of participants the steps. Everyone started off like wall-flowers glued to their chairs. No one wanted to be at the front of the dance class. But after some great engagement and hosting skills by Jens Hauge the room was full of people watching YouTube videos and mimicking everyone from country line dances to house, lyrical ballet to MC Hammer. It was ridiculous and mesmerizing to see so many people doing the same choreography and also looking as ridiculous and memorized by YouTube videos as I was.
The second. What makes a great party? Renee Sills spent months investigating and asking people this question. For this culminating event she brought all the elements necessary to have the best party of the world! And it sure was! A good sound system, good music, good lighting, a disco ball, a good dance floor, fun people, costumes, free water, free snacks, and even free booze. It was the perfect recipe to let loose and see how far everyone could go in shaking their booty. If I remember one thing from this entire festival, it is that parties make the best social art practice events if done right. Thanks to all those who danced and danced and danced that evening.
For more information on ASSEMBLY 2016 please visit this website: