Monday, November 24, 2008

Relational Aesthetics in Review at Home and Away

Relational aesthetics--or audience-participation riffs thereof--are receiving much attention at home and away right now.

Though it's been poorly received by critics like Jerry Saltz, the Guggenheim New York's theanyspacewhatever exhibition is generating plenty of exhibition lineups with its promises of "activated spectatorship."

And in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada, "Caught in the Act: The Viewer as Performer" has been called "the most fun you will likely ever have in an art gallery."

These types of shows seem a fitting backdrop to a recent article by Toronto critic Carl Wilson on Darren O'Donnell, one of the T-dot's prime purveyors of relational aesthetics--or, as O'Donnell likes to posit it, "social acupuncture." The article appears in the December 2008 issue of Toronto Life magazine. (full text of the mag article here)

Full disclosure: Earlier this year I participated in a worm-can-opening blog-comment fest about O'Donnell's work, including a statement of my personal dislike for him, as well as an explanation that I don't even attempt to write about his work professionally because of that bias. 

That said (and lessons learned) I'm impressed with the balanced, complex perspective Wilson takes in writing about O'Donnell, and the work of his production company Mammalian Diving Reflex. Here's an excerpt:

"In the past year, Mammalian Diving Reflex's primary project was as company-in-residence at Parkdale Public School. This culminated in the spring with a faux competition called "Parkdale Public School vs. Queen West", in which the children squared off in culinary, visual art music and other projects again the adult "artsters" (as O'Donnell teasingly calls his own tribe) who've recently been accused of gentrifying their low-income neighbourhood. The outcome struck me as at once socially worthy and artistically undercooked...

As much as I endorse O'Donnell's belief that children are complex individuals with their own perspectives and stories, his work is more intriguing when it involves adults, who are less accustomed to group activities. Bridging the profound gulf that exists between people already burdened with preconceptions, not to mention jobs and families, seems a more ambitious undertaking."

On a more vitriolic, outspoken, and anonymously authored note,'s latest e-cahier rips into O'Donnell's attempts at political action during this last Canadian election via the artist-org Department of Culture:

"Instead of spending time convincing voters why exactly they should be funding, for instance, artist’s travels abroad (which, to our mind, is not a hard case to make) Darren O’Donnell & Co. accuse Stephen Harper of not liking other people’s children (because he opposes the Kyoto Protocols).... Each of these videos ends with the ever-so-pithy phrase “Not Him. Not Now. Not Ever Again” juxtaposed over a photo of Mr. Harper wearing a cowboy hat. Did no one think that, should one want to sway Conservative voters, mocking their leader by showing him in a silly hat is counterproductive, as it only underscores one’s condescension to him, and by extension, them?"

That's, er, not so balanced. But probably not uncommon.

If anyone's read either Wilson (which I recommend) or Artfag (which I generally love but am a little iffy on this instalment), I'm interested in your thoughts.


Darren O'Donnell said...

Hey Leah,

I agree with Carl in general about the work being more significant when it’s done with adults, which resembles a comment you made during our blogslugfest last year. I think it’s important, though, to think long-term. To expect me to leap in and work with complex demographics is asking a lot. It’s really tough to access adults, particularly adults who are marginalized in various ways. Mammalian has our eye on the long term, first building relationships and trust with the most accessible of our community (the kids of Parkdale), then their families and then maybe, in a few years, we can start to increase the complexity of the projects. We’re thinking one step at a time and do realize that the Parkdale PS vs. Queen Street West project was somewhat soft, but it really could only be soft; we must take time and move slowly. One of the risks in creating social practice work is that workshops, test-runs and the development phase must happen in the public eye, so shortcomings and failures can’t be things that simply stay on the drawing board, they must be shared – failure is essential to best practices.

As for Artfag, he seems only to be aware of the videos that I made on behalf of the Department of Culture and believes that we should have focused on art-related complaints (funding for touring, for example). This was exactly what we DID NOT want to do, feeling that artists can and should draw attention to issues that affect much more of the population – global warming, for example. Artists are often forced into a rearguard fight, defending their own interests. I believe we made the right decision to not fall into this trap and complain about funding, but instead tried to maintain a broader engagement. Therefore, the bulk of our activity happened way under Artfag’s very art-centric radar in two specific swing ridings. That artists are now – correctly or not – credited with interfering with Harpers’ majority, leads me to believe that we were effective in our strategy. But even Artfag’s comments about the videos attributed an intention that I just didn’t have. I wasn’t trying to convince conservative supporters of anything – couldn’t care less about them, in fact. I was trying to inspire other video artists to dive in, take a risk, and try to engage with the issues. My sense is that Artfag - while I do really love their writing - is not particularly prone to taking - or, for that matter appreciative of – political/social risks and putting themselves out there, anonymity being the hallmark of a fearfulness that often flirts with cowardice.

And, with respect to personal antipathy between us… like I mentioned in the spring, I am sorry and acknowledge that I’ve spent the last few years developing a persona and a personal style that’s about being kind of a jerk under the guise of ‘art’. This was a mistake and clearly a dead-end. Personally, I don’t believe (touch wood) this behaviour is a fundamental part of my personality, but was/is, instead, a schtick I employed to get attention and, so, it can be changed. So my current art project (so to speak) is to be a nicer person. I’ve even hired a therapist as “collaborator”; I’m hoping this investment pays off - I trust it will. I do really regret some of my more stupid and obnoxious moments, the time spent with you being a perfect example.

Anyway, hope you’re well and thanks for questioning my work and me.

Take care,

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Darren,

Thanks for your response.

I know you think through your work a lot--whether people enjoy it or not--and I think what I liked about Carl's piece was the way it reflected that, that it wasn't just about your "artwork" per se, but about your life experience, theatre works and other things too. I probably chose the harshest thing the whole article to excerpt, really. The rest of it felt more exploratory, at least for mainstream journalism, and again, that's what I liked about the piece.

I'm a bit on the go right now, but hope to respond more later. Complexly!

Leah Sandals said...

Hello again,

Just wanted respond to your comments further, Darren.

Re: creative process. First, I agree that failure and rejigging is part of the creative process. Totally totally. Absolutely. Absolutely.

But so, in a professional art realm, is leaving that process open to criticism and feedback, especially when that process is on explicit public display.

Just as you're entitled to develop your project, critics are entitled to delivering feedback based on their own expertise/life experience/ethical framework. That feedback will not always be designed as nurturing; it will be designed to inform readers, not help the maker. I appreciate you're willing to engage in critics around the points that they raise; that doesn't often happen. But that engagement can't always change someone's opinion.

I do look forward, as Carl does, to seeing Mammalian engage adults. It is harder in some ways but I think it will be very worthwhile.

Re: Artfag. I really enjoy a lot of his writing, but as I mentioned this instalment fell a bit flat for me. I also recently commented on Gabby's site that he didn't acknowledge that DoC campaigning that did reach beyond Facebook and the arts community.

At the same time, I do myself sometimes feel amazed at the extent to which some expect Facebook to represent the public domain in general; it is owned privately, and for that reason alone it would seem difficult to imagine as anything other than a (for-now) free tool that permits a degree of communication. Plus, as Artfag points out, the circles it reaches are by a certain nature closed. So as long as organizers recognize this--not always clear that this is the case--that's the important thing.

Overall, I am glad the DoC came to be and attempted some form of collective action--rather than giving into an anxious/apathetic perfect-is-the-enemy-of-the-good complex of some kind. I also agree with you that sticking up for one's beliefs in person and by name is more honorable, if less entertaining, than delivering anonymous diatribes.

Re: personal likes/dislikes. The lesson I wanted to elucidate previously in this post was that blog commenting is a form of professional writing. Sadly, I didn't learn that until our previous exchange. So I'd really rather not comment on that except to say that people liking or not liking each other is just part of life, a part I'd like to learn to manage better professionally. It's also a part that can get pretty confused in an art or writing realm, where many creators very strongly identify with their works. So... that's what I'm working on!

Darren O'Donnell said...

ya, for sure, criticism and feedback are welcome and very useful. And I don't expect nurturing, but do hope for a comprehensive contextualization, which considering the space allotted for theatre and art criticism is asking a lot. Also expect that a critic can position the work within the trajectory of a career and make some guess as to where the work is going. Carl is a great writer but Toronto Life is not the forum for real engagement with the various questions facing social practice art so I accept what he said but, given a chance to respond here, I took it.

and re: artfag,
The other thing that AF didn't mention because I'm sure they didn't know about it was the national hookups that were made with the DoC. I really feel AF missed the target on that one, only criticizing what he knew of, but so much more happened.

Anyway, thanks again for the feedback.