The title of this exhibition, Utopia as Method, is borrowed from a book of the same name by utopian scholar Ruth Levitas. Utopian methodology is a three-part process. In order to find a way towards a more flourishing future, one must identify a contemporary problem, engage in what Levitas would call archaeological and archival research to understand the root of the problem, and then move to educate our desires in order to find a solution to the problem – one that takes contemporary circumstances into consideration and does not simply advocate a return to an idealized past.
Utopia as Method is both an exhibition and also a collective envisioning of our futures. This work brings together years of research into the history of artist-run culture in Canada as well what constitutes a feminist administrative, curatorial and artistic practice locally, provincially, nationally and internationally. There are various threads of thought running through this project, bringing together many of the questions I’ve been sitting with for the past few years. Utopia as Method became an exhibition project when I began thinking of people I would like to engage in a dialogue around feminisms. I circulated the prompt to use utopia as method in thinking about feminism and, specifically, feminism in the art world in a hope that we could together imagine new ways of moving forward predicated on care, empathy and mutual respect. Even while working towards this show I have witnessed how feminist practices in the art world create distinctly different outcomes than administrative models that derive from corporate and patriarchal standards. The projects taken up by jake moore (CA), Adriana Disman (CA), Rudy Loewe (UK), Taklif : تکلیف (CA/IR), Laura Taler (CA), Diane Guyot (FR), McKensie Mack (US), CRUM (Chris Carrière, Matt Killen, Alexandra McIntosh, Douglas Scholes, and Felicity Tayler) (CA), Michelle Lacombe (CA), and JJ Levine (CA) have demonstrated that there is no single feminism, no one way forward.
To begin, the project starts with a query into what artist-run culture is, moving towards an understanding that it is a set of possibilities that exist outside of the commercial or for-profit arts culture. If there exists within artist-run culture, here or elsewhere, even a shred of desire to be separate or different from the mainstream, then my question has always been why the artist-run culture I know has been so quick to operate using the same tools and methodology as the dominant culture. Artist-run centres no longer exist outside of the mainstream and under new funding models even the most ragtag group can apply for funding, forcing a level of compliance with corporate models that don’t seem in line with the underlying desires of many of the people who are involved in the art world. Apparently, even the very term artist-run centre owes a debt to Canada Council, as urban legend has it that “the term artist-run centres or ‘parallel galleries’ was first coined by the Visual Arts Section of the Canada Council in the 1970s in describing funding initiatives for alternative or artist-run spaces” (Valmstaed 1999, 31). In Quebec, the artist-run centre became known as the centre d’artistes autogérés in 1986, when the Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec decided to rename what were then still referred to as parallel galleries. Since the RCAAQ claimed that these spaces were no longer parallel but, rather, in line with other contemporary art spaces, a new name was chosen. « The adoption of this new name originated with the term artist-run centres circulating in English Canada and in the United States: the term is still used today. Strictly translated, it would really be centres gérés par des artistes. The founders of the RCAAQ decided that since these centres were directed and managed by artists, we could say autogérés in French. This is how the concept of self-determination became intertwined with the language of these relatively new institutions. » Perhaps I have been harbouring a personal misunderstanding of what artist-run culture is, having taken the French translation of artist-run centre (centre d’artistes autogérés) at face value and therefore misaligning this history with the tradition of radicality within other self-determined projects.
As I began to research the history of artist-run centres and their possible futures, I began thinking about the utopian underpinnings of the whole artist-run project. A common understanding is that artist-run centres were set up as alternatives to museums and private galleries. Today they are vibrant community spaces, which produce and display some of the most important artistic output in Canada, much of which eventually comes to represent the nation on an international level. Artist-run centres, as spaces for exhibiting art and culture, are not unique to Canada. However, they occupy a more significant cultural position and are more numerous here than anywhere else in the world. This is primarily because of the influential and long-standing financial support system in place since the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957. They are spaces that are by and for artists and people interested in the arts.
What makes artist-run centres utopian is their desire to create something outside the mainstream, which in the 1970s meant museums and private galleries, which were not showing contemporary art – and most importantly, not showing conceptual artists. Today, the work incubated in Canadian artist-run centres is the mainstream, with an artist-run centre to the Venice Biennale trajectory within eyesight for many people in the community. Have we then reached utopia? I think not.
Thomas More first coined the word utopia when he wrote a fictional book of the same name in 1516. The word utopia is derived from the Greek: οὐ (« not ») and τόπος (« place ») and is most commonly translated as “no-place”. Many early utopian writers and scholars envisioned utopia, in contrast to what the word implies, as a real, conceivable place – a plausible destination. As a result, these thinkers planned, down to the last detail, their visions for the improved societies of the future, using what we can call “blueprint utopianism.” The antithesis of blueprint utopianism is critical utopianism, which questions in order imagine a better future. It acknowledges that there is no perfect, attainable Utopia but rather utopias anticipate that desire needs room to adapt and grow.
Feminism has often been called a utopian project, in a derisive way, meaning that, as a utopian idea, it will never be a reality. As I understand feminism, it is utopian in that it hopes for a better reality and uses utopian methodology to forge onwards. Utopias should see multiple ways forward, acknowledging difference. Utopias tell us what is wrong with the present. Feminist utopianism is critical utopianism and, as such, cannot seek perfection or finality but must always move forward and search for new criticality. Feminism itself is a utopian concept as it is critical of contemporary society and seeks a better, different future. Feminism is a movement that embodies hopefulness within its framework. This is evidenced in the ways in which feminist proponents have struggled for, and achieved, successes in changing the current systems. While feminist theory has not always been able to articulate its desire beyond its present struggle, there has always been permission, inherent to feminist systems, that allows for a critiquing of blind spots for maximum flourishing. Utopia is a search for a radically better world – and so is feminism. Both are demands for change and action and urge us forward towards something better for everyone. Of course, one person’s idea of good might be different from another’s. There is always work to be done. Feminist utopia is emancipatory – not just for some but, ideally, for everyone. Utopia as Method works to unpack various possible feminist futures, with a goal of working intersectionally and including a myriad of voices.
Artist-run centres were, and many continue to be, fertile ground for the development of feminist outlooks, particularly with regard to how such outlooks shaped administrative and institutional practice. One of the primary reasons artist-run centres multiplied so quickly in Canada is because, unlike other types of art venues, they both showed the work of female artists and employed female staff. While the contemporary art world, especially within artist-run centres, has become a welcoming space for women, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Men still occupy more directorial positions compared to women’s administrative ones; men have more solo shows whereas women present more in group shows, which pay less; and work by men tends to bring in higher sales in commercial contexts and at auction. According to the 2014 Hill Strategies study A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada, Female artists earn much less than their male counterparts, but the difference in earnings is equal to the difference among the overall labour force … for cultural workers, women earn an average of $34,100, 23% less than men ($44, 000). Visible minorities, Aboriginal and Immigrant artists earn even less than their white peers. The shocking racial inequality of the Canadian art world might begin to be addressed by recent changes at the arts councils, but these changes are slow and, in the meantime, the reality leaves much to be desired.
Beyond using “utopian” as a descriptor for feminism, I have found it useful to apply Levitas’ method towards understanding feminist futures. Feminism means different things in different contexts – there are different feminist schools of thought; different waves; different practices. While I might describe feminism as a movement towards equity and/or equality for all people, others might challenge my definition. Many say feminism is the understanding that women are equal to men. I have spent the last few years trying to understand geographic and linguistic differences in feminism, and I have used utopian methodology in an effort to gain a greater understanding of how I might employ the term.
While no project included in Utopia as Method is so rigid as to be easily classified, they can nonetheless be generally divided according to the methodological steps proposed by Levitas. Among those that undertake an archaeological survey are jake moore, Taklif : تکلیف, and Michelle Lacombe. jake moore’s storytime… is both a performance and a sculptural installation. The performance involves a live reading and audio-piece featuring a selection of excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s, To The Lighthouse, borrowing from the spatio-temporal shifting methodologies of both Woolf and the American composer Alvin Lucier. The related sculptural work involves a mauve-shrouded video monitor, presenting an audio file played back through an interface that alters the sound waves as video signal.
Starting with a found photo of a protest by an anonymous American feminist collective (possibly W.I.T.C.H.) from 1969 and Matisse’s 1909 painting Dance, Michelle Lacombe’s performance and installation explores histories and pictorial representations of self-identified women gathering in the form of a rotating circle for political and/or sacred motives. The performance and installation further tangle these seemingly disparate threads.
Working with an archive of both personal and national significance, Taklif : تکلیف explores sixteen years of Zanan (ماهنامه زنان), an Iranian monthly magazine. Founded by Shahla Sherkat in 1992, Zanan (ماهنامه زنان) is known as the only Persian magazine dedicated to women in Iran. Its production has been menaced by the authorities on multiple occasions, and it ceased publishing for six years in 2008. Zanan (ماهنامه زنان) was relaunched as Zanan-E-Emrooz (Today’s Women) in 2014, with a successive short-term suspension in 2015. The installation features an interview with Sherkat, as well as ephemera from the archive as a means of examining the women’s rights movement in Iran since the Islamic Revolution.
Among the projects that investigate and disrupt the present situation, we can include Adriana Disman, Diane Guyot, Laura Taler, CRUM, and JJ Levine. Adriana Disman’s project, Continuation is Resistance and Capitulation, explores the artist’s private attempts to survive difficult situations when survival seems unlikely. Whereas Disman is known for her public performances, her contribution here is a collection of simple line drawings, made in seclusion over a continuous twelve hours. The drawings are the traces of private performance that reference an action Disman often takes in difficult moments, as a way, of breathing livable life into an unlivable moment.
Diane Guyot’s installation is made up of sets of placards on which slogans and videos are projected. They present young girls playing with their phone, taking self-portraits and using the various Snapchat filters. Whereas in Canada, and more generally online, one person can constitute a protest, in France it’s only a large group that creates changes, perhaps a by-product of the égalité, fraternité aspects of the French national motto Liberté Égalité, Fraternité. For Guyot, these videos represent more than just girls playing around with self-portraiture. They are a fuck you to a system that devalues them, which refuses their voice. Marseille, where Guyot is based, is well known for its misogynistic culture of street harassment. Like the #metoo movement, these videos are small acts of refusal and redress – small acts of (feminist) protest.
Laura Taler explores how change is possible by questioning the understanding of what it means to move forward in time and space, and as a person, using Tai Chi as a jumping-off point. This exploration of foreign songs and gestures includes broad questions about how the body relates to notions of certainty, doubt, and progress. Taler uses movement to negotiate what she considers foreign within herself, to question how gender operates within her choice of gesture and how the body forgives.
Intimates is a collection of new portraits by JJ Levine of friends, often holding their babies. This installation is comprised of three large-scale colour photographs and one short 16mm film addressing friendship and community and the critical role they play in the life of the artist and his child. Between artifice and archive, these highly staged portraits document real people, mostly in their own spaces. They offer a counter-narrative to mainstream, capitalist, isolationist notions of family structure. This series contributes to visual representation of alternative, queer, and trans family structures, as Levine rarely finds images that reflect his life choices and those of the people around him. They are a celebration of the ordinary and the exceptional in his reality.
This edition of the Petite enveloppe urbaine, an ongoing project of CRUM, marks the official disincorporation of the group. CRUM incorporated in 2002 due to insurance and banking requirements for an off-site exhibition, but the collective has taken form over the last eighteen years as a network of affective bonds that belie the need to maintain status as an incorporated not-for-profit. Corporations often use the metaphor of a family to describe their administrative structure and to encourage loyalty among employees. This mapping of a paternalistic model onto economic relations has been dated back to the late 19th century, at the moment when the labour processes of urbanization and industrialization failed to align with idealized, rigidly defined and gendered family roles. When CRUM’s incorporated status is removed, what remains? Sound recordings, performances, exhibitions and publishing projects have used appropriation and collaborative methods to create temporary affiliations between people, places and institutions. Along the way, intergenerational ties were fostered. CRUM has biological families and pedagogical progenies. One curator recently referred to these formations as “creation families”; in this spirit, CRUM proposes disincorporation as a utopian method–leaving behind corporate affiliations and moving toward other modes and metaphors of belonging.
Finally, Rudy Loewe’s prints and McKensie Mack’s workshop takes up Levitas’ proposal to educate our desire. Rudy Loewe’s prints explore what a possible afrofeminist futures might look like, moving through the experiences and traumas that bodies hold. They draw from references such as Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, the film Cosmic Slop and the ideas of Sun Ra, and in these prints particularly, themes discussed in Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, thinking about trauma and possible black utopias. McKensie Mack’s workshop, titled Tu n’es pas féministe, asks: “There’s a difference between feminist and white supremacist. Can you see it?” In this 2-hour guided workshop, participants explore how to define our feminism in ways that don’t further perpetuate injustice, disenfranchisement, and overall annoyance in the lives of queer and trans folks, women, and black and brown people. Together, we’ll examine the ways in which white feminism socializes us to reproduce white supremacy and misogyny under the guise of female empowerment and understanding, exploring practical tips and tricks for anti-assholery in the feminist movement.*
Feminism’s strength lies in its ability use the lessons of the past to forge new paths. Utopia as Method is a beginning not an end. It is the results of putting into action the method and educating our desires, and it is an invitation to anyone who is so inclined to do the same.
*It is with great regret that we must cancel the workshop Tu n’es pas féministe offered by McKensie Mack scheduled for September 15th, 2018. McKensie must return the USA to attend to a family emergency and cannot be with us for the workshop.
 Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Hertfordshire, UK: Philip Allan, 1990) 209.
 Bastien Gilbert, “Trente ans d’autogestion artistique en art contemporain: un exemple québécois”. Possibles, Vol. 29, no 2, printemps 2005, p. 66 (translation Amber Berson).
 Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Hertfordshire, UK: Philip Allan, 1990) 57.
 Hill Strategies. “A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada.” Accessed April 2, 2015 http://www.hillstrategies.com/content/statistical-profile-artists-and-cultural-workers-canada , p. 4.
Hill Strategies. “A Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada.” Accessed April 2, 2015 http://www.hillstrategies.com/content/statistical-profile-artists-and-cultural-workers-canada , p. 32.