In an adjacent room Harwood

In an adjacent room Harwood also has a CD-ROM installation entitled Rehearsal of Memory (1995). The content of this piece examines a hospital for the criminally insane in England. The artwork involves using a computer mouse to navigate the contours of a pastiche of body parts projected on a large video screen. As visitors maneuver along the body parts they are given the option of initiating different sound bites, video clips, and newspaper texts, which relate to the personal histories of the inmates. As “cybervoyeurs” we construct powerful digitized composites of the patients who inhabit this institution.

Invertigo (1997), by Americans Sawad Brooks, Christa Erickson and Beth Stryker, is an interactive Web site and gallery installation. The piece incorporates both electronic and physical space which constructs itself around the presence of participating subjects. This project blurs the boundaries in and between bodies and spaces, and between public and private spaces. The installation involves sitting on a swing in a dimly lit room and rocking back and forth. The swinging action triggers the projection of images dealing with intimacy and distance on a large screen in front of the swing. The swinging motion is also a cybernetic feedback mechanism which is monitored by a counter and projected on the back wall of the gallery. The data is also simultaneously registered on the project’s Web site. In this instance the swinging is both visual and metaphoric, as we experience the intimacy of the gallery space in the context of the distance offered by the Web site.

Two additional pieces are included in the exhibition: one by Canadian media artist Nancy Paterson, The Machine in the Garden (1997), and Indigestion (1995), by New York artists Diller + Scofidio.

What is significant about the work in “Language Games” is the preoccupation with surface and mediation: image, simulation, network, screen, and spectacle. It is interesting to note that Francois Brune argues that contemporary media has brought about a kind of devalourization of reality, a “dispossession of the real,” which serves to disorient viewers and to inhibit their access to political consciousness. What commercial media does is make us purely spectators, that is to say, powerless in the face of what is presented as the order of things – we can only listen, watch and keep silent. On the other hand, Marike Finely, would argue that postmodernism is simply a psychotic defense against the loss of referential identity. From either perspective technological mediation is discussed in terms of and associated with estrangement from the real.

In philosophical terms, this “psychotic” derealization is an ultimate consequence of the logic of science and administrative rationality, the totalizing ambitions of abstract and formal reason. In more social terms, it is a “culturally generalized psychosis” appropriate to a rationalized, bureaucratic and technocratic society of indirect relationships and large-scale system integration.

Curators Diamond and Crowston argue that it is not sufficient to merely know that the technological colonization of images is a symptom of a global computer network of “third stage” multinational capital. Knowing this, they would suggest, we can find a place of critical distance within the media arts where we may begin to imagine alternative projects of social existence capable of counter-acting the paralysis which Baudrillard’s “technological sublime” induces in us. The artwork in “Language Games” requires us to consider what assumptions about the nature of our society need to be revised when the already complex aspects of language are supplemented by electronic media.

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Hypermnesiac fabulations

Like the current pop-cultural fascination with all things 70s, “Hypermnesiac Fabulations” dredged up stuff long since packed away. This group exhibition brought together the work of four young British artists (two of whom work collaboratively) and was underscored by a retro element, which can read as either timely or gimmicky depending upon how one views the polemical high/low cultural divide. For those marked in some way by this decade, “Hypermnesiac Fabulations” emphasized the mnemonic aspects of retro culture: longing or nostalgia for things reminiscent of one’s formative years, be they actual or fictional, adolescent or infantile.

Although the work in this exhibition recycled pop-cultural referents, it was not characterized by a general sense of unease with the narratives called up through each artist’s process; this was perhaps due to an overarching concern with autobiography. Hence the work signaled a move away from the appropriative strategies and ironic gestures that often accompanies work derived from popular culture. It was less expressly critical, though aligning to varying degrees with a type of punk or grunge sensibility said to characterize the British scene in general. This sensibility was most pronounced in Tracey Emin’s self-professed anti-art tendencies, more subdued in the work of Georgina Starr or Jane and Louise Wilson. Performative elements integrated all three installations – these were surreal or oneiric in Starr and the Wilsons, mediumistic in Emin.

Most whimsical of the three installations, Georgina Starr’s began with a series of cartooned story-boards that depicted scenarios concocted from various sexual relationships. Of these stories, one culminates in Starr’s imaginary flight from a real, yet coincidental meeting of four Daniels last summer. Starr conjured up a singular protagonist that fused the character traits of all four (Ginger Dan, Earnest Dan, Rosy Dan and Dan Pussy) and provided the impetus for her video, So Long Babe (1996). This video projection featured Starr’s mythological escape from the plague of the Daniels in which she flies around the streets of London in a pint-sized, red, kit-plane to Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 tune, So Long Babe. Starr’s freedom flight from love gone wrong reads like an updated version of Mary Tyler Moore’s famous beret-tossing sequence: both act as gestures to a visionary life of the swinging, liberated woman of the modern metropolis. Humorous as Starr’s story may be, the work flattens out after the initial cuteness of it all and seems less considered in its use of memory than some of her earlier projects such as Visit to a Small Planet (1995).

Less capricious, but equally theatrical are Jane and Louise Wilson’s situational films that stage the aftermath of dystopic or horrific scenarios. Though unlike the Hollywood genres from which the Wilsons loosely work (horror and suspense thrillers), their filmic sequences suggest that one has arrived too late in the scheme of events: in a suspended loop after the climax, but before the end.

As identical twins, Jane and Louise Wilson have grounded their practice in terms of the dynamics of collaboration, fantasies of doubling, and popular lore surrounding twins. In Crawl Space 1995, one of the twins slowly disgorges a large, quivering bubble containing the other. It periodically hovers then maniacally soars about the hallways of a dilapidated mansion, only to be swallowed up once again by the same twin. At this point the words “crawl space” faintly emerge like a raised scar across her belly, signaling one twin’s consumption (or impregnation) by the other. Crawl Space 1995 looks back to themes from The Exorcist, and Carrie (among others of the same genre) – horror films of the Wilsons’ youth that personified dwellings as sinister, living entities.

Unlike Starr and the Wilsons, Tracey Emin does very little to embellish or theatricalize her own production, nor does she need to; if Starr and the Wilsons insert themselves into Hollywood genres, Emin’s peculiar gift for the narration of her own life has established her as a celebrity in her own right. Emin’s rock-star ego was well established prior to her rise to relative art-world fame. In 1993, at the age of thirty, she stopped making art and hosted (in a Duchampian vein) her own solo exhibition, entitled My Major Retrospective which has since been exhibited in various forms at different institutions. The original, self-styled exhibition consisted of snapshots of her destroyed art-school paintings, personal diaries, letters, family snapshots and other memorabilia, all contextualized by Emin’s quirky running commentary.

Most poignant of Emin’s work, however, was a tape she made to commemorate the anniversary of her second abortion. In How it Feels (1996), Emin conducts a walk-about tour through the streets of London, from the doctor’s office to the clinic, during which time she describes her particularly catastrophic abortion experience: a result of gross negligence, both on the part of the individual doctor and the larger state-run health care system. Emin meditates further on the narcissistic or controlling aspects of human reproduction while simultaneously suggesting the futility of mimetic processes:

After being pregnant and having a better understanding of conception, the essence of things and where they come from, it could hardly be justified trying to make some fucking picture. . . I saw that the way I had been making art had no value or reference to the world we live in. It had absolutely no use value whatsoever. So I stopped.

Though Emin’s conclusions border on naive romanticism, How it Feels was by far the most explicitly politicized work in this exhibition. To some, Emin’s confessional tendencies and frank anti-intellectualism might come on like a vulgar slap in the face, but her use of narrative offered an anchor in the real, which at the same time connected to the general anti-rational current that ran through all three installations. “Hypermnesiac Fabulations” paid homage to the seemingly inconsequential and shallow culture of the seventies, placing renewed faith in things as unpopular as narcissism, mysticism and occult fantasy.

Jeff Wall’s lightbox transparencies

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, February 20 – May 11

This large-scale survey of Jeff Wall’s lightbox transparencies was the first to consider his radical repositioning of the photographic medium by surveying his career from the groundbreaking works of the late 1970s to the recent black-and-white images. Organized by Kerry Brougher and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasized dialectical relationships between thirty of Wall’s works and was ideally suited to an installation design favoring theatrical juxtapositions. The dramatic results positioned Wall as heir to both Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life” and his flaneur, clarifying his concern with enfolding the history of art into the art of photography and his desire to absorb into his images the artful grittiness of the contemporary world.

The galleries were lit only by Wall’s hypnotic images and I felt like a somnambulist wandering amongst a minefield of blown-up textbook slides that had run amuck from a distant college art appreciation class. At first, they seemed to correspond almost too exactly to the garish reproductions I had memorized as a college art history student. Is it possible, I wondered, looking at works like The Storyteller (1986), after Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, that we have absorbed the canon of Western painting to such a degree that we conspire unconsciously to mimic in life what we have seen in museums and reproductions? In image after image, Wall assimilates instantly identifiable “masterpieces” transforming them into generalized, contemporary panoramas. He exhumes the compositional and thematic tropes of this past art and then re-inters them as meditations on the anxious structures belying both the “old masters” and those regulating contemporary life.

This effect is reflected particularly well in Wall’s initial forays into the transparency lightbox format, such as his pivotal work, The Destroyed Room (1978). Based upon Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1827), and originally displayed in a street level window at the Nova Gallery in Vancouver, passersby who came upon The Destroyed Room were faced with a spectacle which seemed simultaneously to suggest an oversized still life painting, a photographic tableau, a glossy ad on a commercial strip in Vegas and a cinematic film projected in suspended animation. This conflation of media is at once disruptive and seductive, tempting the viewer into Wall’s self-consciously constructed, lurid-hued space. From this first effort, Wall has, for over twenty years, continued to explore a series of fundamental concerns – in particular, the violent rupture with modernist expectations about photography as either a potential imitator of painterly style (as in the work of Steiglitz) or as reportage with its claim to verisimilitude (as practiced by Cartier-Bresson and Brassai). Wall’s achievement has been to subvert both the positions of the Steiglitz and Brassai approaches respectively by using the medium to demonstrate the arresting and critical possibilities of the manipulated and fictionalized photographic image with regard to the history of painting.

It is in The Destroyed Room and related works such as Picture for Women (1979), after Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882), that fissures in the modernist photographic gaze are widened as Wall focused his lens primarily on issues of representation using his compositional savvy to entice the viewer into awareness of his or her act of viewing and assumption about point of view. The title and handling of a recent black-and-white image, 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, 9 a.m. 24 September 1996 (1996), may appear an uncharacteristic flirtation with documentary photography on Wall’s part. Yet, its matter-of-factness is subverted when we are made conscious of how “reality” is proscribed within the limitations of the lens through Wall’s exaggerated vignetting. Separated within his oeuvre by seventeen years, Wall has posed within his viewfinder not only a human presence but the presence of The Picture, as a collusive gesture enacted between the one pictured, the one picturing and the one repicturing.

One of Wall’s greatest achievements may be this willingness to question The Picture without surrendering experience in the context of the contemporary world to the reductivism and self-absorption of much pioneering conceptual art. His complex use of picture-theory always competes on equal terms with his narratives. Wall is also a wonderful storyteller and allegorist, delighting in the unexpected, the unresolved, the spectral and the grisly. He is especially sharp when choosing taboo subjects that he knows will make us suspend our assumptions about the borders of artifice and actuality and succumb to our instinctive curiosity. Even when it is impolite to stare, we cannot avoid looking at the aged nude figure reading on the staircase of a library in The Giant (1992). Is she a woman or a sculpture? How has the intensity of the artist’s gaze transformed a wax arm into a shriveled human appendage (Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992)?

Wall finds worthy subjects around every corner to cajole us into questioning the conditions of “reality” as it is lived and as it is depicted in art. Wall’s Odradek, Taboritska 8, Prague, 18 July 1994 (1994) reminds us that while the artworld was thinking about Duchamp’s dabbling in cubism in Nude Descending a Staircase, that a real woman had first walked down a very real and very ordinary staircase. A Sunflower (1995) resonates with Van Gogh’s most reproduced painting, but is, in the end, another prop in the theater of daily life, sitting on a kitchen counter within a prosaic still life of keys, pills, a hastily opened letter and a dirty ashtray. And, while the art world may stay awake all night mulling over the latest aesthetic puzzles, when we gaze at the lonely insomniac curled fetally beneath a squalid Formica table, although his position quotes relcining nudes from Titian to Manet, we are somehow certain that what is keeping him up is probably far from the streets of SoHo (Insomnia, 1994). How odd, then, in this context, to find these art historical references so strangely comforting. While we penetrate the inner world of the insomniac, it is the oblique references to art history that remind us of the human continuum, that our deepest and most desolate human feelings do not occur in a vacuum, have not been experienced by us alone. This survey of Wall’s art, while underscoring his rhetorical complexity, does not fail to also frame it within the language of human existence and human interaction. It is his ability to hold them in such an elegant balance that makes Wall’s art so profoundly stirring.

Nancy Bunnell and Chinese Art Reproductions

In Montreal, where she lives and works, Nancy Bunnell is a phenomenon. She arrived on the scene with the exclamatory power of the Tunguska event and has left an equally unforgettable impression on Chinese art reproductions. Working feverishly, somewhere between the Biblical and the libidinal, she left her mark right from the start.

Her fame is based both on art reproductions that knows few equals in Canada and a teaching practice at Concordia University that has influenced scores of young women artists. She has had her way with the human figure for decades, eliciting from otherwise mute flesh a harrowing sense of exactitude in rendering–with no cosmetic allure whatsoever–our finitude as embodied beings in metaphoric reach.

In two recent exhibitions in Montreal, Bunnell revealed dovetailing sides of her oeuvre: the “private” face of her oil painting reproductions (hence the title, Private Views) and the paintings for which she is known publicly. The oil painting reproductions shown at Paint My Photos Gallery are haunting in ethos and execution. While they have been called almost cartoon-like in character, the truth is that they have more in common with Gericault than R. Crumb. Private Views marks the first time that Bunnell has shown oil painting reproductions in a solo show in more than two decades. She refers to the works in Private Views as her “secret” oil painting reproductions but she is also being a little facetious–even though they are indeed the secret plenitude underlying her corpus as a whole. The truth is that she has always drawn, and I have stored in my memory many epiphanies from looking at oil painting reproductions in her studio over the long years. Furthermore, a survey of her private journals–an extraordinary and extensive archive of her practice–shows her working through painting ideas in a marvellous, deft, edgy–if sometimes schematic–fashion over the last decades.

Throughout her career, Bunnell has explored, with rare intensity, the human figure living and dying. In the paintings shown at Battat, the radiance of this exploration is unavoidably self-present. Her two closest fellow travellers are Cindy Sherman and Lucian Freud; Sherman for her “staged” self-portraits because self-portraiture is implicit in Bunnell’s own profoundly autobiographical work; and Freud for his objectivity, although Bunnell’s morgue is hot, not cold, far less clinical in its mien and, of course, not misogynistic. For Bunnell, the studio is the incubation chamber par excellence, an alembic in which the deep pot of the unconscious is stirred and stirred again, in order to see what might rise to the surface and rule there.

In Dottore (2009), the most recent of the paintings shown at Battat Contemporary, we are given a glimpse into the dark side of the care ward, courtesy of a conflation of history painting (think Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa [1818-19]), the characters of commedia dell’arte and a postmodern rendering of the Dantean hell. There is a Watcher with an animal’s head. A rotund woman, all goggle-eyed, seems to be strapped into a straitjacket. Characters that seem to have been teleported in from a St-Henri sports bar sit facing an orgy-in-progress at the rear. Another seated figure in the left foreground, presumably incontinent, is wearing a diaper and cradling his head with his hand, as if trying to hide from the pyrotechnics in the lower right foreground. Is the bouncer in the far upper left quadrant there to keep outsiders from entering or insiders from leaving? And is that the artist’s own brother lying supine, a febrile gesture signalling utter distraction, the last extremity? He is being manhandled by Punchinellos with XXL rubber gloves and seems to be suffering all the horrors of the damned. Many of Bunnell’s latest paintings and works on paper are populated by these sinister Punchinellos who, with their black masks with elongated beaks under Tiepolo-esque tall domed hats, seem less like caregivers than evil harbingers of the Underworld.

Bunnell titled this monumental painting after Il Dottore (the plague doctor), a character featured in the commedia dell’arte plays originating in Italy in the mid-15th century who recalls the European plague that brought Venice to its knees not once but several times. However, Bunnell has taken liberties with his costume, updating it but leaving the long beak mask that lends the character the appearance of a mystical bird immune to the plague. Supposedly, there were disinfecting herbs hidden inside the mask so the costume, much like contemporary Hazmat suits, served as protection against contagion. Even so, Il Dottore was always seen as an imbecile, speaking in a counterfeit and meaningless Latin and issuing dire prescriptions that prefigured his own ruin. So if we ask ourselves if the ministrations of the masked figures in Bunnell’s painting are designed to help the enfeebled figure or the opposite, the answer seems to be the latter.

The raw truth is that Bunnell puts telling paint to our embodied state. Few artists have dilated on human damage so rigorously or so well. She paints figures but central to her portraiture is the evocative portrayal of duende, as the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca meant it, that dark inexorable power of the earth itself that an artist wrestles with and births in creative work. Bunnell evokes it as first-level content in her teatro grottesco, perhaps as a way of talismanically warding it off. In any case, duende is the subject matter that underlies her own struggle, and is mortise and tenon joinery in uniting painted form and implicit subject matter.

Lorca once delivered a famous lecture, play and Theory of the Duende, in which he interpreted duende as a demon whose voice speaks on a mental wavelength of our finitude, our waywardness, of dream-like dissonance in the soul, fevers in the blood and damnation felt viscerally in the gut. There is no better guidebook in all of literature for understanding what Bunnell’s paintings are about than Lorca’s writing:

There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We
know-only that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass,
that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have
learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no
consolation and makes Goya … work with his fists and knees in
horrible bitumens.

Like Goya before her, Nancy Bunnell’s true fight is with the duende and the damage it inflicts so wantonly on the inside of our nature.

Performances and interventions of Lorena Wolffer

Lorena Wolffer lies on a bed. She slowly sits up and begins to remove her shirt. She displays her breasts to the audience, and then bends over to remove her pants. As she caresses her body, the background music fades and we begin hearing the monotone voice of a police report. Wolffer pulls out latex gloves and displays them to the audience before putting them on. The reports about dead women continue, and we hear details of the victims’ clothing. One was six months pregnant, raped and strangled.

Wolffer removes a pen and begins to carefully mark up her body, as if preparing it for an autopsy, making lines around her breasts, between her legs, on her neck. Periodically, she stops, and assumes a meditation pose. The marking continues, and the lines become something else, less medical and more a circumscription of the parts of the body that are a focus of rage and desire. Finally, she caps the pen and replaces her clothes, slowly transforming herself into an ordinary woman again. She shrouds herself in black blankets and wraps a sheet around her neck and head, covering herself completely.

In Wolffer’s performances like the just-described Mientras dormiamos (el caso Juarez) (2002-04), the Mexico City artist locates a mystery at the heart of violence, creating a black hole of negation and a paradox. It is a place where desire and hatred are closely in-tricated, one where society’s violence against women is cut into the flesh. Physical wounds kill and maim, yet psychic wounds can be inscribed as well: wounds from silence, from memory being driven deep inside into a place of suffocation and emptiness. And this violence not only marks the body of the individual, but also the body of the nation.

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“Violence against women.” In what many are pleased to call the post-feminist world, this phrase almost seems to have a dated quality. Most of us are aware of the statistics about domestic violence and rape, as well as the inequalities in pay distribution and the like, but there remains a tendency to detach such statistics from the constellations of beliefs and attitudes that subtend them. When fourteen women were gunned down at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal for being “fucking feminists” in 1989, I remember being struck by how swiftly the media suppressed discussion about what the massacre revealed about attitudes towards women in general. No, the killer was a lone gunman. A madman. When Robert Pickton murdered scores of women in Vancouver, there was some talk of racism and poverty, but little about what both the murders and the police inaction revealed about the disposability of women. Why the unwillingness to connect the dots? What is the dirty secret?

The artist can reveal connections that a newspaper report cannot. Watching Mientras dormiamos, I think of Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil (2002), a piece honouring the disappeared and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. By using their own bodies to display violence–and its consequences–artists such as Wolffer and Belmore remind us of its intimacy, even when violent acts occur in larger socio-political contexts. And underneath violence, hatred remains linked to desire, with the connection between the two operating through bad intensity.

The title of Wolffer’s piece translates as “while we were sleeping,” and it speaks to the hundreds of women murdered in Cuidad, a city on the border between Chihuahua and Juarez Texas. This border is lined with maquiladoras (factories), where poor women come to work. It is a place where the atmosphere of violence is palpable, and fear permeates the energy of the streets. (One is struck by the contrast to El Paso just across the river: bright and shiny and dead in another way.) Black crosses have been painted on telephone poles as memorials to the murdered women. Everyone knows what’s going on here, and everyone deplores the ongoing murders and disappearances, but little has been done. I once spoke to a young Oaxacan woman and her brother who were travelling to Juarez to find work. The girl stared into the distance as her brother told me he hoped to keep his sister safe. It was like talking to soldiers on their way to war.

How can we explain this?

Wolffer is telling us that, at some level, we choose not to see; we prefer a kind of unconsciousness. Why are we sleeping? There is a great deal at stake in veiling reality. For some, it is simply too difficult to confront. It is easier to think of the extreme violence in Juarez, Vancouver and, now, Winnipeg, as something that happens to “them”–to poor women, streetwalkers, aboriginal women, Mexicans–a displacement that derives from a deep fear of our own complicity. It can be reassuring to focus on the specificities of the places and circumstances where these things happen. But all reveal a truth about the disposability of women. By manipulating her nude body, Wolffer underlines the paradox of desire and disposability, intimacy and fear. The Juarez murders are extreme, but violence most likely comes from someone we know and often love, from our intimate enemy. Another paradox, and one that, for many, cannot be said.

Looking at the documentation of Wolffer’s performances, I am reminded of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, which he wrote in 1914. In this story, a machine called the harrow inscribes the condemned prisoner’s sentence on his back, which eventually kills him. The machine works slowly and the prisoner, unaware of the nature of his transgression, understands his crime and sentence only at the moment of death.

Lorena-Wolffer

So I ask myself, is the crime being female?

Although Wolffer is known for the performance pieces she created in galleries, after Mientras dormiamos she became less interested in the art world’s elite spaces and began to bring her work into the street. In Zona de tolerancia (2007), she created street signs representing prostitution, poverty, violence and narcotraffic and placed them in areas of the city where these activities take place. This intervention brought to light the social realities that are, in fact, permitted in society despite laws to the contrary, suggesting that what takes place on the margins reveals truths about the nature of the larger society. As well, Wolffer began thinking about the women being killed closer to home–often as the result of domestic violence. She began to work with a women’s shelter, and Muros de replica (2008) came out of this practice and out of her desire to create interactive interventions.

Muros de replica began as an experiment: would ordinary women be willing to speak publicly to their aggressors? Some would, and these early responses were published in the newspaper La Jornada. Then the question became whether women would do so in public spaces such as the subway, the university and in the Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square. Banners were raised in the Zocalo, and walls were erected where women could publicly write to the men who had abused them. On the walls was the statement: ” I am a woman who has been a victim of male violence. This is my name and this is what I must say to my aggressor.” Women began to line up and, for four hours, dozens of women wrote their stories while hundreds watched. Some, particularly younger women, wrote quickly; others took their time. At first glance, the concept behind this project seems simple–to create a space for women to speak back–but this intervention has the potential for far-reaching effects on the lives of the participants and for the people viewing the actions. In a conservative society that tends to blame the victim for “provoking” the aggressor, Muros de replica was the first place many women had been able to make their truth visible. And they chose to do so in a public space in the heart of Mexico City.

In collaborative projects like La ropa sucia se lava en casa (2009), with Arturo Ortiz and Federico Gama, Wolffer continues to intervene in public space, this time through the creation of billboards. Based on the look of a real estate ad presenting inexpensive housing as a lifestyle dream of modernity and upward mobility, the image of a pristine house shows a broken window. The title is printed as an advertising slogan that translates as “Don’t wash dirty linen in public,” and is accompanied by the statistic that 88% of Mexicans agree that what takes place in the home should not be made public. Wolffer wanted to raise the question about where people believe the law stops in domestic violence, and remind us that what happens in private space does have public implications. Despite the media’s representations of the dream lifestyle, ugly truths lie underneath the image.

Because of the complex history between Mexico and the United States, Mexico has long been a site of projection for the United States: a place of fantasy, of longing but also of suspicion and hatred–another version of the paradox. In If she is Mexico, who beat her up? (1997-99), Wolffer constructs an analogy between body and nation. The body of the artist stands in for the body of the nation like a magical spell, where what happens in the larger arena is enacted in a small space. Dressed in the colours of the Mexican flag, Wolffer poses on a catwalk, as if part of a fashion show. In the background, a U.S. senator discusses whether Mexico should be “decertified” because of its difficulty in controlling the drug trade. As Wolffer moves, cuts and bruises appear on her body, but she continues to strut and pose, her heavily madeup face empty of emotion. Here, “Mexico” appears as an entity whose social and political health is being decided by an outside entity, namely the United States. At the same time, Mexico must present itself as healthy and beautiful, both to itself and to the outside. Again, reality is papered over. The cuts and bruises on Wolffer’s body remind us of the violence associated with the Mexican drug wars, violence that also links back to what is happening to women in Juarez.

Listening to the U.S. senator’s words used in this piece, I am reminded that Mexico occupies a peculiar place in the gringo imaginary: it is the USA’s more interesting neighbour. It’s a place of lawlessness and excess, the place gringos go to get into trouble. If, in some respects, Canada’s relation with Mexico is more nuanced than that of the U.S.–the obvious media biases and the recent decision to impose visa restrictions on Mexicans reveal a deep set of prejudices. By projecting drug violence onto Mexico, a screen is created for the violence happening here. Drug wars in Mexico? Yes, but where are the drugs going? In Latin America, Canada is known as an exporter of chemical drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy. Who’s supplying the arms for these wars? Corruption in Mexico? True, but is that to suggest that secret deals aren’t being made in the U.S., or here? Dead women? Only there? I’m not suggesting that, because perceptions of Mexico are structured by long-standing tropes, we shouldn’t pay attention to the reality of the Mexican drug wars or to the murdered women in Juarez but we should remember that projection structures often conceal what’s happening at home.

Foucault wrote that what takes place at the edge of empire reveals the nature of the empire. In a sense, women exist at the border of empire, something Deleuze and Guattari understood when they talked about devenir femme as a way of escaping the fixity of power, the molar lines that emanate from the centre. But an empire is still a system of political power. If we recognize the United States as an empire, the countries that border it can show us something about the structures that make its authority possible. Would the United States exist without Mexico (and Canada)? Would our present social system exist without the women murdered in Vancouver and Winnipeg? The centre does its best to show the benign face of power, but the drug-related violence and the dead women of Mexico’s border cities strip away the mask, revealing the reality that lies underneath for all to see. If we choose to look.

In places like Canada, many of us choose precisely not to see; we prefer the comfortable certainties of the centre. Because wealthier geopolitical entities (like the so-called “first world”) relate differently to the benefits of empire than more marginal places do, the centre’s shininess can disguise the brutality that inevitably subtends imperial power. Here in Toronto, life is relatively easy (for some), the infrastructure is relatively intact (for now), and we have a safety net (in theory), and a belief that the system works and has the potential to be reasonably fair. But if we are implicated in what happens elsewhere, then the south’s drug wars and the killings in Juarez, Vancouver and Winnipeg reveal that our lives are underlain by systems of violence that are closer to home than we may wish to acknowledge.

Wolffer reminds us that we’re all implicated. By embodying the interplay between what happens in the home and what happens in the world–and by bringing this embodiment into the street, she winnows the issues down to their key elements. The spareness of her performances and interventions condenses the paradox to a single gesture: is the woman’s body alive and strong, or has it been abused or murdered?

* Deborah Root is a writer and critic interested in intersections between visual arts, cultural politics and contemporary theory. She the author of Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of Difference (Westview, 1996), and is currently based in Toronto.

Fire watcher

Strathcona is a working class neighbourhood in Vancouver. Bordering China Town, it has always been an ethnically diverse area and is home to a vibrant art community. Containing much of the city’s historical building stock it is a popular location for Hollywood film productions. The recent inflation of property values and rapid gentrification have reinforced the economic disparity of the area leading to severe political tensions. The home I was living in at the time, on Keefer St., was among the sites targeted by these attacks. In view of the conflicts between the various interest groups in the area, speculations ran wild as to the suspect’s motivations.

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These events inspired the project Fire Watcher. Self-sufficient and living off of scavenged materials, the firewatcher observes the situation as a vigilant protector. Through the eyes of this ambiguous figure the territorial feuds between property owners, residents, politicians and transients become the desperate clashes of warring survivalist factions.

Your home security and arson attempts

Please read the following e-mail written by a Blockwatch member in Strathcona. It could happen to you…

I wanted to give you and update for the Strathcona Blockwatch, I am not sure if I give you this information or someone else, if I need to forward this to someone else, please let me know. Very early this morning (Nov. 10, 2006) someone came into our yard and took our yellow recycling bags and the paper contents, as well as any flammable items from our blue bin and put a small fire under the stairs that lead up to our house. The fire was set right next to the house and only a few feet from the barbeque tank. There is minimal damage to the home, nothing structural and luckily no one was hurt. The fire inspector has taken photos and deemed this arson. People in the area should not leave any flammable recyclables outside while this person is still around.