The Winnipeg Effect: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
The Winnipeg Art Gallery, November 3-5, 2016
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan: Why Winnipeg?
LM: Should you stay or should you go? Both. Everyone should leave home, at least for awhile. Do you want to run into kids from high school throughout your entire life? No. We all need to reinvent ourselves without an audience. We need to experience the act of becoming on our own terms, without the spectatorship (and advice and control) of those who have a vested interest in who we DO become. Escape can mean survival, potential, choosing oneself. So by all means, go.
Because Winnipeg is landlocked, leaving is easy. Just keep walking. Pull up stakes. Beyond the Perimeter there are other possibilities, ad infinitum. And if you want to come back, Winnipeg will be here for you. It's not going away. Decades of almost zero growth means the Winnipeg you return to will eerily resemble the Winnipeg you left. You'll realize that you haven't missed much.
SD: Or stay if you like. Embrace the high school cheerleader and football captain! Invite them to your shows. Sell them your artworks. They are just people now. We all are just people in Winnipeg. That is one of the reasons why those who do stay, do stay.
Lorri and I are of neither camp: neither leavers nor stayers. We came. We chose Winnipeg in 1988, refugees from Toronto, escaping big-city crippling rents. Three of our four parents were prairie people, so the concept of the middle (or the middle of nowhere, as our Toronto friends thought) was not altogether foreign. But actually living here was a different story. Winnipeg's particularities and idiosyncrasies continually assaulted us, leaving us at turns confused, amazed and enchanted. It was, we realized, a different place. We never intended to stay here. But over time this city became simply A PLACE, and then OUR PLACE. We were already here. One has to live somewhere. And this somewhere has allowed us to make our art.
LM: That is not a small thing, allowing us to make art. Making art is excruciatingly painful (the vulnerability, the self-doubt) and economically suicidal. So when we say Winnipeg allowed us to make art, we are thanking Winnipeg. But wait! That's not all! Winnipeg also allowed or gave us many other things; allowed and gave us artmaking and more!
We're going to be talking up here for awhile. And while we do, we are going to randomly scroll through a selection of artworks by Winnipeggers that evoke the city, past and present. Some
are from a series of exhibits we curated in the 00s and others are simply works we admire. Winnipeg artwork is why we are all here, and as always inevitably more interesting that anything that we might say. Thanks to all of the artists for granting us permission to show their images of Winnipeg by Winnipeggers.
SD: So how can we begin to break down the Winnipeg Effect? This is an oddly self-conscious question. Why is "Why Winnipeg?" a question at all? Why not? But since it is posed and we are all here, we will attempt to address it from our experience.
LM: Cheap rent was what brought us here and may be the single, biggest factor that helps us to remain. That is how cheap we are. That is how we know we have become true Winnipeggers, we are ever in search of a bargoon. The effects of cheap rent are two-fold
When we moved here, it never occurred to us we could have a studio until Wanda Koop offered to help us look for one. We were confused and almost affronted by the kind gesture, and said, "But we make work in our living room." Getting out of our living room was a huge breakthrough. In Winnipeg, we have been able to afford to rent a studio: a place to make our work, to leave our work lying around, to store our work. Cheap rent afforded us time to create, time to dream. Without the cheap rent of Winnipeg, we would not have had the literal space to make what we have made. It enabled our practice to expand, conceptually and materially.
SD: It also meant financial stability for us, something that is rare and precious for artists who don't come from wealth. Cheap real estate, relative to other Canadian cities, meant that we could buy houses. Meant that Lorri and her partner could afford to have a child. Meant that we could be full-time artists without other jobs for 16 years and still have some sort of equity. Cheap real estate has been the sum total of our retirement plans, and what will keep us from being poor, old women.
LM: But there is also another function of space, this flat and brightly lit space. We can travel 20 minutes outside of the city, look around and can see almost 10 kilometers in any direction that's how flat it is. As far as the eye can see. We marvel at the length of our shadow, even at noon on a winter's day, almost three times our height. Here on this prairie, sometimes we feel like the tallest thing within sight. This place-this space-has allowed us to take up space in a particular way.
We are humbled by the vastness around us, but not to the point where we doubt the reasons to make a mark, a gesture, to write a word. This is a geographic space that can contain all of our mark-making, all of our meaning-making, without ever feeling crowded. There is psychic room to create: it is a vast blank, primed canvas. Not emptiness, but fertile space that asks to be filled, yet can never be filled up.
SD: The corollary to this rich, open space is open time.
No longer are our social calendars booked weeks in advance, with 45-minute get-togethers with friends, as they were in Toronto. Of course everyone in this room is busy. But there is room in each day to think, to wonder. There is room in each day to be connected to each other, to friends, to family.
Cheap rents and real estate may sound like a trite Winnipeg cliché, but they change the way we live. Relative to other cities, they buy us time that allow us to live. They help to ground our artwork in the lived, in life.
LM: This abundance of time also impacts community. Again, when we first arrived from Ontario, we were shocked that people would talk to us, at length, at bus stops. Not every day, but sometimes. There was an easiness in sharing time. There simply is more time in Winnipeg. And having more time in each day means we have more time to help each other. To borrow some language from the great Winnipeg cultural theorist Jeanne Randolph, the ethics of scarcity that dominates the Western World doesn't quite dominate Winnipeg. We have time to be generous.
So many of you have participated in Shawna and I's hair-brained art schemes, have been available at a moment's notice to put on a bandana and dance like crazy for one of our videos or to help us move a space capsule into our studio in the dead of winter. You have facilitated our artmaking by being available, by having the time and inclination, to help. We could not have made the work we have made in the past 28 years without you. And we hope that we have helped you in return. By working together, we get more art done here.
This sense of community, this sense that, as a Winnipeg artist, I do not need to hoard information or opportunities or even authorship, has a historical underpinning.
SD: The Canadian West has always existed in opposition. It is not "The West" of American mythmaking. Nor is it the East, the seat of power, formerly known as two halves of a whole Upper and Lower Canada which are now erroneously called Central Canada. No, this is "out" west, outside of the action, an appended region, peripheral. As such, it has afforded the potential to do things a little differently. To construct systems a little differently.
The Canadian Colonial West attracted people with nothing to lose, who either thrived or were crushed. Anarchists, Dukabours, free-thinkers, Hutterites, Jews, Icelanders, Ukrainians, Irish, Mormons, polygamists, proto-feminists . Most arrived with next to nothing, and eked out the leanest of existences. A few prospered. Many, rich or poor, devoted themselves to utopic dreams.
We all know the historical facts, but still they are inspiring. The first Canadian women to win the right to vote were Manitobans, in 1916. Activists of diverse backgrounds organized the most significant action in Canadian labour history, the Winnipeg General Strike, in 1919. Three farmer-owned wheat "pools", or co-operatives, were founded to collectively market and trade grain in 1923. Et cetera. Et cetera.
But of course this culture is also marked by a much older history, and a vital, contemporary reality: Indigeneity.
LM: By the late 1800s, it is estimated that First Nations and Metis populations in the Canadian West had been decimated by as much as 90%. Now, 120 years later, Winnipeg is proudly home to the largest urban Indigenous population in Canada, who are also the fastest growing Winnipeg population. With resilience and resistance, the Indigenous community has not only grown, but flourishes.
SD: As a newcomer to Winnipeg I was struck by the generosity of Indigenous culture. Despite being repeatedly lied to, swindled, raped and murdered by Colonial imperatives that priorized whiteness and capitalism, Indigenous culture remains a giving culture. Indigenous culture shares its profound traditional knowledge. Working on Main Street every day, I witnesss Indigenous culture humanely, generously at work despite the most debasing circumstances. Indigeneity informs the ethos of the city; Indigeneity IS this city. Indigeneity has contributed immeasurably to what we think of as the generous, sharing, non-competitive, non-heirarchical Winnipeg art community.
LM: The ground on which we stand is blood soaked, and we all know it. I had a friend visiting from Ontario just after MacLeans' Magazine released its cover story, naming Winnipeg as the Most Racist City in Canada. As we walked to the Human Rights Museum through a brisk autumn snow squall, she said, "Poor Winnipeg. It has such poverty and challenges. And now to be named as the most racist city " To which I said, "It is just as it should be. Only Winnipeg has the resources to deal with racism in a real, deep and meaningful way. This conversation has to start here. This is our conversation to have. We can lead the country on this. Yes, it is a racist city, a racist country. Winnipeg, perhaps more than anywhere, has the history and will and need to change that."
At many times throughout Canada's history, when something needed to get done, Winnipeg did it. And no doubt we didn't do many things, too, screwed up many things. But overall, this is a place where people have done the work, and that work has included making art. This is a place where people have made necessary change.
There is something about the harshness of Winnipeg that is both compelling and disturbing, like an open wound. We talk about the woodshedding that artists engage in in winter, but it is also people freezing to death, it is also the worst effects of Colonialism. We have to shoulder it. There is no other place where histories collide so obviously, so painfully.
We have two histories here. And we have some examples of a third way. We don't have any choice BUT to engage with questions of race and racism. It is our historical legacy, our present and our future as all Winnipeggers, but as artists (as people who can imagine new ways of being) in particular.
SD: Lorri mentioned the weather in a talk about Winnipeg how could we not! As many have suggested, perhaps it is the merciless temperatures that inspire people to work together here. Perhaps it is the peculiar mix of cultures that have settled here (Filipinos and Mennonites, together at last!) Or perhaps the great distances between points A and B, even within our city, great stretches of vacant land, surface parking deserts, a landscape of overwhelming loneliness, that inspires collectivism.
That said, this willingness to work together is matched by a seemingly contradictory trait: flagrant idiosyncrasy. Is that, too, the result of the weather? Does the cold, dark winter drive us all a bit batshit crazy? Or is it the bigness of the space we inhabit. Perhaps we can be big here, our unbridled selves. Like the territory itself, we can be oppositional (off-centre) and at the same time not fully defined. We are a marginal people in a marginal region in a marginal country. We have long since fallen off the page of global trends and consciousness. We can do whatever the heck we like. No one in the big international art world is watching.
LM: And probably no one in Winnipeg is watching, either! No one has ever said to Shawna and I, "Who do you think you are? How dare you presume to write a book? To curate? To read people's fortunes?" Et cetera. This place encouraged us to explore interdisciplinarity. This place almost demanded inter-artform collaborations with theatre people, musicians, dancers. This place allowed us to participate in the growth and maintenance of art centres. This place employed us to curate exhibitions.
Maybe it is Winnipeg's smaller size, but the disciplines are less silo-ed and the borders of all disciplines more porous. Crafts people work with neuroscientists. Photographers become painters become performance artists. Interdisciplinarity is the norm. We once said that if we wanted to create a lesbian opera in Winnipeg, it would be one phone call away. Larry Desrochiers, Director of Manitoba Opera heard this and challenged, "So call me!" People are less intent on guarding their turf and more interested in helping to make something happen. And we all know that if we don't make things happen here, they simply don't.
SD: Similarly, everyone is treated more or less the same. There aren't wannabes, stars or has beens. We all shop at the same Safeways. This isn't a place to live if you want constant ego stroking. It IS a place to live if you don't want to be made to feel like a loser. We all have those voices in our heads anyway. Who needs them out in the world? We all just let each other do our work, and recognize each other for the work we make. Not how much it sells for. Not where it has been shown. Not who has written about it. We respect each other for doing the work itself. We respect each other for making this place, this place.
LM: And speaking of the work, many people have asked a question beyond, "Why Winnipeg?" Curators and critics around the world have frequently asked, "Why is there such interesting art coming out of Winnipeg?" In answer we could say all of the above. But maybe the most significant answer would be, as Shawna just said, "No one is watching." We can be unselfconscious. We can invent the wheel over and over again if we like: we have the time and space and some arts council funding to do it. We can play. We can be silly. We can get it magnificently wrong. And sometimes, one of us comes up with a new wheel. A wheel no one has thought about before. A wheel that makes us question all of the wheels that have come before.
SD: And THEN word gets out. THEN the larger art world notices. Someone is making something beautiful and strange in Winnipeg. To site but a few examples from our past and present, it happens through commercial galleries (like the Other, Actual, Guervich and Lisa Kehler), and Winnipeg art boosters (like Mary Reid, Wayne Baerwaldt and Jon Tupper), and the artist-run centre network (as Steve Loft said, the national visual art nervous system), and publications (like Border Crossings and Smorder Schmossings) and writers (like Sigrid Dahle and Steven Leyden Cochrane) and by people leaving (like Marcel Dzama and Laura Letinsky) and people returning (like Sarah Anne Johnson and Karel Funk). We have created some of the most exciting Canadian artists in the past 50 years, in spite of or because of all of these reasons.
LM: Which brings us to the present and the future, where the question is: what exactly are we doing? How do we want to be in this place? If our position "outside" allows us to choose our identity, who do we want to be?
It is doubtful that the collectivism of our past can survive the comforts of the 21st century, supplied by increasingly individualistic, increasingly isolating technologies and consumer capitalism. The global information network makes it much easier to communicate with an old friend in Thailand, via Facebook, text, Tweets, Skype or email, than the neighbour down the block. So is it possible or even desirable for regionality to endure? The computer SpellCheck function wants to change the word "regionality" to "rationality". A sign of
the times. Regionality may no longer make sense. The historic heart of the polis, the agora, has been both exponentially expanded and shrunk to the intimate scale of our hand-held devices. Landscape is now
something we view on a screen. Culture is mass media. As an idea, the geographic region now seems like an archaic designation. Is it simply where our bodies eat, sleep and sometimes make art?
SD: Perhaps. But the needs of our bodies remain very real. The material conditions (time and space, labour and economics) under which we create changes things. And our bodies also demand that we leave the house from time to time. Even if we have virtual communities that sustain us, niche cultures that inspire us, isn't it nice to run into Guy Maddin and Natalie Pollock in the same isle of an all-night Shoppers Drug Mart at the same time?
Many if not most Winnipeg artists are intensely passionate about this place and actively in dialogue with it through their art and activism. Throughout the past decades there have no shortage of civic art actions, ranging from Mike Olito's proposal for a spruce hockey arena to KC Adams Perception series picturing Indigenous stereotypes and self-definitions. Winnipeg artists have doggedly documented, illuminated, critiqued and provided vision for this city, in all media, in forums both within and outside of the art world, for decades. Artists have participated in and indeed led non-art-related debates around issues such as "youth-at-risk" (I think of Praba Pilar's decolonizing workshops at Ndinawe and Wanda Koop's founding of Art City), the preservation of historic buildings (such as the Save the Eaton's Building Coalition) and the creation of public space (like Louis Bako's South Point Douglas boat launch.)
LM: In other places one can pretend that art is separate from life. But one cannot lay back and be an art consumer here. You have to make art happen here. You have to work with others to make anything happen here. And what we DO make is as peculiar as any busload of Winnipeggers. Media and styles all over the map. Not driven by who you know, where your career is going. Just doing it, finding meaning, having a thoughtful practice, knowing that all else will (or won't) follow.
The stories we tell visitors about this place are surreal in nature: the dangers of waiting for a bus at forty below, breath collecting as ice crystals on eyelashes freezing the eyes shut, and grocery bags that shatter, like fine china, in arctic temperatures. What we are saying with these tales is that Winnipeg not only threatens frostbite, but challenges physical laws of the universe. In Winnipeg, anything can happen.
Perhaps it is these specific difficulties and AND possibilities that draw artists like us to Winnipeg, that draw other artists back or that keeps them here.
SD: In Winnipeg, we have chosen a lively place to make art instead of a lively art scene. We are art farmers, driven by a strange combination of pragmatism and esprit de corps. Skeptical about the cultural weather. Not counting our chickens. But doing the work, even when it is hard, even when there's losses. And doing it together, because it needs to be done.
LM: We share space and time and community and experience. Our senses tell us that the sky and wind
are more real than the ground beneath our feet. We struggle to wake up in the dark. There is complete silence. We walk towards a low-hung sun and let its light blurs our edges. We shovel snow. We can see the past and the future in the curve of the earth.