Flying to Fish

In conversation with Jerrold McGrath

Here, Jerrold McGrath shares his thinking behind the founding of UKAI Projects: a Canada-based non-profit arts collective that uses a dialogic approach to seek answers to questions that “complicate the assumptions on which society operates.” Jerry starts by sharing with us his introduction to ukai, a fishing practice that inspired, in Jerry, a new way of engaging with knowledge and experience. Initially, his experience of ukai was limited by an unconscious binary of oppositional thinking. Rather than embracing this opportunity to observe, he instantly formed an opinion of what he was experiencing, essentially closing the door on questioning altogether. It is within this vein of curiosity that the arts collective was created. For example, the categorization of creativity is, in and of itself, fungible. To define creativity by a profession like ‘artists’ or ‘creator’ is only so relevant as the systems designed to support these professions. Jerry continues by recalling his study of Little Red Riding Hood and reframes his criticism of tautological thinking by suggesting metaphor is the more powerful tool that helps people interrogate their world and how it is ordered. As he suggests, within the retelling of this one tale, readers observe a cultural evolution of nature-as-villain to man-as-villain to the heteronormative narrative of a man as paternal savior to woman and, finally, to the narrative of self-discovery and determination that it is today. Little Red Riding Hood has lived and died as many times as the people who have told the tale. On that note, Jerry moves onto the significance of studying decay by pointing out how the current Western lens of focusing on growth and expansion narrows our collective vision from seeing what else is possible. Instead, when the focus is on decay, there is an opportunity to plan and appreciate the lifecycle of all things. Death and decay continue to guide much of Jerry’s work and, perhaps, the pandemic shed light on a more macro participation in death and decay that we can all reflect on. For example, the pandemic had us all questioning the role of ceremony as we were restricted from gathering to mourn in the name of public safety. As we elected to allow for these rituals to die, can we reflect on what arose in their wake?

Produced by the Artengine Stream Team:

Mikke Gordon aka Seiiizi https://twitter.com/s3iiizi

Ryan Stec

Kimberly Sunstrum https://www.kmbrlysnstrm.com/

 

Editorial Assistant

Erin Galt

 

Production Design Consultation

Leslie Marshall/MAVNetwork http://mavnetwork.com/

Post-Production Support: Chris Ikonomopoulos

DEL Theme Music by Mikki Gordon aka Seiiizi

 

Artengine’s Digital Economies Lab brought together a diverse group of artists, designers and other creatives to rethink the infrastructure of cultural production in the 21st century.

 

Funding for the Digital Economies Lab was received through the Canada Council for the Arts Digital Strategies Fund.

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Excerpts from conversation

I don’t really have a preference in terms of how we organize to get things done, but I think we do have a responsibility to call into question some of the assumptions that we hold about how we are organized by the systems that we’re in.

How do we create a space that doesn't privilege particular ways of knowing?

RELINQUISHING PRIVILEGE AND THE SCARCITY MINDSET

Jerrold McGrath

When you’re taking money from a group that’s forcing artists-out-of-community to create spaces for artists-in-community, there’s necessarily a tension there.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I think the challenge is that drawing attention to these recursive patterns of meaning-making can get you in a lot of trouble…

Remco Volmer

Yeah, it reminds me of the situation in Montréal, a little bit, where there is a lot of money and effort flowing into the core of the city to create a vibrant, cultural, artistic scene, whether it’s through installation works or commissioned works or festivals.

The flip side of that is that a lot of more-independent art-making artists are getting pushed, further and further, out because there is no point of entry if you are not already part of the system that is creating those opportunities.

Jerrold McGrath

I think you’ve exactly hit on it here.

There’s no incentive for those who currently have access to resources to make space.

Even if they, morally, want others to take part in this, there’s a finite number of resources.

There’s a scarcity mindset and so to allow others in can feel quite threatening. Although we see in the sector folks saying the right things

–about not wanting to support decades of oppressive systems and exclusion–

there really aren’t a lot of incentives to make room because the assumption is,

“By making that space, I will lose opportunities.”

I did some work with Dance in Canada around the Decolonizing Canadian Dance project, and it’s the same situation where we have all these forms of dance that have been excluded, mainly, because we have assumptions about what professional dance looks like:

there’s a stage,

there’s an audience,

there are tickets.

As soon as you start allowing in Bharatanatyam or other forms of culturally specific, non-Western dance, you’re putting an even greater strain

on presenting spaces,

on resources,

on training,

on mentorship.

And dance is already struggling, without an influx of new forms.

So, yes, there’s this pull, like morally, we need to be more inclusive and representative of the populations that you see in our cities and in our country, but then what happens to the opportunities that ‘I’ used to have access to.

I think that that’s a hard conversation that we’re not quite willing to have yet, mainly, because it can be very scary, especially if it happens in public.

Remco Volmer

Yeah. And then you start thinking about, let’s say, the politics of togetherness, right?

Who decides?

It’s not just ‘how’ to gather, but also ‘where’ to gather and ‘who’ is doing the gathering, that still exists within hierarchal structures rather than more of a self-organizing or a networked way of coming together.

Jerrold McGrath

Yeah. And ‘who’ holds the space where people come together, ‘who’ decides?

One of the critiques of Banff was that, even though there was a commitment to having a more diverse cohort of artists present at the institution, they were often cherry-picking prominent examples of individuals and not really supporting grassroots or emerging artists who were drawing on different cultural traditions.

That’s a challenge, particularly, when you don’t have an institutional capacity to reach communities because you’ve historically targeted a different group of folks and now, suddenly, you’re being asked to reach out to communities that you don’t have a traditional relationship with.

That’s a lot of work and sometimes organizations don’t have the commitment to exploring what those pathways actually look like.

Remco Volmer

Yeah, but even on that level and maybe we’re going too deep into the weeds here, but exactly as you say, we’re being asked. That, in itself, is already–again your own system within a larger system–a relationship of dependency where you make choices based on, basically, the people who butter your bread.

Through which motivation are you then making those changes or trying to make those changes, and can they actually take hold if you’re doing it for those reasons?

Jerrold McGrath

Well, I think being asked to doesn’t necessarily have to be an external ask.

Like, I think in my practice at least, the motivation to focus my attention on places that I haven’t traditionally focused is internally generated.

I’m being asked by the moment,

like I’m being asked by a world that is suddenly coming to terms with these systems of oppression in ways that are new,

even though the systems have been there for a very long time.

I think your point is an important one though.

We don’t always know what is motivating the shifts that organizations and individuals are undertaking. We may not ever know.

Like, I may think it’s coming from something that’s internally derived but, really, the funding system is sending out clear signals and I need to accommodate that as well if I want to persist.

 

There’s no simple explanation for the choices that we make…

That’s not really an answer, I guess. It’s just a point.

I think it’s incredibly complicated and I don’t think we live in a world that has much tolerance for complicated things right now.