28 July 2012

SHEROES - Dialogue between Rea, Lorna & Andrew

We continue our post series on SHEROES, the monthly Toronto art event series that began in July 2011 and has curated on and offline works that playfully and performatively explore the iconography and fan culture surrounding the “League of Legendary Ladies.”
In the first part of our series, we published an essay by David Balzer called “Is She a Snob?, an account of the series and its “vortex of gleeful, deconstructing snobbery”. Forthcoming will be interviews with some of participating artists in Virtual Season. 
In our second part, we have below a condensed and edited email dialogue between Sheroes founder Rea McNamara, GIF art curator/participating artist Lorna Mills , and participating artist Andrew Benson. See more;

I. On “Mythic Woman Power” 

ANDREW BENSON (AB): I feel as an artist involved with Sheroes for some time that it is something that always revealing itself in new ways, like its defiance of easy classification leads me to constantly develop my own perceptions of it. The "snob" stuff is good to consider, but I have to say that I see it in a totally different view.
Do either of you want to talk about how Sheroes itself is experienced from different angles and through different media and how that relates back to this whole thing about fandom being a collaboration with the celebrity that ultimately creates our understanding of the celebrity?

LORNA MILLS (LM): Looking at Sheroes from different angles is pertinent, because at the beginning I told Rea that we shouldn't document the events so much as mythologize them. (A photographer told me once that mythologizing artwork was what you did when you documented it.) 

REA MCNAMARA (RM): I do like that “fuckyeahsheroes” was often very “fuckyeahlornamills”. 
And even though "herstory" & "sheroes" & "mythic woman power" makes her cringe, she’ll still talk your ear off about a Virago Modern Classic

LM: Yes, “fuckyeahlornamills” worked out quite nicely for me. (And the dear Victorian and Edwardian Hens, who wrote all the novels reprinted by Virago Press, would never have used those goddessy terms.) 

But now you’ve touch upon my snobbery by taunting me with campy 70's feminist-speak. 
RM: Andrew and I actually had a gchat about that "herstory" playfulness. I had related to him the number of times I'd been asked if Sheroes was an "all-woman" effort; he talked about how we'd managed to avoid the "sticky and sometimes ugly gender-political stuff". 

LM: I kind of thought the presumption that all the Sheroes participants were female showed an amazing lack of imagination. 

The sticky and sometimes ugly gender-political stuff was avoided because no one wanted to participate in a mono-culture; with that in mind, cultivating a wide variety of artists and performers came naturally. 

But it wasn't just about gender. Other classifications were broken down in terms of identity. The GIF artists really were as international as I could find and the age & exhibition experience of the artists covered a wide range. 

Nothing is more pleasurable than to ignore a current artificial hierarchy.

RM: Lorna, I love that. "Current artificial hierarchy". The Sheroes Stan residency definitely came out of that. 

LM: As a whole, all the Sheroes events were queer-friendly, racially mixed and damn sexy. And considering the cultural mix of the city we are based in, how could they not be? 

That said, the project is also very much about gender without leaving out men or leaving out women. 

RM: The Toronto-ness is a meta layer. I always like bringing up Will Munro & Vazaleen

We've been lucky with Sheroes in being booked at venues that had a reputation for being inclusive queer-friendly spaces. (And straight up: the gays loved Sheroes before anyone else did!) 

I do think it's worth pointing out though that we still have issues around racially-mixed events happening in Toronto. While it's definitely a diverse city, do enough events happen where you see that intermingling, especially within the arts & culture community? I don't necessarily think so. Toronto Arts Council only implemented a cultural equity policy in the early 1990s, so there's a complicated history there in terms of representation and support for particular practices. 

LM: WTF? Are we not post-racial??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? (Well, that amused me.) 

II. On Fandom 

RM: I think a lot about how the open space we created with Sheroes was akin to participatory online spaces like slash & fan fiction communities. 

Take the whole canon/fanon thing that's at the heart of many fandoms. A lot of the transformative works you'll find come from this process where seemingly individual, private yearnings for a canon (the original source material) produce these fannish works that, alongside other fannish works, create a better version of that favourite show/film/book/etc. This then created the "fanon" — the "fan canon" where fan-created facts are accepted as canon by the fandom. 

Does that make Sheroes a fandom? We brought together a seemingly disparate group, and presented them in such a way — with the pomp and pageantry of goddessy terms — that created a fannish-like narrative. 
AB: I like the relationship to fandom that you talk about, but I think one thing that is pretty interesting about Sheroes is that often you have artists with very little relationship with a celebrity's image or work contributing. It's sort of posing as the actions of fans, but really it's something else, or maybe it's positioned as fandom. 

There were a few Legendary Ladies that I wasn't that familiar with, TBH, like Dusty and to some extent Etta , so part of the assignment for me was the research that went into it. Even ones that I'm really a fan of (Yoko , Nina , Dolly ) I spend a lot of time researching on YouTube and Google image searches and Wikipedia.
LM: True, the fandom wasn't always genuine. There were a few legendary ladies that I couldn't have cared less about, but even if I was a fan, I still had to look for some sort of way my work could enter into the stream. That's why I was easy-going about submissions not being literal. I would have hated the project if everyone submitted portraits. 

RM: Madonna was a "difficult" Shero for me. Early on, a few of the Sheroes were chosen based on speculation around which Shero would bring the ppl out. (Apologies if this punctures any mythologizing efforts!) 

AB: I'm SHOCKED. But really, I suppose it's important to always remember that this thing wasn't just a conceptual feminist art project but also had to function as an event that people actually showed up to. Had to have a little appeal to the rest of the world. 

IV. On “Sexiness” (part I) 

RM: Why's the "sexiness" so important? What was it about that quality that drew in the GIF artists? How has the exhibition of the GIFs at Sheroes events been different from any other exhibitions? (Ie. BYOB , Speed Shows , etc.) 
LM: The sexiness is refreshing. Outside of some queer art practises in this city, anyway, there's still a lot of passive-aggressive minimalism with an exalted sense of its own importance, purity and rigor (plus the delusion that it’s original). I'd rather sleep on a bed of nails. Real BYOB events, where a bunch of young artists ACTUALLY bring their own projectors, can have the same sense of occasion as Sheroes, but obviously we are thematic and an integral part of something bigger. 

As for what draws in all the good GIF artists, I can't be sure. I was so surprised at how it snowballed from six or seven artists to 30. Treating it as an organized crew of artists rather than a different curated group show each month was easier for me. The excitement we generated for each other, each month, as we started to post our new GIFs was pretty infectious. 

AB: The relationship to other on/offline shows of internet artists is interesting. Many of these shows seem to me to function as an establishment of boundaries around a particular clique of Internet Artists. I guess this is what Lorna is referring to with her "current artificial hierarchy" comment. Sheroes might be just as cliquish (the Facebook group ?), but it seems like it's running on a different logic. 

LM: I was concerned about Sheroes GIF artists appearing cliquish. And that's a risk when you work with a regular crew. But I was always happy to hear from people who wanted to take part, especially if they came out of left field with great work I had never seen before. 

AB: I'm curious how strategic you guys were in who you invited to join in. Or was it just a friends of friends kinda thing? 

LM: Initially the invitations went out to artists that we were connected with on social media and who we thought might say yes. (That sort of thing is important, as we didn't want to deal with rejection). 

The only strategy I employed (that I'll admit to) is that this whole thing was a great opportunity to connect with artists I admired and to find out about younger artists who hadn't received much attention. The fact that almost everyone from the beginning wanted to continue contributing, shaped how this ended up being organized. 

AB: I like what you said about it being an excuse to meet and get to know some artists. I feel like the monthly rounds of contribution really got me acquainted with a bunch of really cool people, and had me paying more attention to people I was already aware of, because they would pull out some random thing that showed a whole other side of them or their methods. 

LM: My regret is that I'm now finding out about some more really good artists who would have loved to be involved. I wish I had known sooner. 

V. On “Sexiness” (part II) 

AB: To respond to Rea's earlier question about "sexiness" — I think it's hard to have an honest celebration/exhumation/invocation of female celebrities without dealing with the "sexy". 

I tend to think a lot about drag in relationship to Sheroes for whatever reason: the overt performance of absurd and at times disturbing sexiness, or some sort of mimicry of it. 

Dolly Parton, for that reason, was the ultimate Shero for me. 

LM: It’s all about drag and otherliness. 

RM: Drag and otherliness and Dolly were revelations. I felt like we were at a point where everyone was comfortable with the space that was created. The works by Manuel Fernández and Rollin Leonard in particular seem especially emblematic of that. I really enjoyed the work-in-progress jpegs folks shared. 

In fact, the “work in progress” tag was something I felt you actually kinda started, Andrew. 

AB: I guess maybe I did start the process screenshot thing, but that's sort of something I always just do now and then. I have this sort of superstition about my working process, where enough things have crashed or been accidentally deleted or hard drive busting where I often pull screenshots from whatever I'm working on. There's a really fleeting quality to a lot of things that I do, especially the more experimental video and programming stuff, so I have made a real discipline of constantly taking screenshots and doing recordings of whatever is happening in case that's the last I see of it. 

Anyways, that's how I started making GIFs in the first place, actually. 

RM: I really enjoyed the open process. It was like doing a residency, but instead of talking over breakfast or dinner the status of your written work or art piece, you'd see an image in the FB group or on G+. That kept me going with the documentation. I really enjoyed the generosity folks had with their artistic process, especially from the more established artists. 

AB: Sheroes really felt like a communal thing sometimes, and I was part of a conversation with other people struggling to meet their responsibilities. My favorite example was Rollin Leonard's painstaking struggle to do Dolly drag. It was obvious that someone had to do it, and felt like it was such a great morale thing to watch that take place. 

I work really hard on Sheroes things (partially because I'm procrastinating on other big scary projects and I'm a workaholic), but it's really cool that you can sense there are all these different levels of intensity that people treat Sheroes with, and it all has a place. The conversation around Youtube videos, process shots, and later on the Stan contributions really took it deeper for me. I liked that it felt like the conversation got started on G+ but then moved around to different online spaces (Tumblr, Facebook) and how the different spaces created different conversations. 

VI. On Being “An Event” 

AB: I sort of wish more art things functioned in these hybrid spaces. Are there any other ways where it being an (IRL) event created specific constraints? 

RM: There's an ease to the online aspect — the Tumblr, the interactions, screen shooting those interactions, capturing the process & work that occurred — that isn't there for IRL. It is an event that needs to be "sexy" the same way that the Shero has to be for their mainstream. Which is funny, because the IRL is the operating theatre that makes these performances, event GIFs, videos, etc. exist. It's the spectacle. 

That being said, the limitations and the hybrid space that was created definitely was the equivalent, of say, punk's three chords or that experience of being in an after-hours at 5 in the morning. When everything aligned — great performances, willing participants, good chunes, seizure-inducing GIFs, etc. — it was really magical. 

Follow the SHEROES post series at http://www.triangulationblog.com/search/label/sheroes