The Uneasy Life by Rhonda Meier

01/25/2013

Knowledge.  Who has it?  How is it defined, and valued?  And by whom?   Building on previous dialogical projects with street-involved people,  Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone elicit these questions and others in their collaborative installation, Living in Ten Easy Lessons

For this project the artists approached ten women at a Toronto shelter, asking to be instructed in a skill that the women have mastered, found especially useful, or simply wanted to share.[1] Recorded on video, these ‘lessons,’ as Duvall and Kingstone call them, reverse the usual ‘pedagogical’ position within the social services power dynamic of caseworker-client.  Instead of clients, victims, or people with ‘problems’ who need help, the women are carriers of valuable information which Duvall or Kingstone (interviews are one-on-one) intently absorb.

Playing on the book publishing phenomena of the Idiot’s Guides and Ten Easy Lessons series,[2] it nonetheless becomes apparent that the skills transmitted are likely unfamiliar to broader, more privileged, upper and middle class audiences. 

Similar to the women-instructors themselves, the purposes that the skills serve are not identified, but can be deduced—drug dealing, pan handling, sex work.  Other skills are linked to survival:  how to deal with clients as a transgendered person, how to get drunk without having to pay, how to avoid the pressure to share the money when your cheque comes in.

Watching the short video segments, I find it evident that the women-instructors find the experience of sharing their skills to be positive.  Duvall and Kingstone are respectful, and interested, validating and affirming the value of the women’s knowledge.[3]  This affirmation is further reinforced by the artists’ self-publishing of a booklet available to exhibition visitors.  Within it, each of the lesson’s main points are distilled into numbered ‘tips’ and given tangible, permanent substance.

It must be said that Duvall and Kingstone are extremely aware of the complexities of their collaboration, and have not created a didactic project.  They have left gaps, open-ended spaces for interpretation, and infused Living in Ten Easy Lessons with several subtle, ironies.  In fact, the title itself is ironic, or illusory–how can navigating the wretched, grievous, and harrowing demands of life on the street be reduced to a mere ten lessons?[4]  And how could those lessons be learned ‘easily?’[5]

The final component of the exhibition is a series of wall-plastered posters in obviously precise, careful patterns, but almost recalling agit-prop or street postering.  Each is a video extract featuring a single useful tip—‘Always put two on girls,’ or ‘Lie. Deny. Act Surprised.’  That these posters hold the potential to provoke controversy is not surprising; this work makes many individuals uncomfortable for many reasons.  Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone’s work transgresses social boundaries of visibility and power surrounding who and what can be represented in the public sphere.  Living in Ten Easy Lessons fosters a situation where there are no easy answers, only the beautiful opportunity to confront ones own presumptions and prejudices, and ask more deeply-considered questions. 

 

 

Rhonda Meier is an independent curator, writer, and editor.  Beginning with her M.A. (Art History) at Concordia University, much of her practice has focused on anti-oppression, decolonization, and contemporary First Nations art production. She has worked as an educator at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and published writing in Canadian Art, C Magazine, and Changing Hands (Museum of Arts and Design, New York).

 

 

[1] Being trade secrets of a kind, other individuals who practice similar occupations may find this sharing, or divulging of knowledge in the ‘lessons’ problematic. Thanks to Jenn Claman for this observation.

[2] The Ten Easy Lessons series professes to teach amateurs, in no more than ten lessons how to play bridge, bookkeep, become a Buddhist, or draw.  The musically-inclined or curious can purportedly learn how to play the piano, guitar, harmonica, or saxophone.  

[3] As the artists have remarked, within the context of interventionist or ‘support’ services, the sharing of such tips or practices is often suppressed or discouraged.  They write:  ‘within the shelter system many classes for skills building are offered.  But the skills that these women already possess are ignored, and even discouraged.’  Linda Duvall and Peter Kingstone, Proposal letter to articule, 29 nov., 2011. 

[4] Stephen W. Hwang, Canadian Medical Association Journal 164 (2): 231.   Hwang cites a 1998 Montreal study which found that mortality for female street youth was 31 times higher than that of their counterparts in the general populace.

[5] ‘Living’ then, takes on a more literal connotation than that belied by the stereotypes of bourgeois leisure and edification of the ‘Easy Lessons’ book series, or even that of someone (perhaps myself) visiting an art gallery on a lazy Saturday before meeting a friend for coffee.

 

Participating artists: 
Rhonda Meier
Credits: 
Image : Guy L'Heureux

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