Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Interview with Suzanne Carte featuring Heather Cassils, Francisco-Fernando Granados and Rashaad Newsome

By Kate Barry

In 1999, I curated an exhibition at Emily Carr University in the Concourse gallery titled, Illicit 
Delights to investigate the question, why queer art? I am still contemplating this question in 2014 since the queer art movement has proven its ability for expression outside of rigid gender and identity norms of contemporary society, or outside of what Michael Warner has coined as hetronormativity. This month Performance Art13 further discusses the idea of queer art, affect and socially engaged art practices from the perspective of Toronto based curator Suzanne Carte. Carte joined me in conversation last month to discuss artists Heather Cassils as the resident of Creative Campaigning: Performance as Resistance Series, Francisco-Fernando Granados at World Pride, and Rashaad Newsome’s upcoming spring exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. 

Francisco-Fernando Granados, Study for true colours, 2014

KB: I am wondering if you could touch upon what curating queer culture might mean in terms of your interests in affect and socially engaged art practice?

SC: Queerness is around me. I participate in it, contribute to it, and am drawn to it. I am dedicated to creating a platform for discursive, experimental, and performative education for and with artists. That usually means reimagining and reinterpreting what models are already out there and manipulating them - essentially queering them.

Not all of the queer artists that I work with are solely dedicated to LGBTTIQQ2S equity issues, but do participate in social justice activism. In working on campus with AGYU, I strive to give opportunities to students to learn from and alongside artists on how to effectively mobilize and harness anti-oppressive actions and language through art. By making art and activism synonymous perhaps it can assist to build future leaders who think creatively and respond innovatively to adversity and conflict.

Art has long been a form of resistance against oppressive forces. Within moments of great political upheaval and social change there is a place for artistic intervention to uncover injustices and discover shared aims. Learning from LGBTTIQQ2A artists’ movements, youth activists can understand how addressing power through cultural production is a viable means in pursuing a political or social end. I hope that through collaborative projects students can question and examine what it means to be an activist and how to communicate to an audience and/or opposition with new strategies, queer strategies.

Heather Cassils Fast Twitch// Slow Twitch, video still, Heather Cassils, 2011

KB: There are many facets of art and queer culture for us to discuss here, where to begin... As the Assistant Curator at AGYU your focus on the role of activism is especially engaging in light of York University's rule forbidding mass gatherings on campus (i.e. protesting).  Can you tell me about your choice of artist Heather Cassils for Creative Campaigning: Performance as Resistance Series and their relationship to politics and socially engaged art?

SC: When I get excited about an artist the first thing I think is, “more people need to see this!” That’s what I felt when I saw Cassils’ Fast Twitch/Slow Twitch in LA during the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions and immediately knew that I wanted to bring their work to the students at York. Excited by the strength and physical presence of Cassils, I was curious to see how a performance could take shape by connecting the direct engagement of social action with that of corporeal action. Cassils has since challenged me to think of exertion as both the effort of the body and energy of an idea.

We are in the construction stage of the piece now building partnerships with the Department of Fine Arts, Kinesiology, Dance and Social Work, as well as student organizations under the umbrella of the York Federation of Students (YFS). The students will be able to draw on Cassils physically demanding performance methodologies to infiltrate the public spaces of the Keele campus, thereby creating a place to vocalize concerns and activate movement.

Visiting Artist Heather Cassils, Info Sharing Session with student leaders, Feb 7, 2014 

The performance will concentrate on the areas of the York campus that are still available for mass gathering. We are still in negotiation as to what the performance can be and how to work in collaboartion and consultation with the students, but Cassil has expressed interest in divising an action where participants will run the periphery of the sanctioned space highlighting its silencing force. Ability to voice concerns through traditional means of public protest has been removed by the university’s administration over the past five years. The University’s student paper Excalibur recently published an article lamenting the decline of student activism and suggested that it was in direct correlation to the corporatization of York. It stated that, York University was once an open institution that was used as a safe space to express different views, but unfortunately, the university's administration has made clear their views on protests and the consequences the students will face if participating in such activities. While activism may be dormant on our campus, it isn't dead. Frustrated youth activists will be able to change the administered zone into a positive space through physically moving around it.

The project is still a work in progress but already has proven to challenge both of us, which is always the most exciting part. 

KB: Heather Cassils’ AGYU residency that supports new modes of student mobilization in light of the Draconian laws at York University is very exciting.  Next, can you tell me what is AGYU doing for World Pride this year?

SC: The project that AGYU is embarking on for WorldPride this year is with Francisco-Fernando Granados. The commissioned piece is asking individuals coming together to support Pride, “What are your true colours?” Granados invites us to re-imagine the palette of the queer flags by filling in the stripes with colour combinations of our choice. The accumulation of the flags will be the basis of a community banner to be seen by millions on the parade route. Both as a work of abstraction and relational process the project, true colours, aims to create an open-ended visual experience that evokes the incalculable multiplicity of queerness.  The project was born out of the students’ theme United We Are Different for the York@WorldPride festivities where is directed Granados to redirect focus back to the roots of Pride activism. I invited Granados because he has a history of producing politically aggressive work and understood that as a professor and community mentor he would be able to work collectively with multiple student groups. I knew that he would be able to see beyond the glitter and feather boas (as the usual tropes of Pride) and push to get at the heart of queer courage and celebration.  The student activists have responded to his grassroots working methodologies. The LGBTQ+ undergrads on campus and student leaders are extremely sophisticated in the way in which they present ideas and form alliances. I have learned a lot from them through the collaboration and working process. What they need are accomplices, not apathetic allies.  With projects such as Creative Campaigning and true colours I hope to prove that we can be just that.

Rashaad Newsome, still image from Shade Compositions, performance, SFMoMA, 2012.

KB: It will be refreshing to see Fernando Granados’ activist flags at Pride this year.  
Lastly, I would like to touch upon the work of New York City based artist Rashaad Newsome. I definitely had that ‘more people must see this!’ feeling when I saw his video Shade Compositions. I feel in love with Newsome's work right away, it’s sensuous, playful and cutting at the same time.  Can you tell me what excites you the most about Newsome’s upcoming spring exhibition at AGYU?

SC: The endless possibilities are the most exciting right now. Newsome has so much performance documentation to review and edit from recent projects at The Drawing Centre (New York) and Headlands Center for the Arts (California) an upcoming one at steirischer herbst (Graz), a multidisciplinary festival.  For him the video is a work in itself not secondary to the performance or acting solely as a document. The dancers perform for the camera and the audience simultaneously.

Shade Compositions is a perfect example of that duality. Featuring a choir of women and queer men of colour throwing shade, the performance is choral experience for the live audience and translates (through high production quality of the documentation) into a cinematic experience for the future audience. The work exemplifies the distinctive celebratory tone of Newsome’s practice. Whether it is rejoicing in the Black vernacular or observing queer African American culture it is done with pride from an insiders prospective.

Not afraid to take on new challenges, Newsome operates seamlessly from the subculture of gay voguing to the hyper heterosexual world of hip-hop.  The Conductor mixes clips of gesticulating hands and beats from rap videos with the music of Carl Orff’s epic cantata Carmina Burana.  Newsome culled a roster of Hip Hop heavyweights, featuring Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, and the Notorious B.I.G., from the top played hits on New York radio stations. It becomes a contemporary history document providing a snapshot of a distinct moment in the ever-fluid and fickle music scene.

The first two parts played in MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition in 2010 and he is currently editing another two that utilize the same crowd-sourcing methodology to identify the artists that are producing popular hip hop today. We are discussing the full installation potentially for the AGYU exhibition.  It will definitely create a fierce sonic explosion in the gallery.  

Also exciting - It will be the first time that his work will be shown in Canada too but really the most thrilling part of any exhibition is getting a chance to meet and learn from another artist.  Rashaad Newsome has already educated me on the art of the “death drop” as he catalogued moves from dancers in the New York ballroom scene in Untitled and Untitled (New Way) (2010) and on the techniques of hair performance with FIVE (2011) so I am really looking forward to discovering new things with him in Spring 2015!


Suzanne Carte is a curator and art critic. Her exhibitions have appeared across Canada and Australia, and her critical writing has been published in Magenta Magazine, Art Writ, and Huffington Post. After working for the Blackwood Gallery and the Art Gallery of Mississauga, she joined the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) in 2008 as Assistant Curator. Within Suzanne’s independent practice, she has curated exhibitions in public spaces, artist-run centres, commercial and public art galleries including All Systems Go!, Under New Management, MOTEL and Man’s Ruin. Suzanne sits on the Board of Directors for Images Festival,  the largest festival in North America for experimental and independent moving image culture. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art History from Sotheby’s Art Institute in New York and a BFA from the University of Windsor.


Heather Cassils

Francisco-Fernando Granados

Rashaad Newsome

Art Gallery of York University