Social Justice Art in Calgary

 

Steven_Cottingham_Truck_Window_at_Epcor_Centre_August_to_September_2014

Steven Cottingham‘s show entitled I’ve Committed Sins No God Could Forgive ended on Sunday, September 28, 2014.

I could have written about this during the midst of the exhibition. I chose not too as the second part of the exhibition will take place today. It is this part that I find most interesting.

As you can see from the photo above, the window exhibition is quite simple containing a wooden pallet; two cardboard boxes; six glass vases and spray-painted(?) text. It is the text that gives the key to the second stage of the exhibition. It reads as follows:

On September 30 I will use the entirety of my artist  fee to have flowers (white lilies) delivered to employees of Suncor, Husky and Exxon Mobil.

I suspect many have walked past this exhibition and not given it a second glance.

In many ways this blog post is primarily geared toward the average employee of three significant corporate entities with Canadian and/or International headquarters located in the city – Suncor, Husky and Exxon Mobil. If one looks at the picture above, it will become self-evident why.

* * *

Steven Cottingham is a Calgary artist. He is a relatively recent graduate from the Alberta College of Art and Design. He is also very involved in the Calgary visual art community. He is also writing a book about art and love, which reflects his artistic practice.

Truck, is the gallery that selected the proposal that Cottingham presented for their programming. Because Truck is an artist-run centre, the work is not for sale. This is typical for most public galleries in Canada (and often elsewhere as well). To compensate the artist for the work that they have done, public galleries pay an artist fee. Usually the base amount (some will pay more) has been determined by an organization called CARFAC (which means Canadian Artist Representation and the French equivalent).

This is different from how a commercial gallery works. In a commercial gallery payment usually comes as a result of the sale of the artwork. There are some exceptions, but usually the amount is determined as agreed under contract between the artist and the gallery.

* * *

Cottingham will receive his fee, which was agreed in advance under contract.

Unlike most artists who would typically pay bills (or whatever is their current priority), Cottingham has chosen to disperse this payment in the form of a gift. This gift will be a white lily to random employees of the three companies mentioned above – Suncor, Husky and Exxon Mobil.

Why is Cottingham doing this?

No doubt, this will be the question around the water cooler at these three companies.

I will attempt to explain.

This is an act of social justice art.

This will of course prompt the question, “what is social justice art?”

Lee Bell and Desai Dipti simply defined it as follows:

Social justice art “encompasses a wide range of visual and performing art that aim to raise critical consciousness, build community, and motivate individuals to promote social change.” (Note 1)

As it relates to this show, a key might be found in recent newspaper article from St. John, NB which relates to a recent solo exhibition of Cottingham’s work which was held in Freedericton, NB. There Cottingham has stated that he finds “it . . . increasingly necessary . . . to use art as a way of bringing attention to these areas of inequality, and even discrimination sometimes.” (Note 2)

Of course this leads to the next question, “what type of social change is Cottingham trying to effect?”

First I would like to put some background to this question, before addressing it later.

What is the significance of the white lily?

There seems to be no consistent meaning for the white lily. However, it is imbued with significant religious meaning, consistently. Teleflora states that white lilies signify chastity and virtue. (Note 3) This website then goes to state that they are a “symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity and her role of Queen of the Angels “. Although it is not stated, surprisingly, other websites frequently mention that white lilies are often associated with Easter which makes sense given the significance stated in relationship to the Virgin Mary in the website.

In a Swerve article this past weekend, Cottingham is reported to have stated that he interprets white lilies as an “empathetic . . . flower of both sympathy and apology.” (Note 4) As a result, this additional interpretation must also be taken into consideration as well.

Why these three companies?

Outside of what was stated at the top, all I have to work with in this regard is what was stated in the Swerve article. Here, Cottingham stated what was stated at the top and continued by saying these three companies are, “companies that I know at least a couple of my friends (which) are employed (at).” (Note 5)

What is the social justice message intended?

In the Swerve article, Cottingham states, “I wanted to start a conversation about the fact that, on one hand, this economy necessitates certain activities that may or may not be morally sound and are definitely controversial and may be shortsighted” (Note 6)

He then follows on to mention three specifics in passing within the same paragraph:

  • Economic self-sufficiency;
  • Destruction of the land; and,
  • Ignoring rights of First Nation peoples

It is safe to assume that this is based on both personal and larger-scale economics and resource development.

This action would appear to be simply about economic disparity and/or resource development. This is an issue that requires further discussion, as we increasingly see in the news of the day.

Social justice art is a form of contemporary art that I suspect we will be seeing more of in the city during the next year. What form that will take, I am uncertain.

Historically, the arts (not all, but certainly the avant-garde) in its many forms (from theatre and dance to the visual arts) holds an important place at the table as artists and their work engage with politics, social justice or change and other issues. These works have not always been popular at the time they were first produced, but over time in some cases have become iconic works in due course (think Picasso‘s Guernica). I am intrigued to see what potentially may be in the works.

 

Notes:

  1. Bell, Lee; Desai Dipti, “Imagining Otherwise: Connecting the Arts and Social Justice to Envision an Act for Change: Special Issue Introduction”. Equity and Excellence in Education 44:3 (August 10, 2011): 287–295
  2. MacNeill, Jon, “Exhibition casts light on social injustices,” [St. John, NB] Here, June 5, 2014, A26.
  3. Teleflora, “Lily: The meaning & significance of lily”, accessed September 28, 2014, http://www.teleflora.com/about-flowers/lily.asp
  4. Roe, Jon, “4 questions with Calgary artist Steven Cottingham” [Calgary Herald] Swerve, September 26, 2014, 30
  5. Roe, Jon, “4 questions with Calgary artist Steven Cottingham”
  6. Roe, Jon, “4 questions with Calgary artist Steven Cottingham”
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