Regarding “Empty History”

Adam Barbu and John Paul Ricco in conversation

Vtape, Toronto, 23 November 2019

Accompanying “Empty History,” the exhibition curated by Adam Barbu, Barbu and John Paul Ricco engaged in a public conversation about the works in the show and the curatorial premises that guided Barbu’s project.

Adam Barbu: Nearly four years following my participation in Vtape’s Curatorial Incubator program, I was given the opportunity to return as the 2019 Researcher-in-Residence. The residency took shape over the course of a year of self-guided research in which I explored various materials from the Vtape collection and engaged in a series of conversations with peers and mentors about possible new readings of queer curatorial ethics. Early on in the project’s development, I was encouraged by peers to think without direction, restriction or expectation, beyond productive curating, beyond the efficacy of art, beyond the institutional demands that are traditionally placed on curating as an instrumentalized pedagogical practice. As opposed to many of the recent exhibitions that have sought to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, for example, Empty History does not attempt to expose histories of homophobic violence or reconstruct fractured queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Throughout the course of this residency, I have worked to think beyond the logic of reparative visibility, focusing instead on that which cannot be reduced to representations of identity, community, and shared history. Empty History does not engage with the term “queer” as a descriptor of a sexual identity category but rather as an interruptive force of abstraction and illegibility.

In this move away from traditional articulations of so-called “progress,” I have explored the ways in which artists use video to unwork the narrative conventions of queer history. Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new queer utopias. Instead, documenting performances of solitary, workless gestures and activities, their works pursue forms of pleasure in the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Life is presented in a fixed state. They appear as artifacts of impossible, empty histories without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is often deemed recognizable queer political content. The critique this type of research tends to attract is that it is too theoretical, too abstract, detached from the collective need to produce legible, explicit representations in the fight against social injustice. Yet Empty History examines how this idea of a non-productive, non-teleological, workless curatorial practice offers us a way outside the time of heteronormative capitalist temporality. If the very meaning of queerness is rooted in a foundational rejection of normativity, perhaps it is this commitment to non-teleological thought that renders the practice of queer curating queer. Empty History considers the unworking of the time of progress as the work of curating queer history. 

Through the frame of the residency and materials of my research, I have learned to embrace queerness as an intensified lateral movement. Early collaborators helped me think through the uncomfortable thought of an empty history, as well as my own anxious relation to progress. Having moved back to Ottawa from Toronto after finishing graduate school, I found myself emptying myself of an anxious attachment to productivity and success in the artworld. The structureless structure of The Researcher is Present program allowed me to slow down and let go of meaning. I have learned to embrace the false starts and the unresolved thought experiments—the wandering, the waiting, and the circling back that is queer curating.

Lisa Steele: I can’t help but recall the first wave of inclusive queer curating. From the 1980’s onward, we have seen so many exhibitions that adopt the belief that visibility equals progress—that if we can just be seen, then we are working against homophobia. Your show offers something like the opposite of that. I see works that are not simply identified as “queer.” They don’t reveal themselves. They do not present a story. And today, the story of queer progress has changed. There is gay marriage, there are conservative gay people—lots of them. There is something at stake in Empty History that is clearly different from that earlier notion of queering.

AB: Today, a number of influential curators remain interested in documenting queer progress by means of art historical inclusion. These exhibitions have become popular within major art institutions, functioning as evidence of a politically progressive programming agenda. With Empty History, on the other hand, I am simply interested in rethinking our relationship to the time of progress in ways that might be described as queer. 

John Paul Ricco: A liberal politics of inclusion can never attest to the exclusions that necessarily and inevitably follow this attempt to render the invisible visible. That which is excluded includes those things that don’t get recognized as political in the first place. Because they don’t gain legibility or recognition as markers of identity, they are discarded and considered minor or inconsequential. In the three videos on display, we see everyday, ordinary spaces and seemingly inconsequential gestures inhabiting the empty space that is created through this exclusion from the political. The works reveal the extent to which that empty space can actually become a site of potential that is not attached to any determinate end result. In this sense, they suggest a certain inoperativity. Part of the problem with the notion of political-historical progress is that it is absolutely operative, productivist, and goal oriented, when so much of our lives are, in fact, not lived in this way.

Here, we are seeing both an emptying out of progress, in the way that Adam is speaking about, but also a kind of temporary, inoperative occupation of that empty space that gets created through the necessary, inevitable exclusions that come with a politics of inclusion. Further, what we see is an attempt to occupy that empty space without claiming or appropriating it in the name of visibility or identity but instead keeping it precisely illegible. It is illegible as queer, it is illegible as politics, and it may even be illegible as art. This is, in fact, getting close to what we understand to be the act of artistic creation. We are describing a form of resistance that is, at the same time, de-instrumentalized. And that’s creation—creation as a form of resistance to the operative, productivist model. A politics of progress has kept us from a politics of creation.

LS: It seems to me that Empty History opposes the sort of productivity that is encouraged by most art institutions. I am fascinated by how Adam’s curatorial project has come to mirror the open-ended structure of The Researcher is Present residency program itself. 

JPR: There is a perfect pairing between the research practice, the thematic, and what we see in the gallery, which is somewhat unusual. There is, in other words, a real tightness in correspondence between the four works and the curatorial method. They are following the same kind of inoperative research creation model.

Kim Tomczak: These responses have led me to think about the economy and ideas of growth, perpetual momentum, forward movement, and so on. Today, there are radical economists proposing a non-growth slowness. Adam’s project helps me move into that space. I also think about the extraction economy. We assume that we will be extracting forever but this project invites us to consider how the economy doesn’t necessarily have to be productive in that kind of way. As John said earlier, life cannot simply be described as a progressive process. 

JPR: Researching within an archive is archaeological, and archaeological research is based upon an extraction of content and resources. This project is attempting to call that process into question. It tries to locate that which cannot be appropriated—that empty space that can still function without being extracted and claimed. I find it interesting that Adam spent a year in an archive and produced a show called “Empty History.” It goes to show us that one can, in fact, find that impossible, empty place within the archive. In this regard, the empty is the open. It does not signify a negation or the absence of content. The empty is that which is not appropriated, and each of the works are clearly open in some way. 

AB: Emptiness has taken on many different forms within the context of the residency. Earlier today, we spoke about the exhibition in relation to ideas of solitude and loneliness.

JPR: In each of the three videos, we face a solitary subject engaging in non-productive, workless activities. This inevitably begins to raise questions about whether that solitude is to be understood in terms of loneliness or as something other than deprivation. The works suggest a kind of aloneness that, in not wanting to produce a masterful subject, demonstrates the ways in which bodies can maintain both a sense of solitude and ways of being in a world that are not defined by isolation and loneliness. What we are seeing in these videos is not deprivation and a reduction of bodies but rather a kind of experimentation and openness. 

LS: These three individual figures are quite powerful. In thinking about solitude and worklessness, I find myself reflecting upon the past, returning to what we use to call “the collectivity of the movement.” That sense collectivity, of getting together, of building something, of doing this and that—it didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t really work out for all of us. 

JPR: What is powerful about this project is that it does not seek to develop a new definition of progress. It simply asks, “Why progress?” At stake here is a certain self-divestiture of the subject, which, through a sense of anonymity, opens up the possibility of relations that are not predicated upon belonging or identity. In response to these works, we might want to think about collectivity or solidarity in ways that aren’t merely about individual expression, the expressive subject, and political polemics.

AB: Within this conversation about a retreat from the logic of political and economic progress, it seems that we are, at the same time, speaking about research and the values that become attributed to this work, both in the artworld and in academia. 

Lauren Fournier: Our generation lives in such a sped-up state—what is expected from a researcher in the artworld and academia is so extreme. The expectation that one can continue to produce at such a rate is ultimately destructive. I think about ways of pushing against this compulsion for speed and progress, which I too have been complicit in as a writer and curator. 

JPR: Those economies always operate based upon some sort of single general measure of significance. That’s capitalist logic, per se. In these works, there is an invitation for us to move away from the fetishization of work and labor and towards use and care. There is a wonderful moment in Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), where he is searching within the archive of his CD collection desperate to find the Lou Reed record. We come to experience his frustration as he plays the CD only to find that it continuously stops and skips. From the point of view of use, what does he end up doing with the CD? He wants to take care of it. He washes the CD with soap and water in the hopes that it will begin to work again. Of course, it does not—but there is a way in which the work itself is still able to retain that notion of the perfect. There is something involved in the use and the care of things, like himself, his computer, his CD collection, and so forth, that this can still be a perfect day even though the scene doesn’t follow through to the end of the song.

Lucas Michael, Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001)

LS: Speaking of the individual works in the gallery, I am intrigued by the placement of Lucas Michael’s Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001) in relation to Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017). From a certain vantage point, it seems as though the crushed trophy sits underneath the scene of the balancing act. On the other hand, it appears that the prize that could be awarded to any of the artists—like it is up for grabs.

Dierdre Logue: When Adam and I unpacked the work together, I thought: There is a trophy I would like. We started talking about the notion of second place, which is my favorite place. The idea that we might reinterpret the value of these measures of success is key, with the added tension that, at any moment, I could fall and crush my own psychic trophy. 

I find it interesting that the sculpture shares a lot with video. It is placed on a mirror, which is reflecting light, and it is shiny and shaped but ultimately flat. It was chosen well, both because of its video-esque sculptural attributes and in its recognition that failure, or the lack of aspiring to the trophy, might be the prize. It is deflated. Its guts have been pushed out. But there were no guts to begin with, right?

KT: I am curious what to make of that term “failure” within the context of this exhibition.

AB: Dierdre, I am drawn to what you said about the symbolism of the trophy—that the so-called prize lies in not wanting it to begin with. Certainly, in recent years, there has been great deal of writing published on the relationship between queerness and failure. But this idea of failure would seem to suggest the opposite of success. And, as John has mentioned, this open-ended, empty space of self-exploration is not simply a matter of failure but inoperativity, impotentiality, and worklessness. In works like Perfect Day, what we see is a kind of lateral intensity that operates outside of the binary logic of wins and losses.

DL: The Queer Art of Failure (2011), along with various other texts in queer theory history, identify failure as a kind of departure from or resistance to traditional readings of success, especially in terms of cultural production. It is important to note that the works are not empty of other narratives, including moments of self-loathing, as in Perfect Day, or moments where the body is trying to work through something that in fact, lacks meaning, as in, Home Office. Failure has led us to think about our futures and how to navigate them as queer bodies. It has also given us certain permissions to begin thinking about ways in which artists might resist through the not doing of something—by means of negation. So, if we think about your thesis and the idea that these works might offer us the opportunity to reimagine history, then, in fact, they also offer us the opportunity to imagine not doing anything. That not doing anything could have enormously powerful implications on the future. In my work, failure has led to questions of future or futurity as opposed to the idea that failure has one necessary opposite or counterpoint.

JPR: I am hesitant about the language of failure simply because it retains so much of the subject and especially the psychological subject. Empty History doesn’t seem interested in documenting those kinds of struggles—of trying to be a subject or even failing to be one. Instead, drawing from the writings of Leo Bersani, what we are seeing is a move from the psychological subject to the aesthetic subject, and from the aesthetic subject to the ecological subject—that is, something beyond interiority or success or failure. It is, in other words, not about who I am but how am I the person that I am. In each of the works, there is an affirmation that, through these inoperative, workless activities, this is how I am who I am—this is my mode. These activities are not necessarily negative or positive but do seem to suggest the extent to which the “how” of how I am is so dependent upon objects, places, and things. In Fixed Kilometer (2018), for example, it is almost as if that is precisely what the artist is pointing out. It is that extension, which is, in passing, there, and there, and there. 

AB: Of course, the invisible distances Michael traces are anything but sequential. The video remains a fragmented portrait of the artist organizing his world at a critical distance. In certain instances, there are significant gaps in time that span between takes. Fixed Kilometer invites us to consider the absences that necessarily give shape to a work’s narrative structure. The video was not created quickly, and there is a great deal of living that is undocumented within the frame of the screen. I find myself returning to that which is not included in the final presentation of the work—namely, the countless surfaces that cannot but remain unscanned and untouched by the artist’s curious, wandering index finger. 

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