SQUATTING ON SHIFTING GROUNDS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH BRUCE BARBER AND KATHERINE GRANT
Marc J. Léger
Within the parameters of "littoral art" and "the art of giving," Halifax, Nova Scotia-based artist, writer and theorist Bruce Barber invited Katherine Grant, a homeless resident of Calgary, Alberta, to become a "Squat(wri)ter" for a temporary exhibition at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre. On view for eight weeks in the summer of 1999, Squat transformed the gallery space into a resident's living quarters and linked the room to an Internet Web site. Through the Internet link, virtual visitors could engage with the Squatter in a chat room, post questions and comments, or obtain information on housing rights and squat advocacy. The Squat Web site included two texts by Barber on new directions in critical community art practice: "Littoralist Art Practice and Communicative Action" (1996) and "Sentences on Littoral Art" (1998). In these texts, Barber's approach to art production draws from Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas in articulating practices of giving and communicative action that are premised on "ethical, socially responsive and politically efficacious art." I interviewed Barber on the subject of the Banff, Alberta exhibition and its continuation abroad in Poland and New Zealand.1 This interview was carried out by email in the summer of 2000.
Marc J. Léger: Squat seems to me to be produced in large part through the agency and performance of the person who occupies the gallery space for the duration of the exhibition. The project began therefore not only with a series of concepts for a critical art intervention but also with a pre-existing situation involving a complex set of social circumstances and individuals. Could you tell me something about how you came to meet the Squat(wri)ter and what she wanted to say about the situation of homelessness and housing in Banff?
Bruce Barber: Before I arrived in Banff in the summer of 1999 I had submitted a handbill design for general circulation and publication in the local Calgary street journal and other venues. It stated that the Walter Phillips Art Gallery at the Banff Centre was seeking an itinerant or presently homeless writer to occupy a squat (designed by myself) for a period of eight weeks during the summer to communicate with other writers on the World Wide Web. This advertisement had circulated for at least two weeks prior to my arrival and the gallery personnel had set up some interviews with prospective squatters for me during the week prior to the exhibition opening. I was also taken to Calgary and distributed other handbills to homeless people. At one of the Calgary drop-in centers for the homeless we established a time to meet with Katherine Grant whom the coordinators recommended as someone who would both contribute to and benefit from the project. Katherine, a woman in her late forties or early fifties, lived in an old car and traveled regularly between Alberta and British Columbia to maintain contact with her two sons. She had little formal education and recounted a particularly difficult life history, which I did not feel comfortable discussing with her or representing in this context without her express permission. She disclosed that she was receiving disability payments and rejected the idea of receiving payment for her role as a squatter, as this would have jeopardized her social security payments. She did take the opportunity, however, to receive the hospitality of the Banff residency program - food vouchers, the opportunity to sit in on various workshops, access to exercise facilities - to become in effect (without conventional symbolic capital) just like any of the other artists and writers invited to become part of the Banff residency program.
Instead of occupying one of the special architect-designed studio pods provided in the Centre grounds, Katherine was provided with a squat in the gallery. She informed me that she had previously taken one continuing education course in writing (in B.C.) and although she was "always writing" she had not yet had the opportunity to publish any of her work. During her residency in the squat she managed to publish one piece locally and received invitations to publish others. She began work on her life history. She also learned some aspects of videomaking and became a popular member of the Centre community, making friends with everyone she encountered. She personalized the squat space with her stuffed toys and bed quilt. She invited people to sign the walls of the interior of her bedroom, which many did, leaving messages of support and friendship, drawings and poems that were subsequently documented on video.
MJL: Did you do any work on the subject of homelessness and squatting before the Banff project?
BB: Yes, the Walter Phillips Gallery version of Squat was preceded in March 1999 by a non-virtual Squat installed in the so-called Closet Gallery of the Khyber Centre for the arts here in Halifax. I was approached by Michael Fernandes, a Khyber curator and fellow artist, about whether I was interested in using the so-called "Closet Gallery," and after inspecting the space, which is a regular-sized closet with an ongoing exhibition program, I decided to return the closet to its original condition as a closet, and to instead use the vacant room adjacent for an installation. I placed an advertisement in The Coast, the local and widely distributed free newspaper, with a Squat logo (a squatting gentleman wearing a hat, a cane and eyeglasses on the ground before him) and the following text:
"The Khyber Centre for the Arts is seeking a homeless writer to inhabit a squat for a month and to collaborate with Bruce Barber on the production of a Closet Drama for the Ides of March (March 15). Call or visit the Khyber Centre, Barrington Street, phone, fax, etc."
Handbills containing the same information were distributed and posted throughout the downtown. While I was handing invitations out in the street I met Jon David Welland, an artist and writer as well as a self-described street person and managed schizophrenic. I knew Jon from many years ago when he took a class I taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). He read the handbill and suggested that although technically he wasn't homeless at the moment, he had been on many occasions previously and considered himself to be a person of the street.
I told him that he would be expected to inhabit that squat I had designed for the top floor of the Khyber space. In the space (approximately 10 x 8 feet) I provided a bed, bedding, a fridge, coffeepot, hot plate, tea, coffee, pots and utensils. After the opening, which he attended, he committed himself to living and working in the space for a month. I met with him regularly, discussing his writing and drawings with him at length, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and occasionally taking him out to lunch or dinner. I also purchased a membership for him at the Khyber Centre for the Arts, so that he could submit work to the members' exhibitions and participate in other events associated with the Centre. On the evening of March 15 we read our respective writings from the squat. At the conclusion of the exhibition, we formed a Khyber Centre Writers' group that subsequently me every Saturday afternoon for several months until an unfortunate confrontation between two of the most vocal (and volatile) members of the group ended the meetings. Jon was interviewed by CBC radio and read two of his squat writings on the air and two writers profiled him for their respective newspapers. He is a volunteer with the Nova Scotia Hospital, a psychiatric care facility that he has been associated with for many years, and he used their outpatient resources to publish a magazine containing his writing and drawing in the company of examples from present and former patients.
Sometime after this exhibition, I was aksed by Jon Tupper, the Director and Chief Curator of Walter Phillips Gallery, to consider participating with Park Bench, a New York-based public and virtual art group, in the gallery's forthcoming Web video exhibition titled "Streaming Laboratory." During the next few weeks I worked on-line with the gallery and Web master Pedro Mendes from Winnipeg to create the Web site for the actual and virtual version of Squat. Pedro and I did some research on the Web about other squat sites and then set about linking these to my Web site. My recent Squatlink installation for the Interactions Festival in the city of Piotrokow Trybulanski, Poland, linked with other squats throughout Europe. During the performance series I placed the international squat sign on the exterior of the building and publicly declared the installation room a squat, open for business to the homeless people of Piotrokow and the surrounding environs. Again the room looked more like a regular squat, a 12' x 6' "cell" containing a bed and computer. Washing and toilet facilities were nearby.
MJL: The various squats' use of rooms as framing devices or as means of transforming what can be made visible furthers your previous work, for example, in E (1978), Revolve (1978), Work to Rule/Worker Rule (1980) and the Reading Rooms projects (1984-92). These works emphasize the conjuncture of everyday architectural conventions with social relations and relations of power. In the case of Squat, it would seem to me that the Internet links modified the somewhat "pressurized" dimensions of your use of a delimited space, bringing about a varying tension between place and placelessness. How did virtual space inform the question of place-boundedness and property vis-à-vis homelessness and what is sometimes referred to as the "deterritorialized" space of the Internet? What did the squatters or viewers say about the different time-space relations that were being negotiated and what did they think about their activity in that situation?
BB: These are very good questions. Yes, of course we like to believe the World Wide Web is "deterritorialized," stochastic (leaky) and Deleuzian (rhizomatic) in form, but its virtual spaces (homepages, chat rooms, etc.) are becoming increasingly segmented, and subject to various forms of commoditization. One of the excellent features of virtual squat sites (virtual journals, homepages, chatrooms, etc.) is that they provide a rich matrix of free information on-line to anyone in the world, from Berlin to Manilla, from Johannesburg to London. Some of the more politically sensitive sites are however encrypted and only available to certified squat users. Squat.net, the international on-line magazine for squatters and squatting has daily updates on property struggles and human rights issues throughout the world and provides relevant book, magazine and news references and many links to other relevant sites, including my own.
Most visitors to the squat were stimulated and impressed by the real (material) elements of the work, that is, viewing the squat, which had a certain sculptural presence in the gallery space and the projected Web site on the wall. Many explored the Web site either in the squat itself or at a computer installed in the gallery for this purpose. I like to think of the facades of the "box" in art historical terms, as like Ad Reinhardt's black paintings and the cube as a piece of minimal sculpture by for example Tony Smith, Don Judd or Robert Morris, circa 1964. The squatter colophon I have used as a logo of sorts and a screensaver that site visitors may download to their own computers was appropriated from one of Reinhardt's montage cartoons from the 1940s which he produced for P.M. magazine. Visitors to the space enjoyed meeting Katherine and discussing the work with her. They explored her thoughts about homelessness, writing and her feelings about living in the space for two months and asked her practical questions like "where do you eat?," "do you sleep here?," etc.
MJL: Were you or the squatters interested in recording visitors' responses and questions, such as the writings on the walls of the squat? The visitor of Squat had to share with the Squat(wri)ter the situation of display and perhaps in the process broach a barrier of distinct conditions, if only temporarily. It seems then that the project works to enact a virtual and socially poignant exchange of positions between the supposedly fixed categories of "propertied" and "homeless."
BB: Yes, the Web site had a section for submissions and comments, a chat room for Katherine to chat on-line with visitors and she also turned the white walls of the interior into frames for written and drawn responses from people who visited her in her room. Many of the drawings and comments on the walls are documented in a videotape that she produced for me as she was about to leave the squat.
MJL: By expanding the Walter Phillips Web site with an essay on the "art of giving" and a détourned reworking of Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1969) (titled "Sentences on Littoral Art" ) you've incorporated a rigorous theoretical element into the squat projects and I'm excited by the many motifs of "littoral art" which I understand as a kind of critical community-based art practice. Could you say a few words about littoral art and its grounding, if at all, in the context of Halifax and the work that takes place at NSCAD? What strikes me is the relationship of the projects of littoral art, involving people from all walks of life, to highly developed political and theoretical concepts that are nurtured by cultural work.
BB: We do not (yet) have a public or community art program at NSCAD but certainly over the last 30 years or so, beginning with the so-called "Conceptual Art period" at NSCAD (1967-73) and subsequent forays into post conceptual work in the 1980s, the idea of working outside of conventional institutionalized art spaces, galleries and museums, and artist-run centers, has been on the agenda in many class projects. Studio discussions centered on public art, political art and art politics have occured across the divisions and not simply within specialized programs such as environmental design, media arts or art education. These discussions have been stimulated by many visitors to the school including art world stars like Adrian Piper and Hans Haacke and of course the NSCAD Press Publications of Martha Rosler, Alan Sekula, Michael Asher, Dan Graham, et. al. There is evidence of interest in work that operates between and across both the public and private spheres among the faculty and at the undergraduate and graduate levels within the institution. A few faculty and a small number of students are producing Web sites to extend their dialog with communities outside the college environs. As well, a small number of regular events such as the Ceramics department initiative, "Hungry Bowls," and other "Free Food"-based exhibits have tended to raise the consciousness of those within the school that there is a public sphere beyond the walls of the institution.
MJL: Your "Sentences" affirm that littoral art lies outside the conventions of the institutionalized artworld. Littoral art, for example, may or may not become art; it may or may not engage with institutions. I find once again some correspondences with your interest in the architecture of the door and the turnstile, or with aspects of contemporary poststructural theory. There is an analogy in your working of the concept of littoral art with Bourdieu's argument that the act of giving may or may not necessarily be returned, which contrasts with instrumental and calculated exchanges or with a closed system of reciprocity.
BB: Yes, these issues are explored in several of the essays I have published on performance, intervention, littoral art and related practices since the early 1980s. The two essays "Littoralist Art Practice and Communicative Action" (1996), and "The Gift in Littoral Art" (2000)2, on the novelsquat Web site (currently in place for the Eyelevel Gallery window squat) and a similar site in New Zealand explore many of your questions in historical, critical and theoretical terms, probably more adequately than I can address them here. I will say that the process that I am involved in is less dialectical than dialogical; in other words it is always in a process of becoming, that is, it is never forced into what I would consider to be a premature resolution or synthesis. I have likened my method, if you call it that - perhaps it's against method - to a revolving door or periscope. Jacques Derrida's notion of finding the "truth" in painting, outside the frame, is a commonplace of contemporary criticism now, but his critical strategy - injunction - of going four times around the work in order to know what it is all about, is still not fully understood. Perhaps it is an impossible task but I think that his critical deconstructive project can be applied to both the production and the reading of a work.
MJL: You mention in one of your essays the strategic aspect of working directly on social reality rather than indirectly on forms of representation, a statement that could be criticized from the point of view of poststructuralism. Nevertheless, your writing gives many good indications why, for instance, you make use of Habermas's theory of communicative action. The fact remains, though, that Habermas's defense of rationality and the separation of spheres (aesthetic/ethical/conceptual) continues to be used as a wedge to separate different kinds of critical work. I also have in mind how Bourdieu's approach to giving would be different from Georges Bataille's or Gilles Deleuze's. How would you describe your approach to theoretical limitations and inconsistencies? Perhaps this is equivalent to asking what is your approach to theory.
BB: Yes, many poststructuralists don't like dealing with material reality. I think the challenge in making operative art is like the challenge in education. One must first recognize one's own position as a political agent, that whatever you do, perform, say, write or give, can have effects beyond those you may have originally projected or anticipated. The problem is how one engages with material reality, not necessarily with which, or toward what, one engages. I think this is what I find attractive about Bourdieu's position about the contrariety in the practice of giving, the simple acknowledgement that things may not proceed according to rule and the cycle of reciprocity therefore is broken.
For the past 10 years artists have been attempting to come to terms with how to make political art more educational and not simply provocative in the old avant-garde sense of exhibiting the three As (antagonism, agonism, activism) articulated many years ago by Renato Poggioli in his book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968). Artists like Suzanne Lacy, Rosler, Fred Londier, Carol Conde/Karl Beveridge, Piper and artist groups like Group Material, REPOhistory, Border Arts Workshop, Projects Environment and other so-called littoral groups, have been creating works that are both multi-layered and extensive, often constructed ("engineered") in such a way that they stimulate public dialog and educational exchanges, works that enrich the opportunity for participation and collaborative learning. There are no watertight theories of political praxis that are without contradictions and limitations. Theory is always an ongoing practice; that's what makes it necessary and interesting for me to pursue.
A separate interview was conducted with Katherine Grant, Squat(wri)ter and participant in the Banff residency program. Among the works Grant produced while in residence are a memoiristic piece on homelessness and an editorial response to a review of the exhibit that appeared in the Globe and Mail. This interview took place over the summer months of 2000.
Marc J. Léger: What was your initial response to the prospect of becoming a participant in Squat?
Katherine Grant: I was pleased with the opportunity to get a chance to write.
MJL: How did you feel about visitors' responses to meeting you within the parameters of an art gallery?
KG: I found myself feeling embarassed for them. Initially, many of them were uncomfortable about my situation but I greeted them with a smile and invited them in to hear more about why I was there.
MJL: Do you think that Squat's unusual means of representation were effective in presenting social issues like homelessness and squatting in ways that are different from more conventional forms of representation, such as that of the news media, for example?
KG: Yes and no. Some people were outraged that a living person was on display and wouln't listen to anything I had to say. They walked out as close-minded as when they wlaked in. But the majority walked away with a totally different view of the poor, not only in Canada but world-wide. They were seeing and talking face-to-face with someone who lived below the povery level. A real person, not just a statistic.
MJL: Did becoming a Squat(wri)ter change your personal perspective on questions of home and the way that property relations organize how and where people live?
KG: Being a squat(wri)ter didn't change my perspective. I've always had strong feelings about the elderly and ill among us being forced to live in slum conditions. I don't think that it's real estate that organizes how and where people live, I think it's money and class distinctions.
MJL: Did working on this project provide you with the opportunity to communicate some of the ideas you already had about these issues?
KG: Yes, being in the squat provided me with an opportunity to "pontificate" on the subject! But I made a clear distinction between squatters and the poor, ill and elderly. When people came into the gallery, I made it clear that I disagree with squatters and squatting and that my purpose in being there was to be a voice for the poor, ill and elderly, not the lawless. Many visitors left the squat saying they had a totally changed view of the situation and wanted to make a difference where they could.
MJL: There is at the moment a heightened interest in surveillance, voyeurism and related practices of "othering" people through either visual, symbolic or aural means. What are your thoughts on the condition of visibility, of being "on display," either in the gallery context or through the use of the Internet?
KG: This was a tough one for me. I'm a very private person and spend most of my time alone. Whether shopping, eating, going for a drive or a walk, I go alone. I like to be alone. I'm friendly and outgoing but only in a superficial way. So the process of othering others sort of leaves me shaking my head and wondering why people don't get a life and find something better to do. I was surprised when people would get in touch with me and say they saw me on the Web-cam, (or more often than not) asked where I was and why all they ever got to see was teddy bears. To be honest I thought they were a tad strange to want to watch an old woman sitting in a box in a gallery, writing.
As for the idea of someone being visibly on display, I think that it's OK if it's done with taste and respect. I actually got some complaints because I wasn't "living" in front of the camera: i.e., changing clothes, washing myself, brushing my teeth and the like. I simply explained that I was there to be a voice for those who weren't able or couldn't speak for themselves, not a peep show for voyeurs, and that to do otherwise would lack respect for the gallery, for the artists who put me in the squat and myself.
MARC J. LÉGER is a doctoral candidate in Visual & Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. He is currently conducting doctoral research on the aesthetic writings of Henri Lefebvre.
1. Documentation of the Banff and Piotrkow projects can be found on the Web at: www.banffcentre.ab.ca/WPG/nmsc/squat/intro.htm and www.wizya.net/bruce.htm.
2. "The Gift in Littoral Art" in Symposium 2000: Aspects of Post-Object and Performance Art in
New Zealand from the 1970s to the Present (Christchurch, NZ: Robert MacDougall Art Gallery, 2000).
First published in Afterimage 29:1 (July/August 2001) 10-11.