JUNE 18 21 2009

The coyote has rich symbolic value, in recent Canadian history coming to stand for westward urban migration, enticed by way of spaces opened through mountains and forests: rail lines, highways and bridges – avenues of possibility marking the infrastructure of human progress. Similarly, it has been noted that many people who struggle to keep stable housing in cities like Vancouver have migrated from rural and isolated regions. Arriving in places where opportunism and adaptation can be aggressively demanding requirements of survival, human and non-human migrants alike must negotiate a complex network of social and material forces. For many people this challenge is insurmountable and the result – displacement into the gutterscape world of the coyote.

Coyote Comforts: During La Couverture Vivante/The Living Blanket, at CentreA, Vancouver October 31 and November 7 2008

Coyote Comforts: During The Living Blanket, Centre A, Vancouver, October 31 and November 7 2008

Throughout the week of June 15, Lois Klassen and Maggie Winston will enact a transformation inside 3084, directly addressing the troubling and all too frequent outcomes of human displacement  – maladjustment, dispossession and homelessness. Performing in seclusion, they will re-purpose hundreds of textile squares from the public art project Lines of Commitment (World Urban Forum, 2006), turning them into a large pile of patchwork blankets. The squares bear distinctive coyote prints with color and text added by participants in the original public work – a Judith Marcuse Projects initiative designed to give young people a voice in dialogues about global sustainability and social justice.

In what will be the final Coyote Comforts sew-in, following iterations at The Living Blanket (Centre A) and the Britannia Library, Klassen and Winston will conclude their collaboration, re-awakening the possibility in these materials and committing them to action for the comfort and shelter of Vancouver’s displaced. On completion of the blankets, the artists will abandon 3084 as a site of production, temporarily leaving the finished objects for open view, accompanied by images documenting their labour throughout the week.

Their patchwork connection of salvaged textiles can be seen to express the unfolding network of relationships joining them with the creators of the first the public art project and the unknown recipients of the finished works. As symbolic action, Coyote Comforts stitches together this spectrum of diverse and difficult social dynamics in which the idea of domestic stability and the spirit of making-do shift across contrasting registers, both reassuring and disquieting.

In I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), Joseph Beuys lived and communicated with a coyote in a small room in the newly-opened Rene Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway in New York, situated just beneath the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. In his  essay on this work Between Dog & Wolf, Essays on Art and Politics (1999), David Levi Strauss writes:

‘Beuys’s intentions in the Coyote action were primarily therapeutic. Using shamanic techniques appropriate to the coyote, his own characteristic tools, and a widely syncretic symbolic language, he engaged the coyote in a dialogue to get to “the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation”; namely, the schism between native intelligence and European mechanistic, materialistic, and positivistic values.’

‘In social terms, the Coyote action calls attention to the crisis brought about by mechanistic, materialistic, and positivistic thinking in the West, and to the emergent need for Western Man (“Old Western Man is most clearly represented by what has become of the United States”) to move into the next evolutionary stage, from progress (domination of nature, “triumph over the past,” positivist reductions) to survival (holistic, ecological, evolutionary).’

With reference to Beuys’s ‘Coyote action’, Klassen and Winston each wear a coyote mask to perform their act of salvage. In the context of 3084, the connection is rendered especially pertinent by their enclosure in a small room for three days. What is missing in this echo is the dialogue between human and animal – the shamanic interface between conflicting cultural positions. Denying this framework, their work becomes an act of material adaptation, abandoning the aspiration for discursive understanding in favour of practical intervention in the landscape of social inequity.

Craft and collective creativity have re-emerged in recent years as the subject of renewed and widespread interest, expressed in the proliferation of practices such as knitting circles, sew-ins and drawing exchanges, to name a few. The gestural values of these activities can be seen as a distinct critique of the socio-economic conditions that frame them. In the global system of intensified material exchange and capital growth, time and attention become evermore fragmented in response to the burgeoning forces of attraction that stimulate consumer markets (Crary, 2000). Craft-led gestures have been identified with resistance to these forces, articulated in the discourse of the Slow Movement, attempting acts of re-calibration: tokens of social and temporal commitment calling into question the models of convenience, disposability and individualism that structure social change as an expression of market forces.

Coyote Comforts: During La Couverture Vivante/The Living Blanket, at CentreA, Vancouver October 31 and November 7 2008

Coyote Comforts: During The Living Blanket, Centre A, Vancouver October 31 and November 7 2008

As Marcus Verhagen points out in ‘Slow Time’ (Art Monthly, September 08), simplified approaches to time and the effects of globalization can fall short of effective critique, characterized in “the tendency of the Slow Movement to consider our experience of time as if it could be divorced from its economic and technological determinants, as if being in time were an exclusively private matter, a question of attitude or lifestyle.” In contrast to such approaches, Coyote Comforts succeeds in presenting a complex engagement with the cultural conditions that have inspired and provoked it: complicating enactment of the local and collective in its transformative relations between prior public-art project and functional street-level donation; disturbing the utopian value of slowness in an efficient drive to ‘hit quota’ in the limited time permitted by performance opportunities.

Operating in the cramped, stifling, factory-like conditions of the storage space under the pressures of its own production deadline, the final enunciation of the project underscores this complexity, both mimicking and resisting aspects of the broader socio-economic context. Drawing on the strength of collective action and the importance of local participation, Klassen and Winston use 3084 to shift the axis of the productive, caring gesture into a space of difficulty, propelling the narrative of politically charged objects to their next phase, producing greater depth of field around their concerns with social and material responsibility.




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