LET THEM TAKE SELFIES
In response to Kapwani Kiwanga
When Esker Foundation brought Kapwani Kiwanga’s A wall is just a wall (and nothing more at all) to Calgary in winter 2018, they didn’t anticipate that the selfie haven set up by Kiwanga’s 2017 immersive installation pink-blue would make the whole exhibition go viral. Curated by Nabila Abdel Nabi, the exhibition’s first stop was at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto the preceding spring, and in both iterations, a combination of travelling and site-specific installations laid bare some of the insidious tactics of disciplinary architecture and design that have historically targeted marginalized people.
Before Esker Foundation curators Elizabeth Diggon and Shauna Thompson gave me a tour of the exhibition in its final weekend, one of them had just walked in on a teen girl oscillating her elbow rhythmically over a teen boy’s lap in one of the video rooms. It’s telling of teen audiences the gallery had never attracted before—many of them unaware of the white cube’s prescribed etiquette, oblivious to its surveillance infrastructure. Most other teens, for hours on end, just posed for each other’s cell phones, or set up cameras on tripods they’d brought in just for the occasion, or contorted and rushed to pose for their self-timer, or asked passersby, sometimes the curators themselves, to take their pics. Many of them had first encountered audience-generated images of the work on social media, and as soon as Esker staff greeted them at the front desk, they’d show staff those images on their cellphones to ask where they could shoot similar ones, sometimes tugging suitcases full of outfit changes behind them.
It was pink-blue that first incited the stream of selfies. The corridor installation was one of two works that were previously shown at the Power Plant, out of the seven works total in the Esker’s iteration. Half of the constructed corridor was painted in Baker-Miller Pink, with white overhead lights, while the white walls and floor of the other half were cast blue by overhead fluorescents. The stark and startling contrast was punishing to my light-sensitive eyes. It immediately set me on edge. But when Baker-Miller Pink was first formulated, it was initially found to reduce the heart rates and the aggressive behaviour of violent inmates after 15 minutes of exposure, in a study conducted by Dr. Alexander Schauss, director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research, in 1978. When the study was repeated in larger holding cells and on more inmates in 1979, however, researchers found that prolonged exposure provoked inmates to claw the paint off the walls with their fingernails. Inmate violence ultimately increased during the year-long experiment. Baker-Miller Pink still covers the walls of locker rooms of visiting athletic teams, of some psychiatric facilities, and Kendall Jenner’s living room—though she chose the colour for its ostensible capacity to suppress appetite. The blue-hued half of the corridor mimics the kind of fluorescent blue lighting frequently found in bar bathrooms or parking garages, and though its reduction of vein visibility is meant to deter intravenous drug use, follow-up studies showed that exposure to this light simply just made IV injection more hazardous.
pink-blue became the site of such heavy traffic that it needed daily maintenance to clear the detritus of the bodies that generated the perpetual feed. Footprints up the corridors’ walls, hair, body odour, even a split pill all became imprints of the selfies’ extra-virtual lifespan. Everyone looks good in bisexualso it should be no surprise that pink-blue circulated like it did. Before Pantone declared both Rose Quartz and Serenity its 2016 “Color of the Year,” pink-blue’s colour scheme was popularized by Drake’s meme-memorialized 2015 “Hotline Bling” video, inspired by James Turrell’s light installations. “I fuck with Turrell,” he told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2014, a few weeks after he Instagrammed himself in Turrell’s retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake fucks with me,” Turrell illuminated, “I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the Hotline Bling video.”
The other easily selfie-able work in Kiwanga’s exhibition at Esker was Jalousie, a room divider positioned in a cul de sac at the end of the exhibition. It was commissioned by Esker, and the exhibition’s design prompted the viewer to circumnavigate it—so that they may embody both observer and observed. The panels of the folding screen are slatted two-way mirrors; your image is reflected on one side but absorbed by the other. Here Kiwanga hints at the architecture of interrogation rooms, while also referencing a style of window treatment that became a fixture in colonial settlements, especially in tropical regions where European colonizers needed sun protection and cool-air circulation. The screens enabled the colonizer to surveil the colonized subject, while simultaneously enforcing segregation in the name of “hygiene.”
Everything else between these two works in the exhibition, even the works that wouldn’t have selfie-appeal in any other exhibition, still presented selfie ops. “People still figured out a way to pose with the work. It became a whole exercise of trying to get an interesting shot with anything in the gallery,” the curators told me. Just as popular as pink-blue and Jalousie was the Desire Paths series, in which Kiwanga referenced aerial shots of Calgary’s desire lines, printed them on white sheets, then overlaid each line print on a steel-mesh grid, as well as the Linear Painting series, a group of two-toned flat paintings on panels of drywall. Their colour combinations cite early 20th-century studies of colour’s behavioural, therapeutic and disciplinary effects on hospital patients. Kiwanga’s particular colour choices reference archival documents of Alberta mental health institutions—for example, the now-defunct Michener Centre in Red Deer, a site for Alberta’s eugenics program, where many patients were forcibly sterilized. In this exhibition, even these paintings became backdrops for selfies, too.
The exhibition drew record-breaking attendance and set off an explosion in Esker’s Instagram mentions and geo-tags, but the curators were conflicted about this unprecedented youth engagement. For them, like many of Esker’s habitual patrons, and members of Calgary’s art community, it was ironic that a body of work that revealed the violence of the insidious design apparatus of prisons, hospitals and mental health facilities became a photogenic backdrop for selfies. Could selfies render institutional critique ineffectual?
You could gauge some of the quantitative engagement with a selfie-able exhibition from a quick glance at the feed that the exhibition generates. While evaluating qualitative audience engagement might be difficult with most exhibitions, Esker’s staff members take turns at the front desk throughout the week, where they receive immediate feedback. One of the curators told me, “When I’m at the desk I get people [who are our] old-guard audience approach me and they’re like, ‘I’m so annoyed.’ They can’t handle this younger crowd being louder and having a good time and taking photos. They’re indignant that they’re not engaging with the work on the traditional level.” One of that curator’s friends even suggested that they ban phones and cameras altogether.
A selfie-able artwork presents the viewer with the opportunity to self-represent their engagement with it. Seeing a reflection of yourself in an artwork when you’re not used to seeing yourself in art, let alone in the institutional structures that propagate it, can be a significant experience for marginalized people, even if the work’s surface isn’t actually reflective, even if thousands of images of other people in it already exist. Before the opening of Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in March 2018, I wrote a piece for Canadian Art titled “So what if art selfies are narcissistic?” in response to griping I’d heard from mostly white, cis, straight, middle-aged, middle-class people about how the exhibition would be a hotbed for frivolous selfies and nothing beyond. “It’s important to note the subject position of the source of that shallow critique, because it’s likely that it didn’t occur to them that Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour (BIPOC) are not accustomed to seeing nuanced reflections of ourselves in visual culture,” I wrote. “So when an exhibition presents selfie ops, we rush to insert images of ourselves so we can see them reflected not just in the artwork itself, but in the social media feeds that the art work generates. If visual culture won’t do it, we must do it ourselves. […] I’m locating this within a persistent culture of selfie-shaming that is by implication misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic. Ultimately what its purveyors are saying is, ‘We don’t want you to rub images of yourselves that you made yourselves in our faces—we must retain the right to your representation so we can continue to possess your body, through possessing the image of you.’” The art world craves the circulation of its production, in virtual and in foot traffic, but it also wants to dictate how audiences engage with that production and how they circulate it.
In essence, the exhibition highlighted an audience divide: between members of the gallery’s habitual patrons—generally educated, moneyed, white—and an entirely new audience of teens, some of whom had never even been in a gallery before. As the curators gave me a tour, I witnessed a group of BIPOC teens taking selfies at the same time as a boomer white couple pored over the exhibition brochure. To me that image personified this tension between old-guard art-world engagement—purportedly studied and discursive, and therefore valid—and a seemingly new kind of engagement—deemed cursory and narcissistic, and therefore vapid. The art world’s habitual disdainful responses to selfie-generating exhibitions suggests a desire to enforce tacit hierarchies of literacy.
The artist herself wasn’t concerned with differing encounters with her work. “I think of making exhibitions that I would have liked to have seen, or that my future self would like to see,” Kiwanga told me on the phone in May 2018. When I began to unpack with her what it meant for this work that highlights systemic power disparities to become the backdrop for innocuous selfies, she told me that the kind of structures she’s pointing to are already everywhere anyway. “It just happens that I took something that historically is quite violent and extracted it, […] put it under the microscope with this abstract gesture,” she told me. “If we accept that these structures are always around us, that we circulate in them, and we take this little corridor, which is pink and blue, which [could represent] our whole structural colonial system, and we see people surviving and living in that little space, it could [represent] a microcosm of the bigger one, couldn’t it?”
Kiwanga told me that while she’s not on Instagram, the images she did see of people doing their thing, feeling themselves, seemed positive and powerful. “It totally didn’t bother me,” she said. “I make work and I learned to let go in that regard. I have no problem with people appropriating it whatever way they want to, unless it’s completely horribly ultra-right disrespectful.”
The curators themselves recognized there are many ways to engage with an exhibition, and none of them are mutually exclusive. They tried not to dismiss the teens’ engagement, so as not to alienate them. They’d often come across thoughtful captions or comments attached to images posted in the feed. Esker staff made handout sheets outlining nominal rules—asking viewers to credit Kiwanga in their posts of her work, barring visitors from taking commercial photographs to promote their products, as some had done, and encouraging viewers to post their images with Esker’s hashtags and credit lines. They wanted to “ensure beyond surface-level engagement,” Diggon and Thompson said. “We asked ourselves: what is the information that people need to know to do right by the artist and the work? Still, no one wants to police the audience, to stomp in and tell them what to do. It feels like a fragile thing, when you have this new audience coming in and you don’t want their first encounter with an art gallery to be a negative one,” they told me.
If it’s ironic that BIPOC teens took selfies in an exhibition that demonstrates the tools of institutional disciplinary apparatus, what’s even more ironic is the desire to control how they engage with this very exhibition. The subjects of Kiwanga’s institutional critique are primarily the hospital, the prison and the mental health facility. An art-world audience might believe that the white cube is relatively an innocuous, neutral space, even though Kiwanga references Le Corbusier’s proselytization of white Ripolin paint, the ultimate signifier of anti-ornamental purity. The engagement with Kiwanga’s exhibition—the noise, the boisterousness, the selfies—punctured the white cube’s purported neutrality. The anti–selfie response to it reminds us that the white cube is itself a site of surveillance and control.
In A wall is just a wall (and nothing more at all), Kiwanga uses the formal language of minimalism to lay bare the latent mechanisms that some institutions deploy to govern how marginalized people move through them and what their bodies feel when they’re inside them. Kiwanga takes her title from Assata Shakur’s poem “Affirmation,” a reflection on liberation and the right to freedom published in her 1988 autobiography. The activist was a member of the Black Liberation Army, and has been living in political exile in Cuba since 1979. She escaped from a maximum-security prison after six years of imprisonment for a crime she did not commit. The line following “a wall is just a wall / and nothing more at all” in Shakur’s poem reads: “It can be broken down.”