Art, AIDS Activism and Being an Ally: An Interview with Jessica MacCormack
As an artist with a self described, "interdisciplinary practice engaging with the intersection of institutional violence and the socio-political reality of personal trauma" one could expect Jessica MacCormack art to be a bit precious, too considered, too correct. But fret not! Instead Jess Mac's work is accessible, loose, and often times very funny. It is art people want to look at, think about and share.
With a focus on HIV/AIDS, personal trauma, criminalization, sexual assault and mental health, making work that speaks to people, that they want to share is a feat. In this short interview Visual AIDS asks Jess Mac about her work, her influences and about why Canada is full of so many great artists and activists right now.
In your Silence = Shutthefuckup series you are playing with so many images, and ideas. I wonder if you can parse it out a bit for us.
In this series I was building on works already in process that reflected on criminalization of the body and relationship to the virtual self. I was very upset by recent news of a man being charged with attempted murder (two counts of administering a noxious substance —his semen) for non-disclosure in Ottawa (Nov. 2012). Speaking to friends that evening I realized just how traumatic it was for them. Feelings of fear, shame and rage were met with suicidal thoughts. I thought about how silence and shame are treated with further silence and shame, an endless cycle of oppression.
Having worked directly in prisons and with people who have been criminalized, and seen the direct impact of these experiences and labels on their daily lives, the consequences of HIV Criminalization laws felt tangible not abstract to me. I thought about how General Idea expressed rage against the art world and media in their earlier work Shut the Fuck Up and I paired it with the SILENCE= DEATH iconography. Combining imagery of collapsing stars and 18thcentury medical Venus, I made a portrait for each of my friends living with HIV.
In looking at your work there are some works that are obviously about HIV, while others could be about other issues and ideas as well. Do you see HIV/AIDS as being an influence in the majority of your work?
I feel like discussions of how HIV impacts my friend's lives are a constant reality for me. This intersects with my own experiences of sexual abuse and mental illness, alongside my work with people in conflict with the law. The body becomes a site of control and resistance, identity becomes dissociated, social ties become conflicted, trauma is triggered in everyday,so-called normal activities, access to much needed resources is reduced,uncontrollable feelings of helplessness and rage are acted out, and art can become a space to work through and express these struggles.
Also I grew up in the late 70's early 80's and my father worked as a cameraman for CBC news. My first experiences of the AIDS crisis were through my father's experiences with Dr. Peter (whom he worked with for two years creating the Dr. Peter Diaries). My father's workplace was also a site very hard hit by the crisis and I heard of great losses. I was also hearing about my doctor at the time that was having a legal battle regarding blood transfusions for her child due to her understanding of the disease and risks. Later, as an adult, I came to contextualize these early experiences and perspectives and become more critical of how these narratives shape perception of HIV today.
As someone with an education in social practice what role do you think art can play in activism, in creating change?
I think art can shape the way we narrate, tell stories, see ourselves reflected back, shape society and culture, how we resist, but today the art world is framed and dominated by capitalism and individualism. So I feel the relationship between art and activism is a conflicted one, and therefore all the more reason to engage in it.
The structures of the art institutions are similar to the prisons, government, education and other systems; we need to actively shape them (or actively destroy them). I suppose at one time I believed moving away from art objects to actions was a form of resistance, but the economy is no longer based on objects alone, we are being sold experiences and identities. When it comes down to it I don't think there are clear lines where activism or art begin or end, the question for me becomes how integrated are they into our lives and experiences? All the community-based art projects I have worked on have changed me, I walked in thinking I was one thing and walked out knowing I was quite another. From this I was able to reframe my own experiences of oppression and privilege, and have a new understanding of myself and my role in society as an artist, activist or ally.
From the Maple Spring, to AIDS ACTION NOW, to QuAIA, Canada seems to be a hotbed of activism, often around HIV/AIDS. Why do you think so much creative and urgent response is coming from Canada right now?
I would say having such a right wing government has pushed people in Canada to articulate a political position. Canadians tend to see themselves as neutral, as a people with a history of landscapes not genocides. I think this deeply invested, naive illusion has allowed for so much violence and oppression to continue. The last residential schools closed in1994, the genocide continues today and we are a part of it. We have taken part in keeping prisoners unjustly detained in Guantanamo. We criminalize people who cross our borders.We charge people with HIV to counts of aggravated sexual assault. We are not a neutral people. As for the HIV/AIDS activism ... a handful of people can put a lot into motion, and they have.
What is good collaboration? What does it mean to be a good ally? Is there a relationship between the two?
Oh boy, hmm. I think all collaborations are good? No, not really ... I suppose if people are aware of the power dynamics at play when collaborating it is better, but most collaboration means losing something to gain something else. For some this means a loss of authorship for a gain in dialogue, community and complexity, but I suppose each person has a unique perception on this. I don't know what a 'good ally' looks like, but I would guess someone who empathizes and listens and asks questions and checks in and takes risks and is willing to feel uncomfortable and takes a public position/speaks out when they are able. I guess being self-reflexive and honest also helps.Collaboration is a way of communicating and sharing ideas,methods and power. Throw in some love and you have an ally.
To see more of MacCormack's work, visit: Jessica's website.