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Co-creative models
of art and feminist law
in the
Templates for Activism project

c.j.fleury

n.paradoxa
“Rethinking Revolution”
International Feminist Art Journal
Vol 10. July 2002.
ed. Katy Deepwell, London

 

 

What is the potential for a feminist revolution in terms of imaginative thinking?
Are there ways that artists can act as midwives to the imaginative processes of non-artists while acknowledging, cultivating and circulating parallel forms of vital creative energy beyond our specialization?
Is the chasm between the arts and non-arts sectors, a site for rethinking revolution?
Are there activists with whom we could work, communities whose axis and investigation equally challenge mainstream norms and institutions through their own feminist practices?

Such questions concerning strategies and forums of shared creation have informed my research and activities as a visual artist and my desire for collaboration with non-arts feminist groups.

Templates for Activism is an ongoing interdisciplinary project (which began in 1999) that considers this relationship between imaginative thinking and a particular set of activists, the feminist law community. The project is a process oriented venture that aims to establish a flow of artistic and political literacy between two visionary sets of workers in the creation of a hybrid terrain for feminist expression. Elements of the Templates for Activism model are discussed here, from it's fluid origins to its context in a national law conference and a specific piece that delves into deeper levels of engagement in conceiving, producing and presenting a piece about the regulation of rape.

The feminist law community has consistently challenged the definition of personal and political freedoms through the fundamental institutions that regulate women's bodies, lives and movement on practical, social, economic, national and international levels. As a broad and inclusive group, this activist community works toward the development of law and policy that pays attention to the complex ways in which law interacts with gender and other social relations, specifically identifying, deconstructing and challenging the role of law in both producing and reproducing relations of power.

As Julia Tolmie suggests: 'Increasingly as the law has been interpreted by feminist [particularly post modern] scholars the differences between the two disciplines [law and feminist theory] begin to collapse. Law emerges as deeply subjective, permeated with mysticism, exclusionary, having many layers of meaning and located in the field of possibility - in the sense that we wonder what it would look like if it incorporated a multiplicity of voices.'(1)

Contemporary community art echoes the concerns and questioning processes of feminist law in so far as it too is engaged in disrupting boundaries and reconfiguring inherited patterns within dominant fields. While collaboration in art's conception, perception, production, dissemination and evaluation has been key to the contested genre of community art, it has been exemplary in its radical processes of inclusion, drawing non-arts groups into art's processes. Foundations, arts organizations and some museums have raced to define community arts' parameters and possible applications while more reticent arts practitioners negate its larger potential. Recently, the Inter-Arts section of the Canada Council for the Arts prioritized community arts by setting it into a 'self-defined, open category' called New Artistic Practice, one 'that respond[s] to concerns other than those traditionally governing the production of artworks...subvert[ing] established notions of what art is...'(2) This 'ideational mutant'(3) of the high art world, a form whose time has come again, reiterates the bonds created through shared knowledge and a sense of integration similar to those found in small scale societies.(4)

My principal colleague in the many facets of the
Templates for Activism project is Elizabeth Sheehy, professor of criminal law, criminal procedure and women in the law at the University of Ottawa. Her research and writing focus on the laws surrounding rape and self-defence for battered women who have killed their mates as well as equality theory. We met in 1999, when Elizabeth employed one of my drawings for the cover of her new book (5) and we discovered similar interests in methods of communication about marginalized feminist work as well as a mutual esteem for collaborative processes. As our conversations evolved, we aspired to build and share local models that could set patterns of dialogue, precedent and continuance for such partnerships in other centers. Identifying time, sites and contexts for expressions of ephemeral, interactive or lasting natures and exploring streams of action for larger and specific concepts, we pinpointed issues of rape as the subject for our first collaborative piece. The gestation period for this multi-level project was naturally slow, yet challenging for many reasons. We worked long distance for one year as Elizabeth was in Toronto, then Australia as visiting professor. A significant factor was the lack of financial support due to the initial inability of peer arts juries to grasp this interdisciplinary idea or believe in the visionary capacities of the feminist law community as artistic partners. In discussing the potential for such new relationships and the creative production that could be engendered by linking these communities of resistance, Elizabeth first used the term Templates for Activism.

In January of 2001, Bonnie Diamond, Executive Director of the National Association of Women and the Law [NAWL] invited me to sit on planning and programming committees for their 14th Biennial Conference, for the purpose of further elaborating and publicly launching the Templates project at the March 2002 gathering. Entitled Women, the Family and the State (6), over four hundred community activists, academic and independent legal researchers, practitioners and law students from across Canada as well as China, Germany and South America met to exchange and strategize on issues of equality, legal and legislative reform, intersecting oppressions, national and international public policy. Perspectives and contributions of Aboriginal Women, Women of Colour, Women with Disabilities and women from other parts of the Americas were highlighted.

Acting within this politically engaged community for a moment in its progression, seeded uncommon exchanges that informed both the ongoing rape project with Elizabeth and the larger Templates project as a whole. Templates for Activism had initially been conceived as a fluid and co-creative process of opening, exploring and establishing the dialogue between contemporary art and feminist law and NAWL was content to work within this unfixed frame. Committee discussions about location, physical access, time and blending possible art and law activities led to the concept of an exhibition event for the conference's opening night. NAWL committee members continued to partner in the project's developmental phases: defining the premise and location of the six week exhibition as well as the artists' call, determining their final selection and inviting them to the full conference proceedings. Thus, Template #2:Bridging Visions offered an unparalleled opportunity for double exposure as it introduced this law community to seven additional artists and a range of contemporary art and its cultural possibilities. It enabled diverse activists to see into each others' fields and share innovative concepts with each other and, subsequently, with local and international populations working in art, law and activism.

Throughout the pre-conference period an open discussion on community process, available tie-ins, NAWL meetings and the ongoing dialogue with Elizabeth was continued with each artist. Sometimes hesitant, the artists were encouraged to explore new modes of production and presented with multiple paths for examining the links between law and the particularities of their own practices. The artists were also asked to select relevant legal quotes from law journals, articles and other sources, relating to their individual productions, to punctuate the gallery space with the text based vision of the partnering community. These many conversations and texts inspired the works of Ngoc Tuyen Dang, Cindy Stelmackowich and Douglas Samuel. Ngoc Tuyen Dang's drywall and shadow manipulation articulated histories of immigrant women's concealed labour. By perforating a classic law dictionary, Cindy Stelmackowich connected her own research into scientific views of the body to questions of the body's legal definition and construction. Douglas Samuel layered and looped voices and legal readings by the exhibition participants to generate a sonic reflection of feminism, law and art. Gayle Kells continued her work on vulnerability of women's concealed and aging bodies. Kathy Gillis elaborated a concept on fragility of body and human rights from a Falun Gong perspective. Collaboration with children and their rights proved central to the evolution of Audrey Churgin's sonic work. Though her ecofeminist lexicon, Dawn Dale's monumental tableau expressed a mother's trepidation for a child's passage to adulthood. Participation of daughters, NAWL members and the legal affairs specialist from Canada's political channel (7) in publicity and installation phases augmented the dialogue in unanticipated ways that will, in time, feed back into subsequent phases of the Templates project.

For the eighth piece in the conference exhibit,
Hearings at the Rape Maze, a total of ten other women collaborated with Elizabeth and myself. They brought their interests in law and contemporary art as well as their experiences and skills of mind, voice and hand to every phase of the work's realization. The piece evolved slowly in a number of modes and locations: at the University of Ottawa Law Building, in a Montréal music space, at social and academic law events, in private homes, a reading at a forest rock face, in my Québec and Toronto residency studios, on-line and in the gallery space prior to the exhibition.
The title of this artwork refers to an installation, a 'court of law', as well as the transformation of that site of 'justice' through a twenty five minute performance piece. This version of a 'hearing' was a form of public ritual that critiqued the role of the law in producing conditioned unconsciousness to the violation of women's bodies. Contemporary feminist critiques of law have often cited the rape trial as embodying all that is problematic about the legal system for women.'(8) The experiences of Elizabeth Pickett, ex-lawyer and law professor, poet and rape survivor significantly informed the collaborative envisioning process of Hearings at the Rape Maze. Her pivotal contributions, in conjunction with a wider consideration of the unchecked domestic and international phenomena of sexual assault and the conference frame of Women, the Family and the State, suggested the ceremonial placement of a women's globe into a strategic and safe site. Thus a fictive legal arena was devised for the symbolic actions leading to this final gesture of survival.

This installation comprised a double layered textual ground plane, a jury of Aural Headdresses and a charred table of experience. The Rape Maze's very foundation was a dull gold grid mapping the oppressive language of the legal regulation of rape: words, phrases, legal criteria and judicial pronouncements. Unfamiliar, sometimes startling language led to complex and tricky intersections of terminologies utilized in the prosecution of rape, the juridical constructions of the woman who has been raped and the law's characterization and transformation of her words and her experience. Using paper prototypes, we had tried to evaluate and explore this content, varying the effects, scale and layout of this performance setting. Finally we composed the maze with lettered ceramic tiles of mixed fonts and orientations which created a dizzying space whose complexity stymied free movement and reflected 'the institutional coerciveness of legal discourse.'(9) Barely obscuring this foundational labyrinth was a second layer, a web of paper white sticks inscribed with feminist critique. Researched, edited and meticulously printed over a five month period, these sticks bore potent arguments from feminist legal, linguistic and human rights sources representing decades as well as individual careers dedicated to rape centered legal struggles.

The performance developed through simple, measured acts of bending, reaching, gathering and carrying the sticks from the ground plane to the burnt table, thus ritualizing the quotidian and undervalued tasks of managing feminist knowledge and exposing the dull maze of law's embedded histories. These movements led to the voicing sequence during which a number of sticks were spoken and sung in English and French. In the conceptual phases of this segment, Elizabeth Sheehy had pushed the limits through the addition of uncommon song lines. To do this she brought University of Ottawa colleagues Rosemary Cairns Way [Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section], Joanne St. Lewis [Assistant Professor and Bencher, Law Society of Upper Canada] and Llana Nakonechny [Visiting Professor] into the project. When these women arrived at my studio the performance plan underwent radical changes. It was stunning to see the way they leaned into a translation of what was then growing on the studio floor and drawing boards to intensify the very serious legal content with an exceptional coloring of operatic, African and jazz stylings. Among other intuitive actions they injected a famous judicial quote on males' objectification of women's bodily experience, a call-answer motif and a variation on a pop-culture rape anthem.

The first voicing of the performance was to begin with: 'Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you. HAH!'. This was transformed into a repeated call-answer motif when the three women created a varying sequence of melodic replies, "No, no, no-o-o-o. She said no-o-o."

The evening of the exhibition opening, the transition to the performance event itself was accentuated by musician Melissa Pipe's haunting melodies and percussive breaths on baritone sax. Blowing female sound through an instrument of a male-dominated tradition, she marked a slow and decisive suite of intentions to "hear" and "voice" women's real stories. One by one, the performers then emerged from the spectator's field, partially disassembling the jury of Aural Headdresses(10) to claim the ceremonial listening garb as well as black judicial gowns. During the actual performance voicing sequence, the text covered sticks were methodically set into a circular shape by participants who then systematically repositioned themselves in the maze and jury sites. The stick manipulation culminated in a large black and white nest of legal theory and women's knowing. In closure, an egg shaped globe, having been carried within one of the Aural Headdresses, was cautiously drawn out and situated inside this space of feminist thought.

Other performers and studio participants in Hearings at the Rape Maze were Bonnie Diamond, Kimberley Lewis [Legal Counsel, House of Commons], Ghislaine Sirois [Executive Co-ordinator of Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes], Kay Marshall [lawyer], and Dawn Dale.

Hearings at the Rape Maze is part of a larger work-in-progress entitled The Rape Maze Series. This includes Paper Rape Mazes, small posters designed to encourage graffiti-like response to guerilla type installations in safe spaces [including women's bathrooms at one participant's suggestion] as well as Difficult Conversations, collaborative videos. Both of these expressions will be distributed through conference networks back into the centers of legal research and education, thereby extending and reflecting the knowledge of feminist experience via contemporary artistic means. A small book on the whole series is planned for publication as well as a comprehensive webpage on the Templates for Activism project with participant essays, photo documentation, information, links and feedback.

On both fronts, within and outside the Templates project, a number of myths were opened up and rethought. Artists revealed that, like the general public, they had originally harbored unfavorable preconceptions about lawyers, not previously distinguishing 'all lawyers' from the feminist law community, nor were they even cognisant of the existence of such an activist or theoretical alliance or the scope and sites of such work. Like most people they felt removed from law, distanced from its underpinnings and the way it regulates and extends itself into women's public and private lives. The artists who participated in Template#2: Bridging Visions appreciated the open attitudes of the event and the opportunities it provided to meld theory with practice through visual, symbolic and text based forms of resistance. They stressed the need for more time to have realized the full potential of the project and an interest in knowing more about the facets of women's legal activism.

From the vantage point of the legal community, operating in close proximity to artists provided an equal awakening. A number of women connected to law noted with surprise the amount of research, preparation and time required to develop a new creative process, an exhibition with an opening event or even one piece of art. This led them to consider more fully art's language, production and interdisciplinary potential. The overall response from close colleagues and conference attendees was remarkably positive. News of the collaboration was widely distributed through coverage in law specific and general broadcast, print and virtual media. On local and distant planes, interest from both disciplines continues in the processes, variations and succeeding actions of the Templates for Activism project.

Exploring the production of a feminist culture from both legal and artistic standpoints, suggests the revolutionary potential in shifting the circuits of imaginative and visionary thinking. Illuminating the bridges between art and law, and their shaping by practitioners of these vastly different realms, may provide powerful situations from which to amplify feminist visions, voices and spirit in an artful continuum of engagement.


cj fleury lives in Wakefield, Québec, Canada. The artist gratefully acknowledges support through the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, the National Association of Women and the Law, the City of Ottawa Public Art Programme, the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council forthe Arts and for a residency period, at the Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts.


Notes
1) Julia Tolmie, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Auckland, New Zealand, personal communication with author, July 2001
2)
www.canadacouncil.ca/grants/interarts/iash02-e.asp
3) Robert J. Sternberg 'An evolutionary interpretation of intelligence, creativity and wisdom: A link between the evolution of organisms and the evolution of ideas' Behavioural and Brain Sciences 23 (1): pp. 160-161
4) For example Richard Anderson Art in Small Scale Societies (Prentice Hall, 1989)
5) Josée Bouchard, Susan B. Boyd, Elizabeth Sheehy 'Canadian Feminist Literature on Law: An Annotated Bibliography' Canadian Journal of Women and the Law (University of Toronto Press) vol. 11/12.
6)
www.nawl.ca/conf2002finalprog.htm
7)
www.cpac.ca/programs/legal_e.asp
8) Susan Ehrlich Representing Rape: Language and sexual consent (Routledge, 2001) p.1
9) ibid p.4
10) While the obvious reference of the Aural Headdresses is to legal hearings and notions of listening to women's lived experience, ties are also made to the contested position of women as jurors [until mid C20 in some Canadian provinces] and other historic moments for women in law relating to hats.

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c.j. fleury
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