Who Are We Now? Essays From A New World is an initiative from Theatre Alberta that brings you editorial perspectives from a variety of Albertan artists about the rapidly changing world we live and work in. We hope you’ll find them useful as you process your own evolving reality.
it is not just to have a mestizo trans woman in power – Simone A. Medina Polo | January 27, 2021
At the beginning of October 2020, I took on the role of Festival Producer for the Nextfest Arts Company. Though it is most certainly exciting and a significant personal achievement, it is not without a context that intersects at the central question for this essay. In light of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter for anyone who is not a Black person, many organizations across this colonial state scrambled to assure themselves that this political moment did not destabilize their status quo – quite successfully so, I will add. For instance, MacEwan University made a textbook Black Lives Matter statement across social media without addressing the backlash from students and alumni who beg to differ out their corroborated lived experiences through the academic system (MacEwan University, 2020; CBC, 2021) – it is my observation that there have been proactive efforts by various individuals and collectives for more than four years, and all of these instances have been dismissed by administrators upholding the Ivory Tower and its crony processes (Paxsi, 2020; CBC, 2021).
In some instances, administrators in the arts (all of them women, interestingly enough) stepped down from their roles in order to make space for something different…
By and large, the situation in the arts and culture is not much different. In October 2020, the Art Gallery of Alberta experienced a moment of public embarrassment upon realizing that the curated exhibition of contemporary works for its biennial gala has not included a single Black artist in the 24 years of its production (Cummings, 2020). The AGA is not alone in this as the Canadian Human Rights Museum was also subject to a notable controversy surrounding extensive accounts of systematic racism and anti-2SLGBTQ+ attitudes by the administration (Pauls, 2020). In some instances, administrators in the arts (all of them women, interestingly enough) stepped down from their roles in order to make space for something different – for instance, in Edmonton, the former Artistic Producers for Azimuth Theatre decided to step down to make room for Sue Goberdhan and Morgan Yamada to step in. It is in this context that my mentor Maggie Barton Braid announced her departure from the Festival Producer role at Nextfest to make room for someone in these disenfranchised communities to step into a leadership role. And well, here I am.
My role at Nextfest is symptomatic of some fundamental issues that extend well-beyond this one organization and the arts – who is in a position of leadership and power is just a symptom of a more systematic root of causes; and treating the symptom alone will not resolve any of the deeply ingrained restlessness that characterizes the present time under capitalism, its (neo)colonial exploits and the co-optation of the lived oppressions that are profited upon every step of the way.
From a decolonial perspective, non-profits cannot be decolonized much like academia cannot be decolonized, or the colonial State apparatus, or the police and armed forces, or the RCMP.
Non-profit is an industrial complex (Rodríguez, 2016). This is perhaps most apparent in the non-profit industrial complex that concerns the well-being of those struggling with dispossession from a home, but it is nevertheless the case in the arts as they enter in conjunction with government funding bodies and corporate sponsorships – some of these latter of which are more openly implicated in the facilitation of exploitation, whereas the former like to pretend that the arms-length strategy assures anyone that funding is not compromised by a political hegemony. From a decolonial perspective, non-profits cannot be decolonized much like academia cannot be decolonized, or the colonial State apparatus, or the police and armed forces, or the RCMP. When looked at with sincerity and honesty, my current leadership role entails a certain degree of covering my hands in blood.
This is why I stress that it is not just a mestizo trans woman in power that will resolve the fundamental tension which we experience in various partial moments; and in these partialities, we mistake the symptom for the root of it all. And frankly, with an entire world slipping away from us in this perverse everydayness, I do not wish to partake on the gesture of disavowal that would try to set aside the implications of myself as an actor in these systems.
I am sure that white folks can afford a certain naivety around these systematic circumstances, and those who seem to know better prefer to hide behind those semblances through disavowal – one enjoys through the institution where and when one acts as if there is nothing to be acknowledged (Ahmed, 2012, 1-3; Fanon, 2008, 120-129; Zupančič, 2017, 54). As someone attuned to psychoanalytic theory and practice, I think Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian theory of ideology comprehends this well:
“…fantasy is a means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance… The function of ideological fantasy is to mask this inconsistency, the fact that ‘Society doesn’t exist’, and thus to compensate us for the failed identification…” (Žižek, 2008, 142).
“…the principal illusion of the Enlightenment consists in the idea that we can preserve a simple distance from the external ‘machine’ of social customs, and thus keep the space of our inner reflection spotless, unblemished by the externality of customs.” (Žižek, 2008, 88).
The on-going disavowal of capitalism and its thorough assortment of intersectional exploits is quite common in the arts, as the capital industrialization of the arts tries to patch over any fundamental restlessness in order to smoothen the surfaces for capital flows and processes – we do this with extractivist dissections of Indigeneity and with neoliberal band-aids of representation of marginalized communities à la #GirlPower as if it were the material sustenance of daily bread (Klein and Simpson, 2013; Alvarado, 2018, 10-12; Menon, 2015, 1-24). And when these processes breakdown into a critical point, we see the aggressive fascist turnover – like the one we have seen since 2016 leading up to the Storming of the Capitol in early-2021; and we, in Canada, don’t get to distance ourselves from the U.S. as this colonial state is only lagging behind in the exact same process the U.S. is caught up in – as it doubles down on the claim that there is such a thing as civil, cohesive society that is in decadence and it must be protected from decadence (Zupančič, 2017, 25 and 31; Reich, 1970, 128; Fanon, 2008, 89-90). This is an active sacrifice of life which is not for the sake of anything other than the spirit of sacrifice itself as it gets at its perverse, accumulated surplus-enjoyment:
For Fascist ideology, the point is not the instrumental value of the sacrifice, it is the very form of sacrifice itself, ‘the spirit of sacrifice’, which is the cure against the liberal-decadent disease. It is also clear why Fascism was so terrified of psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis enables us to locate an obscene enjoyment at work in this formal act of sacrifice. (Žižek, 2008, 90).
I cannot afford that same naivety or disavowal over the very predicaments that have traumatized me and many others for centuries, and this on-going deferral of judgment defers a world that is able to sustain life into the cancellation of the future altogether (Fisher, 2012, 16; Žižek, 2008, 73). Institutionally, whether we are in the university or the non-profit, we are told that change takes time and that we should reserve our judgment as if to pretend that the issues are hand are ultimately undecidable and untimely – as if we had any time left for anyone to buy into this idle pretext. The question is not just combating the macropolitical and overt forms of fascism, but also to combat the micropolitical fascism that normalize themselves into our everyday way of being, not just materially but culturally too (Deleuze & Guattari, 2005, 214 and 215). The clock is ticking, the world is dissolving, but hey, at least brunch is back when COVID-19 clears up.
*drinks the hemlock* (Plato, 1993, 78 and 79)
Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher, interdisciplinary artist, and community organizer based out of Amiskwaciwâskahikan in Treaty 6 territory. Informed by her experience as an immigrant mestizo trans woman, her work in philosophy has centred around theories and practices of emancipation which translate over to her music as pseudo-antigone and in her role in many diverse communities.
References and Citations
Ahmed, Sara. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Alvarado, Raisa Fernanda. (2018). “Girl of Color-Power: Resisting the Neoliberal Girl Power Agent.” Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1421. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Cummings, Madeleine. (October 7, 2020). “Art Gallery of Alberta confronts history of never including Black artists in Biennial exhibition” in CBC News. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. (2005). A Thousand Plateaus: Schizophrenia and Capitalism.
Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Fanon, Frantz. (2008). Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.
Fisher, Mark. (Fall 2012). “What is Hauntology?” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1. pp 16-24. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Klein, Naomi and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. (March 6, 2013). “Dancing the World into Being: A Conversation with Idle No More’s Leanne Simpson” in YES! Magazine. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
MacEwan University [Facebook post; photo included]. (June 2, 2020). “At MacEwan University, we welcome everyone. We respect human rights, celebrate diversity and embrace equity and inclusion. We build human rights champions who influence our community both within and beyond the university’s walls. These last few days have been an unfortunate reminder of the reality racial discrimination plays in our lives. It is important that we support our community members and maintain a commitment to address racial discrimination in all its forms. We stand with those in peaceful protest as they shine a light on discrimination, hate and the need for change. There is no place for racism, discrimination or hate in our society or our communities. MacEwan promotes diversity and inclusion and works to ensure our campus is safe, and our staff and students are supported. We continue this important work every day.” Retrieved January 7, 2021.
“MacEwan University students accuse administrators of failing to take action on racism” in CBC News. Retrieved January 16, 2020
Menon, Madhavi. (2015). Indifference to Difference: On Queer Universalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
Pauls, Karen. (August 5, 2020). “’Pervasive and systemic’ racism at Canadian Museum for Human Rights, report says” in CBC News. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Paxsi. (@listentowarawara). (December 6, 2020). “Accountability in MacEwan Music.” [Instagram IGTV video posts in two parts]. Retrieved January 7, 2021.
Pt. 1: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CImipM5gF5Z/
Pt. 2: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CImmXMYg28D/
Plato. (1993). Phaedo. Trans. David Gallop. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reich, Wilhelm. (1970). The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Trans. Vincent R. Carfagno. U.S.: Simon and Schuster.
Rodríguez, Dylan. (Spring 2016). “The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” in The Scholar & Feminist Online, Issue 12.2. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
Žižek, Slavoj. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.
Zupančič, Alenka. (2017). What Is Sex? Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.