Dossier | Liberty Lost: On Economic Crisis and the Suppression of Dissent | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Liberty Lost: On Economic Crisis and the Suppression of Dissent

  • Carole Condé + Karl Beveridge, Liberty Lost (G20, Toronto), 2010. Photo : © Condé + Beveridge

Liberty Lost: On Economic Crisis and the Suppression of Dissent
By Michael DiRisio

The precarity of the global economy, combined with the increasingly precarious state of modern wage-labour, has led to a wave of dissent and resistance, one that has materialized in both mass protests and increasingly critical political art from Canadian artists. Toronto artists Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge are important in this regard as their sustained interest in addressing labour issues continues the dissent that is often otherwise suppressed. Their work Liberty Lost (2010) addresses a number of the most significant political issues facing dissenting Canadians at present, and a critical analysis of the work, employing some of the political and aesthetic terms used by French philosopher Jacques Rancière, reveals voices that address both specific political issues and ontological divisions that limit who can speak and what can be said.

G20 and the people hushed
With their photomontage Liberty Lost, Toronto artists Condé and Beveridge, who attended the G20 protests, portray this suppression. Depicting riot police clubbing and arresting protesters marching alongside the large concrete and chain link fence installed for the G20 Summit, Liberty Lost makes real the violence and hostility of many of the arrests (over 1,100 (2)) that occurred during the protests. The severity of these arrests led Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, who is given the responsibility of investigating public and governmental complaints, to refer to the arrests as the “most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.”(3) Canada’s mainstream media continually downplays the extent to which so many of these arrests violated individuals’ rights to demonstrate, and despite the initial coverage in the media, the issue seems to have faded out of the public consciousness. In light of this, it is important that Liberty Lost continues to circulate and be exhibited as it asks that the violence not be forgotten.

It is also important not to forget both the concrete and general criticisms made by the protesters. In the centre of Liberty Lost a sign from deep in the crowd reads “G20 WASTE...” with the rest of the text obscured by the crowd. Although this leaves the message open, as the viewer can determine what was wasted by the G20, there have been a number of criticisms of the involved in the spending summit, any one of which might complete the sign. The approximately one billion dollars that was spent on the security measures for the summit has been harshly criticized, especially significant when one considers that security for the previous G20 in London, England, amounted to only thirty million dollars.(4) Considering not only specific claims but also the voice of the people in general is also important, as without voice there can be no democratization of political action. These voices are central to both protest movements and political action in general, and the silencing of this voice is an indication of a broken democracy.

A loss of liberty and voice
Liberty Lost also points to a general shift in much of the criticism from the Left, wherein it is not the political domain alone that is the object of criticism but also the corporate domination of politics. (5) It points to this through its remaking of Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), which it visually references. Liberty Leading the People, which pays homage to the Paris Revolution of 1830, has at its centre a tall woman, who represents Liberty, holding up the flag of the French Revolution. Liberty Lost has at its centre, however, not a proud liberator, but a riot police officer holding up his baton, which lies just beside the flagpole for the large Bank of Montreal (BMO) flag. As a result of its proximity, the baton visually connects to the flagpole, and thus the police officer appears to raise the BMO flag. Liberty is lying beneath the officer’s boot, resisting the blow that is about to come from the officer’s baton. This substitution of a corporate one for a national flag seems to reference this shift in criticism and questions where the power lies in the contemporary nation-state. The police violence can be seen serving the financial sector over the people, and resistance seems remarkably difficult.

Jacques Rancière’s concept of the police is important here as it broadens the sociopolitical analysis accounting for the fundamental structures that maintain events such as the G20 Summit. Rancière, when speaking of the police, makes reference not to individual officers, but to a divisive and excluding force which limits groups to specific functions in specific spaces. (6) This system is greater than the conventional notion of “the police”; it is the systemic tendency towards the creation of boundaries. These divisions are not limited to the massive fences that enclosed the so-called “free speech” zone at the G20 Summit — ironically, where many of the arrests took place — but include the fundamental division between protester and police officer, or between those who have a voice and those who do not.

Rancière contrasts this notion of the police with his view of politics: politics is not limited to the conventional political arena, but is the expansion and inclusion of those who are otherwise voiceless. Where the police claim that spaces for movement and circulation, such as the city, are spaces for movement and circulation only, “politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving along,’ of circulation, into a space for the appearance of the subject: the people, the workers, the citizens.” (7) These people, these workers and citizens protesting in the streets of Toronto on June 26 and 27, 2010, were acting politically, not by engaging with a political institution or governmental organization, but by simply stopping in the streets to speak. The construction worker left of centre in Liberty Lost has stopped, sign in hand: an action that is significant not for the worker’s opposition to one policy or another, but for his choice to contribute to the social construction of the city.

The art of dissent
Looking past the construction worker, another worker can be seen within the frame of Liberty Lost, one who is at work while the other protesters march. That worker is Beveridge himself, who can be seen on the far left, moving towards the crowd. The work of his and Condé’s should not be overlooked here as it is that very work which has constructed the frame for this critical analysis, and it is that work which veritably allows those G20 protesters to continue their march within the bounds of the image. The average Canadian visual artist faces, among other difficulties, an annual income far below the low-income cut-off. (8) Artist and writer Gregory Sholette, who pays particular attention to the underappreciation of artists as workers, states that “[as] a category of labour, artists are over-educated, under-employed, and make substantially less income compared to [other] workers with the same degree of professional training”.(9) This recognition of artists who address issues related to labour and the economy is important, as their position is often overlooked relative to the precarity and devaluation of other forms of labour.

The importance of the work of these artists is not lost on Rancière, as his discussion of politics often shifts towards the role of the artist as a dissenting voice. The political, to Rancière, is hinged upon what he refers to as dissensus, a term which goes beyond dissent or a disagreement of interests or opinions. Dissensus includes “what is seen and what might be said,” as well as “who is qualified to see or say what is given.” (10) It is a critical perspective that extends to the foundation set by the police. Rancière argues that the basic connection between art and politics should be built on this form of dissensus, where art remains open, without lessons or conclusions. (11) Throughout his writing on aesthetics and politics, Rancière exhibits a marked distaste for overly literal or prescriptive art, preferring that which upsets the boundaries and divisions that limit the voices of those who are not counted. The work of Condé and Beveridge is interesting in relation to this perspective, since it deals, often quite overtly, with specific issues. While their work tends to include a specific criticism, it does, however, continually and simultaneously contend with the very foundations of the political organization they are criticizing, as evidenced in their allusion to the fall of Liberty herself.

The contributions of Condé and Beveridge extend far beyond the scope of the aforementioned photomontage, and their prolonged dedication to creating political art that addresses some of the most significant issues affecting working people in the last three decades should not be understated. (12) This dedication, combined with the drive of the other members of the Labour, Arts and Media working group — of which Condé and Beveridge are founding members — led to the creation of the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, which has been held in Toronto at the start of every May since 1986. (13) The festival is now celebrated in many large Canadian cities, from Halifax to Windsor to Calgary, where it recalls Canada’s history of worker exploitation and the labour and union movements that were formed in response; it recognizes areas where working conditions are still unacceptable and celebrates the improvements that have been made in other areas for workers. Despite the decline of unions and the increasing precarity of Canadian workers, artists such as Condé and Beveridge voice not only their own concerns, but through the collaborative nature of their practice, the concerns of those who are too often left voiceless.

NOTES
(1) “Opening statement by the Prime Minister to the G20 Sherpas’ meeting,” Prime Minister of Canada (website), March 18, 2010, (accessed August 20, 2012). www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp? id=3209
(2) “G20 oversight dogged by poor communication, says report” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, June 28, 2012, (accessed August 23, 2012). www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2012/06/28/g20-summit-versight-repo...
(3) Ibid.
(4) Colin Freeze, “Billion-dollar G20 security cost not a ‘blank cheque,’ security czar argues,” The Globe and Mail, Friday May 28, 2010, (accessed August 24, 2012). www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/billion-dollar-g20-security-cost-not-...
(5) See Noam Chomsky’s lecture “Class War: The Attack on Working People,” (Epitaph, November 10, 1996) as well as much of the writing of Chris Hedges, David Harvey, and Antonio Negri. Occupy Wall Street serves as an example of this, as it was Wall Street, not the White House, that was the focus of the criticism.
(6) Jacques Rancière and Davide Panagia, “Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Rancière,” Diacritics 30, no. 2 (2000): 124.
(7) Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (New York: Continuum, 2010), 37.
(8) Hill Strategies, “A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada: Based on the 2006 Census” Statistical insights on the arts 7, no. 4 (2009): 5, 9.
(9) Gregory Sholette, “Speaking Pie to Power: Can We Resist the Historic Compromise of Neoliberal Art?” in Imagining Resistance: Visual Culture and Activism in Canada, eds. J. Keri Cronin and Kirsty Robertson (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), 31.
(10) Rancière and Panagia, “Dissenting Words,” 124.
(11) Rancière, Dissensus, 140.
(12) J. Keri Cronin and Kirsty Robertson, “Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge: A Living Culture Needs a Living Wage,” in Imagining Resistance: Visual Culture and Activism in Canada, eds. J. Keri Cronin and Kirsty Robertson (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011), 75.
(13) Cronin and Robertson, “Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge,” 77.

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