A conversation with Cathy Busby

Aura portrait of Cathy Busby – © 2012 by Chrysanne Stathacos

CHRYSANNE:

You describe your work as social practice. How is social practice related to social justice, especially with regard to pain, which is a deeply emotional and feard subject?

CATHY:

I started working with pain as a way of understanding my life. I was bridging a practice between being an artist and working in communication and media studies at Concordia.

CHRYSANNE:

You got a PhD?

CATHY:

Yes, I did. That process through the ‘90’s was one of trying to read my pain and look at it in a larger context. I was trying to use my own experience with pain as a guide but move away from that and move into what was going on in popular culture. What are the different understandings and generalizations and misunderstandings about pain and how can I make a contribution that might help to open up what I felt were pretty binary understandings of pain? For instance, we know that there is physical pain and there is emotional pain. I wanted to contribute to the line of thinking where one informs the other. I also wanted to contribute to the work that was moving away from expert understandings and in the ‘90’s a new field of experts was packaging pain particularly into self-help books—and it was becoming increasingly packaged and limited to the experts.

Self-Help Library, 1994

I felt that art had a lot to contribute, art and the way artists over decades, over centuries, but particularly artists in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s worked on putting forward different formulations of what pain is: What’s good pain, what’s bad pain?

CHRYSANNE:

Was there an event that triggered your interest in pain?

CATHY:

Around 1990, I had been moving in that direction and then I started working with Bill Burns and we shared that interest. Then I had this series of deaths in my family.  My brother died of AIDS related complications and within that year my father died in a plane crash, and the woman who had been my second mother died in between those two and there were several others. It really shook me to my core. I felt like I had to reformulate myself. So I was going through a pain event in a very immediate sense. But also, growing up, I, like so many of us, lived in a family that was being pulled in different directions. My mother struggled with mental illness and I ended up taking the responsibilities of someone older than my years because I had to. Then when you get older, these things haunt you and come back in ways. With the passing away of my father, my brother and my second mother, I was reformulating myself and my work.

CHRYSANNE:

Can you tell us how you ended up showing at the New Museum and about the construct and installation of the piece?

CATHY:

Bill Burns and I were working on a book called When Pain Strikes and Laura Trippi, who was a curator at the New Museum, heard about When Pain Strikes and she invited me. She knew I was working on self-help books and knew that I was writing about self-help culture and she was very interested in having the work in the project room during Bob Flanagan’s Visiting Hours, which was about very immediate pain. She was looking for a room to come down in after the intensity of Bob’s work. Bob was going to be there much of the time and he was very ill with cystic fibrosis and treating it through his (s/m) practice.

Moyra Davey and Cathy Busby comparing books at the New Museum.
Self-Help Library, 1994

What I did was gather together several hundred self-help books and I called the work Self-Help Library. I asked that the shelving be integrated with the architecture, so they built a false wall with inset shelves so that the books would be flush with the wall. I organized them into thematic categories: a section on divorce, on headaches, another on backaches. You had perspectives from the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s in self-help culture, and you could see that the language and the forms of self-diagnosis and the programs for recovery were always changing with the times.

SUSAN:

I am wondering if you were familiar with a book that was published in 1985 called The Body in Pain. In it Elaine Scarry says: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through this unshareability, through its resistance to language.” I think it is interesting that the nature of pain is its interiority and yet there is an unbelievable culture of speech that dances around it. At that exhibition at the New Museum you had your display of self-help literature confirming your understanding of its speech generating tendencies and then in the interior space there was an artist, Bob Flanagan, suffering before our eyes.

Books installed into the walls at the New Museum.
Self-Help Library, 1994

CATHY:

Bob liked the idea of Self-Help Library and eventually he contributed to the book, When Pain Strikes. He did a diary in the last days of his life. He was frustrated by that time with everything, frustrated that he was dying, frustrated with me because I kept saying I want you to keep going with this and that’s all in the book. I feel there was a really interesting dialogue that was brought about because I was doing something that was trying to deal with the fact that pain is incommensurable, that it is something that one has to continually explore and feel and move with and that it’s not as containable as medical science and conventional behavioral psychology would like it to be.

SUSAN:

Was Marica Tucker still at the New Museum at that time?

CATHY:

Yes, she was the director.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you consider this piece a seminal work for you?

CATHY:

Yes, it was the beginning of integrating an activist voice with a more subjective filter.

What’s Going On?, 1986

I had been very active in anti-nuclear campaigns, and in the women’s movement around International Women’s Day, and affordable housing for single moms in the ‘80’s, but I was moving into media studies and a deeper level of searching as an artist. The work at the New Museum helped me establish my orientation, which continues to inform my practice. Not at every moment, but it’s an important thread, a grounding thread—and I do see it being about social justice. I think the silencing of pain is a terrible thing and the incapacity to allow pain to be worked through is a big problem, although it is interesting how things have changed over the past 20 years because there are also examples of excess in representations of pain that are problematic and can be diminishing.

SUSAN:

In analyzing the category of pain, would you say that you are also interested in its uneven distribution? I am thinking of Judith Butler’s recent book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? and the her discussion concerning whose lives we value. Is part of the question concerning social justice and pain about the fact that pain is unfairly and unevenly distributed?

CATHY:

Or recognized. And I suppose you are right and in terms of basic comforts certainly there is terrible unevenness in the world; but also in terms of the recognition of that—for example, the torture of women as they reach puberty in particular African countries. It isn’t a mainstream story even though there are millions of women who suffer this pain.

video ©2012 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

What drew you to those self-help books and how would you see that journey from the works on pain to the public realm and a work like Sorry—which I would consider social sculpture. You moved from books to the sides of buildings.

CATHY:

It’s been a process—about a sense of confidence in filling a space. I had a major turning point in 2004, with an exhibition that I did called Totalled, where I was invited by Sandra Dyck at Carelton University Art Gallery (Ottawa) to work in conjunction with another artist, Ron Benner. He built cars and we were talking about the other space in that gallery being available and it was quite a large space with 20 foot ceilings. I had not worked in a space anywhere near that size before but I really wanted to do something with the advertising for cars that related to self-help culture. There was all this SUV advertising at the time like; “Take the road less traveled.” So I collected SUV advertising and filled the walls with promotional lines organized into categories like arrogance (“Heir to the planet”), strength, comfort, independence, and self-help.

I found a written-off 2001 Tahoe, which was a 16 foot long SUV, and I had it bisected. It had been in a rollover accident, which is the most common SUV accident. I had it cut two ways and then placed in the gallery, just its body—it had no wheels, it was just the skin of it. It had the presence of a very vulnerable container.

Totalled, 2004

And you could see that it was only about this thick (gestures with thumb and forefinger)—less than a 1/4 of an inch. The idea of this vehicle that was going to protect was quite nicely dispelled.

I explain all of that because it was an important marker in my practice in terms of scaling up. And the next substantial scaling up was my Sorry work. I collected public apologies and I had a small book made which was a collection of all of these apologies and then I had the mouths of a number of apologizers produced as digital prints which were about 4’ x 5’, so they were quite large and I presented them as a grid.

Sorry, 2011

I started a website of my work 5 years ago to have a public archive of these various projects. And I was keeping my ear to the ground for opportunities that would allow me to be able to speak boldly in my work and I heard about the Laneway Commissions project in Melbourne. I had been in Sydney presenting the Sorry prints and I had an invitation from Ocular Lab,  an artists’ co-op in Melbourne.

Righting the Wrongs, Ocular Lab, Melbourne, 2008

I did an extension of the project there in 2008, the same year that the apologies were made to Aboriginal Stolen Generations in Australia and to First Nations Residential School Survivors in Canada. That was the beginning of the We Are Sorry work, where I used the apology texts rather than the enlarged mouth imagery.

CHRYSANNE:

Who wrote the apologies?

CATHY:

The Aboriginal apology in Australia appears to have been written by pubic relations speech writers. That speech is rhetorical. There is a rhythm and this refrain: “ To the mothers and the fathers, to the brothers and the sisters…we say sorry.”

CHRYSANNE:

Because they took children away from their parents and put them in horrible situations.

CATHY:

In Canada between 1905 and the mid-1990’s children were taken from their homes and put into residential schools. First Nation’s children were forcibly assimilated through these schools which were jointly run by the churches and the government. They were poorly funded and often this meant that the food was terrible, that the employees were not the best people—they were very poorly paid. Beginning in 1999, there was a class action suit with 70,000 people signing on and the government decided to settle out of court. The settlement had three parts: a public apology, the payment of compensation and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We Are Sorry, Winnipeg, 2010

The Australian apology came through a different process. It was a popular movement over about 10 years including huge annual demonstrations. So there was popular support—it was a “Sorry” movement. In February of 2008, the incoming Kevin Rudd government apologized, keeping their election promise. The previous government had refused to make the apology. So this was all fueled through a popular movement.

We Are Sorry, Melbourne, 2009

In Canada, the apology was part of a negotiated settlement between the Assembly of First Nations and the government. They sat at the table together and agreed to the words of apology.

CHRYSANNE:

So you’ve done the project publicly in both countries? Has the reaction been different in the two countries?

CATHY:

In 2009, I did We Are Sorry as part of the Laneway Commissions in Melbourne. For that setting, I had to find the location and I was very fortunate to find a power substation. We were able to negotiate the loan of that space for up to 5 years. As a public artwork, it brought these words into the public eye and held them there. When these apologies were given, they were fleeting media moments. Each was a big spectacle and then it was gone. The version of We Are Sorry at the Winnipeg Art Gallery was in a very large hall at the entrance. It’s about 20 feet high and I had curtain-like fabric panels printed to fit around the two interior walls so it was actually about the same size as the Melbourne version. And I was very happy that they were up simultaneously.

During the same period, AA Bronson asked me if I would be interested in doing something in the pamphlet series Artists and Activists. I suggested making a souvenir pamphlet that would include both of the apologies, one starting on one side, then flip it over, and the other starts on the other side, to be silk-screened on a heavy paper so it would have this sense of something to keep. We were able to negotiate a co-publication with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Printed Matter. For me this is an invigorating aspect of the work; to bring people together whose interests cross but whose worlds are very unlikely to meet.

Sorry (first edition), 2005

In Australia there was a lot of emotion around We Are Sorry. Indigenous writer and activist John Harding, the person who wrote about Sorry for the publication and who really supported me in doing the work, performed his outrage at the treatment of Indigenous people at the opening event. He performed his text from the book and put his whole self into it. So I felt that my work became a backdrop for something very immediate and urgent to be seen, for the 150 people who were gathered for the event.

SUSAN:

The bulk of these apologies are being made by men, because men represent power. It is male spokespersons, Prime Ministers and Presidents, that are asked to deliver the apologies in the name of the governments they run. So I think it is interesting that your pieces are looking at men apologizing for their behavior or for their previous male counterparts.

CHRYSANNE:

And the taking away of children from their mothers!

CATHY:

Yes, in the case of the two apologies that we were just talking about. There’s an accountability that doing work about public apologies brings to the fore. At the same time, they are media spectacles that come and go.

CHRYSANNE:

How many apologies have you collected?

CATHY:

I have about 140. I stopped my regular collecting after about four years. I collected again for particular exhibitions. I had an exhibition at Platform Gallery last year in Winnipeg and I wanted to have some local content so I dug up about ten apologies online that were specific to Winnipeg and Manitoba.

CHRYSANNE:

Are they mostly government apologies?

CATHY:

When I started to collect public apologies in 2001, I noticed a trend starting. There were apologies coming every few days and it escalated so that you could almost have had an apology section in the paper at one point. They were CEOs, sports stars, other celebrities, and government officials. What I am trying to say is that I think apology is a very important thing in our culture and that there are some landmark public apologies that have been made and that there are more that need to be made. But they get all mixed up with marital infidelity apologies.

CHRYSANNE:

Especially from politicians.

CATHY:

Bill Clinton or Eliot Spitzer; there are many. To me, those are inconsequential in terms politics and justice. Whereas, the apologies to First Nations people for the residential schools debacle is so important and really matters.

SUSAN:

What I am not clear about is the other side of the equation, which is forgiving. It seems to me that what’s required to resolve certain situations in the world at the present moment is not simple forgiveness, but asking people to forgive that which is unforgivable. It’s asking, for example, in Rwanda, for someone to forgive the neighbor who machetied his or her parents or children—and similar obstacles exist in other places—in Bosnia, in Serbia, or between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So yes, there is an apology, but how does one deal with day-to-day life and getting past what is being apologized for, especially since as you observe, apology is being cheapened constantly by this spectacle of apology?

CATHY:

So you are asking: “How does forgiveness fit into this?”

Harriet Nahanee, 2010

SUSAN:

Yes, because if you are apologizing, aren’t you asking someone to forgive you? And the things people are asking forgiveness for in these political contexts are so serious that the apology always seems to me to be completely incommensurate with the transgression that took place. I just end up wondering if it has any meaning. The artist Boaz Arad created a video called Hebrew Lesson in which he cobbles together film clips of Hitler speaking in order to make the following words come out of his mouth, “Greetings, Jerusalem, I am deeply sorry.” This video implies to me a deep need to be apologized to and at the same time I question what it can mean against the scale of the tragedy that was perpetrated? It seems symbolically important and it is astonishingly difficult to get the apology in the first place, so something must be at stake, and yet it seems pretty easy relative to what was suffered. Which gets us back to the question of pain.

CATHY:

So if the apology functions to silence the….

SUSAN:

I don’t know how it functions. I don’t totally understand what it does.

CATHY:

Yes, of course, it’s a discourse. But I heard from First Nations people in Canada that it’s not like everyone was rejoicing about the apology. Some people felt that it was too little and way too late and I know this is true with a lot of major apologies for big things. People also felt like it was about the guilt of the oppressor and that it was about making themselves feel better; it wasn’t about resolving the inequities, the racism, and if the apology functioned as a smokescreen we’re letting them off the hook and saying, “Well now it’s all better.” Then clearly this is an inadequate thing.

SUSAN:

It is interesting that it has become a form of contemporary theater that we all feel very familiar with.

CATHY:

Yes, and also a crisis management method. What I want my work to contribute is a critical perspective. It’s not so easy to be either dismissive of the idea of the apology nor to be blindly embracing. I’m trying to keep that conversation open.

SUSAN:

I want to ask a completely unrelated question about your studies. Chrysanne and I have talked about this amongst ourselves. When I was a student in graduate school, 50% or more of the students studying were women but once school was over, it seemed to me that the opportunities went principally, though not entirely, to the men. And those opportunities went to the men with much greater ease even though they were less in number. I am wondering if your experience in Canada, which we tend to think of as our liberal neighbor to the north, was similar in this regard?

Cathy Busby painting portrait silhouettes at Union Theological Seminary.
About Face, 2012

CATHY:

I think that I am a bit of an unusual case because I finished art school and I immediately started working, running the Anna Leonowens Gallery, at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where I’d gone to school. While I was working there I kept a studio but I was developing this other professional capacity and I continued with my artwork but in a quiet way. I think this is very true for a lot of women. And then I left that job and I organized a film festival and workshops for women directors and writers and did fund raising and eventually I ended up deciding that I wanted to continue with my artist focus but I wanted to do media studies. I had a feeling that my interests in criticality were going to be better served in that setting. So in a way, I veered off into this other world. But the whole time I was doing art projects and curatorial projects—I was keeping it going but I was affiliated with this academic world. So that took me off the straight path in terms of how I might have streamed myself. I mean, I’m pleased in the long run. I really feel like I got what I needed. And it’s all there now, in my practice, in what I’m doing.

But in terms of looking at other people around me, I completely agree with you and I think it’s the same in Canada. I think it’s more like 80% women in our art schools, way more women than men, but the recognition rate, never mind what we call success, let’s just call it recognition and the pathways to recognition continue to be more open to men. However, there was a very interesting change in that pattern when Diana Nemiroff and Jessica Bradley were the curators of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada during the ‘80’s. They showed and purchased a lot of women’s work. The National Gallery actually does much better than a lot of other large museums and still continues to champion women artists and you can see that in the collection.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think Joyce Wieland had an effect in terms of her position as a woman artist in Canada?

CATHY:

I’m not sure if she did at the time. I think she certainly did as time went on. She was the first woman to have a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada. I think many women are proud of that. I am. And such a great artist.

SUSAN:

I am thinking that we should close by talking a bit about where we are right now (at Union Theological Seminary) and the show that you did here and how you came to be at Union.

CATHY:

I was part of a group exhibition here at Union Theological Seminary that AA Bronson invited me to be a part of at the end of 2010 and I decided, even though it was a fairly small exhibition, that I would come and see this place. Also, my dad had done his M.A. here. It was so great to be able to come and see my work here and really feel like this place informed something of how my dad was. It’s something about an openness, a kind of Christianity that is really trying to be open and yet still holding onto a particular kind of God and Christ and my dad quietly wrestled with that, from the time I was quite young.

CHRYSANNE:

Were you surprised when you found out that AA Bronson was here and started a Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice?

CATHY:

I was completely surprised; one of those great coincidences in life. You know how sometimes things just confound you? And that was one of those moments, when AA said he was here and would I like to be a part of this show and it was at Union Theological Seminary. And that turned out to be a meaningful connection in terms of understanding where I came from. After being here for a day or so, and having looked around and seen these portraits, I asked AA if the Institute would consider a proposal for an artist in residence. I proposed rehanging the portraits.

The book published as part of the exhibition.
About Face, 2012

When I got here and actually got down to work in January (2012), I realized that I had to make an inventory of the work. They were scattered around and they were in various states of neglect and so I made that my primary task. I came to really care about these art objects and really wanted to account for them. I ended up deciding early on that I would make a book and that it would be an integral part of the show. It was very important to me to contextualize, write about, and present them. There are about thirty that were hanging throughout the campus. And then there were another thirty plus that I found; some in storage areas and some in odd places like closets and back rooms. For the exhibition itself, I removed the hanging portraits and painted silhouettes in their place.

SUSAN:

The paintings are all portraits?

CATHY:

Yes.

SUSAN:

Are there any women?

CATHY:

Yes. There are three women. The earliest one is from the ‘40’s and she was the founder of The School of Sacred Music and that portrait is hanging in the stairway. And then there are two in here in the refectory and they were both Chairs of the Board; one in the ‘80’s and one in the ‘90’s.

Reception at Union Theolgical Seminary.
About Face, 2012

SUSAN:

Is this ongoing? Do they continue to be painted even now?

CATHY:

The latest one was painted in 2009. The earliest one is from 1826. Some of them are quite good paintings and some of them are almost like folk art. Sometimes it was the Board deciding that a particular Chair of the Board or President of the Faculty should have their portrait painted and they would raise the money. Other times it was a gift of a family member, so they’ve arrived by different means over the years. What I like about them is that they represent the Institution’s history. It’s not just the people who were painted in these very conventional ways; all sitting, all dressed in proper attire and framed—but they are almost all damaged and I find that very interesting because they hold the life of the Seminary in their skin, in their surfaces and their frames. I find the way that they have been handled and the residue of that, the tears and punctures, really interesting; more so than if they were in pristine condition. They seem to be about institutional forgetfulness.

Portrait of Cathy Busby at Union Theological Seminary – © 2012 by Susan Silas

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>