Artist Talk May 11, 2011 at Toronto Free Gallery
(part of the 2011 Mayworks Festival)
This work is the product of a year off from teaching, a year when I went into the studio and became a working artist again. These FBI files were the constant wallpaper of my life growing up in New York as the daughter of members of the Communist Party. I grew up in a period where dissenting voices were spied on, harassed, fired from jobs and jailed. My parents were among hundred of thousands of Americans who were considered subversive based on their political activity working for social justice, organizing unions, making films, writing books and educating young people. My parents, and the hundred of thousands of other activists were targeted because they were seen as a threat to the U.S. government and the elites that controlled it. The primary purpose of surveillance and harassment is not to prevent terrorism or subversion but to discredit and destroy social movements as well as protect the elite from those who expose them.
As a young child, I didn’t know the specifics of FBI surveillance, I just was aware of my parent’s talk of it, their worries. I took this to heart and worked hard to devise a series of child-like defenses of my parents. From the age of nine I decided it was up to me to stop the FBI from taking my parents away. I fantasized about taking out the FBI agents by hitting them over the head with my chair as they walked by my bedroom on the way to get my parents.
I didn’t see these files until 1985, after applying for them through the Freedom of Information Act. I was interested to see what the files would tell me about my parents. What a shock to receive the photocopied files in the mail! My mother’s file, which is the one I have used in this artwork, is 22 pages long, with three pages completely missing. Other pages have large sections of redacted text. The repetition throughout the file is stunning. But my favourite item in the file is the alias that they ascribed to my mother: Mrs. Harry Gottlieb. These files told me nothing about my parents and much about fear and how the FBI operates.
I have used these files in my artwork since obtaining them in 1985, and they have a deep personal and historic resonance for me. Today they also speak to our contemporary context, about the growth in both the US and in Canada of the “security state” – a state that seeks to classify, control and demonize dissent. There are many reflections of this today from post 9/11 surveillance and harassment of Muslims and Arabs and the attempt to shut down protests at the G20 in 2010 that lead to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. The “security state” aims to limit the practice of democracy.
Are these images about danger? Yes. But they are as much about surviving and resisting classification and control.
My thanks go out to many people:
To Mayworks and particularly Toronto Free Gallery and Nahed Mansour.
To Diana – my fellow artist, technical and design guru, my studio mate for helping me hang the show, for playing with me, giving me space, guidance and strength.
To Mo – my main squeeze, my beloved, for embracing me as an artist interrupted, for offering her critical guidance.
To Sam, our son, for teaching me things I don’t yet have words for.
To my many friends who witnessed the work and yelled hurrah at the right moments.