Wendy Coburn

Wendy Coburn
Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
To December 19, 2014

In this exhibition, Wendy Coburn arrives at the intersection of art and activism via a curious path – the making of a documentary film, Slut Nation: Anatomy of a Protest, about police provocateurs at the first Slutwalk march, which took place in 2011 in Toronto. The term “provocateur” refers to police officers who pose as extremist activists, and behave in such a way that attracts attention and provokes public outrage against the protesters. The film is accompanied by photographs depicting the eerie recreations of genuine props made by social activists used by these police agents. The topic seems all the more relevant on the University of Toronto campus, where the exhibition takes place − a place where I once heard a young cis-gendered man say to another: “All the girls here are ugly and the ones who aren’t are bitches”, as if a combination of beauty, niceness and availability is something every boy automatically deserves. In response to these kind of attitudes, there has been growing awareness of sexual assaults at university campuses (though, as a recent poll suggests, it is happening slowly), as well as public campaigns aimed at teaching young men that women have the right to dress as they please and not be assaulted.

Whether the Slutwalk successfully addressed such issues is hard to tell given the manipulation of the cause by the very authorities who are supposed to uphold progressive standards against sexual violence. This conclusion is one of many drawn from Coburn’s talk (alongside speakers Jane Doe, Gary Kinsman and Lesley Wood, and moderated by Lisa Steele) that accompanied the exhibition. Coburn spoke at length about the frightening nature of provocateurs: no longer just double agents planted for the purpose of quietly gathering information, the new generation of infiltrators are actors scheming to hijack the message by making it look silly, obstructing the cause and diverting the attention of the media towards spectacle.

The film is informative, challenging and outrageous. At first, the photographs accompanying it seem to self-consciously reproduce the cultural institutional frameworks that house them. While that may be somewhat true, their presence does prevent the dissolving of the subject matter into the broader spectrum of social activism. Anyone who attended the panel presentation found themselves wondering what the relationship is between authorship and authority. In the context of activism, a prop is a symbolic device. In the hands of the police, props become weapons. If we decide the police are using these weapons against us, can we fight back by creating superior props? In the beginning of the film, Coburn briefly mentions her own past attempts at infiltrating a white supremacist group and realizing in the process that the group had its own agents within her activist group. This proposition creates an awareness of a co-dependent dynamic of infiltration, renegotiation and a struggle over the representation of the active cause through the gaze of the media.