Mammalian Diving Reflex

24 June 2008

I saw Darren O’Donnell at the Toronto Free Gallery opening last Thursday night and he told me he’d been engaged in the past week with an online debate about the validity of his work with Mammalian Diving Reflex, a debate initiated by Gabriel Moser and picked up on the Sally McKay’/Lorna Mills blog.

I’ve recently moved and had been in no rush to get the net at home set up, a situation further compounded by Rogers’ incompetence (I’m posting this from work dear reader), so this debate had escaped my attention. However, alerted by Darren, I looked up the links at work on Friday and printed off the conversation for some weekend reading. My immediate reaction (especially having converted it to page-length) was ‘wow’ – to the two documents both approximately 20 pages in length. As much as Darren was enervated by the criticism, at least this was a conversation being had.

I met Darren shortly before he began his `social acupuncture` projects, and so I’ve always felt I had an insider’s perspective on them, having participated in and been witness to some of their earlier manifestations. Further, I was at the book launch for his Social Acupuncture (meaning I read it as soon as was possible) and so I have the insight provided by his brilliant essay at the back of my mind with regard to the work.

What Moser and Sandals provide me with is the perspective of someone who doesn’t know Darren personally. Sandals is upfront in admitting she doesn’t like Darren which biases her against the work (src). Another friend of mine admitted that he didn’t quite understand what the work was about art-wise either, but at the time I countered that it was part of our culture’s move away from fiction toward non-fiction (a personal interpretation I worked out somewhat in Goodreads 07w11:1).

I do take issue with one of Moser’s interpretations, since it made me sputter in indignation. I’ve never met Ms. Moser and would like to think we could get along in the future, but I have to nominate one of her paragraphs as one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.

Speaking of the humor of Mammalian Diving Reflex’s work with children, she wrote:

But the pessimistic part of me thinks that the humour actually lies in something far less self-aware and much more sinister. This part – let’s call it the UBC indoctrinated part – thinks that the humour actually comes from a strange and almost colonial kind of child-adult anthropomorphism. That when adults see these kids trying to play grown up, the humour comes from the fact that we think they’re ‘cute’ in a patronizing way – that their inability to successfully inhabit these [adult] roles is funny in the same way that watching a dog awkwardly dressed in a human business suit is funny.

Anthropomorphism is a completely inappropriate concept to apply to children, suggesting that they aren’t part of our species (only adults are truly human ?) but are akin to dogs dressed up. I am surprised that this thought occurred to her, and doubly surprised that she saw fit to publish it. If only UBC indoctrination had taught her to recognize foolishness when it occasionally occurs, even in the best of minds.

I find nothing humorous about the Mammalian Projects, nor does ‘cute’ really enter into it for me. I’m informed by Darren’s ideas about acupuncture – that you’re poking a dam to hopefully collapse it and return the flow – and in this case, Darren is working with our society’s totally fucked up ideas about children. These ideas are so fucked up that a writer doesn’t recognize how inappropriate it is to use the word ‘anthropomorphic’ when speaking of them.

I keep thinking of a passage from Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. In Pattern 57, “Children in the City” Alexander wrote:

If children are not able to explore the whole of the adult world round about them, they cannot become adults. But modern cities are so dangerous that children cannot be allowed to explore them freely.

The need for children to have access to the world of adults is so obvious that it goes without saying. The adults transmit their ethos and their way of life to children through their actions, not through statements. Children learn by doing and by copying. If the child’s education is limited to school and home, and all the vast undertakings of a modern city are mysterious and inaccessible, it is impossible for the child to find out what it really means to be an adult and impossible, certainly, for him to copy it by doing.

This separation between the child’s world and the adult world is unknown among animals and unknown in traditional societies. In simple villages, children spend their days side by side with farmers in the fields, side by side with people who are building houses, side by side, in fact, with all the daily actions of the men and women round about them: making pottery, counting money, curing the sick, praying to God, grinding corn, arguing about the future of the village.

But in the city, life is so enormous and so dangerous, that children can’t be left alone to roam around. There is constant danger from fast-moving cars and trucks, and dangerous machinery. There is a small but ominous danger of kidnap, or rape, or assault. And, for the smallest children, there is the simple danger of getting lost. A small child just doesn’t know enough to find his way around a city.

The problem seems nearly insoluble. But we believe it can be at least partly solved by enlarging those parts of cities where small children can be left to roam, alone, and by trying to make sure that these protected children’s belts are so widespread and so-far reaching that they touch the full variety of adult activities and ways of life.

For me, Darren’s work is about restoring the balance of incorporating young people into a community, to break them away from the segregation we enforce onto them through class-rooms and age-based learning. Writing in the 1970s, Alexander hinted that unless children interact with adults, they cannot become ‘adults’ themselves. As a child of the same decade, I recognize the effects the subsequent decades have had on my generation and those that have followed. As Lorna Mills points out in one of her comments:

…brings to mind the late Neil Postman and his wonderful book The Disappearance of Childhood where he, at one point, proposed it was actually adulthood that was disappearing.

For generations we have effectively controlled the community that our children and young adults experience so that they only really know a community of each other. In my case, it was only toward my mid-twenties that I began to make friends with people significantly older than myself.

Now, that’s what I like about the Mammalian projects; that it’s a fuck-you to a society that segregates children and treats them like precious little angels and not human beings. Having watched the 1970’s The Bad News Bears recently, I was struck by how adult those adolescents seemed: they drank, smoked, swore and said offensive things. That’s pretty much how I remember that age range for myself. And yet, in the thirty years since that movie, children are now routinely depicted as being smart-alecky technical whiz-kids, cute and precious and silly, and if Speilberg’s involved, crying for their fucking daddies.

An anti-adult Boomer-developed ideology has infected everything and I know thirty-somethings who proclaim with pride a Peter Pan syndrome. This is to say that the only valid model of Being now acceptable is the youthful one, which by definition is immature. This indoctrination leads to the belief that it is better to be pre-formed that fully-formed, better to cut yourself off from your full potential as a being, and be happy with the state leading up to it. In art terms, it is better to be a sketch than to be fully rendered.

Yes, I understand the prejudice: that adults are humourless squares. That their spirits are dead and they’ve lost their collective imagination. But I grew up with an understanding that each decade of life offered something unique to experience, and I wasn’t going to settle for the awkwardness and patronization I’d experienced throughout my childhood and adolescence as being all I could expect from life. While adults of previous generations had given the condition a bad name, that doesn’t mean we should refuse to embrace our biological destiny. A little bit of historical awareness should mean we can chose to be a type of adult that suits us. I understand today that there are those who are choosing to be Peter Pan types – fine. I just wish it wasn’t so popular.


As an anonymous commenter pointed out on the Moser post, the projects
‘should be critiqued from a performance art point of view first and foremost, just as a painting would be critiqued. I’d like to see if anyone will actually look beyond the “kids in parkdale” thing and see the thing as art, because the fact that no one has so far (as far as I know) says more about our perceptions and ideologies than Darren’s.’

As art, Darren is working self-consciously working within the Relational Aesthetics stream of contemporary practice. Relational Aesthetics emphasizes events over objects – one goes to the gallery/space to experience something rather than to just see/hear something. Relational Aesthetics as a movement has already jumped the shark according to some, but I think that type of judgment just highlights an allegiance to being trendy. It is valid exploration within our structured society, which often highlights what we take for granted about our relations with one another. For example, Mammalian’s projects highlight that we take ignoring kids and their imagination for granted.

Chuck Close is said to teach his students that ‘if it looks like art, chances are it’s somebody elses’. That is, it’s familiar, established, and probably by consequence unoriginal. Art has become a series of familiar forms, and all it took was Nicolas Bourriaud to write a 114 page book and call it ‘relational aesthetics’ for artsters to stop saying ‘what the fuck’ and be all uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity, and to start exploiting the possibilities of this form of performance and theatre.

In a comment on her post, Moser uses Diana Borsato’s use of tangoing police officers (during 2006’s Nuit Blanche) as something more obviously ‘art’ because she used adults. (Borsato herself weighs in here). MDR’s use of children puts their work (for the 2006 Nuit Blanche, ‘ballroom dancing’) in the realm of ‘community art’. This seems entirely a personal interpretation on her part, but one informed by the familiar and by our privileging childhood as something ‘special’, the same way the drooling kids in our schools were ‘special’ … i.e. not ‘normal’.

On Specialness & Class

That’s not denigrate ‘specialness’ and emphasize ‘normality’. The value of living in a democratic society is the expansion of possibility. When we narrow options and narrow culture to something familiar then we’ve narrowed the possibility of our imaginations. Artists know this intuitively and it’s part of the artistic ideology. The language used often contrasts boring vs. exciting, narrow vs. unlimited, possible vs. impossible, etc. It’s why there are protests against turning studios into condos, and freak-outs seeing gym-thugs in former gallery spaces turned into magazine-layout restaurants. Because a narrow frame of possibility has been drawn around something that was once more vague and voluntarily undefined.

We are still at a point socially where we don’t know how to recognize what ‘drooling kids’ have to offer, and prefer to shape people into suits, give them Blackberries and expect them to buy a house or a condo. If they jump through the required hoops to adopt ‘the form’ then it doesn’t matter if their lives are empty of meaning. All that’s important is that they look like they have something to offer (even if what they end up offering is 40+ hours of their lives a week to make their bosses’ lives easier).

Moser points out that Canadians don’t like to talk about class, but it’s a North American and Commonwealth phenomenon – an aspect of colonial legacy. Class is part of the human psyche, and it’s an achievement of post-colonial civilization to down-play it, and a failure to see it become resurgent. Just as taught hygiene keeps certain diseases away, it’s representative of educational failure when a type of psychological typhoid manifests itself again.

Thus, good art should bring us unfamiliar experiences.

On the Expanded Possibilities of Art

Although, I have to say here, I’m pissed off when artists seem to chose to bring us negative unfamiliar experiences, emphasizing the disgusting and annoying as if that is somehow worth experiencing. Good art should help make us aware of the variety of possibility.

But the definition of Art itself has become too narrow to fully incorporate the explosion of creativity that we have been made aware of through the internet. Consider that in less than two years, an entirely new dialect has been created through the captioning of funny cat pictures. Oh Hai! This wasn’t controlled or planned, but just happened … through humour and through our innate sense of how (our) language works. In as much as I’m an old fashioned humanist, I am so because human beings remain consistently surprising and creative. And the arts have remained valuable and evolved away from Van Gogh landscapes into rice-cooking because in the past century, specialization and over-rationalization have become ideological, to the point that structure is confused with form and appreciated over content. We are a civilization in love with the shape of bowls, but care little about what fills them. Thus, we have edible items without nutritional content, bodies trained to exert forces unrequired for playing video games, and photographs in closets mocking the way we looked twenty years ago. And, an artist once known for filling bowls now gets away with closing doors with walls, a form contrived to evoke content forty-years out of date.

Art schools are schizophrenically complicit in this: while they teach future artists to be critical of the shapes of society, they also expect artists to fit into these shapes, to make familiar art while attempting to make unfamiliar art as well.

Perhaps it is no wonder that so much contemporary art is as bad as it is. When I was recently graduated, I used to tell myself and others that it was impossible to suck, since the anarchism on display in galleries was impossible to judge. But we still want to judge it, we want to be able to say ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and that means we each need some personal standard. What I’ve learned in the years since graduating is that artists do indeed have personal standards, and for the most part, the cliques within the art communities come together around a shared standard … but this is unpredictable, and often dependent on who one’s teacher was at whatever particular school one went to.

This insight has discredited cultural criticism for me. It is an incompatible position to want cultural anarchy as an allowance of possibility and an expansion of potential inspiration, and at the same time to want culture narrowed to the familiar and the immediately comprehensible. Personally, I haven’t quite got that down yet, and still get pissed off in galleries when I see easy work that looks like it’s wasting my time.

But I understand this duality exists in my mind because I’m a person born into the late 20th Century and seeking an expanded open future in the 21st. I am trying to unlearn 20th Century culture and learn the 21st Century one. Which is to say, I’m trying to reject the shit of the past in order to be a type of person which I feel would fit the 21st Century world that I want to live in. The 20th Century narrowed possibilities to binary check-boxes: apocalypse or utopia; 1 vs. 0, employed vs. unemployed, male vs. female, businessman or hippy, movie vs. theatre … etc. A little bit of history shows that people didn’t always live that way.

So, all this being said, I’ll sum it up this way: the Mammalian Diving Reflex projects are awesome, they’re fun, and they’re Darren’s admitted attempts to change his world by expanding his own horizons. Some people don’t get it and they’re allowed to. Some people don’t get it because they’re trying to fit a round peg into the art-world’s square hole. I get it in an idiosyncratic way that I hope I’ve shared, and in so doing hope that I’ve helped illuminate something for others.

Document History
  1. June 2008: introductory essay for Gooodreads 08w26:1
  2. 2008: source of the eponymous and inaugural Timothy Comeau Award
  3. 2008-2015: archives on my blog
  4. Aug 2015: this version produced, with minor copy edits