Ph.D candidate, Cultural Studies
Engaging Creative Practice in an Academic Context
by Sharday Mosurinjohn
23rd April 2012
For Barbara Meneley, pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s isn’t a matter of going “back” to school. This is the fourth degree for Meneley, an intermedia artist whose current work explores the foundations of mainstream Canadian nationhood, in part through early colonial immigration advertising. Though the artist may be a student again, she makes it clear that she isn’t a student artist. One of her previous degrees was an MFA, a terminal studio degree, which she completed in 2009 at the University of Regina. Becoming a part of Queen’s new interdisciplinary program is a way to move forward with work that, according to her website, has always evolved “through theoretical inquiry” as well as “installation, media, performance and engaged practice.”
So what has spending time with Cultural Studies meant for Meneley’s professional practice? “It’s a compromise. It does take time away from that,” she reflects, “but I do have two shows coming up this spring and summer. And I would be balancing research and art making anyway, so why not do it in a collegial environment where I can engage creative practice in an academic context?” Meneley’s work, which she describes as “site responsive,” has often involved diverse contexts. Opening up ways for people to understand and experience ongoing creative engagement is one of the ways Meneley’s work operates. When people say ‘I don’t draw’ or ‘I’m not creative,’ Meneley is inclined to emphasize that we all have creative aspects, and the challenge is really learning to know and access these parts of ourselves.
Meneley’s work is also grounded in the material realities that this creative self-awareness can bring. During her time in Regina as the Isabel Johnson Shelter Artist in Residence, Meneley created a city-wide participatory ice lantern project called “Luminance” (2009-10) which she succinctly describes as a “public display of artworks created by people sheltering from domestic violence” that “builds a bridge between public and private space. In creating this connection we extend awareness of domestic violence issues beyond the physical confines of our shelters and suggest that everyone has a role in making all spaces safe.” The gallery installation “The Whispering City” (2010) likewise invites new perspectives on the part of the city-dweller. Here, gallery audiences are called to reflect on urban planning, social control, and “the colonial ideal of building utopia in [what is falsely represented as] untouched and uninhabited space,” as tissue paper towers sway in the gusts of air kicked up by people’s movements in and around the delicate sculpture. Another piece, called “Unofficial Apology” (2011, pictured here), is a performance using a flag signaling system called semaphore to physically act out the word “apology” with red and white maple leaf flags. This piece is a response to “the Canadian government's 2008 apology for residential schools, and its subsequent 2010 withdrawal of funding to First Nations University of Canada,” says Meneley, but the juxtaposition of these events and ideas also encourages viewers to consider what she aptly terms “official deficiencies” in a broader sense. Says the artist: “Anyone can benefit from creative pedagogy – processes of problem solving – when creative strategies are engaged in meaningful ways.”
Cultural Studies likewise suits Meneley’s approach to pedagogy. When the new PhD student arrived to check out the program, she even discovered that she had collaborated in the past with professors who are now affiliated with the program. “I appreciate the opportunity to be part of shaping a new program in significant ways,” adds the artist. One of the ways Meneley is expanding the parameters of what can be done in Cultural Studies involves modeling project-based options, especially for an audience that is partly composed of non-artists. “So far, I’ve combined writing and art production for all my class work. No one’s said ‘no’; as long as you bring your game, they won’t turn you down.”
This creative ambition and commitment to learning is evident in Meneley’s recent partnership with Artignite, Kingston’s & Queen’s winter art festival. Meneley looked forward to working with community participants to create an ice lantern installation in a beautiful venue, the amphitheater behind City Hall, but an unusually warm winter imposed its own constraints on the project. Nonetheless, she was able to use the opportunity to work with the Union Gallery to mentor four students interested in studying site-specific work. “It is so important to make these linkages part of teaching, but they’re not always available in the university,” says Meneley. “Art can be a marginalized profession and we need to raise awareness about it as a professional identity.” Mentorship, which for Meneley sometimes means working for your mentor and sometimes means having your mentor work for you, is one way that people get to know roughly what someone’s job might entail if they call themselves, for example, an intermedia artist, as Meneley does.
When I asked what goals Meneley had for her time at Queen’s, she responded: “For me, it’s not a case of setting goals for outcomes. It’s a time when I can continue teaching and further conversations around my practice – practice is always my priority.” Plus, for the “distinctly Canadian” project she’s working on at the moment, being close to Ottawa is a huge benefit. While it was the racial context of Saskatchewan that motivated Meneley’s work around processes of decolonization from a settler-descended perspective, some of the primary source material is here in Kingston. And, importantly, Meneley enjoys the environment that comes along with studying at Queen’s. “I knew I was going to like it. I visited, I talked to people. But so far, it’s definitely exceeded my expectations.”