Exhibition Essay: Willfulness of the wild: deep listening with Rita McKeough
Are you sure that you are hearing every thing that there is to hear?
-Pauline Oliveros, 2005
My body bristles everywhere becoming attuned to the nuances of Rita McKeough’s Veins, waking up to it, searching for a pattern, itching, scratching, listening for a fragment of language to hold. My nerves are awakened by slippery motion of snakes at my feet and the snarls and growls that pierce the air of the exhibition. I’m immersed in Rita’s audio work Elk; a few days writing amidst her chorus of wolves, snakes, leaks, bears, rivers, leaves, and I’m finally arriving where Pauline Oliveros suggests that we may go when deep listening.
In Willful Subjects, Sara Ahmed suggests we can create a more ethical relation to “nature” when we recognize its willfulness. To be willful, or full of will, might be to overflow, to exceed what is understood. Of course our fraught understanding and attempts to define the fullness of “nature” are too narrow, too simplistic to grasp its complexity. It is not a subject. For McKeough, it is a pounding, a persistent present knocking that wakes up the body, where each body is a hybrid, a combination of movements, twitches, gestures. Her Drummers beat by themselves, and they must be heard. As Oliveros seems to imply with her question above – we may not hear every thing, but deepening the will to listen is at the heart of it.
A willful body might participate differently from normative ideas or social formations, actively resist them, or simply exist in a way that isn’t legible within such formations at all. At first, I read Stump Eyes, Elk Tongue, Snarl, and Owl leaf as simple animated faces made of cutout pieces, not necessarily moving in synch. These willful parts confound the assumption that facial features should act in a unified manner to produce a specific expression. Instead, they are emotive assemblages: elk horns rise up, coyote ears shake with anger, big focused owl eyes stare us down, and cartoon-cutout teeth add menace, and each is at will to communicate a different signal. At one point McKeough and I attempt to discuss how her hybrid elk-bear-leaf creature feels—what they are “saying,” by fixing some meaning into familiar words, but in the next moment we give way to sounds. A complete “dog person,” McKeough knows sound is a language, and barks at me overtop of herself.
Through all the growling, barking, rough to the ear snarl that explodes from McKeough’s lungs, chest, mouth into the gallery, I’m thinking of Donna Haraway’s companion species. Though her work focuses on the joint lives of dogs and people, of “companion species” she says, “one must include such organic beings as rice, bees, tulips, and intestinal flora, all of whom make life for humans what it is—and vice versa.” She calls the term itself “a composition that resonates… in which co-constitution, finitude, impurity, historicity and complexity are what is.” So another willful, enabling, expansive voice joins us amidst the rising and falling resonance of Veins.
As an artist, McKeough is her own kind of willful creature, in the habitat of her installation full of hybrid companion species, doubly willful. This is what draws me closer to her work. To sustain a long career as a woman artist is to stick with it, to keep knocking, digging out the ideas that mean, and come to mean more, through persistence. To take up “willfulness” as an ethical, reparative position is an opening to different experiences of being; a mode that makes us more aware of how we fit (or don’t fit) the expectations of the social body outside of ourselves. If this sounds like the process of inhabiting other words, like “queer,” or “feminist,” it should. Ahmed says “persistence can be an act of disobedience…a deviation from a trajectory, what stops the hurtling forward of fate, what prevents a fatality.” In Veins, the “hurtling forward” is a pipeline, a spurt, time, a highway, a leak, the anxiety of another kind of mechanical knocking, knocking oil up out of the ground.
The willful figure might pose an obstruction. Ahmed asks, “How do you know which way things are flowing? Usually by not going that way.” We come to willfulness by being in the way, and thus like McKeough has, might develop a heightened sense of urgency that we cannot keep “going that way.” She implicates herself, as we walk the divided road to the back of the gallery. The route is necessarily limiting; it’s a bird’s eye and a sideways pan all at once. Traversing this road I become more aware of its constrained, sense-deprived view of the world, the way hyper-detailed leaves and articulated, minutely scaled snakes start to conform to the linear logic of resource extraction that forces all things to flow in the direction of the road. Following Ahmed, we might also ask by whose will has capitalism come to be understood as “a whole body,” a dominant circulatory system of minute control where “capital is identified as the lifeblood [that] must be kept in circulation no matter what”? No matter what?
Veins documents McKeough’s position, which is not a moral one, but an ethical one that is willing to expand in all directions: a space for feeling, for being affected, and for sensory immersion, where she creates a stage for hearing every thing there is to hear. For being inside of Veins, writing in it, is a process of excavating gradually deepening layers of feeling, of deep listening, of being seduced by surfaces, and being called to look beneath them.
Essay By: Anthea Black Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2014), 192. Pauline Oliveros, “Listening Questions,” Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, (iUniverse, 2005), 56. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 15. Ibid. 15-16, emphasis mine. Ahmed, 10. Ibid, 144. Ibid, 105.
Anthea Black is a Canadian artist, writer, and cultural worker. Her current writing approaches contemporary art, craft, and performance by women artists through fictocriticism and interview. Her collaborative writing with Nicole Burisch is included in The Craft Reader and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art and their forthcoming book is Craft on Demand: The New Politics of the Handmade. She is a faculty member at OCAD University in print, publications, and criticism and curatorial studies. Black wishes to thank Rita McKeough, Mark Clintberg, Hazel Meyer, and Jeremy Pavka at TRUCK, for their generous support of the text.
Calgary-based audio, media installation and performance artist Rita McKeough has exhibited throughout Canada since the late 1970s. Her work has been featured in Radio Rethink: Essays on Art, Sound and Transmission (Banff Centre for the Arts, 1993) and Caught in the Act: Canadian Women in Performance (YYZ Books, 2004). (ML) Born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. McKeough studied printmaking and sculpture at the University of Calgary where she received her BFA. She went on to study at the NSCAD University where she was awarded her MFA. Her experience as a radio station disc jockey and drummer for bands led to her introduction of sound elements in her elaborate installations and later to the development of electronic and mechanical objects in interactive environments. She is currently in the band Sleepy Panther with her wonderful friend Richard Brown and teaching at The Alberta College of Art and Design. Rita insists that she has been fortunate to have the support and assistance of her friends and community to produce her work.