nichola feldman-kiss | Witness Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa, Canada

níchola feldman-kiss | witness

Catherine Sinclair and Michelle Gewurtz

Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood. [1]

Susan Sontag

Does “fact” feel brutal only if and when we—either as individuals or as a populace—have grown accustomed to living in a realm of delusion or lies? [2]

Maggie Nelson

The installations in nichola feldman-kiss’s witness ask us to see. More than simply observing, to witness an action or event is to see, take in, and to act or meditate upon what one has seen. feldman-kiss’s work consciously enrols explorations of her identity and artistic process within a series of critical dialogues surrounding the politics and place of art production and consumption. This exhibition, in turn, offers a means whereby audiences can come to occupy the gallery space as a site of political engagement and responsibility through the act of witnessing.

A first generation Canadian of multi-ethnic heritage, whose paternal family fled Nazi persecution to experience a 5 year period of statelessness enroute to safety in the Caribbean, and whose maternal ancestor’s migration to the Caribbean, hundreds of years earlier, was fraught with tragic narratives of colonization, genocide and the transatlantic slave trade, feldman-kiss uses her family histories as a launching point into the investigation of identity, ethics, and geopolitics. These explorations are presented in witness through four installations that entangle the personal and the political. To complicate the aesthetics and interpretations of self-portraiture, feldman-kiss positions her own body/psyche as a political site of resistance. The works in witness move from the autobiographical to the overtly political, as observations of violent global conflict and the perpetuation of its political commodification resonate in the video triptych after Africa (2012) and the debut presentation of between here and there (2015).

between here and there began as a labour of performative research that feldman-kiss undertook following her return from Sudan, where she had participated as United Nations military observer in the generations old east African conflict under the auspices of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (2010-2011) and the United Nations peacekeeping mission.  During the internet meanderings of her research into the masse digital graves of online atrocity photography, feldman-kiss encountered an opportunity to procure human osteological specimens derived from foreign contexts in the Canadian market. In a continued performative encounter with the market in human materials, the artist proceeded to acquire a complete skeletal set on offer. This collision of conflict and body product form the centrepiece of this provocative, multi-sensory kinetic installation.

Multi-channel audio composed of world-wide battle related death toll statistics, live RSS feeds reading out incoming news headlines by computerized voices and  the artist recital of a heavily redacted UN investigative report describing a first person witness account of a battle aftermath, set the tone for the installation – situating the remains in the context of war-torn regions marred by the legacies of colonialism. We frequently hear about lives lost in conflict and are often given the numbers, as we are in this artwork (subtitled Bread and Circuses, 2015), but these stories, repeated endlessly, become irremediable. feldman-kiss asks viewers to consider the precariousness of life in a myriad of ways. Her prompting is exemplified by works of photography that depict the collection of human bones cradled in the arms of young men. These photographs illustrate the graphic logo RISK®, a work of commercial signage. The Game of World Domination (2011-2015) is installed in close proximity to the osteological specimen itself. The bones are illuminated and displayed on a satin pillow and encased with glass. The funerary arrangement (subtitled Homo Sacer, 2011-2015), has been placed back inside the ordinary cardboard shipping box in which they were packaged and sent to the artist. between here and there is respectfully designed as a pointed critique of capitalism and the technologies of power.

The thematic threads of oppositional thinking most fully realized in the more recent installations can be traced back to the earliest bodies of work in this exhibition. The grid of images and texts selected from the reliquarium database (2000) stem from an online archive of a performance enacted over a period of 254 days in 2000.[3] Through a listserv, the artist distributed diaristic pairings of images and texts in the form of subscribed and unsolicited email attachments (spam). Comprised of found, bought, and borrowed objects image captured with a flatbed scanner coupled with self-authored, plagiarized and/or appropriated texts, poems, and shared stories, this anonymous intervention into the inboxes of the recipients brought into focus the blurry lines between public and private that characteristize  online correspondence. Through this performance, feldman-kiss draws attention to the social aspects of life, as the 1,700+ email relationships generated by the reliquarium offerings created, in effect, a technologically enabled community of mingled perspectives.

In writing about the precarious nature of life, philosopher Judith Butler argues for an understanding of the social aspects of life and the implications such an understanding has for morality. To understand that life is in fact precarious implies a recognition of living socially. In other words, one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. [4] As Butler explains, precarious life “. . . implies exposure to those we know and those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all.” [5] Both Butler and feldman-kiss have considered the question of what it means to become ethically responsive, to consider and attend to the suffering of others, particularly when those others generally remain anonymous. Anonymity and otherness impact this notion of precarious life since lives can be more easily disregarded if they are lived at a distance. Disregarding the other has historical roots that are deeply connected to feldman-kiss’s autobiography. yet the artist’s ancestry is distinctively shaded by love unions across sects during times of conflict. as ideologies of denigration led to labelling both Jews, African ancestered peoples, as subhuman, during the Nazi era and the transatlantic slave trade and beyond.

feldman-kiss’s Jewish and Jamaican ancestry are signalled from the reliquarium database and in the assemblages that stemmed from this archive to form the series childish objects (1966 - ongoing). One such assemblage, Triumph of the Will (Frantz Fanon’s white mask becomes my skin), recalls the complexities of cultural and ethnic oppressions and assimilations –experience, not only by the artist’s ancestors as both colonial and enslaved peoples, but born out throughout generations of colonial history. A lapel pin from the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin signifying global racism of the early 20th century and the aspirations of the Third Reich, layered with the eye glasses worn by feldman-kiss’s paternal grandmother and the blonde curl collected from the first haircut of the artist’s daughter, are presented here to subversive effect. feldman-kiss’s non-Jewish paternal grandmother and her Jewish husband fled Germany with their young family in 1936. The foresight they displayed is suggested here by the glasses. The blonde hair, which would have been viewed as a marker of racial purity by the Nazis and emancipation form the Colonial legacy of race categories, now symbolizes hybridity and assimilation. Stuart Hall held that, light skin and blonde hair invoked markers of superiority within colonial Jamaican culture. [6] This assemblage speaks to the challenge of establishing an unselfconscious identity in a society that has not developed vocabulary sufficient to describe hybrid, multi-ethnic, or mixed heritage bodies and systems of belief.

Both the reliquarium database and childish objects present us with a series of forays into thinking about the ways in which visual and discursive fields play a part in identity formation and the development of a sense of empathy. By calling our own actions and responsibility into question, feldman-kiss aims to draw us out of apathy. In both On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag was concerned with whether or not photographs have the power to communicate the suffering of others in ways that might prompt viewers to act. She described the problem as follows:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. [7]

Although Sontag herself was less convinced that photography had the potential to change one’s point of view or compel ethically responsive action, feldman-kiss’s work asks viewers to consider following through on our feelings of compassion. Her work asks us to contemplate how, as viewers and consumers, we might effectively respond to suffering at a distance. Her relationship to her viewers is akin to the participatory performance art of the 1970s. As cultural theorist Maggie Nelson explains, in such performances, which often revolved around difficult issues to do with female sexuality and abuse, “The artists are not content to stare at the camera and ask, ‘Why are you still looking?’ Instead, they ask, ‘How will you participate in this?’” [8] In each of the installations in this exhibition, feldman-kiss presents unsettling imagery and objects for contemplation, and asks us, “What is your participation in this?”

1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003). p. 114

  1. 2.Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011). p. 150.

  1. 3.The year 2000 is significant because it recalls millennial anxiety that saw the rise of extreme forms of social organization including the Y2K paranoia and the belief that technologically based systems would implode on January 1, 2000, at 12:00 a.m. In 2000, now familiar terms like spam and social media had not yet been coined and the Internet, including email was still considered new technology.

  1. 4.Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010). pp. 13-15. See also Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

  1. 5.Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010). p. 14.

6. See John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project (London: BFI, 2013)

  1. 7.Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003). p. 101. See also, Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001).

8.  Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011). p. 79.

Works Cited

John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project (London: BFI, 2013).

Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010).

Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001)

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003).

between here and there 2011-2015

Homo Sacer / Bread and Circuses / Game of World Domination / between here and there

multi-media installation

projects   A-projects.htmlA-projects.htmlshapeimage_9_link_0
Bread and Circuses 2015 
immersive audio installation —3 channel live network news headline aggregator / orator; network connection; programming; speech software; three tablet computers; three MP3 players; five directional loud speakers; electronics.projectbread_and_circuses.html

between here and there (2015)

kinetic installation —100 simulated butterflies; plastic; programming; electronics.

Homo Sacer  2011-2015

sacred object —complete human osteological specimen; glass; cardboard; steel; theatre light.

Game of World Domination 2011-2015

illuminated text —Duratansparency chromogenic digital print; aluminum; LEDs; acrylic; electronics.

nichola feldman-kiss ©2015

nichola feldman kiss art and designindex.htm.html