A Farewell to Canons

The Office for Contemporary Art Norway invites us to step away from the Western canon. A radical multi-voicedness awaits on the other side. But how does this affect the tradition of canon criticism?

Camille Norment at the event Imaginary Leaps into a Decanonized Future arranged by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway at Ingensteds in Oslo, 28 September 2019.

The concept of a canon has a religious and patriarchal ancestry, being associated with sacred texts, church fathers and notions of papal infallibility. This makes the concept a suitable arena for conducting a critical scrutiny of the foundation of traditions; a scrutiny that also sheds light on the excluded. As a critical concept, the idea of a canon has been a great success. It has facilitated a pluralisation of curriculums, museum collections and artistic practices – and prompted an equally important question, recurring since the ‘canon wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s, asking whether the canon has indeed changed through such pluralisation, whether it can be changed at all, or whether all “counter-canons” are ultimately part of the same old canonical hierarchy.

Halvor Haugen. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

In late September, OCA (Office for Contemporary Art Norway) brought together a group of artists, poets, curators and researchers at the venue Ingensteds in Oslo to discuss the idea of a “decanonised” future. The event was part of a larger, ongoing project that has tasked the group with exchanging letters on this topic. Seated around small tables, several of the correspondents read their letters aloud while others presented brief talks and other contributions. Everyone was seated among and alongside the audience.

The intimate, informal setting encouraged participants to establish a link between the letter format and oral conversation. The various contributions and readings alternated between the carefully worked out and the improvised.

Imaginary Leaps into a Decanonized Future, Ingensteds, Oslo, 28. september 2019.
Quinn Latimer at the event Imaginary Leaps into a Decanonized Future arranged by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway at Ingensteds in Oslo, 28 September 2019.

We got to hear Quinn Latimer’s letter inquiring into the relationship between canon, justice and the sacred, while Camille Norment performed three focused meditations on sound and canon, using a tuning fork to illustrate the historical vagaries of the musical scale (in etymology, the term ‘canon’ can be traced back to the Greek word for scale, rule and measuring rod). Liv Bugge invited us to take part in an experiment with meditation, seeking a more intuitive, open approach to imagery; Young Girl Reading Group got everyone in the room to participate in reading aloud the first chapters of Octavia Butler’s vampire fantasy Fledgling; and farid rakun played a recording of one of the collective ruangrupa’s talks on the upcoming Documenta exhibition in Kassel in Germany in 2022.

Such alternation between the impromptu and the tightly planned, the informal and the stylised, was in itself an answer to the big question that formed the starting point of the event: how can we imagine an art and a world without a canon? The answers pointed in the direction of a non-hierarchical multi-voicedness, a harmonious community with dashes of the free-flowing, fluid and boundless. The next question might be: how can this happy format be taken further? Continuing to exchange letters and meeting again may be one answer. Indeed, this is the plan, and I look forward to the next meeting.

Young Girl Reading Group at the event Imaginary Leaps into a Decanonized Future arranged by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway at Ingensteds in Oslo, 28 September 2019.

The tradition of canon criticism

Even so, the format is less well suited to bringing frictions and disagreements to light. Nor does it facilitate a more in-depth look at the long history of canon critique and anti-canonisation, a tendency most clearly expressed in the Italian and Russian Futurists’ ambitions to purge the world of museums and, in the case of the Russians, of all bourgeois culture too. Similar sentiments, albeit expressed in different ways, can be discerned in all artistic and theoretical isms from the twentieth century to the present day. If, on the one hand, open-ended speculation needs intimate and informal settings such as those found this day at Ingensteds, other formats may be required to bring out additional nuances and a greater plethora of meaning and opinions.

This story was never delved into; an omission that was not just about the choice of format or the personal letter as a genre. It could also be a knock-on effect of the use of the term decanonisation; a concept related to the idea of ​​“de-learning” and a wider-ranging decolonisation project. The principle of “learning to de-learn in order to relearn” was coined by the intercultural university of Amawtay Wasi in Ecuador, which was founded in 2003. It has been further developed by Walter Mignolo and Madina V. Tlostanova. The idea is to cultivate alternative forms of knowledge based on indigenous and formerly colonised peoples, divorced from Western universities’ disciplines and criteria of truth.

In that sense, decanonisation is about turning elsewhere rather than about criticising; it strives to disconnect from the western canon and “canonical thinking”, and to learn something else from traditions that have been pushed out and supplanted by the canon’s logic. At Ingensteds, this perspective was most clearly evident in the lecture given by Rolando Vázquez, who talked about how the Western canon is based on a double colonialist displacement and appropriation of non-Western cultures, and about the need to turn modernity’s concept of time upside down. 

Rolando Vázquez at the event Imaginary Leaps into a Decanonized Future arranged by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway at Ingensteds in Oslo, 28 September 2019.

De-learning and disconnecting

Decanonisation involves a call for a radical pluralisation of art, but also for a movement away from the entire concept of art in search of alternative ways of managing culture and tradition. If this is a correct interpretation of OCA’s intentions in inviting participants to envision a deconstructed future, I have several questions. Some of them may stem from a kind of conservative reflex: is it even possible to safeguard our cultural memory without some form of canonicity? What price must be paid by those who manage to entirely withdraw from the realm of the canonical?

Most of all, I wonder how one may achieve such a thing without simultaneously disconnecting from the last forty years of canon critique from various alternative and marginalised perspectives? This “western” critical tradition has contributed to the pluralisation of the canon concept. It has also become part of a new theoretical and art historical canon. And, not least: it is an embedded part of artistic practice today. What happens if a decanonisation project undertaken by a Norwegian institution like OCA fails to clearly relate to contemporary art’s long tradition of canon critique? More than anything, I believe it will be taken for granted – it will be brought along for the ride and reiterated, but without ever really being recognised or subjected to further critical scrutiny.

Perhaps this question also points to a general dilemma concerning the legacy and dissemination of the radical traditions on which contemporary art rests: you will risk betraying them regardless of whether you become a conscientious archivist or use them as stepping stones on the pathway to a new future.