Justin A. Langlois argues on behalf of uselessness & antagonism at SFU Woodward’s
Written by Brit Bachmann + Photography by Alisha Weng
An oversimplified summary of this lecture would state that Justin A. Langlois made a persuasive and fast-paced argument for the importance of slowing down: The hastened trajectory of our social structures, industries and art practices cannot be sustained. We must reject the modern concept of time efficiency and consider new ways of doing things for the sake of social growth.
On October 8th 2014, approximately fifty people made a commute, either by foot, or bike, or bus, or car, or skateboard, or scooter to SFU Woodward’s to attend Langlois’ talk, “Uselessness & Antagonism: Suggestions for a New Engagement.”
The room embodied the same buzz as a post-secondary classroom before a popular lecturer takes the podium. Based on heavy eavesdropping and observation, the majority of the audience appeared to be veterans of Langlois’ talks. Langlois is co-founder and research director of Broken City Lab, and assistant professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
“How are we going to act in the world, differently tomorrow?”
Opening with this, Langlois prepared the audience for a lecture that would connect different topics of discussion. These topics deliberately wavered between the implausible to the plausible, and the impossible to the possible. It was through the introduction of these topics that Langlois intended to “provide new tools to change our engagement.”
The audience was encouraged to consider ‘uselessness’ as a bicycle with triangular wheels. Uselessness impedes. In a similar vein, ‘antagonism’ makes unreasonable demands. Together, uselessness and antagonism create a slow and unattractive state of unwillingness to meet halfway. They keep people in a constant state of agitation.
Langlois broke to a projected GIF of the Useless Machine, an early experimentation with A.I. by Marvin Minsky in the 1950’s. The machine’s sole function is to shut itself off. Langlois used this GIF and the rapid actions of the human and mechanical hands to illustrate the intensity with which we need to work in our states of agitation. That being said, the Useless Machine could equally represent the will to give up.
With the support of a text by Negar Azimi, Langlois suggested that we as artists, and society as a whole, need to reject the expectation that creative practices exist to “make nice”. While the cannon may view subversive artwork as naive or irresponsible, the future of art is a conscious refusal to create pretty works for the sake of it. Rather, more importance should be placed on the intensity with which art is created.
Putting this concept into a practical context, Langlois used the example of Broken City Lab, an interdisciplinary collective and non-profit organization. It sought civic change from the periphery of the art world by facilitating artistic interventions without the intention of creating pretty works. For example, their project Flagged For Review addressed issues of land ownership and rights through exhibiting and parading simple statement flags. Langlois explained, however, that as Broken City Lab grew and became more accepted in the mainstream, it lost its impact. It became predictable and dull because the antagonism that had initially fuelled it could not be sustained. The inherent nature of Broken City Lab was contradicted, and the project collapsed.
As defined by Langlois, ‘uselessness’ can also be called ‘structured inefficiency’. He modified a common phrase to represent ‘uselessness’ as process: “Don’t storm the gates, but put potholes in the road leading up to the gates.”
At this, the audience was startled by beautiful, familiar and completely useless websites. They included Staggering Beauty and an endless loop of running puppies. As disturbing as it was that most of us recognized these websites, the recognition acted as confirmation of Langlois’ next point: Society views progress through a lens of efficiency. Progress has become the removal of relaxation. Although the ease of new technology gives us the sense of complete control over our time and experiences, it is Langlois’ belief that this efficient control does not give us the same agency over our lives that frustration and tension does.
Antagonism is hostility that may result in resistance. According to Langlois, it is necessary before an adversarial exchange. In plain speak, we need to get angry before we can change a situation.
Langlois shifted the discussion towards politics, arguing that our political structure is not functioning as successfully as it could because of its fear of antagonism. Although antagonism is expressed between political parties through debate, the dominant political parties in Canada do not represent the full spectrum of left/right leanings. Rather, their interests all clump together. Langlois pointed out that it is more ethically sound for parties to agree on what they dislike, than how to fix it. A government that relies on consent is ethically irresponsible.
Continuing with hot topics, Langlois addressed the misuse of the hashtag #activism. He argued that joining a cause by hashtagging indicates that a path has already been laid out. There is no sustained antagonism or drive. Hashtags allow people to commit to a cause on a screen, but not actually act upon the commitment. A hashtag instantly filters content into the mainstream. It can be concluded that #activism may represent the death of actual activism.
Like an expanded cadence in a classical score, Langlois threw rapid-fire rhetorical questions at the audience, answering them himself promptly and without hesitation. Being in the immediate facility of Simon Fraser University, the most memorable set of questions involved post-secondary education.
Question: What is useless education?
Answer: Education that doesn’t turn into a job. Ex. Bachelor of Fine Art
Better Question: Where is uselessness in education and what does it foster?
Answer: Uselessness in education seeks out new ways of exploiting structure. It is resistance training. It fosters a way back from ‘efficient time’.
As a final point to his discussion, and perhaps a teaser of a future talk, Langlois brought up the topic of anger. He indicated that anger could be used as a catalyst for clarity by reminding us that we are human and alive.
As if it were possible, the question period was even more in-depth than Langlois’ talk, with audience members questioning the role of antagonism in philosophical and moral dilemmas. One audience member asked about the relationship between antagonism and the absurd, referencing the bicycle with triangle wheels. Langlois elaborated on the absurdity, explaining that antagonism is not just the act of creating a bicycle with triangle wheels, but choosing to ride it. Antagonism is a thoughtful decision to slow yourself down, rather than just slowing others down.
In a show of genuine interest, or just as reference, Langlois kept notes on all the questions he received from the audience. He spoke carefully and thoughtfully, humbly admitting when he was not ready to answer definitively.
Langlois’ presentation gave the impression of a freshly shaken soda bottle. The urgency and conviction with which Langlois spoke was contagious. As the audience funnelled out of the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, I wondered if Langlois understood that he had just succeeded in rallying an army of antagonists.
From the event page-
Justin A. Langlois is an artist, educator, and organizer working across media and social practices. He is the co-founder and research director of Broken City Lab, and principal of the new research studio, Antagonism Works His practice explores collaborative structures, critical pedagogy, and custodial frameworks as tools for enacting divergent possibilities for gathering, learning, and making. He holds an MFA from the University of Windsor and he is currently an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
This lecture was presented by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement in the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, October 8th.
Brit is Editor-In-Chief at Discorder Magazine, Community Engagement Coordinator at VIVO Media Arts Centre, and frequent contributor to Vandocument. When she isn't writing or sneaking into studios, Brit draws.