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You’re Not Charlie and Neither Am I. 

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The following are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head since the Jan. 7, 2015 shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s quick and dirty as my MFA Thesis takes precedence so with that said, here it is:

#JeSuisCharlie we all at once chime in, suddenly concerned with free speech and democracy and some loose notion of justice bristling at the tips of our fingers and tongues. That was over a week ago and the news has moved on – and so, probably, have you — but I’m not sure I have. I’m not ready to let go of this here uncomfortable feeling… and why should I? Where does it say we should feel happy and good and all things should be wrapped up in a simple package? Case closed, what’s next and game over. This is life and it’s messy.

So why am I writing this? 

I was asked by the Walrus Magazine to draw a response to the killings which I agreed to, but with some hesitation. My pause wasn’t a surprise though as over the last two years I’ve been working through a Masters, which has me eating theory up as fast as my sleep-laden eyes and and beer and exhaustion rattled mind can take it all in. Theories which have consistently given me pause; knocked me on my heels; and sometimes even had me in tears. In a word: uncomfortable. Thanks to the works of Deleuze and Guattari, feminist thinkers like Karen Barad and Donna Haraway, social theorist Zigmunt Bauman, Slavoj Zizek’s shit disturbing, Franz Fanon’s description of blackness which upset me for weeks, all the way back to Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke and Plato – as well as countless friends in and out of school, my advisors and instructors – the world has become a seething maelstrom of complex relations and entanglements between power, money, ideologues, technologies, science, art, politics and a million other descriptions of systemic messiness all geared to divide and conquer.

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words – not this time… Maybe never again for me. How do I show that we’re all complicit? How do I simultaneously say “Je suis Charlie!” and that I want nothing to do with them?! Looking over other artist’s work I was struck by a few notably elegant and engaging solutions, but more so by an unending tirade of tired cliches and simplistic fist-pumping-with-pencils support that hints at little critical engagement or thought toward the true complexity of the situation. How was I going to respond visually to a few hundred years of systemic Western dominance whose capital-based projects have funnelled wealth, people and resources in one direction at the expense of nearly an entire planet? Whoops! Did you think this was about free speech or freedom or religion? Keep your eye on the prize.

So, you say you’re Charlie Hebdo… let’s think about that for a moment. If you’ve never called into question imbalances of power between the west and the rest of the world; publicly decried the working conditions of those who made your cheap clothes or fancy new phone; argued about the horrific torture (yes, torture) American, Canadian and European forces have been complicit in facilitating in Iraq and Afghanistan; felt sickened and dared ask a public official about drone strikes and asides of ‘collateral damage’; laid back, unworried by countless revelations by Snowden and Wikileaks on surveillance, privacy and control; or never protested once or spoke out against hate – be it religious, race, sex or otherwise – or voted or dared to offend a bigot or made an artwork that’s been refused because it’s ‘too political’, then you’re not Charlie Hebdo

The past 30 years has seen advertisers and marketers gain control over ‘news’ content and limit expression far more than any terrorist group could wish for. We are constantly being lied to and manipulated by a corporate media and our governments (too often one and the same), ourselves and each other; all working to increase surveillance and continue an endless “war on terror” while ignoring incumbent systems of power stifling speech, freedom and democracy. The real threat is not from terrorists, it’s from our governments and our apathetic selves – all of us. Want cheap clothes and a new phone every 6 months; drive a car everywhere only to demand endless piles of food at the store and never speak up about injustice or social inequality? Then you’re part of the problem. We all are.

The risks those artists, editors and writers took is important: worthy of consideration and reflection. And of course, no one deserves to be killed for presenting an idea, as if this really needs to be stated again. I’m all for ripping into all religious ideologies … hell, all ideologies, particularly those in power – yet that’s the rub: much of the non-white populous in France are not in power. They are systemically excluded socially, politically and economically. Disaffected and disowned and seldom by choice.

To be fair, Charlie has indeed sliced into all sorts at all times but it’s not what I’d call high quality satire… at least from what little I’ve read of the magazine. You have read the magazine, right? (And if you are reading Charlie now, how would you have looked at them before the attacks happened? )

Arguably racist and bigoted, Charlie functions from a site of privilege much of the time – particularly in relation to much maligned and oppressed non-whites throughout the EU and France. Where, thanks to this position, they’re far more able to produce work than many other groups – much of it questionable. When you’re in the majority you have the permission to speak or act with different repercussions than those who might be described as more marginal (in position, not importance). 

All this and I’ve not even gotten to the Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet who was shot dead on the street! And what of the killers? The people who launched this attack and others like it expected to die. This was by all accounts a suicide mission. Can anyone in their right mind say that these acts are only about religion and free speech? Nobody operates in a vacuum. Actions like these are political, desperate and upsetting – perhaps needing empathy as much as anger. Why would anyone murder others and themselves unless they believed there was no other way? What happened to these two people – Saïd & Chérif Kouachi – driving them to such acts?. Change a few things in their lives and no doubt they’d be alive; alter a few things in ours and we’re just as likely to commit heinous acts. 

Speaking of change… Every day illustrators, designers and writers are oppressed by newspapers, magazines and publishing houses too scared to offend their advertisers or even one person. There are some notable publications and individuals who buck this trend, but it’s rarified air they’re breathing. Want hard-hitting editorial journalism and drawings? Stop being “offended” at challenging work, it’s too easy. Instead, think about why you’re upset, whose ideology is really at play and what those in power might gain from being reactionary instead of taking a moment of measure.

Uncomfortable thoughts, I know, but there they are. Besides, wasn’t there an image somewhere in all this? Perhaps it’s time we actually look at it…

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As you can see, the illustration shows a red (blood/ink) spatter with black centre drop reminiscent of a poppy. To my mind, any form of direct representation falls horridly flat thanks to the hyper complex series of reasons mentioned above. A few reasons for this choice were as follows (in no particular order, mostly): 

1. Blood and ink are spilled in what seems like an infinite loop as holy texts, communications and sacrifice are shredded in the name of ‘truth’.
2. The poppy is from Afghanistan, home of over a decade of war by the west; France being a key contributor.
3. Poppies are the symbol of remembrance for War (WW1) here in Canada. 
4. Simple representationalism (portrait, landscape, etc) was drawing a blank, if you’ll pardon the pun. 
5. Pencils replacing bullets and other such metaphors were either all previously done or deemed inappropriate, cheesy, boring or too simplistic.
6. All I wanted to do was hit something… hard. Violence is an energy which is an important motivator when channeled. 
7. Abstraction introduces uncertainty: the only way to point toward even a modicum of the complexity of the situation.

I believe taking a more abstract approach does provide an interpretive space for the viewer to think about the ambiguities in question instead of handing them an answer on a plate. As a visual communicator – and this goes for all ‘creatives’ (a problematic term for another  post) – we do a great disservice when we choose an easy answer and don’t challenge the viewing public and ourselves. Public works by illustrators, designers, artists, writers (etc) can be critical conduits for political, social, cultural and progressive change when well researched and considered. But – and this is a huge but – we can also easily be used as agents of propaganda maintaining the status quo for incumbent powers who have little interest in freedom of any sort. 

I know these issues are vastly more complicated than outlined in this post, however, I do hope to hear other people’s thoughts – particularly from illustrators, artists, designers, art directors and students.

Ultimately, I don’t know where I stand and have few suggestions to navigate this messy terrain; but I prefer it this way. I don’t want a simple narrative and I most certainly don’t think a hashtag can even begin to suggest a summation of such a complex series of issues. I refuse to swallow lies about freedom or free speech or radicalism unless we turn the mirror on ourselves. 
So fuck Charlie Hebdo and long live Charlie Hebdo! 

~ A thanks to all the people around me who shared their thoughts, criticisms and edits, particularly Lindy Wilkins for her edits, critiques and rants; Umar Amanullah for his willingness to be put on the spot and respond with more honesty than is humanly possible.

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