What does it mean to instigate political action? Can a philosopher be an instigator? Is thinking about life in general a privileged activity in this day and age? Where do calls to action come from? What forms the basis of people’s political beliefs? What causes someone to protest?
Instigators, a collection of posters by print artist Guillermo Trejo, invites its audience to ask questions like these. Each poster in the show juxtaposes a graphic, black and red image of political protest with a quotation from great thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jack Kerouac, and Buddha. Trejo says he’s put quotes “from people who are not militants” together with depictions of highly political—and sometimes militant—social resistance movements. Though the quotations used are not politically oriented in their original contexts, Trejo’s chosen combinations of words and images reveal how these thinkers’ fundamental ideas about life, death, power, inspiration, and organization find expression in people’s political opinions and activity.
The SNAP Gallery installation, showing until Mar. 4, is about the nature of protest itself, rather than a particular issue, position, or historical event.
“I want to keep myself out of specific questions,” he says.
Instead, he’s curious about how and why people instigate and join in various forms of social resistance, their emotional and—yes—philosophical reasonings.
“People should be going with an open mind,” Trejo says of his hopes for an audience driven by curiosity.
One of the first prints in the show, and one of Trejo’s favourites, shows a protestor being arrested by police along with the Nietzsche quote: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find a meaning the suffering.” This quotation prompted Trejo’s conception of Instigators as a series.
“I think it is really important,” he says, “because it gives sense to the idea of a ‘philosophical instigator’—the idea of finding meaning in life even though conflict will happen.”
Trejo was born in Mexico and spent half his life there, completing a BFA at the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Etching in Mexico City, before moving to Canada and an earning an MFA from the University of Ottawa. His primary practice is printmaking, though he also sculpts. In 2014, he made the shortlist for the Ottawa RBC Emerging Artist Prize and participated in the Quebec City Triennial. Currently, he teaches at the Ottawa School of Art, and occasionally in the United States as well.
“The experiences you have in life,” he says, “provide material.”
The contrasting perspectives he found between Mexico and Canada, and Canada and the United States, helped fully form the ideas behind Instigators. Mexico—especially—with its long history of cyclical social upheaval and political unrest, made Trejo wonder about the roots of protest.
“In Mexico, people are incredibly rich or incredibly poor and the contrast is always present,” he says. “Corruption is almost institutional and it is really hard to not get involved in one way or another.”
Instigators was precipitated by the modern reality of political activity at the 2012 G20 Summit in Toronto, right before Trejo began work on the show. Five years later, in the wake of the recent American election, the show has become possibly even more poignant.
When Trejo spoke at the show’s opening reception at the SNAP gallery on Feb. 3, it was the first time he’d been present to introduce his work to an Edmonton audience. The projector he’d planned to use broke, and he had to use the actual images on the walls to illustrate his points. But, he was pleasantly surprised by the “beautiful community” present—a younger one, he says, “with a real interest for the arts” than seems to show up to art exhibitions in Ottawa. Trejo also says the Edmonton printmaking community, rooted in the Society of Northern Alberta Print-Artists, is much larger and more vibrant than the printmaking community he observes in Ottawa.
Instigators opened at the SNAP gallery (10123 101 St) on February 2, and will remain open until March 4.