A conversation with the artist and activist about her various practices and how they relate to her interest in ‘the epistemology of ignorance’
Maybe we need a new term. ‘Renaissance woman’ comes the closest, but it doesn't quite capture the unique way of being in the world that Maggie MacDonald embodies.
A candidate for public office before she was even a university grad, a punk and indie rock veteran of the Hidden Cameras and Republic of Safety, a street-level activist, a published author of fiction and plays, an interactive and visual artist whose work has been featured at the AGO, an institutional activist for one of the country’s leading environmental NGOs, and the University of Toronto’s first – and last? – ever graduate in something called ‘Network Studies’, Maggie MacDonald has done a lot in her relatively few years on the planet. (She's also a hard-core science fiction nerd with an unabashed affection for the really bad stuff.)
She’s the sort of person you wouldn’t be surprised to hear – all of a sudden – was either launching her own sustainable fashion line, gunning for the Prime Minister’s job, or leading a mission to Mars. Seriously. Her passionate desire to engage, her boundless curiosity – and seemingly boundless creative energy – can incorporate them all.
I sat down with Maggie the day after the U.S. election to talk about anything but American politics – her art, her activism, nostalgia and aging, and her four-star rating system for ‘space camp’: the really cheezy sci-fi she just can’t seem to get enough of.
Q: It’s interesting that you went directly into electoral politics because the kind of activists that I knew back in the early 2000s were very much against directly participating in mainstream politics. Can you talk about some of your early involvement in political activism?
“Sure. I started university in Kingston [at Queen’s], and then I transferred to U of T for the rest of undergrad where I got more involved in campus activism. I also moved into this collective house on Portland Street, a place that threw parties so massive people thought it was a night club. Six of us lived there, and none of us had keys! The door was never locked. People would just show up and crash. You’d wake up on Sunday morning and some political puppet group was in your living room building a giant puppet, and none of them lived there. It was just known as a space where you could do that. It was a really interesting place to live.
“After the Battle in Seattle, there was a debrief for Toronto activists that Naomi Klein facilitated in our living room. Dave Meslin was living there at the time. We were part of the same larger crew of activists, and he and I were both in the Hidden Cameras for a time. It’s interesting how a lot of the people I was in activist communities with ended up playing music together, like Luis Jacob – who was involved in the free school movement and doing some really interesting stuff there – and Mez [Dave Meslin] who was, and continues to be, active around issues of public space and city governance.”
Q: I have friends who went through a similar progression of going to the Battle in Seattle, for example, and then becoming disillusioned with that kind of street level activism, and – I think – realizing at a certain point that if you’re white and middle class and have access to education, the barriers to having real influence are not that significant.
“Especially in the Canadian system. It’s very easy to get into institutional work here. It can be hard to get full-time work in more activist institutions, like in the environmental movement, unless you are already connected to certain communities. But if you want to get involved with a political party, for example, that’s actually pretty easy in Canada.”
Q: So those people have moved in their 30s and 40s toward more institutional activism – if you’ll forgive the term – more like what you are doing now.
“No, it’s true. I fill out spreadsheets in my daily life. Not all the time, but that’s part of what I have to do.”
Q: Not long after I met you (around 2005/2006), you were heading back to school to do your Master’s. Was that the idea, then, to move into a more institutional role?
“I was thinking I would pursue graduate school, actually, and become a prof. I initially wanted to do a PhD. I had been doing the music thing, and came off a really hard tour that made me realize I needed more intellectual stimulation in my life than a tour van was going to bring me.”
Q: So what did you end up studying?
“My Master’s is in Social and Political Thought. That’s the official name. But what I studied was the epistemology of ignorance. How knowledge is created and destroyed. How social factors can interfere with the scientific process, and the gap between science and policy. How facts do not result in behavioural change. How the mind operates with both belief and disbelief. There’s a lot of interesting work being done in this area by people like Robert Proctor and George Lakoff, among others.”
(Of course, it's a topic that couldn’t be more relevant in the so-called ‘Post-Truth’ era.)
Q: I saw a talk online that Lakoff gave at the New York Public Library about how people can hold mutually contradictory ideas at the same time and that the right-left distinction doesn’t really hold water, because people are everywhere at once. He was challenging this rationalist, George Orwell-type view that if everybody has access to the same information, they’ll automatically come to the same conclusions. But they don’t.
“That’s exactly what I studied. ‘Naïve empiricism’ means a few different things, but sometimes it’s used to mean that. We have such a faith – a naïve faith – in facts, and the idea that if you have access to the empirical evidence, your beliefs will automatically align with it. But the world is more complicated than that.”
Q: How do you apply those insights in the work you do now?
“I work in the non-profit sector, in strategy and advocacy. Until recently, I worked for an environmental NGO and looked for ways of changing minds and bringing science and policy around environmental issues into alignment. I studied the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals, carcinogens, and toxic pollutants, and tried to figure out why the science didn’t always seem to impact the law to change policies.”
Q: What drew you to that particular portfolio within the organization? Do you have a personal connection to it?
“I’ve had a lot of friends and family who’ve been affected by cancer. Of course, some of that is related to lifestyle or genetics. But there is also a growing body of research now showing that a lot of it is not genetic, and not lifestyle-related either, but linked to workplace factors and environmental factors. (See the President’s Cancer Panel report Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk (2008-2009) for reference.) Social determinants of health – where you live, what kind of housing you have, and environmental racism – pollution in the environment where you live, particularly on reservations, for example, are factors. There’s definitely a personal connection to the work I do.”
Q: Cancer is very interesting because it’s an epidemic – they say half of all men and a third of all women get some form of cancer – and yet we have this very technocratic approach to it. We just seem to accept that we’re all going to get cancer, and to believe that we’re all going to be miraculously cured of cancer. But it feels like we skipped a step in addressing the causes. You see cement trucks belching out exhaust but they’re painted pink and, therefore, supposedly helping to fight breast cancer.
“Yeah, it’s pretty frustrating, that disconnect. There is that idea that it’s inevitable. But people have to realize, just because it is this way doesn’t mean that it ought to be this way. You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.”
Q: Or people say, ‘Oh, it’s just because we’re living longer’ – that if you live long enough, you will get some form of cancer.
“Which ignores the fact that when you look at the stats for people under 40, testicular cancer for men went up close to 40% between 1973 and 1999, and there’s been a similar rise in thyroid cancer for women under 40. So when you look at who’s getting cancer at what point in their life, people were not dying in droves of cancer before age 40 in the 1970s. You do see more people living to 80 now, and they may be more likely to get cancer, but when you look at certain cancers by age group, the trends are changing. It’s shifting in a way that really counters that aging population argument. (See the WHO UNEP Report State of the Science on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012 for reference.)”
WHERE ART MEETS ACTIVISM
MacDonald tries to strike a balance between her institutional activism and her more creative side by continuing to engage in her various art and writing practices. From her illustrated novella ‘Kill the Robot’ to her musical plays ‘The Rat King’ and ‘Young Drones’, to more recent visual and interactive work at the AGO, MacDonald’s growing oeuvre repeatedly returns to certain themes – the dangers and possibilities of surveillance technologies and artificial intelligence, the threat of environmental degradation, and the struggle to find hope in post-apocalyptic scenarios. Many of these may stem from her undergraduate work in ‘Network Studies’ – a program she “made up” for herself at the University of Toronto. But they might just as likely be rooted in her lifelong interest in science fiction, the only literary and filmic genre custom-built to help us imagine futures we want to move toward, and avoid the ones we don’t.
Q: How is it that you got to create your own undergraduate program? And what exactly is ‘Network Studies’?
“Back in the early 2000s [CBC commentator and new-media guru] Jesse Hirsch was running this email circle at U of T called Tao.ca. A lot of people who were activists had ‘tao.ca’ email addresses at the time. And I said to him, ‘I’m not sure what I want to study. I’m really interested in how the brain works, not because I want to build a robot, but because I want to understand what that means for politics.’ And he said, ‘No one will tell you this, but at the University of Toronto you can make up your own degree.’
“So I cobbled my degree together out of cognitive science, artificial intelligence – I was looking at surveillance and neural networks – and some political science, and I called it ‘Network Studies’. So I am the top student who ever graduated from U of T in Network Studies, because I think I am the only student who ever did it!” [Laughs]
Q: Tell me about your most recent artistic intervention at the AGO.
“Bojana and Sean, who do the First Thursdays program at the AGO, invited me to do an interactive piece about ‘Nostalgia Canadiana’, which I was so pleased to be asked to do, because I think a lot about nostalgia and the past and the future and longing.”
Q: You’re getting older!
“Yeah, I am getting older and I have a lot of nostalgia. It can be a place of safe retreat, but it can also be toxic, like when people turn to nationalism. It’s great to be in a country that values diverse contributions to society, and there’s a lot to be thankful for about living in Canada. But when we start to get into nationalist nostalgia, there’s a concern, because nationalism and racism are so closely related.”
So MacDonald created a map of Canada where she invited people to collage what they think the country is going to look like in the future – including whether it will exist at all.
“We built a timeline of the future – Canada in 2025 – and it could even have a different name. People could change the borders, change the geography – everything was up for grabs. It was a collage that anyone who visited could contribute to making. And it was about having a conversation based in what hasn’t happened yet. You could put a UFO on the map and talk about the extra-terrestrial contact we’re going to have. Or if you don't like the UFO landing, you could place something else over it that you are interested in seeing.”
While MacDonald was careful to make sure that a wide variety of identities were represented in the materials available for the collage, she wanted to keep the conversation focused on the future, not the past.
“We can talk about different perspectives on Canada’s past – which we have to do, that’s an important thing that’s going on right now, and I’m glad of that. But when you’re talking in the realm of facts, often people will approach a conversation with their opinions already formed. They’re not necessarily going to be able to engage with an opposite view point and take something away, because people already know what they think about reality.
“But when you turn the conversation around and talk about the future, it hasn’t happened yet, it’s all up for grabs, and there’s a certain freedom to engage with people who have different points of view than you do with a more open mind. There are no facts to have an opinion about. There’s just this wide-open possibility.”
Q: What interesting things came out of the conversations that took place?
“I tried to photograph it over the course of the night as it evolved, and it was really interesting to see how people approached it. Even though they were invited to do whatever they wanted – no matter how extreme – people still really checked in with each other, including strangers. People were really minding their neighbours in an I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of way.
“I just read that Rebecca Solnit book ‘Hope in the Dark’ about how a lot of emergency planning personnel or politicians assume that when there is a disaster there will be social chaos and the worst of humanity will come out. But often we find that when there are natural disasters, where authority is removed, people self-organize into support networks. People with boats in Louisiana, for example, after Hurricane Katrina, who were out rescuing anyone they could find, the people who felt abandoned by other forces.
“And so, it’s kind of interesting that given this kind of fictional context of – if you want to be a jerk, and say, ‘I’m going to delete all of the collage that everyone else made’ – no one was stopping them. But no one did that.”
Q: Do you get nostalgic for the scene you were a part of 10 years ago? What are your impressions of how those artistic communities have changed?
“My nostalgia is very much a personal nostalgia. I miss performing. I miss travelling with my friends and doing music for a living. So my nostalgia is a selfish nostalgia. It’s not a nostalgia for an ideal time or whatever. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of friends and loved ones die in the last 10 years – younger and older people. So there’s a nostalgia for a time of togetherness with those people, and for being younger and more able to engage in certain things. Having more energy. Not being tired!” [Laughs]
Another source of nostalgia, and respite from the daily work of trying to solve real-world problems, is science fiction and Hollywood action films. MacDonald confesses to a weakness for the Marvel movies (she and a musician friend sneak off to see them on a VIP screen whenever they can) and for really bad sci-fi.
Q: What’s your biggest guilty pleasure movie?
“I love ‘Prometheus’. I’ve seen it over and over. I know it’s flawed, but I can’t get enough of it.”
Q: It’s visually spectacular, even if the story is a mess.
“Oh, yeah, it’s like eating chips. It’s the movie equivalent of eating chips.”
So MacDonald has developed a ratings system for the particular brand of cinematic cheese she enjoys. She calls it ‘space camp’, and she means – of course – ‘camp’ in the cultural sense famously essayed by Susan Sontag, not the place you get sent to as a kid to burn off your energy over the summer.
“It’s similar to the things I love about a John Waters movie, or ‘Boom’, the Elizabeth Taylor classic in which she plays a wealthy lady who lives on an island and gets injections all day long. It’s amazing. Space camp’s not exactly the same as gay camp. But there are some overlapping qualities of being larger than life, and a kind of earnestness where it’s supposed to be serious, but you just can’t take it seriously.
“So my ratings system for ‘space camp’ is not about whether it’s the best work or something you can treat like literature. It’s basically four criteria: to get a 4 out of 4 you need a spaceship, an alien, a robot, and women plural. If the movie has all of those, it’s a 4 out of 4.”
Q: So a movie like ‘Aliens’?
“Yes, ‘Aliens’ is a 4 out of 4 Space Camp movie. That’s a great movie.”
Q: What can we expect to see from you next?
“I’m writing a lot this year. I put a challenge to myself because last year I was recovering from a concussion and it really slowed me down. So I wasn’t as productive. Lately I’ve been working very hard, and I’m focused on writing new things. I just gave my friend a script for an action movie I’ve written, looking for feedback on that. [Laughs] Why not? I love those movies.”
Q: Does it have environmental or post-apocalyptic themes?
“It’s really character based, but those themes are always present in my writing.”
Add that, then, to the list of things we won’t be surprised to see MacDonald do: writing a sci-fi blockbuster full of robots, aliens, and gun-totting women who—like MacDonald herself—are too busy making their own maps to worry about what paths anyone else thinks they should be following. I’d paid to see that.
Note: Intrigued by that notion of 'the epistemology of ignorance'? For a great video of George Lakoff talking about propaganda, truth, and why George Orwell was – if not wrong – certainly overly optimistic(!) click on the New York Public Library video link here.