Feminist Men – Jacob Wren
Blog Post by Sophie Gee, Sept. 25, 2018
All of the interviews in our Feminist Men Blog series are uncensored and unedited. We did not impose a structure and allowed the conversations to take natural turns. In some cases, interviews ran long and contained too many questions to include in the post. Therefore, the only curating that took place was in the interest of the length of the article. Enjoy!
Jacob is someone I’ve known for a while and who I always run into at cultural events. If you’re one of his facebook friends you’ll get a curation of quotes from critical and oftentimes feminist texts and great music. So I asked him if he was willing to take part in this blog series and was thrilled that he said yes. But when we met he began by saying that when my message came through he thought the blog series was a bad idea. I asked him to hold that thought while I set up the recorder.
S: Ok. Now you can tell me why it’s a bad idea.
J: I mean when I was coming here the main thing I was thinking about was this joke that has done the rounds on the internet a number of times and the joke is: a male feminist walks into a bar because it was set so low.
S: Oh my god I love it. So good. Yes.
J: And it really does feel like that, this interview for me, because I don’t think I’m any great example of anything.
S: But the things you share online are amazing.
J: It’s easy to be a feminist on facebook. It doesn’t mean anything.
S: I mean you’re reading a lot of this stuff right, so it must inform you. You’re reading these feminist tracts all the time.
J: I mean something I often say about myself – that is not a virtue – is self-awareness without change. But to back up to why it’s a bad idea. If a man announces he’s a feminist, I’m instantly suspicious. Because he’s taking up space, using feminism to take up space. It’s good to say you’re a feminist. But probably actually being a feminist has a lot to do with actually not saying it so much and mainly stepping aside and giving women the floor. One of the ways as a man I benefit from patriarchy is that I’m given a lot of space. So to benefit less from patriarchy – I mean I’m going to benefit from patriarchy no matter what I do – but to benefit less from patriarchy one of the things I need to do is to give space to women.
S: Do you practice that? How do you?
J: Ok a very practical example is refusing to be on an all-male reading or an all-male panel. That is something I do. But I feel like if I take credit for it, it kind of undermines it.
S: You think so?
J: Yeah I think I should do it in the background. I mean it’s good to talk about it too, but if I say I’ve done this great thing by refusing to be on an all-male panel – I mean, I think it should just be normal.
S: It should, but people won’t know about it until people say they do it.
J: I can’t get cultural capital for that because it defeats the purpose of doing it, which is to give women more cultural capital. So, of course, it’s bad not to talk about it at all, but to talk about it too much I think is really dangerous.
S: Well thank you for agreeing to be part of this blog series in the first place then.
J: Maybe I agreed to do it because I wanted to talk about why it’s problematic. And why men should do good things but not announce it. They should talk about it in private with other men. You see a man at a reading with only other men on the bill, that would be a good moment to bring it up.
S: Right. As a man. To other men. Well – do you? bring it up?
J: Yes, but I also – I’m also afraid of people. I’m also afraid of other men. Maybe the kinds of men who do the things I don’t like are also the kinds of men I try to avoid in my social life. I don’t really feel tough enough to deal with them that much. So I feel like that somehow limits what I can do a little bit.
S: A bit like you’re already preaching to the choir.
J: In a way. But – this point has been made many times before. You might think the choir all thinks the same but when you start to get into it you realize – there’s a lot to be said even to the choir.
S: True. Even at Imago there’s a generational difference in the kind of feminism we follow. We all consider ourselves feminists and yet there’s such differences of opinions in the office.
J: Yes and we all have blind spots. I have blind spots. The other reason I think it’s bad for men to announce too often that they are feminists because it suggests that they have some kind of expertise or extra knowledge and I think it mainly needs to be about listening and learning and not thinking you know. Because I always feel knowledge is experiential and no matter how much I learn about feminism I still experience the benefits of patriarchy which shields me from the real experiential knowledge which creates a lot of blind spots even in places where I think I’ve educated myself a lot.
(we shift to talking about ways of working at PME-ART)
J: At PME, we try to work in a democratic and non-hierarchical way.
S: And what’s that, what do you do?
J: We make work by sitting around and talking and everyone somehow has an equal say in what the work is. And I have a different position within the group because somewhere I’m the Co-Artistic Director so I’m in charge but that difference and position is transparent. And when I make suggestions, it can be discussed and everything can be questioned.
S: But does the final decision rest on you or is there consensus?
J: The idea is that the decision is made when we feel good about it. When we feel that this is what we want to do. And as well, we don’t all need to agree. If one person wants to do something that the other two people don’t like, they are still free to do it. We don’t try to sand down our differences to make it all fit into the same world. There can be many different worlds co-existing on stage.
(Jacob talks about how he and his collaborators check with each other if there’s anything politically problematic about the work before they perform it)
S: But you can’t please everyone.
J: No, but you can think and be careful. It’s not about pleasing people, it’s about trying to fill in one’s blindspot with pertinent information.
S: So this is an obvious question then. What did you make of the whole SLAV thing?
J: Yeah well I mean – I mean Robert Lepage can go to hell. Fuck right off.
S: Do you want me to put this in?
S: Haha ok. I’m doing it. Well, he’s been appropriating from Asian culture for a very long time. But he’s an innovator. He’s a wonderful innovator –
J: But this is the thing. Just because you’re good at one thing it doesn’t mean you’re good at everything. His work is very visually impressive, but in terms of the ways it deals with thematic questions I never found that that impressive or complex or rich enough.
S: Yeah it doesn’t have a critical component. But at the same time, that’s not what he does.
J: But there’s this idea that if you’re a great artist, you’re great at everything. It’s not true. And artists have more blind spots than anyone because they’re so focused on their art that all this stuff in the periphery doesn’t –. And this can be necessary to take art projects to completion. But because it’s necessary, it doesn’t mean it’s good. You also need periods of reflecting and self-questioning and doubt. We can especially talk about male artists. I mean male artists do not do nearly enough self-questioning. I mean they are filled with all this fake confidence that is actually just over compensation for insecurity and they don’t know it.
S: That’s quite a blanket statement.
J: But when there are exceptions you can really see it.
S: Yeah – I guess so. (pause) What’s an example of an exception for you?
J: Women Artists.
S: You’ve talked about not being tough but you’re fortunate that you’ve had a rich career despite not being tough.
J: Yeah but I benefit from patriarchy enormously and the tortured male genius –
S: Yes, I was just thinking that –
J: I benefit from all those cultural stereotypes.
S: If you were a woman and you express doubt you might lose your authority. But if you go and express doubt then it’s like you’re being a male artist.
J: I’ve never talked about this before, I don’t know if other people have talked about this but also what I’m trying to get my head around is the fact that I can’t suddenly not benefit from patriarchy or not benefit from white privilege. I can be against it, I can try to fight against it, I can try to undermine, I can try to question it, I can try to be a good ally to other people, but somehow I can’t opt out of it.
S: It’s an exciting time. But it does mean that people like you need to take up less space. And we all want to do our artwork. How does it feel to be asked to give it up some of that space and power? Is it difficult?
J: I guess so. I tell myself I’ve had more than my fair share of opportunities and I can give some up.
S: Nice. Cool. Thank you. I’m good. You’re good?
Jacob Wren makes literature, collaborative performances and exhibitions. His books include: Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Polyamorous Love Song, Rich and Poor and Authenticity is a Feeling. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, Individualism Was A Mistake, The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information and Every Song I’ve Ever Written. He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.