The World Is Not Enough

Wael Shawky, The Cabaret Crusades (2010-15)
In our new "Screening Canada" column, Malini Guha reflects on world building as a politically progressive counter to nationalism at the recent Canadian and International Biennial.

We are pleased to announce that we are now hosting columns on Mediapolis. Each column is written by a Contributing Editor member of our board, appears two to three times a year, and engages a topic, methodology, or medium in which the author is expert. Our second continuing column, appearing in this issue, is “Screening Canada,” by Malini Guha. In each column, Malini discusses an aspect of Canada’s mediated place-making, particularly in relation to recent issues of its global role and domestic negotiation of racial and ethnic difference. 

Objects bring worlds with them 1Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

Upon entering the exhibition space of the Canadian and International Biennial at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) the Gallery patron is presented with a curatorial statement that foregrounds the notion of an “aesthetic world”, claiming that the artists in question “develop these worlds in order to address matters ranging from the personal, sociocultural and formal to the political, all the while reconciling past realities with present conditions and future possibilities”. In exploring the exhibition’s film and video works, I have come to formulate a different question: how does this evocation of the world and the attendant practice of world-making resonate with similar gestures sweeping across political, cultural and popular discourses alike? What is their specific resonance within a Canadian context?


The World: Threat or Promise?

The scale of the world is often elicited at the present juncture to denote a series of promises or threats. The evocation of the scale of the world as a framing device throughout the biennial reverberates with the notion of the world as promise, one that has inched its way across a vast array of academic and cultural discourses in recent decades. The discourse of the world as promise revels in the heterogeneity of a multiplicity of worlds, intended to decentre the West across social, cultural and historical narratives that have been propagated for far too long by the stewards of numerous institutions.2Some examples that span disciplinary contexts include: Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt, Queer Cinema in the World. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016; Shu-mei Shih,“World Studies and Relational Comparison”, PMLA, No. 2 (March 2015): 430-438); Masha Salazkina, “Geopolitics of Film and Media Theory (Special section), Framework Vol. 56, No. 2 (Fall 2015): 325-349; “Terry Smith, “Currents of World-Making in Contemporary Art, World Art, Vol. 1, No. 2 (September 2011): 171-188 The activity of world-making becomes significant in this regard, as an acknowledgement of worlds as always already under construction, to be made and unmade in light of ever shifting social, political and cultural circumstances. This discourse is in sharp contrast to the vision of the world as threat, most clearly manifested in the turn to the extreme right exemplified across a variety of national contexts; for example, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared in a speech to the Conservative Party in the post-Brexit period, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t know what the word citizenship means”.

It is worth pausing to consider what it might mean to situate the world as ‘nowhere’, as an empty aspiration that interferes with the interests of national sovereignty, which emerges as place-based in contrast. This is a conceptualization of the world that corresponds to what many see as neoliberal capitalism’s impending implosion as that system’s salient characteristics, including the normalization of precarious labor practices, shrinking economies, failing health care and education systems, have finally been visited upon the nations that have historically reaped its benefits. It is hardly a coincidence that some of the strongest proponents of an anti-world or anti-globalization movement are the present leaders of the U.S. and Britain.

And yet, as Alain Badiou remarked in the wake of Trump’s electoral win, the sense remains that there is no alternative to global capitalism, that “the definition of our time is the attempt to impose on humanity at the scale of the world itself, the conviction that there is only one way for the history of humans”. The world as threat involves both its negation and a simultaneous reinforcement of a homogenous vision of the globe made to the contours of neoliberal capital. These two ways of conceiving of the world are not as different as they appear; to reduce the world to a single vision, without the possibility of alternative formations, is to deny its very existence.

While the fact of globalization has ensured that the world itself, as Nataša Durovicová writes, “is the backdrop against which any represented geopolitical entity now appears”, the spectre of alternatives to that world is presently at stake in discussions involving worlds that are unraveling in the face of new possibilities as well as those that are being stringently fortified.3Nataša Durovicová, “Preface” in World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives, eds. Nataša Durovicová and Kathleen Newman (New York: Routledge, 2010), pg. ix This turn to the world is precipitated by a refusal to abide by the constant refrain that there are no alternatives to the current political climate: to impending environmental catastrophe, to the brutality of police violence, to the cultures of patriarchy, and to the hegemony of the West. As such, the scale of the world is conjured in the name and in the still unrelinquished possibility of hope.4This insight is heavily indebted to the work of Doreen Massey. For one recent example, see: Doreen Massey, “Landscape/space/politics: an essay” (blog),


The New World(s)

The biennial is comprised of art works from over 50 artists that the Gallery has steadily acquired since April 2014. These works hail from across Canada and, for the first time, from around the world, encompassing an impressive and expansive range of medial and cross-medial forms – including paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography, film and installations – yet many of them can be linked through thematization of alternative worlds. For example, Wael Shawky’s trilogy, The Cabaret Crusades (2010-15), of which two films are screened as part of the biennial, is steeped in the process of worlding in a multiplicity of registers. The trilogy is an adaptation of Amin Maalouf’s historical text, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (1984). As Maalouf notes, the aim of the book is to render the story of the Crusades from an Arab perspective, as articulated by contemporary Arab historians and chroniclers.5Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken Books, 1984,x This story is not known as the Crusades, but rather, as the Frankish (French) wars or invasion.6Ibid. To this effect, all of the characters in the films speak Arabic, including the Franj, the word used to refer to the French in Arabic sources.7Ibid

The process of world-making takes Shawky down an intermedial path; the films are comprised of different varieties of hand-crafted marionettes, their strings on display, as the Frankish wars unfold against painted backdrops. As Shawky has claimed, the use of the marionettes operates as an aesthetic counterpart to the notion there is no single narrative of the Crusades/Frankish invasion while the ones that remain with us have acquired fantastical connotations. The alternative narrative that Shawky offers in place of standard interpretations of the Crusades is one of treachery and horror, as Arab leaders from Egypt, Aleppo, Armenia and so on, are conquered or betrayed by the Franj and by one another. Recurring images include severed heads; bodies roasted on spits; repeated scenes of the bride of the Syrian ruler of Aleppo, Fakhr al-Mulk Radwan, marrying a seemingly endless succession of rulers, as each one is betrayed and killed. In this version of the story, the Crusaders are villainous rather than heroic in their quest for Jerusalem, engaging in brutal acts of deception and violence. The visual specificity Shawky assigns to this world is further augmented by the space that frames it. Watching these films requires walking through a set of doors into a space reminiscent of conventional theatrical exhibition. As lead curator of the biennial, Jonathan Shaughnessy notes, not only was this space tailored in accordance to Shawky’s wishes but it also proves to be less than inviting to some patrons of the biennial, who hesitate in leaving behind its bright gallery spaces. Cabaret Crusades constructs a particular kind of world, its details culled from historical sources outside the West and rendered through a highly developed sense of artifice that can be consumed as if they were a world apart from the biennial, just as they offer a world that stands against a rising tide of Islamophobia and against Canada’s recent abstention from the UN vote to condemn the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem.

Cabaret Crusades is an example of ‘world-making’ as contestation, in accordance with other works in the biennial that similarly interrogate and dismantle dominant narratives by offering new ones in their place. Mika Rottenberg’s video installation, NoNoseKnows (2015) constructs a visual and material world that produces a critique of speculative economies. The physical world of the installation is comprised of a structure that resembles the office space featured in the video, where a white female manager works for a corporation that mass produces cultured pearls through a labour force made up of female Chinese workers. One must walk through this space to watch the video. A bag of cultured pearls also rests inside the space of the installation. In ensuring that the world depicted in the video exists off-screen, Rottenberg reinforces the forms of materiality that undergird speculative capital.

Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows (2015)

Rottenberg challenges us to imagine what the hierarchies of globalized labour practices look like and sound like if rendered through audiovisual means, drawing upon the exact meaning of the language used to describe them. The manager suffers from allergies, conveyed through fits of sneezing that ensure all of her meals are uneaten and piled up in heaps across the office. Her sole coping mechanism consists of deeply inhaling the air produced by a small fan that bears down on a bunch of flowers. This fan happens to be operated by a worker who resides in the pearl factory located directly below the managerial space. Near the end of the video, we see a Chinese worker fast asleep with her feet submerged in a bucket full of pearls. Her feet appear, upside down, in a similar bucket of pearls in the managerial space, lovingly watered by her as though they were the human equivalent of an indoor plant.

In Rottenberg’s world, that which resides below also makes its way up. Her use of contrasting motifs, including the plates of uneaten food and flowers versus the heaps of harvested pearls, further suggests the material underbelly of speculative capitalism rests upon both commodity production and various forms of waste. While the critique of globalization on the basis of its unevenness is hardly new, Rottenberg’s strategy of ‘making literal’ enables her convey the absurd and grotesque character of the speculative phase of globalization.


‘It’s real when you are who you think you are’

Shaughnessy notes that the biennial does not constitute a direct response to the largely nationalist impetus of ‘Canada 150’. And yet it is impossible to not view this exhibition, which foregrounds the works of Canadian and Indigenous artists alongside of international ones, vis-à-vis the complex questions of nation and world that have been raised by Canada’s birthday celebrations. While Canada is not considered part of the pantheon of nations constituting the ‘new’ global right, ‘Canada 150’ has provided a prescient opportunity to stage a series of longstanding and fraught debates concerning exactly whose nation was founded 150 years ago. Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary is a decidedly nationalist affair in its valourization of Canada’s popular identity as among the most inclusive, progressive and diverse of nations.8See Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement issued during Canada Day as an example: Justin Trudeau, “Statement by the Prime Minister on Canada Day”, July 1st 2017, “”, accessed January 28, 2018, accessed January 28, 2018)) ‘Canada 150’ has also become a time of reckoning, where the nation’s popular identity is vigourously contested by those for whom it has never applied, such as its First Nations communities.9For example, see: Nancy MacDonald, “How Indigenous People are rebranding Canada 150, Macleans, March 13, 2017,, accessed January 27, 2018; Jackie Dunham, “Resistance 150: Why Canada’s Birthday Celebrations Aren’t for Everyone”, June 27 2017,, accessed January 28, 2018; Ashifa Kassam, “Canada celebrates 150 but indigenous groups say history is being ‘skated over”, The Guardian, June 27 2017,, accessed January 25, 2018

In a Canadian context, the category of the nation is fractured into a multiplicity of nations, even in the midst of their often-violent suppression and/or neglect by the state. In a 2015 interview in The New York Times, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that Canada’s future could very well be a “post-national one”, given the nation’s “lack” of core identity.10Guy Lawson, “Trudeau’s Canada, Again”, New York Times, December 8 2015,, accessed January 28, 2018 Subsequently, Canada’s public embrace of ‘the world’, in the Trudeau era of governance, is embodied in certain key events such as the Prime Minister welcoming Syrian refugees at the Toronto International Airport in 2015. Trudeau’s post-national agenda is marred not only by the continuing injustices faced by Indigenous peoples who constitute multiple ‘nations’ but also by diasporic populations and communities of colour. Prominent examples include the rise of Islamophobia manifested in hate crimes, which predate the onset of Trump’s America and yet are also amplified by it, as well as activists who are fighting against entrenched practices of anti-Black racism exemplified in acts of police discrimination and brutality.11 For an insightful piece on the rise on Islamophobia in recent years in Canada, see: Matthew Behrens, “Year in Review in 2017: Islamophobia Rising”, Now, December 21, 2017,, accessed January 28, 2018. Robyn Maynard, Montreal-based feminist, activist and educator has recently written a groundbreaking book that addresses state-driven discriminatory practices against Black Canadian communities. See: Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Black Point: Fernwood Publishing Co., 2017. And of course, there is renowned activist and journalist Desmond Cole, who broke the story about the notorious ‘carding’ practices targeting young black males by the Toronto Police Service.  See: Desmond Cole, “The skin I’m in: I’ve been interrogated by the police more than 50 times-all because I’m black, Toronto Life, April 21, 2015,, accessed February 4, 2018

The biennial can serve as a rich entry point for encountering Canada as fractured nation through its foregrounding of a politics of difference, a term that is distinct from both diversity and inclusivity in the way Trudeau and proponents of ‘Canada the Good’ might wield them. For Stuart Hall, a recognition of difference in the interests of living together will involve “a trade-off, a conversation, a process of translation” that acknowledges all the complex power dynamics of dwelling in difference.12Hall, “Living with Difference”, 151

The biennial offers up a vision of the world (s) as difference in numerous registers; the narrative worlds constructed by these artists often foreground oppressive power structures, social inequalities, as well as resistance to entrenched modalities of representation in ways that are both serious and playful. Even when the works featured in the biennial do not directly address Canada, as with the film/video work discussed in this essay, in positing narratives that assert alternative readings and/or re-imagine events of global significance, these works reverberate with a similar turn in a Canadian context generated by Indigenous peoples as well people of colour in the era of Canada 150. For Shaughnessy, the Gallery should be a space where one can ask the question of “how we want to the world to be”. But this exhibition may also enable us to ask the question of how we want Canada to be, vis-à-vis an evocation of the world as promise. Among the biennial’s greatest strengths, particularly in light of Shaughnessy’s assertion that this exhibition constitutes the gallery’s response to current global conditions, is its resistance to the imposition of a singular narrative upon the works it features. As Sara Ahmed writes, “We make things bigger just by refusing to make things smaller”.13While Ahmed is commenting upon feminist world-making practices specifically, her claims have a wider applicability. See: Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 40 ‘Making things bigger’, in a Canadian context, can involve an active acknowledgement of the fractured state of the nation as the ground upon which possible futures can thrive.


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