Yesterday we were asked to leave Canada.
In some ways, it wasn’t a big deal, because we just drove across the bridge to Detroit and back to our cozy house, which you can almost see from the immigration building in Windsor. In other ways, it was a very big deal, because we planned a three-month trip based on driving across the country and coming to make work in Canada with an arts organization in Windsor. We’ve arrived, we are here, and they won’t let us in.
If bureaucracy makes you feel crazy, don’t bother reading forward. If you’re an artist and you often find yourself having to explain what exactly it is that you do, you might want to indulge this rant.
Weeks ago via the internet, we had applied for a thing called the NEXUS pass, to expedite our intended daily commute from Detroit to Windsor. We wanted the fast lane, the easy mode. Yesterday we went to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency for our NEXUS interviews (at a place called the “Fast Office,” lol) so they could make sure we weren’t criminals. An hour and a half later, I had been fingerprinted, photographed, made to watch a video about what fruits I can and cannot take across the border, and was ten tried into explaining what it is that I do.
I haven’t had so much practice with this; I’m often in a context where people understand exactly how I spend my time. Portland, Oregon is a safe haven for a… sort of freelance part-time artist-designer who also teaches and likes to work with people but knows a lot about paper and writes blog posts and tweets for a paycheck. My mom understands, or else she doesn’t worry about it. My friends understand, because they can see how it works. But I’ve never tried to justify to an officer of the law how I spent my time.
I thought “artist” would suffice. There’s a lot of flexibility within that. An “artist” could theoretically make paintings, performances, teapots out of mud, books of poetry and weird websites as part of a single practice, right? Artists don’t have to explain themselves to the general public, right? Explaining is reserved for artist statements and exhibition catalogs, for graduate school critique sessions and studio visits, right? Wrong! I learned that artists have to explain themselves to everybody.
Yesterday was a unique challenge. Over the course of four hours, in the US Border Protection Agency and at the Canadian Border Services Agency building, we tried to explain what it is that we do with our days, what it is we plan on doing in Canada, and why we’d drive across the country to work for free for people we had only met via email. Some choice phrases and exchanges from our endless appeal:
“We’re graphic designers, but we also make art that looks like graphic design, and we make art with people, so we’re going to come and work with people in Windsor.”“What people?”“We don’t know yet, we have to find them.”
“What kind of art are you making?”“It’s like, community engagement, like, art that is supposed to engage the community.”
“Do you know this person who invited you to Canada?”“Yeah, well, no, sort of, through the internet, yes. Yes, we know him.”
“How do you make your money?”“We’re graphic designers.”“Right but how do you make your money?”
“How did you get to Michigan?”“We drove there in a van.”“Sounds shady.”“It’s a nice van.”
“But I still don’t understand what you are going to DO in Windsor?”“We aren’t sure yet, see, that’s the thing, the process is a very important part of the entire project, so we’d use some of the time to get acquainted with the neighborhood—”(Interrupting) “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
While he read Canadian immigration legislation from his computer, we sat in uncomfortable chairs in the waiting room. It was like the DMV: old, smelly, full of nervous people waiting with paperwork in hand. No one looked comfortable. We sat contemplating the worst case scenario, wherein we would not be allowed back in Canada, ever. We could make our project about Windsor without ever having been in it! We could sit across the river in Detroit and look at Windsor all day! We could try every day to get into Canada, and document the process. We could try and sneak in on a boat. We could invite people from Windsor to come see us in Detroit. We could send work to Windsor to be exhibited, not as artists in residence but as artists in exile. While none of these options would be ideal, the flexibility and openhandedness of our plans were a blessing. Nothing was really being squashed, just changed around a little bit. As we giggled about the idea of becoming artists in residence in the immigration office, the officer called us up to deliver our fate.
He determined that we need a work permit, a decision we’re trying to make sense of. The officer’s logic, developed as he shook his head slowly stared blankly at our passports, is that our purposes were more business than tourism, and thus we needed the permits to come and work. He invited us to read more carefully through the immigration laws and see if there were provisions that applied specifically to us, but also repeatedly said, “I’ve just never been presented with this situation before.”
We were served “Allowed to Leave” notices, which really should be named “Commanded to Leave.” We signed our names agreeing to leave Canada without delay, and the officer escorted us to our car, handed back our passports, and told us how to drive back to the US.
Two bridge tolls and four hours later we were defeated. We came home and ate lentil soup on the couch.
This morning our hosts in Canada emailed with input regarding the immigration legislation, explaining that visual artists have now been added to the laws where previously only performing artists were addressed. Under section 5.8. of the Immigration Protection and Refugee Act (IRPA) Regulation SOR/2002-227 s 8(1), Work without a work permit R186(g):Performing artists, supposedly we’re allowed to come in for a “time-limited engagement” without a work permit. If we had scheduled an artist talk, or a workshop, or a performance, we’d be fine. Maybe we’ll do just that. We’re supposed to go back and explain all of this to the immigration officers, and I am filled with a terrible angst in my stomach when I think about returning to that building.
It frustrates me that the legal definition of an artist is so compartmentalized and based on comfortably established understandings of the capacity of an artist. (I know, I know, woe is me. No one understands me, etc., etc.) I guess if I have to choose, I’m a visual artist and not a performing artist, but should I have to choose? What if I also consider myself a journalist? A poet? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that federal governments are slow to respond to shifts in contemporary art practice, but still, this is a disappointing (not to mention inconvenient) confirmation of a prevailing ambivalence towards cultural and artistic work. Is it my fault there’s no specific provision that applies to the kind of work I do, or is it a case of outdated immigration legislation? Maybe I should be pleased that they’re considering our loose, undefined, process-based neighborhood research maybe-a-publication project to be “work.” People, we are now real artists. As my friend Zach said, “You’ve made it! You’ve been politically disenfranchised because you’re artistically misunderstood! I am jealous and impressed.”
Perhaps we should have just said we make paintings.