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Tanks R Us: Sarah Beck On The Fine Art Of Self Defence  by Roewan Crowe
Tanks R Us: Sarah Beck On The Fine Art Of Self Defence

Sarah Beck is a cultural activist. The Saskatchewan-based artist makes crystal-clear connections between themes of consumerism, the militarization of daily life and the mass marketing of armaments.

Beck’s latest project is entitled “Öde,” a Swedish word meaning both waste and fate. This multimedia project consists of several elements, including a website, a 32-page full-colour mail-order catalogue and an actual life-size tank.

Beck’s work deals with the commodification of security, promising well-designed weapons for the masses and freedom through weaponry for the North American consumer. A full-colour catalogue can be purchased from the Öde website, which convincingly represents a pseudo retail chain Beck has created (see www.shopode.com).

Herizons: How would you describe your work as an artist?

Sarah Beck: At first I was—and in some ways still am—really uncomfortable with the word “artist,” and I really rejected it. I think of my work as a modern form of protest.

How so?

Sarah Beck: To me, art seemed intimidating as an institution. It didn’t seem like an act, or even something to enjoy. It took living and working with other artists—specifically, at an artist residency at Banff—to gain a sense of perspective on my own work. It was like pulling back the red curtain to see that the wizard was just another person. I suddenly felt like I had something to offer. Just because I don’t want to do this whole art thing the way other people do it doesn’t mean I can’t do it my way. I hesitate to criticize or to claim I know the exact problems with art, because it’s different for everyone. But I did find a way that allows me to respect myself.

In what ways?

Sarah Beck: For me, it’s not why I make art but how I make it that is important, and by that I do not mean the medium. I am a creative person and it’s easy for me to create, but I take my art practice very seriously. I work hard to make my work accessible because I want it to be accessible. The message in my art is really important—the vehicle (or medium) is secondary.

The message always drives my choice of medium. I’m a trained photographer/cinematographer, yet photography plays only a small part in my work. If art wears out, maybe I will enter politics, but for now it tells the story. I choose to make art that steps out of the gallery, whether in language or signifiers, or physically so that my audience will be wider. I’m consistently surprised by its diversity and have learned to never underestimate my audience. It’s easier to predict how someone who is more like-minded—politically, say—will respond.

There is an excitement to sharing new ideas with people and having them bring their ideas to the table, especially when they are different. We all have more in common than we think when we use common language. An example of what I mean lies in bringing Öde to the U.S. Öde was completed in May of 2001, and suddenly there were new and complex layers of meaning being attached to the work after September of that year. I was obviously nervous about reaction so close to 9/11 and what the audience would think I was communicating as a Canadian.

Each person who came found a different entry point to access the work. For some it was through involvement with the military and a knowledge of weapons. Other people readily identified with the material and had purchased desks or whatever made of Medium Density Fibreboard and could commiserate. Some people quickly identified with the lifestyle advertising and felt comfortable there. These points of entry really drew people in and got them talking with each other. Word of mouth led to people visiting the website and experiencing it in the comfort of their homes.

Can you talk about why you think art is a powerful tool?

Sarah Beck: Art is not necessarily a powerful tool, but it is my tool for best communicating to the world. I have finally come to peace with that. Much of what other activists are doing seems far more important to me, and if my role seemed more useful in a different place I would be doing that instead. Protest is something I am not comfortable with, either. As an institution, it has been utterly co-opted, by what I can see. The signifier for protest, thanks to news reporting, is the image of a young punk causing trouble, when that is not really the case. This has weakened protest for me and made me look in other directions. Instead of expressing dissent, I have chosen to use art to spread ideas, or even information…[snip]