Bambitchell is the moniker for the collaborative practice of Toronto-based duo Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell. Together, they are a powerhouse of wit, melancholy and critique, creating prints, video and installation work with an underlying longing for a place that does not exist: a utopic political landscape where equality and basic human decency are not optional. The artists have been collaborating since 2009, producing work that lampoons Canadian power structures in order to question the status quo. Queering notions of diaspora through a consideration of nation, gender, post-colonialism and affect, their work makes dominant national narratives strange, bringing absurdities into closer focus.
In Silent Citizen (2014), Bambitchell highlight the inconsistency of rhetoric and ritual associated with “becoming a Canadian.” Viewers are invited to perform karaoke – Immigration Canada style. At the push of a green button, a stern yet friendly guide from the official Immigration Canada website testifies to the fair and welcoming process awaiting prospective immigrants, followed by an intimidating call to silence as a language test begins.
English and French language tests, critical steps in the current immigration process, have been used since 2012 to deter access to immigration on the basis of the spoken word. All questions posed to the viewer are taken directly from the Immigration Canada website. The test entails a series of verbal prompts that discretely generate a model or ideal citizen through prescriptive dialogue. The gallery viewer is encouraged to respond by speaking into the microphone, which is set up to record, store and playback participants throughout the exhibition. The aesthetics at play prod the Bambitchell viewer to disrupt the theatrical construction of an implicitly homogenous Canadian national identity. The playback demonstrates the impossibility of enforcing a dominant, homogenous culture due to the inevitable heterogeneity of voices in Canadian culture.
Bambitchell point toward the racist disconnect between Canada’s welcoming, non-discriminatory and pluralist façade, and the reality that, according to Immigration Canada, the ideal Canadian citizen is a fluent English or French speaker. As more people speak into the microphone, and a variety of different accents, tones, and rhythms of speech are archived, the sound of “proper” Canadian speech becomes unidentifiable. The language test exposes a paranoid desire to create a homogenized national subject. Bambitchell laugh at the test’s futility, identifying it as an arbitrary remnant of a colonial framework that has yet to be dismantled.
This is not the first time Bambitchell re-appropriate the vocabulary of the nation-state in their artwork. Inspiration for work comes to the pair from various political documents, exchanges, and charged historical moments. In early fall, they mounted Sashay Away, a site-specific installation of judge sashes featuring text from Bill C-51, the “Anti-Terrorism Act,” which specifically targets freedom of speech. The piece is set in the colonial atmosphere of The Campbell House, a historic site in downtown Toronto where Sir William Campbell, Chef Justice of Upper Canada (1925-29), presided over a precedent-setting trial for Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press laws in Canada. Empire Symbol, Or A Man and His Mule, an exhibition that traces the journey of a Canadian veterinarian responsible for transporting mules from New York to Karachi during WWII through his diaries, is up at Gallery 44 in Toronto until October 17.