Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Justin Langlois
Emily Carr University of Art and Design
Justin Langlois is an artist, educator, and organizer. His practice explores collaborative
structures, critical pedagogy, and infrastructural frameworks. He is currently the Associate
Dean of the Master of Fine Arts program at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and lives
as an uninvited guest on unceded Coast Salish Territory.
Abstract: In this paper, I will argue that small scale conflict and disagreement in civic life are
a vernacular part of our social experience and yet, in the hands of artists, they can actively
work against larger hegemonic structures and help foster new expressions of agency and
democratic action. By examining a number of socially engaged art projects I developed as
the research director of the artist collective, Broken City Lab, and by situating this work in
relation to a number of core ideas exploring notions of antagonism, I propose a tactical
recuperation of the idea of conflict in order to see it as a core part of our democratic social
Keywords: social practice; antagonism; conflict; artist residencies; collaboration;
Recuperating Conflict
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
On Being Difficult
“You’re making things harder than they need to be.”
The phrase above may sound familiar. While it reads like a declarative observation, it
actually feels like a tacit demand. Stop what you’re doing. This isn’t right. Why are you doing
it that way? An artist might respond in one of a couple of ways. They may feel
misunderstood, annoyed that what they see as a very necessary, if complex, process is
being interpreted as something excessive, foolhardy, or even indulgent, or, perhaps they feel
a tinge of pride, happy to be working against expectations, slowing things down, and treating
the very idea of difficulty as something worthy of study. In my own artistic practice, I know it
is often somewhere in between.
As artists, our efforts to explore new ways of being together in the world is an
essential part of any creative practice and the foundation of socially engaged art (Helguera,
2011). In socially engaged art, rather than material transformation, it is about the
transformation of how we can be together and where we can be in common. This practice of
transformation is necessary to unpack because it is not always straightforward.
Transformation is often driven by the need to address a conflict. Things change when the
status quo is overturned. However, social transformation, whether in the places we live or
the communities we are a part of, has to account for the catalyzing potential of disagreement
or conflict
(Miessen, 2010) because it is an inevitable part of the process. My idea of
transformation may not be the same as yours, or, it might even be antithetical to it. However,
that difference, or more precisely, the ability to host that difference in our social lives is the
foundation of a healthy democracy.1 That means that disagreement is not something we
should avoid; it is something we need to cultivate.
It is not just that conflict and disagreement are such a core part of our social
experiences, they also actively work against larger hegemonic narratives of how we should
conduct ourselves in the world
2008). Smooth transactions and seamless
experiences are most attractive to those who already hold power. Unfortunately, our short-
hand understanding of conflict has been stretched out of shape, oversimplified, and distorted
into a concept that translates into one side destroying another, full-on violence, or outright
war. This narrow definition does not serve the interests of social transformation. It does not
capture important political actions based on conflict and disagreement such as protest or
creative resistance, which aim to activate public discourse and civic action around an issue.
A healthy democracy is built on a plurality of perspectives and ways of living that necessarily
bump into each other (Maloney & Miller, 2008). So, we need to recuperate the idea of
conflict in order to see it as a core part of our democratic social lives, as messy as they may
be. To do that, we need to stop thinking about conflict as something that is "in the way" or
inconvenient or making things harder than they need to be. Conflict is not something that
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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stops us from getting things done. On the contrary, it is the very first step for how we start
moving forward.
In their dynamic series of essays from 2013, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning
& Black Study, the poet and professor of performance studies, poetics, and literary theory,
Fred Moten, and autonomist and postcolonial theorist, Stefano Harney, discuss a “general
antagonism” as public life (Harney & Moten, 2013). Thirty years ago, Ernesto Laclau and
Chantal Mouffe wrote about radical democracy as being premised on a constant exchange
of tempered conflictual tendencies in their book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau &
Mouffe, 2014). And in the 1930s, the imprisoned political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, saw
antagonism and conflict in class struggle as a way to build revolutionary politics (Gramsci,
1971). For each of them,2 conflict was not something to be silenced or solved. It is, instead,
something to be cultivated, rehearsed, and tuned.
Towards that cultivation of conflict, our ability to act freely in the world and respond to
it in real-time is a measure of our agency. To tackle the inevitable asymmetry of power that
so often forms the foundation of injustice, we have to channel our creativity and agency in
new and unexpected ways. From nascent community action groups to large-scale social
movements and protests, if conflict and antagonism are the kindling, our agency is the
spark. The fires that ensue are sometimes enormous and ferocious blazes (such as the
ongoing protests in Hong Kong)3 while at other times they are numerous and slow-burning
(such as Extinction Rebellion’s continued public interventions).4 However, there are other
registers of creative action that are also driven by a sense of antagonism, and as artists we
can explore these registers through symbolic and poetic forms.
Agency as Modulation, Art as Intervention
In my practice, as an artist and educator, I look at how we can deploy our agency as a
potent modulator of the social and political dynamics around us. It is important to note that
modulation is not necessarily the same as outright transformation. It is also not infinite; it
cannot go on forever in any single direction. Modulation is a momentary change in the
pattern: It moves back and forth, increasing and decreasing its intervals of change, and
amplifying and reducing the volume of activity. That modulation can be read as conflict or as
an antagonism towards a baseline. Small actions and projects could be a short kind of
modulation; larger social movements could be seen as a sustained wave. I want to suggest
that in thinking about conflict as a modulation from an existing position, we can see it as a
generative change, not something to work around.
In 2008, I founded the artist collective, Broken City Lab5 with Danielle Sabelli. We
were both in graduate school, living in Windsor, Ontario, and seeing the city changing before
our eyes. Our friends were moving to larger cities because there were no opportunities
locally. The city was hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs that had been the economic backbone of
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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the region for decades. Storefronts were empty, and public spaces were quietly falling into
disrepair and disuse. Windsor had so much potential, but it was also a hard place to love.
We found ourselves at the start of a modulation in our relationship to the city.
We started to wonder what stake we had in where we lived. We imagined Windsor as
a case study for nascent experiments in tactical urbanism—small gestures that could adjust
how we experienced the city. We got lucky and found an amazing group of artists, designers,
writers, and activists interested in having these conversations with us.6 We tasked ourselves
with trying to come up with an endless series of actions, interventions, and events that could
shift or modulate our perspective on our city. We called ourselves Broken City Lab because
we planned to take on self-initiated artistic “experiments” that looked at generosity, empathy,
and criticality as the core components in the creative activity we would foster in public
Our projects started small and we borrowed ways of working from other disciplines
like ethnography and geography and mixed them in with our artistic practices. We recorded
each other as we moved through the city, using walking, mapping, and photographic
documentation as some of our core tools. We talked at length, reviewing where we went to
pinpoint the places that most urgently captured our collective attention, and we found pieces
of infrastructure that seemed ripe for intervention. In each action, we found ourselves
encountering a dissonance with an existing situation and seeing those as generative sites
for creative intervention.
One of our earliest projects looked to the city’s fleet of buses as rolling public spaces.
We noticed the advertisements lining their interiors acted as captions for observing the city
while in motion. We wondered if we could introduce a different conversation and spark some
momentary dissonances with the expectations the public had for that kind of public space.
We worked with the city’s transit authority to secure 100 spaces and then started asking
members of the public to contribute new captions to the city in a project called, Text In-
Transit (2009). The submissions we received ranged from poetry to playful descriptions to
critical interrogations, and we worked to install them across the entire fleet. While a modest
intervention, this project opened up our understanding of how a plurality of different
imaginations for a public space could politically and poetically activate an everyday
As our projects continued to develop and grow, we continually shifted between works
that tried to capture a particular moment or sentiment in the life of the city and works that
opened up new opportunities for public participation. In all cases, our projects stemmed from
a sense of frustration or disagreement with something in the city—in short, a shared
antagonism—and we looked at either the form or the content as a host for building agency
through creative action. When we projected a series of messages onto a building on
Windsor’s waterfront, legible across the river in downtown Detroit, for Cross-Border
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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Communication (2009), we did it because we could not resolve the disconnection between
our two communities. When we invited artists and designers from across the province to our
Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation
(2010), we wanted to interrogate the
expectations the community held for vacant spaces in the downtown core. When we wrote a
creative textbook for self-study on How to Forget the Border Completely (2011), we worked
to imagine a future built around how we wanted to use international public spaces to bring
communities together.
Across all of these projects, we worked from the point of tension with the city we
encountered, whether in physical space or through affective sensibilities. Sometimes we
made demands, other times we asked questions, and still other times, we simply tried to
jump-start a conversation we felt was missing in our community. Our dissatisfaction and, at
times, outright conflict with the status quo generated an enormous field for creative
intervention. In this way, we learned to develop our agency as a potent modulator of social
experiences and interactions that could work from an interest in conflict rather than with an
aim to resolve it. That sensibility is what we worked to foster through every one of our
Infrastructures for Collaboration
As an extension of the one-off projects we did with Broken City Lab, in 2012, we
opened Civic Space, a storefront workshop, gallery, and community event space. As a
temporary social and physical infrastructure, we wanted it to be responsive in a way that
could activate people and their creative inclinations towards a gradual shift in their
experiences of the city. For two years, Civic Space looked at emerging artists, designers,
and hackers as emerging community leaders. It aimed to stake a claim on a more creative
future for the city, driven by collaboration and community-run infrastructure.
Through Civic Space, over two years, we hosted a range of artist residencies,
community meet-ups, and peer-to-peer education initiatives based on an iterative process of
observational and dialogical community research and public programming. Underwriting
these activities was a commitment to working from a disagreement with a particular social,
infrastructural, or educational reality we saw in our community. Public workshops drew a
broad range of people together to learn about topics such as forgotten local architecture,
critical design, and radical screen printing. Participatory projects allowed people to create
temporary text installations across the city, get free tattoos of symbols and slogans from the
region, and nominate neighbours for a series of “best of” awards. The form of the projects
ranged from confrontational to convivial, but at the core of each of them was an aim to work
in conflict with existing circumstances. In some instances, we took the lead, but most often,
we acted as hosts for projects from community members and visiting artists. This process
allowed us to continually shift the agency within a project from ourselves to the community.
We set a frame through Civic Space, and the needs, desires, and imaginations of the
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community members filled it in. Our efforts to work in conflict became a platform for the
community to enact their own creative modulations against a set of existing circumstances of
everyday life.
Civic Space was also the starting point for a longer and larger project that similarly
explored infrastructure as a site for artistic invention, though from a different relationship to
the community in which it operated. While many of the projects we worked on in Broken City
Lab were focused on the community in which we lived, the Neighbourhood Time Exchange
focused on an entirely different community.
First launched in Philadelphia in 2014-15 and then in Prince George, BC in 2016-17,
the Neighbourhood Time Exchange residency operated as a temporary artist-in-residence
and community engagement project. The residency’s framework positioned people asking
for community change at the heart of the project. This also meant that rather than leading
the project ourselves as community “insiders,” as we did so often in other Broken City Lab
projects, we were “outsiders” and relied on other local community members to take the lead
on many aspects of the project. The Neighbourhood Time Exchange drew from the model of
a time exchange, wherein time operates as a currency, allowing people to exchange goods
and services outside of capitalist financial abstractions. For the Neighbourhood Time
Exchange, artists participated in a residency in which for every hour they spent on a studio
project of their choosing, they provided an hour of volunteer service back to the
The invented infrastructure of the Neighbourhood Time Exchange allowed two
important things to happen. First, the artists were no longer expected to solve any problems
or fix any issues through the symbolic space of their artwork. They could simply work on a
project in their studio that may or may not have anything to do with the context of the
neighbourhood. Second, community members from the neighbourhood, whether individuals
or non-profit organizations, got to ask for what they actually needed and the artists helped.
We selected artists from an open call, where local community representatives made the final
decisions on which artists were invited to the residency based on interviews and group
discussions. Through a multi-stage interview process with stakeholders that ranged from
partnering organizations to community members to local service organizations to artist
groups, we collaboratively determined the focus for engagement and participation.
It was perhaps an overly simplistic fix, with imperfect results to be sure, but it struck at
the core of the challenges that are so often embedded into community-engaged artist
initiatives and residencies
2013), however well-meaning they may be. Artist
residencies that aim to connect artists with disadvantaged neighbourhoods and communities
can all too easily reproduce the same kinds of issues around community representation that
occur across larger civic or non-profit organizations (Rossiter, 2011). At their worst, socially
engaged art projects and residencies are an extractive process, where the artist gets to pull
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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from the affective resources of a place—the history, the people, the experience of everyday
life, while the place gets an artwork they may not have asked for and may not get to see. It is
an uninteresting “exchange rate” for the community members most immediately affected by
it, and it does not necessarily produce very good art either. We wanted to intervene in that
space to produce a difference dynamic, something that could acknowledge the insider and
outsider dynamic and yet try to work beyond it.
The kind of infrastructural project represented by the Neighbourhood Time
Exchange can also host that seed of conflict or antagonism I have been working with
throughout this essay. We intentionally built the project around these kinds of tensions.
Its structure refused to mute or obscure the challenges of conflict and instead premised
the entire operation of the project on the reality that these challenges are not just
present, but a fundamental part of the situation. We saw conflict not simply as a point of
disruption, but as a way to open up new possibilities, a beginning instead of an ending.
Pushing Forward and Being Pushy
Whether as a seed for action, a constant reminder, or a baseline for
infrastructure, conflict and antagonism, and the agency they foster, can be a driving
force in a socially engaged creative practice. For artists interested in having encounters
and impacts in the social world, working to resist the easy ways into and out of projects
becomes especially important. We have to create new ways to address expressions of
power that are quietly and violently taking away the possibilities for being in the world
together on the terms we create for ourselves.
Crucially, we must also work harder to understand injustice through dialogical
research, discovery, and generative action. Using the tools that we already have at our
disposal, from walking and mapping to simple conversations and in-depth interviews or
pithy questionnaires, we can find out what role we can and should (or should not) play
in the issues we encounter. Sometimes we need to take the lead, other times we need
to be allies, and still other times we need to be witnesses. How we address any one of
those roles will necessarily shift from circumstance to circumstance, but thinking about
how conflict can be an opening of something meaningful will be at the core of the work
As artists, our ability to shift our sense of antagonism into a creative response is
something we should cultivate and share. Let us find ways to insist on the value of
difference, dissensus, and disagreement. Let us make things harder. Let us agree to
always disagree.
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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Banaji, S. (2008). The trouble with civic: A snapshot of young people’s civic and political
engagements in twenty-first-century democracies. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(5),
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York: Minor Compositions.
Helguera, P. (2011). Education for socially engaged art. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books.
Jahn, M. (Ed.) (2012). Pro+agonist: The art of opposition. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (2014). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical
democratic politics (2nd ed.). London: Verso.
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action and civic engagement in deliberative democracy. Theoria: A Journal of Social
and Political Theory, 55(117), 81-103.
Miessen, M. (2010). The nightmare of participation: [Crossbench praxis as a mode of
criticality]. New York: Sternberg Press.
Rancière, J. (2010). Dissensus on politics and aesthetics (S. Corcoran, Trans.). New York:
Rossiter, N. (2011). Autonomous education, new institutions and the experimental economy
of network cultures. In P. O’Neill & C. Doherty (Eds.), Locating the producers:
Durational approaches to public art (pp. 328-337). Amsterdam, NL: Valiz.
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Melville House Publishing.
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
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1. For an expanded but still accessible discussion of this idea, see (Miessen, 2010).
2. While I’ve offered a few examples from political philosophy here, there are a lot more
reference points to these ideas that are worth exploring, in particular, because of their
relationship or framing of conflict, antagonism, and the political as a core part of creative
practice. For some starting points, see
2012; Jahn,
2012; Rancière,
Thompson, 2015).
3. See the Guardian’s summary of the Hong Kong protests up to mid-October 2019 for more
information at
city-why-violence-has-spiralled-in-the-hong-kong-protests .
4. See the New York Times’ coverage of Extinction Rebellion’s tactics in 2019 at https:// .
5. See for more information on our collective and examples of our
6. The core members of Broken City Lab, in addition to me and Danielle, for many of our
projects were Hiba Abdallah, Josh Babcock, Michelle Soulliere, Cristina Naccarato, Rosina
Riccardo, Kevin Echlin, and Sara Howie.
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