Context, Tokenism, and Trans Solidarity: An Interview with Dan Cardinal McCartney

Dan Cardinal McCartney, "Misgendering Mouthfuls," 2018. Photo: Mike Tan.

In September 2018, word traveled of accusations of trans censorship by a Mohkinstsis (Calgarian) arts facility. The allegedly-censored video work in question, A Thousand Cuts (2018), by Montreal-based emerging artist B.G-Osborne, was being exhibited at the multi-venue, multi-discipline center Arts Commons. The three-channel video was installed on TV screens within one of the second-floor vitrine spaces, which were programmed by local artist-run centers and smaller organizations, but owned by Arts Commons. On September 4th, 2018, the venue turned off A Thousand Cuts in response to complaints from viewers. The New Gallery (T.N.G.), the artist-run center that programmed Osborne’s exhibition, published a statement condemning this decision. They recounted how the decision was made by Arts Commons only one week after T.N.G. was itself notified that the work had been receiving “a lot of complaints from concerned patrons” because it contained “nudity and swearing.” Several weeks of public statements from T.N.G., B.G-Osbourne, and Arts Commons ensued. The controversy was discussed extensively on social media by artists and curators, and was covered by several news organizations and art publications. Finally, on September 25th, at an open forum held by T.N.G., the majority of participating artist-run centers decided that in light of their experiences of conflict and censorship with Arts Commons over the years, they would walk away from the partnership and refuse to program exhibitions going forward.

Several emerging artists also cancelled their then-upcoming receptions or exhibitions in solidarity with T.N.G. and Osborne. One such artist was Dan Cardinal McCartney. According to his artist bio, Cardinal McCartney graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design in 2016. His maternal blood lines are a proud mix of Mikisew Cree, Suline Dene, and Métis. As a two-spirit, transmasculine person, Dan sifts through questions of blood memory and intergenerational trauma. Gender dysphoria combines with cultural alienation leaving gashes that either remain open or scab over in time.

When I recently interviewed Dan, I asked him about the controversy surrounding the censorship of B.G-Osborne, not only because of his decision to withdraw his own work from Arts Commons, but because it’s trans voices that should be prioritized and at the fore of any future conversation on the topic. As a rebuke against the too-common and tokenizing use of trans artists as a prop, or a convenient source of quotes in a scandal, Dan’s reflections on solidarity and the Arts Commons controversy are here embedded within the deeper context of his practice and identity as a two-spirit transmasculine artist. After the spectacle of the controversy had settled, Dan and I sat down together in the quiet of his studio to discuss what was most important: the work.

Dan Cardinal McCartney, “Straddling: Irresponsibility and Avoidance (Detail),” 2019.

In your sculptural, collage, and performance work there appears to be a mixture of found materials and perhaps those that I’ll describe as “sought out.” Would you consider your choice in materials a way to develop a context for your work, be it geographical or cultural?

Yeah, for sure. I would definitely say it’s completely scavenged, sought, hunted out. It’s sourced and gathered. Which is an important part of my practice. Everything has to be intentional: everything has to be from the year of 1952 to 1993 for source material. I don’t go one year over, one year before. And that’s the context of my white foster parents: the year of my father’s birth to the year that I was born, and what passed within that time’s cultural context. I’ve used no materials from a person of color or a queer person. It’s all white, cis, straight people’s words and works. Everything has to be very much within that white context, or else it’s not relevant to my practice.

It’s very specific: medical textbooks, self-help books from the seventies, written from the perspective of a man to help a woman. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, that’s my favourite one. I have, like, seven copies of it… Because it’s trash and horrible [laughs]. And Western novels: White Squaw is a really good one. And anything that has really horrible racist undertones as well. It’s from a gender perspective, but also from a race perspective. And a class perspective too because I use a lot of Time magazines. Which have been accessible to a lot of people, but still through the white filter, and about current issues in the world.

Do you think – as it’s demonstrated in self-help books that are directed at women – that they’re creating a narrative for how you understand yourself? Do you think there was the same thing happening in the Western novels?

Oh for sure! [Laughs] It’s funny because it’s completely true. It’s all this perspective from a white person observing the Native people, or the Native person coming to terms with the fact that they are a savage in Western novels but they could help the white person in the narrative. So it’s always from the perspective of, “I will be subservient to you as a woman or as an Indigenous person.” Like, “Dear White Man, I’ll help you.”

“And that will be the redeeming factor of my identity.”

Yes, exactly. If you flip open any of these books, it’s very much like that. Especially in the gender section of the self-help books it’s completely like, “This is what your journey as a woman is going to be like.” And for me that’s so insidious. It comes off as so helpful but there’s actually that very insidious factor underneath everything. A story that you think is fine, that you think is commonplace, but it’s actually very disgusting. That also happens today – I think it was slightly more explicit fifty years ago. So I just take that and push it into the context of now.

In 2017 I did an interview with you and interior designer and drag performer Nine Kennedy called “Queers and Our Counterparts” for Luma Quarterly.  In it, we discussed tokenization as artists: mine as a queer person and yours as both a queer and Indigenous person. Though it’s only been two years since that interview, I feel that my experience of tokenization has changed. For you, as an emerging artist who is no longer fresh out of school, who has experience with exhibitions, showing work and as someone who has had a place on a board at Stride Gallery – do you have any perspectives on how minority artists are being chosen for shows in Calgary? How their work is being seen? 

I would say, for Stride, it’s exciting. Because Nicole Kelly Westman, the director at the time, invited me to apply for the board and she is Metis through her mother’s side  – that didn’t feel tokenizing. And then Areum Kim, she’s Korean, that didn’t feel tokenizing. And then with Kablusiak on the board and then Kimberly Jev, who is a black woman on the board – that doesn’t feel tokenizing. But I would say there’s always going to be the danger of feeling tokenized when you’re an artist.

I think it’s taking my experiences and putting them into a space that I never would have thought would be possible for me as a foster child and Indigenous two-spirit person. So, for me, it’s like, “Oh! I have a seat at the table.” And that’s really interesting to me. It’s kind of an uncomfortable seat because there’s so many factors that don’t get addressed. Like being in foster care, that not part of the conversation. Because it’s not a fun part of the conversation. Despite all of my trauma-focused work, that’s one big thing that doesn’t get talked about. That’s one facet of Indigenous identity, in general, that doesn’t get talked about: that there’s more children in foster care now then there were in residential schools. I was a part of that.

So, I’d say I still feel kind of tokenized because I tick two boxes. I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that for me but I think it’s something that people have to be careful about.

Dan Cardinal McCartney, “Straddling: Irresponsibility and Avoidance,” 2019.

Last November you performed your work Misgendering Mouthfuls (2018) at Untitled Art Society (U.A.S.) in response to allegations of censorship of the trans artist B.G-Osborne by Arts Commons. As someone who is tied to many of the parties involved – though not the artist – I’m trying to navigate how to act when something like this happens. Especially as emerging artists, it’s hard in our position to turn down opportunities to exhibit work even when we want to speak out. So when I saw that you removed yourself from exhibiting with Arts Commons and then were supported by U.A.S., I was impressed by both you and the organization. Many artist-run centers dropped their +15 exhibition spaces during the censorship controversy. [“+15s” are Calgary’s network of above-ground pedestrian walkways, many of which feature vitrines displaying work from Arts Commons participants.]

The spaces were well-understood as one of the best venues for students and emerging artists to have their first opportunity to show work in Calgary and to get a line or two on their C.V. So I was happy to see U.A.S. follow through with their mandate to support emerging artists by not only ending what was described as a tumultuous relationship with Arts Commons, but also providing a space for your work immediately afterwards. I’m especially happy because it was one of the first performances of yours that I had actually seen in person. And to be frank, it was one of the best performances that I’ve seen by a queer artist in Calgary. 

Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that.

With all that in mind, would you speak to your decision making process when you backed out of the +15 space? 

Yeah, for sure. I would say that with Beck’s [Osborne’s] work there are some things that are very similar to mine – in the collage editing style they did – which reminds me of my own work: they didn’t hold anything back. There was that viewer complaint about the nudity or the nakedness in some of the clips. I personally hardly saw any nakedness, I don’t know what they’re talking about. But the fact is in my art, and as we’re sitting in my studio now, there’s naked drawings of me on the wall. And if I had put any of the work I had in mind for the +15 show I probably would have gotten censored too. And that, as a trans artist, doesn’t feel really great. So my decision went right back to how I would feel. That’s the only point of reference really. Like, “No, that would make me feel horrible.” I wouldn’t want another trans artist to show in the space, selfishly, because that would feel kind of gross to me. So I’m like, “Okay I wanna support Beck,” a trans artist to a trans artist. That was my main decision in this.

At U.A.S., [director] Natasha [Chaykowski] said, “You could interrupt the space somehow. You could be subversive in the space.” I was like, “No I’m not gonna give them my time in that space.” That would be a lot of emotional energy on my part as an Indigenous person: if I did a protest in that space what would that look like? Would there would be legal ramifications? Would there be cops called? I have to think about another layer that maybe Beck, as a white person, didn’t have to think about.

But there was something else I had to think about: “How can I do something that is really immediate, that is not in the original space and that can garner just as much attention regarding the original censorship?” And then Natasha suggested, “What about a performance?” And I was like, “Ah! Yeah, duh, of course. Of course. That only makes sense.” So that was the decision making process of doing a performance: because I wanted something really immediate and in your face. For my collages, you have to spend a little more time with them; that’s fine, that serves another purpose. But my performances: most of them are in your face. Some might say aggressive, I think they’re raw. And that’s definitely the case for Misgendering Mouthfuls.

What was the work that you were going to show in the Arts Commons +15? What did it look like?

I worked on it, it took a long time, and I got rid of it because it took up a lot of space.

Oh, really?

It was collage material of family portraits that was really, really large and was going to cover the entire window of the vitrine space. You could have done a kind of peek-through: not a glory hole, but maybe if that’s where your mind goes. It would look into the space through the collage material. And there were going to be lights, shadow play. Then, behind the collage material, a replication of a family photo but really, really large. It’s from the Indigenous side of my family. You can see all of the family dynamics just in the five-person stance. That was something I was really interested in. And that was work that I hadn’t really approached: using direct references from my own life. So I was really excited to do it. And I was working quite a bit and then, “Nope. They don’t get that. Arts Commons does not get to see that work.” And so… we’ll just make it another time! We’ll just work on it again. [laughs]

So you had to get rid of it?

I thought, “This just doesn’t work”. Because it was going to be really directly applied on the glass. And it was taking up room in my studio.

Oh, so it was made for the space.

It was very specific to the space.

Do you think that you would make it again?

I think so. I would have to respond to a space for it to work. Or figure out a way to install it that would give the same effect.

Sort of like the vitrine in the +15 space. The really unique…

Transitional. Non-binary kind of space. That space I’m really interested in: the transitional, existing in daylight, sun-up, sun-down, kind of vibe.

If I had seen the glory hole (so to speak) I might have drawn a conclusion about voyeurism. White people looking at Indigenous people. We choose when we get to look at Indigenous people…


And that seems to connect very well with the books that you were talking about earlier where white people get to decide how they interact with Indigenous people in a narrative, in how we look at them…

Exactly. Especially with a family portrait. Going directly back to the generational trauma. The tones of sexual abuse under it too: you’re perpetuating that [by looking], kind of opening up a wound. You get what you want and you don’t care about the three children in the photograph. That’s what I was super interested in for that piece.

I probably should make it again. I’m thinking about it now… [laughs]


So in that same interview, the Luma Quarterly interview, when we were discussing tokenization, you said that people only take your art seriously when you’re “crying or naked”…

It’s still true! [laughs]

And that when you make work that doesn’t include those things that you actually receive less feedback. 


And at the time you seemed to consider this as a part of the tokenized image of an Indigenous person, of a trans person. You called that token the, “sad, stoic Indian boy” and described that people often only want to view that image and not interact with your actual personhood.

I think one of the reasons that Misgendering Mouthfuls worked so well is that although you were crying, the audience wasn’t interacting with those tears as a tokenized image: the source of the crying was demonstrated right in front of them. Eating more than a dozen sour lemons in a row would make anyone cry. So instead of the source of tears being abstract or hard to imagine (like the experience of an oppressed person to a privileged person), access to that pain was right in front of you. Because this accessible, physical pain was being demonstrated through a common experience (eating a sour lemon) your description of the pain of being misgendered was easier to access.

As a queer and Indigenous person, are there any works you’ve made or performances you’ve done where you developed a technique or image that undermines this tokenization?

I think you hit the nail on the head. You have to take something that everybody has experienced and bring it down to the most simplistic level. Like, if you were to write it on a piece of paper it sounds almost childish: I’m gonna line up twenty-five lemons and I’m gonna eat them, and basically repeat horrible, nasty stuff to the audience that people have said to me over the years.

Like, let’s take it away to the most simple thing. I did another performance a really long time ago – it didn’t even have a title – where I stripped naked: it was a very binary performance, I wouldn’t do it again, necessarily. It was very spur of the moment. I’m dressed in more feminine clothing, stripping all the way naked – two months post top-surgery so I was very sore then too –and then changing into more masculine clothing. And then shaking everybody’s hands before and after each [gender] presentation. I think just taking the acts of dressing-down, dressing-up, shaking people’s hands, making eye contact –and having that connection there: I don’t think it matters who you are. I think people participate and become an audience with those simple interactions.

I definitely noticed that during Misgendering Mouthfuls. The audience was participating in it: because I was on my knees, people were eye-to-eye with me. I made eye contact by accident with a few people when I was performing and it was a lot for me, it kind of took me out of it for a bit. And I’ve had dreams since where I actually see these people’s faces and their reactions.

Oh wow.

Just between sleep and being awake. That’s how far you have to block it out sometimes for performance. And especially with the stripping performance. But I think that hopefully subverts the crying, stoic Indian image. I don’t know if I’m perpetuating it – but I hope I’m pushing the energy back onto the participants to get them thinking.

Dan Cardinal McCartney, “Misgendering Mouthfuls,” 2018. Photo: Mike Tan.

I mean, as tokenized artists, those images of us exist anyways. And they do have a root somewhere. And because the history is so strange and hard to navigate where the actual origins of these images’ narratives come from – I feel you almost have to respect there was some kind of history to it.

Exactly. Just the idea that, “I’m gonna eat these twenty-five lemons and I’m gonna do it all.” That idea is very macho, or masculine. “I’m gonna do it,” and the idea you’re not a real man – like you have to prove your masculinity. That also played into that.


A lot of the people in the room who were assigned male at birth, and socialized to be a man despite how they actually felt inside, probably related to that. So I thought maybe that’s how I could reach somebody who is perhaps a cis straight man too: the experience of man up and suffer through it. They weren’t necessarily the focus and why I was doing the performance though.

That’s an interesting contrast between the performance, Misgendering Mouthfuls, and the work you proposed to do for Arts Commons. Though I think the latter may very well have been a great work too, it would have been more abstract. 

You’d have to chew through it; And I’m not sure if the +15 would have been the best view of that sort of work. I think it was a happy accident, you know? There was definitely some positive that came out of it. I’m really happy that I did a performance as opposed to that work, in the long run.


This piece was originally published by Studio, which was founded in 2019 by Anj Fermor.

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