this essay was written in the summer of 2022 as a part of the Marion Nicoll BIPOC Residency program. My thoughts on this piece have changed in little ways. Take this as a time capsule.

September 2021. I sit myself down in one of the spinny reclining chairs in the classroom of my Concepts class, still heaving from bringing my heavy book bag up two flights of stairs. As I regain my composure, I become ever increasingly aware of who my classmates are. "Oh Scheisse!!" I say to myself, "that’s a lot of white people". As the last few people trickle into the room before class starts, I hope with every fibre of my being that I see more people of colour. I am not that lucky. And this repeats for the entirety of my first week; with every design class I attend, I am one of the, like, 3 non-white people. With no new shock, all but one of my instructors are white (Hi Naoko).

I use the phrase "white space" as a metaphor for the room that is occupied by white supremacy and how it exists on a fundamental level in art + design spaces. It is an incessant presence that, even beyond art, has dictated the lives of the oppressed (anyone who is not cis, a man, white, ablebodied, straight, and/or wealthy). Our methods to cope with these structures have been aestheticised as deskilled contemporary art. In these Post-Modern times, I implore you to recognize that the method of creation that has been critiqued derogatorily towards Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour have now been propped up and praised by white people for white people. As far as I can tell, the visual language and understanding in the "west" that we rely on is defined and maintained by white supremacists. Have mercy!

White Space is Violent

The fundamental design classes I had taken the year prior taught the 12 design principles: contrast, balance, emphasis, hierarchy, proportion, unity, repetition, rhythm, pattern, movement, variety, and white space. At face value, all of these principles seem neutral. How can these basics be anything but factual? It’s been proven that these factors make visual communication a little more clear, right? While this may seem true, it's worthwhile to wonder if the people are shaping how we design, or if standardised design has shaped how we seek information. I’m inclined to believe the latter. I consider how the methods of visual communication in the west are only applicable to those who hold western ways of perception. I consider how much of western design is incentivized to create more capital. We have been coaxed to believe capitalism is the norm and therefore all attempts that work towards it are neutral. It's like we’re listening to a little piggy propaganda machine.

The "principle" I would like to bring your attention to is white space. The first search result when I typed in "white space design" links me to an article by the Interaction Design Foundation titled, "The Power of White Space". What do you mean the POWER of WHITE space…? Not to mention the acronym of the organisation (IDF…!?). Upon clicking on the link to this article, written by Mads Soegaard, users are welcomed by a banner image: a large white background is broken up by a line of black text that reads "White space is our friend." I will give Soegaard credit, he did a great job conveying the general idea of the article from the little information I had been greeted with; in less than 10 seconds of being on the page, Soegaard tells me I am not welcome and I was not in for a pleasant read. Life is so silly sometimes!

In the first few paragraphs, we are given a sort of disclaimer: "despite its name, white space does not need to be white. It can be any colour, texture, pattern, or even a background image." Every time I have been taught about white space, I am given this spiel. Everytime! Why does it sound so similar to when white people say "I’m not racist! I don’t care if you're black, white, yellow, red, purple!". Mmm.. Maybe that’s a stretch. Reel it in. You’re embarrassing the kids. Anyway, I ask you, why does this disclaimer need to be said at all?

Let me be clear. The concept of space as a visual principle is not something I have an issue with. What I worry about are the connotations that come when we add "white" in the phrase. Space can be called different things: negative space, economy, empty space etc. So, why does "white space," an exclusionary and misleading phrase, still circulate and dominate our design language? Choosing to say "white space" is a conscious decision. Soegaard acknowledges this discrepancy, but continues to use it throughout the article, "People get frustrated when information bombards them. We’re humans, not machines. White space calms us, letting us “breathe.” This specification of whiteness is intentional. White space lets who breathe? Who is suffocating as a result of the room that’s made? Remember, this is a "fundamental" "principle" that is taught in art school.

In class, we are told that good design is invisible. Good design is when the average audience doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Who is the average audience? What/who is considered out of the ordinary? I had grown accustomed to whiteness as the default and it actually took me a few days to realise, “hey, I don’t look the same as everyone else." If my classroom was populated with other people of colour, I would notice the variety of faces in the classroom. That's the thing, I would notice. No one blinks twice at a room full of white people especially when you’re white yourself! It’s the piggy propagandy machine talking! Its the norm! To the target audience (aka white peephole), there is only so much white space to reassure them, calm them down, let them breathe, as Soegaard has expressed. When Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour occupy space in the classroom, the dynamic is no longer invisible and is considered poorly designed. On the most basic level, visual communication relies on white space.

Whiteness as colour has come to represent purity while any other hue suggests otherwise. It is much more manageable to have a small ketchup stain on a freshly laundered tee shirt over a shirt fully dipped in said sauce. You are the piss stain in a pair of denim jeans. Look at Soegaard. He is shaking his head yes. Oh god, now he's taking off his clothes. Time to look away.

Hierarchy and Unity

White space does not create damage on its own. It is intertwined with the other design "principles". The two I would like to expand on are hierarchy and unity. In Austin Channing Brown’s autobiography, "I’m Still Here", she speaks on her experience as a black woman in America and her experience with white supremacy, "whiteness sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate" (175). "Unity" is dictated by the oppressors and, because of course, it is conditional. When Soegaard tells us about how "white space is like a canvas: it’s the background that holds the elements together in a design, enabling them to stand out," he implies that harmony is achieved when whiteness permits the other. Our free will is dependent on what the coloniser deems reasonable. Whiteness–even if there are attempts at equality–still speaks for us. When white supremacy permits the existence of the oppressed, it tends to only permit our existence and withhold our autonomy.

Stuart Hall in "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference" goes into depth about how identity is formed. He tells us that "history changes your conception of yourself" and "only when there is an Other can you know who you are." White supremacy, the force that has infamously dictated how history is written, controls how we are perceived. If we were never compared to whiteness, "Person of Colour" would have never entered our vocabularies. The unity that is trying to be formed is still reliant on white supremacist modes of thinking. Hall recounts when "immigrant" and "black" entered his identity, "most of the identities I have been I've only known about not because of something deep inside me--the real self--but because of how other people have recognized me [...] and now i thought, well actually, I guess that's what I am" (pg). Brown, as they have unfolded how temperamental "unity" can be, exposes how white supremacist history-making has never stopped. Even if Soegaard doesn’t know it himself, his writing shows this history-making in action. Soegaard enforces a certain "other" identity when he speaks of whiteness as categorically dominant.

I am told that I have to learn the rules in order to break them. Why is that? Before I can do my own thing, I am asked to read up on the history of influential white people to form a basis of understanding. I am asked to fully embrace the settler in me and work towards whiteness. Nicolas Mirzoeff goes into depth about this in his essay, "Empty the Museum, Decolonize the Curriculum, Open Theory", where he reveals how tightly weaved white supremacy is into the fabric of our society – even in reaction against itself. It is not a mistake that it "has persistently been displaced into the centrality of classical learning" (Mirzoeff 8). If you have any experience with art school, you know that it’s an unavoidable evil. Whether it is Manet’s pivotal impressionism, Sol Hess’ impact on modern typography, or the "fundamentals" as proclaimed by the "west", I am left asking myself, "why do I have to learn about whiteness at all? Why am I seen as lesser than when I refuse? Wat de fak?" In order to rebel against the coloniser, I am first forced to speak their violent tongue, but to do this is to "appear within white supremacy" and "is a claim to hierarchy" (Mirzoeff 8). I am asked to assimilate my mind and my approach before I am given a chance to even consider stepping foot outside of it. Above all, the establishment of white space, even in our minds, is the most primary.

Rebellion has been Colonised

In terms of design and art, our process has always been policed even when we try to divert and do our own thing. Our means of protest have become bleached with whiteness. John F.X. Sigmund’s "Deskilling is Killing Art" is an article that I have been referenced to numerous times with good intentions, I guess, but still wrong intentions nonetheless. Sigmund and Scott Hess hypothetically invite me to their hypothetical dinner party in which I hypothetically attend:

At the dinner party, Sigmund introduces his quibble with the art world: as Sigmund stands up from the dinner table, causing the room to fall silent, he asks us to "imagine your sheer panic, learning moments before the anaesthesia kicks in, that your surgeon is deskilled. The good ‘doctor’ actually has a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology and practices a more ‘untrained’ and ‘intuitive’ approach." This article as well as the general critique of deskilled art brings attention to the noticeable undesired shift of value from formal technique to "loosey goosey do what you want" type of artwork. F. Scott Hess states this same idea in his essay, "Is De-Skilling Killing Your Arts Education?" where he recounts his and his peer’s art school experiences. He stands up from the other side of the table and whines how, ohhhhh myyy goddddddddddddd, "the idea that you might train a surgeon to be clumsy[yyyyyyyyyyy], or an engineer to build poorly[yyyyyyyyy], or a lawyer to ignore law[wwwwwwwwwww], would be patently absurd. In the arts, however, you will find an occasional musician who purposely plays badly, or a writer who ignores grammar" Hess pouts and crosses his arm as he says this last part, "but only in the visual arts is training in the traditional skills of the profession systematically and often institutionally denigrated." The rest of the guests sit in the uncomfortable air that has been whipped and, after a few minutes, attempt to make small talk. As they ask each other how their daughters are doing in school, Sigmund and Hess chase each other around the gathering and try to tag each other. Sigmund trips and Hess clumsily kicks Sigmund’s shin. From underneath one of the oak chairs with fabric cushioning, a wail is heard which is shortly chimed in with another. The two are promptly bounced on knees while being fed peas or something.

These opening sentiments were enough for me to pause and note that there was something off in the way this was being approached. When I read these comparisons between "real jobs" and the artist, I can't help but wince. This sentiment in itself makes it hard to take this opinion seriously. What I am being told is that in order to be recognized professionally, there is a correct way to create art. This gross connection acts like art requires the same application of skills and approach as a lobotomy operation. While I am not here to claim the medical world has been perfected (the extreme bias towards white guys and other weird stuff), methods of medical treatment can be numerically valued, but the same cannot be said about art. These sciences don’t go through eras of "-isms" in reaction to whatever movement came before. That would be so weird and, like, I don’t even know what that would look like. Anyway, we have barely scraped the surface, my good and awesome and swell friend.

Sigmund spits on his bib a little bit when he babbles, "as artistic production becomes increasingly deskilled, it becomes less identifiable by the public as art. And consequently, the divide between the public and the art world deepens." In the middle of pouring gravy on my mashed potatoes, I stop and realise he might’ve made a good point. "Woa," I say to myself "that’s something that I wrote an essay about in the past!" As I am lost in thought, I realise the gravy has spilled onto my pants. Both Sigmund and Hess chuckle and Sigmund, in between breaths, says, "All an artist need do was to proclaim himself an artist and it followed that anything he made or did must necessarily be art – a simple logic merrily agreed by the empty-headed critics of the day." I see Hess get up, waddle over to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, undo his pants, and while I close my eyes, I hear a small stream of pee. I now better understand that these two men are not on my side. As silly as I made it sound, they still withhold the oppressive systems.

Those who criticise deskilled works walk a very thin line between criticising the institution and the existence of marginalised peoples. When Sigmund talks about the elite, he makes no connection to whiteness in particular. While he may or may not have implied it, he still left room for white space with his ambiguity. Perhaps this is so he could act as a part of the oppressed. Sigmund seems to talk about the issue of deskilled art as a singularity–a class issue that is not incessantly knotted with the larger hegemonic system.

I want to talk about what deskilled art means to me. It means that art historians don’t see neanderthals as capable of making art, that the east is inherently archaic, that Basquiat’s work was deemed craft in a derogatory manner. Proper art? That's when any rich white guy made anything, a privilege afforded only to that small demographic. While my concerns intersect with Sigmund’s at a certain point, I would never say it is the same. Far from it! Do not put me in the same room as that guy. Sigmund takes "rich white guy" and chooses to only read "rich", and, I guess, he also scribbles in "highly-connected".

It is wrong to point to solidarity with the working class when we say that representational art is for the people. To say that is to forget how representational art began as an extremely oppressive and braggadocious practice. John Berger in Ways of Seeing speaks on the origins of oil painting and hyperrealism/representational art as "a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting" (87). Later in the essay, he lists particular subjects of desire in oil paintings: food "confirms the owner’s wealth and habitual style of living," animals as "livestock whose pedigree is emphasised as a proof of their value and whose pedigree emphasises the social status of their owners," buildings " as a feature of landed property" (99-100). While everyone can understand these works far more easily than contemporary works of today, it still places the less fortunate on the bottom of hierarchy. How well the lower class can perceive art is not necessarily how inclusive it is of this group of people, unlike what Sigmund implies. The practice of recreating objects or people with precision can be easily understood and admired by many, yes, but are we meant to enjoy or envy the piece? It’s like, "yeah, you understand that these are sweet, juicy cows, but you also understand that all I’m doing is bragging and laughing at your lack of cows!" In many points of their writing, I am left believing that Sigmund and Hess chose to misappropriate the lower class to push their agenda that says, "look, there's only a handful of ways to make art. The institution says this too, but we say it in, like, another way."

It would be most productive to speak of deskilled art as a form of theft. Deskilling, now, is for the wealthy, but it surely didn't begin this way. The rich defined what it meant to be rich and once they saw the working class begin to cultivate their own practice, they co-opted it as their own. That’s really all it is. In classical painting, priority is put on formal training, which Sigmund and Hess claim that most people desire in visual arts. I firmly believe this is far from the truth. Both authors are limited to their prejudicial views. Just a couple of white guys who see themselves as the victim. Sigmund and Hess sit in dirty diapers when they try to explain to me how the targets on their backs aren’t drawn on with a washable marker. These papers are only a few steps away from nonchalantly bringing up degenerate modern art. Genuinely, this take and its proximity to facism is frightening. While these authors have their minds set on a similar concept, it is still deeply rooted in eurocentrism. They wish to trade one product of whiteness for another.

Deskilling, a type of creation that defies societal norms of good practised work, has now been institutionalised. Because of both how classical and deskilled styles have been absorbed into elitist culture, creators of colour have no choice but to choose one exploited option over the other. It is no longer radical to work within formal training or outside of it. What can we even do? Rebellion cannot simply be just not making art. That would just make more room for white space. In current times, to both create and to refuse to create is to increase hierarchical dominance. It is seemingly impossible to isolate from white space.

This read was a huge downer.

I know it was, lol. And I write all of this out of frustration because, buddy, I don’t know what’s next either. Sadly, I design for a world that does not promote innovation to better the lives of other people. So very sadly, I design for a world that clones itself to maintain hegemony. For a long time now, I am at a moral crossroads. How can I honour my values while being an artist in a capitalist environment? What if working for a private corporation grosses me out? What if I feel uncomfortable working with the coloniser’s government? No matter how "progressive" these opportunities seem, why do I still feel like I’m selling out!? If white supremacy is soap, I taste it in everything I am fed in an attempt to further cleanse white space. I’m afraid it’ll coat my tongue forever.

I was given a chance to speak with Blackfoot artist, Jared Tailfeathers, a few weeks ago as part of the CAMP residency. Tailfeathers’ body of work spans many different disciplines and mediums, all while he disrupts white space. A big part of his practice involves dismantling hierarchy by emphasising the importance of accessibility. I had recognized his name because I remembered seeing it in association with the Calgary Public Library. Tailfeathers is a part of Bringing Power to Truth, a grassroots art project that confronts the question, "What does an anti-racist future for Calgary look like?" He dedicates his focus to the indigenous-led spiral (of the three spirals: an Indigenous-led spiral, a Black-led spiral, and a non-Indigenous, non-Black, racialized-led spiral) and confronting "what treaty is, and what treaty means to the members of Treaty 7."

This opportunity felt like it gracefully descended from a beam of warm light down onto my lap. While, of course, our practices are different, he is navigating the colonial space in a way that I would like to. I had to ask him how he manages the whole crossroads situation I have going on.

MANTIS: How do you decide who to associate with? At what point do you think it would be more harmful to contribute to the organisation rather than refuse it all together?

TAILFEATHERS: You should always follow your gut. If it feels weird, if it feels like you’re selling out, maybe you are and maybe you shouldn't do it. At the same time, you can't make a difference and you can’t make art and you can't find the right people without doing some of these projects.

TAILFEATHERS: For the first few years after school, the starving artist thing was a real thing. I was dirt poor. It was a really dark place. I had a couple of family losses at the same time. It was fucking terrible, terrible time. It wasn’t until I dived into volunteer work, just took opportunities as they came, and supported fellow artists, even if their interests are not close to my interests, the more I was in solidarity and support and there to be seen, then the right opportunities started showing up. I started getting jobs in organisations. I hate organisations. I hate working with organisations. I worked with the library and it was a great opportunity. I don't regret it at all. It helped my CV. All sorts of things. I know all sorts of elders because of it, but I hate the organisation of it. The red tape of it all. The weird taste in mouth when you find out where money comes from. Yeah, that shit’s real! It does happen! You’re not the only one. Most of us probably think about it all the time.

TAILFEATHERS: [ ... ] We can't change other people and change our community without engaging with the unsavoury parts of it. Yeah, sometimes you’ll feel like you traded your morals but you didn't. You have to get your foot in there somehow. You have to get work. They want you to think that as an artist that you are worthless–that you should get a trades job, and that you are not worthy of the money unless they say so. Unless you sort of do those things at first, you can't get the things that you need. You can't influence the people you need to influence without doing that first. It's unfortunately the system in charge right now. It will change and It is changing…slowly as we engage and put little thoughts in the heads of those who look or think differently than you…

TAILFEATHERS: [ … ] It's actually really important to witness terrible things, so they can keep people accountable, like, "Eeuh! I noticed when I was working on this project – and now that I don’t have a contract with you anymore… [laughing], I have some feedback". I’ve done that a few times. It's ok to do the projects and cringe at the same time. Gather your information and then give feedback. If they don't have any power over you anymore, then all they can get from you is that feedback. Maybe they’ll say, "well I won't give you that opportunity again!" –except if they listen to you. Then they'll change the thing that was problematic. They’ll slowly figure out that was the right decision. That's why we do critiques. That's the whole reason is so that you can be there to talk about hard things. Talk about things you don't give a shit about, but still try to be interested. Somebody gives a shit about it. You have to engage.

I had been itching to talk about what I talked about with Tailfeathers for a really long time. It gets really sad when all you do is brood in cynicism. I really needed to, just, not. I had held all these stressors as my own and had not realised how relieving it would feel to just hear that these stressors were shared. Things just felt a little lighter when Jared and the other artists in the residency resonated with my concerns. I wrote this essay for myself as a sort of a way to cope, but I want to believe I wrote it for you, too. I can’t say that this essay is finished. I have a lot more books to read and a lot more friends to make. I have to engage.


I'm Still Here - Austin Channing Brown
Empty the Museum, Decolonize the Curriculum, Open Theory - Nicholas Mirzeoff
Ways of Seeing - John Berger
Ethnicity: Identity and Difference - Stuart Hall


Caps Lock - Ruben Pater
Fun fact 1: When writing this, I played lots of solitaire
Fun fact 2: A baby beaver is called a kitten