Biting through hateful words, trans artist protests Calgary arts venue 'censorship'

A two-spirit artist performed a protest art piece Saturday to let Calgary's biggest arts venue know his community won't be silenced.

Dan Cardinal McCartney stood in solidarity with a trans artist whose work was taken down by Arts Commons

Two-spirit artist Dan Cardinal McCartney bites into lemons before reciting hateful, transphobic comments he's received from family members, friends and strangers since he started his gender transition five years ago. The performance was staged in protest of Arts Commons, a venue accused of censoring a trans artist's work. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

A two-spirit, transgender artist performed a protest art piece Saturday to let Calgary's biggest arts venue know his community won't be silenced.

Dan Cardinal McCartney sat surrounded by rows of cut lemons at Untitled Art Society, a cozy artist-run space in the city's Beltline.

The skin of each fruit was scrawled with hateful unsolicited comments he's been told since he began his gender transition five years ago.

"You're going to hell."

"You'll never be my son."

"You would have made a beautiful woman, it's such a waste."

McCartney spoke each attack, before biting into the lemon it's written on, grimacing as the acid burned the inside of his mouth. The audience filled the small space, with most viewers just steps away from the citrus-soaked stage. Some viewers cringed, while others looked away, or stared directly at McCartney with tears rolling down their cheeks.

Hateful, transphobic comments the artist has received were written on the skin of the lemons. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

"Biting into the lemons reminds me of before I started taking testosterone, before my voice dropped, because it was very painful to talk," said McCartney, who said he was concentrating on getting through the piece and not the audience's reactions.

"It got so painful I just kind of had to block everybody out."

The Calgary artist was scheduled to have a sculpture exhibited in Untitled Art Society's Plus-15 window gallery in Arts Commons. But the gallery, along with four others, pulled out of the venue and cancelled their partnerships, accusing the organization of censoring a transgender artist's work.

"Our organizations believe that we cannot in good conscience continue to invite artists into a space within which their safety, rights, and artistic integrity cannot be guaranteed," read a release from the galleries.

So instead, McCartney staged an iteration of his performance art piece to stand in solidarity with a fellow transgender artist whose work was taken down by Arts Commons.

Arts Commons said the public art installation by Montreal-based artist Beck Gilmer-Osborne was removed because it featured explicit nudity — a three-second blurry clip of a woman wearing a prosthetic penis standing on a beach at night.

Arts Commons said it and the gallery programming the space weren't able to come to a compromise to allow the work to be shown.

The artist told Arts Commons that they would rather have the entirety of their piece shown or not at all, the venue said, so the other component of the artwork, a poster listing the names of transgender victims of violence that contained no explicit content, was also removed and put into storage.

McCartney said seeing the galleries end their partnerships with Arts Commons over the matter is encouraging.

"It was a very strong decision to pull out of Arts Commons and I feel very proud of the community I'm part of and I feel very supported," he said after the performance, tonguing the citrus burns inside his cheek.

"I hope that Beck Gilmer-Osborne, the artist who got censored, will see the video and they will also feel supported by another trans artist."

Natasha Chaykowski, right, director of the Untitled Art Society, looks on as the protest art piece is performed. Untitled Art Society was one of five art galleries that ended its partnership with Arts Commons over what they say was censorship of a transgender artist. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Natasha Chaykowski, director of the Untitled Art Society, said it wasn't an easy decision for the gallery to sever ties with Arts Commons — which provided the free opportunity for artists to be seen by about 600,000 pedestrians each season for more than 25 years.

"The conversations really circled around the idea that we are mandated to support emerging artists … we felt that we weren't able to uphold our mission and mandate in that space," she said.

She said she's glad McCartney's piece was able to drive home the message that acts of censorship against LGBTQ2S+ artists are more than an administrative choice — they can be an "act of violence."

"It was very powerful, very poignant," she said. 

Arts Commons said it "saddens us that a misalignment of expectations has led to the exit of some Plus-15 gallery partners," but that its programming continues, with a current exhibit featuring Tsuut'ina artists.