Underemployment is a rite of passage for artists. While the jobs are painfully under-stimulating, the time spent mopping floors, watching security cams or dragging bar codes across a scanner is typically used as think-time on someone else’s dime. When Chris Lloyd was on the final lap of his arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, he too held a position of artistic acclaim: laundromat clerk. With hours of nothingness spanning out before him, it struck him that the stereotypical experiences of an art school student working to support himself at a laundromat were just worthy enough to write the prime minister about.
And so was born Dear PM, Lloyd’s ongoing art project of one-sided interaction with the prime minister. Every day he writes to the PM as if they were equals, or even pen pals, although he rarely gets a reply. In 1999, he started writing letters to Jean Chrétien about his life, and sending them via post. That lasted a year, after which he took an eight-month break, but since 2001 he has continued writing on a nearly daily basis via email. Now he types away to Paul Martin and posts the letters on his blog.
With polls suggesting Canadians are more disengaged than ever from our political leaders, you would think that Paul Martin might take the time to respond to the one young Canadian who has put such an effort into engaging with him.
Since moving to Montreal two years ago, he’s taken French classes and writes more than half the letters in patchy French. The project grew to include portraits of both PMs taken from newspaper photos, in which only the PM’s face is visible while others are presented as faceless bodies. Currently, he has an exhibit up at the Art Gallery of Calgary, Le Manif d’art 3 in Quebec City, and he has just returned from two weeks of artistic debauchery at TRAFIC: Inter/nationale d’art actuel en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, a month-long multi-artist show centred around the idea of circulation. His exhibits usually feature a wall of letters to which daily letters are added, installations, or a bound book of letters and portraits. At TRAFIC, he folded paper airplanes and shot them at a portrait of Chrétien and later balled up letters and hurled them at a portrait of Paul Martin. He also buried a bound book of nearly fifteen-hundred letters.
What, you may ask, is the point of all this? At the time the Calgary exhibit went up on March 21, 2005, Lloyd had received only eight replies—mostly form letters—though he had 1,346 letters to pin to the walls. Indeed, his letter-writing would appear to be a rather futile exercise in connecting with the people who run this country. With polls suggesting Canadians are more disengaged than ever from our political leaders, you would think that Paul Martin might take the time to respond to the one young Canadian who has put such an effort into engaging with him. Yet the prime minister hasn’t even offered a simple “Hi, how are ya!” in return, which would, at the very least, have been a nice gesture.
We can only assume that some clerk at the PMO is privy to Lloyd’s life-by-installment, while the struggling artist himself is in the dark as to whether or not his tales of daily life—tinted by overt political jabs—are being read at all. He knows there’s a good chance the letters are filed away, since a computer crash early on lead him to contact the PMO to get copies, and they obliged.
Dear PM is partly a response to trying to keep up with the information-saturated political news culture, and partly a big, throbbing example of the shortcomings of democracy.
It is nearly impossible to digest and analyze every political manoeuver reported by the twenty-four hour news channels, news radio, and newspapers; to piece together an accurate view of the way the government affects our lives. Even with all the yapping, there’s a founded suspicion that carefully measured political statements are simply a bone thrown to the media to distract them, and the public, from what we don’t see.
Lloyd says his affair with the prime minister is the only monogamous one he’s had, so even if no one reads the letters, he knows he’s been faithful to at least one person in his life.
Politics and media are strangely intertwined. In a weird symbiotic tug of war, one side tries to obscure the truth, while the other tries to make a grab for it. Somehow, each holds power over the other, but equality is not guaranteed. Lloyd’s letters illustrate where the unique citizen and voter fits into the game: holding power over no one and clearly not equal.
Democratically, Lloyd’s buddy-to-buddy letters to the PM can be seen as grass roots activism, although he has no specific axe to grind. His jaded view of government and its shortcomings is enough to keep him interested. As he puts it, “There’s one vote every three-to-five years to pick an MP or deputy that sits in the House of Commons and they become a pawn in the tug of war of political stripes. How is that effectively communicating my community’s views?”
While Lloyd isn’t purporting to be a mouthpiece for his community, he is establishing a space for his opinions, a place where they can always be found. He is using the media and politics to reclaim his rights of citizenship to participate in government while at the same time proving that people who should be listening and reading, aren’t—that they are, in effect, effacing his citizenship.
But Lloyd isn’t daunted. He vows to keep up the momentum, if only for the sake of the absurd journey and its role in promoting the do-it-yourself media that has created his self-fulfilling art machine. For him, it’s a way to fight mannequinism and the political atrophy most seem to share, if voter turnout is anything to go by. And even though he hasn’t received an official reply, it’s been a healthy relationship: Lloyd says his affair with the prime minister is the only monogamous one he’s had, so even if no one reads the letters, he knows he’s been faithful to at least one person in his life.
Chris Lloyd’s letters, installations, and paintings can be seen at dearpm.blogspot.com. He’s still shopping for the right venue to show his work in Montreal.
Melissa Wheeler is a Montreal news and arts journalist who used to breakdance until she decided it was too bad for her knees. You can hear her report on the weekend traffic on CJAD 800.