Shawna Dempsey (born 1963) and Lorri Millan (born 1965) are feminist Canadian Queer artist-activists based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They have collaborated since 1989 on video, performance, photographic, website, and written work. Their art addresses Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, and Transgendered folklife and archetypes, as well as their Straight, mainstream, heteronormative counterparts. The artists’ creations combine humor and anger in modes accessible to a wide audience, and draw extensively on popular culture and folklore.
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan have toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Their film and video works have been screened in venues such as women’s centers in Sri Lanka and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. They have also created installations (such as “Archaeology and You” for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto), published books (Lesbian National Parks & Services Field Guide to North America, 2000), and curated exhibitions (Adjunct Curators at The Winnipeg Art Gallery).
Art as Critical Expression
Dempsey and Millan satirize mainstream ideas. Many of their works involve the representation of recognizable cultural archetypes and stereotypes. Dempsey has been costumed to depict familiar Euro-North American figures like “The Glass Madonna” garbed as a stained-glass window, “The Plastic Bride” — nude under a cover of plastic wrap, and “Mary Medusa” wearing a wig of plastic articulated toy snakes. These works are designed to make the familiar strange, and to provoke audiences into rethinking what they may have previously taken for granted.
The two artists often use popular modes of expression to impart revolutionary ideas. For example, “We’re Talking Vulva” is an educational rap video providing information about women’s bodies, part of the Five Feminist Minutes fifteenth anniversary project of Studio D, the women’s studio of the National Film Board of Canada. Its purpose is to fill a gap in education about women’s sex and sexuality without being pedantic.
Queer Art and the Performance of Hilarity
Dempsey and Millan also queer familiar institutions. For example, their ongoing project, Lesbian National Parks and Services, began with the two artists dressed as rangers and patrolling the streets, trails and canoe routes in and around Banff, Alberta for three weeks, answering tourist inquiries and handing out information on the Lesbian Flora and Fauna in Banff National Park. It continued with a series of similar interventions at college and university campuses, festivals, and city streets in Australia and North America. Their activities include a program for recruiting Junior Lesbian Rangers (a comment on the notion that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer folks attempt to conscript avowed heterosexuals), helping seniors cross the street (attending to stereotypes about neediness and helpfulness), and handing out citations for inappropriate footwear and flirting without intent.
Art as Liberation
Dempsey and Millan’s work engages with issues of current concern. For example, their Consideration Liberation Army is
dedicated to forcing rampant engagement with ideas. Our goal is to take back the terror and place it once again in the rightful hands of artists, who confuse, mystify, and take up your valuable time. Our tools are many. Armed with our bodies, minds, and deeds, we attack thoughtlessness and perpetrators thereof. And we will stop at nothing.
Their website includes a calendar, blogs, buttons and t-shirts, and a walking tour of Winnipeg that draws attention to its colonial and excluding past.
Greenhill, Pauline. 1998. Lesbian Mess(ages): Decoding Shawna Dempsey’s Cake Squish at the Festival Du Voyeur. Atlantis 23 #1: pp. 91-99.
Oakley, Janice. 1999. Postcards from the Edge: Decoding Winnipeg’s “One Gay City” Campaign. Ethnologies 21 #1: pp. 177-192.
Dempsey, Shawna and Lorri Millan. Consideration Liberation Army. http://considerationliberationarmy.ca/, July 2010.
Dempsey, Shawna and Lorri Millan. Finger in The Dyke Productions. www.fingerinthedyke.ca, accessed July 2010.