Project Reflections: Caroline Künzle asks “Is this a joke?”

The author of this post, Caroline Künzle, mounted her multimedia project Is this a joke? / C’est une joke? in our Exhibition Lab from March 14 – 20, 2014 as a component of her MFA in Creative Practice at the Transart Institute.

Cultural prejudice and racism are not laughing matters. Not for those who experience manifestations of them, nor for those who are conscious of and sensitive to the hurtful, destructive nature of these manifestations. And yet in order for all members of society to recognize the ways in which cultural prejudice and racism manifest themselves and play themselves out in people’s daily lives, it is crucial that productive spaces exist in which these uncomfortable and ugly matters can be acknowledged, spoken about, described, pointed to. Ideally, these spaces are safe, inclusive and respectful and the verbal exchanges on these matters are carried out in a fashion, which enables dialogue and understanding rather than provoking divisive argument or worse. A particularly effective one that appears to continue to grow in popularity is the practice of stand-up comedy. In the telling of jokes, through the comedy nights that happen in bars and clubs around town, people gather together regularly to listen to comics tell them about the moments of prejudice, racism or cultural misunderstanding that they have experienced or witnessed in their daily lives. This occurs mostly in a spirit of mirth and unification rather than in anger and divisiveness. I believe that those moments are worthy of consideration as guiding posts towards pursuing this unifying spirit further.


The video installation “Is This a Joke?” was enacted as an experiment through which to discover the potentialities of joke-telling for addressing cultural prejudice and racism. Guided by the intention of healing through speech and exchange, whilst simultaneously keeping in mind the the ambivalence of humour and the potential violence of words, the following occurred:

I approached several Montreal-based comics, of diverse cultural origins, and asked each to allow me to 1) interview them about the relationship between their cultural identity and their stand-up act, 2) film them telling one joke of their choice which would refer to cultural identity in some way and 3) consent to a group of culturally diverse actors to then re-tell their joke for the camera. It is important to note that I did not specify which culture their joke should refer to. All but one of the participating comics chose to refer to their own culture.

When a joke referring to some aspect of a specific community or culture is made, its potency relies much on the audience’s perception of the legitimacy of the teller’s perspective. Who has a legitimate enough voice or “insider” perspective, to tell such a joke in a way that it reveals a recognized truth rather than simply perpetuating false, clichéd or stereotypical ideas? And who is deemed an “outsider,” illegitimate and therefore, a perpetuator of such misleading and potentially hurtful stereotypes or hateful ideas? As the conceptual form of my artistic project took shape, its accompanying research question became: What happens when the same joke is delivered by different speakers?

Humour and its it effects have been written about in innumerable way and what can be described as “comical” has a diverse range and at least as many words to describe it: The comical can be dark or morbid, deadpan or dry, droll, farcical, physical or slapstick, highbrow, lowbrow, ironic, biting, self-deprecating, parodic or satirical. Humour can also be a survival or coping mechanism, it can act as a form of subversion or alternative truth-telling and it also has the capacity to remain highly ambivalent in its intention, particularly when it is used to describe ethnic relations.

If the stand-up comic can be seen as a kind of contemporary Trickster figure, it is important to keep in mind, that in mythology, the Trickster is bound by appetite. The spirit of survival catalyzes his/her creative cunning. The Trickster intelligence arises from the tensions inherent between predators and prey because behind the Trickster’s tricks lies a desire to eat and not be eaten. When hearing jokes which speak of ethnicity, let us keep this notion of survival in mind. The words in a joke, though possibly delivered in a teasing or absurd tone, describe the violence of the class and race hierarchy of the society around us.

How does one sensitize others to the wounds that words and images can commit, however playfully they may be delivered? How does one inspire new allies to join a project of peaceful and conciliatory dialogue? Can jokes, with their incongruous and sometimes ambiguous logic, really do this important healing work? Though I don’t yet have the answer to these questions, I continue to be compelled and inspired by the comic form, and the potential for its silly, ridiculous and light-hearted nature to shed light and clarity on fraught social relations. It is a vast project and one that is to be continued…

Caroline Künzle is a Montreal-based artist working with music, performance, sound and video. She holds a B.A in Theatre from the University of Alberta (Edmonton), an M.A in Media Studies from Concordia University (Montreal) and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Practice with Transart Institute (Berlin & New York).

Much of her work is concerned with orality, whether in spoken or sung form, and an interest in using these popular forms of storytelling to engage with questions of representation, language and voice in the context of multicultural society. She sees the creative process as an experimental act, like the elaboration of a laboratory of conditions, through which truths may be sought, discovered and revealed.

Relevant Links

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence