Goodbye 2020, Goodbye R.M. Vaughan

Source: Art F City

Documentation of R.M. Vaughan’s “Super-Diviner” (2014) at Videofag, Toronto

Some experiences I wish I could recall with clarity vanish almost as soon as they occur. Artist and writer RM Vaughan’s “Super-Diviner” (2014) performance marks one such instance: an unusually perceptive tarot reading I still regret not committing to memory. Held at the now defunct Toronto artspace Videofag, visitors were instructed to enter the storefront alone, take three cards from a pile of assorted divinatory decks, and silently slide them under the screen for a blind reading. After he was done, we were asked to rate the accuracy of what we were told. Vaughan couldn’t see who I was or what I looked like, but still made profound observations. I gave him a perfect score.

As soon as he’d given it, I forgot my reading, assuming I’d have another at some point. We were already friends, and later Richard became a regular contributor to Art F City, covering the Berlin arts scene with a discerning eye and acerbic wit.

I never got to pull another tarot card from his deck, though. On October 23rd 2020, two weeks after he went missing in Fredericton, New Brunswick, police found his body. The police assumed no foul play. Friends and family deduced the cause was suicide.

Two months have since passed, and Richard has been justifiably memorialized in obituaries, tributes, and even a video art program. Friends and colleagues brilliantly captured his humor and uncanny ability to perfectly capture the absurdity of our shared cultural experiences. As a queer artist and writer living in Toronto up until the last five years of his life, he worked as a tireless connector, advocating and supporting other queer creatives from the 80s through to his death. I don’t think he ever got the recognition he deserved, as many others not only observed in their obituaries, but made visible with the craft of their prose. We all want to write something Richard would like, which requires a dash of poetic levity mixed with unsparing prose.

I’m unsure Richard would enjoy this observation even if he begrudgingly respected it: he could be a real jerk, prone to the jealousy and insecurities we probably all have, but tortured by it in ways that sometimes destroyed friendship and trust.

I always forgave Richard for those qualities, though, because he was also amongst the most generous, affable people I have ever met. He often shared pitch ideas and contacts with other writers, a diminishing professional courtesy in the field. When my sister-in-law needed to raise money for an operation the Canadian healthcare system wouldn’t pay for, he offered to help connect her story to others in the Canadian media to raise awareness. In comment threads and editorials he always returned scorn with respect—even when unearned. I watched this first hand as he fielded ad hominem attacks in response to his contentious Art F City review of Amy Feldman’s show at Berlin’s Blain|Southern

Richard knew how to generate conversation and debate, and did so fearlessly. His hilarious 2006 Canadian Art Magazine pan of the exhibition, Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists, at MuHKA Museum for Contemporary Art Antwerp used descriptives like “garbage” and “ugly” to rightly mock Vancouver photo-based art as some sort of vaunted cultural export. Canadian arts media, which thirsts for global recognition, perceived the review as sacrilegious in its dismissal as did many professionals. The diaries prompted an outraged letter from superstar photographer Jeff Wall, and so upset the art scene that one reader went so far as to compare him to Hitler. (Richard appropriately parlayed the response into a book deal of collected essays entitled Compared to Hitler.)

Richard’s craftiness helped him survive through leaner years. As I watch freelance writers on Twitter list out what they got paid for assignments this year, I think back to our industry conversations. Sure, we lamented the dwindling freelancer rates, but more often, we bemoaned the organizations who still owed us money. Like everyone who does this kind of work, he often had to wait six months or more before getting paid some meager amount. No one takes into account the amount of time a freelancer has to spend hounding people just to get paid.

I watched the resentment accumulate and weigh on Richard over the years, and when he disappeared, I learned his moods worsened during the COVID-10 lockdown. He needed more access to support than he received. As a culture that still debates the value of universal healthcare and basic income, we don’t doll out help in equal measure. We talk about those suffering from the virus, yet neglect the mental health issues arising from the lockdown. (In the U.S., morality has sunk to debating who should be willing to die. Illnesses like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder barely register.)

Richard tried to put a good face on this. In June, he wrote a humor piece for The Globe and Mail about the humbling experience of moving in with a friend during lockdown and helping to manage the COVID anxiety of their 12 year old daughter. Not two sentences in, he told readers he considered himself “one of the lucky ones.” In the context of his mentorship, the sentiment made his death seem all the more cruel.

“Childhood anxiety is anxiety on amphetamines.” he wrote in the Globe. “Yesterday, I talked the kid down from a psychological ledge by explaining how it would be against the laws of physics for the COVID-19 virus to spread through electrical outlets. I know nothing about physics. Which brings us to my second tip. Just lie.”

It’s a funny line, but in retrospect I began to wonder if “lucky” was his lie. He’s dead. Then again, maybe we need to tell ourselves happier narratives, especially when we’re feeling down about ourselves or the world. At the very least, we start taking seriously the sometimes all-too-easily dismissed experiences of our children.

I can only speculate on what Richard felt, but I know for certain that death didn’t scare him. “I grew up in Atlantic Canada,” he told me in a 2018 piece I wrote for Garage about artists’ paranormal faith. “All the conversations I heard from adults included ghosts at some point. People talked about them in a very natural way—the way you might talk about the weather.”

I don’t believe ghosts spend their time in metropolises like Berlin or Toronto—giant cities exude too much energy for an afterlife to survive—so I’m glad he died in Fredericton, just over an hour from his birthplace, St John. The smaller Maritime center seems more friendly to spirits. Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s found family and friends, along with the solace he couldn’t get here. 

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