This fall I will curate an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and in my research preparations I have been trying to understand what decolonization can be as a set of actions. As a concept, broadly, decolonization makes space for narratives that have otherwise been silenced through forceful and uneven distributions of power. Decolonization affords legitimacy to different ways of knowing outside of specific circles of cultures, so that, for example, an Canadian who is the grandchildren of immigrants can appreciate the cultures of Indigenous peoples in Canada without condescension or appropriation. Decolonization works on two fronts: it creates space for the colonized, and it makes demands of the colonizer (regardless of how near or far the original acts of colonization are to the present moment).
This is my first shot at a working understanding. Here are some others I’ve collected:
- (of a state) withdraw from (a colony), leaving it independent (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2004)
- A decolonizing lens assists in making sense of the contradictory personal experiences of the Indigenous researcher that arise from dual accountability to the Indigenous community and to mainstream Western research site (from Margaret Kovach’s Indigenous Methodologies, pg. 85).
- The undoing of colonialism, the unequal relation of polities whereby one people or nation establishes and maintains dependent territory (courial governments) over another. It can be understood politically (attaining independence, autonomous home rule, union with the metropole or another state) or culturally (removal of pernicious colonial effects) (Wikipedia).
- Decoloniality endorses interculturality, (which has been conceptualized by organized communities) and delinks from multiculturalism (which has been conceptualized and implemented by the State). Muticulturalism promotes identity politics, while interculturality promotes transnational identities-in-politics. Multiculturalism is managed by the State and some affiliated NGO’s, whereas interculturality is enacted by the communities in the process of delinking from the imaginary of the State and of multiculturalism. Interculturality promotes the re-creation of identities that were either denied or acknowledged first but in the end were silenced by the discourse of modernity, postmodernity and now altermodernity. Interculturality is the celebration by border dwellers of being together in and beyond the border (excerpted from the manifesto Decolonial Aesthetics ).
- A constant reworking of our understandings of the impact of imperialism and colonialism is an important aspect of indigenous cultural politics and forms the basis of an indigenous language of critique. Within this critique there have been two major strands. One draws upon a notion of authenticity, of a time before colonization in which we were intact as indigenous peoples. We had absolute authority over our lives; we were born into and lived in a universe which was entirely of our making. We did not ask, need or want to be ‘discovered’ by Europe. The second strand of the language of critique demands that we have an analysis of how we were colonized, of what that has meant in terms of our immediate past and what is particularly significant in indigenous discourses is that solutions are posed from a combination of the time before, colonized time, and the time before that, pre-colonized time. Decolonization encapsulates both sets of ideas (from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies, pg. 25).
- A fundamental component in the mobilization of processes of decolonization is for settler societies to engage in, commit to, and take responsibility for learning colonial histories and understanding contemporary legacies that support and maintain white-settler privilege on stolen Indigenous lands [...] Indigenous scholars, artists, writers and activists have been working towards achieving Indigenous cultural, political, and economic sovereignty rights, and it is now time for settlers (scholars, politicians, artists, writers, educators, etc.) to participate, without encroachment or cooption of Indigenous initiatives, within the project of decolonizing dominant Canadian society, its institutions, myths, narratives, and governments (Carla Taunton, as quoted in Decolonize Me, pg. 23).
And now, the question of HOW. How can a process of decolonization be enacted? At the Art Gallery of Windsor, I am working with their collection, which has been amassed over the gallery’s 70 year history. Is it possible to look at the works in a way that performs a decolonization upon the objects? Or, is there a way to encourage a decolonization of the viewer through an encounter with the collection? In practical terms, what would such a project actually look like? This question, very much alive, is what guides my looking as I sift through the trove of materials gathered on Indigenous land in the city of Windsor.
From Margaret Kovach’s Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts:
“With colonization, Indigenous people were forced to forfeit their languages, and so a majority of Indigenous people in Canada now have English as their first language. Having a common language, however, has not served to increase cultural understandings. Rather, it has put Indigenous culture at risk. This suggests that a common language is not the panacea for a common understanding. Instead, understanding is a layered endeavour.”
Language is a way of knowing the world. I only speak English, but I am sure that any language, all languages, write upon the world as much as the world presses upon the language. These are relationships of reciprocity (between the world and our knowing it), or at least our ways of speaking represent interpretation (not objectivity or fact), and between these paradigms not all things can be translated. When languages are lost, so are deeper forms of knowing.
For the past year and a half, I have been assiting Chris Gehman with the massive job of editing Explosion in the Movie Machine. Published by the Images Festival and the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Explosion is a collection of essays and documents taking on artist film and video practices in the Toronto region over the last thirty years. To launch the book, Gehman organized a panel discussion around censorship, a once galvanizing agenda that is now largely unconsidered as festivals and galleries reap the benefits of what Gehman characterizes as a truce between artists and the province’s censor board. Within the context of a discussion about censorship, and considering the fact that so much of what makes up Explosions are critical historical analyses (alongside a selection of primary documents), it raises a question about how writers can approach the literal writing of history. How can this relay of experience either reinforce or challenge structures of power that otherwise work to maintain their own perpetuation? Artist film and video often has to negotiate its relationship to the film industry, be it through access to resources or cultivating modes of viewership. Artists of colour, regardless of where they practice, have to negotiate social structures that often work to alienate or silence. Artists of diverse cultural backgrounds often have to translate between notions of what is socially acceptable or not, as when Wanda Nanibush, as part of the panel discussion, pointed out that Aboriginal communities do not necessarily share the criteria the censor board uses to judge films suitable for children. Gehman, in compiling Explosion, worked very hard to make literal room for divergent histories and the book represents a kind of solidarity, a place for critical reflection on artists’ film and video practices in this city that acknowledges the larger structures of power at play while denying that they account for all that makes this region vibrant. So, what else can we do to write history differently, in ways that surpass structural and social censorships?
My dear friend JP Kelly, commenting on the passing of Roger Ebert, has proposed a most fitting memorial. In JP’s own words, “Roger Ebert, in his review of Kids, wrote about the scene where Telly sprays Casper with a fine mist of water in the summer heat of his bedroom. Ebert used the scene to illustrate how air conditioning has killed seduction and desire in the movies. We go to cold cineplexes in the midst of heat waves when once we sat in sweltering theaters dripping along with our counterparts on the screen–Liz and Paul in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I say this summer we turn off the AC and fuck each other in the dark in honour of Mr. Ebert.”
I can think of no more fitting a tribute to someone whose utter delight in being alive is to be read so thoroughly in the work he has left behind.
To hot summer fucking in the dark, and to Mr. Ebert (and to you too JP!): love.
Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011) is an attempt to work through a question about the possible connection between cruelty and the production of knowledge. Is there an inherent link between learning and trauma, or is their coincidence merely that, occurring where it may (or may not)? Through artistic practices high and low (from Marina Abramović to Jackass), Nelson grapples with the effects representations of violence, working through the different ways these kinds of images can be made productive for those who come upon them, by choice or not. In her reckoning, she offers some choice criticisms about the hubris of the idea of an artist bestowing knowledge upon their audience. ”I’d much rather the artist be thinking about his or her own experience than trying to micromanage mine,” she declares, for “the desire to catch an audience unawares and ambush it is a fundamentally terrorizing, Messianic approach to art-making, one that underestimates the capacities and intelligence of most viewers, and overestimates that of most artists” (109, 116).
So much curatorial writing around art does just this, preaching the effects on an audience of an encounter with a work instead of drawing out what it meant for a curator to encounter the work initially. I know I am guilty of this, using the “we” instead of the “I,” of generalizing outward, of making assumptions about what an instance of looking can yield. But what would my writing look like if I were to shift the frame of consequence from an imagined audience to my own body? Part of the resistance is to deny the ego or self-centredness of speaking about artworks through my specific experience. As a curator, the idea is to move the experience of a constellation of works, first felt deeply in privacy, out to others, but does this mean to literally situate looking from my seat of experience? Or, in Nelson’s terms, how can the curator remain humble about how their framing might resonate with viewers while simultaneously not attempting to predetermine the very same experiences viewers might actually have? Because the thing is, those frames–exhibitions–are very very deliberate. The conceit is that the context encourages the works to be read a certain way. But maybe the solution is to somehow incorporate the actual experience of the show back into the curatorial texts, so that, let’s say, there is an essay that accompanies the closing of a show that somehow reflects on how the work was experienced by gallery visitors. What might an investment in this type of recuperation look like? What kind of changes in the curator’s understanding of how the work functions, from opening to closing, could be mapped? And might this information be useful in understanding any of the works themselves?
But doesn’t boredom seem impossible?