After having attended a conference entitled The State of Blackness, I am haunted by this question: How to be energized by absence?
After having attended a conference entitled The State of Blackness, I am haunted by this question: How to be energized by absence?
Since the 1930s, power brokers of the government sort have been meeting on the shores of Lake Couchiching, on the traditional lands of the Chippewa Rama First Nation, in a quaint YMCA park, to discuss policy issues. Billed as a “civil place to disagree,” these summer conferences take on topics of national and international significance, aiming to create a place of dialogue from a non-partisan perspective (though their roster of speakers over the years is distinctly left-leaning). While the organization positions the history of the conference as “understand[ing] the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns,” the capital-P political representation of attendees gives the feeling that this is a place where substantial conversations about future policy directions are instigated.  However, a robust slate of scholarship opportunities, coupled with the fact that the specific topics draw in associated and unique crowds, work to diversify the range of participants at the conference, young and old, party-affiliated and not. As a novice, I was reminded that “for those who have not attended before, the dress is informal. And we do mean informal…jeans, shorts, skirts, bathing suits. Ties and suits are decidedly out of place.” 
As the first gesture of my curatorial residency at SBC, which sits within the gallery’s Focus Program on sovereignty, Director/Curator Pip Day and I attended the 2013 conference.
The theme of the summer’s meeting was “Coming Together as One: Navigating the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada.” The relationship between Indigenous populations and settlers (in Canada and elsewhere) has always been subject to debate, struggle and compromise, and yet the title comes off sounding a bit strange for the way it make Indigenous populations a subject of the state while somehow separate from it. This awkwardness acknowledges that Indigenous people do not bear an easy or even consensual relationship to Canada as a nation. In the case of Couchiching, the title points to the actual need to negotiate that relationship: it is not given, it is not in the past, it is contentious, right now, everywhere across the country.
In the lead up to the 2013 conference which, according to then-President Rima Berns-McGowan, was two years in the making, a foundational relationship to place was instigated when, at the 2012 conference that focused on the Arab Spring, Chief Sharon Stinson-Henry was invited to welcome conference participants to the land of the Rama First Nation. For over 80 years this conference has been taking place in the same YMCA park just north of the reserve. It is possible, though I cannot confirm otherwise, that 2012 was the first time that a proper welcome from the people of Rama was part of the conference proceedings. In 2013, Stinson-Henry again welcomed conference participants, and further, John Snake and James Simcoe, elder brothers from the reserve, performed a ceremonial welcoming, setting a tone of mutual respect and reciprocal vulnerability between conference attendees and local residents, and between those Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. However, that the welcome took place after a wine and cheese introductory gathering demonstrates that there are opportunities to delve deeper into what this reciprocity calls forth, as ceremony should not follow the consumption of alcohol. A recognition of cultural context of the conference’s happening deserves a corresponding adjustment of cultural norms.
Over the course of the conference, an acknowledgement of the land was fittingly reiterated by moderators and presenters, regardless of their cultural affiliation or home base. The theme of the conference did relate to this practice in a very direct manner, though this was not necessary for it to be appropriate. The specificity and the politics of the place do not change despite the topic of conversation shared amongst Couchiching participants. Though the practice of territorial acknowledgements does run the risk of seeming to be enough simply because it is something, I think it is important for non-Indigenous scholars, artists and politicians to bear some weight of what a colonial history means in Canada, and perhaps thereby challenge the on-going systemic injustices that are deployed against Indigenous populations across the country today. It is factual and ethical to acknowledge this history, but it also opens the possibility of being motivated in response. Whose land are you owning when you buy that house, for instance? Maybe property ownership should be understood in a spectrum of political implications, and not just a person’s simple and privileged right to consume. As a guest on any land (all land?), what obligations are we bound by? Territorial acknowledgements are a small act of resistance, to which no one should be content, but hopefully this kind of performance connects with other strategies of civic evolution.
One such proposal, seeming to have a rising chorus of support, is the abolition of the Indian Act, a statute that circumscribes many aspects of Indigenous life in Canada, including the definition of what an “Indian” is, the governance of bands and legislation of reserves. Again and again, the Indian Act was brought up as a moment of perpetual harm, as a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous people of Canada and Canadians that soured the potential to speak amongst each other as equals, though I have to wonder if this was not just a moment of formalizing conditions between the state and Indigenous populations, to the express benefit of the former. Indigenous people of Canada are literally some of the most legislated people in the world. Fundamentally, this fact bespeaks fear and disrespect on behalf of the legislators. Indigenous people must continually respond to these regulations (through acts of resistance that are as old as the act itself), despite the fact that the statute approaches Indigenous populations paternalistically rather than diplomatically. Correspondingly, settlers and immigrants should be forced to acknowledge that the act legislates in their name: what is your relationship to the Indian Act? This mutual implication is also part of the treaties that set out terms for co-existence on much of the land that Canada occupies. Treaties do not only police the actions and rights of Indigenous peoples, but of settlers too. If you live in a part of the country governed by a treaty, it dictates responsibilities for yourself as well as others. The phrase “we are all treaty people” is not a metaphor. As was brought up at the conference on several occasions, non-Indigenous people of Canada would do well to reckon with what their identities mean when framed by these statutes.
Over the course of the conference, I was presented with many ideas that I am grateful to have encountered:
I interpreted the charge of the conference’s title as a decolonizing one, and that the negotiation would be one of how the descendants of settlers could responsibly and respectfully account for the rightful sovereignty of Indigenous peoples through a reconsideration and reformulation of privilege, power and resources. The term “decolonization” has a current cache in the art and academic fields. Yet, despite its prevalent usage, I feel that a lack of specificity accompanies its charge. Decolonization sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean? Because the politics of art and theory often remain propositional, and because policy is concerned with the translation of ideas into action, I went to Couchiching hoping to gather information on tactics to use in the decolonizing work I attempt in the cultural field. In re-articulating the history of Canada as colonial, in recognizing the on-going and systemic consequences/repercussions of these overly managed relationships between settlers and Indigenous people, what is to be done and how can we do it?
What I came away with is what should be the fundamental gesture of decolonizing work: to listen. It was said over and over again, that “navigation” is not a matter of the Canadian state dictating the terms and conditions of life for Indigenous people. Decolonization must begin from a position of Indigenous sovereignty, diverse and complicated as it is. Here are some other tools at our disposal:
And now, to undo all these lofty hypotheses. Decolonization is precisely related to land and resources. Decolonization is the repatriation of land and resources to Indigenous people. This work I am talking about, it’s not actually decolonization. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would call it social justice.  I prefer the use of an adverb to modify its scope: cultural decolonization. In relation to the kinds of conversations Couchiching is known for, this type of decolonial work could have taken the form of specific policy proposals, only this is precisely what remained unsaid at the conference, at least from a non-Indigenous perspective. There was no talk about what it meant for non-Indigenous people to re-orient themselves to non-colonial ways of knowing, to give up their privileges, to reconsider land ownership.
And also this: White men on the presentation stage speaking about their personal experiences, not from the positions of power that they occupy in the relationships up for discussion. These men–David MacDonald, a minister for the United Church; James Weisgerber, a Catholic archbishop; and Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan; to name a few–got up on stage and told stories about themselves. Anderson is friends with at least 20 chiefs, and Weisgerber was adopted by an Indigenous community, and MacDonald did not know about residential schools growing up and it was upsetting when he learned the history. And it was maddening. These men used their personal stories to avoid having to embody the positions of power that brought them to the conference. I wanted them to speak as the president of a company that wants to triple their resource extraction by building pipelines on unceded land, which means that his relationships with Indigenous communities are in service of this profit motive and not simply community building, as he otherwise characterized it. I wanted these men to struggle with the fact that “adoption” does not somehow absolve them of the reciprocal, generational alienation the church has brought to Indigenous communities. I wanted them to deeply worry about the inherited responsibility they embody as architects of historical and therefore on-going horrors. Instead, smoke screens.
In the question periods that followed each panel, audience members were instructed to keep their comments in the form of a question. People did so, more or less, with the consequence that the format did not allow a rigorous holding accountable of the claims made in the presentations. Granted, it is difficult to orchestrate meaningful dialogue when there are more than maybe ten people in a room (and the self-importance of some audience members was a real detriment to creating space for diverse positions to be presented), but what could a more functional post-panel strategy be for encouraging meaningful, inclusive but not self-centred discussion to play out? How can the conference synthesize the lessons of past iterations and carry them forward in radical and meaningful ways? How does the civil disagreement central to the conference’s identity become more than polite deferral or egomaniacal posturing?
As preparations for the 2014 conference progress, it is my hope that the re-invitation of the Rama chief be central, along with organization of a ceremonial welcome (though this time, perhaps, wine could follow rather than precede the smudging) and continued territorial acknowledgments. For the conference’s future, one must imagine that the Snake and Simcoe brothers will become as central to the cast of characters as ex-Prime Ministers. And if I am right – that Couchiching is a place of brokerage – I eagerly await the policy outcomes of so many people engaging an Indigenous dialectic from a civic perspective.
 “Our History.” http://www.couchichinginstitute.ca/about/our-history
 Two days before the conference began, an email was sent to participants noting some basic information, such as the informal dress code and, importantly, offering a pre-conference workshop for Aboriginal Awareness-Cultural Understanding.
 I first encountered the idea of practicing non-belonging through Wanda Nanibush.
 Over the course of their essay, Tuck and Yang outline the specific ways that social justice work is different from decolonization, which for them hinges on the way that social justice work turns decolonization into a metaphor, rather than addressing the strict charge of decolonization as the repatriation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1, 2012.
As part of the Media Arts Network of ontario/réseau des arts médiatiques de l’ontario (MANo/rAMo) Evolve or Perish symposium, I was invited to speak about precarious cultural labour from my position as an independent curator and writer. While the mundane struggles of these positions inform my thinking about precariousness as a contemporary social phenomena, what I tried to do with my presentation was circumscribe a much larger field of precarious labour, feeling for the potential of resonance between cultural work and other kinds of “flexible” jobs. Cross-sectoral alliances will be difficult to construct and maintain, and it is clear that things cannot remain the way they are forever (obviously), but precarious living conditions coupled with state austerity seems to be forcing the hand of change now. As the panel that concluded the symposium suggested, we’ve got a couple of options: evolution, mutation, amputation or death. What follows is a transcription of my presentation.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “PRECARITY”?
To be precarious in the dictionary sense of things it is to be dependent on something beyond one’s authority. It’s a material or immaterial insecurity that comes from control resting with another–often a set of circumstances or a system incapable of being motivated by care.
Broadly, feminist- and literary-theorist Judith Butler proposes that “‘precarity’ designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection.” (1)
When Butler talks about precarity, she invokes the gender queer and the racialized, and these experiences of precarity are nodes of intersectionality that, in the cultural field, interact with specific labour characteristics such as fluid working hours, high levels of mobility, hyper-communication and flexibility, not to mention, often, shit wages and a lack of benefits. Precarity, as a economic embodiment, is often related to unpredictable, insecure and exploitative labour relations. In this moment of late-capitalism and austerity, precarious work proliferates as a symptom of what has been described as “changing conditions of production, [such as] deindustrialization, outsourcing, declining unionization, and a shift from full-time salaried work to flexible arrangements with weak protections.” (2)
As it is practically deployed, precarity seems to reinforce any number of repressive social forces, such as racism and misogyny. For instance, “whilst women have almost always done ‘immaterial and affective labour, often with little recognition in both fields’ precariousness is only discussed ‘at the moment when the Western male worker began feeling the negative effects of the new post-industrial flexible job market.’” (3) And based on my colloquial experiences, artist-run centres? They are ruled by women. The directorship of large museums? Not so much. Further, in the catalogue The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, the authors note that “it is immensely important–if the global economy is to function–for the world labour force to be ethnicized, for a correlation to be established between ethnicity and economic role; for example, at the international level by imposing low wages on non-European, Asian, or African workers, or at the national level on immigrants. [Or, as our specific case may be, on Indigenous populations.] The visible classification of labour power and ethnic groups provides the index for income distributions…This institutionalized racism (and it goes beyond xenophobia) is one of the most significant pillars of historical capitalism. Racism serves as an all-embracing ideology to justify inequality.” (4)
HOW DID WE COME TO BE PRECARIOUS?
On the one hand, the proliferation of precarity could be read as a response to worker demands. Personally, flexible working hours allow me to take on multiple projects (both an intellectual desire to work diversely and a practical consequence of needing to pay the rent), and traveling to art fairs means I can see parts of the world I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit, and I like working from home sometimes. It is not simply market ideology that manifests these kinds of working conditions, but these kinds of “flexibility” certainly do serve the inevitable thrust of capitalism to extract increased labour in exchange for fewer investments in the labour force which powers the economy. On the other hand, the condition of precarity is “unevenly experienced” across the workforce, since while I may value or even choose my contingent work arrangements, elsewhere they are imposed on others. (5) Combined with hysterical debt-loads from post-secondary education and credit cards, and then the mundane costs of living that are subject to inflation at a rate not matched by wages, the lack of security associated w/ precariat flexibility conspires to leave giant swathes of the working class extremely vulnerable. Granted, some people thrive under these conditions, but most of us do something a bit more humble: we subsist. Barely. As Judith Butler points out, “neo-liberalism works through producing dispensable populations; it exposes populations to precarity; it establishes modes of work that presume that labour will always be temporary; it decimates long-standing institutions of social democracy, withdraws social services from those who are most radically unprotected – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented – because the value of social services or economic rights to basic provisions like shelter and food has been replaced by an economic calculus that values only the entrepreneurial capacities of individuals and moralizes against all those who are unable to fend for themselves or make capitalism work for them.” (6) In fact, capitalism requires that it not work for most of us: there can only be so many millionaires. This is not just a problem of the cultural sector.
And yet, across the field of precarious labour, cultural workers carry a special kind of social capital; our jobs are cool. However fragile my financial stability is or however guaranteed my human rights are, I get to pass through the world with certain privileges, one of which is working in the cultural sector. It feels gross to say this, but in a way, we are the popular kids at the precariat high-school. In these kinds conversations, we cannot be inward looking only. It is our duty, really, our duty, to align ourselves with the aspect of this struggle to which we belong the least, which is to seek positions of advocacy outside our cultural cache. At minimum, this means recognizing that experiences of precarity in the cultural sector may not be representative of the experience of precarity elsewhere, and that our experiences may not be the most suitable upon which to build cross-sectorial alliances that could address the larger phenomena of economic and social insecurity as it is experienced today. In this respect, it will involve a lot of listening (and not necessarily so much talking).
OUR PRECARITY IN RELATION
And to take this one step further, I’d like to quote the writer Jacob Wren: “There is all this discourse about how the freelance artist is the model for the precarious worker, and it must be true, but for me what’s actually the real criminal problem is not that information workers are working 24 hours a day, it’s that people in China are working in the conditions they’re working to make the computers and the iPods we are working on. All this talk about immaterial labour is a mask for the material labour behind it, which has actually gone back to pre-union factory conditions…You have these mass suicide protests in China at Foxconn, where the people putting together the iPods, hundreds of them, are committing suicide to protest their labour conditions. And how bad do your labour conditions have to be? I think we have no idea…With immaterial labour, the material labour is still happening, but the pure exploitation has been moved off the immaterial labour and onto the material factory worker in another country, who we don’t see.” (7)
It seems that our precarity is of a different sort, a slow death, by inertia or obesity or ennui, and I would like to propose our precarity in relationship to the precarities that allow ours to exist. (8) When we work all our waking hours, tap tapping on our laptops, texting on our smart phones, sending emails all over the world in English, our precarity comes to be seen as rather the justification for a level of precarity many of us have probably not ever had lived contact with. It is just not the same to spend all your time thinking about exhibitions while making slightly more than minimum wage then it is to work 16-hour days in a factory that you cannot leave, and when you do, with mere dollars in your pocket. Our precarity is on the backs of other precarity, much more precarious than ours. And because changing systems of globalization, slavery, racism and capitalism are so daunting as to be paralyzing, we excuse our inaction with the claim that nothing can be done to effectively change things.
AGAINST THE SAME SAME OR REVOLUTION
I feel like the increasing ubiquity and severity of precarity is the perfect consequence of capitalism. How efficient or futile will our advocating for different ways of organizing labour in general (or cultural production in particular) be within capitalism? Kinda seems impossible, especially given the claim, reiterated by Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fischer, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And yet! We operate within different economies everyday, such as when we cook for our lovers or trade documentation for artwork or volunteer. The failure of our imagination that Žižek and Fischer diagnose comes when we place every type of labour in a capitalist framework, ignoring the fact we simultaneously work in multiple economies all the time. Plus, come on, capital is in a moment of crisis. I’m not sure if this is the revolution Marx foretold of, but at the very least, this moment can be one reconsideration.
Put another way, what does the crisis of precarity make possible? As the availability of economic and natural resources declines, how about a different architecture of how these remaining resources move?!
Given that precarity manifests across a range of factors, such as class, race and gender, there is the difficult potential of building solidarities amongst us. And I say “difficult” because if these alliances are to be fruitful, they must not erase the power differentials and social inequities that mark these varied experiences. It would be to understand what we have in common without effacing the very real differences of how precarity is experienced. I think about this as holding a space for not-knowing that is something more than polite deferral, and something more than the strategic mobilization of what is common for the benefit of the few. For us, as cultural workers, I think the first step might be to be attentive to (and not impose) fellow-feeling that may come from the very different experiences of, say, janitors, migrant labourers, office temps, service workers et cetera.
Maybe this is unrealistic? What do you think? Do you think that addressing precarity as a systemic condition of late capitalism will require collective address?
While I believe that labour precarity is somehow the perfect expression of capitalism, there are things being done already, within this system, to address the deleterious effects of living with so little security, such as:
And then, here are some wild imaginations with the caveat that I don’t know how to make any of this happen:
(1) Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, vol. 4, num. 3, September-December 2009.
(2) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013.
(3) Fantone, L. (2007). “Precarious changes: gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy,” Feminist Review 87, pages 5-20. As quoted in Gill, R. C. and Andy Pratt, “In the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work,” Theory, Culture and Society #25, page 18.
(4) Belting, Hans, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (eds.). The Global Contemporary at the Rise of New Art Worlds, USA: MIT Press, 2013, pages 23-24.
(5) Andrew Ross makes this point in “The New Geography of Work. Power to the Precarious?,” OnCurating Journal #16, 2013.
(6) Butler, Judith. “Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy?,” Greek Left Review, 12 November 2011.
(7) Lee, Yaniya, Chris Kraus and Jacob Wren. In Different Situations Different Behaviour Will Produce Different Results: A Chapbook, Toronto: Paperpusher, 2013, pages 23-24.
(8) Lauren Berlant uses the idea of slow death to describe the experience of living in this stage of late-capitalism, which she explores in-depth in “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency,” a chapter in her book, Cruel Optimism.
(9) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013.
In the spirit of careful precision, this distinction as articulated by Nelson Maldonado-Torres:
Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.
We are all students and subjects of coloniality. So what are we gonna do about it?
And what happens to sovereignty when it rests upon an empire, both to the colonizing nation and the colonized state? Is sovereignty diluted or made stronger when set in relation to patterns of oppression?
In the first issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang present “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” a call to examine the ways the term is diluted when applied to projects that are anything other than the repatriation of Indigenous lands and life. It’s a powerful article. Read it here. Their call to be aware of the import of the term corresponds to a reconsideration of what exactly we are doing in cultural venues (like art galleries) when we try to critically approach ongoing processes of colonization. In short, most of the time, the thing we are doing is not decolonizing. It’s not that there is no value in this kind of work, but we need to grapple with “how the pursuit of critical consciousness, the pursuit of social justice through a critical enlightenment, can also be settler moves to innocence–diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege.”
In working toward that consideration, Tuck and Yang make some important clarifications in what they call the set of settler colonial relations. I found these two particular articulations to be precise and useful in thinking through a colonized landscape in North America.
First, distinguishing between settler and immigrants, they note that “settlers are not immigrants. Immigrants are beholden to the Indigenous laws and epistemologies of the lands they migrate to. Settlers become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies.”
Second, an idea of race is deployed differently according on one’s position in the set of relations, which Tuck and Yang see as being composed of three nodes: settler, native, slave. Race is constructed in ways that always lead back to the fortification of settler power so that “through the one-drop rule, blackness in settler colonial contexts is expansive, ensuring that a slave/criminal status will be inherited by an expanding number of ‘black’ descendents. Yet, Indigenous peoples have been racialized in a profoundly different way. Native American-ness is subtractive: Native Americans are constructed to become few in number and less Native, but never exactly white, over time. Our/their status as Indigenous peoples/first inhabitants is the basis of our/their land claims and the goal of settler colonialism is the diminish claims to land over generations (or sooner, if possible). That is, Native American is a racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land and usher in settler claims to property.”
Understanding the way our own identities are configured in relationship to access to land, resources and power is just one essential step in being able to re-do the order of the world in a decolonial way. And it must be accompanied by those literal re-doings.
I do not put much stock in polls, but the recent proposal to ban religious headwear and symbols in Québec, which is laid out in a piece of legislation titled the “Charter of Values,” is supported by a shocking 58% of people in the province according to a Forum Research study. The proposal has less support in other parts of Canada, but not by much: disturbingly, 47% of people asked are in favour.
The legislation, as it is formulated now, aims to outlaw public employees from wearing hijabs, turbans, kippas, visible crucifixes and other religious clothing and symbols in schools, hospitals, day cares and other government buildings in the province. Or as Colby Cosh summarized it, the charter seeks to dictate “purely personal, passive displays of religious faith by employees [which] are inconsistent with the government of Québec’s overall secular mission and nature.” The idea is that the adornment of religious symbols by public employees somehow compromises the province’s commitment to secularism, but I really don’t follow the logic. The province is composed of individuals, all of whom have beliefs. State functions are processes carried out by people. I’m not sure how this competency is affected by religious clothing or symbols.
Québec Premier Pauline Marois has said that the charter “reflects universal values, Quebec values, and would be a uniting force for the province.” But just to be clear, the value represented in this charter is racism, a racism that could propagate further intolerance by normalizing imposed conformity to a single dominant culture. I follow this logic, and it’s shameful. Monoculture does not make unity. Cultural unity, to have any real value, must require something of its citizens: at base, an acceptance of diversity. Which means encounters with difference, not cultural camouflage.
For the summer issue of Monte Cristo, I ruminate on a constellation of films through the lens of memory, backward and forward and alive right now. To recall, to see, to dream. It’s funny timing, having received the beautiful print copies in the mail only days after arriving home from burying my grandmother. In considering Michael Haneke’s Amour, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and Oliver Husain’s Item Number, it seems to me that “memory and imagination rely on the co-existing of tenses in the present moment. To be alive, then, is this movement backward and forward, the complex and mundane experiences of holding on, of forgetting and of writing anew. Sometimes it is proper to not let go either of the past or the future…[sometimes] the past must be unshackled from the everyday less it suffocate living. [Other times] it’s the overly determined idea of the future that needs be released, making room for what can’t be predicted, for what falls outside of schedules and scripts. These fates are shared amongst us: memory persists unevenly, imagination moves unpredictably. Our lives are simply to engage in these negotiations, wherever they may take us.”
Coming back to Toronto from Alberta, having just visited the hospital where I was born to collect the physical belongings of my grandmother’s that she had with her when she died, I am very much steeped in this negotiation of past, present and future. In culling through my own memories, I have come across this, a love letter to my grandmother that is also an attempt to contend with memory as being a flimsy and fading thing:
Thick rows of raspberry bushes and I was once a small girl hurtling through them, summer in my veins. My stick arms and legs collecting the tiny cuts of prickling thorns as I ran through the rows with abandon. Then, the abrupt halt of a changing plan and my feet would fall silent, caught on either side by bushes taller than I. My fingers would grope forward for the carmine fruit, an action of body remembrance while my mind wandered with wild imaginations. My fingertips would slowly stain red with a disregard to proper picking etiquette, pressing too hard the tiny fruit, seeds catching in my teeth, and I would eagerly, unconsciously, taste of the sweetness. When my games of make-believe fell silent, I would recognize the adventure as my home. Just raspberry bushes in a garden, a fantastical leap to the marvelous, far away lands of my play. And yet, such abundance, I have come to realize, in the bounty right there before me. But then, just a given, just fruit close-by on the other side of my whim.
My abandon played the predictable counterpoint to my grandmother’s methodical stripping of those bushes near the end of summer’s drunk light, collecting berries for the winter ahead. She would drift so deliberately that my young eyes could discern movement only by turning my head for a spell of accumulation–childhood is no keeper of small progressions. Still, buckets and buckets more would fill of the small bits of ripe redness. With opaque plastic, the weight of a full ice cream container would hint at the shallow collection of juice near the bottom and these pools were evidence of the riches of a season.
Next, the fruit was found scattered all over my grandmother’s kitchen. She would sit, hunched over in deep concentration, turning every one of those berries through her fingers. Again. Looking for bits of the world not to be preserved, tiny worms or bits of rot, removing all the impurities, all the whitened, foamy centres the berries grew round, all the accidentally torn bits of green leaves. Methodically.
I do not remember ever bearing witness to the magical process that preserved the berries on into the winter, but I knew that soon a cold room in the basement of my grandmother’s home would fill shelves with electric red. Better than candy, raspberries preserved in their own juice would be served over vanilla ice cream. Or, sometimes, just the berries themselves, straight from the jar that sat faithfully replenished in her fridge. I could even catch my father in the indulgence, sneaking just a single spoonful, the softness of a man. These were my first lessons in parts and wholes, of how then yields now, because at the end of the winter the seemingly never ending store of sweetness would be small and depleted, but oh! The bushes in abundance and the dance would begin again each spring. The itch of winter to send me careening again through those rows, and soon the slow, following steps of my grandmother.
Yet, that lesson of wholes and parts did not prepare me for this, those shelves empty, the bushes overgrown, my grandmother’s hands so ravaged by arthritis that they are no longer capable of small movements. Not even one hidden jar of electric summer exists anymore, and I am caught off guard admitting this. Like, having spent so many of my teenage years laying alone and lonely in a small bed, a heavy heart not yet able to recognize the space outside of solitude, and now, the staggering privilege of another’s affection. Yet, even if I could take my lover’s hand and lead them back to that bedroom where I laid, even with their kindness to go there with me, evidence against a solitude that once seemed irrefutable, my bed is not there anymore. Could not lay there with my lover despite their generosity. Cannot taste the sweet red of summer, though my grandmother extends toward me the courtesy of memory. And this is because: our childhoods no longer exist. Our childhoods are gone.
These are the words of a young woman realizing that having come to pass really means never again. It was not so long ago, this lesson, and I still just don’t know it in certain ways, and yet now my grandmother is dead, and even her hands are but a memory, not unlike the jars of raspberries, not unlike the summer light.
Consensus kills questions. A colleague of mine recently brought something like this up, reflecting on a public conversation where a participant had noted the Canadian tendency to need to find agreement when really, we need not concur. Sitting with an unresolved tension can be good because it asks that strategies be developed for living with difference and it requires a person to admit that while logics can be internally coherent, they are not totalizing. As I sit with a long list of works for my upcoming exhibition at the AGW, and as I begin to think about how to articulate what holds these works together, I am encountering the aliveness of my own questions to the gallery’s collection. It’s exciting, but it also feels like being totally sure of what the artworks do together would be great. I’m not sure that this will be resolved in the end, and instead, how do I let the dissensus live through exhibition? How do I keep the questions alive for myself and an imagined audience? Borrowing a sentiment from Danh Vo, exhibition “enacts art as a process of learning for artist and viewer [I would suggest the curator also], in which failures are also ways of learning” (Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education, 217). So perhaps I keep the question alive by not knowing the answer, or somehow allowing conflicting answers equal space to exist within the hypothesis that frames the collection of works. Let me not reach consensus!
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:
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.