Confronting Movement, Confronting Vocabularies

"Slow Scrape" Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee, performance, 2014. Photo credit: Sam Cotter.

“Slow Scrape,” Tanya Lukin Linklater and Daina Ashbee, documentation of performance, 2014. Photo credit: Sam Cotter.

As the final event of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, the idea of negotiation was approached choreographically, as the instruction of movement by Tanya Lukin Linklater and the practice of movement by Daina Ashbee. A historical negotiation was also at play in Lukin Linklater’s translation of civic protest and domestic labour into poetry, which she exhibited in the gallery space as a series of three hanging banners. Entitled Slow Scrape, the three-part dance utilized the banners as scores for performance. To begin, every English and Cree word comprising the first banner was addressed through movement, a  patient and deliberate reckoning of syllabics by a body. In the second act, phrasing was acknowledged and Ashbee’s actions corresponded in scale, expanding, taking up space, her body shooting forward and crawling back, behind and in front of the banners. And in the end, the shape of language itself was embodied, the rising smoke used to tan leather suggesting an arrangement of words on a page, which then became the shape of a body moving through a crowded gallery space.

As a practical reflection of Lukin Linklater’s processed-based approach to developing work, the distance between North Bay, Ontario, where Lukin Linklater is based, and Montréal, Quebec, where Ashbee resides, was broached through a series of electronic exchanges (webcam conversations, video sharing and email correspondence), where Lukin Linklater provided “the structure and concepts to [Ashbee], who in turn [experimented] with movement vocabularies.” [1] The collaborators had only one day of rehearsal time in the space, where the decision to utilize the exhibition as a site was realized. Just as the banners were scores, the other works in the show became Ashbee’s partners. The voices of Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie spilled out of the cinema space of the gallery and spoke alongside Ashbee’s powerful presence as imagined commentary; Annie MacDonell’s photo series and Tiziana Le Melia’s paintings/sculptures were rooted as silent partners subject to spatial address; and even the audience became site, albeit a metamorphic one, where space was made and taken as Ashbee moved amongst those present.

The banners—part of the exhibition from the start as objects themselves, but also harbingers of a sort—are poetic reflections on a series of conversations Lukin Linklater conducted with her kin in order to learn a specific kind of mitt-making. This was instruction as a gesture of solidarity. Lukin Linklater describes it as such: 

Slow Scrape is a series of nine banners [only three of which were on display at SBC] developed from a text, The Harvest Sturdies, written in response to Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, a 44-day action that began December 11, 2012. The mitts Chief Spence wore in many of her press engagements are an important symbol for the people of James Bay. Interviews with Agnes Hunter, Marlene Kapasheshit and Lillian Mishi Trapper during January and February 2013 regarding the process for making traditional James Bay Mitts were conducted for this text…The text began with experiential knowledge shared within the context of phone interviews, conversations between relatives, across generations. Within the development of the text, translation is at the centre, [I worked] with Cree language, the concepts of syllabics, visual vocabularies, and poetics…The process [of creating the performance became] a negotiation between the text, Daina’s body, the concepts at the centre of the work, and my ability to communicate or translate the ideas to Daina. [2]

Departing from the first line of the banners’ poetry, “So it’s done like this, Tanya,” it is apparent that Lukin Linklater’s work is about an intergenerational relay of teaching and learning. Through these pedagogical processes, parallels were constructed between the various acts of translation (from protest to education to dance) and negotiation (between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, between Lukin Linklater and her elders, between a choreographer and a dancer). In the last instance, the negotiations between Lukin Linklater and Ashbee, as artists, is mediated by their sovereignty as people and as makers, which results in the manifestation of the work itself. So, while the choreographic relationship between the artist and the dancer was structured and instructional, the aspects of improvisation in the work generate questions about where these roles begin and end, and these questions are present without clear answer.

Considering the articulation of the sovereignty focus program at SBC, the sovereign subject has been the unit of measure in discussions of, and enactments of, negotiation. Lukin Linklater’s performance, which has been firmly rooted in the female Indigenous body at all stages of development, presents a very specific subjectivity within the exhibition. Given the space of reflection that the gallery represents, and given the framework of thinking through the processes and possibilities of sovereignty, what is to be made of our bodies in that space? The sovereign subject is not disembodied; we are bodies, bodies which profoundly inform how we are in the world. While Ashbee’s performance departed from Lukin Linklater’s text, it was a translation of intention and spirit that only another female Indigenous body could make. 

The performance was developed in specific response to the space of SBC and the conditions of the exhibition, a process possible because of reciprocal extensions of trust between SBC as an institution and myself as a curator, between Lukin Linklater and I, and between Lukin Linklater and Ashbee. Although I am sure that the commissioning of any new work for an exhibition involves a similar extension of belief, this was one instance in the show (among others) where the conditions of sovereign negotiation were foregrounded. Trust was both an acknowledgement of faith and recognition of independence in service of something being collectively created (standing apart from other kinds of facilitation, like hierarchical directorship or even consensus). Trust was the agreement implicitly made that allowed for the production and presentation of a new work. 

Fundamentally, this extension of trust was enabled by the subtle callings of intuition. What initially drew me to Lukin Linklater’s work was the introduction she wrote for Duane Linklater’s Decommission, a solo-exhibition held at the MacLaren Art Centre in 2013, where she spoke about the relationship between the artist, the mechanic and machine as one predicated on processes of negotiation. As Lukin Linlater said of the sculpture, “My ideas about the object are not the same as the object itself,” pointing to an irreducible remainder in the work, the thing that cannot be seen but cannot be discounted, to those negotiations of skill, desire and material that foster the work’s being in the world. I have been drawn to her work for the way I recognize what she sees. I realize that this is an intimate consideration, one that cannot be displayed as part of the exhibition, but in the same way as the ideas are not the object, it cannot be discounted, this feeling of recognition. To be honest, the role of intuition cannot be discounted in my own processes of curating more generally, and as is its nature, it resists articulation. 

And yet, at the performance’s close, Ashbee was asked what she thought about when danced. And as it happens, Lukin Linklater had asked her relatives what they think about when the sew. How often or how little do we consider the what happens in the silences that enable the performance of our lives? Do these conversations or rituals resist articulation or is that we are not accustomed to naming these other aspects of our interior lives? Surely, our expressions of sovereignty are deeply inflected with intimate concerns, however much they yield or resist translation into conversation. Not unlike the untranslated Cree words that structured Lukin Linklater’s banners, a desire to bridge between knowing and unknowing is all a matter of concern. Though some visitors had access to the language (and in fact expressed their joy at seeing their languages reflected in the space), and others did not, understanding was only ever so far away as one’s own motivation, and of their being open to being acted upon in return. 

[1] From an email correspondence with Lukin Linklater, 10 February 2014.

[2] Ibid.


Not Looking at an Archive of Collecting Practices

"Untitled," from the Picture Collection Series, 2012.

Annie MacDonell’s “Untitled,” from the Picture Collection Series, 2012.

Gesturing towards the transformation of fences becoming tables, Annie MacDonell proposes that folders become frames, inserting a selected group of images from the Toronto Reference Library’s Picture Collection into A Problem So Big It Needs Other People. Four weeks in, these images, drawn from three related folders of the library’s vast and idiosyncratic storehouse (“Reflections,” “Mirrors,” and “Reflections—Mirrors”), mined from various kinds of printed matter over the last 90 years, will remain at SBC until the exhibition closes, a three-week period happening to coincide with the maximum borrowing time of the material. The 35 images of mirrors, replicated patterns and the world cast back at itself, represent the maximum allowable amount of borrowed materials, a second-run berth of images in relation to MacDonell’s photo series, On Originality and the Avant Garde, on the gallery walls that depict other images from those same Picture Collection folders, collaged and re-photographed on her studio walls. Though the plane of the collage is flattened through the photographic reflection, pencil scrawls on the studio walls place the five reframed collections in a specific and recurring space where their subject becomes not the animate and inanimate objects therein, but the act of framing itself.

Appropriation, quotation and sampling are common tactics used in contemporary art production, extending beyond any one medium, informing music, literature, sculpture and, in this case, photography. Meeting MacDonell’s images means negotiating between independent and related acts in order to make meaning: the first instance of photography; the librarian’s decision to extract the images from their original context and insert them into any one of the Picture Collection’s folders; MacDonell’s research and compulsion toward certain images; her collaging and re-photographing in her studio; and our looking in the gallery as part of an exhibition. MacDonell has said of her work that “with photography and film, we’re generally not creating new images, but instead working from the existing pool of images that reality offers up to us. The essential act then becomes one of framing those existing images in order to designate them for a special kind of attention. We get the viewer to look at them with an intent and intensity we don’t normally bring to the act of seeing. For me, presenting an image within an image is multiplying the framework around the image in order to bring attention not to the subject of the photograph, but instead the act of looking at a photograph.” 

The creation of a new context is the potential for new meaning.

Emphasizing the ways we construct meaning through looking, art historian and curator Gabby Moser hosted a “looking group” entitled No Looking After the Internet at SBC, in collaboration with MacDonell. Utilizing these additional images from the Reference Library, collected on the table in a folder as a frame, the clippings circulated among those present that afternoon already stripped of the predictable information structures of gallery life: there were no didactic panels noting names and dates, and contextual information about where these images originally appeared is mostly already removed through the librarians’ acts of clipping (though in all cases there is something to be gleaned from turning the image over, inseparable as it is from the printed matter context of its other life). Moser says of the project that its aim is to “slow down our interpretive processes and to spend more time looking at images in a state of ‘not knowing’: trying to articulate what we want from images that are ambiguous or that withhold immediate interpretation, and being self-reflexive about how we respond to images—do we immediately try to ‘do’ something ‘useful’ with them by trying to put them to work or to learn from them? Do we have a tendency to try to project a narrative onto them to help answer questions the image raises?” And yet, our detective impulses are hard to shake. We wanted to know the factuals of the Reference Library’s own practices: Why does the Picture Collection exist? Who decides on the collection’s themes and logic? Who uses these images? What about the librarians is revealed through their collecting practices? Perhaps like images, the Picture Collection compels our attention because it is constructed. As a mirror of the world, a photograph can be said to have documented something, but it is in the deeming important to capture or in the placement of the frame (and what falls outside of it) that our human nature is revealed. MacDonell holds that this is what makes photography an enduring form of representation: not its pretense of objectivity, but its suffused bias. 

Exhibitions are always about constructing relationships: between an artist and an institution, and between art works. In its making, a single work cannot predict the range of relationships it will find itself in. It is perhaps romantic or naïve, but in each of the relationships set up between works, or even in the regular ways that images and objects circulate, new meanings arise, and as these meanings accumulate, might something of the soul of an image be revealed? If, obviously, we are willing to admit such things exist, even just as intellectual provocations. And yet, an image can mean many things, but it cannot mean anything. There are natural limits to what a work can do.

In choosing to work with certain folders (“Mirrors,” “Reflections,” et cetera) , MacDonell was conscious that a reflection is always of something, which is a perfect metaphor for the mediation of the world through photography. There is no mirror without an image and no photograph of nothing.

In the spirit of No Looking, it is difficult to resist an analysis of the construction of the Picture Collection in order to look slower, look collectively and to consider what is at stake in and through looking at the material pictures at hand. But at least part of what is on display is power: to dictate which images are deemed interesting or worthy of archiving. On the one hand, there must be something biological at play, as when an image perfectly composed in a rule of thirds tweaks a pleasure circuit in our brains, but on the other hand, who is to say that that itself is not just another product of social conditioning? And though the Reference Library advertises that there are over 32,000 subject headings in the collection, no doubt certain subjects have been elided due to moral judgments or insidious sleights of hand that do not recognize their prejudice as such, alongside the inclusion of some subjects as activism, as when MacDonell stumbled upon a folder full labeled “Advertisements—Sexist.” This discovery lead her to her current work with the collection, which seeks to reframe it as one with a subtle feminist bias. A narrow understanding of photographic preservation considers photography as objects isolated from social and emotional ties. In MacDonell’s case, and in the case of No Looking, these social and emotional ties are both lost (from their original context) and rewritten (when gallery visitor’s with their own agendas look on). Like language cannot be reduced to vocabulary or recordings (as Susan Hiller’s film and Chelsea Vowel’s text point out), neither can photography be reduced to paper, emulsion and silver. The preservation of a photograph as an artwork is conceptually different from its preservation as a souvenir or in an archive. Perhaps the Picture Collection is not an archive of images, but an archive of collecting practices that needs an organization—the Reference Library—in order to exist.

And so, in this instance, the exhibition and the looking group need the institution of SBC to exist, framing the works and the conversations within the gallery’s focus program on sovereignty. The context has its own agenda for what it wants from images, here casting MacDonell’s photo series as the result of numerous negotiations between object, impulse and representation. And the context has its own agenda for what it wants from talking, that being the give and take of constructing understanding alongside another.


Holding A Space For The Work Yet To Do

Maria Hupfield's "Present—Absence," 2013.

Maria Hupfield’s “Present—Absence,” 2013.

The silhouette of a woman crouching down, one hand on her hip, the other holding a crown, chin raised, a posture of supplication and insistence. Etched permanently on the glass doors of SBC Gallery, its material conditions reflect the aura of the piece: rooted. Commissioned as part of the exhibition Stage Set Stage, curated by Barbara Clausen (30 November 2013-22 February 2014), this work of Maria Hupfield’s, entitled Present—Absence (2013), sits within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People as an instance of institutional negotiation, a marker of what it means to encounter history head on. Although the work was not made for A Problem…, I have chosen to include it as part of the exhibition because, well, literally, it’s a part of it. Meeting the work with integrity, in the spirit of a exhibition that positions itself as a consideration of sovereignty through negotiation, it is only appropriate to acknowledge Hupfield’s figure and spirit in a way that writes upon my own project at SBC, give and take.

The title of Hupfield’s etching, Present—Absence, is descriptive, but I choose to interpret it further as an injunction to register both my knowing (that which is present) and not-knowing (that which is absent) in encountering her work. In this way, it is a reminder to bring this register to all of the works in the exhibition, and to my ways of looking more generally. Hupfield has said of the title that it “[draws] parallels with the temporal paradox of living indians expected to play dead and how, by extension, nations based on unresolved histories of domination and force affect us all fundamentally in the present.” Hupfield’s etching carries a living electricity and it is marked in one small way through a position on a map that visitors can carry with them through the gallery space. She is here amongst us and she is not. There’s not really a way to reconcile it further.

It’s strange company, but it reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous declaration that “… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Missing from this taxonomy (as others have pointed out), is the unknown knowns. Prejudice is an expression of this sort, and so are cultural norms and unconscious dispositions, those things of which we are unaware and yet structure our reality, the “disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.” [1] Hupfield’s etching traces a shape around these unknown knowns. It’s a little bit uncomfortable and if we care to invest in the encounter, it means we’ve work to do: how do we resolve the paradox? Not just reconciling Hupfield’s vitality with stultifying myths related to Indigenous peoples or female artists, but our living on this land with Canada’s and the US’s on-going colonial policies, among countless others situations where expressions of power are masked by invisibility in order to maintain the status-quo.

In a different tone entirely, the poet Anne Carson describes the work of charting one’s own not-knowing: “A thinking mind is not swallowed up by what it comes to know. It reaches out to grasp something related to itself and to its present knowledge (and so knowable in some degree) but also separate from itself and from its present knowledge (not identical with these). In any act of thinking, the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible to difference. It is an erotic space.” [2] Importantly, not-knowing is not undone through the act of reaching. Distance and difference remain.

I would like to propose a tactic for investment: holding a space. Holding a space for the not-knowing. Holding a space a not filling it. Being uncomfortable. The complexities and contradictions of our collective being-in-the-world are not going to resolve themselves neatly. The least I can do is form the part of identity that’s up for negotiation though meeting each of you as another, knowing there are other ways to see and be, whether or not I can meaningfully access them. Institutionally, what is the reciprocal obligation of SBC in response to Hupfield’s form forever on the gallery doors? A mark on a map is one way, her name on the gallery wall another, but for myself, I work to avoid further re-inscription of an absent presence through the practice of territorial acknowledgement. Hupfield has noted that the etching’s name references a term defined by Kate Shanley: “In that Native peoples are a permanent ‘present absence’ in the U.S. colonial imagination, an ‘absence’ that reinforces at every turn the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and that the conquest of Native lands is justified.” It’s simple, but focusing attention on the on-going history of the land the gallery occupies implicates the present moment. It’s probably the least we can do, as in actually the least the we can do. And in doing so, Hupfield’s absent presence in the gallery space is a charge taken up, not resolved but acknowledged. Complexity and contradiction are embraced through the resonance of different voices: there is work yet to do.

[1] Žižek, Slavoj. “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib,” In These Times, 21 May 2004.

[2] Carson, Anne. Eros: The Bittersweet (USA: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995), 171.


Peter Morin on Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie”

Susan Hiller's "The Last Silent Movie," (2007). Documentation by Guy L’Heureux.

Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie,” (2007). Documentation by Guy L’Heureux.

As a document of dead and dying languages, Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie (2007) fills a room with ghosts—black screen, subtitles, sound. If not a language lost already, then the haunting possibility. Understood within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Hiller’s work approaches sovereignty from a linguistic perspective. Translation is just another way of understanding negotiation: it is the give of knowing and the take of naming,

What does the real or looming extinction of so many languages tell us about how to approach tensions between French and English speakers in Québec? Or rather, how can the people of the Province of Québec, and the country of Canada, learn about co-existence from the tragic loss of so much already? What conditions prompt the loss of language, and how can current tensions between different cultures be approached in a way that may allow for different future histories to play out?

Language is a powerful marker of identity, and language does shape the world. Below, performance artist and scholar Peter Morin responds to Hiller’s work. Originally commissioned by Jesse McKee for an exhibition at Gallery 101 entitled Well Formed Data, it is published here with permission. Many thanks to McKee and Morin for their generosity.

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Learning to Prepare Food is Not Unlike Learning a Language

Basil AlZeri's "Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush," performance postscript, 2014.

Basil AlZeri’s “Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush,” performance postscript, 2014.

Born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, living in Toronto, having just become a Canadian citizen, Basil AlZeri’s performance at SBC Gallery for A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, entitled Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush, began with AlZeri speaking English, French and Kanien’keha words to name our place on the land. It began again when he dragged a bench full of materials from the gallery offices into the exhibition space, glass jars rocking up against each other and the screech of hard heavy wood against floor boards. To an audience gathered around a long table, AlZeri stood at its head—a place punctuated by the uneven fence boards that are the table’s composition—a position of instruction. What he proceeded to do happened across three actions.

First, a transformation of the space through preparation. From a bundle of dried herbs already hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, he meticulously clipped sage leaves from bush stems, collecting them within a circle of braided sweetgrass. When all the leaves had been removed, he pulled a large jar of dried sage off the bench where his tools sat and emptied its contents to make a pile of silver-blue overflowing. He then held a lit match near to the leaves though not so close as to catch fire, a gesture that pointed to the practice of smudging, yet without filling the room with the attendant smoke. We were in a public building after all, smoke detectors and fire alarms and sprinkler systems making the realization of the gesture a difficult one. The pile of sage and sweetgrass—a collection of potential energy composed of both a tool to empty space of negative energy and a tool to bring goodness in—was placed on a north-facing adjacent shelf and where it will remain for the duration of the exhibition. This act of material placement marked AlZeri’s second  transformation of the exhibition through living energy. 

AlZeri then spread rose-coloured salt along the length of the table we were gathered around, invoking the Arabic saying of Fi Khobez wa meleh bainna—there is bread and salt between us—establishing the place and the performance as a space of hospitality, and the performance itself as a process of combination. Like salt regulates the yeast’s activity in baking, so too did the salt on the table intonate a newly formed collectivity of those gathered around it.

Next, he made za’taar, a herb-based spread claimed by many cultures as their own, but in this incarnation made as a Palestinian dish by AlZeri’s hands, based on the teachings of his mother. Again utilizing the hanging herb bundles, he clipped handfuls of thyme and ground them into a finer and finer texture, eventually mixing it with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil to make a verdant paste. As AlZeri moved through the process, he spoke to us in Arabic, narrating the simple steps that, though I did not understand his words, relayed his intent, the observation of his actions providing another way to participate in the instruction. 

Learning to prepare food is not unlike learning a language.

Third, AlZeri constructed a humble feast of za’taar atop lightly toasted pita bread, serving us all, domestic labour as a performance of domestic labour as an invocation of living histories. Through his generosity we were nourished; salt of the earth. And so we ate and drank black tea, gathering together again once the imbibing had settled, to talk about what we read in his action, what we saw in his tools and to tell our own stories in turn. 

In AlZeri’s gesture towards smudging and his preparation of za’taar, disparate histories of settler colonialism were invoked, one of Indigenous people and the Canadian state, another of Palestinians and the occupation practices of the state of Israel. In his gesture of smudging, there is an element of cultural appropriation: these are not his histories, not his cultural practices, not his symbols. And yet, his referencing of traditional and appropriated Indigenous ceremonies, and his offer of hospitality, became tools to bridge settler colonial contexts in a way that was neither appropriate nor inappropriate. To read AlZeri’s “smudging” and “cooking” means to acknowledge the situational complexity of identity formation in places characterized by Indigenous histories, colonization, immigration, difference and intimacy. It turns out (though we all know this already), that food/feasting/sharing/consumption are both generous ways to be with one another, and relative zones of exception when it comes to cultural appropriation and violent conflict: I fully intend to rub dried thyme between my hands until it makes a fine sediment. I will make za’taar the way AlZeri taught me. And we will feast across our differences.

Does one’s status as an immigrant to a place absolve them of settler status? Or, why resist identification as a settler? Why not articulate instead, as settlers, what we consider our responsibilities to be, given colonial histories, difficult realities and our potential collective futures? There is something though, in this resistance (expressed that afternoon as we gathered around the table, but echoed in conversations elsewhere when trying to grapple with cultural and political inheritance), that points toward the ways that itinerant realities are changing our idea of what being Indigenous and foreign means. But this felt shift, it does not absolve history and it does not absolve responsibility, personal or otherwise. What does it mean, this movement and mixing of blood and cultures? At the least, it implies that self-identifications are complex, so that I am of Aboriginal descent and a settler both; the binary breaks down. A Palestinian living in Canada is both subject to settler-colonial practices and an enactor of them. These subjectivities cannot be reconciled further. We are multiple.

To address the ongoing reality of Canada as a settler colonial state, there is no other tool than negotiation at our disposal. While this need for address departs from the apparatus of the state, which conditions citizenship in its many guises, and though current cultural and political relationships like racism are, at least in part, systemic, ideally what could be salvaged from an interpersonal understanding of sovereignty as negotiation is the idea that any parties in dialogue are to be written upon in turn. Encounter is not only systemic or conditioned; encounter is one and another meeting, recognizing, reflecting. Let us be subject to denting

And so fences became a table, a slight echo of the on-going rewriting of a piece architecture in Palestine as a fence as a wall as a barrier, all terms loaded and laced with political implications. There are many things that a thing can be. We are in each other’s histories in complicated ways that cannot be unravelled. In thinking about mobilizing strategies to resist occupation in Palestine, how can we apply those lessons to mobilizing against French/English settler colonization here in Canada? What can historical deployments of sovereignty teach us about the ways that sovereignty is deployed today? Surely our ordinary encounters, which give rise to our sovereign subjectivity, can teach us ways to be subject to denting at the level of the state.


Not Fish

From Colm Tóibín’s “On Lynne Tillman:”

When she [Lynne Tillman] writes, for example, in “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” that “fish probably don’t know they’re in water” and then adds, “(who can be certain though),” I, as the reader, become uncertain. I think about fish, and the sheer tragedy—or maybe sadness is a better word, or maybe even comedy—of their not perhaps knowing something so obvious, so—how can we put it?—clear-cut, staring you in the face. And then I think about certainty. I stand up and move around the room, opening and shutting my mouth like a fish, wondering if I really know where I am, forgetting about fish for the moment. Then I go back and look at the last two sentences Tillman has written in that paragraph about fish to see if there is any comfort there. “Complacency is writing’s most determined enemy,” she writes, “and we writers, and readers, have been handed an ambivalent gift: doubt. It robs us of assurance, while it raises possibility.” That last sentence is very beautiful, but you would have to be not a fish to appreciate it. Or at least I think so.



Language: a Diverse and Expansive Collectivity that Needs Constant Tending

Raymond Boisjoly, "The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo" (2012)

Raymond Boisjoly, “The Writing Lesson: Nanaimo” (2012)

The spirit of No Reading After the Internet, in its reading aloud-ness, is to approach texts improvisationally. Instead of the regular acts of scholarship that characterize attending university classes—having done the required readings—or the preparedness on display at artists’ talks, No Reading… constructs a triangulated relationship between artworks, texts and readers that plays out in real time. Artworks become a way of understanding the texts, and texts a way of understanding the artworks, so that neither text nor artwork are approached as having some true meaning to be ascertained, but rather that meaning emerges through a dynamic encounter generated by being in a space, close to each other, contemplating the shapes made when setting things in relation. At SBC Gallery, as part of A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, Chelsea Vowel and I hosted an iteration of No Reading…, taking on her essay “The reports of our cultural deaths have always been greatly exaggerated.” First published in FUSE Magazine, the essay was set in relationship to Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie. Both deal with language, though where Hiller’s film is a haunting portrait of dead and dying languages, Vowel’s essay advocates for the learning of languages, specifically those native to wherever one may find one’s self. From learning to loss, somewhere in the middle, we gathered together, spoke to one another, transformed the written word through voice, listened as Vowel voiced Cree words and puzzled out the pronunciation of the Kanien’keha:ka people, on whose traditional lands the city of Montréal sits.

The not-knowing of No Reading… is usually in relation to the ideas in a text, but this gathering felt different, because though we were reading Vowel’s essay, we all already bear a relationship to language. In Montréal, a robustly bilingual city, this movement between languages is banal. It’s the every day. The title of the exhibition, A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, points to the things that language is not, evinced in many different ways in Hiller’s film. Language is not a record of speaking. Language is not vocabulary lists. Language is not scientific deconstructions of vocal patterns. Language is a diverse and expansive collectivity that needs constant tending. And it’s a morphing thing. At one point in Hiller’s film, a Cajun French speaker talks about popcorn balls, and it is my own ignorance or romanticism that places language loss in the past and thus registers this mention as a strange step out of time. Popcorn balls? I know popcorn balls! This is the stuff of my life, and yet I read these words and am jolted because of the assumptions I bring to listening to these voices, that they are distant ghosts. But they are not. This loss that Hiller documents is on-going and present-tense. 

Why care about language loss? Because languages represent unique ways of knowing the world. When languages are lost, so are their specific insights into the relationship between being alive and living. In her essay, Vowel suggests that it is possible to come around to the unique wisdom of specific languages through other languages, but that it takes work. A lot of work. But when the last speaker of a language dies, no anchor to the knowing can be maintained. It is doubtful that those paradigms of knowing can be recouped, despite work, when there is no living connection to the knowledge embedded within a particular language. Language structures movement, sight, sound. A straight-forward example is the observation, often made in the field of science, that the distilled results from an experiment are directly related to the questions asked within the initial parametres. How we think is determined, in part, by language, and what we think about determines what we see. Conversely, when we learn a language, new kinds of thought become possible. A simple example in the move from English to French is the way that gendered nouns propose new (if not necessarily substantiated) relationships between objects, if only as a prompt for consideration of what strange bedfellows certain things make. (When organizing bookshelves by colour, for instance, one can’t help but ask why so many philosophical texts sit in the orange-red colour range.) 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the proposition between language and knowing is taken to extremes, as when the ruling government attempts to control thought by constricting the language. Does an experience of freedom depend on having a word to name it? The villains of 1984 have a stake in the constructed nature of social reality, and there’s a term for this idea that language influences one’s worldview: linguistic relativity. In its strong form, language determines thought and therefore linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. In its weak form, linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. [1] Perhaps it is to betray my politics to admit that I think that more ways of knowing are better than fewer.

In the context of the exhibition, that afternoon of No Reading…, not only were we on Kanien’keha:ka land, but we were gathered around a table made from deconstructed fences, and while there is a utopic gesture at play in turning something used to keep people apart into a place to gather, tables are also places where hard conversations are had. People break-up sitting around tables. People throw wine into other people’s faces. Food is launched in the air. Legal disputes are settled in back rooms, around tables. The conversation that afternoon was suffused with a generous spirit, but we were talking around a table, about language, in Québec. And as it stands, an upcoming provincial election has prompted some political parties to instrumentalize language as a force of opposition, proposing once again the possibility of Québec separating from Canada under the rubric of sovereignty.

When I began working with Pip Day at SBC, I knew that I wanted whatever I did in the space to begin from an Indigenous perspective. In English-speaking Canada, the political use of “sovereignty” in Québec is proposed as a synonym for separation and it is precisely this debate/proposal that has been raised again. But the colonial reality of Canada is erased in the confrontation between French and English. French/English relationships have not ever played out on a blank slate. When the French arrived, when the English followed, there were people and cultures and languages long entrenched in this land. When sovereignty is used as a euphemism for separation, the reality of aboriginal title is skirted around. And yet, if the claims for sovereignty rest on ethical arguments, then the reality of aboriginal title must be addressed. What if the political climate in Québec was leveraged for an accounting of colonization and the collective and intermingled sovereignty of all cultures in Québec? The colonial reality of Canada must impact these discussions, in Québec and elsewhere. The inclusion of Vowel’s essay is one attempt to confront language and colonization in Canada, within the space of the exhibition, using translation as another way of understanding negotiation.

Above, an image from Raymond Boisjoly’s The Writing Lesson series. When Vowel’s essay was first published in FUSE, it accompanied an image folio of Boisjoly’s work, which Editor Director Gina Badger described as “[writing] Indigenous languages and histories into the practice of text-based post-conceptual art. Each image is a black-metal-styled graphic presentation of a place name with an Indigenous origin. Reinforcing Indigenous histories and knowledge of the land through both language and pop culture, Boisjoly’s project offers an example of the resurgence Vowel describes.” [2]


[2] Badger, Gina. “Survivors and Survivalists,” FUSE Magazine 36-3, Summer 2013, page 2.