Considerations

Decolonization, Reconciliation, and the Extra-Rational Potential of the Arts

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what it means that “reconciliation” and “decolonization” circulate with such rapidity these days, in the art world and in academia in particular. And so, in a recently published essay, I try and make sense of the history of residential schooling in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process and what art has to offer these histories and our future.

I learned so much in this research process, including that the construction of the TRC is a consequence of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. According to Paulette Regan,the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the agreement was articulated to address, in bulk, “over twelve thousand individual abuse claims and several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of approximately seventy thousand former [Indian residential school] students against the federal government and church entities who shared joint responsibility for the schools.” [1] The passage of the agreement was based upon an federally determined maximum allowable opt-out, which has been described by journalist Kerry Coast: “The Settlement Agreement was foisted on the Survivors as an ultimatum: if too many people dropped out, 5,000 or more, no one would be paid [the federally administered Common Experience Payment] at all…the Agreement then closed the door to court action against church or state by anyone who had lost their ‘language, culture and family life’, by asserting that the matter had been lawfully concluded by the government’s posting of public notices of its intention to do so and advertising the details.” [2] Coast goes on to detail that, before the Settlement Agreement, court cases were being “awarded damages approaching the million dollar mark.” The Common Experience payments were administered at a significantly lower rate. According to Service Canada, “eligible applicants may receive $10,000 for the first school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools, plus an additional $3,000 for each subsequent school year (or partial school year) of residence at one or more residential schools.” [3]

I had not previously realized that the TRC process wielded such precise economic benefits for the state, but this highlights the fact that the horror of residential schooling as one manifestation of the colonial project, and the TRC as a gesture of reconciliation, cannot be interpreted as a fulsome and adequate redress to so many histories anchored in this place called Canada.

Although the commission closed its doors late last year with the publication of its massive final report, this is merely the transfer of obligation to Canadian citizens—settler, Indigenous, immigrant, refugee—to approach our relationality critically.

The distance is vast between rhetoric and action, and the ease of the former cannot displace the difficulty of the latter. The extra-rational potential of art gives us a way to consider the means of working toward a decolonized, Indigenized future other than through state sponsored and articulated processes of reconciliation. The extra-rational potential art is one way of interrogating the possible consequences of reconciliation and a place where needed alternatives can come into being. Our creative cultural practices are necessary for this future because they instantiate ways of thinking and being in relation that resist articulation elsewhere. Here, as David Garneau would say, refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule us.

[1] Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 6-7.

[2] Kerry Coast, “UN report misses the mark on Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Vancouver Media Co-op, accessed 19 April 2015, http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/un-report-misses-mark-indian-residential-schools-s/31058.

[3] “Common Experience Payment,” Service Canada, last modified 05 September 2013, http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/goc/cep/index.shtml.

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Considerations, Happenings

Wood Land School Critical Anthology

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Up in Vancouver at the OR Gallery until 23 April 2016 is Wood Land School Critical Anthology, an exhibition made from the remains of the Wood Land School Critical Anthology Symposium. It was an honour to participate in the symposium, presenting my paper-in-progress, “From Where Do You Speak?: Locating the Possibility of Decolonization in Krista Belle Stewart’s Seraphine Seraphine.” The weekend of talks brought together artists and curators to address the lack of critical writing on the work of contemporary Indigenous artists. The presentations worked collectively to advance the discourse around Indigenous contemporary art practices. Ultimately, these papers will cohere into an anthology co-published OR Gallery, SFU Galleries and UBC Press at the end of 2016.

Wood Land School is an ongoing project with no fixed location and a shifting form. It seeks critical engagement within the realms of representation, film, contemporary art, land, and politics on Turtle Island and beyond. Each iteration of Wood Land School carries forth with it a commitment to address the lack of structural inclusion, both historically and in the now, in a multiplicity of institutional spaces. It is a conceptual and physical space for Indigenous people, with Indigenous people deciding its directions, structures and functions. An important aspect of Wood Land School is the inclusion of non-Indigenous people, so as not to exclude anyone interested in engaging with the complexities of the aforementioned issues.

For my contribution, I look closely at Krista Belle Stewart’s two-channel video installation Seraphine, Seraphine (2015). As presented at Toronto’s Mercer Union in 2015, three distinct perspectives consider how the Canadian settler colonial project has unfolded. First, there is a 1967 CBC docu-drama that follows Stewart’s mother, Seraphine, through the final stages of her nursing education. Second, there is footage from Seraphine’s participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2013 events in Vancouver BC. Approaching the documents as found footage, Stewart edits between them, creating a third document: an artwork steeped in the tension of what remains unsaid between the two screens, heavy with the weight of stories retold in such disparate circumstances, constructing a complex portrait of her mother through Seraphine’s softly commanding presence in both situations. Within the overlapping narratives of settler colonialism evoked in Seraphine, Seraphine, it becomes clear that adequately grappling with this gruesome inheritance will involve a complimentary measure of Indigenous self-determination and settler decolonization.

The presentations of my colleagues were stellar and I cannot wait to encounter their ideas again in the book, re-articulated through the lens of discussions we shared together over the weekend. As my dear friend Amy Kazymercyk summarized, our weekend together left these kinds of impressions: friendship, kinship, feral, feminine bush, formation, braiding theory, weave memory, residue, silence, refusal, abdominal pain, crying therapy, gut, intimacy, fisting, withdraw, rejective.

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Considerations

Reading Grace Lee Boggs

We went to see again and again the stage and movie versions of Hamlet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and King Lear, in the process developing a deeper understanding of the new social forces emerging in Shakespeare’s England and an appreciation of the power of the creative imagination to uncover contradictions of a complexity and at a depth that logic cannot reach.

—Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (emphasis added) (58)

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Considerations

When we identify ourselves…

Re-reading Malissa Phung’s important essay “Are People of Colour Settlers Too?” for maybe the twentieth time, considering the work that a concept like “settler” can do and being energized by Phung’s careful scholarship:

To self-identify as a settler rather than as a Canadian does not necessarily negate the rights and benefits of citizenship that settlers have come to accrue as a result of settler colonialism. But mobilizing all settlers to become aware of the ways in which their settler privileges are anything but natural and well deserved can constitute a first step in supporting Indigenous activism against settler domination.

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Considerations

The Word As Bait

As a child learning to write, these lessons in script were also the cultivation of a graphomaniac impulse. I would discover the shape of a word and I would write it over and over again, a long list of conjuring things into being, the world taking shape around me by virtue of writing it into existence. Of course, not actually making the world, but making my understanding of it. And still, to this day, this is how I lure meaning from experience and observation, how the struggle to precisely name the electricity of living is imperfectly resolved: in the translation to language, in the passage from hand onto page.

Although I write primarily for some semblance of emotional and intellectual order, what was first adopted as a survival strategy has become a professional tactic: my writing practice prefigured the central methodology of my curatorial practice. When I look at art, I need language to know what I see, to understand what I feel. Texts—essays, dialogues, incendiary screeds—oftentimes accompany the exhibitions I make. I do not intend them to function as explanation machines, but maybe the writing can encourage a slowness in contemplation. Curating is an opportunity to contribute to discussions around aesthetic and performative strategies that address the complexity of shared social spaces. My hope is to use language to linger in this process of self-reflexivity, the imperative incumbent upon myself foremost.

If writing is bait for my own construction of meaning, then maybe the word can be bait for yours.

Compositionally, my predilection towards language structures the way I propose relationships between the components of an exhibition, where I am less concerned with history than I am with poetry and dialogue. The strategies I use to arrange objects in space I have learned from those I use to organize ideas on the page—synonyms for the sea do not make a poem (or, not necessarily), and neither does a collection of objects, whatever material or thematic repetition they may perform together, make an exhibition. As the poet and activist Jackie Wang has said, to create a space for the imagination is to create a container for the un-containing and un-leashing of desire. The container should facilitate generative encounters and provide a ground on which energizing and magical experiences can take place. For me, the art is always in what happens during the encounter, for writing is first and foremost ENERGY and CONNECTIVE TISSUE—a relation. Its not the textual objects but the bonds that matter.” [1] A concern for language has taught me to pay attention to the spaces between things, to pay attention to the invisible but felt relation. Although all exhibitions ask to be read by their audience, by prioritizing strange intimacies and interruption I think a different kind of reading becomes possible—less about the right kind of scholarship, more about promiscuous curiosity. What is the bond that is being made through encounter? I cannot predict it, though I work to generate it.

The Iof the exhibition is an assemblage of the artistsworks, spatial conditions and social context, a kind of collective thinking that tends toward narrative. But the Iis unruly and speaks out against itself. It continues to talk after my back is turned, rewriting itself through encounters with its audience. If my first job as a curator is to compose, to write, then the reciprocal expectation is to heed the dialogue that rises, to find myself reading the traces that remain. My earliest impulses to write brought the world into existence. What is brought into existence now, or what I hope I am doing through this cultural work, is to encourage what might be delicate to come into the form of something more robust, giving ideas material form so that they make take root in others. And we will be bonded.

[1] Wang, Jackie. “Aliens as a Form-of-life: Imagining the Avant-Garde.” In The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility & the Avant-Garde, eds. Lily Hoang & Joshua Marie Wilkinson, 325. Lebanon: Nightboat Books, 2013.

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Considerations

A Specific Poetic Literacy

In Susan Howe’s The Spontaneous Telepathy of Archives (2014), she quotes Robert Duncan on the specific capacities and compulsions of poetry:

The secret of the poetic art lies in the keeping of time, to keep time designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence. Counting the measures, marking them off, calculating the sequences; the whole intensified in the poet’s sense of its limitation…one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding (17).

Which she later follows with her own theory:

Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree of in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us (63).

Where they first seem to counter each other—Duncan’s suggestion of poetry as order, Howe’s claim that the poetic moves against imposed logics—they come to echo each other in their measurement of poetry’s force residing in its capacity to mirror in a way that exceeds the image itself. For Duncan and Howe, the reflection engendered through the poetic use of language is somehow greater than the thing it describes.

This more than cannot be for the poet alone: to read these texts means to apprehend both an appearance of an event and a performance of it, where correlation does not strictly hold. To read poetry, on these terms, means to feel the space between the thing itself and the effects of contact with it. The intuition of this discrepancy must be a reason why, to write. The apprehension of this discrepancy is, then, a specific poetic literacy.

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Considerations

That Writing Takes Advantage

Marguerite Duras, naming the referents and compulsions and privileges of writing, in an essay entitled “The Death of a Young British Pilot”:

Emotions of that order, very subtle, very profound, very carnal, and essential, and completely unpredictable, can hatch entire lives in a body. That’s what writing is. It’s the pace of the written word passing through your body. Crossing it. That’s where one starts to talk about those emotions that are hard to say, that are so foreign, and yet that suddenly grab hold of you…I write because of the good fortune I have to get mixed up in everything, with everything; the good fortune to be in this battlefield, in this theatre devoid of war, in the enlargement of this reflection.

My own writing process often feels dire. It is difficult, emotionally strained work when trying to shape ideas so as to share them with others, and it is desperate work when trying to process the intensity and despair and joy of living for myself—how else to make sense of this thing called living? I adore the work as I resent it, and I’m grateful that this is the way for me, through language. So it is good to be reminded that this labour is actually living itself, a kind of living possible only in the luxury of having access to the silent, still places of contemplation, to observe the charge of experience as it ricochets through the cellular networks of flesh.

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