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Constellation/conversation

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Tanya Lukin Linklater, cheyanne turions, Leanne Simpson, Cris Derksen and Layli Long Soldier. Look how happy we all are… (Photo credit: Pip Day)

Earlier this month I made my way to Peterborough’s Artspace on the invitation of Tanya Lukin Linklater to participate in her exhibition Constellation/conversation alongside Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Cris Derksen and Layli Long Soldier. Tanya had invited us to respond to “how to steal a canoe,” a poem written by Leanne. That night,  it was performed over and over again through Leanne’s voice and Cris’s cello, an incantation that lasted at least 30 minutes. Layli wasn’t able to join us, but from New Mexico she extended the form of poetry back to itself, reminding us that suffering is sacred because in living with our wounds, we are changed by them, becoming. Tanya invoked the many different valences that resistance can take, drawing out the connections between refusal and life, emphasizing that the labour required (for resisting, for living) is always bound up in alliance. When it came around to me, I started with a caveat: I am not an artist. My contribution to the evening would be of a different sort than what came before. My response was to reflect on how the different material forms I had encountered the poem in—through written language, through recorded sound, performed—exposed different aspects of its meaning.

When I was a very young child, learning to write was learning to conduct magic. Then, and still, the act of writing transforms what I think and feel, and I also believe that writing can impact upon the world outside me.

While preparing for the evening, I used this magic and I wrote Leanne’s poem out, over and over again, with different pens on different paper, trying to get the poem into my system.

Please read it, here.

In this way, I encountered the poem through the specificity of writing, which gave me clarity to the distributions of power in Leanne’s language.

The poem itself teaches me that canoes are alive. And that as with people, so with these water vessels: we have places where we imprison them.

Language, its specificities, tells me things. When akiwenzie says, “oh you’re so proud of your collection of ndns. good job, zhaganash, good job,” Leanne renders “indians” with the letters N, D and N, a kind of written slang that reduces the complexity of a life and a culture to a symbol. This foreshadows akiwenzie’s use of smudging to play on the security guard’s understanding of himself as enlightened, when really it’s his fetishization of Indigenous life that allows for akiwenzie and kwe to carry out their collective liberation.

Language also tells me about the politics of being. When kwe takes the canoe on her shoulder, Leanne reinforces the living nature of the canoe by addressing the canoe as “She” and “Her.” This you could hear in the poem as it was performed by Leanne and Cris that night, but what might not have been obvious to the audience, and what written language insists upon, is the object as being—“She” and “Her” are set title case in a text otherwise lowercased.

The use of “ndns,” and “She” and “Her,” is not necessarily something that voice conveys, but the voice and the cello tell us other things that language cannot account for, despite how hard the words can try. In writing, certain politics are revealed that cannot manifest through sound, but with sound, there is song. How to interpret the sound of Cris’s cello politically? And the cadence of Leanne’s voice as politics?

When I first encountered the poem, it was actually through the specificity of sound, through the track that makes up part of Leanne’s soon-to-be-released album f(l)ight. In the recording, Leanne’s cadence is slow, or slower than the pace the poem sounds in my head. Her pronunciation is bleeding, the words reaching to touch one another, carried by the elongated breath of Cris’s cello (Cris also performs on the album).

I wonder: what is the song that the canoe sings back? Is the conversation between kwe and the canoe like chorus and verse? Call and response? Like accompaniment?

Listening that night in Peterborough, something else happened, something in addition to what the earlier version of the recorded song showed me. “how to steal a canoe,” at the level of content, is about repatriation and it uses water as a tool. But the performance that night behaved as water—washing over, seeping, flowing, carving a course. In a way, word made flesh. Or, means made material.

In the space between writing and listening and performance, although I’m convinced of magic, there’s still always a question of what the space between one way of knowing or moving, and another, is.

Between forms, as between people in conversation generally, we attempt an honest engagement with this distance that cannot be undone.

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Every Name in History is “I”

(I’ve been conducting writing experiments, prompted by Eva-Lynn Jagoe. I’m trying to not be precious about it. Here’s a bit of how I approached her prompt to write a piece in which the grammatical voice shifts.)

***

Every name in history is “I,” though you wouldn’t know it for the way our stories pass from one generation to the next. If the individual remains, and most often they do not, then “I” is made into an object of the proper name. The complexity of being becomes the simplicity of thing. However awful the repeal of the capacity for narrative may seem, this fate is to be saved from something worse, which is your subsumption into the unnamed masses upon which history plays. If this fate is difficult to bear—your agency inevitably undone—then persistence must be sought outside of historicization. Here, we experience the other as if they belonged to us.

Another interpretation of the claim is possible. If every name in history is I, then each signifier is revivified when we assume it as our own. I am Friedrich Neitzsche who first authored these words to the historian Jakob Burckhardt in 1889, a mere two days after collapsing in the streets of Turin with his arms around the neck of a horse. I am Jalal Toufic who took Nietzsche’s words for his own in trying to understand the act of murder conditioned by anonymity between a soldier and their enemy in an essay first published in the year 2000. I am the object of address in every “you” or “we” or “their,” performing a restorative kind of magic in answering the offered call. I suppose that poetry is a name for this inverted reification, where the thickness of language compels identification, turning nouns back into verbs. This kind of direct address resists strict interpretation. How do we live within poetry? To live within poetry is to register oneself being addressed. Here we experience the other as if they were us.

The torture of every name in history being “I,” mine, is that history anticipates my name being sung back to me, dead. Nothing registers this loss so deeply as love. How is the form of love reconstituted by history when we recognize that all our electricity will dissipate? Love makes us terrified. Love renders us pathetic. Love is written and rewritten with such regularity as to be utterly banal; history tells us this. Here we experience ourselves as if we were another, our identity unstable and exceedingly vulnerable to the whims of the beloved.

There are many ways of being distant, many ways of being near.

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Experiments with Language

I played a game of writing, where I spent 10 minutes telling about a text that has profoundly shaped me:

Leonard Cohen’s “The Favourite Game”

Passed into my hands with heat, an exchanged book was set to become an emblem of a relationship that was just then beginning to unfold. In any case, this one especially, the scope of paradigm shift cannot be anticipated because it is a reordering that renders assumptions about the world mutually incomprehensible. So I was someone before and someone else after. Our intimate dancing began and ended, a regular chronology afterall, but in the interval I took those words and marked them on my body. This is language I want to be read upon my flesh when it lay dead, language I wanted to be read each time my clothing fell to the floor. Because it was love—sweet, young—that pressed those words into my palms, I could not consider its eventual unravelling; my skin was scarred in a moment of indulgence or optimism that now other lovers read on my body instead.

And then I spent six minutes telling about a text I have shamefully not read:

I have a pat answer for this. I have a pat answer for this and it has been so for years, compounding the shame. I have a pat answer for this and I am just days distance from doing the thing I always do rather than meeting the writing on its own terms. Virginia Woolf, pockets full of rocks, how have I not been there with her? Oh, but Rebecca Solnit wrote of her writing and I take that in, always reading around Woolf instead of meeting her head on.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Last year, Vancouver’s Access Gallery presented Always Working, a curatorial project by Gabrielle Moser. The exhibition reflects on contemporary modes of working–often intangible, rooted in process of care and computation–and asks how global flows of capital respond to these process when they malfunction. Specifically, Moser is curious about useless excess (not necessarily work for its own sake, but deliberate actions that refuse their regular associations with service) and how it resists being absorbed back into an economic accounting of labour and capital. In the stumble of the economy in the face of these kinds of unproductivities, Moser proposes that work is activated “as a space for social critique and political action.” Affective tendencies, here, become thoughtful disruptions of systems that otherwise rely on totalizing mythologies for their propagation.

Departing from this exhibition, Moser has guest-edited a section of Fillip 18, further exploring the relationship between desire and labour. She has commissioned projects by Sven Lütticken and the artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian to reflect on the conditions under which artistic labour is made to appear or disappear.

Moser will be hosting a launch of the journal tomorrow night in Vancouver at Access, and has arranged a performative discussion where a number of cultural workers have been invited to present texts that further interrogate the ways labour is utilized, exploited or subverted in the art world. Though I will not be present for the launch, Gabby will channel me (its own kind of affective labour!) to contribute excerpts from Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. The former, published in 1976, is a manifesto imploring engineers to recognize the emotional and intellectual privilege of the work they do. Berardi’s text, published in 2009, counters the propagandistic tone of Florman’s treatise, suggesting that a globalized economy relies on the promise of creativity and flexibility in order to demand excessively more labour from workers. Our desires are leveraged to prolong the working day (because we believe in the work we do and/or because we live in debt) and expand working spaces (to the home office, or the wherever-you-may-be when your cellphone rings).

In a way, it boils down to this: what is our desired (practical) result? How do we imagine the relationship between ourselves and society? How can labour be in service of our desires, not the other way around?

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