INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

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INDIAN acts:
highlights, or how art history spanked me straight
Donna Wawzonek

The INDIANacts conference held in Vancouver in November 2002 was different from the other conferences I have attended, and that difference merits consideration in a public forum.

While INDIANacts was organized by Lori Blondeau of TRIBE and Dana Claxton, it made sense that the artist-run centre, grunt, was the catalyst for the project. Grunt has actively and consistently presented more Native art than perhaps any other non-Aboriginal artist-run centre in Canada. In fact, I was shocked at how little representation there was from other artist-run centres in Canada. I could name more curators and presenters of performance art that should have been there than actually were. This absence demonstrated and reinforced white-dominated centres' lack of commitment to presenting Native art.

I had seen Lori Blondeau's, Greg Hill's and Cheli Nighttraveller's performances in Ottawa the year before and was looking forward to their contributions to this conference. Nighttraveller's work was particularly compelling for me. For such a young artist, she has an exceptional talent for performance. In Ottawa, she bounced into Gallery 101 dressed like a sexy Easter bunny diva, tossing candy out to the audience, telling us a story of her childhood pet bunny that turned seamlessly from humorous to disturbing. She told us a story of deep love for her bunny, which took a violent turn as she tortured it just to get it to respond to her attentions. When the performance was over the audience was not sure what to do with itself. She had presented a penetrating metaphor of subjugation. This was the first time in a long time that performance had moved me so deeply.

There was meant to be an entire panel at INDIANacts dedicated to young artists like Nighttraveller, Neil Eustache, Elwood Jimmy and Thirza Cuthand. Although it was a shame that this panel had to be cut from the schedule because of time constraints, the new generation of artists was most certainly vocal in the open discussions and contributed some of the most interesting concerns, challenges and inquiries to the forum.

The conference began with an afternoon session of general introductions and the presentation of a blanket to James Luna, a Luiseno who lives on the La Jolla Reservation. The gift commemorated his contributions to performance practice and the influence he has had on several generations of Native performance artists. Luna gave the keynote address, a performance/talk, which was a format that dominated this conference. He walked across the stage until he was swaying in a mock-drunken swagger. The gesture was simple, powerful and moving, even unsettling. What Luna had to say set an important tone for the conference. To paraphrase, it is easy to shock, to be angry, to perform anger, but it is harder, and more poignant, to conjure compassion and complex ideas in a performance.

Luna's statement sums up what I consider to be the most powerful aspect of performance from the Native arts community. It comes from storytellers who address anger, violence and degradation with a sense of humour and thoughtfulness.

Mapping the Movement

At this conference the participants repeatedly played with the traditional forms of public presentation and challenged its authority. Quebec artist Guy Sioui Durand, of Heron-Wendat descent, brought everyone from the auditorium up onto the stage (at least everyone who could fit). He presented himself as an ambassador for those Native artists written out of the history of performance art in Canada as well as those artists who were not at the conference, specifically the peoples east of Ontario. Unfortunately his talk suffered greatly from the poor translation from French into English.

The respondents at INDIANacts consistently went beyond summarizing the panelists' presentations. They really got to the meat of the ideas presented and offered further thought on the topics. Without exception the contributions made by Warren Arcan were entertaining and thought-provoking. At first, his responses sounded like disjointed and abstract beat poetry, but this was an effective means of penetrating the core of each presentation without overstating the obvious. To the first panel, Mapping the Movement, he proposed that performance art is the act of putting bodies at risk (a strategy that was exemplified by the work of Lori Blondeau and Reona Brass later in the conference). He argued that performance can create a new time and a new history: a space of decolonization. He also noted that Aboriginals have always been postmodern as they must already confront themselves as constructed, in their art or otherwise, and are therefore suited to navigate the territory of performance.

What followed this panel was a heated and complex discussion about the issues of cultural boundaries, sparked primarily by Durand's description of his brother Yves' performance that used imagery from a nation that was not his own. Although I was aware of the injustices associated with the misappropriation of cultural artifacts — colonists misappropriating objects and imagery from the colonized — I had not considered the implications of distinct groups within the Native community misappropriating stories, imagery or sacred rituals from their own or other tribes without permission in the context of performance art. It was clear that the use of sacred objects and imagery in performance was a long and highly debated topic that was not going to be resolved at this conference.

Unregenerated: Action, Ritual, Offerings

This panel was described as a forum to discuss "how artists are arranging sacred practices through contemporary performance art [and] who defines the boundaries of interpretation and approval." Cree artist and musician Anthony McNab Favel extended the previous day's discussion of cultural property. He is a self-described practiced artist (as opposed to a practicing or academic artist) working for cultural protectionism. In his presentation he proposed notions of respect, the seeking of cultural permission from elders, and acknowledgement of the distinct cultural properties of each tribe. Offerings also became the idea of an artist making offerings to his/her audience.

For her contribution Lori Blondeau, performance artist and director of TRIBE in Saskatoon, chose to perform rather than speak, perhaps the most profound act of the conference. She stepped to the stage, sat down at a table and pulled burgers out of a McDonald's bag and began to eat them one by one. A pile of waste and garbage grew on the table next to her as it became more and more difficult for her to choke the food down. She went on until it was clear that she could not take it anymore. This was a penetrating image of the suffocation of a culture and a voice through cultural and corporate colonization. With the preceding discussions dealing, for the most part, with cultural permission within and among Aboriginal cultures, this performance took us in a new direction: the violence of the erasure of one culture, not through misappropriation, but through monopoly.

Performance of Trauma and Testimony

At the afternoon-session performance, video and installation artist Dana Claxton from Vancouver expanded on the issues raised at the morning session: "Not many artists are cultural protectionists in the same way as Aboriginal artists. After all, who else needs permission from their culture to represent?" Synthesizing the comments of previous panels and respondents, Claxton proposed that it is necessary to make a safe place for an abused culture and to contend with the daily violence of bodies at risk through starvation, disease, death and the loss of language, history and culture. She also drew on Luna's initial comments— "How do we take the daily/institutional violence of our lives and turn it around in art?" — to make the point that anger may be the impetus for performance but does not always need to be the result.

The panel then turned to address issues of memory and trauma, and the tendency to use performance as therapy. Blondeau spoke to the issue of generational memory, emphasizing that is important for each generation to tell their own stories, not just those of their ancestors, to keep the oral tradition alive without gaps.

The moderator of this panel, Marcia Crosby, an instructor of First Nations Studies at Malaspina University in Nanaimo, BC, referred to Reona Brass and Rebecca Belmore as artists who make work that represents and gives voice to unspeakable acts. Crosby stated, "I have never stopped crying about the things that happen to our people." After her own performance Brass responded to this by describing performance as a language that she could use to speak to her people. This was surprising for me, as performance art is so widely misunderstood in mainstream Anglo culture. Brass, a member of the Peepeekisis First Nation, explained that she could bring her grandmother to her performances and communicate something to her, where many Anglo performance artists struggle to be understood by fellow visual artists, let alone family members.

Perhaps more than anything else, what I took away from this day's sessions was that although art has been touted as a universal language time and again, in the case of Native performance art, it is able to speak in several ways: as a private conversation with the audience that has the cultural knowledge to understand the references to ritual and myth, and as a conversation with those art audiences who want to listen.

Only at this conference (or perhaps at development of performance) could one of the sanctioned after-hours events be a group trip to a fetish party. A rather tame event, I was able to get away with a tarted up version of my regular wardrobe: slutty little girl. To my surprise it didn't take long for Laurence Paul Yuxweluptun to become excited about the potential of a mild SM relationship with a little white girl. Before I knew it I had been turned over the knees of Vancouver artists Paul Wong and Yuxweluputun for a sweet little spanking. Everyone watching delighted in the idea of artists who challenge the canon of art history disciplining the art historian.

The next day I didn't have the sorest butt in the room (poor Mikiki did) but I did have a new perspective on the conference that I couldn't have hoped to obtain otherwise. After all the discussions of cultural property, injustice and anger, I had come to realize that there is a place for corporal punishment in the art world. A little spank hits home faster than a lecture and gets to the point of performance art: bodies at risk. For me, this was a new performative ritual: spare the rod, spoil the art historian. I was willing to put myself at risk in the hands of artists whose practices are concerned with historical and contemporary injustices perpetrated by art historians, critics and curators such as myself.

Tussling and Public Spectacle

At this panel Greg Hill, a Mohawk artist and curator at the National Gallery of Canada, discussed several of his projects, all humorous and engaging, much to the delight of the audience. One project in particular exemplified the use of humour to explore issues of colonization. Kanata was a project Hill presented at the Indian Art Centre in Ottawa-Gatineau. Hill transformed the gallery space into a new country, Kanata, and engaged the audience by allowing them entry into the country through a customs and immigration booth where visitors were required to apply for a passport and accept the law of Hill's country.

Lynne Bell, professor of Visual Culture at the University of Saskatchewan, gave an overview and commentary on the "High Tech Story Telling Festival" hosted by TRIBE in 2001. Of particular relevance to this conference was her discussion of the "anti-panel" where Betty Daybird, as Cosmosquaw, led a talk-show styled public discussion with James Luna, Rebecca Belmore and Lori Weidenhammer. At this anti-panel, drinks and TV-dinners were served on TV trays as the hostess vamped it up for the audience. Bell concluded that performance forum successfully disrupted the colonial structure of the typical round table/conference/panel discussion that epitomizes the hierarchies of the academic milieu.

Differing Practices: Experimental Theatre and Performance Art

At most conferences I have found that there is at least one session, like this one, that I intuitively want to avoid. As it turned out, with the numerous schedule changes taking place over the course of the weekend, this session was switched to the end of the day and I ended up attending even though I was planning on skipping it. Although the content of this panel discussion wasn't of particular interest to me, it did provide some insights that I was not expecting. During a smoking break, Glenn Alteen explained to me that a great number of Native performance artists in Canada have studied at (or deliberately chosen not to study at) Spirit Song, an Aboriginal theatre school in Toronto. Thus, much as in Newfoundland, the visual and performance arts community has strong links to the theatre community that are not as present in other regions.

The panel was thoroughly entertaining. It began with a performance by Dolores Dallas, a Cowichan artist living in Duncan, BC, who is active in the visual arts, theatre, television and film communities. The panel switched to a talk-show format discussion (much like the anti-panel of the "High Tech Story Telling Festival") that quickly broke down into a more traditional discussion. I have to admit, what really thrilled me about this panel was the involvement of Floyd Favel, a theatre and dance artist perhaps best known for his character Jasper Friendlybear, on CBC Radio's "Dead Dog Café." Favel discussed a McLuhanesque approach to theatre, where the body is the message of the performance, thus attributing strong connections between performance art and theatre. As well, I had never met Jasper Friendlybear. If only I could have been spanked by him too. Floyd? Can we meet sometime?

The conference ended with closing remarks by Bently Spang, a mixed-media artist, freelance curator and writer and member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana. He contextualized the weekend's events in terms of what was happening in the Native performance scene south of the border, thus reminding us of the unnatural boundaries that separate American and Canadian Aboriginal nations and artists. As we filed out of the auditorium, he personally said goodbye (and hello) to all of us, an act that reinforced the emotional tone of the conference and its importance as a meeting place.

As could be expected, the closing party was the party to end all conference parties. An open-stage performance event took place at Western Front, MCed by Aiyyana Maracle. Wearing little else than nipple jewelry, this Mohawk trans-formed-woman warrior was able to successfully navigate the variety of performances and the sometimes-tense atmosphere of the room. Although I missed several of the performances, one piece in particular is worth noting here. Thirza Cuthand, a video artist currently living in Saskatoon, presented her new video Anhedonia, which dealt with issues of mental illness in relation to being Aboriginal and queer. The video combined the disturbingly higher rates of suicide among Aboriginal and queer communities with personal reflections on her own experiences with misconceptions of mental illness and depression. Maracle's comments on cultural differences in the acceptance of trans-gender individuals (specifically Mohawk acceptance of transgender individuals as a special class of people able to provide insight into both genders), combined with Cuthand's work, opened up a contemplative space in the cabaret venue, reversing its usual association with humour or extroverted performance.

The party eventually bled out to the bars and back to Yuxweluptun's apartment. Throughout the evening many people discussed the need to have the events and discussions of this conference recorded in a public forum. I suddenly realized that I had been taking notes throughout the conference. I had never done this before at a conference, there never really having been much to write down. At the parties I was thinking about the issues of cultural permission that dominated the past three days and thought that I would like to co-write a piece with one of the conference participants. I thought that the conversation that could arise between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal voices would be interesting. When I raised this idea I was confronted with accusations of pandering to my own white guilt and told that I should just write it myself. I was shocked at first. I thought I was being democratic, inclusive. I suppose that the accusation was more importantly permission, cultural permission to give voice to my own perspectives. As a conference junkie, how could I turn that down?

Donna Wawzonek is an Independent curator and writer living in Saskatoon. She has curated exhibitions for artist-run centres and galleries including Latitude 53, The Owens Art Gallery, Sackville and St. Mary's University Gallery. She is currently working on a series of exhibitions for touring.