INDIANacts: Aboriginal Performance Art

home page link

Testimony Of Actions, Actions Of Testimony
Glenn Alteen

INDIANacts – Aboriginal Performance Art was a three-day conference held in Vancouver and hosted by Vancouver’s grunt gallery and Saskatoon’s TRIBE. The conference brought together most of the major performance artists from Aboriginal communities across North America along with several First Nations academics and curators to talk about a body of work that has been created over the past 20 years and look at it in its entirety.

“Now here we all are, Aboriginal practitioners, artists, scholars and friends. And we’re about to embark on a very concentrated and passionate discussion about our practices and our art. We are here to articulate and contextualize what we do as artists and writers and scholars and most importantly we are here to acknowledge our creativity, our form and our content. And as Yuxweluptun said we are here to celebrate… our contribution as Indian people to art-making as well as our contribution to art history.”
Dana Claxton Introduction

The opening address by James Luna situated the work and the conference and it seems this American artist has a huge influence on events north of the border. His talk spoke about working between an art audience and an Aboriginal audience and how his work will be read differently by each. Lizard Jones from the lesbian collective Kiss & Tell once commented that she could always tell whether it was a queer or straight audience by how easily they laughed and Luna’s experience with Native audiences seems to concur with these remarks. Emerging most from Luna’s talk and his work is performance’s ability to deal with Aboriginal life as it is now, and not how it is represented in so much of the media, and to reflect how wrong those stereotypes in the media are.

“Then I started thinking of the total Indian experience and about how much humour we have in our existence. It’s part of our oral tradition, its part of our way of expressing and teaching and it’s also a way of healing. It’s quite easy to shock. It’s much harder to conjure up compassion, provocative thought, that kind of stuff.”
James Luna

But Luna was in an adoring crowd here and among the audience were some of his most serious fans. That most of them happen to be performance artists themselves was just a bonus feature and over the next three days the depth and the breadth of Aboriginal production in performance was explored and developed.

The first panel looked at roots and James Luna appeared again, but this time with other elders to talk about where modernist production came from. This panel was moderated by Aiyyana Maracle, a transgender Mohawk woman working in performance, theatre, opera and writing. She traced her development and the history she lived through before opening the floor up to the panelists. Guy Sioui Durand is an art historian and academic and a founder of Le Lieu and Inter magazine, both early and continuing sites of performance in Canada. Durand showed us work out of Quebec (some by this brother Yves) working with Aboriginal themes. It was an important introduction to this work for most people in the audience and showed other histories of Aboriginal performance in Canada.

“I come to what has become a lengthy art practice from a longer history of social and political activism. To be honest, it was to seek a safe refuge that I came to art almost two decades ago. As an artist I could continue doing much the same thing I was doing as an activist and as an organizer but in a venue our benighted leaders would be unable to touch. To think back to the hundreds and hundreds of young people, of native people, that I first began to organize with in the early ‘70s and how few actually survived.”
Aiyyana Maracle

“It’s really important when we are in the art action that we change ourselves. If you want to change the way of making art, if we want to change disciplines, change sensibilities.”
Guy Sioui Durand

Next, Lakota anthropologist Bea Medicine talked about the Dakota artist Oscar Howe and early Aboriginal modernism in America. Howe’s work seems all focused on the body —a single dancer or drummer—and his renditions of the body in space was an important foreshadowing for a group of artists whose art is also the body in space. Then Luna finished up the panel by talking about his development as an artist and his experiences as an Aboriginal artist.

The conference had really begun the evening before at a reception at grunt featuring Nadia Myre’s INDIANacts beading project and a performance by Cheli Nighttraveller. Myre’s project employed communities to help her bead over all 56 pages of the famous Indian Act, a painstakingly slow and transformative process. The resultant works render the texts unreadable, a white bead standing in for every longwinded letter against a background of red glass. Nighttraveller’s monologue looked at trickster myths from a series of backgrounds—Raven, Coyote and Weesakajak sitting down with Bugs Bunny, forming new generations of myth.

After James Luna on Friday, there was a discussion around the use of ceremonial objects used within performance, and issue was taken with some of the video that Guy had shown. Tempers flared and finally Bea Medicine stood up and said she’d heard the issues raised at every Native conference she ever attended, and these were not issues we were going to settle here. This seemed to calm things considerably and we proceeded on to the final Friday event. This was, of course, Warren Arcan in his role as respondent.

“James Luna’s Basic Blanket Statement. A text on the screen reads “NO INPUT IS DETECTED,” and that is our history. James Luna, I guess, will wait. James Luna put out images of the war and that’s what he does and converts them and transforms them to his own purposes, purposes that are hidden even to himself. Because that is the secret wish of art and every art gesture is a secret wish, a secret hope, a secret dream, a secret impulse, and something that emerges out, that is continually emerging and we assist in emerging it.
…The beauty of James Luna’s art and performance art in general is its bodies at risk, it is putting bodies at risk, our bodies, the body, a body and that bodies at risk is a metaphor for our own bodies at risk in history, our historical bodies, our spiritual bodies…”
Warren Arcan

Arcan went into a long free-form narrative that touched on all the issues raised and focused on parts that interested him. Part performance, part discourse, he closed the day in a thoughtful and thought provoking manner that reminded everyone we were at a performance art conference. This proved to be an element in much of the next two days, serious papers delivered against thought-provoking performances that ended up creating a narrative that was almost beyond description between what was stated and what was implied.

Friday night things slowed down and a full native BC dinner catered by Dolly Watts and Liligit Feast House was held in the longhouse of the Native Education Centre in Vancouver. A party was held later across the street at the studio of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.

Day Two of the conference began with a panel titled Unregenerated—Action, Ritual, Offerings, moderated by co-curator Dana Claxton and featuring Lori Blondeau, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew and Anthony McNab Favel.

“We are giving our interpretation of where we are standing here today and those stories are just as important as those oral stories that were passed down from your mother or your grandfather.”
Lori Blondeau

“One of the most important things about language: It keeps coming back around to language. It has to. It’s about what language reveals and what it protects.”
Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew

The panel spoke of the role of ritual and modern takes on ideas of tradition. Anthony Favel spoke of respect of cultural ownership and the need to be humble and respectful when dealing with issues of ownership and protocol. Blondeau’s performances played on notions of primitivism and modernism and Ahasiw spoke of spirituality and performance and the dark places from which they often emerge.

In the afternoon art historian Marcia Crosby moderated a panel on Trauma and Testimony with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Reona Brass and Rebecca Belmore.

“And there are all those people who are part of our history, and if we could divide into the evil guys and the good guys that would be great. But the truth is many of our people have survived great trauma and many of them have survived unheroically and they must even speak that history. Even though it doesn’t have a heroic ending. And we are the rememberers, as the speakers, as the performers, as the writers. Those people who take these events and remember them and represent them as they have been passed on to us. Even when there hasn’t been a good ending. When there still hasn’t been closure.”
Marcia Crosby

This panel attempted to go to the heart of the trauma that is the basis for so much of this work. Crosby framed the panel, speaking of memory and remembrance and the trauma that is still the daily reality in Aboriginal life. Yuxweluptun spoke of his culture, Coast Salish, and the need to hold something sacred and away from the prying eyes of anthropologists and New Age believers. Rebecca spoke of the political nature of her work and Reona spoke of performance as filling the gap left by the loss of languages that happened everywhere in Turtle Island,

“It’s a beautiful thing to have culture. I know some people don’t have it. I’ve met natives who were born without it. That’s the responsibility of the ones that do have it. And those are the journeys that they’ll go through.”
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun

“(Performance Art) …that was something that was a language I could speak to my people with for the first time. Like many of you, my father did not, could not teach me his language. His mother and father broke that line when they decided not to teach their children. And so for myself and for many of us it has been a challenge to find ways to communicate with one another. With performance art the elements of ritual, of ceremony, are all there.
Increasingly over the years it has become more and more important for me to have more of my relations to hear what I am trying to say. So for me the audience is the second half of the action. My action finds meaning when it is heard by the people it is intended for.
…My kukum comes to my performances. This is something the colonizers never took from me. I have a language my kukum understands. She hears it.”
Reona Brass

Finally, to end day two Steven Loft acted as respondent giving a difficult overview to a complex and emotional day.

“We talked a bit today about anger and I would like to add one more and that’s rage. And there’s profound power in rage. It is OK to create works that are expressions of pure, profound pain without having to be about healing. Or without them having any other reason to exist except to express that pain.”
Steven Loft

After the conference a caravan of cars left Emily Carr College for UBC and the Helen and Morris Belkin Gallery. It was the final day of Rebecca Belmore’s installation, The Named and the Unnamed, and we were there to eavesdrop on a conversation between Belmore and James Luna, who spoke via cellphones from different and various parts of the installation. Witty, provocative, and insightful, we were shown many of Belmore’s concerns in these deceptively simple works.

Sunday morning, the last day, the conference started late at 11 p.m. The day’s panels had been switched around because of scheduling and Shelley Niro hosted a panel on Tussling and Public Spectacle featuring Lynne Bell, Greg Hill and Edward Poitras.

“A lot of my work is looking at what the symbols of identity, of nationhood are and reworking them. I began to look at how we express ourselves as Mohawk people. What are those symbols? And I’ve taken them further into subsequent work.”
Greg Hill

“One of the things that I’ve noticed when looking at performance is you can see it’s sometimes coming from another discipline or that it’s some kind of format. Some of the performances we’ve seen here are very much like storytelling, also art action, posing. I see posing as a way of presenting—the Clown, the Trickster strategy or Coyote way of being. Dance. Reona’s piece was very much coming from a dance position. There seems to be a number of different ways of actualizing work. And I’m sure this could be broken even more.”
Edward Poitras

“I was talking to Edward and I loved the way he widened the whole notion of performance, pointing out that it’s a part of the everyday in your cultures and also the different locations in which it can occur.”
Lynne Bell

In the afternoon the panel Differing Practices, Experimental Theatre and Performance Art, moderated by Margo Kane and featuring Floyd Favel, Marie Clements and Dolores Dallas, looked at the crossover between the two forms and spoke of the different premises within which both forms work.

“I like the conversations you’re having this weekend and I’ve always enjoyed talking and being around the artist-run centres and performance artists and people who have worked a long time in this field. So I thank you for the camaraderie that you’ve offered me. It was here in these circles, in their conversations, that I actually began to feel that my work was valued, because my work didn’t seem to be valued in theatre. They didn’t speak the same language I did. In this way I could create my own work.”
Margo Kane

“Well if you know anything about Marshall McLuhan, you know the medium is the message. So, of course, for theatre the body is the message. In the theatre when we say actor, to do an act, it’s based on the biological act of the physical body. So in order to begin to bring forward different ways of presenting culture or world view one would have to alter the body and the different structures for training, but also different structures for montage and editing in order to bring forward a different way of presenting your own culture.”
Floyd Favel

“Theories are meant to be blown apart and changed. This experiment we are doing with theatre and performance—it’s not an absolute truth. It’s an absolute belief we have in it, but that truth is going to keep evolving. A lot I feel the stories I want to tell—that’s the most important thing—that these characters based on real people get to be heard. So that need sometimes overrides the idea of who’s gonna come to this weird play.”
Marie Clements

This was the last panel and it was left to Bently Spang to have the last word, which he did with aplomb. He then situated himself at the door to personally say goodbye to everyone that attended. Later that night at the Western Front, Maracle, Luna, Arcan, Belmore and others took to the stage and created some of the magic we had heard of all weekend. Participants by then were overwhelmed with information, images and ideas. INDIANacts attempted to open up a dialogue that over the weekend turned into a torrent, a rant, yet at times toned down to barely a whisper. The flow of panelists and ideas attested to Lori Blondeau and Dana Claxton’s skill as curators and many people left the conference revitalized by the ideas, skill and acumen that was strongly evidenced within these communities.

Glenn Alteen
May 2003