This is a piece you’ll find in the March / April 2015 CARFAC Newsletter about the Stronger Than Stone Conference in the Fall of 2015. There’s also a piece by David Garneau in that issue. CARFAC SK doesn’t put their newsletter online (though you can find copies in a variety of spaces, from Art Placement to SCYAP): so it seemed appropriate to make it available online at the A Word. At the above link for STS you can read participant biographies and other relevant information. This exhibition was also on display concurrent to STS, and at times factored into the conversations. ______________________________________________________________________________________________ Stronger Than Stone took place over four days in Calgary and Saskatoon, with a multiplicity of speaker and performers: it is sheer impossibility to give anything more than a taste of what happened over the two days at Wanuskewin, but many of the speakers raised issues that will resonate to a person in Saskatoon or Saskatchewan, as well as our larger national imaginary. Monuments have power not just physically, but in what they represent, as markers of ideology. They are material manifestations of ideas: and “ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?[i]”
Wanuskewin was an ideal site, with its historical implications, a monument in itself: Rebecca Belmore, on the second day, spoke of recognizing the difference between monuments that are, and those that are “manufactured.” Ashok Mathur recounted the preceding Calgary days. He gave just a tease: how we “walk backwards into the future” within multiple “locals” here and elsewhere. He mentioned Jimmy Durham’s keynote address, reiterating how monuments in the Americas are testaments to colonial violence. Even something as superficially politically “neutral” as a dam invokes “economic plunder”, brushing against the current debate of resource extraction and Keystone. Mathur cited the overly simplistic binary of white / indigenous, affirming greater complexity in our “locals”: and then the speakers began.
Gregory Scofield’s use of language was evocative, with a tenderness and brutality. His words did “make sharp your teeth where I am most tender” in entrancing the room. Speaking of memories both personal and political, his words provided an aural match to WWOS: whether “punching bag woman” or “holding up the walls woman” or “all 69 years lost in a policeman’s report” being succinct and sad, but also with “she wore her blanket like perfume / she got raped here on this blanket / the man who did it was federally licensed” offering anger and indictment as well.
Sunday’s first panel was What the Land Remembers: Can it teach social history? There was an entertaining argument over the Cypress Hills: contested histories of place are more complex than the naïve settler / indigenous stereotype, as these sacred sites are important to Lakota and Cree. Adrian Stimson described territorialism as a colonial sentiment of “ownership” declaring instead that “we are all responsible for the land”. The land was spoken of as a library of stories, with “different perceptions of the same environment” – as you could look outside the window at Wanuskewin, and consider how to “approach the world in different ways and…expand the ways we come to know the world.” An amusing joke was that in the oral tradition of history, when confronted with people asking about spelling and capitalization, to dismiss it as a “white” problem, as writing invariably led to codification and control.
This led very well into the next panel: Mother tongues: How does language shape public space? where James (Sakej) Youngblood Henderson cited “language” as a space for a legal battle between a Eurocentric paradigm and a First Nations one, where language “creates a forest of words of deceit” (its refreshing to encounter lawyers like Henderson, who can “see the forest for the trees”…). Henderson elaborated how universities (and other institutions that more often manufacture alibis than foster change) have a methodological / entomological obsession that’s irrelevant in “Indigenous knowledge systems”. He lamented the “great amnesia” after the 1981 constitution regarding the recognition of Aboriginal rights, and how, again the importing and forced application of Eurocentric systems are not “integral” to the discussion, but more an enforcement of status quo (This was a recurring sentiment: that “monuments” that are “approved” already have a space “carved out for them”, and to attempt to “carve out” other spaces, or occupy pre existing ones, is “aberrant” or “criminal”).
Another point made by Marianne Nicholson and Paul Chaat Smith is that, unlike the Eurocentric tradition, there is, here, “a sacred language that has never been secularized.” Again, the site of Wanuskewin provided a subtle yet pervasive voice, as “you can learn more deeply from the spirits when the snow falls” echoed at the end of the first day, as we walked outside.
Rebecca Belmore began the second day with a performance blending some of her familiar tropes of endurance and action with ideas specific to Wanuskewin. The series of actions she performed outside intimately involved the land, and had a brutality and force that was reminiscent of The Indian Factory. Belmore’s work demonstrates how good performance art combines politics and presentation in an un-paralleled manner. The panel immediately following was appropriately titled Paper-Scissors-Stone. Propositions / Provocations for new forms of public.
Voices from the “floor” were also strong: Jeff Thomas (a respected figure whose interrogations of monuments is lively and ongoing) related an anecdote of being stopped by police while working in Brantford, a reminder of the danger of dissent. Luke Thompson posited that monuments should do something “real” – but perhaps, in Thomas’ experience, is they’re very “real” markers of power and exclusion. In the Paper panel Thompson was delightfully critical of “approved” monuments: specifically how their relation to history and memory is not just exaggerated but more about stifling disagreement or difference. Those whom are served by “approved” monuments are often blind to them, as they’re not the ones being spoken at, or spoken over.
The afternoon saw several animated conversations: from K.C. Adams talking about her Perception series that was in response to the comments made by a mayoral candidate in Winnipeg (succinctly demonstrating Winnipeg as Canada’s racism capital) to Ruth Cuthand’s jovial – but fierce – declaration that “I am not the Indian you’re looking for.” Perhaps the most relevant aspect of Ruth’s talk was her relating of her experiences being part of a jurying process for public art in Saskatoon that resulted in Tony Stallard’s excellent “Land of Berries.” Cuthand’s point was that the “settlers” on that jury (all very academic) wanted to exert inappropriate control over what words / language Stallard might choose to illuminate, from his consultations with local Aboriginal artists / activists.
Elwood Jimmy (on both of Monday’s panels) asserted how there is no “tool kit” and there shouldn’t ever be one for artistic initiatives within communities. The artists he worked with for the Dewdney Avenue Project (Terrance Houle, Edward Poitras, Rebecca Belmore) all approached the ongoing colonial presence in that neighborhood with its RCMP detachment in unique ways. This continued thoughts from earlier, where he spoke of Regina as the “most colonial of cities in Canada outside of Ottawa” and how during his time in Regina there were two serial killers focused on Aboriginal women (the current version of the racialized violence implicit to the “colonial project”).
This idea of contemporary responsiveness to colonial forms and frames was the basis of Adrian Stimson’s presentation regarding the collaborative work Spirit of Alliance. Installed last fall in Saskatoon’s Riverdale area, it’s alternately a subversive – or more accurate – response to the federal government’s interest in erecting monuments to the War of 1812. Spirit presents a moment that illustrates the variant groups that united to fight in 1812: its more about this Saskatoon, and how descendants of that “alliance” still live here, both Aboriginal and Settler. Stimson spoke of the extensive consultations with the White Cap Community, and the various stories encapsulated in Spirit (from references to the Treaty of Ghent to the use of petroglyphs, speaking to the multiple “locals” in Saskatoon).
Rebecca Belmore offered some fascinating thoughts regarding her work Trace, installed at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. She talked about working in “controversial spaces that you know are problematic” and the difficulty of making work that “lives well in that space that you also feel comfortable with, as an artist”. There is an understanding of the necessity for artists to put themselves in critical spaces to be relevant, but this also was a point that befitted the last few hours of Stronger than Stone: how shall we make monuments now?
Steve Loft, in his comments on the closing panel On The Road Ahead: Towards a Framework for Better, or Best, Practices, reframed the idea of monument to apply it to himself, with his histories and experiences bringing him to this moment built upon his lineage and past. The idea that “monument” must be a fluid term, to allow for old agendas and dogmas to be broken was well encapsulated by Steve’s personal example. But Candace Hopkins, in her powerful closing comments, chose to directly speak of what “the road ahead” might truly mean. I paraphrase liberally from her insightful and incisive declarations: In the road ahead, we will be free – a new problem, perhaps. In the road ahead, we will beware of official histories. We will beware of oily money. We will have the courage to speak public secrets to make them known. We will move from a place of resistance to a place of ownership. We will continue to take on the necessary and impossible tasks.
[i] This is a sentiment from Joseph Stalin, which may be heavy handed but feels appropriate when confronted with some monuments and their ideological suffocation of dissent.