Rebecca Belmore: Vigil and The Named and The Unnamed

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Figure 1. Video still from Rebecca Belmore's Vigil

 

         Rebecca Belmore is a prominent Canadian artist who works in installation, performance, and multi-media art. She attended Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and currently lives in Vancouver, BC. She has exhibited internationally, including the 2005 Venice Biennale, where she attended as Canada’s sole representative.  This essay focuses on a performance piece, Vigil, and the video installation work based upon it, titled The Named and the Unnamed. To see the video documentation of Vigil, click here.

   Many performance artists videotape their events.  In some cases, the videos are personal records or simple documentation of the event.  The records may be made at the artist’s request, or they may be records created and then retained by the hosting institution.  Videos of performance events are sometimes meant to stand on their own as an artwork rather than just documentation of an event.  Rebecca Belmore created just such a video installation titled The Named and the Unnamed based on the street performance Vigil, which took place June 23, 2002 on the corner of Gore St. and Cordova St. in Vancouver, B.C.  The performance was a heart-wrenching commemoration of the number of women who had gone missing in downtown east Vancouver, many of them victims of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton.[1]

Rebecca Belmore, Video still from Vigil

            I saw the video-installation The Named and the Unnamed in an installation at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia.  I had never before possessed the patience to sit through a thirty-minute video installation artwork, but this installation succeeded in evoking the immediacy of a work of performance art and I found myself unable to leave.  In fact, I returned several times during the art opening to watch whatever segment was replaying at that time.  Belmore undertook a difficult subject for the performance artwork upon which the installation was based.  She set herself the task of dealing with a series of gruesome, horrific local events, about which the gory details are still unfolding.  She did so without creating a gory performance, which demonstrates Belmore’s skill as an artist, her sophistication, and her sensitivity to the community in which she created this work.[2]

Figure 2. Belmore pulls a red rose between clenched teeth after speaking out the name of a woman who had gone missing from this neighborhood.

            Belmore began the performance by scrubbing the sidewalk on her hands and knees using a scrub-brush, bright pink rubber gloves, and a bucket of soapy water (Figure 1).  This seemingly useless action served several purposes.  The scrubbing prepared the performance space, literally cleansing it for her use.  Washing a floor, indoors, on hands and knees, is customarily viewed as demeaning work, women’s work, and especially, work for the lower class, the kind of person whose disappearance could be dismissed by the authorities.  Scrubbing a sidewalk in this fashion, rather than a floor indoors, makes the action futile.  The sidewalk is so dirty that it will never be clean. 

            This location at the intersection of Gore and Cordova is important because it was the site of many of the abductions.  They are part of the history of this place, these particular sidewalks.  Is it possible to scrub away the memory of the women’s footfalls on the pavement?  By her very act, Belmore calls attention to the traumas that occurred at this exact site.  This scrubbing was not a simple transfer of an ordinary domestic task into unusual circumstances.  The very fact that the sidewalk is being cleaned implies that it is unclean, so unclean that it requires an intensive scrubbing by someone on her hands and knees, in full public view.  The point of Belmore’s scrubbing action is not that the surface of the sidewalk will be clean when she is finished.  Her action emphasizes the previous state of the sidewalk as dirty, unclean, and distasteful.   This street corner is unclean, corrupted by the crimes against the women who disappeared, and the miscarriage of justice that made these crimes officially invisible for so many years.[3]

Figure 3. Belmore pulls a red rose between clenched teeth after speaking out the name of a woman who had gone missing from this neighborhood.

In another portion of the performance, Belmore spoke the first names of the women who had gone missing, then violently pulled the stem of a red rose through her teeth, denuding it of leaves and petals.  She performed this act for each name as she read it off a list written in heavy black ink over the skin of her arms (Figures 2 and 3).  Charlotte Townsend-Gault characterizes the stripping of the roses in this manner:  “In the performance, crimes against the body, the native body, the woman’s body, are embodied in, enacted by, or inscribed on her own body, as if in an act of atonement.”[4]  This is certainly one way of interpreting the actions in the performance.

Figure 4. Belmore puts on a red dress.

 Viewing the video installation for myself, I understood Belmore’s actions as a form of commemoration, a memorial acknowledging the trauma to the many communities touched by more than twenty years of disappearances of so many women.  Belmore herself is not performing acts of atonement.  She is primarily evoking trauma.  Using the historic symbolism of roses, the association of flowers with women, romantic love, and funerary flower arrangements, she violently rips the stems, leaves, and petals through her clenched teeth.  In relation to the events, her act is symbolic of the very literal destruction of the “disappeared” women.  These women disappeared because they were women.  These women disappeared because they fit in with a psychopath’s vision of a violent, literally consuming “love” that was in fact a violent destruction of love.  Consider also that Belmore is using cut flowers rather than live plants.  One of the authorities’ justification for not taking any action regarding these disappearances for so long is that, in some respects, the women had “disappeared” already.  They left their home communities, often a reserve, for the big city.  They were, in a sense, cut off from their homes, their sources of cultural sustenance.  The women who disappeared were supporting themselves through prostitution. 

Figure 5. Nailing the dress to a utility pole

          Kim Kirton survived an encounter with the man allegedly responsible for the disappearances of all these women.  Kirton and another friend with whom she often worked had this to say about her last encounter with Pickton in his Port Coquitlam home:  “He said, uh, that he could get rid of us, you know, dispose of us, and he wouldn’t get caught and nobody would miss us because of who we were.”[5]  Kirton ran out of the house when Pickton allegedly grabbed a knife and began stabbing her partner Mona Wilson.  Wilson was never seen again and Kirton has since been plagued by feelings of guilt for leaving her friend behind even though she knows that running saved her own life.  In the same interview, Kirton observed that Pickton, a regular customer in the prostitution neighborhoods, was what she called “picky.”  He never selected recent arrivals to Vancouver.  He chose women who had been working on the streets for some time, who had developed significant drug habits and who could be more easily lured by promises of drugs.  He chose women he thought most likely to have been cut off from the families who might otherwise have noticed their disappearances immediately.  Belmore’s performance associates the cut flowers with the women who had presumably been cut off from their families and home communities.

            However, watching Belmore pull these roses through her teeth, our thoughts are not of sympathy for the roses/disappeared women.  We think of the pain, the discomfort, the determination the artist must possess in order to continue using/abusing her mouth in such a fashion.  Each time she forcefully speaks out a woman’s name and reaches for another rose, we, meaning anyone viewing the performance or the video installation, want to stop her.  Belmore puts us, immediately and viscerally, in the position of a public that sees an atrocity, knows it is about to happen again, and does nothing.  Belmore’s actions are not those of atonement.  She takes an impersonal abstract situation, the failure of an anonymous group of police, civil, and legal authorities to admit that a serial killer is preying on “unimportant” women, and makes it a very personal, visceral, horrifying experience.  If not placing us in the position of experiencing the guilt of persons of authority who do nothing, she at least places us in the position of those in the community who did notice, who noticed what was happening, spoke out, and yet were powerless to stop it.  The real trauma is not to Belmore’s physical body, but to the viewer/participants who are placed in the position of standing in for a community, police officials included, who do nothing.  It is too late to save the women whose names Belmore has spoken.

Trying to tear the dress away from the utility pole.

        The performance did not cease with the ruination of roses.  Next, Belmore pulled a long red dress with a full skirt over her jeans and tanktop (Figure 4) and furiously began nailing the skirt of the dress to a telephone pole.   Then she pulled and struggled until the fabric stretched and tore free of the nails. She nailed some more, and pulled herself free again.  At times, there was a true franticness to her body language, a terror that seemed very real.  The emotional impact at that moment in both video and performance goes beyond the violence of ripping fabric or a desire to escape.  There is a desperateness to escape.  There was some disconnection between the fact that the audience had watched her hammer the nails in by her own hand, and the terror-stricken body language as she tried to break free.  One nail into the dress, into the telephone pole, and she could easily pull herself free.  Nail after nail after nail had been pounded into the telephone pole.  The sheer strength required to pull herself free had a body language all its own.  She repeated this action until very little of the skirt of the dress remained.     Her struggles evoke a common fear among both women and men: that of entrapment, physical restraint with doubt as to whether or not you are strong enough or have enough time to free yourself before something disastrous happens to you.  There are additional fears for women witnessing Belmore’s struggle to free herself, and this is in regard to social mores about modesty and proper femininity.  In order to free herself, Belmore must literally rip the clothes from her body, exposing her bare legs.[6] In a situation already fraught with sexual danger, she must increase that danger even more so in order to escape.  For men witnessing this same scene, there are some specific factors likely to make them also uncomfortable.  The references to the murdered women were clearly made.  Any sexual, sensual, or erotic physical or emotional reaction to Belmore’s actions would clearly align the male viewer with the “bad guy,” the rapist, the murderer.   Even though men standing about during the performance or watching the video installation are not literally called upon to take up the role of the killer, their potential reactions could cause them to painfully re-evaluate what is erotic and why.  In a sense, the performance is not “real,” but nor is it “play” or fantasy.  Belmore is engaging in deep play, and takes her audience along with her. (For more on deep play, see the previous post blah blah blah.)

Nearly free.

            The photographic documentation shows Belmore and others present lighting candles set on the pavement.  The lighting of candles is a feature of the Christian performance of public vigil ceremonies.  The use of candles in Belmore’s Vigil is slight different in that she does not use tapers of votive candles, and the audience members present do not hold the candles.  Belmore provides tea candles, the kind of candles in an aluminum cup.  Belmore and others present light the candles laid out on the sidewalk.  Belmore’s artistic choices allowed the association with religious ceremony without actually shifting into that mode.  In broad generalization, Christian vigils as used publicly are part protest, part healing, and largely prayerful.  Belmore’s Vigil emphasizes trauma rather than healing, and protest that is largely cultural critique instead of being prayer.           

video stills, lighting candles during the performance Vigil.

 The performance ended with Belmore once more standing in jeans and a t-shirt.  This time, she stood next to the passenger door of a pickup truck that had been parked there all along (Figure 6).  A James Brown tune, It’s a Man’s Man’s World, blared through the truck’s stereo system.  The sound in the video is crisp enough to hear the lyrics:

“This is a man’s man’s world

but it wouldn’t mean nothin’, nothin’

without a woman or a girl.”

            Silently, Belmore climbs into the passenger seat and the truck drives away.  This is more than just a tidy means of concluding the performance.  Belmore once again evokes the trauma of witnessing crime and injustice.  Everyone present knows that Belmore is not about to be harmed by the man in truck.  She is re-enacting the beginning of a pattern in which many other women have been harmed.  Once again, the audience bears witness to trauma, accompanied by the irony of the James Brown lyrics.

Figure 6. Belmore leans against a truck that has been parked alongside the performance space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Named and the Unnamed 

Video Installation

Figure 7. Rebecca Belmore, video Installation view of The Named and the Unnamed, 2002.

            For the video installation of this performance, the video was projected over a screen backed by approximately fifty light bulbs (Figures 7 and 8), the number of bulbs being approximately the same number of women who were known to have gone missing at the time of the performance.  The pattern of the light bulbs remains on the retinas long after one has walked away from the piece.  Video, being a recording of a past event, doesn’t have quite the same immediacy of witnessing a performance.  Belmore’s use of the light bulbs in this installation provides that physical presence, an effect on the viewer’s body, a physical response that lingers and restores something of the anxiety that one experiences while being physically present for a performance.  The pattern of afterimages is disorienting.  It is almost as if it has become part of your eyes, part of your vision, and is replicated everywhere you look.  It is difficult to walk, impossible to look at any other artworks until the spots before your eyes fade.  Belmore succeeded in finding a way to turn a visual experience, a video installation into a visceral experience.

Figure 8. Rebecca Belmore, video installation view of The Named and the Unnamed, 2002

 In a previous blog entry with a title that is much too long and which I have shortened to blah blah blah, you will find a full description of the spheres of performance that I adapted from Richard Schechner’s. I modified his spheres to better fit my observations of the dynamics of Native/First Nations performance art practices. The following is an analysis of Vigil and The Named and the Unnamed based on this revised theoretical model.

            Because the primary impulse of Vigil and the Named and the Unnamed is one of memorialization of the murdered women, the most emphasized sphere is the trauma that Belmore evokes: both the trauma to the women and the trauma to the communities touched by their disappearances.  I include feelings of guilt and the neglect of civic duties as being within the range of traumas evoked by the performance and the installation variant of it.  The trauma that is evoked is not totally dissimilar to the ways in which trauma is evoked in Argentina’s activist performances in opposition to the “Dirty War” in which an estimated thirty-thousand leftists were “disappeared,” one-third of whom were women.[7]

Figure 9. diagram for Vigil and The Named and the Unnamed

 Particular methods of public protests, called escraches, or public acts of shaming, have been a primary method of protesting the disappearances that began in the late in Argentina in1970s.  Escraches are loud, very public, and involve large numbers of people, all factors that differ from Belmore’s Vigil.  A factor that is similar is the attention to place.  In preparation for the escraches organized by the group H.I.J.O.S., the neighborhoods and buildings that served as concentration camps, clandestine torture centers, and the homes of the alleged perpetrators are targeted by placards identifying the locations as the sites of atrocities.  The signage informs the neighbors of information that they otherwise might not be aware of.  The signs renew public memory of crimes that are now decades old. 

            Another method combining protest and grief has been modeled by the Abuelas and Madres, the female relations of those who had “disappeared” in Argentina.  The official records that these people had ever existed had also been destroyed.   The escraches are outgrowths of the performance protests of the Abuelas and Madres, who have met every Thursday at the Plaza del Mayo in the center of Argentina’s political and economic district.  They created a spectacle of elderly women in white head scarves who wore the evidence of the existence of those who had disappeared on their bodies by pinning photos and the ID cards of those who had gone missing onto their clothing and walking silently around the plaza.[8] 

            There are many differences between both the situations and methods employed in the case of Argentina’s missing and presumably dead, and Belmore’s evocation of Vancouver’s missing women.  First, there is the difference in scope.  Less than one hundred women have been identified as missing in the city of Vancouver.  The number missing in Argentina is around thirty-thousand.  The Argentinian protests are ongoing events involving thousands of participants and are not meant to be art, but are aimed at creating political change and exposing crimes by the government.  Belmore’s performance is an artwork, not a mass protest against a government that has directly ordered abductions and murders.  The Vancouver murders were committed by a single person and the government’s culpability is only that of failure to recognize the pattern and take action.  Those who disappeared in Argentina were political dissidents.  Those who disappeared in Vancouver were poverty-stricken women who had turned to selling themselves to survive.  With so many differences between the protest performances in Argentina and this performance by Belmore, why even consider them together?  The similarities seem so slight.  Both involve the disappearance and murder of a significant number of people.  In the case of the protests of the Abuelas and Madres and Belmore’s performance, the actions are those women who are bearing witness and causing others to publicly bear witness to the existence of those who have disappeared.  The Abuelas carry ID cards from the missing.  Belmore shouts out the names of the missing, another method of individually recognizing those who went missing.  The most important similarity between all these public actions has to do with the transmission of trauma.   The method of individualizing the disappeared is different in each case because of the difference in what might be understood as the reason for the disappearances.  Those who disappeared in Argentina were political dissenters and their families are not ashamed of those who disappeared, nor do they blame their relations for their own disappearances.  This is not the quite the same with the women in Vancouver.  There is a tendency to blame the victim.  Some of the families are ashamed of what they thought their female relations had become.  There is always some disapproval involved, and some of the families do not want it publicly known that their missing relative had been engaging in prostitution.  This is not the case universally.  There is a memorial website that features photographs of the women who went missing.  The photographs date from happier days, before the women left home for the streets of Vancouver.  Belmore’s memorialization of the women respects the surviving families’ desire for privacy and still satisfies the need to recognize, honor, and mourn the women individually.

            Diana Taylor is particularly interested in how traumatic memories are transmitted and makes the following connections between trauma studies and performance studies, some of which are relevant to Belmore’s Vigil and The Named and the Unnamed. 

  1. Performance protest helps survivors cope with individual and collective trauma by using it to animate political denunciation.
  2. Trauma, like performance, is characterized by the nature of its “repeats.”
  3. Both make themselves felt affectively and viscerally in   the present.
  4. They’re always in situ.  Each intervenes in the       individual/political/social body at a particular moment and reflects particular tensions.
  5. Traumatic memory often relies on live, interactive  performance for transmission.  Even studies that emphasize the link between trauma and narrative make evident in the  analysis itself that the transmission of traumatic memory from victim to witness involves the shared and participatory act of telling and listening associated with  live performance.  Bearing witness is a live process, a doing, an event that   takes place in real time, in the presence of a listener who ‘comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event.[9]

            The proposed relationship between the witness and the listener, in which the listener becomes a co-owner of the traumatic event can be much more complex than represented here, although events can certainly play themselves out in this manner.  There are situations in which this does not accurately describe the dynamics though.  A Native person relating a shared history of trauma such as the Trail of Tears or the Sand Creek Massacre within a group composed of Native peoples certainly can function in the way that Taylor identified.  Such trauma is a part of history that is understood as not being separate from an Indigenous concept of the present.  A listener who is non-Native, especially a listener who is white, does not become a co-owner or participant in the trauma in the same manner as a Native listener.  So-called “white guilt” becomes an overriding factor.  Each group involved in the evocation of trauma experiences trauma, but it is not necessarily the same trauma.  There is the trauma of grief and injustice perpetrated against a cultural group with which a person identifies.  There is also a trauma resulting from injustices that may have been committed by the cultural group with whom one identifies. There can be a transmission of trauma that causes one to identify with a group with whom one has no other ties. How can such different effects of the transmission of trauma be dealt with in a practical sense?  Fortunately, the transmission of trauma is not so convoluted in Belmore’s performance Vigil.

           The presence of a significant number of First Nations women amongst the Vancouver count of the disappeared does indicate a racial component operating in which Robert Pickton felt justified in viewing these women as valueless, invisible, and unlikely to be missed.  However, Belmore’s performance does not actually emphasize the racial aspect.  The viewers and participants for Vigil and The Named and the Unnamed are usually not being introduced to some new, unknown trauma.  This is already a shared trauma tied to this locale.  Taylor says, “By emphasizing the public rather than the private repercussions of traumatic violence and loss, social actors turn personal pain into the engine for cultural change.”[10]   Belmore is not transmitting a trauma to a formerly untraumatized group of listeners.  She evokes an already shared trauma, renewing memory in a way that could be understood as a restitution for the previous invisibility of the chain of events that had begun from this location.  Considering the heavy-handed restrictions by Canadian courts against reportage of new developments in the Pickton case, such public evocation of trauma as a part of memorialization may be a necessary step toward healing by giving public occasions for the expiation of feelings of guilt for having failed to either notice the pattern of disappearances, or for having attempted and then failed to convince authorities to act upon information that could have prevented future deaths.[11]

         The cultural critique that Belmore engages in is primarily intra-cultural critique, this time with Vancouver-at-large as the subject of the critique, though an argument could also be made for inter-cultural critique as well if we consider that the women’s vulnerabilities to both Pickton and the legal system were based on race and class in addition to gender.  The aspect of dealing with spiritual and natural forces is perhaps less obvious than in the other works, but Belmore’s cleansing of the street-corner can be understood as not only a physical cleansing of the space, but an emotional and spiritual cleansing to prepare herself and the space for the physically and emotionally difficult work she was about to do.

            Both permutations of the artwork also stimulate the senses.  Visually, her choices of bright colors: hot pink dishgloves, red dress, white tanktop, blood-red roses provide contrast and intense color in comparison to an otherwise drab street scene.  Her interactions with the roses and the struggle to free herself from the dress and nails create a visceral reaction in those in the performance audience and the video installation audience, as does the temporarily blinding experience of watching the video projection with the bright spots of the light bulbs and their persistent afterimages.

          Belmore is creating culture and exercising culture by devising a form of public commemoration and mass memorial.[12]  The title of the originating performance, Vigil, makes that association clear.  The identity that comes into play for this performance is not Belmore’s own identity, but the identities of women who fell victim to Robert Pickton.  These women were also victims to society’s indifference to the disappearances of women who were of questionable virtue and/or women of color.   Clearly, this pairing of works by Belmore also teaches us about these tragic events and helps to keep them in the public mind regardless of the Canadian legal restriction on news coverage of the case.

For more about Rebecca Belmore, please visit her website: http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/home.html


[1] Many of the victims were First Nations women who had left their home communities to come to Vancouver.

[2] Belmore was not a resident of Vancouver at the time, though she has since relocated and now lives and works out of Vancouver.  Personal communication, November 2002.

[3]  The first disappearances began in the late 1970s.  Canadian court injunctions have severely limited Canadian coverage of the case, even trying to extend their authority to US Newspaper coverage, internet reportage, and broadcasts provided by US television stations.  A search of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation records returns no published articles.  The exception to this Canadian blackout appears to be www.ctv.ca which only carries three items in its archives.  One of their resources is a timeline of the cases, which begins with the 1978 abduction of Lillian Jean O’Dare.  The Seattle television station King5 is the most reliable source of information and maintains 48 articles so far in their web archive at www.king5.com.  Other information sources are websites and organizations for serial killer aficionados and their information must be assumed to be less reliable. For photographs of the missing women, see http://www.missingpeople.net/home.html

[4] Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Rebecca Belmore:  The Named and the Unnamed.  Vancouver, Canada: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, 2003. p. 18.

[5] Deborah Feldman.  “Woman Reveals Experiences with Robert Pickton,” a transcription of a news broadcast aired February 5, 2003 and available at King5.com.

[6]   Once Belmore had pulled the dress over her street clothes, she removed the jeans from under the concealment of the full skirt.

[7] Diana Taylor.  You are Here: H.I.J.O.S. and the DNA of PerformanceThe Archive and the Repertoire, p. 169.

[8] Taylor, 171.

[9] Taylor, pp. 165-167.

[10] Taylor, p. 168.

[11] Belmore is not the only artist to create work around the disappearance of so many street women in Vancouver.  Charlotte Townsend-Gault identifies two other artists who have worked with this subject:  Paul Wong in 1973 and Stan Douglas in 2003.  See Townsend-Gault, Rebecca Belmore: The Named and the Unnamed, p. 19. 

[12] Expression of community trauma and grief also took the form of a song written in tribute to the women who disappeared.  The lyrics are reproduced in the Appendix of my dissertation.  Family members of some of the women who disappeared began a process of social redress by opening Legacy House, designed as a transitional house to aid women in getting off the streets, out of drug addiction, and into safety.

4 thoughts on “Rebecca Belmore: Vigil and The Named and The Unnamed

  1. Pingback: Friend or Foe – Part III: Photos from Rebecca Belmore’s Video Installation at Or Gallery (May 2010) « Not Artomatic

  2. Pingback: Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist? « Not Artomatic

  3. Pingback: Creativity out of protest? | We are OCA

  4. Pingback: Performance Documentation: Vestige Vagabond « Not Artomatic

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