Friend or Foe, Part II

Terrance Houle, Friend or Foe, video installation, 2010 (Photo by Lara Evans)

My first entry on the exhibition “Friend or Foe” focused on a series of photographs by Terrance Houle in the exhibition. Part II focuses on his video installation work Friends and Foes at Or Gallery in Vancouver, BC.[1] The video is projected floor-to-ceiling on the wall of the gallery. It is a series of scenes with the artist standing in the middle or foreground, using hand gestures to sign meaning. Each scene ends with a black screen with a text translation of the hand signs.

Curator Darrin J. Martens had this to say about the piece:

“Houle directly addresses his audience through his gaze and signing. Once confronted, the artist sets out to relay a narrative documenting a series of personal relationships – the first being with the audience, whom he terms ‘friend’, the second, a self-identifying term in relationship to his heritage, the third identifies his affiliation with a white man, the fourth with the white man’s infant and lastly Houle’s location. The choice to utilize and portray seemingly ubiquitous terms such as friend, Blackfoot and Paleface as subjects of his video performance demonstrates a position that Houle has taken in relation to human classification systems. By categorizing the audience and terming them ‘friend’ Houle establishes a non-confrontational familiarity that establishes how the remainder of the performance will be executed. Self-identifying as Blackfoot, the artist locates his aboriginality visually, through the sign for Blackfoot and his apparel – loincloth, headdresses and moccasins. The following two series of signings position Houle in relation to his subjects – his white friend and infant. By utilizing terms such as Paleface and Paleface’s Baby, Houle confronts his audience with stereotypes of his friends, denying their individual identity. The presentation of the performance and the signs the artist presents demonstrates nonverbally, the power and influence that naming has when the classifying human social relationships and challenges the audience to consider the significance of racially motivated classifications of Native and non-Native persons.”[2]

What this description does not convey is the irony and humor involved in the piece. A normal-looking Indian guy (not a chiseled Hollywood Indian) stands on sidewalk in front of a movie theater with a marquee reading Machotaildrop (a skateboarder movie), Eddies (a documentary about an amateur beer commercial contest), and Surf Across Canada (yes, about surfing). He is scantily clad in the loincloth mentioned above. People walk through the shot. Some stare at Houle. Others ignore him. He gestures in silence. The screen goes to black, and then we find out what he said with his gestures. There is definitely absurdity and irony present. There is no sound attached to the video piece. That plus the use of black screens with text between shots reminds the viewer of old silent films from the first days of moving pictures. There are competing tensions between the genre as carrying historic weight and significance, and the melodramatic gestural acting that is so different from our contemporary notions of acting. Houle confronts us with references to several different historical moments: the contemporary (suburban, urban, and public park settings), the early 20th century (borrowing the conventions of silent films, such as intertitles), and the 18th-19th century (wearing loincloth from red trade cloth). Different historical moments overlay one another, as different methods of communication overlay one another. Houle uses traditional hand signs he learned from within his family. The terminology that he uses in his translation fits in with the early Hollywood Indian fantasies and stereotypes. The medium in which the work is executed is important. It would not work simply as a live performance or as still photographs. The development of narrative techniques in film between the 1880s and 1930s coincide with the development of popular stereotypes about Indians that were central to the new “American” literature that had developed in the 19th century. I see a subtle link between the stereotypical representations of Indians speaking in broken English, frozen in time at the moment of “contact,” and the power of the genre of film. Large numbers of silent “western” films were made – most of which have not survived. But the genre continued into the era of “talkies,” and moved into television as well. Houle references this past, makes use of it, but subverts it by taking center stage (so to speak), and claiming his identity as “Friend to Paleface” and “Friend to Paleface Baby.” There are no foes here.

The clip above shows a section of the projected video.

An interesting observation about the installation:

As I noted above, there is no sound to the video. However, it was installed in the same room as Rebecca Belmore’s video installation piece. Belmore’s piece incorporates the video documentation of two performances, Victorious and Against Glass. The sound from this installation occasionally intrudes upon Houle’s piece, with the triumphal music of God Save the Queen the most intrusive section of audio. As both pieces play on a loop and are different lengths, God Save the Queen cuts in at a different moment during each replay of Houle’s work. I don’t think it detracts from Houle’s work though. I might actually miss it if I were to see his piece installed without Belmore’s piece in such close proximity.


[1] The exhibition is no longer on display. It closed in July 2010.

[2] Darrin J. Martins, Friend or Foe (Exhibition Catalogue), Vancouver, BC: Or Gallery, 2010, p. 2.

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