Megaphone? What Megaphone?

Drawing based on photo of Belmore's performance "Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother," from 1991.

AND now I have more to say about the recent trouble swirling around esteemed artist Rebecca Belmore, all a result of the lawsuit brought against her by her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi Gallery. Just in case you don’t already know the details, please see my previous posts(all links open in a new window):

Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist?

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

Is it Really Possible to QUIT Art?

I’ll assume that you already know that one of  the big monetary claims against her by the gallery is that she nixed the sale of a particular piece of artwork(identified as Megaphone) to a major Canadian museum – something that Nadimi would have made a huge profit from. I have spent some time thinking about the piece that newspapers keep calling Megaphone. If it’s the piece that I’m thinking of, I don’t think it is actually titled “Megaphone.” It could be described as a megaphone, but the actual title on the occasions where it has been put to use, to my knowledge, is Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother.  The sculpture is actually an object used in a series of performance artworks. I can understand why the artist might have second thoughts about turning it over to a museum. I tried to write about this particular work in my dissertation and ended up deciding that this work had crossed over from art world territory and into ceremony. It didn’t feel right to write about it strictly as a work of art, but I know I’m not qualified to write about it as a ceremonial object.  But since this piece is now at the center of a controversy, I think it needs to be talked about one way or another, even if I feel uncomfortable about it.

The first performance of Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, occurred in Banff, Alberta (1991) and consisted of thirteen First Nations speakers addressing the earth through the use of this large megaphone constructed of wood with exquisitely sanded and painted surfaces.  This is “talking back” on an entirely different order than envisioned by post-colonial theory, and a very different synaesthetic relationship between subjects.  The audience in this case consists of the thirteen people (who are also the performers) and an entity (the earth) that does not hear in a conventional sense. The two-and-one-half meter wide megaphone is a beautifully crafted object and the trumpet-like form can be compared to the form of a flower executed in gigantic scale.  Out of the thirteen addresses delivered to the earth in the initial performance, only a partial transcript of Belmore’s address through the megaphone is available:

My heart is beating like a small drum, and I hope that you mother earth can feel it.  Someday I will speak to you in my language.  I have watched my grandmother live close to you, my mother the same.  I have watched my grandmother show respect for all that you have given her…Although I went away and left a certain kind of closeness to you, I have gone in a kind of circle.  I think I am coming back to understanding where I come from…[1]

            Taken as a prayer, as such an oration performed in a group of elders must be considered, it is a customary formula.  The pattern, rhythm, and words chosen are those of oratory prayer.  I originally thought this to be the reason only a portion of the address has been reproduced in print.  I thought it possible that the orations of the elders were not recorded or are considered protected, confidential, and arguably ceremonial in nature, thus making it inappropriate for reproduction in an art catalogue.  I found out more about the situation during the INDIANacts conference in 2002.  Belmore explained that during the first performance using this trumpet-like device, a hiker some distance higher up the hill slipped on the loose shale and fell to his death.  There was no literal connection between the hiker’s death and the use of the sound-producing sculptural object used in the performance.  Even so, Belmore spoke of this event as devastating and seriously affecting the performance.  She had some question at the time as to whether they should continue with the performance at all.  But acknowledgement of that death became part of the performance.  The trauma of the event – the loss of a life – transformed a performance into something more akin to ceremony.  The death required acknowledgement, lest the trauma of that event harm those present.  This is not a performance; it is not any sort of play, not even deep play or dark play.  Out of absolute necessity, a collaborative performance that held traditional meanings and incorporated the sacred became a very serious and necessary impromptu ceremony.  The direction that this performance unexpectedly took is something Belmore said she had not been able to publicly discuss for more than ten years.  She seemed reluctant to discuss it still, and it is a reluctance I share.  However, what happened to that performance makes an important point about the ethics of Native and First Nations performance art practices.  Performances have power.  There are consequences that must be dealt with, not just for the artist, but for the participants, the audiences, and for the very ground upon which they stand.

            Documentation of this performance has been somewhat sketchy, which is certainly understandable under the circumstances.  It is important to note that the performance format using this sculptural megaphone was utilized subsequently without ill effect. 

            After this initial address to the earth, the megaphone was put to a clearly political use as part of a formal protest by the Assembly of First Nations directed against the First Minister’s Conference held in Ottawa in June of 1996.  Charlotte Townsend-Gault describes this movement of the work into an overtly political context as “the ultimate vindication of the work.”[2] Conceptually for those involved in future performances using this means of address, the ceremonial honoring of the death on the mountain adds to the power perceived to be inherent in the trumpet-like form.

            Speaking to Their Mother, in its various incarnations is less about the body than about the word, and being heard.  It is a means of communicating with each other as well as communicating with something larger than ourselves.  Conceptually, each address delivered through this means carries with it the power and meanings of the addresses preceding it.  Now knowing more about the history of this performance and its permutations, I find it more and more difficult to write about it as art, even though it incorporates an incredibly beautiful sculptural form.  I also am not qualified to write about Speaking to Their Mother in ceremonial terms because it is not my place to do so.  To know when to be silent is sometimes more important than to know when to speak.

I wrote that paragraph above in 2005. Now that this work of art is at the center of the lawsuit by Pari Nadimi Gallery, I think it is important to imagine that Belmore’s “personal artistic reasons,” for not turning the piece over to the control of a museum may be very complicated and are not entirely personal, either, but are collective. This artwork blurs the lines between performance art and ceremony. It’s more a living object than a relic for a museum. What if it is needed for future use – spiritually or politically? Negotiating the sale of an object that the artist (and her community) might need to “borrow” back for use in a performance, ceremony, or a protest would complicate the conditions for sale. Really, it’s probably better not to sell it at all.

I think any art dealer with a basic understanding of (and respect for) aboriginal culture and who knew the history of the “megaphone” would understand that this piece could only be sold under very special circumstances and with substantial rights reserved for the artist in the event that the artist needed the work for a performance (or a ceremony). In addition to pressing questions about how on earth an artist can change gallery representation without getting into a pickle, this case also raises the question of how on earth indigenous artists can maintain control over sensitive cultural material in such an unequal financial relationship? Does this lawsuit sound like another instance of cultural appropriation?

And is the media’s failure to use the full title of the work with its aboriginal language, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, an attempt to erase the cutlural authority of the artist and the work?

Donations to Rebecca Belmore’s legal expenses can be made at this website:

You can also find the Rebecca Belmore Legal Fund on Facebook.

[1] Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Kinds of KnowingLand Spirit Power: First Nations at the National Gallery of Canada.  Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1992.  p. 97.

[2] Charlotte Townsend-Gault.  Hot Dogs, a Ball Gown, Adobe, and Words: the Modes and Materials of Identity.   Native American Art in the Twentieth Century. W. Jackson Rushing III, ed. New York: Routledge, 1999. p. 122.

Is It Really Possible to QUIT Art?

When rumors went flying around that artist Rebecca Belmore QUIT art, I wondered if it was really possible for any of us who make art to actually quit doing so. Sure, we might have long fallow periods. But when you have a lifelong habit of making objects in order to think through ideas, forbidding yourself from making art is like forbidding yourself from thinking complete thoughts. I mean, really, who has an incomplete thought? More details about WHY Belmore performed the piece Worth on September 11th in Vancouver have slowly been trickling out. If you are new to this series of events, see previous posts Rebecca Belmore Quits Being and Artist? and UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?. Links open in separate windows.

A new article by Marsha Lederman from Globe and Mail had this NEW information:

Worn down by an escalating legal dispute with her former art dealer, Rebecca Belmore – one of this country’s most prominent contemporary artists – arrived at a difficult decision over the Labour Day weekend.

Nearly four years after terminating her relationship with gallery owner Pari Nadimi, and three years after Nadimi began legal proceedings against her, the Anishinabe artist had had enough.

“I was thinking about the pressure of the lawsuit, and I thought: ‘Well, what if I just quit? What if I just quit making art? Then there’d be no problem with making money.’ ”

A week later, on Sept. 11, Belmore staged what would become a much-discussed performance art piece, in large part because of the way it ended: with the artist shouting “I quit!” The Canadian art world was stunned. Was Belmore – who represented Canada at the 2005 Venice Biennale – really quitting?

In her first interview since staging Worth (– Statement of Defence), Belmore has revealed to The Globe and Mail that she had planned to issue a formal statement on the Tuesday after the long weekend to announce that she was quitting.

“Maybe I was a little crazy at that point,” she said in her East Vancouver studio this week. “But when I look back at that moment, that weekend, I thought: ‘If I lose this lawsuit, or if I can’t defend myself against this claim, I have no idea what I’ll do.’ ”

Nadimi, who is based in Toronto, represented Belmore from 2000 to 2006. The dealer alleges that Belmore terminated their agreement without notice, interfered with the gallery’s sale of her art, and that when she left the gallery was in active negotiations for nearly $1.1-million worth of sales revenue in connection with the artist’s works.

Nadimi is seeking $750,000 for wrongful termination as well as unspecified damages for wrongful interference, and unspecified punitive damages for “egregiously high-handed conduct,” according to the statement of claim.

In her statement of defence, Belmore argues she had the right to refuse the sale and did so for “personal artistic reasons.”

“It took my breath away,” Belmore says of the dollar amounts attached to the most recent amendment to the statement of claim, which was filed in Ontario court in June and raised the amount sought for damages for wrongful dismissal from $250,000 to $750,000.

In her statement of claim, Nadimi makes specific reference to the Biennale.

“The Art Gallery’s efforts to promote Belmore were highly successful. In 2005, Belmore was named as Canada’s official representative at the 2005 Venice Biennale, one of the pre-eminent international art exhibitions in the world. This achievement represented a tremendous accomplishment for both Belmore as an artist and the Art Gallery as a successful promoter.”

The statement alleges that Belmore stopped a sale of her work Megaphone to the National Gallery shortly before the work, valued at about $100,000, according to Nadimi, was to be shipped.

This was “embarrassing to the Art Gallery, damaging to Nadimi’s professional reputation and caused her significant mental distress,” her statement of claim reads.

But behind the scenes at the time, Scott Watson, who co-curated Belmore’s Biennale work, was urging the artist to part ways with Nadimi. Belmore says she stuck with Nadimi because it didn’t feel right to leave. “I felt it was unethical to leave her when I was getting this tremendous gig, and I thought it’s not fair to her; it’s not a very nice thing to do.”

Nadimi has not returned calls from The Globe and Mail and her lawyer says they won’t discuss the matter as it is before the courts.

The lawsuit has weighed heavily on Belmore, 50, and on Labour Day weekend it reached the boiling point.

Friends and family managed to talk her out of quitting on back-to-school Tuesday, but spending that week discussing the fight with her legal team (two advisers – one in Toronto and one in Vancouver – are volunteering their services) only reignited her turmoil. “I started to get all undone again.”

By Saturday morning, Sept. 11, Belmore was a mess.

“It was a traumatic morning in my household … I thought there’s no time like right now. I feel this immediately now, this morning. It was very intense. I thought I’m tired of it interfering with my home life, my marriage, my relationships with my sister, my friends. I’m sick of talking about it. I’m sick of listening to advice. I’m sick of seeking advice. So I thought, ‘Well, let’s just go out and do something today.’ ”

At about 9:30 that morning, Belmore called up artist Harold Coego, with whom she shares a studio, and asked for his help. They bought some supplies, and on the street outside her studio painted the sign for the performance. “I Am Worth More Than One Million Dollars To My People,” it read.

The sign was done by about 2 p.m. An hour later, Belmore staged Worth outside the entrance to the Vancouver Art Gallery. She sat cross-legged in front of the sign and a garbage can, then scrubbed the sidewalk, laid out pieces from her work Wild, and lay down. Then, after carefully wrapping the pieces up, she presented them to Daina Augitis, chief curator at the VAG, and yelled “I quit!”

The declaration was spontaneous. “It just slipped out of me. It came to me naturally to say that at the very last minute.”

But gifting the work to the VAG was a deliberate and integral part of the performance. “[Worth] started with the whole idea of: what is an artwork worth? … Who is allowed to give and whose right is it to take? So it’s all about giving and taking and the fact that the art – not just the object, more the idea – belongs to me.

“Artists, I think, are very generous people and I wanted to publicly illustrate that.”

After the performance, Belmore felt “immense relief” that her plight had been made public. And help came. Within a couple of days, Watson purchased the sign from Worth for the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia, where he is director and curator. Glenn Alteen with Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery launched a Rebecca Belmore legal defence fund, which has attracted more than 950 supporters on Facebook and raised about $1,500. Alteen is also organizing an online fundraising auction, with artists such as Ed Pien, Sonny Assu, Kelly Mark and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun donating works.

The support has buoyed Belmore. She is feeling recharged. The night before her interview with The Globe, she started making art again: a T-shirt reading “Thank you.”

Still, she isn’t ruling out quitting in the future. “Who knows? If I lose, and I owe somebody tons of money, then maybe I’ll quit. I used to be a really good waitress.”

At this point, none of the allegations in this case have been proven in court. Belmore will rely on the funds raised to travel to Toronto and fight the lawsuit. She says she does not have the money to cover lawyer fees – or more than $750,000 in potential damages.

“Even though I’ve had all this critical success, it doesn’t necessarily boil down into dollars,” she said. “As an artist, I’m not obsessed with making a lot of money. I’m more obsessed with being a good artist and trying to contribute to culture. I’m not out to make a million dollars. ’Cause I’m worth much more than that – as the sign says.” To see the orginal article in Globe and Mail, click here.

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

Rebecca Belmore in her performance "Worth" on Sept 11, 2010

I am posting this announcement made by Glenn Alteen on Facebook. Not everyone uses Facebook, which is why I am reposting it here on Not Artomatic. I have desperately searched for information on this situation and it has been hard to find – well, here are the details:

by Glenn Alteen

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE September 14, 2010

On Saturday September 11, 2010 Anishnaabe artist Rebecca Belmore performed her new work WORTH (– Statement of Defence) outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). A small audience of artists and curious onlookers gathered as witnesses to the per…formance. (Belmore also donated an earlier work, Wild, (2001) to the VAG.)

‘Witness’ is appropriate in this context, as is the setting of the VAG, a former courthouse building. The performance and the video memorializing it, are Belmore’s response to law suits filed in the Ontario courts involving her former art dealer, Pari Nadimi of Toronto. The work demonstrates the artist’s public commitment to vigorously defending herself, her art practice and more broadly, the rights of all artists against those who seek to exploit them.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), may be viewed at:

Belmore is an acclaimed artist with an international reputation. She has practised in various media, including performance, sculpture, video and photography for over 20 years. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally since the 1980s, most notably, representing Canada at the biennials held in Venice, Sydney and Havana. She also holds an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). In spite of the artist’s significant and broadly-recognized contributions to contemporary art practice, this ongoing litigation, threatens Belmore’s future.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), which features the sign, “I AM WORTH MORE THAN ONE MILLION DOLLARS TO MY PEOPLE,” speaks directly to the value of artists and art production in the 21st Century. The sign also references the amount of ‘damages’ being claimed by Pari Nadimi, an amount the dealer claims she has ‘invested’ in Belmore’s career. Nadimi’s allegations are unproven.

The legal battle began over 4 years ago, when Belmore, after deciding to leave the Pari Nadimi Gallery, requested the return of her artworks, related documentation and the payment (and an accounting) for artwork sold by the dealer. These basic, legal rights are still being violated. Belmore recognizes the importance of the case for herself and others: “If Pari Nadimi is successful in this claim against me, it would mean no artist would ever be free to choose to leave. Artists would be slaves to their galleries. This is a horrible precedent.”

Litigation is expensive. Belmore needs to raise funds to travel to Toronto and to continue to defend herself in this action. While claiming to be impecunious and unable to pay, Nadimi has hired a top Bay Street law firm, Heenan Blaikie. Ironically, the firm’s founder, Roy Heenan, has been a consistent supporter of Canadian art.

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), is therefore an appeal to the public to defend and support “the Artist” and the rights of artists to decide how and where their work is presented. Organizations such as CARFAC <> and others do valuable work to create conditions to ensure rights are protected and respected. However, they lack the mandate and resources to support individual artists in these cases.

Call To Action: A growing number of prominent Canadians in the art world have voiced their support for Belmore, see our website or Facebook for these names. In addition to the moral support, Belmore is seeking donations to defend herself in this litigation. To support her and artists right generally on Facebook

A site is being set up currently and will be linked here when its onlineFor more information about Rebecca Belmore, please see:

Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist?


Rebecca Belmore did a performance in Vancouver, BC in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday, September 11th. I only found out about it two hours before it was to happen – not enough time for me to make the 4 hour drive to go up there. Afterward, I heard from others who were there that at the end of the performance, Belmore announced that she was QUITTING! The rumored reason is that she is being sued by a former dealer. Her performance took place in front of a sign that said “I AM WORTH MORE THAN A MILLION DOLLARS TO MY PEOPLE.” I sincerely hope that Belmore does not quit being an artist. Her work is important in so many ways. I will post more information about this when I have something more than rumors.

For more about Rebecca Belmore see my previous posts

Rebecca Belmore: Vigil and The Named and The Unnamed

Friend or Foe – Part III: Photos from Rebecca Belmore’s Video Installation at Or Gallery (May 2010)

Narrative Strings, thanks to Marcia Crosby

Were you there? I’d love to have a guest essay on the event, or if that’s too much work, just reply in the comments section!

Friend or Foe – Part III: Photos from Rebecca Belmore’s Video Installation at Or Gallery (May 2010)

Rebecca Belmore, Friend or Foe, video installation. Photo Courtesy of Or Gallery.

Here are some photographs of Rebecca Belmore’s installation for Friend or Foe at Or Gallery (curated by Darrin Martens). This video installation includes documentation from two different performances by Belmore. In each case, video from each performance is projected by miniature projectors upon small surfaces set within a miniature sculptural setting that uses mirrors and a set of chess pieces upon a pedestal. The pedestal is topped with frosted glass and conceals a projector that also projects video footage onto the flat surface of the pedestal.

The two performances represented in this piece via their video documentation are Victorious and Against Glass. Victorious was performed in 2008 as part of the HIVE 2 festival in Vancouver, BC. Victorious presented us with a constructed personage – the iconic image of Queen Victoria – as a literal construction. Belmore’s Queen Victoria starts with a seated aboriginal female body, Daina Warren (Montana Slavey Cree Nation). Belmore uses strips of newspaper and honey to build up the throne and period dress of Queen Victoria around Warren’s own form. Musical selections that played during the performance included the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, which also plays as part of this new video installation piece at Or Gallery.

Belmore worked with performer Donald Morin in her performance Against Glass, which took place at University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, BC. Here is Darrin Martens’ description of Against Glass from the 1-page Or Gallery publication Friend or Foe: Rebecca Belmore:

“…Belmore methodically created a structure out of found, recycled, and natural materials that pressed up against the glass wall of the museum forming an enclosure for Morin. The act of creating a performance within the context of MOA’s Great Hall and the landscape setting signalled a challenge to the space that the museum inhabits and the experience that it evokes for its visitors. The idyllic scene, as viewed from the Great Hall, is interrupted and fractured by Belmore’s performance, the structure and the encased aboriginal man. This compartment was inhabited by Morin for nearly an hour while Belmore completed the structure, cleaned the area of unwanted debris and vacated the site. When Belmore returned, Morin left the structure; they systematically dismantled the enclosure, loaded the materials into Belmore’s truck and drove away. The complex performance raises intriguing questions related to aboriginal access and representation within MOA, the relationship between artist(s) and audience members within a performative situation, and the space for aboriginal performance within a Western museum context. The built structure, from the inside referenced a museum-like vitrine — an encasement for an object meant to be viewed.”

I’ve been thinking about this video installation work and the relationship between the objects, the projected images, and the original performances. I did not get to see the performances that make up the video part of this new installation. Does that matter? I suspect that it does. Everything that I know about the videos in this piece comes from reading the brief (but good) gallery guide that was available to take home from the exhibition, or from listing to curator Darrin Martens give a brief public talk about the exhibition. Chess is a metaphor for political maneuvering. With these videos placed on the same field, at approximately the same scale as the chess pieces, does that make the videos (and the original performances) function as another type of chess piece? Which side is which, and which side are the videos on? One miniature projection features Belmore’s co-performer from her performance Against Glass. The second miniature projector plays footage from Victorious. The larger projection that plays on the flat surface (under all the other objects) is documentation footage from Against Glass. And take a close look at the chess pieces… black and white, and all “Indians.” If a viewer does not know anything about these previous performances, what can the viewer make of this work? A tiny projection of a woman building (worshipping?) another woman sits on a screen amongst a set of chess pieces. A fuzzy projection of a man stands amongst chess pieces on the other side of the small tabletop. The same woman builds a lean-to out of junk in a projection that forms the base for all of this action. So many projected images are going on at one time that it is hard to know where to look at any given moment. Your attention is pulled from one video to another, trying to figure out the relationships between each. Is it about poverty, necessity, homelessness, and temporary shelter? Is it about how we work to build up other people into powerful icons? Are we all chess pieces on a board fabricated by homelessness and poverty in the shadow of wealth held in perpetuity by others?

Rebecca Belmore, detail view from Friend or Foe. Photo by the author.

It’s an ingenious installation, both in terms the technical aspects of the projections and in terms of that question about what to do with performance documentation in order to make it stand on its own. This seems to be something that Belmore is particularly good at working out. See my entry on her video installation The Named and the Unnamed for another example of Belmore’s transformation of performance documentation into an independent work.

It’s been two months since I saw Friend or Foe. Obviously, I am still thinking about it. I’ll KEEP thinking about it. I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who got to see either of the two performances (Against Glass or Victorious). I know you’re out there. What was it like to be in the audience? What did you think while it was going on? What did you think in the weeks/months afterward?

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:

[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 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  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

[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

[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.