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.

What to Do When Theory Does Not Work For You: Native Performance Art and Performance Theory Revised

This is actually an excerpt from my dissertation, so it reads a bit stiff. Take with a grain of salt, or perhaps snarkiness.

Many writers have produced insightful analyses of work by performance artists using a number of theoretical and methodological approaches. The field of performance studies has undergone incredible growth in a fairly short period of time. Searching for theories and methodologies that would be useful to me, I found myself with a number of questions. Much of performance studies theory is based upon theater and theatrical modes. The indigenous cultures of North America did not practice theater in the European tradition, but have any number of other performative traditions. Might these other traditions produce different ideas, different theories about performance? The diversity of those traditions makes it realistically impossible to develop one overarching theory equally applicable to each distinct culture-group. It may be possible to develop some theories about Native North American theatrical modes based upon shared inter-tribal social milieus, such as powwow culture, inter-tribal political and economic entities, and even on-line bulletin boards, chat rooms, and newsletters, where it has been necessary to develop respectful ways of interacting and creating Indigenous communities composed of scores of tribes and accommodating differences between urban Indian and reservation/reserve customs. Such inter-tribal communities are often temporary in nature and the acceptable kinds of interactions and permissions must then be constantly negotiated anew. There is no Emily Post Book of Manners to codify inter-tribal relations. If the point of traditional theory is to posit predictable outcomes and stable meanings, then a quantum theory for human culture would seem to be necessary. The verb “community” in this inter-tribal situation could be metaphorically described as the movement along the path of a string thousands of miles long, tied together at both ends, and piled in criss-crossing, spaghetti-like loops across the whole of Turtle Island.[1] The verb “community” is akin to the verb “journey.” And being a loop, there is no destination, only overlapping journey-ings along the way.

Performance theory arising from Western theatrical traditions is not categorically useless, of course. Theater is definitely something with which all contemporary Native people have familiarity. The particular artists I am focusing on, James Luna, Rebecca Belmore, and Greg Hill, do not claim any alliance with theater and do not describe themselves as actors or entertainers. They consider themselves visual artists and all work in media other than performance art, such as painting, photography, sculpture, and installation art. Another potential problem with performance theory as it has been developed thus far is its ethnographic emphasis, as we see in the theoretical work of Dwight Conquergood. The following five areas of performance studies[2], as identified by Conquergood, are useful in some respects. I present Conquergood’s five areas below and then follow each with my response regarding its applicability to my particular project, which is analysis and art criticism of contemporary Native and First Nations performance art.

Conquergood’s Five Areas of Performance Studies:[3]

1. Conquergood’s Performance and Cultural Process:

“What are the conceptual consequences of thinking about culture as a verb instead of a noun, a process instead of product? Culture is an unfolding performative invention instead of a reified system, structure, or variable? What happens to our thinking about performance when we move it outside of aesthetics and situate it at the center of lived experience?”

In Response to Performance and Cultural Process:

The proposition of treating culture as a verb is a conclusion that I had reached independently, prior to reading Conquergood. The conceptual consequences of thinking about culture as an unfolding performative venture instead of a reified system, structure, or variable is a conceptual shift that brings us closer to an Indigenous viewpoint that allows the continuation of Indigenous identities and cultures rather than extermination through “assimilation.”

In regard to my particular project, there is a problem with the last sentence of Conquergood’s Performance and Cultural Process. He asks what would happen if we moved performance outside aesthetics and situated it in the center of lived experience. One of the criticisms Luna has made of the writing that has been done about his work is that the aesthetics are not considered. Only the “Indian” content is analyzed. It is not necessary to place performance as the center of lived experience at the expense of aesthetics. In regard to art, even performance art, it is possible and even necessary to consider all of the following: the interpretation(s) of the content, the viewers’ lived experiences of the artwork, the viewers’ lived experiences of the aesthetic elements (the formal artistic elements) of the work, and the artists’ lived experience in the creation of the work, as contributing to the whole understanding of the work.

2. Conquergood’s Performance and Ethnographic Praxis: “What are the methodological implications of thinking about fieldwork as the collaborative performance of an enabling fiction between observer and observed, knower and known? How does thinking about fieldwork as performance differ from thinking about fieldwork as the collection of data? […]”

In Response to Performance and Ethnographic Praxis:

I am not performing ethnography. I am not performing “fieldwork.” If the artists I chose to write about were not artists of a cultural background associated with the primitive, the exotic, the other, then ethnographic approaches and fieldwork would never be proposed as a basis for my work. The model for ethnographic and anthropological research, that is, the researcher/interrogator and the “Indian” informer, is particularly problematic. Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada have come to be very resistant to such unequal relationships except in instances where the tribal groups have themselves commissioned research to be done on their behalf, for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the scholar or institution conducting research. I have no desire to place myself in such a position. I desire to perform art criticism, not ethnography. Art criticism is a highly subjective promotion of the critic’s own ideas and interpretations. A possible place where the similarities between art criticism and Conquergood’s category of “performance and ethnographic praxis” converge would be in the shift toward viewing both ethnography and art criticism as performative acts.

3. Conquergood’s Performance and Hermeneutics: “What kinds of knowledge are privileged or displaced when performed experience becomes a way of knowing, a method of critical inquiry, a mode of understanding? […]”

In response to Performance and Hermeneutics:

Conquergood is asking this question about privileging or displacing kinds of knowledge from a distinctly Western viewpoint. He is speaking from a normative assumption that knowledge is NOT performed experience. Conquergood’s assumption is that performed experience is not already a valid method of critical inquiry or understanding. I am beginning with the opposite assumption: performed experience is a valid, rigorous method of critical inquiry and a way of knowing.

4. Conquergood’s Performance and Scholarly Representation: “What are the rhetorical problematics of performance as a complementary or alternative form of “publishing” research? What are the differences between reading an analysis of fieldwork data, and hearing the voices from the field interpretively filtered through the voice of the researcher[…] What about enabling people to perform their own experience? […]”

In response to Performance and Scholarly Representation:

A completed dissertation, the “publication” of research, would not seem to have a complementary performance event, however, the dissertation defense meeting is actually a performative event. The performance of the meeting is built into the process of awarding the doctoral degree. The dissertation defense meeting cannot serve as a substitute for the written dissertation; it is complementary to, but not a true alternative to publishing research.

To consider the questions about alternatives to “publishing” research, I will use a particular situation as a case study. I attended the New York University-based Hemispheric Institute’s Fifth Encuentro, Performing Heritage: Contemporary Indigenous and Community-Based Practices. As part of the Encuentro, I was asked to interview James Luna. The interview was to be filmed. Luna and I discussed alternative ways of doing the interview ahead of time. After all, the bulk of the material that has been published about his work is actually in the form of interviews. An especially good interview had been published just recently. Luna has also made or participated in several videos in which he speaks about his work at length. The Hemispheric Institute’s interview would seem to be redundant. Instead, Luna and I planned to do a performance of an interview. The artwork would certainly be discussed, but the performance would make clear the power structures inherent in the interview process itself, as well as its associations with the historic academic practices of anthropologists/ethnographers and “Indian informants.” This approach seemed to be very much in keeping with the institute’s goals:

“The Encuentro seeks to bring together students, scholars, artists, and activists to develop models of intellectual and artistic inquiry that are specially suited to the study of social and political formations in the Americas. It explores the potential offered by the emerging interdisciplinary field of Performance Studies to provide new means through which to understand the relation between expressive culture (broadly construed as performance) and political movements, identities, and social norms.”[4]

The people from the Hemispheric Institute were excited, but not in the way I had hoped; they were disturbed. They really wanted a “talking heads” type of interview and simply found someone else to do the interview rather than risk something unpredictable happening. To a certain extent, the institute was trying to rectify past imbalances by asking a Native scholar, myself, to interview a Native artist, James Luna. From their point of view, they were handling the matter sensitively. From my point of view, I was being asked to replicate a role in which I was uncomfortable: the interviewer, the interrogator, the intrusive anthropologist trying to get a person’s individual and cultural “secrets” out in the open where they will be fair game for academia and political manipulation. James Luna was enthusiastic about the idea and we were discussing via e-mail ways to both subvert and make that exploitative historic dynamic visible. Unfortunately, an institute that takes a performance studies approach was not interested in an interview that looked at the interview format itself as a performance. Taken on its own, this turn of events is disappointing, to say the least. Much more devastatingly, it was part of a pattern of behaviors I witnessed at the Encuentro. The Indigenous participants from both hemispheres were regulated at every turn by criticisms of our authenticity, by paternalistic attitudes, by the actual censorship and interruption of performances in which things happened that those in charge felt were “inappropriate” behaviors for whatever their ideas of what “Indians” are supposed to be. To be fair, all of these incidents were not the fault of the Hemispheric Institute. The Brazilian hosts and several South American academics, still unshaken in their colonial attitudes, were often sources of conflict. Many individuals from the Hemispheric Institute, of whom I think very highly, seemed embarrassed, and uncomfortable with many of these situations.

In the end, they controlled the money, they controlled the camera, and our interview never happened. The Hemispheric Institute lost an opportunity to create a truly interesting “interview” that, in the words of Conquergood, would have enabled people (Luna and me), to perform our own experience instead of Barbara Walter’s or Frank Hamilton Cushing’s experience.

  1. 5. Conquergood’s The Politics of Performance: “What is the relationship between performance and power? How does performance reproduce, enable, sustain, challenge, subvert, critique, and naturalize ideology? How do performances simultaneously reproduce and resist hegemony? How does performance accommodate and contest domination?”

In response to The Politics of Performance:

Many of the nouns above require a shift to plurals. What kind of power? Whose power? Which ideologies? What about resisting the hegemony of one nation, the USA for example, while acting in support of the hegemony of the Navajo Nation, or complicating things even further, First Nations hegemony? When these questions are adapted to the consideration of Indigenous performance, the complications increase exponentially. How to even begin to describe the permutations and collisions of powers which include economic, governmental, tribal councils, internal “culture police,” the power of mass media, even spiritual and ceremonial power? When dealing with performances involving such mixed audiences/participants, so many ideologies converge that it seems difficult and “unnatural” to “naturalize” any of them. Some ideologies, power structures, or hegemonies may seem to resonate more with one participant than another, but the complexities are such that it is likely impossible for any one person taking part in the kinds of performance art events I am writing about to emerge without some doubts about her or his assumptions and interpretations of what exactly went on there. As human beings, we are always searching for organizational patterns. It is a disconcerting experience when such patterns are so complex that they elude us. Richard Schechner has experimented with methods of organizing performative experience in theoretical models, such as the identification of a set of interlocking spheres that constitute universal aspects of performance.

Schechner’s Spheres of Performance

Richard Schechner proposed thinking of performance, the big picture of performance rather than the narrower category of performance art, as a series of seven interlocking spheres, which he rendered in a diagram as circles shown in Figure 1. The seven spheres are labeled as follows:

To Entertain

To Deal with the Divine and the Demonic

To Teach or Persuade

To Create Beauty

To Foster Community

To Make or Change Identity

To Heal

Figure 1. After Richard Schechner’s Seven interlocking spheres of performance. Diagram by the author.[5]

I had difficulty relating Schechner’s spheres to my own work as some of the categories seemed inappropriate, so I reworked the spheres until the categories better addressed my observations of the performance art I have been studying. Just as in Schechner’s analysis, every aspect, or “sphere” may not be present in any given performance art work, and some aspects may be more emphasized than others. The basic “spheres” I have developed for my own use are illustrated by the diagram in Figure 2. To make this type of diagram useful for the individual performance artworks I write about, the combination and configuration of the interlocking spheres will change according to the emphases of each of the performances. If nothing else, my hope is that these diagrams can provide visual cues to assist in organizing an understanding of the complexities of the performances.

I developed the following nine aspects of Native performance art for my own diagrammatical rendering:

To Exchange or To Gift

To Deal with Natural and Spiritual Forces

To Teach or Persuade

To Stimulate the Senses

To Exercise Culture, To Create Culture

To Make or Change Identity

To Deal with Racism/Romanticism

To Engage in Inter- and/or Intra- cultural Critique

To Deal with Trauma and Healing

Figure 2. Spheres of Performance specifically applicable to Native performance art. A revision of Schechner’s Seven Spheres. Designed and rendered by the author.

Why was it necessary to develop a different theoretical picture for aspects of Native performance art? Some of the reasons have to do with art and art discourse itself. For instance, “beauty” is a problem in Schechner’s scheme because there is no agreement on what exactly beauty is. Issues of performance aside, not all really great art shows us beauty; skillful ugliness is also sometimes vitally important. To only make art that is “beautiful” is to drastically limit human experience. Beauty also implies only visual attraction. Performance artworks can employ sound, scent, and tactile experiences that that may be of equal importance to the visual experiences. Therefore, in my own identification of spheres of performance, I have chosen to substitute “To Stimulate the Senses” for “To Create Beauty.” Charlotte Townsend-Gault also recently made a call to consider more than simply the visual aspect of the “visual arts.” In her essay “Struggles with Aboriginality/Modernity,” Townsend-Gault says “Reinstating the sensorium – reprivileging the senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing – is now central to the promotion of indigenous knowledge. This take on embodiment is frequently linked to the unwritten knowledge carried in oral traditions where embodied knowledge is the counterpart of that found in books.”[6] Townsend-Gault is referring to the type of embodied, enacted knowledge that I am taking as the basis for my understanding of the dynamics, purposes, and aesthetics of performance art as practiced by Indigenous artists. The phrase “to create beauty” automatically includes a value judgment: positive or negative. Substituting the phrase “To Stimulate the Senses” not only recognizes the importance of senses other than sight, it makes no value judgment about that sensory experience in terms of de facto labeling some sensory input “good” and another sensory input as “bad.”

What exactly does it mean “to foster community,” the phrasing used by Schechner? The impression this wording gives is that “community” is a child, and an orphan at that. “Community” requires a parental intervention. Fostering community is a common phrase, and I am perhaps overanalyzing it, but the wording indicates some unspoken assumptions about the nature of community the noun and community the subject. There is no proper English conjugation for “community” that would transform it into a verb without certain other idealized connotations attached to it. To replace Schechner’s community sphere, I began with thinking about what community (the noun) means. Community implies a group of people at least somewhat in accord, either through ideology, physical proximity, or some other common relationship. This lead me to think about the problems regarding Indigenous cultures and historic issues regarding “authenticity” and the difficulties Native peoples encounter when asserting their contemporary culture as equally authentic as what is popularly regarded as “pre-contact” or “historic-period” culture. I came to the conclusion that community and culture are inseparable. As long as culture is viewed as static, unchanging, then “community” must indeed be “fostered” in order to maintain the status quo, the illusion that culture, or at least some aspects of culture, are stable. If we accept culture as ever-changing, then community is ever-changing as well. Substituting “To Foster Community” with the phrase “To Exercise Culture, To Create Culture” removes the paternalistic overtones and recognizes that Indigenous peoples make their own determinations about how they practice their own cultures, how they build, rebuild, and grow culture through their own agency, will and actions. This concept of building culture, of culture as a growing process, a verb rather than a stationary noun, is useful in thinking about anyone’s culture. Culture is what we do, on an individual level, and as aggregates, in pockets, in strands, in families, on street corners, in our cars. Fostering community is goal-oriented. Exercising culture is process-oriented.

Play is an integral part of human interaction and has been theorized across numerous disciplines. Like culture and community, “play” is hard to pin down. Yet it is clear that nearly every work of performance art I present here possesses an element of play, of irony, and humor. Returning to my experiences at the INDIANacts conference in Vancouver, BC, I repeatedly heard a difference in the way artists who made performance art and artists who primarily aligned themselves with theater conceived of their actions. An area of disconnect centered around concepts of “play.” There seemed to be a fundamental difference in their conceptions of play. For the theater-influenced participants, play was freeing and theater gave them license to play as fully as possible, without repercussion. Indigenous performers who primarily viewed themselves as theatrical actors seemed to closely identify with Nietzsche’s idealization of play:

In this world only play, play as artists and children engage in it, exhibits coming-to-be and passing-away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive, in forever equal innocence.[7]

Apparently, the theater as an institution seemed to protect them from the kinds of negative consequences that the performance artists were concerned with.

In contrast, actions by performance artists were understood to have consequences both for the artists and their audience-participants. This was not just the perception of the performance artists, but one that had also been a concern expressed by elders and other members in their Indigenous communities.[8] Play, humor, and irony might be elements of a performance, but the way in which sensitive cultural matters are played out in performance art events could be causes of strife, dissent, and actual spiritual, emotional, and physical harm.[9]

Whenever improvisation is a performative strategy in ritual, it places ritual squarely in the domain of play. It is indeed the playing, the improvising, that engages people, drawing them into the action, constructing their relationships, thereby generating multiple and simultaneous discourses always surging between harmony/disharmony, order/disorder, integration/opposition, and so on.[10]

Margaret Thompson Drewel’s quote above, written in regard to Yoruba ritual is useful in delineating some of the issues Native American and First Nations performance artists find themselves navigating out of necessity. Firstly, I must stress that these artists are NOT performing rituals. There are sometimes ritual aspects incorporated into performances, but their performances are not intended to substitute for or revise traditional ritual practices. Drewel describes improvisation as a strategy that causes play to dominate ritual. This could be an accurate description of Yoruba ritual, but has the potential effect of trivializing ritual itself. Performance art that includes audience participation has improvisational elements as a result, but do not definitively place the performance within the domain of play, at least, not the kind of play that Drewel seems to describe, in which oppositions and contradictions are safe, permissible, and without lasting effect, contained within the boundaried space of ritual.

For Indigenous performance artists, the concept of deep play, introduced by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by Clifford Geertz carries greater relevance. Deep play is a type of play in which an observer may judge the risks to outweigh any potential rewards.[11] Performance artists of color in some sense engage in what could be called deep play every time they undertake a performance. As a result of racism, stereotype, and conflicts with dominant paradigms, performance artists of color engage in deep play even in situations where there no risk of physical harm. Native performance artists engage in deep play on multiple fronts: confronting racism, stereotypes and romanticism, risking disapproval from their home communities and other Native communities, and risking some potential for emotional trauma to themselves arising from a performance.

Deep play is a feature that is observable in much performance art, as is another type of play, dark play. Dark play, as described by Richard Schechner involves fantasy, luck, daring, intervention, and deception. “Dark play subverts order, dissolves frames, and breaks its own rules – so much so that playing itself is in danger of itself being destroyed… Unlike carnivals or ritual clowns whose inversions of established order are sanctioned by the authorities, dark play is truly subversive, its agendas always hidden. Dark play’s goals are deceit, disruption, excess, and gratification.”[12] Dark play can also involve truly life-threatening activities that may actually cause physical harm, mutilation, or even death. This is the sensationalism which is frequently associated with performance art as an artistic medium, but which is comparatively rare in performance art as practiced by Native American and First Nations artists.

Schechner’s choice of “To Entertain” implies a division into entertainer and a group of people who are passively entertained. This situation creates a community-by-default that is based only upon the presence of a number of people within the same space. There is also an undesirable association between entertainment and frivolousness that trivializes the significance of performance itself. An event need not be “entertaining” in order to capture and hold one’s attention.

Performance art often relies upon audience participation; therefore, I categorize it as an exchange between audience-participants and the artist(s). The exchange could be an exchange of ideas, words, gifts, stories, knowledge, or information of any sort. I substituted “To Entertain” with a sphere labeled “To Exchange or Gift,” a phrase which I intend to encompass a wide range of activities. For example, there can be a fairly equal exchange or non-reciprocal transfers of something tangible or intangible between the artist and individuals, artist and the audience as a whole, or even between audience members. Multiple forms of exchange and gifting can occur within a single performance. Schechner’s entertainment can be encompasses within the concept of exchanging without oversimplifying or trivializing the aspects of performance art that attract participants.

Taking exchange processes as a fundamental aspect of performance transforms the conception of those present as a passive noun-based definition of community to the concept of community as a verb: focusing on actions and interactions rather than simple proximity.[13] A weakness in Schechner’s spheres is that many of them name actions that do not necessarily have to have more than one participant. One can “entertain” oneself. However, there cannot be a community consisting of only one person. Exchange is part of the conceptual shift from thinking about community as a noun to thinking about community as a verb.

Schechner used the words “to heal” as one of his spheres. In my experience, it is customary to evoke, remember, or somehow make reference to the trauma before any “healing” efforts are made. In order to fully include some of the major aspects in performance art, I combined the purpose of healing with the evocation of trauma. In some instances, the primary impulse is to uncover trauma, without making the presumption that healing is expected to be the outcome. As Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor said about trauma in the introduction to his play Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, “…you can’t overcome 35 years in one hour.”[14] It is naïve to expect to be able to heal five hundred years of trauma in a one-hour performance art event or in any ceremony or ritual. The best that can be hoped is for is to deal in some fashion with that particular trauma and the processes of healing.

One of the most inappropriate of Schechner’s spheres is “To Deal with the Divine and the Demonic” because it uses terminology that is only consistent with a Christian worldview. It also contains an inherent assumption of a stable, binary division into good and evil. I substitute the words “To Deal with Natural and Spiritual Forces.” Judgments or divisions into good and evil can still occur within a performance and are a feature of some of the spiritual structures in some traditional tribal traditions, but my rephrasing makes it possible to reserve prejudicial judgment about a particular natural or spiritual entity. The alteration in phrasing also allows grey areas and complex beings, like Coyote, who is creative, procreative, and destructive, and may be “good” in one instance, and “bad” in another, to be more fully included in a complex analysi s.


[1] “Turtle Island” is a common Indigenously used term that can be used to describe the whole of North American, or even the entirety of the land surfaces of the planet.

[2] Dwight Conquergood, Rethinking Ethnograpyh: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics. Communications Monographs 58 June 1991: 190.

[3] Note that Conquergood’s Five Areas are specifically aimed at an overarching field of performance studies and are not designed to focus on the specifics of performance art. His conception of performance studies in this case is heavily influenced by relationships between the field of performance studies and the field of ethnography. The source of Conquergood’s Five Areas is identified in footnote 21.

[4] Fifth Annual Encuentro program, Hemispheric Institute, New York University, March 2005.

[5] For Richard Schechner’s original diagram, see Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 39.

[6] Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Struggles with Aboriginality/Modernity. Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art, Karen Duffek and Charlotte Townsend-Gault, eds. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. pp. 237-238.

[7] Friederich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. South Bend: Gateway Editions 1962. p. 62.

[8] This interpretation is based upon extended discussion session at the INDIANacts conference in which artists spoke about ways in which they had at various times negotiated with individuals and factions on their reserves and reservations about possible approaches to culturally sensitive community issues.

[9] I experienced an instance of harm arising from the interruption of a performance art event. A particular sequence to bring closure to the event had been planned but was interrupted by facilities managers. Several people involved in the collaborative performance were distressed over the next two days. A group of those who had participated in the performance gathered together and discussed what had gone wrong with the performance, particularly the lack of closure. A respected participant suggested that the difficulties that many of the participants were experiencing were a result of the abrupt fashion in which the performance had ended. We were, in a sense, still consumed by the energy and power that arisen that night. Once the erratic behavior had been discussed as being a result of an uncompleted action with ceremonial overtones, even the most distressed experienced an abrupt alteration.

[10] Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1992, p. 7-8, also quoted in Performance Studies: An Introduction by Richard Schechner, New York: Routledge, 2002. p.100.

[11] Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York Routledge, 2002. pp. 105-109.

[12] Schechner, Performance Studies, 106-107.

[13] The concept of exchange and gifting as being a fundamental aspect of performance also allows for the consideration of performances that border on ritual, where the performer’s audience does not consist of human beings, but may include audience-participants such as natural forces, spiritual beings, plants, animals, landscape features that may not ordinarily be considered as participants or audiences.

[14] Drew Hayden Taylor, Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: Talon Books, 1998. p. 12.