Dudes Go to Market

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Saddle Up, 2009. Pinhole photograph, digitally enlarged.

Terrance Houle (Bood), Adrian Stimson (Siksika), and Jamison Chas Banks (Seneca-Cayuga/Cherokee), are in Santa Fe this weekend to perform a collaborative performance artwork. The performance is called Buffalo Dudes Go to Market and will take place Saturday, August 18th, 2012 at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) at 4:45 pm.

I’ve written about Houle’s work previously on Not Artomatic, so I am reposting those entries. I’m anticipating a very interesting performance work from Buffalo Dudes. The essay below is about a series of photos taken as part of a performance by Houle at Calgary Stampede. I’m interested to see how Houle, Stimson, and Banks play with the particular dynamics of Santa Fe’s Indian Art Market.

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This  entry is about Terrance Houle’s series of photographs in the exhibition “Friend or Foe” at Or Gallery in Vancouver, BC, 2010. The show, curated by Darrin J. Martens, features work by Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle. The front of the gallery displays large pinhole photographs by Houle that he took at the Calgary Stampede in 2009. (See Figure 3). The Calgary Stampede is a ten-day rodeo festival that revels in all things cowboy. And how can you have cowboys without Indians? A makeshift Indian display set out on a sidewalk in front of The Metropolitan Centre features split-log fencing and a scaled down tipi. Houle, who is of Blood tribe ancestry, stands in a loincloth and commercial moccasins in front of the tipi. Each black and white photograph in this series was actually taken at the same moment, using simultaneous exposures from a number of pinhole cameras placed on-site.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Urban Indian, 2004

Several Native/First nations artists work with photographic images that involve the disruptive sight of a semi-traditionally dressed Indian in clearly modern circumstances. Other artists who used some version of this approach are Jason Lujan, Merritt Johnson, Greg Hill, Zig Jackson, James Luna, etc. I think what makes this particular series interesting is the use of the pinhole camera in different locations, all depicting the same moment. If you’re not familiar with how a pinhole camera works, it’s a low-tech process that uses a light-proof box with an aperture and a manual cover. Black and white photographic paper or film is placed on the back wall of the box. No lens is necessary. Pinhole cameras need longer exposure times depending on ambient light, ranging from five seconds to several hours. Obviously, pinhole cameras are not useful for action shots. The first time an image from a pinhole camera was affixed onto paper was in 1850. It is one of the earliest photographic devices, and its precursor, the camera obscura is traceable back to ancient Rome. Houle’s photographs in this exhibition have the classic hallmarks of pinhole photography: crisp, in-focus stationary objects and a slight blur to people (or anything that moves), as well as a noticeable curvature at the periphery.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Saddle Up, 2009. Pinhole photograph, digitally enlarged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most intriguing aspect of this series, and what differentiates it from Houle’s previous photographic work (see Figure 2), is the use of multiple pinhole cameras to capture the same (long) moment. The deliciousness of the idea is one part failure of the Western Cartesian system, one part postmodernism, and one part security camera. To unpack that statement, the Cartesian system assumes that there is a single viewpoint from which a neutral observer can determine the truth with absolute certainty. The spatial distortions that result from this least-mediated photographic technique combined with the use of multiple points of view fly in the face of supposed photographic truth and the “truth” authority of a singular viewpoint. Houle’s method here is symbolic of an overall shift in Western consciousness… away from certainty and absolute truth and toward the recognition of the viewpoints of other cultures – the upside of postmodern thought. (The downside of postmodern thought is the tendency for completely incoherent narrative). As for my “one part security camera,” I perhaps have less ground to stand on with that association, but it’s definitely a thought that occurred to me as I viewed the work in the gallery. The blurriness and distortion of the images resemble stills taken from security camera footage. Usually, we only see those images when a crime has been committed and excerpts from the footage, often from more than one vantage point, are shown to the public in hopes of eliciting information about a crime. There really isn’t a crime, per se, in Houle’s photographs at the Calgary Stampede, unless he has captured a crime against good taste, or a crime against authenticity, the indignity of cultural tourism, or a crime against history. But that’s tourism for you: an uncomfortable mingling of opportunism, appropriation, fantasy, enlightenment, and kitsch.

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?

Friend or Foe, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

The clip above shows a section of the projected video.

An interesting observation about the installation:

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


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

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

Friend or Foe – Part I

This entry is about Terrance Houle’s series of photographs in the exhibition “Friend or Foe” at Or Gallery. The show, curated by Darrin J. Martens, features work by Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle. The front of the gallery displays large pinhole photographs by Houle that he took at the Calgary Stampede in 2009. (See Figure 3). The Calgary Stampede is a ten-day rodeo festival that revels in all things cowboy. And how can you have cowboys without Indians? A makeshift Indian display set out on a sidewalk in front of The Metropolitan Centre features split-log fencing and a scaled down tipi. Houle, who is of Blood tribe ancestry, stands in a loincloth and commercial moccasins in front of the tipi. Each black and white photograph in this series was actually taken at the same moment, using simultaneous exposures from a number of pinhole cameras placed on-site.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Urban Indian, 2004

A number of Native/First nations artists work with photographic images that involve the disruptive sight of a semi-traditionally dressed Indian in clearly modern circumstances. Other artists who used some version of this approach are Jason Lujan, Merritt Johnson, Greg Hill, Zig Jackson, James Luna, etc. I think what makes this particular series interesting is the use of the pinhole camera in different locations, all depicting the same moment. If you’re not familiar with how a pinhole camera works, it’s a low-tech process that uses a light-proof box with an aperture and a manual cover. Black and white photographic paper or film is placed on the back wall of the box. No lens is necessary. Pinhole cameras need longer exposure times depending on ambient light, ranging from five seconds to several hours. Obviously, pinhole cameras are not useful for action shots. The first time an image from a pinhole camera was affixed onto paper was in 1850. It is one of the earliest photographic devices, and its precursor, the camera obscura is traceable back to ancient Rome. Houle’s photographs in this exhibition have the classic hallmarks of pinhole photography: crisp, in-focus stationary objects and a slight blur to people (or anything that moves), as well as a noticeable curvature at the periphery.

Fig. 2 Terrance Houle, Saddle Up, 2009. Pinhole photograph, digitally enlarged.

The most intriguing aspect of this series, and what differentiates it from Houle’s previous photographic work (see Figure 2), is the use of multiple pinhole cameras to capture the same (long) moment. The deliciousness of the idea is one part failure of the Western Cartesian system, one part postmodernism, and one part security camera. To unpack that statement, the Cartesian system assumes that there is a single viewpoint from which a neutral observer can determine the truth with absolute certainty. The spatial distortions that result from this least-mediated photographic technique combined with the use of multiple points of view fly in the face of supposed photographic truth and the “truth” authority of a singular viewpoint. Houle’s method here is symbolic of an overall shift in Western consciousness… away from certainty and absolute truth and toward the recognition of the viewpoints of other cultures – the upside of postmodern thought. (The downside of postmodern thought is the tendency for completely incoherent narrative). As for my “one part security camera,” I perhaps have less ground to stand on with that association, but it’s definitely a thought that occurred to me as I viewed the work in the gallery. The blurriness and distortion of the images resemble stills taken from security camera footage. Usually, we only see those images when a crime has been committed and excerpts from the footage, often from more than one vantage point, are shown to the public in hopes of eliciting information about a crime. There really isn’t a crime, per se, in Houle’s photographs at the Calgary Stampede, unless he has captured a crime against good taste, or a crime against authenticity, the indignity of cultural tourism, or a crime against history. But that’s tourism for you: an uncomfortable mingling of opportunism, appropriation, fantasy, enlightenment, and kitsch.