“Clouds Live Where” Performance Documentation

I am posting a selection of photographs taken during Merritt Johnson’s performance Friday, November 12th at The Evergreen State College. The performance “Clouds Live Where” was viewable from ground-level and from the mezzanine level of the Library Building. Space was marked out using tape, fabric, and specially constructed wood and lucite barricades. This is Johnson’s first use of these new barricades. The lucite top sections are barely visible in the photo above. A few minutes into the performance, Johnson’s “Sneak” persona runs into these nearly invisible barriers and then uses saliva and a fine blue dust to make the lucite barriers more visible.

The performance begins to the sound of rain and occasional thunder, plus the white noise of the industrial air circulation in the space, and the footfalls of passersby.”Sneak” carries a cloud from the end with the blue fabric (sea) to the end with the tan fabric (island). Johnson’s “Sneak” persona wears men’s trousers, a white button-down oxford shirt, a men’s hat, moccasins, and the tail-end of a coyote pelt peaking out from under the oxford shirt. She wears big honkin sunglasses under that hat, too. Sneak carries the clouds from one end to the other and a cascade of blue seed-beads falls out onto the tan fabric island. Once the clouds are emptied, Sneak meticulously tries to gather the rain back into the clouds to transport them back to the blue (water) area.

Gathering the beads(rain) to refill the clouds.

The Sneak works hard, carrying the heavy clouds between the symbolic land and sea areas. Sneak crawls, rolls under, and occasionally bumps into the barriers that make transporting the water into so much more work.
The barricades.
An exhausted Sneak tucks the coyote pelt into the trousers, puts on a jacket, fits the mocassined feet into loafers, and departs the scene.

The performance lasted 30 minutes. In the photo above, some audience members take a closer look at the final configuration of objects. The performance space was in the very large entryway that is the common pathway to get to the library and the computer lab. Students with huge stacks of books halted to watch for as long as their arms could take the weight of the books. Someone with a service dog stopped for about 10 minutes. Her dog was really eyeing that coyote tail. No one spoke – a space that is ordinarily loud with voices and footsteps was hushed and even reverent.

Artist Merritt Johnson is based in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches at Emily Carr. Her website is www.merrittjohnson.com

Kade Twist – Our Land, Your Imagination

Installation view of Kade Twist's two-chanel video "Our Land, Your Imagination"

A number of the artists I follow have made versions of their video installation work available on YouTube or other video-enabled websites. I find it helpful in terms of analyzing content and theme, but I find that the online versions  don’t help me consider the aesthetics of the work. I also have to admit to sometimes finding these kinds of pieces make boring viewing when I’m online. Maybe it’s the cluttered YouTube screen and the thumbnails of other videos that promise to be the “cutest puppy video ever.” I was reminded once again that seeing video work in person is vastly different than viewing it on a computer screen when I was at the opening for the exhibition It’s Complicated – Art about Home. The exhibition features work by 9 Native American/First Nations artists on the theme of “home.” The artist I’m writing about here is Kade Twist (Cherokee). I’ve previously written about work he has done as part of the artists’ collective Postcommodity.

 Kade Twist’s two-channel video installation piece renewed my appreciation of seeing video works in person. Twist’s piece in the exhibition projects onto two walls set at 90 degrees, with the projected images meeting up in the corner. The full title of the work is Our Land, Your Imagination: The Judeo-Christian Western Scientific World View. The lefthand screen has a series of videos of women singing Carpenter’s songs (We’ve Only Just Begun, Close to You, I Need to be in Love, I Won’t Last a Day Without You, Every Sha La La La),  mostly in karaoke bars. The right hand screen has video clips of traffic, a hot air balloon making a messy landing in a suburban tract-home neighborhood, a sandstorm approaching a similar neighborhood, a walk-through of an empty, foreclosed-upon house, and a long shot of palm trees against a clear sky. It’s hard to watch the videos of the singers because they are so large and the camera is sometimes uncomfortably close. I noticed that I focused more closely on the landscape-type shots on the righthand wall. The songs are about a search for fullfillment, love, belonging. The videos featuring identical homes give an impression of loneliness and emptiness, particularly the walk-through shots inside the foreclosed house. The piece stands well on its own, but knowing a bit more about the origins of the clips adds additional layers.

Essentially, the artist curated video clips shared by YouTube posters who identified their location as Phoenix, Arizona (where the artist also lives and works). The idea is that looking at video clips posted by people who live in the same town might give us an idea about that particular community. Twist hand-picked these video clips. They aren’t random, so there is a kind of postmodern narrative about place and yearning that comes from watching the piece in its entirety. Ultimately, it is a sad story of longing, emptiness, the search for connection/community, and the loss of identity in the face of assembly-line suburban living, where everything is a translplant and nothing belongs. I think what bothers me most about the piece – in a good way – is wondering why on earth some of these clips were posted on YouTube to begin with. Why several minutes of palm trees against a clear sky? Nothing happens! The camera doesn’t move! It’s boring… and puzzling. Why, oh why, was this clip shared with the world via YouTube? Most of the karaoke singers seem so desperately sad, too, that I wonder why they really posted these songs on YouTube. Trying to get famous? Trying to send a pointed message to an ex-lover? Or did some friend post the video with the intention of really only sharing it in a small circle of people. Do any of the originators of these videos know that their postings have been incorporated into an artwork over a thousand miles away? Does that even matter?

You can see Kade Twist’s video installation Our Land, Your Imagination at The Evergreen Gallery on the Olympia, WA campus of The Evergreen State College. The Gallery is on the main floor of the Library Building and is open Mon-Thurs 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 pm. You can view Twist’s work below or on Kade Twist’s website … but it’s definitely not the same as seeing it in person.


P.S. I have a class of undergraduate students with assignments related to this exhibition. It has really affected what I feel free to say about the work here on the blog out of fear that I’ll get them quoting me instead of thinking for themselves! Some of them are working on a podcast about this piece. I will post a link to their podcast when it’s finished in two weeks!

TOMS Shoes by Jason Garcia – Wearable Art

Michelle McGeough kindly sent this photo in of the art shoes created by Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Puebloe) that she purchased at MoCNA during the Vital Strides fundraiser. Vital Strides was a great event that happened toward the end of SWAIA’s Indian Art Market in Santa Fe last week. Please see the previous two postings for more information about the event and about TOMS Shoes.

 Jason Garcia is best known as a ceramic artist from a  family of clay artists from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. There is an example of his work below. Here is a link to more examples of his work: http://www.kinggalleries.com/Jason_Garcia_Pottery.htm 

Jason clearly designed the shoes to be worn, with the design oriented toward someone other than the wearer of the shoes. To make the drawing on the shoes more visible, I reoriented and cropped the photo. Hopefully, that helps.

TOMS Shoes painted on by artist Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo) for Michelle McGeough

Jason Garcia, Tales of Suspense, nd. Detail of Jason Garcia's work.

Detail of shoes by Jason Garcia

 Considering that I sail off on a schooner for the next several days(see post from earlier today), this is probably my last post until Thursday – unless I get more images before dark-thirty in the morning!

Sailing off the Washington Coast

One of the great things about my job at TESC is summer institutes where we work together on devising new educational programs. I am moving outside of my normal ranges of experience by embarking on a 4 day sailing trip that will include learning about sailing, navigating, and ecosystems off the coast of the state of Washington.  I might get in one or two more posts before I set sail, but I’ll surely have more to post when I get back! I am already working on several subjects, plus I expect to get more images of art shoes from the Vital Strides Event (see previous posts).  If you are curious about this sailboat, or about how you can sail on it too, without having to make it a work-trip. Here is their website: http://www.schoonerzodiac.com/default.htm

The Schooner Zodiac, based in Bellingham, WA

And yes, I will be crammed into a bunk.

The Schooner Zodiac

This is one of the nicer bunks on board. I hope tall people get these :) And I hope I count as tall enough :)

 And my BIG hope for the trip is that I get a chance to do some drawings, which I might be willing to post when I get back. Seas might be rough though… which would limit my drawing sessions. Rain, wind, and rocking schooner probably wouldn’t do much for quality of line.

Photo Essay – Day 4 of “My Blood is in the Water”

Today was the final day of Postcommodity’s 4-day outdoor installation work titled P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water). I am working on an essay about the work, but in the meantime, I wanted to share these photographs.

The day that Postcommodity spoke, they served the a delicious posole made from the deer meat.

Detail of P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water), by Postcommodity. The deer was hunted, prepared, then taxidermied in preparation for this artwork.

Detail of P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water). After 4 days, the blood has saturated the drumhead.

Detail from P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water). A microphone attached to the drum amplifies the sound of the drops hitting the drumhead.

Postcommodity Speaks

Postcommodity collective artists Raven Chacon, Kade L. Twist, Steven Yazzie and Nathan Young speak at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe (108 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, 87501) from 11:30am-1:00pm on Friday August 20th. Here are photographs from their work P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water), taken on Wednesday. I’ll probably have new photos on Friday. Questions about the work? Come see the work in person and hear the artists speak.

Postcommodity Collective, P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water), MOCNA, Photograph by Lara Evans

Detail of P’oe iwe navi ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood is in the Water), Note the drop of blood suspended in the air. Photo by Lara Evans.


As Featured in LIFE, NEW MEXICO, and LOOK Magazines!


I had my first opportunity to ride the Rail Runner train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque on Monday. The best thing about the new rail route is that it does not follow the freeway the whole way. One of the best stops is the Kewa Pueblo Station (previously known as Santo Domingo Pueblo). Some bracing has been done to keep the old burned out “Real Indians” storefront from further collapse. It’s a landmark not just because it is a surviving piece of tourism history, Indian kitsch, or just plain old, but because it was the site of one of Larry McNeil’s early works: Real Indians, from 1977.

From the Kewa Train Station - the site of Larry McNeil's 1977 photograph "Real Indians" as seen in 2010. Photo by the Author.

My first encounter with McNeil’s Real Indians came from the exhibition catalogue for Indian Humor, a travelling exhibition from 1995 organized byAmerican Indian Contemporary Arts (which was based in San Francisco but no longer exists). The exhibition was curated by Sara Bates (Cherokee) and Kathleen Ash-Milby (Navajo).

I think Larry McNeil’s photograph has had longstanding appeal for three reasons: irony/humor, nostalgia, and as a critique of authenticity and commercial authority. The language of tourism centered around Indians in the Southwest has largely disappeared except in old run-down roadside sites such as this one. The assertion that there are “Real Indians” implies that there must also be un-real Indians and locates the authority for knowing the difference squarely in advertising and popular magazines like LIFE Magazine and LOOK Magazine, rather than with any kind of tribal authority.
The text on the sign implies a bustling local economy, cultural wealth, and prosperity. But the local economy has clearly declined, and the only “Real Indian” in sight is the artist who is just passing through. Larry McNeil had this to say about it,
“This is a self-portrait made in December of 1977 when I was still going to Brooks Institute of Photography . . . I came across this scene near Santo Domingo Pueblo, zoomed past it and did a double take of the blurred building that I saw in the corner of my eye. I thought to myself, ‘Did I see what I thought I saw?’ and did a U-turn. The scene was so bad that it was good. After seeing it clearly, my only thought was, ‘Hey, I’m a real Indian . . .’”(from the Indian Humor Catalogue, but also available on the old website for the exhibition: http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indian_humor/exhibit/26.htm)
McNeil specifically identifies this photograph as a self-portrait, which shifts the emphasis from the place and onto the person. He stands with arms crossed, leaning against a beat-up car. The closed posture implies skepticism. The lean implies leisure – the opposite of the bustling terms “visit – watch – trade” from the signage.I heard that a few other Native artists out there have used this old trading post site and McNeil’s photo as a jumping off point for their own work. I’d love to include images of them in a photo essay here on Not Artomatic. If you know of or have an image to share, post a comment or e-mail me at evanslaramarie at gmail.com.

Larry McNeil, Real Indians, Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved. This is how the image was published in the "Indian Humor" catalogue.

UPDATE See Larry McNeil’s response below in the COMMENTS section. 

Larry McNeil, Real Indians, Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved This is the original B&W Photo as it was intended.


Home Fires – The Creative Energy of Native Women Artists.

Saturday August 14th  -  School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe

Home Fires Aug 14th Event at School for Advanced research, Santa Fe

I attended a special evening event in celebration of a new book: Art in Our Lives: Native Women Artists in Dialogue. I was part of the book project, along with Sherry Farrell Racette, Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Felice Lucero, Eliza Naranjo-Morse, Dyani Reynolds-White Hawk, TahNibaa Naataanii, Gloria Emerson, Heidi Brandow, Shannon Letandre, Diane Reyna, and Erica Lord. The School for Advanced Research brought the group together for a series of meetings where we spoke about our lives, our art-making, our cultures, families, and educational/career paths.

Toward the end of our last meeting, we spoke about how important this experience of sharing with other Native women artists had been to us and how it put things into a new perspective us. We wished we had this experience years before. We decided (with SAR support) that we should put together a book based on our conversations and research. The last substantial book about Native Women artists was Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar, and Sage, by Harmony Hammond and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, in 1985. That means that the youngest artists in our group were in preschool through the first grade! We wanted a book that would be a resource for the next generation of artists as well as those interested in Native art and culture.

Dinner at SAR

After two years, the book is finished and we have our advance copies. More will be available in two weeks. You can find it on the SAR Press website and on Amazon.com, where you can view significant portions of the book online.

The launch of the book at SAR on the 14th was a beautiful event with introductions and brief remarks about the book from Cynthia Chavez Lamar and Gloria Emerson, followed by a lovely dinner under the old oak tree on the campus. We had after-dinner conversations and signed books. It was a lovely evening!


Narrative Strings, thanks to Marcia Crosby

Concept Drawing by the author: Narrative Strings in Belmore's performance art as described by scholar Marcia Crosby

The earliest stage of my writing/research/thinking process starts along two main paths: either looking at an artwork or , or thinking about an interesting passage from somebody else’s writing. Those two things are like a diving board – they let me jump in with enthusiasm. I often make little drawings as I go, working out ideas visually. I just got a new book in the mail yesterday and decided to share a passage that got me thinking and doodling. Here it is:


“In relationship to performances that reference specific historical events, it’s important to bear in mind that the ephemeral nature of performance art (in general) does not lend itself to ‘telling’ specific historical narratives or producing meanings or explanations; having said that, performance can disentangle histories in very particular ways. That is, an artist at one level may refer to personal, local, cultural, or national narratives of prolonged abuse or trauma (as fiction or empirical fact); and the body, its gestures (and other media) may expose the imbalance of power relations of a personal trauma. In an aboriginal performance that is focused on trauma or violence, performer or spectator may gather any number of the narrative strings of colonialization: lateral violence in the home or community, the dissolution of family, residential schooling, decimating diseases, diaspora, the emergence of fluid or unstable aboriginal communities – any events that make up the complexity of colonialism historical and ongoing woundings. That said, such narratives are a referent or perhaps only ‘one arrangement’ of an oscillating constellation of other possible elements to the performance, which raises questions about power itself. The performance ‘breaks up at the very levels of comprehensibility and acceptance… The situation of oscillation becomes even more problematic when it is a question of being there, in action, in front of a certain number of witnesses, of presences.’[1]

Given the contingencies of performance art, Belmore does not use the form as an attempt to make meaning or create closure in relation to the specific historic events she references. She is well aware that in its capacity to elicit both a somatic response and to call up specific memories, the language of performance art is transient, it is gesture, trace remains of anecdotal evidence; it cannot be objectified and can hardly be explained, and it is viscous in its contradictions. The duration of a work draws a momentary horizon line, pointing both to what is known and that which is emergent and thus yet incoherent.”

- Marcia Crosby, “The Multimedia Work of Rebecca Belmore: a Disturbing Uncertainty,” from the book Action and Agency: Advancing the Dialogue on Native Performance Art, (Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2010) pp. 22-23.


As I was reading that passage above, I pictured first the linear historical narrative, represented by a book. Then Marcia Crosby’s choice of words made me think instead of history not as a narrative, but as a jumble of threads, like a pile of spaghetti, that Belmore’s performance pulls individual narrative strings and briefly arranges them in a way that gives a momentary physical experience of what is known, emergent, and/or incoherent. If you have any experience with yarn, wires, the physics of strings, you know that they can be separated out only briefly. Unless spooled, they will retangle again with the slightest movement. Tangling is reduced if you keep them in the smallest possible container that will hold them. To continue the metaphor even further (at the risk of being ridiculous, I know) we might say that performance takes the tangle out of the tiny “historical” box that we attempt to store trauma at a remove from ourselves, and moves that tangle into a public eye to tangle even more, have strands pulled out that give us glimpses of order and potential. And when the performance is over, the tangle goes back into its metaphorical storage box. Perhaps the pile is less tangled, or the strands have become color coded. Perhaps the box is a different size, creating more tangle or keeping it under better control. And perhaps each factor is different for each person experiencing the performance artwork.

[1] Richard Martel, “The Tissues of the Performative,” in Art Action: 1958-1998 (Quebec: Editions Intervention, 2001) 32.

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.