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.

EMERGENCE by John Feodorov at Santa Fe’s MoCNA

John Feodorov, Domi - Nature, 2010

See this artwork before the exhibition closes on March 31st, 2011! Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe.

A lot has happened in the world since my last posting on Not Artomatic. There was the usual problem of working too much. But a lot has gone on in the world, too – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Japan. It has felt rather like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with a new event every two weeks or so.  I say that from the perspective of someone who was a high school senior in 1990. Something changed in the world then – I saw it on television[1], and there was intense emotion on a massive scale, but no real understanding of what might come afterward. My high-schooler imagination was excited, but I lacked the knowledge, the perspective to really understand much of it. Twenty-one years later, I find that hasn’t changed much! I swirled around news sources that didn’t even exist back then, looking for information, understanding, answers. I also swirled around my memories of conversations with artist John Feodorov about his new series of work, titled Emergence[2]. I wanted to write about this series, but kept finding something in the way. First, I told myself it was because I need to be more academic and I need good research on Navajo cosmology and the Emergence concept. I did research, and had trouble coming up with an explanatory, non-Eurocentric (yet possessing academic authority) source. Unlike many religions, Navajo religion does not proselytize.

But the artist’s conversations with me made it clear that this structuring worldview was very important. On a gut-level, I’ve been tying that in with the cascade of events in the Middle East, recent devastating earthquakes, the tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Christian paradigm of apocalypse does not seem to help us deal with widespread change, whether that change is natural disaster, environmental disaster, or political collapse. For human cultures to survive, we have to have cultural foundations that help us recover from disaster and create some kind of order from entirely new conditions. I think that’s what appealed to me about looking at Feodorov’s Emergence series.

John Feodorov, Emergence #3, 70" x 70", Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2010

Any of you who are reading this who are writers (and I’m sure you all are writers, even if you don’t think of yourself that way) are familiar with something we end up calling “writer’s block.” I don’t think it really exists. When my mind ducks away from writing something, there is usually a reason. Often, it is because I still need to think/feel my way through an issue and writing sometimes isn’t the best way to do so. Sometimes, making art helps me figure things out and then I can get back to the writing. Other times, words from another person (in conversation, e-mail, a song, Facebook) help me make a connection I was missing. And then here is something that floors me every time it happens. I occasionally get stalled because I ALREADY WROTE THE WORDS I NEEDED. The text in the section below is from an early blog post I wrote called “What is so important about Native American Art.”

“Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious […] upheaval.

We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.[3]

– Larry McNeil

Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.

In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues.” All of this has been leading into actually addressing Feodorov’s Emergence, series in reference to the Navajo cultural framework that describes their origins as a people who have passed through a series of worlds or existences, with each new world arising from the out-of-balance destruction of the previous one.  The organizing principles, spiritual forces, and sacred terrain are different with each new emergence.

John Feodorov, Emergence #4, acrylic on canvas, 72" x 72", 2010

I always think it is important to pay attention to artists’ own statements about their work, as you will know from reading my writing in general. The following is John Feodorov’s exhibition statement, which was prominently placed at the entrance to his exhibition:


In 1979, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in USA history happened in Church Rock in the state of New Mexico.  A tailing dam burst, sending eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid pouring toward Arizona into the Rio Puerco River.  Today, the Navajo communities still cannot use the water.” *

According to a Sept. 23, 2010 article in Indian Country Today, “The New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court this month to reverse the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to allow in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. […] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted Hydro Resources, Inc. a license to mine uranium in Crownpoint and Church Rock.”

According to the Associated Press, 11/17/2010: “Supreme Court justices Monday decided not to review a decision that allows Hydro Resources Inc. to leach-mine uranium at the aquifer used by 15,000 Navajos in the Church Rock and Crownpoint areas.”

The works in this room explore the transformation of environmental tragedy into possible new mythologies. This is the basis of the Navajo creation myth–one world’s destruction is another’s creation. With the acknowledgement by most scientists that our global climate is heating up, and with the recent oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many people admit a sense of helplessness and even resignation. To be honest, I sometimes find myself among them and this ambivalence is reflected within this recent body of work. While watching the continuous live video feed of the BP oil well freely spewing into the Gulf, I couldn’t help but think of the Navajo creation story where animals, insects and gods climbed a magic reed, like the fabled Jack and his beanstalk, from the Third World into our current Fourth World to escape annihilation. I kept thinking of that leaking pipe as another “reed” in which spirits embedded deep within the Earth were now emerging into our world, like medieval demons charging through the mouth of Hell, or red ants marching towards unsuspecting picnickers.

With the Oil well now capped, it is easy for us to fall back into our daily routines. I hope this doesn’t happen. As demonstrated above, environmental pollution and exploitation continues to this day. Since we don’t seem to learn from the past, it might be a good idea for us to start looking around for another magic reed. * (Excerpted from “Pollution of the Navajo Nation Lands” a paper by Kimberly Smith of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, presented August 2007 at the United Nations International Expert Group Meeting On Indigenous Peoples And Protection Of The Environment, which took place in Khabarovsk, Russian Federation. This meeting was hosted by the Government of Khabarovsk, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) in the Russian Federation.)”[4]

Feodorov’s words (above) take on even more relevance in relationship to the current revisiting of nuclear policy going on worldwide as a result of the containment problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. What about the work itself?

Rani Molla wrote a review of the exhibition for the Santa Fe Reporter, which is worth reading. Molla closes with this statement:

“The fifth world—entered through a sooty smokestack and in which we teddy bears are still defined by the items we buy—would already be dismal. Perhaps the point is that there is no fifth world—just this one, and it’s a scary place.”[5]

I was terribly disappointed with that statement. I didn’t think it was all that dismal. I found humor, irony, sarcasm, in many of the pieces, yes. There also seemed to be a cautionary aspect, too. If we don’t shift some core values, we’ll end up placing our power-generating capacity (and the corporations involved) into a position of deity-like power over us. I’m probably a bit too used to Feodorov’s work to look at it with fresh eyes. He’s been using the Teddy Bear as a symbolic element to his work since the beginning of his career as an artist.[6] The open-mouthed profile view of a human head is also repeated element in his 2D work. Sometimes the open mouth represents a scream, desperation, pain. Other times, it represents speech, breath, a connection to the sacred.

John Feodorov, Oracle, 2010

Maybe Molla and other reviewers are right – Emergence is about dystopia instead of  future potential. I keep asking myself how the work would have to be different in order to present a new mythology to help us feel our way into a Fifth World. What is the middle ground between naïve hopefulness and dystopic vision? Can the video feed, the antenna, the open-mouthed communication, the apotheosis of the stuffed bear, the grinding of candy corn, combine to show us the world we already live in?  Is Emergence really about the Fourth World? And can we really leave that world behind us? Can we alter those patterns in the next order of things? Does Feodorov need to show us a Fifth World that is better than the current state? I’m not sure I could set my own skepticism aside for that.

If you have the chance to go see this work – say you’re in Santa Fe at some point during the next two days – take a look at Emergence. See if you can find hope, despair, and a questioning of the  “natural order.” I think I did.

John Feodorov, Ambiguity, aprox. 3' x 4', 2010

[1] And by television, I mean I saw it on all three networks, with rabbit ear antennas, when we were amazed that the new tv had a digital display  of 1-99. All the channels were fuzz once we tuned it beyond channel 13. My family did not get cable television until after I left home.

[2] The exhibition is at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It closes 3/31/2011. See it right away if you can!

[3] Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.

[4] Wall text by John Feodorov, accompanying the Emergence exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM January 14 – March 31, 2011.

[5] Rani Molla, “Emergency: Emergence Shows the Environment in Dire Straits,” The Santa Fe Reporter, January 19, 2011.  http://sfreporter.com/santafe/print-article-5863-print.html

[6] I wrote a short essay as part of MoCNA/IAIA’s Vision Project and specifically address the symbolism of the Teddy Bear in popular culture and how Feodorov uses it in his work. This essay is not yet published. I will update this footnote after the publication is available to the public.

John Feodorov, Untitled, 2010

“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!

Megaphone? What Megaphone?

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

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

Rebecca Belmore Quits Being an Artist?

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

Is it Really Possible to QUIT Art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donations to Rebecca Belmore’s legal expenses can be made at this website: http://rebeccabelmorelegalfund.com/how_to_help.html

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

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

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

Collisions of Art and Science

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist


Sometimes, the combination of art and science creates great art. Other times…well, not so much. We don’t usually think of art creating great science. The reason for that might be that the role of aesthetics (yeah, art) in presenting scientific data is well-masked. In order for scientific data to be believable, the aesthetic decisions about how to present the data are usually obscured. Some artists embark on projects that look a lot like a science experiment, such as a piece recently featured in the New York Times. Brooklyn artist Elizabeth Demaray constructed an ant habitat and presented the ants with a fast food diet. As the article states, she picked a type of ant very unlikely to be able to adapt to a fast food diet. I puzzled over the article… lodged in the “Science” section of the paper. Here is a link to the article, which includes a photograph of the work installed in the gallery. It seemed like bad science to me – and unfair to the ants. (Many of the ants died, unable to adapt to anything but the sesame seeds on the buns and the questionable interiors of chicken nuggets). Is it possible for this experiment to produce useful data? And does it work as a piece of art? Neither question is addressed in the NY Times article. In terms of science, the artist picked the wrong type of ant. But if she wanted to make the point that fast food is bad for humans, as demonstrated by visual evidence that not even ants can live off of it, then one could consider the work successful. I’ll go out on a limb though and say that my opinion is that it is mediocre art in terms of the content and bad science, as well as ethically questionable. Other species of ants could have survived quite well within Demaray’s Corpor Esurit, but the meaning of the piece would have been a bit muddled. The presentation of the work in the gallery looks very visually interesting, at least in these photographs generously provided by the gallery. Take my judgement here with a grain of salt… I’d have to go see the work in person to really have an informed opinion. Maybe some of you in New York can go look at it and report back… (see comments).

Elizabeth Demaray, Corpor Esurit, photo by Dave Gehosky and courtesy of the artist


Demaray’s piece produces data that we are supposed to see with our own eyes. However, another method is to make work based on already existing data that has then been visually interpreted by the artist, unveiling relationships between art and science. According to my limited research, the term for this is “data visualization.” Aaron Koblin, for example, has created artworks based on visual representations of data, such as calls and internet data between New York City and the rest of the world. The emphasis is usually visual, although there are examples of works that translate data into audio forms. Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey collaborated on an audio piece called Bicycle Built for 2000. It’s worth visiting the site and clicking on “more info” for a fuller explanation of that piece. The song “Daisy Bell” was the first piece of digitally synthesized vocal music (1962). You might also remember it as the song that HAL sings in the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They had over 2000 people record themselves singing a small snippet of the song and then assembled each snippet into overlapping audio data. If you visit the artists’ website, you will note that there is a visual component to the piece, not just the audio file all on its own. I looked online for something about a project done by tree canopy scientist Nalini Nadkarni, but couldn’t find anything about it. I saw her give a talk about her work and she presented a project that she worked on with a musician, in which they transformed tree canopy data into audio representations instead of the more usual graphs, pie charts, etc.


All of this leads me to one of the new works by the artists’ collective Postcommodity, on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MOCNA) in Santa Fe. Postcommodity is a four-person team of artists: Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) and Nathan Young (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee). Their selection of works in the exhibition (curated by Ryan Rice) is titled “It wasn’t the Dream of the Golden Cities,” a reference to the 400 year anniversary of Santa Fe, and the rumored existence, according to Spanish, of seven cities of gold that lead Spanish conquistadors to the region repeatedly. Friar Marcos de Niza reported glimpsing one of the cities from afar. But when Coronado arrived, there was no gold – only adobe pueblos. After 140 years of violence and abuse by the Spanish and the church, the pueblos revolted against Spanish control and had years of autonomy between 1680-1696. All this is background knowledge that is necessary to understand Postcommodity’s work in this exhibition. The particular piece that I’m writing about in relationship to science, data, and sonification is the multimedia installation piece titled If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, then the Shape of the Arrowhead is Changing. This installation is in a room 29′ x 16′ and has 8 monitors mounted on narrow pillars roughly chest-high around the room, plus a hidden subwoofer. Everything in the room is painted with gold paint. Walking down the hall toward the room, you hear a cacophony of sound. Entering the room, you feel it as well. Different tones emit from speakers in different parts of the room. You turn around in the space, trying to separate out these digital tones, to catch where precisely they are coming from. My dad was with me on one of my trips into the room. He absolutely hated the piece and couldn’t leave fast enough. The auditory experience is pretty unpleasant…even more so for someone with tinnitus, like my dad. He wanted to check it out more, but couldn’t take it. But that’s pretty much the point. The piece is intended to represent an ambush – a situation any reasonable person would want to get away from. If it were just an unpleasant sound installation, I would say the piece was a gimmick and would put it in the category of yet another work art that seeks to punish the audience (not that we don’t sometimes need a good punishing). However, the science, theory, and collaboration behind the piece is what is intriguing and is what brings the piece beyond a simple surround-sound extravaganza.

Cymatics example - a pattern created when sound passes through a plate layered with sound.

There is an interesting field called cymatics that works on visualizing sound by vibrating sand or water. Here is a link to a video of Evan Grant explaining cymatics. It’s a way of making sound visible. I searched for a term for the opposite transformation… the transformation of the physical into sound, but couldn’t find one. What Postcommodity is doing is basically reverse-cymatics. Kade Twist says that the correct term would be sonification. Postcommodity takes data on the hypothetical trajectory, velocity, and impact energy of four pueblo weapons at the time of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and turns that data into sound. The wall text (and gallery guide) describe the piece this way:

“The sound and multimedia installation If History Moves at the Speed of its Weapons, The the Shape of Arrow is Changing (2010) is a sonic ambush utilizing four Pueblo Revolt era weapons (bow and arrow, atlatl and dart, sling and rock, and war club). We have performed a ballistic analysis for each weapon that includes all potential impact points within the gallery, providing a comprehensive mathematical analysis of multiple ambush scenarios. From this data algorithms were derived to inform sound compositions specific to each weapon. The result is a dynamic and interactive installation entirely informed by the inherent physical, cultural, and intermediary properties of each weapon. The sound filling the room becomes the medium for the weapons themselves to physically engage and envelop audiences.”

The sound is directional… with sound emanating from the position where the weapon would land… if it didn’t hit YOU first.

Postcommodity, If History Moves and the Speed of its Weapons, Then the Shape of the Arrow is Changing, Photo by Will Wilson, Courtesy of MoCNA

In a public talk at MoCNA, Postcommodity described the origin of the idea as coming out of reading the book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) by Manuel de Landa, heavily influenced by Foucault, plus Deleuze and the idea of the machinic phyllum. This piece introduces the idea in a physically challenging way. Kade Twist wrote to me that If History Moves… “is also influenced by the writing of Paul Virilio (Speed and Politics). He came up with the idea that history and the rationalization of temporal relationships within a particular society/civilization moves at the speed of its weapons — we culturally rationalize velocity through our weapons systems — in this context we are looking at the velocity, or dromological difference of the two clashing civilizations and analyzing the indigenous cultural identity and worldview embedded in the weapons systems.” So how did Postcommodity convert those weapons systems into sound? Twist says “We used the computer code written in Max/MSP that was written byCristóbal Martínez. Each weapon was assigned a specific tone: sine tone (war club), triangle tone (bow and arrow), saw tone (rock and sling) and square tone (atlatl and spear). These are the fundamental sound waves from which all sound is comprised.” Rather than have a completely arbitrary or purely aesthetic criteria for selecting the audible tones, Postcommodity’s team selected sounds whose forms, revealed by cymatics, had some symbolic relationship with the forms of spear, arrow, rock, and club.

UPDATE: Listen to the audio embedded in this updated post: LISTENING TO THE AMBUSH

This piece is a cerebral romance between art, technology, history, colonialism, and counter-colonialism. The big romance is between art and science, with the four artists from Postcommodity collaborating with composer/media artist Cristóbal Martínez and scientist Andrew McCord, who performed the mathematical analysis and physics modeling of the weapons. And where the romance turns gritty and real is in the audience’s own physical relationship to the piece. Positioning a mathematical model of an ambush using pueblo weapons in a gallery puts the audience in the position of vulnerability and culpability. The piece would seem to push the audience into imagining themselves as the Spanish attacked in the Pueblo Revolt. Yet it is in a gallery, in a setting that reminds museum-goers of that violent past and the injustices to which the Pueblo peoples were subjected. Who exactly are we rooting for in this ambush? Surrounded by false gold, in the midst of Indian Art Market, tangible white guilt, romanticism, and earnest desires to make a better future, If History Moves… gives the audience the chance to identify with the power of the “conquered” and the weaknesses of the conquerors. And the conquerors are all of us living today.

Nathan Young had some important words that I’d like to close with:

We didn’t have a dream of these golden cities. That’s not why we are here. It’s not necessarily the Spanish’s fault, or gold’s fault. It could have been anybody. It’s the market.[1]

For more on Postcommodity, please see this previous post: Photo Essay: Day 4 of My Blood is in the Water.

Here are links to other articles about this piece:



[1] The Museum of Contemporary Native Art made an audio recording of Postcommodity’s public talk. They plan to make the audio tracks available via their website sometime this fall. I will include the link here when it is released.

Methodology – Art as a Mode of Inquiry

Bow watch in a storm onboard the Schooner Zodiac.

I just returned from a 4-day sailing trip through the San Juan Islands on the schooner Zodiac. It was a work trip (The Evergreen State College), which meant about 6 hours a day of very productive seminar sessions, usually discussing poems that have at least a tangential relationship to the sea. We also had sessions on two days that dealt with drawing as a mode of inquiry to be used in conjunction with scientific disciplines. Faculty member Lucia Harrison provided everyone with a handy notebook that provided detailed examples and instructions for creating a field notebook that includes drawing from observation…even for people who don’t ordinarily draw. She led some excercises on the deck with gestural drawing and blind contour drawing. Gestural drawings are very quick, energetic drawings that just aim at getting down the mass distribution of whatever you are drawing – capturing the gesture, without getting caught up on details. Blind contour drawing is all about the details, except you are NOT LOOKING at the paper as you draw. Imagine your eye and your hand are attached. You move your eye slowly over whatever you aim to draw, following the outlines, the interior lines, any edge that your eye can perceive. If your line runs out, you back your eye and your hand back over that perceived edge until you can meet up with a line your eyes haven’t yet followed.

Contour drawings by the author.

Blind contour drawings always come out looking strange… proportion flies out the window (so to speak). An excercise like this makes you look very closely and in an organized fashion at an object, causing you to notice features you wouldn’t otherwise see. After these exercises on board ship, we went to shore and picked objects on shore to draw using the same techniques. The following day, we spent 3 hours on shore with a much bigger assignment, including drawing a map of the area as well as studies of a creature or a feature (plants, geological features, animals, etc.)

Field Journal page by the author.

Field journal page combining gesture, contour, and shaded drawings.

Sometimes, art history and art criticism seem to be about defining “good” art and “bad” art. Writings through the lenses of art history or art criticism at any given time are a pretty good window on what the issues are at the time the piece is written – and may have nothing to do with what was going on when the art was actually made. In the Western World, art has been somewhat removed from daily domestic life – art belongs in churches, museums, state buldings, the homes and offices of the wealthy. With the increase in public art programs and community arts initiatives, are we moving toward a greater inclusion of art in our daily lives? What would our culture look like if art were a part of most people’s lives? Not just as viewers or consumers of art, but as practioners? What if drawing were for everyone, not just children and professional artists? What if drawing were a valuable and intellectual/physical mode of inquiry in our society?

In Lucia Harrison’s workbook “Strategies for Keeping a Field Journal,” She identifies six elements of the intellectual work of drawing (my additions/comments are in parenthesis):

– Develops observational skills. Close study helps you explore how something is structured, how it works, or what it is doing. This is especially true of field studies – the objects being drawn are not dead – they are alive and engaged in being themselves – eroding, budding, nesting — they are active and careful observation can help you explore what they are doing.

– Requires active learning, engagement in studying the subject (this is not television).

– Enhances awareness of relationships among parts and whole. Helps you identify the key structures that make up an organism (even if you don’t yet know names for those structures)

– Helps synthesize ideas, connecting outer (text or lecture-based) and inner(physical/emotional) experiences.

– Communicates understanding, theoretical possibilities, insights, and feelings (all at the same time, without devaluing some aspects and prioritizing others).

– Builds a relationship with the subject to foster responsibility and caring (both of which are necessary in order for policy decisions to be made that could prevent further destruction of habitat, damage to biological diversty, etc.).

Beyond the assignments for these sessions, I made some additional drawings, including a gesture drawing done in color and a study of the ship’s rigging during a storm.

Gesture Drawing done in color. Algae bloom in a high salinity lagoon.

I drew this quick study of a small lagoon on a sand spit on Lopez Island. The very highest tides let saltwater into this small lagoon. Water evaporates, leaving salt behind. The water is so salty that only very specialized organisms can live in it. This type of algae is one of them. The lagoon smells absolutely horrible, but that very smell is a sign of the rich biological environment of the lagoon. The lagoon is edged with pickleweed, which I didn’t get to move close enough to see. The edges of the lagoon are a very sensitive ecosystem and walking through it damages the plants, so we stayed away from making a close examination of the pickle weed.

Another drawing that I did on the trip is a study of the rigging on the main mast of the schooner during a storm. It was too stormy to actually sail that morning. All the sails were down, but it was so windy that the ropes belled out from the mast. I loved the pattern against the sky so I decided to draw it, first in pencil, and then I did a version in color with chalk pastels. I’m not presenting this drawing simply as a work of art, but as a means of getting to know the rigging. As I was drawing, I realized that I actually knew the function of each of the ropes, even if I didn’t know the specialized vocabulary to name each one. The day previously, I had been assigned a sailing post: mainsail, topsail, starboard side. The sheet (rope) that I hauled on raised the throat end of the top of the mainsail. It was massive, and it was hard work, and I was just one person of the 30 people involved, each with their own task – and we all had to work together in order to get the ship moving under the power of the wind. It was awesome technology, and amazing teamwork. Drawing helped me think about the technology, the individual tasks, and the harnessing of the wind for a shared goal – plus the vulnerability of the endeavor. Experiencing the technology of the past first-hand is a luxury and a rare experience.

Lara Evans, too stormy to raise the sails, 2010