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.

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.

Is It Really Possible to QUIT Art?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Rebecca Belmore Quits?

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

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

by Glenn Alteen

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE September 14, 2010
Vancouver

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

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

WORTH (– Statement of Defence), may be viewed at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv9DfVAzok4

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Rebecca-Belmore-Legal-Fund/156231281070631?ref=mf

A site is being set up currently and will be linked here when its onlineFor more information about Rebecca Belmore, please see: http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/home.html

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 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 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.