“Theory” is generated and regenerated continually through embodied practice and within each family, community, and generation of people. “Theory” isn’t just an intellectual pursuit – it is woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational. It is intimate and personal, with individuals themselves holding the responsibility for finding and generating meaning within their own lives. Most importantly, “theory” isn’t just for academics; it’s for everyone. (Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, 2014)
I had trouble with this assignment, as the more I looked for exhibits to go to the more places I wanted to visit! I finally settled on going to We Come to Witness: Sonny Assu in Dialogue with Emily Carr at the Vancouver Art Gallery. While I did go and see for myself and observe others interacting with the work, I actually spent a long time lost in the Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures exhibition that was also going on. Perhaps I was riding the good vibes of receiving free entry to the Gallery (a kind stranger had purchased an extra ticket and donated for the next person who came in) – I spent a very long time in the Gallery – but I was particularly interested in and engaged with the work of Jeneen Frei Njootli – Through the Body. Where is the work? g’ashondai’kwa (I don’t know), 2016.
As is evident in the accompanying photographs, the work consists of sound, paper, dust, antler, fabric, amplifier, pedals and cord. The audio was recorded from a performance by the artist on December 5, 2016, and plays daily at two hour intervals. I made sure to be present at 4:30 for the sound. I have included a partial recording from my cell phone in this post.
As described in a biography of Njootli, from her exhibition Time Immemorial featured at the Gam Gallery,
Njootli’s work counters colonial modes of thought in its representation and synthesis of land based knowledge and traditional practices through contemporary visual arts, audio-visual technologies and performance. Through the creation of what the artist calls “sound tools,” the work speaks to the shifting culture of Northern Indigenous peoples, their relationship with the Porcupine Caribou Herd and sounds that are uniquely brought to life by their movement through the landscape they inhabit, much like how language and song came into existence…How is knowledge transferred, taken in and disseminated? In what ways is history embodied in material? How are their echoes carried with us in our ancestral memory? (Gam Gallery, 2015)
In particular this work focuses on how knowledge is present and transferred within the materials and forms that she works with. In the description of the work, the artists mentions bush theory. This is described as, “the state of being that transmutes the embodied theory and skills necessary for survival in one’s ancestral territory to other socio and geopolitical realms” (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2016).
I thought that this work, Through the Body. Where is the Work giashondai’kwa (I don’t know), speaks to several themes that we have discussed. In particular the sensory nature of the work and the emphasis on the material process made me think of our discussion of the body as medium, as a space that mediates meaning and embodiment as a vital subject of engagement – “…media are not secondary to some natural body but constitutive of bodily experience…” (CTMS, 29). I found this extension very apparent in observing others.
In observing visitor interaction I found that the time that was spent with the work separate from the associated “sound tool”, but just the residue of the 2016 performance was limited in duration, however, once the “sound tool” came in to effect, the experience seemed to change. Time spent was longer in duration, and you could see a shift in the way visitors interacted with the work. Instead of perhaps what could be described as a cursory glance, more attention seemed to be paid to the tools that were used in the recording – the marks left from the antler on paper, and especially the grinder, as you could hear the sound of contact from the recording.
“The basic characteristics of digital work are that it is programmable, iterative (open to being issued in new and changing versions), generative (giving rise to new expressions), and frequently networked” (CTMS,16).
The reason I was drawn to see Sonny Assu’s work was that in an interview with the Tyee (Cheung, Simon – Meet the Indigenous Artist ‘Tagging’ Emily Carr Paintings – 3 January 2017) Assu talks about modern oral traditions, where through conversations people get to know and understand the ramifications of colonization. In our discussions about digital work/ electronic art, as quoted above, some basic characteristics are that it is iterative and generative – much like stories. To go back to Njootli’s bio, she references language and song, asking “How is knowledge transferred, taken in and disseminated?” and what tools are utilized to do that? As stories are often rarely told the same way twice, and change based on context, knowledge transmission through the embodied experience of electronic art has a similar potentiality as it is open to being issued in new and changing ways. Art as a way of paying attention.
In Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, contributor Archer Pechawis quotes Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, saying, “Indigneous digital artists around the world are deeply engaging with, and provide important contributions to interdisciplinary and cross-community dialogues about cultural self-determination. Their works explore and bear witness to the contemporary relevance of the histories of Indigenous oral cultures and profound connections to their widely varying lands. They also reveal the creative drive that is at the heart of Indigenous survival…The ancient process of successfully adapting to their worlds’ shifting threats and opportunities – innovating the application of best practices to suit complex and shifting flows- from a position of equality and autonomy within them, is the macro and micro cosmos of contemporary Indigenous cultures: a truly networked way of being…” (Loft & Swanson, 2014: 60).
Jeneen Frei Njootli: Time Immemorial (2015) Retrieved from:
Loft, S. & Swanson, K (2014) Coded territories: tracing indigenous pathways in new media art. University of Calgary Press: Calgary, AB
Simpson, L. (2014) Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education