Crossing Media, Crossing Canada: Performing the land we are

Karolina Bialkowska

In my first conversation as Research Assistant for the new SSHRC research-creation project, “Crossing Media, Crossing Canada: Performing the Land that we are,” I couldn’t help but think how strange it was to be embarking on something new that wasn’t actually new. It was strange to enter into a new experience but to also understand that my body was entering into a process already in ‘progress.’ It was critical, in hindsight, to understand that my body was entering from a particular place (Poland – Toronto – Kelowna), from a particular space (of learning, of certain Western theoretical traditions, of womanhood, of whiteness), and to recognize that this research-creation and this durational performance exist in infinite extension backwards and forwards from the present moment I was in.  But here I was, a white, immigrant, graduate student, academically affiliated but creatively inclined (though inclination does not always translate to talent), embarking on the ‘pre’-discussions of Indigenous art practice, of resistance, and of what it means to be settler-ally, with the artists and researchers in charge. This reflection is based on conversations I had with Ashok Mathur and Peter Morin, the two coordinators of the project, and Ayumi Goto, one of many artists who will be part of this.

Although this is the inaugural year for this project, it is effectively the fifth year of a durational process that strives to reimagine and renegotiate Western paradigms of artistic practice, praxis, process. Speaking through this next phase of collaborative performances of, with, and in relation to, the land Ashok Mathur mused, “There are multiple layers. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it feels like it could be many things. I was talking to Keavy Martin [a researcher and SSHRC principal investigator on another related art/reconciliation project] about this: It’s like a harbinger of something beginning, but also of something at the end. I am worried about this discourses of reconciliation, how problematic those discourses are, and how we can move outside of those.”

It felt like they had already been – through their artistic collaborations and interventions, through the way their bodies spoke to each other in that room, through the way that the four of us were negotiating our identities in regards to our relationships to each other – creating, forging, re-imagining, disrupting, relating, arguing, recognizing each other, and moving “outside of those” problematic discourses of reconciliation.

It did not feel as if my body, mind, or spirit were unwelcome. In their ongoing practices – individual and collaborative – the three of them had created a space into which new bodies, experiences, and creative practices could enter and exit fluidly, without fear of interrupting – or maybe invited to do so. It was clear that I was embarking on a project already ‘in process of,’ yet with infinite possibilities of negotiating my relationship to that space, to this place. We seemed to all agree that this was a project of infinite possibilities: a project to interrupt old relationships and disrupt assumptions, to create (to make) small ruptures in the fabrics of how we imagine our institutional spaces, to forge bridges across histories, to support communities, to connect locals across localities, to stay centered and de-center, to challenge colonialism by turning our backs to it.

How does creative practice negotiate land and place, this space of Canada, the infinite spaces that bodies and their stories come from, come to, exist on, and move through?

The four of us in a room – Ayumi, Ashok, Peter, and I – all from different places, spaces, histories, stories, in differently marked bodies, negotiating, as it were, our relationship to traditional Syilx territory that none of us were born into – as visitors, as people moving through.

In reference to one of her earlier performances, Ayumi evoked her own articulations of responsibility to the history of a place: “There’s something about that location [Oppenheimer Park] that told me that there are so many stories left to tell, and maybe in new ways, and not the standardized way of a certain expectation of trauma, or loss, or memory, but what about those moments where we move together well, where we respected each other well? How do we not just move through, but move through well?”

As the conversation grew between us, Ashok introduced some gentle provocations – “How do we perform in a patriarchal culture – we talked earlier about guilt, guilt is a kind of paralysis, what can I do, people back away – so how do we do this work, with a fair amount of privilege in this space, academia, tenure, money, all that shit, how do we do that to actually make effective change, and not just say ‘I’ll just wait for someone else to do it, to speak?’”

Peter, looking forward to the summer, discussed his own particular challenges: “I am challenging myself to divorce myself from colonialism. Part of the decolonial process is a constant and vigilante interrogation to determine what the colonial does, but what if we just say fuck it? I like what Ayumi says when she calls it the cultural imaginary, take the big thing called colonialism and shrink it down. How does it change your relationship to space, your ‘self’?”

And the beauty of the whole dialogue was that we were already creating, divorcing, re-building, and rupturing narratives of colonialism.

We were – all four of us – already embodying responsible curation as guests to this land through our conscious effort to be respectful – through sharing and silence – to each other. We were, in the act of creating this conversation, embarking on this new creative journey, already turning our backs on colonialism – refusing the colonial imperative of separation, inequality, of silencing voices and erasing bodies while privileging others. We were all in a room trying to understand how to move through space and place. We had already disagreed, slightly, and through the space between those disagreements new understandings grew. And all throughout these conversations about the project that Peter describes as one about making: “Making as a reconsideration of our relationship to the colonial situation.” We made laughter. Laughter punctuates the recordings of the conversation. Through this laughter, we saw each other, felt each other, recognized each other, and looked towards the shared infinite possibilities of creative practice, of making, of respecting the land.

As I was listening to the recording, a key moment caught my attention:

Group: Laughter

Peter: “The verbal is such a small part of communication.”

Karolina: “Note to self, transcribe the unsaid.”

Maybe, for now and in that particular moment, the unsaid is better left that way – as a strategic way of keeping possibilities infinite, not foreclosing through language the creative potential of imagining multitudes of futures in a Canada that engages in, what Steven Loft articulates as, “negotiating real partnerships of mutual respect… polycultural, intercultural, and anti-racist.”

The next stage continues with artists, thinkers, researchers, students, teachers – Indigenous and non-indigenous – in collaboration, both inside and outside the institutions it seeks to challenge. The possibility lies in expecting the unexpected.

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