This conversation took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery on July 18, 2018. It is a reflection upon the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) show how do you carry the land? which took place July 14 to October 28, 2018, curated by Tarah Hogue, Senior Curatorial Fellow, Indigenous Art and featuring work by Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin with Corey Bulpitt, Roxanne Charles, Navarana Igloliorte, Cheryl L'Hirondelle, Haruko Okano and Juliane Okot Bitek.
The conversation refers to an article by Goto and Morin entitled, "Writing. First. Contact?," which was included in the collection of writings, Performing Utopias in Contemporary Americas (Edited by K. Beauchesne and A. Santos) (2017). It also refers to a conversation held the night before the interview at the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG), Resonant Presence and Refusals, which featured Jeneen Frei Njootli, Ayumi Goto, Peter Morin and Olivia Whetung, as a part of the CAG solo show featuring Jeneen Frei Njootli.
"The year 2014. This Tahltan (male) body. That Japanese (female) body. Two. Movement together. To perform a first contact. The idea is that colonial literature defines a space for these bodies. A savage. A geisha. Not much movement. Not much space. And the birth of scars that reach down into our spirit bodies" – Writing. First. Contacts? (Goto/Morin) (2017)
Zool Suleman: I wanted to start by thanking all of you for being so generous with your time today and engaging in this conversation. I have seen the show and I'm just overwhelmed by the possibilities that it explores. When I first saw the title; how do you carry the land? I was very intrigued by two things. One, obviously the specificity of the land. It's unclear which land though we can conjecture, and maybe we shouldn't, and, [two] this notion of "carry".
Normally we think of carrying physical things. We carry emotional things. This position of carrying something that looks very heavy and solid that we don't see as movable is a great frame that we kind of move into. From a curatorial perspective, what were you hoping to animate with that frame and with these artists?
Institution and Implication
Tarah Hogue: Well, the title of the exhibition is a question that's meant to implicate the reader of the title. Coming into the Vancouver Art Gallery for my first exhibition and this fellowship position I was thinking about, as Métis and Dutch-Canadian woman on territories that are not my own, how to engage with the presence of Indigenous Peoples on their territories as well as how to engage with the history of the site. The Vancouver Art Gallery is a former provincial courthouse. I was also thinking about all the exhibitions that have happened here, in particular, thinking about exhibitions around Indigenous arts and what kind of claims the gallery has participated in in the making of that art history. Moving from an artist-run center context, where I was working before coming into this space, involved a radical change in who would experience the work that Peter and Ayumi have made with the other artists. This was sort of my constellation of thoughts as we approached the conversations around the exhibition between the three of us.
The title is really meant to provoke people into thinking about this question deeply from their own perspectives and experiences. By asking the question it is meant to also hopefully engender a pause in approaching the exhibition. So, the title wall starts with a series of questions. How do we come to be in relationship to this place? How have I come to be in relationship to this place? How does artistic practice help us to parse that out and to think more deeply about our responsibilities to place?
ZS: You used this word 'implicate' which I find fascinating. How do you think the institution has responded to the implication? What's your sense of that? You can only speak from your perspective, but you are also within it so there tends to be this kind of, "I'm in it, I'm not in it". It's a very difficult space and I appreciate it may be a difficult question which you can either defer or respond to. But I find that dialogue interesting because these institutional spaces that are opening up at long last. The kind of knowledges from which the institutions work and Indigenous curators and artists work are very different. This institution that you have been in and this show that you are doing here, do you have a sense of how that implication has been responded to?
TH: I can only speak from my own perspective but the position that I'm in was created because of a recognition that the gallery needed to engage and think more deeply about its relationships with the Indigenous communities that surround this site. And to do so in a more sustained way. Curators who have worked at the gallery in the past have certainly developed relationships with certain Indigenous artists in BC in particular but, the institution, as so many exhibiting institutions, is really driven by the project timeline and so a more sustained look at what that relationship building process looks like or could look like is something that the gallery hasn't had an opportunity to pursue.
The drive of this exhibition is very much within that line of thinking, that line of questioning. We had such a tremendous show of support from the community at the opening. It was such a joyous event. It really set the tone for the exhibitions. Some people have said that it felt very different to be in this space than during other similar events in the past. Yeah, I think it's sort of at the beginning of … it's not like it's the very beginning because people have been doing good work here but it does feel like a new page I think for a lot of people.
Passing and Introductions
ZS: In the work that you [Ayumi and Peter] do and the paper that you and Peter wrote, Peter gets positioned as the Tahltan male body. What does that conjecture for you when you hear that?
Ayumi Goto: A Tahltan male?
AG: So many things actually. From what I have learned from Peter, Tahltan culture and nation is actually matriarchal. When I think about the role of the male in a matriarchy, it carries very differently than the male body in a patriarchy. I come from a strong female lineage (matriarchy). In the Japanese context, the inheritance of family names is politically and socially specific. If the women's family is from a higher class, then the man adopts the woman's name and the woman's social status and fortune.
In performing with Peter, I recognize Peter's male body in a matriarchal space from my cultural heritage and Peter's cultural heritage.
In our collaborations, we begin with a particular intention, or our own knowledge of what we intend to do and how we hope our ideas, or our actions are communicated. But then we can't address or be cognizant of all the different meanings that are marked onto our bodies. So I think the impetus behind writing First Contacts? was a response to … For me I thought that that performance [in 2014] went awry just because it wasn't introduced, the title wasn't even given, and many people didn't know that Peter is Indigenous. So, they thought I was like this Asian woman "cleaning" this white guy and I could feel this read of the performance in that very moment.
I could feel it and I was getting horrified by it and so I felt compelled for us to write this essay [in 2017] because it's so much more complicated than that. I think the ease with which we become habituated within the Canadian nationalized context of talking about political relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, male versus female, different genders doesn't at all capture the knowledge that we try to compel with respect each other. It's complicated and there is no straightforward answer.
ZS: It was interesting to see in the paper in another context, the description for Ayumi as a Japanese female body, but sometimes as a Japanese diasporic person. When you [Peter] hear that what does that kind of resonate for you given where you are located?
Peter Morin: Ah, the tough question [laughter]. Well I think that that performance in  in particular was really for me thinking that "Japanese woman body" is a description of not just her body as she moves within it and activates it, but also this sort of Canadian-imposed idea. That's like a very real thing and part of the work, as Ayumi was saying, that we have been undertaking is how people make her disappear in the performances. She just totally disappears and there are so many examples of how this happens.
Like ballet for example, the dude comes on for five seconds or whatever and it's just like he is the show, right? And you would hope that in performance you could like shutter those expectations but at the same time it doesn't happen. One of the ways that we had attempted to address that was to become more genders. So, we wore bodies as they are now and the specific genders that they are but inside of us we become both: male and female inside a male body, male and female inside a female body. But I think to speak more directly to your question, I think I feel responsible I guess.
I feel responsible for my friend, for her family to see them and I feel sadness actually when like folks don't fit into this sense of Canadian identity or nation or whatever. Like, if you come from a different place or you have a different story and how you don't get a chance to be that story because Canada doesn't really let you. I have a sense of sadness around that because I think a lot of folks are kind of like a miracle I guess.
ZS: It touches for me upon a conversation that was in the first issue [of Rungh magazine in 1992-1993]. This idea of "home as a mythical space". We construct these notions of home whether its geography or family or certain special placements whatever that may be, and then the nation state kind of comes in and fucks it up.
And for some people, power accrues to them in the way the system is set up and not only in nationalism but capitalism and all the –isms but then there are the –isms that don't work. Normally in the multicultural dialogue when people from other places or ethnicities describe themselves they insert the word "Canada" as in: South Asian-Canadian, Indian-Canadian, Tamil-Canadian.
But it was interesting to see that in the descriptors you chose for yourselves, there is a distinct evacuation of that word and it brings me to another place, from last night's conversation which I found quite generative. There was this comment, I think Ayumi was saying, this idea of "passing through the land" and also this idea of "those who arrived after". The question I kind of had around that is, is there a sense that those who arrived after pass through the land differently than those who were here and continue to be here?
I prefer to use that language over a more common kind of academic language between Indigenous and settlers and just kind of reel the conversation around this idea of "passing" and how different people pass differently. Like a door that takes us into a space of possibilities because it's connected and yet there is action and so what happens between the connection and the action particularly given that you do performance art. Tarah, thoughts?
TH: Well, I keep thinking about Sarah Ahmed's writing on academic institutions in how certain bodies pass through or do not pass through these spaces. She talks about institutions as being modes of attention and so, what is attended to is made present and what is not attended to can recede from view. But at the same time bodies who are marked as 'different' also come to be sort of like aberrations against the absent center that is whiteness.
Spaces accrue or allow for certain bodies to be in them in a naturalized, normative way where passing through is not something that is paid much attention to because those bodies are normalized in that space. That's not really necessarily speaking to my own sense of being part of Métis diaspora but just specifically thinking about being an institutional space. So, I will just say that for now.
ZS: Is it common to be in that space without being oppositional to whiteness? I have asked the other question, but I'm just saying as you think about this idea of passing through the land and those who arrived after, let's stick first of all to how you would respond to that first part of it and then we can deal with what Tarah was saying.
AG: I started thinking a lot about passing through and listening to Cheryl L'Hirondelle giving talks and the way she would introduce herself. She would talk a lot about passing, that is, passing as a white person, and it really made an impression on me. I'm thinking about the institution where I am just about to finish my PhD which has been an extremely painful process and passing through is like trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, and trying to be invisible to do the work to subvert that normalization. If you make too much of a splash or are too loud or too aggressive or seen as making an obnoxious challenge, you are going to get cut down. You are going to get hurt and maybe hurt others as well in the process.
I think the idea of passing through then breaks down those kinds of classifications of political barriers that we create by saying Indigenous versus non-Indigenous, because we all have this experience of passing through. And it might be that point of having a conversation without feeling like it has to be an Us and Them or either/or. I like the ambivalence of the term because I think with passing through you can also pass through like a ghost and no one ever notices you and then you cannot be harmed, because no one ever notices you. So, it may make one more mindful of the kind of negative connotations of both how you act as well as how things are acted upon you by passing through.
ZS: The ideas of presence and fragility and what happens between the space of presence and fragility and kind of where that takes us sometimes.
ZS: The nation state is pretty clear about this idea of presence and of the people they want to be present and how we think of this notion of fragility. It's almost like the coin only flips towards presence but not towards embodying fragility.
AG: Yes. That's true.
ZS: That's seen as a negative default position, right?
PM: I guess listening to Tarah and to you three gave me a notion of thinking about not passing but I guess the idea of not passing doesn't actually fit in with the idea of passing.
TH: What about the idea of mobility in relationship to the idea of passing? Because you think a lot about how Tahltan knowledge is mobile on the land.
PM: Yeah that's great. I think the conversation about borders and boundaries and things like that actually makes me feel very exhausted now. And thinking about what Ayumi is offering, this idea of passing through. We offer an opportunity for so much more than just the line and the identity and this is how we learn how to talk to each other with these tools that are designed by the nation state which are designed to privilege one person over the other.
Just thinking about what you are saying, about not just passing through, not just as a generative offering but actually it's something that reprioritizes how we can actually meet.. Like it's a really great connection to the provocation, how do you carry the land? For me, the question of land for Indigenous folks as it lives in my body is specifically tied to resource extraction as a result of colonization. Which then gets picked up, because in all our Indigenous knowledges and knowledges in general, which are not in the sense, the perceived center, are actually all extracted from everyone to redetermine the power of what we see at the center.
Teaching, Learning and Possibilities
ZS: There is, at times, a rigidity building around the classifications that the nation gives you: I'm Indigenous, I'm a person of colour, I'm a settler, I'm a descendant from chattel slavery. I mean, there are all these kinds of ways in which the way people understand their own knowledge and constructive identities, and then the state takes a stake in that. So, then these walls build up and the in the pushing and pulling between the walls sometimes, it is not very generous.
I hear a very generous, vulnerable talk that we are having as artists who make their art and as a curator who is in an institution and outside it. Why do you think this kind of vulnerability that we are sharing, scares people out there in the world of what they may call "real politics" or the world of art institutions ? What is it about these spaces that we are sharing, the exhibit for instance, is a gift and a sharing, but that generosity doesn't seem to exist in other spaces, what's that about? A false scarcity, or a historical dynamic, or a moment that we are in now?
PM: When I think about my childhood growing up around old school elders and […], and about what it actually means to pass over or through these spaces. That makes me reflect that experience. It's a similar kind of travelling, it's a similar kind of … I mean, people move for different reasons anyway. Like scarcity of food for example. There is a fear connected to that around survival. But there is a kind of way to see and be connected to those stories or how Métis people were forcibly moved.
I think what you are talking about and what your question is about, are the problems of introductions. I would understand it as: we have inherited these particular tools in order to activate our relationship to that system that endeavors to overtake our possibilities. So, this is the tool that we have, I am this person, I am this, you are that. It's not about meeting but it actually is about us proving that the system works maybe a little bit.
ZS: This brings me to an interesting juncture. I'm going to start with Peter on this. You made a couple of very interesting comments at yesterday's panel. One was this idea of your mother and your family, your elders. Then you said something when we talked about this idea of being on the land and knowledge making and you said something like, "who teaches you to be a part of the world?" That sounds pretty simple, and yet it is so utterly profound when we think about who teaches us to be a part of the world, now.
There is a kind of an institutional reliance: the school does it or the counsellor does it or the police do it or the state does it but your question goes to a much deeper point. Your comments link to this other point which I found, again, full of possibilities which is the idea that Indigenous spaces are more generative than the colonial spaces. So, this idea of who teaches us how to be a part of the world, and then indigenous spaces are more generative than colonial spaces.
Then I believe there is another comment you made where you said that there is this sense that this space of Indigenous knowledge making has global possibilities. I wanted to connect those ideas together about knowledge making, the possibilities of space in contradistinction to the kind of colonial space we are in. I just found those three comments very linked.
PM: Well, I think the very first answer maybe is that we are all here together. I think that that blows my mind. It blows my mind. It's great. The system often is some straight, white guy in charge and all that stuff. There is no straight, white guy coming in here to tell us what to do and it's not that all those straight, white guys in power and privilege are bad or whatever. But who teaches you about how to be a part of the world? If this was working how it should have been working, all the folks who travel here would have learnt hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ [halkomelem] . They would have learned the language of this place. There would be languages and that would be happening and a conceptual world-view of this place would be taught to everyone. That's part of the answer and imagine that beautiful possibility.
Generative Spaces, Labour and Institutional Shapeshifting
ZS: Then there is this idea of the Indigenous spaces being more generative than the colonial spaces? AG: Well, in part of my dissertation I made a strong argument to support the nationalization of all Indigenous languages in Canada. Coming from an English as a second language perspective, if English or French is your second language and you speak it poorly, you feel morally and politically and socially judged. It deeply affects your emotions, your capacity to express happiness and joy.
I think it will give us a strong Indigenous sense of cosmopolitanism and it gives a chance for people who otherwise feel so much pressure to belong in a particular way. Now there are multiple Indigenous languages and it really matters what land you are on to know how you might behave. Whereas right now it's like all of those interrelational intricacies and all the different cultures are just swept under and suppressed by the expectations of the nation state.
PM: There are so many examples of how the world has come here already, before settler colonialism. The Chinese boats, Japanese boats, Hawaiian, Asian, Samoan folks and there are so many particular stories about these places of connection. Like I had a friend who went to China and this was a while ago but he went for the Shanghai Olympics. Then he posted a picture of two tall poles carved by old school ancient Chinese folks but somehow that's happening over there and over here at the same time, but nobody really wants to open themselves up to the complications.
ZS: Another space I wanted to go into is about institutions and doing the hard work, which came up yesterday. One of the artists that sat on the panel was saying that they are tired of doing the hard work and they are tired of being put in that place of having to explain. It was interesting to see your response to that Peter, which was kind of like, "you have to do the work," is the quote that I have. Educate others but you cannot give so much of yourself as to get exhausted. This idea of labour and the labour involved in institution shifting, is that labour getting easier at all?
TH: No. I'm speaking from my own generational perspective; I can say that I was not part of the artists organizing in the '80s or '90s to shift institutions at that time. But I just think that things change. You always talk about colonialism as being a shapeshifter; Ayumi does, which it absolutely is, and there is no clear or single path to travel in order to do this work successfully.
I think about the way that the two of you approach your collaboration in terms of thinking very deeply about the specificity of your relationship, about each of your respective experiences. t really takes that much attention to the situation of the place that you are in, the histories that are there, the people that are working alongside you, to parse out how to effectively move forward. But, yes, we are in a global conversation. We are in a national conversation. As an Indigenous curator I'm a part of a very small cohort of folks who are dealing with similar issues within their institutions. We have these positions and are being called upon to respond to questions all the time, of all manner, that we may or may not have the answers for.
And there is a tension between--for me personally--wanting to be generous with the people that I work with and to help the institution think through these things, and then just being like totally overwhelmed and not knowing where to start. I think that it's a long game and institutions have to be willing to look at the long game and have to be also ready to actually think about what outcomes they are looking for. Although this is a process that we are going through and the process is so important, they have to think about the implications of what it is they are undertaking.
PM: I mean, that's part of what I was saying last night too. We have work to do but the people in that room at the CAG [Contemporary Art Gallery]they have work to do as well. Personally, I have been in this situation before, to acknowledge the costs that Indigenous folks and people of colour folks actually, we have to work twice as hard in order to catch that Canadian, white person up before we can actually start doing the work. We are working twice as hard and we are getting paid half of what they are getting paid and we are doing their work for them. It's a very bad situation. We have got stuff to do. The conversation we are having right now is the conversation, you know?
AG: I find too that in the work that needs to be done, you do want to find those friends that you can count on. Whether they are sometimes visiting the institution that you are a part of, or they are outside, or they are alongside with you in the inside. The people who nurture you and then you take care of each other and no strings attached. No conditionals and it's like, we have to look out for each other and when you find those people your heart knows this deeply. Sometimes just to be able to talk to somebody or to develop a friendship amidst all the craziness is a moment of rest or that moment of just care. I think by centering a friendship, it's not just a singular friendship anymore; these friendships are mushrooming out and proliferating. … …
ZS: Thank you to you all.