SYMPOSIUM: What’s At Stake? Intertextual Indigenous Knowledges


Debra Sparrow speaking at What's at Stake? Intertextual Indigenous Knowledges. 

Prior to her talk at the symposium, What's At Stake? Intertextual Indigenous Knowledges, art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault played a video excerpted from the documentary, Histakshitl Ts'awaatskwii, featuring scholar and creator Ron Hamilton (Ki-Ke-In) singing, his voice overlaid with the sound of rushing water, a pair of clapping hands, a paintbrush scratching a canvas surface, the tearing of fabric, the rhythm of a sewing machine, the forceful blows of a hammer. Townsend-Gault's inclusion of the video identifies a parallel structure, underwriting both the film and the layered dialogues that accrued over the course of Intertextual's program. Just as the distinct elements in the video produced a counterpoint, or relationship, between interacting yet disparate melodies, Intertextual's reading groups coalesced into a discursive harmony. This structure might resemble what in musical theory in known as a fugue, a type of composition wherein a melody-or subject-is layered with another iteration in a different key-an answer. Subjects and answers repeat, layering over one another into a polyphonic texture that takes up the melody part way through previous iterations and overflows into the next. In psychiatry, the term also designates a temporary state of dissociation, manifested through the loss of one’s identity and a dislocation from one's habitual environment. Though the term emerged from the Latin word fuga, or flight, intrinsic to the fugue of both music and psychiatry is the inevitable return, or repetition of a pre-existing event. As in its musical definition, the fugue of psychiatry necessitates a return to one’s originary environment, albeit in a different, invariably altered form.

Video stills from the documentary Histakshitl Ts'awaatskwii (2010), directed by Ron Hamilton and Denise Nicole Green.

Gilles Deleuze writes, "If repetition makes us ill, it also heals us; if it enchains and destroys us, it also frees us, testifying in both cases to its 'demonic' power. All cure is a voyage to the bottom of repetition." Intertextual's reading groups, which were motivated by the critical anthology Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas (UBC Press, 2014), parsed a series of texts over the course of several months in order to unpack the historical narratives that have long exerted both literal and metaphorical violence on Indigenous communities. Journeying to the 'bottom of repetition,' as it were, took the form of collective reading groups, transforming what is commonly understood as a solitary endeavor into a shared process of re-remembering. As a project, Intertextual brooked a path through which temporary communities could partake in this process of reading and response-a process that took on a particular rhythm, shaped by voices reading aloud, picking up where one left off, returning to the text and to each other. Distinct voices picked up the refrain from one another, echoing voices and experiences long neglected in a process of remembering the repressed and suppressed, re-writing, and re-thinking given histories, the politics they inscribe, and the bodies who have been subject to those narratives.

Feeling less like a conclusion and more like the start of a new episode altogether, the February 4, 2017 symposium What?s At Stake? brought coherence to the preceding reading group events, which had until then operated as semi-autonomous entities with their own distinctive registers. Symposia can feel like stuffy, academic affairs, but this event was unique not only in its format but also in the manner in which stories and experiences functioned as bridges, unfolding in a process of coming together, united by a shared dialogue reflecting on the lasting repercussions of historical violence. The power of the spoken word was palpable. Opening with Debra Sparrow?s welcome, the afternoon elaborated on this communal agency over a course of talks, panels and a poetry reading investigating the ways in which Indigenous artistic practices have been framed, and how artists have engaged with those histories and knowledges that have been continually (mis)represented through Canada's colonial legacy.

In my role as a curatorial intern, I had the privilege of being a part of the organizing team-a vast enterprise that brought together curators from multiple institutions in Vancouver to parse the anthology that inspired the series and to deliver a program capable of unpacking its important contributions within a discourse around Indigenous contemporary art. Over the course of many meetings and countless emails, several themes and questions kept arising-what are we trying to achieve through taking up Native Art of the Northwest Coast? How can we better understand the dynamics at play in our role as institutional facilitators? What do we mean with we talk about native art and indigeneity? These were issues we repeatedly grappled with, continuously refining and re-articulating our role as curators and organizers and our relationship to texts and the temporary communities that form around them. I'm not sure that we ever answered those questions satisfactorily, but in another sense I think, in releasing those questions into the wider Vancouver community, in asking people to be a part of a much-needed dialogue, they might continue to be deconstructed and debated even after the reading series has come to an end.

Herbert Marcuse wrote, "Remembrance is a mode of dissociation from the given facts, a mode of 'mediation' which breaks, for short moments, the omnipresent power of the given facts. Memory recalls the terror and the hope that passed." Text may have served as the ground on which the readings were based, though I think the greatest strength of Intertextual was its capacity to bring people together to critically think about written narratives and the respective histories and experiences they have repressed from public memory. Marcuse's notion of memory highlights its potency, its capacity for subversion, its ability to break, if fleetingly, hegemonic narratives and forms of sociality. Perhaps in re-reading these narratives together, Intertextual anticipated a step towards a collective act of re-remembering. Perhaps in repeating the voices of others, both past and present, we engaged in a process of dissociation from our individual selves. And perhaps these processes, as temporary and fragmented as they were, have the capacity to re-write the dynamics of power and sovereignty that have been used to ignore the voices of those most subject to its will.

For more information on What's At Stake? Intertextual Indigenous Knowledges click here.