Henry Daniel: In the Middle. . . Somewhat Dislocated

This text was originally published on Monday, February 3, 2020, on the blog run by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, who graciously let us republish it here. Please visit their blog HERE for other excellent essays.

Guest Blog by Dr. Henry Daniel, Professor of Dance, Performance Studies and New Media Technologies, School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

This blog draws on my performance "In the Middle...Somewhat Dislocated" from the recent BCSA Conference (Black Canadian Studies Association) at Congress 2019 at The University of British Columbia. It also touches on some of the ideas presented in my keynote paper “Decolonizing Bodies: Engaging Performance” given at the 3rd Biennial International Dance Conference at the University of the West Indies, Errol Barrow Center for Creative Imagination, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. A link to the video of the choreographic work-in-progres In the Middle...Somewhat Dislocated from the BCSA Conference is provided below.

In the middle…somewhat dislocated (a work in progress)

I am an academic; a dance and performance studies scholar. But I am also a choreographer and performer with an extensive international career in the professional world. My academic life in Canada has therefore been an interesting exercise in bridging these two vastly different spaces. For example, in almost two decades of living and working in this country, I have seen the term Research/Creation go through a number of transformations as academia continues to grapple with the idea of Art as a research enterprise.

The most recent set of 'tricks' that continue to baffle me about the politics of academic institutions are associated with the almost mantric iteration of two familiar phrases; 'decolonizing knowledge' and 'Indigenizing the university'. Ironically enough, they are inserted into any and every discourse and publicity stunt the University fabricates, with those in positions of power requiring that we, its tenured and untenured Professors, find a way to fulfil these 'decolonizing' and 'Indigenizing' mandates; all of this with our hands tied behind our backs.

At the risk of unsettling an already established hierarchy of interests, may I say here that, as part of a Black Diasporic minority, newly 'arrived' after the initial colonization of these Canadian lands, but whose labor has been and continues to be utilized in the institutionalizing process, people like myself still do not seem to have much of a voice, or rather, our voices do not seem to be heard. And therein lies our principal dilemma, especially at a time when certain priorities regarding entitlements have already been set. Thus, in search of a route to inclusion, I have chosen to question the very idea of entitlement to land, place, home and hence belonging within a much larger context. My reasoning here is that the colonizing process, i.e., the accumulation of capital and power, especially in times of increasing scarcity, has so skewed our minds that we forget that individuals, groups of people, and entire communities have always followed resources, whether those be within their native habitats or at some distance from it.

In fact, the very terms 'native' and 'habitat' have become so linked with, and at the same time so restricted to nationalized borders and the resources that those bordered lands contain, that only those with hereditary claims, or the power and influence to cross into and/or out of those borders, stand any chance of survival in this highly capitalist environment. In many ways, the extremely complex relationship that those of us 'newly arrived', 'immigrant' or 'descendants of the formerly enslaved' have to land, place, and belonging has made us into contemporary nomads, a condition that Stuart Hall once described as a "contemporary travelling, voyaging and return as fate, as destiny […] as the prototype of the modern or postmodern New World nomad, continually moving between centre and periphery” (Hall in Rutherford, J. 234:1990). In short, we seem to belong nowhere even as we are forced to occupy anywhere.

If resources determine where one is able to live, and power and opportunity – or lack of it –, the quality of one's life, then the question of belonging, and hence ownership of land and/or resources and therefore the ability to call a place home, does change the nature of the game somewhat. So, regardless of how actively we seek to decolonize or even Indigenize, these terms are moving targets within established institutional structures that are unlikely to change. And since people follow the same routes as the resources they need for their survival, when those resources are removed, exported or otherwise taken away from them, they will follow. What these 'homeless', 'immigrant', or 'descendants of the formerly enslaved' are left with is a contorted relationship between two sets of maps, cortical and cartographic, which we are forever trying to re-inscribe. And as the relationship between the two becomes increasingly tense, we are faced with loud cries and silent screams for the freedoms inherent in terms such as 'decolonization' and 'Indigenization'. So, how do our cortical maps determine our behaviors, and what influence do they have on our geographical wanderings in search of new habitats?  

I say we change the way we think about how these two types of maps have been configured, while reminding those in power that it is in everyone's long-term interest to reconfigure them. This blog post suggests that if dislocation and displacement are the results of a set of tragic historical circumstances, we need to understand precisely how those circumstances have also shaped minds and bodies over time. The performance work In the middle...somewhat dislocated identifies one particular circumstance that many of us may be familiar with. If according to Kenyan playwright, novelist and scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the real aim of colonialism was “to control the entire realm of the language of real life […] the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language by the languages of the coloniser” (1986: 16), the opposite must take place if that situation is to be reversed. The short work that follows is a reminder to those who control the gates of entry to various programs within our University system that the same cultures, art practices, dances, religions, histories, oratures and literatures they forbade must be reintroduced into the system as part of the larger re-educative effort. In short, decolonization and Indigenization are not mere talking points.

In the middle…somewhat dislocated (a work in progress) was initially presented at the BCSA conference within Congress 2019 at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This event called for academics and artists to think about how politically engaged scholarship could address three main themes; i) ending anti-blackness and imagining Black freedom; ii) centering anti-blackness in our scholarly analyses, and iii) thinking about Black and decolonial futures. My response was to present the situation as the paradox it really is. A single Black female performer, surrounded by an audience on four sides, enters a rectangular White space and engages with those who surround it through text, movement and music. The idea for the work resides in the title itself: as a Black Professor and artist/scholar working in an institution where there are so few black students – and surprisingly even less in the arts –, I find it extremely difficult to have a conversation about issues that concern us as a diasporic people. Since choreography is an integral part of the research I do, it is important for me to have these bodies in the room to begin such a conversation. In the middle…somewhat dislocated (a work in progress) explores what happens when these bodies are either absent or alone in those spaces. The title also references an immensely successful avant-garde work by the American choreographer William Forsythe. However, my half-title is as far as the reference goes; I am taking aim at an institutional framework that does not seem willing or able to accommodate the bodied discourses of many of its constituents.

The stage:

  1. Four chairs, strong and flexible enough to dance with and on, which can also be easily lifted and moved through a space 10ft x 12 ft with audience on all sides.
  2. A heavy white cloth that covers the floor space at the margins of which are the aforementioned chairs. This is the White Space to which I refer.
  3. Four speakers are wired to a sound console and controlled by a laptop computer. The music is by American-born Toronto resident Vanese VJ Smith (Pursuit Grooves) from her album Felt Armour (2018) and the tracks are Hide and Slick & Defensive Play respectively. Visit her Bandcamp page HERE. Click HERE for the author's text for VJ Smith's music.

Sources Consulted

Hall, Stuart. ‘Cultural identity and diaspora’ in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990

Henry, Frances., Dua, Enakshi., James, Carl E., Kobayashi, Audrey., Li, Peter., Ramos, Howard., and Smith, Malinda S. The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity in Canadian Universities. Vancouver British Columbia; Toronto Ontario: UBC Press, 2017

Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive”. Lecture given at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), 2015. Available at: http://wiser.wits.ac.za/system/files/Achille%20Mbembe%20-%20Decolonizing%20Knowledge%20and%20the%20Question%20of%20the%20Archive.pdf 2015 [Last Accessed Nov 5 2019]

Meerzon, Yana. Performing Exile, Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2012

Prinsloo, E. “The role of the Humanities in decolonising the academy”. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 2016, Vol. 15(1) 164–168. DOI: 10.1177/1474022215613608

Reid-Pharr, Robert F. Archives of flesh: African America, Spain, and post-humanist critique New York: New York University Press, 2016

Todd, Zoe. “Indigenizing Canadian academia and the insidious problem of white possessiveness”. https://zoestodd.com/2018/05/04/indigenizing-academia-and-the-insidious-problem-of-white-possessiveness/ [Last Accessed Nov 5, 2019]

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Vol. 1”. Toronto: James Lorimer  & Co. Ltd., 2015 http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf [Last Accessed Nov 5, 2019]

Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House

Wynter, Sylvia. “1492, A New World View” in Race, discourse, and the origins of the Americas: a new world view. Edited by Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettleford. Smithsonian Institution. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 1994

---. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation-An Argument”. CR: The New Centennial Review, Michigan State University Press 2003, Vol.3(3), pp. 257-337

In the middle…somewhat dislocated (a work in progress)

Choreography and Design by Henry Daniel
Music by Vanese VJ Smith (Pursuit Grooves)

Felt Armour
Hide and Slick
(text by Henry Daniel, voiced by Montserrat Videla)
Defensive Play
(lyrics by Henry Daniel, rapped by Ryan Persaud)

Performed by Taylor Noel
Shot and Edited by Katrina Mugume
Lighting and Production by Kevin Kim and Howard Dai

For more information about Henry Daniel and his work, please visit www.henrydaniel.ca.

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