Mounting the Wall of Fatigue ~ an AGO First Thursday Talk

This talk was presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario for First Thursday: Still Nasty on March 2nd 2017. Still Nasty was guest curated by OCAD’s graduate class in Criticism and Curatorial Practice. What follows is an essay-ish version of my ten minute talk. 

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I would like to begin my talk by acknowledge that Toronto has been home to many indigenous nations, most recently the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. In my research for this talk I learned that this land was appropriated by the British Crown in a series of shady treaties, most famously the Toronto Purchase of 1805 which swindled the Mississaugas out of this land for ten shillings. The Mississaugas filed a land claim in 1986 and after 24 years of legal negotiations the Canadian government finally acknowledged it’s failure to ever pay for the original land outlined in the Toronto Purchase. The government paid $145 million retroactively in 2010 for this land (a large portion of Toronto is actually unceded territory). Part of the reason it took so long to reach a settlement is Indigenous nations were not able to file land claims until the 1970s and a fair system to hear these claims was not devised until 2008. I also want to acknowledge that I am a settler of British ancestry and have privileged citizenship in the country through settler inheritance and the displacement of Indigenous people.  I am also a queer writer and curator with an Art History background. Tonight I am going to be speaking about The Wall of Fatigue a work by the FASTWÜRMS. The FASTWÜRMS are a queer art collective and this work is about Canada’s relationship to the land as a settler colonial nation. In keeping with tonight's theme of feminist futurities I want to use this work as a starting point to think through decolonizing queer and feminist visions of the future.

 FASTWURMS. Wall of Fatigue [from the installation “Snow-She-Bones” at the Ydessa Gallery in 1983], 1983. Industrial galvanized metal panels, four pulleys, four burlap sacks full of potatoes, variable dimensions. FASTWURMS. © FASTWURMS 2017.

FASTWURMS. Wall of Fatigue [from the installation “Snow-She-Bones” at the Ydessa Gallery in 1983], 1983. Industrial galvanized metal panels, four pulleys, four burlap sacks full of potatoes, variable dimensions. FASTWURMS. © FASTWURMS 2017.

Formed in 1979 FASTWÜRMS is the cultural project, trademark, and joint authorship of Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse. FASTWÜRMS artwork is characterized by a determined DIY sensibility, Witch Nation identity politics, and a keen allegiance towards working class, queer alliance, and artist collaborationsThe Wall of Fatigue was created in 1983 as part of a larger installation/exhibition titled Snow-She-Bones at Ydessa Gallery. The work is a critique of Canada as a settler-colonial nation founded on stolen land. Settler colonialism is a very specific form of colonialism; a key part of colonialism is always resource extraction and accumulation, however, in settler colonialism the horizons of the settler nation-state are total. This requires complete appropriation of Indigenous life and land, rather than the selective expropriation of profit-producing fragments (Tuck and Yang 5). Within settler colonialism the most important concern is always land, this is important to understand because settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, but also because, “the disruption of Indigenous relationship to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence” (Tuck and Yang 5). This violence is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation, including today.

 The Wall of Fatigue depicts a large empty landscape with a broken tree near the centre.  The broken tree represents the breaking of treaties with Indigenous nations by the Canadian government.  The empty landscape illustrates the concept of terra nulluis (empty land) used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands by depicting the land as empty . Terra nulluis has been illustrated in the work of many settler Canadian artists, most famously the Group of Seven, and used to continually reassert the myth that North America was unoccupied before Europeans "discovered" the land. One of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation calls to action is to repudiate concepts such as terra nulluis and the doctrine of discovery (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action 5).

The second component of The Wall of Fatigue is the punch clock and time cards behind the wall (these cards are a take away). The punch clock has become an icon of factory work, unionized labour, and the working class. In the original exhibition the premise was that viewers entered the gallery not as a neutral audience but as a workers. The intended work of the piece is learning our relationship to the land as settlers and understanding the history of settler colonialism and broken treaties. This is the work of decolonizing our minds and histories as settlers. The piece advocates working towards more informed relationship with the land and Indigenous nations.

In our contemporary moment the punch clock can also reference the fantasy of the return of factory work in North America held in large part by the white working class, a powerful desire illustrated by Donald Trump’s recent election platform. This fantasy is being exploited by politicians such as Trump and Trudeau with the promise of thousands of jobs in the oil industry, which are actually a fiction used to appease angry voters and privilege powerful corporations. By exploiting the fantasy of stable work and a prosperous economy the Canadian government believes it can privilege the expansion of the oil industry and the construction of new pipelines over human and environmental concerns. What is happening with pipelines such as Dakota Access in the United States and the Kinder Morgan pipeline and others in Canada is illustrative of the ongoing operations of settler colonialism in North America.  We have been witnessing the state cooperate in the suppression of all resistance to pipeline projects that most certainly threaten the environment and directly conflict with Indigenous sovereignty. The situation at Standing Rock Sioux Nation in particular highlights ongoing environmental racism; the use of indigenous land for projects not wanted in settler communities. The suppression of physical and legal resistance to the pipeline are violations of Indigenous sovereignty and treaties, as well as human rights violation in the form of militarized attack on non-violent community resistance. This is a continuation of a long history of encroaching on Indigenous land and sovereignty and the privileging of capitalist settler interests over all else.  I think it is also important to highlight that the way in which the conversation about pipelines is framed by the settler state is an incredible simplification of a complex network of historic and contemporary concerns which purposefully obscures the dire stakes of these struggles.

 Illustration on the Canadian two dollar bill. 

Illustration on the Canadian two dollar bill. 

On the back of the timecards is the retired Canadian 2 dollar bill. The scene on bill depicts Inuit seal hunters. This photo is an example of the decontextualization and appropriation of Indigenous culture to mask ongoing settler colonial violence in Canada.  These specific hunters were actually displaced by the Canadian government, forced to move to the high arctic in the 1950s to assert Canadian sovereignty in the north. The community did not adjust well to the difficult move and harsh climate. The government provided very little support despite initiating the move and eventually issued an apology in 2010 for using the community as human flagpoles (CBC). This apology is an example of Canada’s approach to reconciliation; an apology for past atrocities is issued, some money for reparations may be set aside, and Canada believes it can move on. Reconciliation however, is defined by the logics of the settler colonial state. As Billy-Ray Belcourt, a scholar from Driftpile Cree Nation, describes; “Reconciliation is an affective mess: it throws together and condenses histories of trauma and their shaky bodies and feelings into a neatly bordered desire; a desire to let go, to move on, to turn to the future with open arms, as it were. Reconciliation is stubbornly ambivalent in its potentiality, an object of desire that we’re not entirely certain how to acquire or substantiate, but one that the state – reified through the bodies of politicians, Indigenous or otherwise – is telling us we need”. As Belcourt further elaborates, "reconciliation works as a way of looking forward to being in this world, at the expense of more radical projects like decolonization that want to experiment with different strategies for survival”. Reconciliation ensures a settler future by refusing to radically unsettle the power of the state

QUEER/FEMINIST Futurities

As we engage with and contemplate futurities tonight it is important to acknowledge that imagining the future is rarely ever a neutral enterprise. As we think about queer and feminist futurities it is integral that we critically intervene in the normalization of the settler colonial state. This may seem obvious as queer politics were conceptualized as a resistance to regimes of the normal, however, may social justice movements in North American, including queer activism and theory have historically failed to centre and understand that their struggles have taken place on stolen land or connect their struggle against heteropatriarchy to the larger network of settler colonial power (Smith 44).  

Queer indigenous criticisms show that settler colonialism is the historical and institutional root of heteronormative binary sex/gender systems. To critique heteronormativity fully is actually to critique colonial power (Drikill, Finley, Gilley, and Morgensen, 217). As scholar Scott Morgensen asserts, non-native LGBTQ people can alter our organizing by critiquing setter colonialism, and on that basis meet Native people in accountable relationships based in anti-colonial alliance politics (Morgensen 138). As non-Natives we must consider our colonial inheritance when occupying Native land or investing in belonging in settler society, where feeling at home is inseparable from the displacement of native peoples. Defining gender or sexual liberation in civil rights or multicultural inclusion frameworks makes the settler state the horizon of freedom and reinforces settler authority on Native land (143).

Part of the politics of decolonization is recognizing that decolonization is a specific project that is not reconcilable or interchangeable with all other social justice causes. Decolonization is about Indigenous sovereignty and it is important to understand that decolonization sets out to change the order of the world. Unlike reconciliation decolonization will implicate and unsettle everyone (Tuck and Yang 7). Decolonization is founded on an ethics of incommensurability, which guides moves that unsettle innocence, and stands in contrast to the aims of reconciliation. Reconciliation is about rescuing settler normalcy and settler futures.  We must acknowledges that questions of settler futures, "need not and perhaps cannot, be answered in order for decolonization to exist as a framework"( Tuck and Yang 35). As theorists Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang assert solidarity in the context of decolonization “is an uneasy, reserved, and unsettled matter that neither reconciles present grievances nor forecloses future conflicts”(3). As settlers we must work from a place of understanding difference, solidarity, and incommensurability. Working from a place of incommensurability means acknowledging that all struggles are not the same and decolonization is a specific project with an unknown future.

While I personally believe imagining the future as otherwise is a powerful project, I am also learning that acknowledging what we cannot know in advance is a powerful strategy. In the context of decolonization and projects such as prison abolition imagining alternate futures can be powerful, but we can not let not knowing hinder the urgency of these projects. Just as we often find it hard to imagine a society without prisons we may find it hard to imagine a Canada that does not center settler populations and modes of governance. But I believe a future without prisons is possible. I also believe Canada can give back sovereignty of the land to Indigenous people and learn to respect Indigenous sovereignty and governance structures. Imagining a decolonial queer feminist future is about educating ourselves, working towards ending ongoing settler colonial violence, questioning binary knowledge systems such as the division of nature and culture, ending the carceral state, and protecting the land. It is also about making space for other ways of knowing and acting to surface or be created.

Works Cited/Resources

Andrea Smith. "Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism". Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Eds. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011. 

Andrew Friesen. "'Human Flagpoles': Dark story behind Inuit scene on $2 bill". CBC News. 06/05/2014. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/human-flagpoles-dark-story-behind-inuit-scene-on-2-bill-1.2632380>.

Billy-Ray Belcourt. "Political Depression in a Time of Reconciliation". Activehistory.ca. 15/01/2016. <http://activehistory.ca/2016/01/political-depression-in-a-time-of-reconciliation/>.

Bruce Camion-Smith. "Ottawa apologizes to Inuit for using them as ‘human flagpoles’". The Star. 18/07/2010. <https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2010/08/18/ottawa_apologizes_to_inuit_for_using_them_as_human_flagpoles.html>.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. "Decolonization is not a metaphor". Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1.1 (2012): 1-40. 

FASTÜRMS: DONKY@NINJA@WITCH: A Living Retrospective. Art Gallery of York University. Curated by Philip Monk. Toronto: AYGU, 2010.

NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective. 2016. “#StandingRockSyllabus.” <https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/>.

Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. "The Revolution is for Everyone: Imagining an Emancipatory Future through Queer Indigenous Critical Theories". Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Eds. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011. 

Scott Lauria Morgensen. "Unsettling Queer Politics: What can Non-Natives learn from Two-Spirit Organizing?". Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Eds. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011. 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action. 2015.<http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf>

"A Brief History of Specific claims Prior to the Passage of Bill C-30: The Specific Claims Tribunal Act". 05/12/2011. <http://www.sct-trp.ca/hist/hist_e.htm>.

"SACRED WATER: STANDING ROCK, PART I & II". RISE. Viceland.com. 2017. <https://www.viceland.com/en_us/video/sacred-water-standing-rock-part-i/5888c90ae04dd90112c2893a>.