re-storying, drifting with the river (London, Ontario 2013)
Videography by Dennis Siren
featuring performance artists:
ruth douthwright – dance artist
billy douthwright – visual artist
kevin o’connor – dance & aerial artist
& invited guest musician schroeder
liz akiwenzie- storyteller
calling all to engage:
collaborating – performing – witnessing
how does a performance event serve as a critical intervention examining our relationship to this place?
how do we re-story settler-indigenous her/history?
how do we open to this encounter?
tickets: suggested donation $20 (no one turned away)
Billy Jack Douthwright
what does it mean to kinesthetically entwine with a particular place without starting with belonging?
This question emerged over the past year as I continued practicing as a site based performance artist working in Turtle Island. In investigating site based performance I spent six weeks in Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), Baffin Island, as part of a ‘bush school’ learning from and living with the Inuit in Nunavut. From the Arctic I traveled to my home town of London Ontario to take part in a creative process and performance with an art making collective that I am a member of, composed of settler-Canadian and Indigenous artists. From Ontario, the collective travelled to the Berkshire Hills in New Hampshire, to lead a choreographic lab and performance. Our process centered around investigating our relationship to the land, the dance residency Earthdance, is situated within. Finally, throughout the year I both took part in a round dance on a street intersection in London Ontario and helped organize a round dance during the Encuentro festival in Montreal. Both were in relation to the Idle No More uprising that swept across Canada starting in 2012. These events and the questions that emerged can be weaved together through thinking with what performance/visual artist Ilya Noe calls the site particular:
Site-particularity offers a long-term dynamic of to-and-fro within locational possibilities and limitations, made and remade.[It is] …a conversation, a process of collaborative construction: a reciprocal and simultaneous way of shaping and being shaped, a continual relearning, rehearsing and improvising of different ways to recognize and respond in the moment and with full awareness. (Noe 2009)
Over the past few years our art making collective has led collaborative art making processes where we examine a particular community’s relation to the watershed they live in though site based participatory performance. In focusing on the relation in our art making practices we have experimented and developed different open ended scores. These scores are kinds of propositions for new kinds of relations to emerge. Within these scores each audience member enters into a relation or cultivates one with both humans and other than humans, unique to the site. This coming into relation and the potential for making differences is what makes the grounds for these performances to come together. The basis for the performance is gifting as each audience member gives something to the particular event unfolding they are in relation to without knowing or demanding if or how or when the gift will be returned. We question how performance practices can foreground ways we are ‘shaping and being shaped” by the human and other than human entities and forces that live amongst us, unique to each site.
We created two specific performances that helped us think through what it means to kinesthetically entwine. Our first performance, called restorying, drifting with the river, occurred during the early fall, within the SoHo neighborhood, along what is named the d’eshkan zibbi (Ojibwa language) or officially named the Thames River, in the city of London, Ontario. This urban neighborhood is the area where my artistic collaborators Ruth and Billy, along with myself were born and raised, and where Ruth currently resides. We spent six weeks in a creative process in the community and created a participatory performance in October 2013. The second performance process was a weeklong choreographic lab that we collectively led during the month of June 2014, as part of a residency at Earthdance in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts. We spent almost half a year preparing for the residency and then worked with 25 artists from North America and Europe during the two weeks we were there. All of the artists we worked with were from elsewhere, in relation to the Berkshire hills.
“without belonging” is a stance and starting place to question my relationship as a white, European descended Canadian, to the particular places, my ‘home’ town river watershed, the Berkshire hills, the round dances I participated in and the bush school in Panniqtuuq, Nunavut, that my art making practices are in relation to. Perhaps, this embrace of “without” is my own reaction against the dominant white western patriarchal kind of hegemonic belonging. This is not to dismiss the practices, possibilities, or processes for certain kinds of belonging, that can potentially lead to productive obligations which one cannot forget or ignore (Stengers 2005). Rather, it allows me to open up to the possibility of being made different by the particularities of a particular place without having to start with the question of whether I belong or not. Without belonging resists stories that narrate settlers or their state as naturally belonging to settled lands or that naturalize the land’s capacity to represent settlers and their way of life while ignoring other ways of being in relation to the land (Deloria 1998). It also points to the impossibility for many, of not belonging within a nation state situated in a colonial context. Without belonging pushes back against being a kind of limited “I”—a phallocentric, heteronormative, able-bodied, dominantly raced, nationalistic category “I”, that upholds a certain kind of belonging. George Lipsitz (1995), in examining whiteness, looks at it as a set of regulatory practices to which one must submit in order to establish one’s self as insider. In doing so he reveals those exclusionary practices to which we submit to in order to belong. Like whiteness, each of the categories within the limited “I” intersect within normalizing discourse. Each wields power to hail subjects into hegemonic forms of belonging.
In starting without belonging I am interested in working against what Brain Massumi (2002) calls “coded belonging.” In coded belonging there is no becoming. Within this kind of belonging, the place of the event recaptures normalized relations. Here, belonging happens in a container of asymmetric power relations already constituted (Massumi 2002). Coded belonging re-contains, not allowing new forms of being in relation to emerge. There is no folding back into the “field of play” (Massumi 2002) and therefore no becoming.
Feminist scholar Aimee Carrillo Rowe (2005) helps me think of an alternative kind of belonging that pushes beyond coded belonging. Rowe examines what gets left out when the conditions and effects of belonging to a “location” are assumed as a starting point for theorizing. She writes of belonging as a process of longing, as a command to “be longing.” This is a resistive hailing or interpellation (Althusser 1971) that recognizes the way power is transmitted through our belongings or what Rowe calls our affective ties. She writes, “who we love, the communities we live in, who we expend our energy building ties with” are functions of hegemonic power. Rowe challenges me to think of alternative belongings while recognizing you cannot be “without belonging” that the nation state imposes. However, to be longing also asks us to envision an alternative. Rowe writes that within this alternative command to “be longing” is one in which the Western reader “be something that you are (not), but may not think of “yourself’ as because you have been hailed as a subject through countless articulations of “Individuality.” (Rowe 2005 ) To move beyond this notion of an individual self is to be a body in motion. In motion the body does not coincide with itself, it coincides with its variation. In variation a body “ is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own non present potential to vary” (Massumi 2002). Within Rowe’s be longing she asks what happens when we challenge the norms of hegemonic belonging? In challenging belonging we cannot escape the ways we are interpolated by hegemonic forms of belonging, but we are also capable of creating resistive counter-hegemonic, or what Rowe calls differential belongings (Rowe 2005).
In thinking through kinesthetically entwining while moving beyond a notion of an individual self, I turn towards, Nishnaabeg scholar, Leanne Simpson’s telling of the Gdoo-naaganinaa, meaning “Our Dish” story (Simpson 2011). Simpson tells the story of an example of pre-colonial collaboration through difference. In her telling of this story, I learn how two separate and distinct nations, the Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaune, built and maintained relations in the territory that I was born on, in Ontario. Gdoo-naaganinaa acknowledged that both these nations were eating out of the same dish through shared hunting territory. In sharing the territory for hunting both parties were responsible for taking care of the Dish so that there would be plant, medicine and animal foods to sustain both groups in the future. Nishnaabeg custom required decision makers to consider the impact of their decisions on all the plant and animal nations, in addition to the next seven generations of Nishnaabeg. Simpson highlights the idea that sharing the territory did not involve one territory interferes with another’s sovereignty as a nation. She writes that at no time did the Haudenosaunee assume that the Nishnaabeg intended to give up their sovereignty, independence or nationhood (Simpson 2011). At the same time both parties knew they had a shared responsibility to take care of the territory. Within this story, differences matter, there is no making of the same. Geoo-naaganinaa is living in the sense that both parties must continue to follow their own cultural protocols for renewing the relationship on a regular basis. The our dish story is a way to think through living with and maintaining difference while living alongside others.
In my own reading of the our dish treaty relation, I learn how in living alongside, each group attends to the world they live in while also paying attention to how their practices implicate the other human and other than human worlds that they share territory with. Within this collaboration there is an ethics of engagement. Each group continues to make themselves different in response to the the people their lives are lived in collaboration with. Lynette Hunter, in her writing on disunified aesthetics, writes that within the alongside collaboration “the unsaid is made in the making of difference which is an unending process of making present.” (Hunter 2014)
Listening skills are required in this kind of kinesthetically entwining, while living alongside. This process assumes there are other communities alongside the one you are situated within and acknowledges affects that travel between them, without necessarily one community knowing the impacts on the other. Paying attention to the subtle and not so subtle ways you impact those you do not know is a kind of attuning to how you are embedded in an ecology with others. Perhaps in learning, or in starting out cultivating this kind of listening, a slowing down and waiting is required, so that one can let oneself be affected by how one’s actions affect others.
I learned the productiveness of not starting with belonging while taking part in the round dance flash mob protests as part of the Idle No More Indigenous uprising that swept across Turtle Island (North America) starting in 2012. These dances taught me about the potential of performance practices to create openings for becoming, resulting in the making of myself different in the process. This making of difference occurs as I slow down and attend to those I am in collaboration with. As I listen, yield into the dance and change myself, I become present in a different way, finding new ways to come into relationship.
Before participating in the round dance protests I questioned whether, as a white, settler Canadian, I belonged within these protest dances. What I learned was that the round dance protest did not begin by asking who or what you are, before, during or after participating in them. The process of their creation did not seem to care or have time to know. Or perhaps knowing was not at all the question. This question of exclusion/inclusion, belonging or not, was not a starting point for the dancing together. It did not presume kinship or property ownership or raced based logics of belonging as the grounds for making together.
The round dances I participated in occurred on street intersections in the heart of the commercial district of London Ontario. There was no rehearsal for the coming together of Indigenous and settler allies to dance on streets claimed by the nation state. These intersections promote and normalize certain kinds and ways of “belonging” that maintain their productivity for the state. The making of the round dance was not interested in my a priori difference. It was more concerned with the making of the dance, as opposed to just reacting against the hegemonic structures that dominate in these spaces. This concern for the making of the dance is what Lynette Hunter describes as art that makes reasons for going on living, that makes value, and enables us to make/makes difference (Hunter 2014).
Not asking or demanding to know, while still inviting me into collaborating in the dance making, taught me about ways of coming together through difference. It also taught me about hospitality and response-ability (Barad 2012, Haraway 2013). Yet perhaps these ideas too are only my attempt at sense making, where my own words do not seem to matter. The dance made space for my body dancing, adjusting and readjusting as I entered and exited the circular moving. The dance responded to the moment, not fixed with hard borders, but always becoming with the comings and goings of the participants. It was not the questioning or inviting voice that drew me into collaboration, rather, it was a gap in the circle, a touching of hands and an invitation to move with the sound of the beating drum. Hands were held lightly and each body remained ready to adjust as the concentric circles of the dance contracted or expanded. Gaps would open at a moment’s notice, to allow another person to join in. Without my habituated references to certain kinds of knowing, I became kinesthetically entwined within the round dance unfolding. In order for this entwining to occur a kind of relational ground is created to “stand on” (Hunter 2014). Within this round dance performance, the members of the performance event were from many different positions with respect to culture, yet the public invitation to perform and collaborate opens an ethical agreement that allows us to learn from others without necessarily exploiting each others position.
The art making collective I am part of was inspired by the form and process of the round dance protests as we entered into a creative process within the SoHo neighborhood, in London Ontario.The river that runs through this particular neighborhood was one of the thousands of waterways delisted from protection under Canadian law, due to the Conservative government’s overhaul of the Navigable Waters Protection Act of 1882 (NWPA). This overhaul was one of the legislative attacks on indigenous sovereignty that Idle No More was resisting. The original NWPA had mandated an extensive approval and consultation process before construction of any kind could take place in or around any waterway that could in principle be navigated by a floating canoe. The new bill alters the Act from originally protecting 2.5 million rivers and lakes across the country to now only protecting 97 lakes and 62 rivers. (CBC website 2013).
As part of our process we researched the history of the naming of the river that runs along the western edge of SoHo. We found that there were multiple iterations of the naming of the river. It is called Askunessippi by the Attawandaron, D’shkan or Eshkin Ziiibi by the Ojibwa, la Tranche by the French and re-named the Thames River (no doubt after the British capital) in 1793 by the British settler colonials who founded London, Ontario (Mulcahy 2008).
I am a mix of Irish, Scottish, Sicilian immigrants who moved to London in the late 18th century. Ruth, a choreographer and dancer in the collective was born in London. Her mother immigrated to Canada to the United Kingdom in her twenties and was our first dance and improvisation teacher. Billy, a visual artist, was born on the Onyota’a:kA (Oneida) reserve near London and adopted by Ruth’s family. Before European contact the Oneida territory included most of New York State. In 1838, the Treaty of Buffalo Creek directed the removal of all Iroquois from New York State. The Oneidas sold their New York land in 1839 and jointly purchased 5,200 acres near London, Ontario (Hauptman et al. 1999). Our art making collective’s coming together is fraught with contradictions. Preceded and inevitably coloured by colonial settler displacement and killing practices, our art making collaboration, shapes, challenges and continuously makes me different.
It is the Oneida naming of river that runs through our neighborhood that helped me think through the art making practices we as a collective try to engage in. The Oneida did not rename the river when they settled by it in Ontario in the 1800s. They simply refer to the Kuayuhatati or along the river (Mulcahy 2008). This practice of not renaming, and creating alongside other names and stories, inspires my own critical art making practices. The etymological strand in the OED (2013) relates alongside to being close by the side of a person or thing; side by side with something; parallel to something. Alongside also can mean together with; at the same time as; in coexistence with. Lynette Hunter uses another word, “outwith” as a way of describes alongsides that are “not imaginable, not sayable, not recognizable within the boundaries defining the place where you are” (Hunter 2014). Alongside work recognizes hegemonic discourse, inflected by the hegemonic system in which it is situated, yet knows its own practices have value and agency (Hunter 2014). In working alongside hegemonic structure we work from a need to embody other kinds of ways being in relation to the land we live on, outside of those ways the nation state conceives of. In attempting to imagine and feel other ways of being in relation to the land we strive to make present other possibilities of being in a human body and the potential ways of coming into relationships to the particular place that these ways might offer. We are interested in ways of being in relation that work against the extractivist, totalitarian (Kulshyski 2013) mindset promoted by the nation state. These ways have the potential to resist the dominant culture, where dominance refers to that which is complicit with or more actively carries on the work of totalization, a making of the same (Kulchyski 2006) and one which the Idle No More movement rises up against.
How do we attend to this watershed we live in? How are we the river? When I think of the river I think of a flowing kind of body, held by the porous banks that support it. I also think of its distributive, cyclical properties, its flow over the land, through multiple human and other than human bodies, and it cycling up into clouds and back over the ground. How do attend to this which runs though and around us, always in a process of becoming?
How do we attend to the ground we are situated within? How are we working against what Paul Carter, in his book The Lie of the Land, calls western dances’ leveling of the ground, demise, and forgetting. Carter writes that the flattening of the ground is the first condition for dancing to emerge as ahistorical. How can our dancing attend to the grooves of the particular terrain where it presents itself? How can critical place-based art making practices create deeper and wider narratives of living and learning in connection with others and with the land that the practices are situated within. In doing so how do they resist colonizing erasures
and enclosures that make such practices seem impractical and or unnecessary?
Creating and Working within a disunified relational space:
“The project of neoliberal capitalism targets the individual over what Félix Guattari calls the group-subject. Think group-subject not as a many-faced group of individuals, but as the force of what emerges when the group exceeds the individuals in its midst” (Erin Manning)
This complexity of the emergent collective created the art making event that unfolded, exceeding what we had imagined.
As the linkages between the participants changed their alignments, the relations and strengths of the forces moving between us changed. This was an affective space, but one with no overt expressive intent. At every moment, this mutating environment had to be navigated as if for the first time. Such a space can only be understood through physical engagement, for we do not see this kind of space from a distance, but are always within it, part of the mutating environment we create as we move.
Rehearsal: rope moving body, moving body, moving rope.
Question: How does paying attention to multiple scales shift the dance? Shift your attention to the edge of the horizon, to the skin bound body, to your dance partners body, to the edge of the room, to the clouds, to the fire engine going by outside, to the re-paving over of the street, to the homeless folks heading to the shelter next door, back to your skin bound body. How does the dance change? What differences are felt?
Film and Editing by Dennis Siren