Candice Hopkins, Aboriginal Curatorial Resident, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Canada will speak about her work with pirate radio, performance art, new media in local communities, and her recent curatorial project, the exhibition ‘A Question of Place’, which asked if you can ever truly regain your place in the world once it has been lost.
Selected quote: "A project of this kind, … can lead to the artist feeling compelled not to artistic freedom but the need to fulfill a 'curatorial assignment.' "
How to get Indians into an Art Gallery
There’s been a paper I have wanted to write for years that for many reasons has remained unwritten. Its title though, “How to get Indians into an Art Gallery,” has stuck with me and I have thought about its theme ever since. The reason I never wrote it is in part because while I could name the problem I couldn’t foresee any viable solutions: I questioned the usefulness of theorizing about something without the grounding of any “tried and true” practical applications. And with the title I wasn’t talking about how to get Native artists into an exhibition I was talking about how to get a Native audience in to see it. In being specific about this audience, I am not referring to your usual suspects: other Native artists, curators, cultural workers, and academics, but those who do not normally venture into a contemporary art gallery: elders, youth, people living on reserves, and those without a background in contemporary art.
What occurred to me later, as a result of hearing about a public art piece by Cree artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle, is that maybe it’s not an issue of getting Native people into the gallery but a matter of getting a Native audience to engage with contemporary art on their own terms – an encounter that often occurs in a space outside of the gallery’s physical and conceptual confines. I will use this performance as a means of grounding the ideas in this paper as it arrested, if only temporarily, the slippery definitions of the terms audience and community and brought them into focus. I will conclude with a description of a project I am currently working on with L’Hirondelle and youth at the Morley Community School on the Morley reserve. Among other things, this project is an experiment in engagement: it investigates the curator – and the artist’s – role in developing an artwork that will resonate with an Aboriginal audience.
One of the attributes of public art is that it can bring lucidity to the meaning of community. Included in this is its ability to inadvertently reveal how carefully delineated and intricate the boundaries are between those who are included within it and those who reside outside of it. Projects that take place in any community, depending on whether they are intended to be subversive or inclusive, require careful negotiations by the artist. These negotiations become even more complex when this work is positioned within an Aboriginal context: a place where cultural protocols must be balanced with artistic intentions and different value systems – those of the artist, the given community, and the larger art audience – must be traversed as a necessary step in the process of creating art.
In contemporary practice the term public art has shifted meaning. It has moved from describing corporate metal sculptures in public plazas that intentionally distance the viewer and the creator (Richard Serra’s infamous Tilted Arc comes immediately to mind) to define more ephemeral, socially conscious works aimed at breaking down the barriers between the artist and the audience and, more often than not, contribute to social change (artists such as Group Material, Martha Rosler, and Mary Jane Jacob’s project “Culture in Action” are certainly of this vein). One of the criticisms of work of this kind is that in assuming a social function, art is reduced to “a kind of inadequate and ineffectual social work.” Understood this way, so-called “new genre public art” can imply that the communities the artist is producing in are in need, and that the artist, with little professional skills or knowledge in this area, can somehow help. Even with the well-intentioned social duties implied by many of these projects, there are still two things that cannot be ignored with this work. First is the discussion it has generated in relation to the genre of public art, and second, the different kinds of engagements this work creates between the audience – or community – and the artist.
A public performance by Cheryl L’Hirondelle is a useful example in understanding how this kind of work resonates with an Aboriginal audience and, perhaps more importantly, how this work in turn informs the discourse of public art. Unlike past works in this vein, L’Hirondelle’s performance did not aspire to fulfill any need in the community. The work, as the artist describes, was intended as an intervention.
In the summer of 2001 on the Makwa Sahgaiehcan Indian Reserve in the northern reaches of Saskatchewan, a woman was running, re-enacting running done two generations earlier by Cistemaw inyiniw, a Cree man who delivered tobacco from community to community to ask for their attendance and support at ceremonies. He was part of the moccasin telegraph: a runner, a traveler, and a messenger. Cistemaw inyiniw (whose name is Cree for tobacco being) walked or ran even when horses were available to him. People were amazed at the distances he could cover and how he traversed them so quickly. Cistemaw inyiniw’s grandson, Harry Blackbird recalls that, “He could cross all the rivers in the region without seeming to get wet.”
Wearing a racing jersey with a number (distinguishing her as a member of a formal event), Cheryl L’Hirondelle ran from one end of the Reserve to the other (approximately 25 kilometers) on the main road through the community. In most places her action would go by unnoticed, but on the reserve – as is in most small communities – everyone knows what everyone else is doing. (During L’Hirondelle’s performance and inspired by her action, some women in the community began a moccasin telegraph of their own by phoning other people on the reserve and notifying them about the event).
Aware of what normally constitutes the art audience, certainly not the people from Makwa Sahgaiehcan, L’Hirondelle’s goal was to involve another kind of viewer. Engaging this other audience, as is with all art that seeks to resonate with a particular community, required her to negotiate a new set of rules and develop a different set of cultural strategies. In some pre-performance musings she remarked that “the activity has to somehow engage people instead of alienate them…it has to occur where people live and where performance has survived for many years – in people’s camps, homes and at the kitchen table.” Her task of “engaging people instead of alienating them” was determined from the outset. Her strategy was to stage the performance in the local, engaging the community by performing a part of their history.
Cistmaw iyiniw’s story was handed down to L’Hirondelle in typical Native tradition, orally. In Native culture, stories are not simply stories. They are told and re-told so that they resonate in the present, not as myths and legends, but as a vital part of history. They teach critical lessons and cultural values, like bravery and the necessity of communication. By mimicking Cistmaw iyiniw’s running, L’Hirondelle’s performance highlighted the distinctions and pointed to the ambiguities of what constitutes public, community, and audience. The elder originally telling the story has a captive audience: they are members of the given community. However, in L’Hirondelle’s performance the audience is not so easily located. In some cases the term itself is challenged (when does a passer-by become part of an audience?), its definition moves out of focus and its location shifts.
Audience is defined as the assembled spectators or listeners at an event. In L’Hirondelle’s action the viewers were not formally assembled; the performance was happenstance and informal. This raises the distinction between audience and public. Are the people in the community an audience simply because they witness the event, or do they have to somehow engage with the action to gain meaning from its occurrence? Can one be called an audience if they refuse to be involved and ultimately disregard the action? Possibly the public are those who choose (for whatever reason) not to be involved with the work. The audience could then be further distinguished as those who gain meaning from the event.
As L’Hirondelle ran through the community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan a film crew captured her performance, and captured the performance of three other people, Louise Halfe, Cheli Nighttraveler, and Joseph Naytowhow, who on consultation with the artist, also interacted with the community. Each performer was given a disposable camera, a list of Cree syllabics, and chalk. They were encouraged to write messages in syllabics wherever they saw fit. The performers were also encouraged to ask the people they visited if they would still be willing to honour the age-old tradition of never turning a stranger from your door, but rather inviting that person in and giving them food and drink. This is based on the elders’ belief that you never know how far someone has traveled. If the person still abided by this tradition, “water” was inscribed in syllabics on the outside of the house. During her run, Cheryl stopped at two houses where she saw syllabics denoting “water” and visited with the people inside.
Each additional performer interacted with the community in a separate way. Joseph Naytowhow recited the story in typical Cree tradition by becoming the spirit of Cistmaw iyiniw. He offered tobacco to the people he visited and alerted them to the Cheryl’s action. Louise Halfe chose to do a photo essay in addition to informing the community about the performance and recording their opinions of the action. Cheli Nighttraveler visited the home if an elderly man in the nearby community of Loon Lake and documented her visit with photographs.
During L’Hirondelle’s performance, three radio stations, Flying Dust Radio, MBC, and CJNS, broadcasted the story of Cistemaw inyiniw in Cree as told by Harry Blackbird. While Flying Dust Radio is broadcast to the reserve, MBC and CJNS are stations that play mainly top 40 hits. The idea of a Cree story interrupting the regular streams of Shania Twain and 50 Cent is subversive in itself.
Each component of the performance – L’Hirondelle’s running, the visits with the members of the community and the radio broadcasts – extended public reception of the event. The visits with the community informed people of the performance, broadening her audience, the radio broadcasts ensured that the community had access to the original story, and L’Hirondelle’s action physically inscribed Cistemaw inyiniw’s story in the landscape of northern Saskatchewan.
The term “public art” doesn’t resonate with most Native people. After all, they do not make up a large percentage of the museum audience. They certainly aren’t viewed as constituting the public or even one of the more carefully defined “publics.” Rather, they are part of a community. Will the community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan remember L’Hirondelle’s performance as a great moment of contemporary Native public art? Probably not. However, it will resonate in the minds of those who witnessed it as an honourable act.
In her book One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity Miwon Kwon identifies 4 kinds of interactions between the artist(s) and their respective community partners based on her case study of the public art project Culture in Action curated by Mary Jane Jacob in 1993. The four categories: community of mythic unity, “sited” communities, invented communities (temporary), and invented communities (ongoing), each represent a different kind of engagement between the artist and the audience. Kwon describes the first, community of mythic unity, as an “overgeneralized and abstract projection of the community [most often by the artist themselves I might add], a mythic unity that gathers into its folds a range of particular persons and their experiences.”  As an example, Kwon describes a project conceived by Suzanne Lacy where the artist placed 100 commemorative boulders throughout the streets of Chicago. The boulders, instead of being monuments to well-known people in the community, inscribed the names of lesser-known women, names chosen by a committee of locals for the purpose of recognizing achievements that generally go un – or at least – under-recognized. Kwon is critical of this project because she feels that “within such a framework, the specificity of each woman’s life drops out to a large extent, because diversity and difference are emphasized only to the degree that they can be overridden by a common principle theme of unification.”  An obvious criticism perhaps but one that does point to the problems of representing a group of people based on a broad unifying category. The same criticism, I would add, could easily be applied to exhibitions that utilize race to serve a similar function.
Kwon feels that the second model, “sited” communities, is the most prevalent in community-based public art today. This model describes projects where the artist works with a previously identified group of people (generally located by the curator or commissioning institution) who already have an established sense of unity either by location, modes of operation, or a shared sense of purpose. The artist, more often than not, is an outsider in relation to this group. One of the pitfalls of projects of this kind, Kwon states, is the high degree of meditation needed either by the curator or the commissioning institution. A project of this kind, she goes on to say, can lead to the artist feeling compelled not to artistic freedom but the need to fulfill a “curatorial assignment.”
The third model of interaction, what Kwon terms “invented communities (temporary),” is as she describes, “one in which a community group or organization is newly constituted and rendered operational through the coordination of the art work itself.” Works that gather together a group of people to produce a one-time communal project can be viewed in this vein. The only difference between this type of interaction and the last model “ongoing invented communities” is, as their titles suggest, the length of time these newly rendered communities remain operational. It might be useful to ask at this point if sustainability is one of the only ways of gauging the success of a public art project. What other kinds of criteria can be applied and are they applicable to projects that take place in Aboriginal communities? How can public art be used as a successful platform for engagement of these communities? Finally, and most importantly for this event, how does an Aboriginal performance such as the one I just described, influence the genre of public art? Arguably Aboriginal people have been doing community based art since the beginning of time, and while this may be a relatively new concept in regards to the discourse of contemporary art, for Native people, art has always been a community activity. I would like to put forth that perhaps the reason why there have been no words in our languages for art is because art was never viewed as something separate or distinct from life itself.
In writing about the complexities of responding critically to public art projects, especially in relation to ones that aspire to serve a social function, Patricia Phillips reminds us that “to be public in the fullest sense of the word, [public art] must be difficult, disturbing and sometimes bad.”  L’Hirondelle’s piece was successful, not necessarily because it set out to do some community good (although arguably it did), but because it was subversive and subtly intervened in people’s everyday lives. In addition it was successful because the artist knew her audience. She had made many visits to Makwa Sahgaiehcan, had consulted with local elders including Cistawmaw inyiniw’s grandson Harry Blackbird, and was aware of how her action would be received in the community. The project aroused interest and invited the audience to interact without forcing or strictly delineating their engagement. In a sense, the work’s fluid structure enabled mutable interactions in response. It is these qualities – the lack of strict guidelines for community engagement, the focus on the process of the event rather than on its outcome, and the many levels of interactions – that contributed to its ability to resonate in the minds of those who witnessed it.
The fact that L’Hirondelle is not a member of the community of Makwa Sahgaiehcan cannot be denied. She is, however, a member of the larger Aboriginal community and in that sense has a shared history. A major difference between L’Hirondelle’s project and the projects described by Miwon Kwon and one that complicates Kwon’s assessment of the success of an artist who works with a so-called “sited community,” is the fact that being Aboriginal always already lends itself to multiple levels of community engagement and subjectivity. A Native person is not only part of their specific community, but also their tribal community or clan, and the larger group of Aboriginal people across the world. A description of overlapping groupings that if mobilized effectively can engage a specific public while appealing to a broader audience. It was with these ideas in mind that I approached Cheryl to embark on a community project on the Morley reserve – the closest Native community to Banff.
The project, conceived by Cheryl L’Hirondelle, is a collaboration with youth, students, and teachers at the Morley Community School and staff at CKMR 88.1 FM radio (a Native run station that operates out of the reserve). Although the project is purposefully open-ended, part of it engaged Native students in creating a series of experimental audio works that were broadcast over CKMR 88.1 FM. The audio works, conceived and produced by youth, will exist as sound portraits of the community.
In preliminary discussions about the project Cheryl was speaking with me about the different ways of communicating to a land base. To be effective, she felt she would have to appropriate models already in place, such as the radio station, and develop provocative ways to work within these existing networks. It is a given that working within institutions such as a school can pose problems. Patty Phillips points out that schools are never neutral sites and that “Unlike work in a public site in the city, the student citizen may not have the same choices to engage or avoid work.” She goes on to note that these projects are often adopted by a course or curriculum and that in doing so “the students may be enthusiastic participants or disenfranchised captives of a belabored process.” To avoid having students engage with the work against their will they were only a part of the project if they are genuinely interested in it, a condition of the project that discussed with the school from the outset.
Creating a project of this kind requires a certain amount of trust, a relationship that takes time to build. With this in mind it was intended for this project to start as soon as possible with visits, both for the students to come to The Banff Centre and for Cheryl to visit them on the reserve, underway well before the project was to take place. This time, along with creating a space for everyone to get to know each other, was spent talking about what the students would like to do and showing them works created by other Aboriginal youth. Some of these works, like videos produced by teenagers on their reserve with Native new media artist Gabriel Lopez Shaw, are challenging, especially to older members of the reserve who do not necessarily view videos of teenagers skateboarding and fighting with each other as useful contributions to the cultural community. These works however, are relevant to the people who made them, and portray, from their perspectives, what it means to be young, Native and living on the reserve.
In addition to the audience at Morley, the project was presented to the art audience via a listening station running concurrent with the exhibition A Question of Place that opened at the Walter Phillips Gallery on April 3, 2004 . All those who participated in the project were invited to the gallery to see the exhibition and their project in the space. Along with the listening station and other documentation of the project, such as photographs and CDs, the exhibition presented sculptures, installations, drawings, and films by five Aboriginal artists. I grouped the works in the exhibition together because they subvert and challenge conventional notions of community . The project on the Morley reserve is an interesting extension of this exhibition because it provides a perspective of community from those who reside within it.
Echoes and Transmissions: Voices of the Land will be the first long-term artist project ever initiated within Morley. Its aim was, first, to create a presence of Aboriginal youth within the larger arts audience and, second, to inscribe an Aboriginal territory within the gallery space by bringing the community into it. Through interactions with the artist and the listening station in the exhibition, I hope that the project, if only temporarily, offered a practical solution to the problem posed at the beginning of this paper, that is “how to get Indians into an art gallery.”
 Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity , p 103.
Artist and critic Suzanne Lacy coined the term “new genre public art” in 1995 in reaction to what she saw as a “group of visual artists [who had] developed distinct models for an art whose public strategies of engagement [were] an important part of its aesthetic language.” Aside from engagement, Lacy observed that much of this work had a tendency to deal with social issues including toxic waste, race relations, homelessness, aging, gang warfare, and cultural identity.
Patricia C. Phillips, “Points of departure: Public Art’s Intentions, Indignities, and Interventions,” Sculpture Magazine
March 1998, Vol. 17, p7.