Friday, December 4, 2009

Panel Notes: "Of/By/For: A Dialogue on Representation"

As promised, I'm posting some rough notes on the first panel I was involved with this week, "Of/By/For." FYI these are pretty subjective impressions! I heartily welcome any comments, corrections or observations from readers or other attendees. (Note I'll also try to do a separate post on "Bring It" in the next few days as well.)

This event involved small, engaged panel and audience on December 2 December 1 at the OCAD Graduate Gallery in Toronto. The main point of reflection was Ukrainian-Canadian artist Taras Polataiko's recent video work In the Land of the Head Hunters, which is currently on view at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto and previously has shown in Korea and Australia. For this video, Polataiko took Edward Curtis's 1914 film In the Land of the Head Hunters and showed it to current residents of the BC community where Curtis had made the film. During his BC screening, Polataiko filmed the residents in the audience, as well as some of their comments afterwards.

Following screenings of Curtis' and Polataiko's film, the artist talked a bit about his past work—work that often addressed the disappearance of colonization of Ukrainian cultures. Then I spoke a bit about my assessment of the film as a general art critic, and then Bonnie Devine spoke about the work from her perspective as a First Nations artist and curator.

My take on Polataiko's work went something like this: While the themes in Polataiko's past work and new work shared certain broad themes--like the erasure of cultural history, or the effects of colonization--I didn't find In the Land of the Head Hunters as successful or strong as his past work.

From my perspective, the reason for this is as follows: Polataiko, being a Ukrainian-Canadian person, had decades of experience and investment in Ukrainian cultural history when he started to make works about that particular culture being colonized. He is inevitably deeply engaged in that particular narrative or web of tensions and symbols, and that deep engagement, to me, really showed up in his past work, and made the works themselves deeply engaging (Polataiko's artistic skill, of course, was key too! But the engagement also really comes across.)

It was my opinion that Polataiko's lack of experience in and investment in the First Nations community and its cultural history issues resulted in the new work being much less engaged--and much less engaging. To me, the work ended up being more about distance--distance between the artist and his subjects, distance between the subjects and the 1914 film they were watching, distance between generations and cultures even today.

As a result, Polataiko's In the Land of the Head Hunters ended up, for me, feeling more like the beginning of the work than a finished work--or rather, it felt incomplete, and not in a good way. (Polataiko did confirm he is continuing on projects and collaboration with this First Nations community, so maybe I'll have more to look at in the future on this point.)

When the question of "Well, should artists be allowed to make work about different cultures? Should there be limit setting or box ticking?" came up, I clarified my position this way--when an artist is working in a culture or subculture different from their own, they actually need to expand the limits of their practice, not limit them. They have to understand that the same old approaches or techniques or production schedules will not necessarily be equal to the task. They need to understand they have to invest more energy and more intellect and more time into the work to even get an inkling of the rich understandings they can draw upon so instantly when working within their own culture.

Granted, there are some lucky geniuses out there, across all artistic genres, who can make entering another cultural realm--be it gender based, nation based, language based, or ability based--seem effortless. But those geniuses are far and few between. For most of us, it takes more effort, time and thought to intelligently, sensitively and convincingly work outside our own sociocultural niche.

So, that was my take....

For my part, I found Bonnie Devine's perspectives really enlightening as well. She reflected that the people she saw in Polataiko's film are/represent "those who have not died." They are survivors. And when those survivors are watching the 1914 film, they are naturally not critiquing all the film artifices that Polataiko might. Rather, they are seeing their uncles, aunts, grandparents, loved ones--those who have died; those who have not survived. (For many in that audience, it was their first time seeing the Curtis film.)

Devine, along with artist/curator Gerald McMaster, who was in the audience, also noted how Polataiko's shots of current-day residents in some ways replicated the profiles of Curtis' famed (and much critiqued) photography of First Nations people. She also noted how much the adults in Polataiko's film avoided meeting the gaze of the camera--a survival strategy, perhaps, or remnant of that historical legacy.

Overall, I felt Devine was able to open up the consideration of the film, and I wish I had taken more notes on her comments because they were really insightful (as well as less judgmental of the work than yours truly, but hey, I guess that's what I'm supposed to bring). McMaster also provided a lot of interesting perspectives as well, positing that what we were seeing in Polataiko's film was two timespans floating past each other, with a big space between them.

The conversation continued for some time with quite engaged commentary and questions from the audience. I bet that panel organizer Rose Bouthillier, an artist and curator herself, will likely do more interesting stuff in the future.

And... just to reiterate, this post is a very, very, very partial record of the proceedings, so I appreciate any clarifications, questions, links, criticisms or comments readers might be willing to share.

Image of notepad from PSDRockstar


sally said...

thanks so much for the report, Leah.

"when an artist is working in a culture or subculture different from their own, they actually need to expand the limits of their practice, not limit them"

I think this is a really good insight.

"She also noted how much the adults in Polataiko's film avoided meeting the gaze of the camera..."

This kind of gives me a chill.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Sally,

Thanks for your note.

Hopefully Rose or Bonnie will be able to provide more information about their impressions if you run into them...

And yes, there was a lot of tension with that avoidance of the gaze. It's not an easy film to watch.

Candice said...

Thanks for the update on how this panel went and great to read your insights into a topic that can be very difficult to unpack.

My worry, and this was not from seeing the exhibition in person but viewing images on line, was that Palataiko in the end only replicated the painful distance found in many of Curtis's still works and did nothing to add to, trouble, or complicate the history of photographic representation of Native people.

I wondered if anyone brought up the immediate co-relation between this project and one done in collaboration with Kwakwaka’wakw people also in relation to Curtis's film, ?

From my understanding the latter project was completed with intensive input and consultation with the Kwakwaka’wakw community.

I always hope that artists can find ways of creatively reframing these histories. Unfortunately it seems that instead of shifting the discussion and allowing us to see these images in another way, Polataiko only managed to keep it on the same trajectory.

I think your comment about artists "needing to expand the limits of their practice" when working in another cultural context is on the mark.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Candice,

Thanks for your reflections.

No one brought up the Rutgers project, though I did stumble across it online. It seems from your comments like this could provide a useful reference point for an alternative way of working.

Playing devil's advocate (or just second guessing myself as usual) what would you say to viewers who might argue that documenting that "replicated distance" is important or worthwhile? I think this is a point that likely can be made by some, even if it's not my personal reaction.

Rose Bouthillier said...

I’m glad to see that there is an ongoing conversation on this! Part of my interest in interpretations of Polataiko’s video lies in all the details outside of it – just as in Curtis’s photographs and films, there is more than meets the eye. But – does this information change how we consider the work? And should it, if it is not apparent in the work itself?

Polataiko did develop this work through conversations over a long period of time with the Kwakiutl Band Council in Fort Rupert, and was invited to the community. Everyone in attendance signed a release form, and as Bonnie Devine emphasized at the panel, each person had the freedom to communicate with Polataiko that he or she did not want to be videotaped (for example with a hand gesture), though of course that choice and permission in general is always complex, and there are a variety of power dynamics involved.

While there are moments in Polataiko’s work that formally recall Curtis’s photographic portraits, I did not interpret them as replicating the sentiment. I find Sharon Eve Grainger’s project on the Rutgers site, the more direct re-issuing of Curtis’ photos, raises some issues – are these representations the sort of thing Arthur Renwick was responding to with his portrait series 'Masks'? Even if they are produced through collaboration with the sitters?

Do Grainger’s photographs “reveal the subtle social relations behind the photographic encounter”? I think that Polataiko’s work does this much more openly – there is a complete range of emotions and exchanges in his work – trust, skepticism, self-consciousness, boredom, pride, laughter. Another important aspect is that Polataiko put himself physically into the work by moving through the crowd with a hand-held camcorder. Most often the photographer remains invisible, as does the ‘process’ of the photo shoot and the editing/selecting of images. Polataiko’s bodily presence and gaze make the work confrontational, and the structural approach to the work invited any sort of encounter. (Note: Polataiko originally conceived of the work as being one solid, unbroken shot for the duration of the Curtis film, though he later decided to edit it down for practical viewing purposes – as a viewer I can’t help but wonder what the quality of that footage was and how different the work would be if it was left in.)

Tension, irony, discomfort… these are all qualities that appear in Polataiko’s work – and not incidentally. These qualities perhaps are incidental to works that I brought up at the panel – for instance Orlan’s 'Self Hybridization' series and Lothar Baumgarten’s 'Monument to the First Peoples of Ontario', that have been criticized as cultural appropriation.

What sorts of collaboration, and what types of knowledge are perceived as necessary, or beneficial to works involving cross-cultural representation? These expectations also depend on a viewer’s understanding of what the artist intended to achieve. Comparing the Rutgers project to Polataiko’s work is complicated. The Rutgers project is undertaken as an academic/cultural endeavor. And while I would be the first to argue the interconnected nature of art and anthropology, these projects answer to very different discourses.

Leah Sandals said...

Thanks for your comment Rose. I agree it takes nerve to insert oneself into a crowd in the way Polataiko did... and I appreciate you pointing out some of the angles we didn't address here!