- Miguel Burr
This is a long-form Q&A interview with performance artist Skeena Reece. Skeena is the highly visible poster woman for the Beat Nation show at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 3rd, 2012. She has performed at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, DC and at the Sydney Biennale in Australia. Otherwise, she and her work bears very little introduction, and no contextualization.
Skeena Reece. Fuck the White Man, 2008. Inkjet Print.
Only verbal hiccups and operational queues have been edited from this conversation we had on a sunny rooftop amidst a glorious, birds-a-chirpin’ mid-May afternoon. I also want to mention that the sole photo of Skeena and her baby accompanying this article was suggested and posed by Skeena herself. It is the only photo I took. I want to thank her family for their patient cooperation and Skeena for her openness in this extensive and extremely raw interview.
Without any further delay, here’s Skeena…
...We’re not assimilated to the point of no return. Our spirits are still there through the way that my grandmother taught Sunday school. It’s the way that she told stories, it’s a code that she held, and it didn’t matter what medium she was using, she used the code. So we still have that code...
Decoy Magazine: So you’re a mother… did you do anything special for Mother’s Day?
Skeena Reece: Are you kidding?
Good answer. Yeah, I was kidding. Did you hear about the smoke bomb attacks in the Montreal subway last week?
I didn’t hear about anything. I don’t watch TV much. I also don’t really read the paper much.
You don’t pay attention to current events?
Not all the time, no. So what about it, smoke bomb?
Four smoke bombs went off in the subway tunnels and shut down the subway during the morning rush hour.
How does that relate to this thing? You want my perspective on the smoke bomb?
It does relate in that… my next question will clear it up… Have you noticed artists becoming more militant and terrorists becoming more creative?
I’m wondering if you work for the government.
No, I don’t.
You totally don’t?
I swear! I smoke weed. That means probably not a government guy.
What else have you done that’s illegal? On the record.
Yeah. One time, I lived in the West End, I was married back then, and these people came in front of our place at like at midnight or one and they had a BMW convertible and they were pounding club music really loud and talking like they were in our house, it was so loud. And they were laughing and saying basically, ‘Fuck everyone here.’ And my wife came out and said, ‘You have to do something.’ And she meant ‘call the cops.’ But I didn’t want to be the guy to call the cops. So she went back to bed and without thinking, I had paints under my chair and… you know what gesso is?
Some kind of paint I’m guessing.
Canvas paint. And I just took it and threw it and it went up in the tree and showered the car in paint and they were furious.
(laughs) That’s pretty good.
And then they called the cops. The cops came and threatened to arrest me and said I could go to jail. I realized how dumb it was, because if I’d been in a car, I could drive away, but I couldn’t because I was in my house.
So you’re American, that’s why you seem so rehearsed?
I seem what?
Yeah, a little bit. You know how they do it…like in the military they have to memorize different stories to make them credible people?
(laughs) Okay, so maybe that’s like one of my memorized stories–like a cover? Really! I’m fascinated by this…
Just stick with the questions. Ask me again. I liked that question.
Do you think artists are becoming more militant?
Militant? Maybe if the militia was artful. But I don’t see a lot of artists in a militia. Taking up arms or doing more things that are illegal or pushing more boundaries?
Guerilla tactics… going out at night…
You mean like bombing walls and stuff… like graffiti and shit?
No, it’s pretty basic stuff. I don’t feel like their images are any less or more challenging now than they ever were… from the '50s, '60s, as people make art. Militant. Are you saying this because of my regalia?
Absolutely, your costume… outfit for ‘Raven: On the Colonial Fleet’. Are the two converging? What I’m seeing, and I’m asking you if you agree or not, and maybe you don’t, but I’m seeing artists having to use more militant tactics to put
their art out…
Not militant. When you say ‘militant’, are they holding guns to curator’s heads?
No, but they’re making pictures of guns.
Is that militant art?
Who’s making… you see I’m not familiar with that phenomena of making pictures of guns.
Skeena Reece, Raven: On the Colonial Fleet, 2008. Performance regalia. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery.
I have an example. On your costume you had a grenade, and you had guys in balaclavas with Kalashnikovs (AK-47 machine gun)holding them up like that (gestures both arms in air).
They were receiving them from the Thunderbird character. He was throwing it down to them. So they weren’t going ‘Yeah! We have them!’ They were receiving them, holding their hands up and catching them from a mythical bird, from the spirit world. That’s what it was. So you’re saying ‘why?’?
I’m asking if that imagery is moving towards militarism, arms… weapons given from a mystical character for a mystical purpose…
And then the second part of my question is if terrorists are, at the same time are having to become more creative, i.e. underwear bomb, 9-11 attack, very creative, so my question is…
You thought the 9-11 attack was from the outside?
No, I did not say that. But whoever did it, it was very creative.
Or was it? Because you create a problem, then you create a solution, then you’re the hero.
I’m talking about being creative in the sense of being imaginative.
Oh, you’re just talking about ‘being’ creative, being artful about it…
Artists who are normally creative become more militant and militants become more…
Are they converging?
Are they moving towards something in the same place?
Obviously it’s a message. And we’re trying to talk to each other, and we’re trying to learn. And I think if I were a militant person, blowing things up is a way to prove something or to tell people something. The way that I can do that is by making regalia that has those images on them, for people to consider those ideas. When I was interviewed by the Globe and Mail, the one quote that they had was, ‘Native people, what if we were terrorists? What if native people were like al Qaeda?’ That was blown up larger than life, and that was the one thing they took away from my interview. I really did ramble on about how native people have influenced Canadian culture in being more peaceful and you can clearly see that in opposition to the States… well, not opposition, but a dichotomy, right. I can’t remember the name of the guy who wrote a book about Canada being a kind of Métis history or culture. I kind of wanted to let them know that, you know, we don’t think that way. I didn’t come from a military background, I didn’t grow up as an Army brat like you, and there are some disconnects that I don’t have. I would have to say that my father, being an artist, he knew how to communicate with the enemy, through his artwork, and he knew how to propel himself through the world, through his artwork, and still maintain his identity as a native person and as a resister. So he was still able to compromise in a way to live, but also to continue to resist. And he did that through even taking on the traditional culture of carving and never having to get a day job was huge. In that way it’s resisting, not being taken over or feeling like you’re part of the whole, which is boring. My history of militancy is being from parents that are well read and well thought. To find ways of communicating that never had to result in desperation or chaos, and they were striving to be organized in a good way, in their thoughts and in their manner. As much as you could be when you come from a place of war. We’re basically coming from a holocaust, and it’s a really invisible holocaust. We don’t have these wonderful holocaust museums that make everybody understand the severity of our loss. So it’s really like, for native art, nobody takes it that seriously, and it’s almost a bit, ‘hipster’ right now. And it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s move beyond your holocaust past and let’s celebrate your beautiful art.’ And, ‘Not everyone is unhappy,’ and ‘Not everyone is stuck in their pain.’ But a lot of native art isn’t in a gallery, it isn’t being written about. And it isn’t even being shared by the artists themselves. Our journey is personal, and we don’t have the same aspirations to become famous… or… not all of us anyway. You might see some of the ones that are a bit more prevalent in the media, as being a bit more ‘joiner-ish’. For whatever reason they want to be on that forefront and have that attention put on them, for whatever life-purpose they have there. I think that as you know, all underground culture is respected by its peers and recognized by its peers and that’s enough, for that. As far as being militant, I can’t really say, I think that most artists who are thinking artists don’t think in terms of ‘Are we gonna shut things down?’ or think more like: ‘How are we going to work within this? How are we gonna define this? And, how are we gonna make our own institutions and places to think?’ Obviously, there’re probably a lot of different classes you can take at university to figure out why people use the images they do, but the images that I use and the purpose for which I use it was basically to show that native women are on the forefront of a war. We are carrying… we are the knowledge keepers and the knowledge givers… as are men, but we teach our children first. And being in a culture and society that turns a blind eye to women that are going missing, who are getting murdered, and who are constantly being attacked through government policies, we really are still at war. And it’s an invisible war, and I wanted to visually create this warrior-esque creature who was standing between several worlds. And culturally, it was the Plains, and the West Coast style of regalia. Also the female and the male was represented in there, burlesque kind of creature who is standing within her sexuality, strong and unashamed in her sexual power, which I also think has been marred and fucked up through residential school and a lot of sexual abuse stuff. Also the mainstream military and the underground militaristic styles and even the spirit world and the real world. I just wanted to have this all-encompassing character who is acknowledging that we are all at this cusp.
That’s a great answer to that original question. Do you consider yourself a warrior?
I’m alive and we’re at war. So I suppose everyone is.
It’s interesting, and this isn’t from my questions, in the States people refer to the ‘Culture War’. As a kid, my folks moved us from Alaska, where I was happy, to Salt Lake City, Utah, which I hated, and then from there we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and I arrived at my new school on the day of the Rodney King race riot. It was kind of trial by fire. There were riots in the parking lot. Guess what the name of my high school was… Robert E. Lee High School… general of the Confederacy… so a racist general had his own high school, and they put me in school there. And there were people breaking windows, and there were metal detectors. So I think the war you’re referring to, has been going on there too, as you know, but more than just the Native Genocide, which is what you’re referring to right, there’s been this Culture War.
I’m saying everybody… right now, being alive, we are completely at odds with…
Is Canadian or North American society in decline?
I just think we’re all at a cusp. We’re all at a crossroads. And some of us choose to intersect and continue on, and learn and grow from one another, from a place of health and non-egocentric. Some of us just think that we’re just hunky-dory and continue to benefit from all of the troubles, and have no problem buying a condo or anything, and I don’t know if that’s progress or decline, it’s just the state of what’s happening. I think absolutely civilization as we know it is boring and done. We need to fix it. And some of us want to fix what exists and some want to create new things. And there’s just a general disconnect right now. I think it’s healthy. It’s where we should be. I think it’s totally okay that we don’t all speak the same language. The world will survive without us. I think we’re just changing the way that we think. And it’s changing our concepts of value and time and all those kind of things that make up how we walk and work. We’re shifting and our consciousness is…
A shift in global consciousness…
Yeah, I think we’re on the upswing.
Good. That’s good to hear. What do you make of all the shifts taking place around the world, like Arab Spring and these dictatorships falling? Is that all part of what you’re talking about?
There’s some kind of scientific test, everybody uses this analogy these days, where these monkeys were separate and they ate bananas a certain way, and unknown fruit and washing fruit, and the fact was that when one set of monkeys was conscious, miraculously, the nearby dudes were doing the same thing…
On a different continent.
Totally different places. I think that’s what happening, but I think it’s a little bit less spiritual than that. I think generally there are codes, human knowledge codes and they think through me. I think they can be understood. It’s kind of like natives; we didn’t die because we don’t speak our language anymore. We’re not assimilated to the point of no return. Our spirits are still there through the way that my grandmother taught Sunday school. It’s the way that she told stories, it’s a code that she held, and it didn’t matter what medium she was using, she used the code. So we still have that code. It’s still intact, which is what’s different and the content is somewhat different. I think that goes for everybody, it’s like the code of resistance and a code of finding knowledge, and the code of being wise hasn’t gone, I think it’s actually spreading.
You think more people are becoming wise?
Yeah, much more. And I think we don’t have to show everybody that. I think if we show it to ourselves is enough, and we slowly show it to others, and as we do that we are gently creating groups and sub-groups and some of us don’t even know that we’re in them, and we might think we’re alone, but we’re not. And also we’re a little bit predictable. We’re not that complex. I think if you’re socialized the same way, you learn at the same rate. We discover things at the same time.
How much direct power to change society does art have?
Did you read 1984?
It’s kind of like that. I think it’s as much as we’re allowed, but also as much as we allow ourselves, and it can happen in a field with just two people, and it can happen in a whole society. And the fact that it happens makes it happen. It doesn’t matter how many people participate. I think that there are quiet powers at work and are strong and different from the generation of my dad’s artistry and mine, he had waaay more hope for me, because he saw something different, so in the way that he described that to me I understand that there is more power now with art than ever. And obviously, people are contained, as much as we’re allowed to show and talk about art, or participate in it, I think that native art that was looked at say in the '50s or '40s, looks a lot different in the art museum or gallery than it does now, in the way that they contextualize it, write about it and participate in it…
It looked different back then?
The same totem pole, say by Nicholas Galanin carved one 50 years ago and then carved one today, how he speaks about it and how he introduces it to the world is so different than what it meant before. And I think also he’s just got a whole wave of experience that…
Do you keep up with Nick on Facebook?
A little bit.
Did you see that one of his totem poles got vandalized by another artist?
(nods head) Uh-huh.
What was that about?
I thought that was hilarious… I thought he did it.
You think so?
I know he didn’t. You could tell.
No he didn’t. You could tell by his response. He was mad.
I could tell by the fact that it was so brilliant that he didn’t do it.
Okay, that says a lot.
The guy who did it wrote his name on it, right?
But that’s funny.
It’s funny, yeah.
It’s not ‘hipster’ at all.
Okay, is ‘hipster’ the opposite of ‘funny’?
Absolutely. Hipsters are boring. I just think I would really like to talk to that guy.
I think everyone would.
I think he would like that.
I think he wanted some attention.
Yeah, but it’s more than that… I don’t know if it is more than that actually. Some people consider him to be a dumb person, but I thought it was incredibly brave in a good way.
To vandalize the totem, with his name so everyone knew?
Nicholas Galanin’s Vandalized Totem Pole.
I didn’t care about his name so much as it was done. I remember when there was this totem pole that was overseas and it was repatriated back to the people. They were talking and talking about how important it was to get it back and the fact that it was shown and they were only allowed to visit and look at it until they created this multi-million dollar facility to receive it they weren’t allowed to have it back, and I said, ‘why don’t you burn it? Why don’t you throw some gasoline on it while you’re in there and just light it up like a match.’ And they said, ‘Well that’s not the purpose.’ And I was like, okay I guess you’re trying to make a point and an important one too, but wouldn’t you just rather have it, just spiritually take it, instead of leaving it, and spiritually losing it. I was like, don’t you think it would be more of a statement to say ‘Our art is internal, and it’s spiritual, it’s intangible and it’s immaterial,’ than give so much weight to that argument that it’s valuable and they have it? They didn’t see it quite the same way. That’s kinda where I’m at with it. My dad taught me that once you make a piece, it’s not yours anymore. You’re done! The work is in the doing, and the journey with the piece. I saw this video that was cut up. I had a collaborator named Jesse Scott and he did some video work while I did some performance work and the entire performance is put online at this website that I was a part of called something-medicine.org and I looked at the one he threw up on VIMEO and he cut it up and he omitted so much of all of the space and all of the taking your time, all of the redeeming… the incantation of the performance. He took it all out and he just put in the punch lines. I was like what a difference in how you value the performance and the piece as a whole. And at first I was shocked and I was like ‘What a fuckin’ jerk,’ when he could have at least asked me. And then I was like, you know what, whatever. Other people will see it in terms of exactly the same way that he saw it and cut it. That’s how people are, they take what they want and leave the rest. And that’s what I do. So what’s wrong with that? Is it because it’s in an art gallery that makes it more valuable, or the time that it happens in, or the intention of the artist? Isn’t it manipulative for an artist to control how it’s seen… can’t we just leave it and have other people add or subtract. Writing your name on something isn’t without its place in history, and for some people it’s incredibly boring, but you know when buddy there flipped over a shitter and put his name ‘Mutt’ on it, that was really, really important for people, at its time and place.
Are you talking about the original surrealist guy who took the urinal… Marcel Duchamp?
Yeah, that’s the guy. You know I love that piece. And was the guy who made that shitter upset?
Some guy in a factory.
He didn’t know about it.
Nicholas made a shitter. Somebody wrote on it. That made it more valuable. That is more valuable to me, having known what happened.
It’s got some story to it.
It’s got some depth, ‘cause looking at a totem pole… I’ve looked at totem poles all my life. They have so much less meaning depending on the intention. And just making a white pole doesn’t make it good art.
No, understood. I was watching a performance of yours online called ‘Auntie Hero’ and you go running down the walls screaming ‘Fuck this shit!’ and tearing things off the walls, right.
It reminded me of a scene from ‘The Breakfast Club’. I love that movie!’
(big smile) Oh, I watched that over and over. It’s probably where I got it from.
It’s classic. Was that whole thing planned?
The ripping things, no.
The running down the halls and screaming and ripping stuff?
No, (sighs) I got in trouble for that.
You did? What happened?
They just thought I was… they told me ‘You could have at least told us.’ And I was like, ‘Well, what? Really? I’m in an art school.’ It just really goes to show that that institution is really not an art school at all. That’s a technical college.
Was that Emily Carr?
Yeah. That’s a tech college. That’s BCIT times two. They’re not teaching people how to be artists or make art or that it’s even okay to make art. It’s like a museum.
My girlfriend’s seen you perform for years. And she remembers you did a performance at Emily Carr, she said, ‘dissing Emily Carr’ and she thought it was a best thing she’d ever seen.
The thing is I was invited to do ‘Auntie Hero’ performances with other native women, I think there was three of us. I was like, ‘What if I dressed up like Emily Carr. I’m really fat right now, I think I look like her, and if I could just dress like her I think that would be great. And even that in itself wasn’t enough, So I was thinking, why don’t I draw a Dempsey Bob drawing, like why don’t I copy Dempsey Bob and then that’s my art and I’m Emily Carr copying native art.
And the funniest thing was that Dempsey Bob came to that performance which is so odd, because I’ve never seen him in public at any art show. I was like ‘What are the chances that the actual guy is here watching me as Emily Carr taking his art. And I thought it was so funny and I invited him to draw with me. So I unraveled this print that I’m sure people would value very highly because it was done in seventy…nine… or something like that, I’m pretty sure it was dated pre-eighties, so like it was one of his first prints ever… this guy, he sells shit for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I just thought it was great that I’d kind of have it smooshed up in the bottom of a paper bag, totally devaluing it, pulling it out and then drawing it, ripping the paper bag up so I could use that as my canvas, and for him to draw on it with me was just great…
He joined you.
I was just crackling inside. And he told the story of the print itself, it was a formline drawing and he told the legend behind this beautiful print and everybody was just in awe of this moment. And I was like ‘this is what I wanted to do.’ I wanted to create this thing that was spiritually intangible and could only be seen as something if you were here right now. And nobody can take it, or even think about it or write about it or read about it later, you’ve kinda gotta be in it. It was just so magical I was like ‘that’s enough. It doesn’t have to go anywhere from here.”
Is there a point in a performance when you just snap? Like in that performance when you started running down the hallway, and that wasn’t planned, right? What is the moment when you go from what you planned to do to doing whatever you do?
I don’t feel comfortable planning much. I feel like every time I plan something it just goes awry. It’s not real enough. So I just usually create my container or a few milestones and then work within it. I need to be comfortable that the situation is fluid and I have enough freedom to do whatever I like and then sometimes I’m the trickster and somebody invites me somewhere where I think they didn’t mean to invite me or they didn’t know me to invite me, or that I was their enemy and they didn’t realize they were inviting their enemy, they just called, so how could I utilize that space and those audience members? It just reminds me of when I was invited to perform at the Olympics. They said… there were all these stipulations and they gave us this reading that you weren’t allowed to talk about the sponsors, you weren’t allowed to diss the sponsors, there were just all these heavy-handed rules. And this was handed to writers and thinkers… I can’t remember the stage… I know it was on Granville Island, the Writer’s Festival… some kind of Writer’s Festival and all of these writers were in opposition… all of these anarchist writers, the thinkers, the poets, the spoken word people and they were so choked they weren’t invited. And I thought maybe they were head-counting or some kind of thing, ‘ah there’s a native… a native spoken word girl let’s invite her’ or some kind of thing. ‘Yeah, I heard she’s pretty funny, ha ha (cheesy pistol fingers shooting).’ So I took this book that they wrote and there must have been about twenty or thirty writers who wrote poetry and streams of consciousness and all these different forms of ways to oppose that, this position. So I hired a band, it was the house band there, and I said, ‘Would you like to practice a few jams and riffs using this book as lyrics. I sang and I spoke their words up on the stage. So everybody was actually at first was thinking, what a great jazzy. bluesy voice, and started to understand that these words were not allowed and that I was being rude and that they were uncomfortable for at least forty-five minutes, and it just felt so good. And the other thing I was invited to for the Olympics was at the Aboriginal Pavilion, which was a big joke. It’s usually the joiners and the happy smiling natives that get invited, the ones who are over colonization. They invited me, ‘You wanna do something?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ ‘So there’s a few fans out there who don’t exactly know what I do, so I just kind of played Mariah Carey and I can’t remember the other pop figure and I was singing to the Canadian flag across the street that was larger than life on the post office… hundreds of feet wide. I basically just talked to the Canadian flag as if it were Canada as an ex-partner, like how badly you treated me, and they were these pop songs right, so here I am trussed up in this sexy red outfit that they thought I was joining in on the redness of Canada, just staring kind of celebrating and all the hockey fans were coming out of the GM Place and they were all wearing their red and they were so happy that Canada had won and they’re screaming around and kinda checking out the sexy girl on stage in high heels and realized that I was saying, ‘You’re a bad boyfriend Canada. I’m breaking up with you and I don’t want anything to do with your shittiness and you fuckin’ suuuck. You treat me like shit, you lie to me. I’ve had enough. I’m done with you buddy.’ And I never ever heard back from the people who invited me. They paid me. That’s usually how I leave organizations that invite me. I never hear from them again and I’m sure they talk shit behind my back, but I don’t know what they’re saying. They never give me any feedback. I think they just clearly know that I’m not ‘down.’ But I just hope they appreciate that I’m not trying to wreck their game. I’m trying to contribute and I’m trying to write my name on their totem pole.
Just adding a voice to the mix.
And provocation is the funnest voice to hear. You know you go to a comedy show and listen to somebody bomb for half an hour. It’s way more fun than being titillated a little bit.
It’s fun to have both… a little bit of both.
Yeah, that’s true.
And it’s fun to hear a good heckler…
And it’s even better to hear the comedian bombing come back and nail the heckler if they can do it.
There’s so many ways.
I heard Barbara Adler take on a heckler, I don’t know if you heard of her. She’s a local performer. This woman was like, ‘You’re boring!’ and she said something like, ‘Well I’m not gonna go home and cry about it… you might!’ And it was good. It shut her up.
Barb Adler… she’s a red headed lady?
No, she’s real tall and thin, she’s in her twenties. She plays an accordion and does songs and spoken word. She’s in the fugitives and…
Yeah, she totally invited me to do spoken word and I did that at their event too. It was a spoken word CD that they were recording for, and I basically did dada poetry, and they were like what the fuck?
They were mad?
No, I think they liked it. But it was only funny to a few people in the audience. And everybody else was like where’s the real spoken word? But I was just playing… because I don’t really like spoken word that much.
Has a performance piece ever gotten you in real trouble?
Real trouble? Well, when I was in Australia, I got really hammered at this really special opening, the Contemporary Art opening on Cocteau Island. The whole island was infested with the Sydney Biennale Art, and so it was specifically open for that occasion. And you had to have this special pass to get on the island, and everybody was so high security. Anyway they had thousands of people on this island for the opening and they had this even more private, exclusive bar arrangement, can’t even remember the name of it, some fancy name, the Birk’s Bar or something… anyway I was saying it was exclusive and all the thinkers and writers and curators who are anybody were there, y’know at least two percent of them of the world. It was a pretty big deal.
Sounds like a lot.
Anyway, I got so hammered that I wanted to jump in the jumpy-castle which was created by an aboriginal artist from there, and it was done in the design of aborigine paintings…
A bouncy castle?
It was constructed by him… every aspect of it had a meaning. There were these dangling dead things… skulls encased in the tops of the castle part, so when you jumped you’d see them jingling. So I imagine. Also in the center was this big black man… just the figure of a man blown up in the middle. Anyway, the whole purpose for him to create it was to jump in it, for people to participate in jumping on the history of aboriginal colonization.
I just wanted to jump on it. Nobody got it. So, security was nearby and they said ‘you can’t jump on it.’ So I was kind of playing this cat-n-mouse, I would jump at it, I’d run toward it and he’d stop me, and finally I ran and jumped and he grabbed my ankles and pulled me off at about two feet off the ground I was winded onto the ground. I was wearing a skirt, a head-dress, I had like a whole outfit. I was winded and I was like ‘you fuckin’ pig’, I was like ‘what a goof, you’re a security guard at an art show and everybody’s exclusive and artists, and people. Do we get that this is gonna happen? And is this your only recourse, to be violent. I was like, ‘what a loser.’ So I was choked and I was giving him shit in my drunken way. And then other security guards came and then the organizers came and I remember feeling surrounded by a wall of I am in the wrong, everybody else was right, and I was just like, ‘This is fucked up. Why would you even just allow this at the opening? And I was drunk out of my mind and was like ‘fuck!’ and turned around and punched somebody in the face, I can’t remember who she was, I think she was one of the organizers. And then I got attacked and they threw me on the ground. I don’t think I punched her, I think I pushed her and she fell. And they attacked me and choked me. These were like big dudes. And they crushed my throat and chest. I couldn’t breathe. I remember struggling to breath and being like, ‘I can’t breathe’. And then all of the organizers walked away, kind of like, ‘You did it to yourself. To get off the island I had to stand up and walk away from that, so I said, ‘If you want to take me off you can carry me off. So they carried me about 500 meters, really far. And I refused to stand up. I was like ‘whatever’. And then at the front gates they were just expecting me to get on the boat with everybody else, and ignore the fact that anything of that nature happened. So I held onto a pole and cried for about half an hour. And everybody was walking by drunk… a lot of rich people there. And security was nearby but they got scared, they didn’t want to touch me anymore, ‘cause people could see. And I remember being browbeaten on my way, just between the two security guards, they were saying to me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ I don’t remember exactly, but I remember one of them was a Samoan guy, big beautiful brown man. And I said, ‘You hate native women.’ I just kept saying it over and over again.’ You hate native women. You hate brown women. You hate your own kind. You hate yourself.’ He was so like… I felt like that was the moment that I was having a performative breakthrough. I know that I was performing, even in my drunken state. Not because somebody said, ‘What is she doing? Oh, she’s performing. She’s a performance artist.’ I heard that when I was at the pier. Not because of that but because there was some knowledge being passed, and there was some breakthrough and there was something to be gleaned and learned. And even though it was between me and myself I had an audience, and it was that one man carrying me. And I was like, ‘This is valuable, even though I’ll be embarrassed, even though I was wrong, even though people were hurt, even though there was confusion and embarrassment, even though it was unplanned and nobody will know, there is this moment and it’s valuable for me and that’s enough.
That’s an amazing story.
That’s the trouble. The trouble is basically, was the intention from a healthy place, and anything key learned? I was quoted in the style art part of the Washington Post after performing there, and I said that the organizers were ‘weaksauce’.
I read that.
I felt like the interviewer captured very well, just me. Even though I was a bit rude and uncouth, I thought it was great. I was like ‘Oh shit! Ah sheeeit’ I just was happy that ‘weaksauce’ was quoted.
That word… I’d never heard it and I read that, and was like, ‘That’s good!’ I knew exactly what you meant.
If that’s all that’s put out there, then I win.
What’s it like to have your image on the Vancouver Art Gallery poster and on buses and everything? Are you being approached by strangers who recognize you?
No, because I’m not here. I live elsewhere. But I guess on Facebook I’m approached by strangers who admire my work and want to tell me that, and by people that I know who are telling me they’re proud, that they feel pride. In myself too, I reacted like, ‘oh my gawd!’ It’s kind of exploitative, I was thinking am I being exploited because of the two images, they used the one that takes my performance out of context ‘cause it’s only a portrait, whereas the other one shows the regalia, which is purposeful, every aspect of it. So I was wondering if they were just using the face as literally just the aboriginal brown woman face of brown aboriginal—which is totally untrue— show? And is it kitsch-y, is it catchy, is it cool and hipster to have a painted up native? Is that safe? Is it misrepresentative? Is it merely being used as a marketing ploy? Is it exploitive? Anyway…so at first I was like ‘oh, I’m so honored.’ And then I was like ‘Whaat… that’s not really speaking to the whole show.’ And then I was like, ‘well, what would? I don’t know. Everything. What would speak to the show? What would speak to you?’ I went through all these emotions. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t mind the picture, but the banner itself is pretty shitty. I don’t like the text and I think that the fact that they’re side by side, like I think an actual graphic artist could have done better work. I’ve seen better banners. But the fact that they used my picture… I’m over it.
Is there a sense of power in being displayed on a colonial building that has been so historically radicalized?
Well I always want to go to the events that are in front of the building. So I’m kind of there and it kind of makes me feel cool… like ‘Oh shiiit, I’m at Mayday, oh sheeeit!’
I’m at every event. I think for what that is… it’s a brown face… a woman’s face. She has paint on. She’s got a West-Coast face, with big fat cheeks. She’s got ‘Chug Life’ written all over her. She’s got a bruise on her arm that says she’s been through some shit. So I think when people tell me they’re proud, it’s not because we’re related or they’re gaining anything but visual presence, it’s almost like a marking, a graffiti tag, and it’s uncomfortable to look at from a colonial perspective, I’m sure. And somebody who doesn’t know they do, they think they know and you can’t really exploit or use my face any other way… it can’t be taken down and put on a real cool hipster t-shirt, ‘cause it would imply that the watcher is now the… the watch-ee is now the watcher, which would turn power on its end. So I just like that it’s a really provocative pose and the image itself can’t be exploited.
Does your notoriety as a radical artist bring you into contact with other types of radicals?
No. I think that I’ve been in contact with other radicals and I slowly got out of contact with all those radicals, and I’m sure that they don’t take me too super-seriously, or some people know that I’m just a fucked up girl who just so happened to have grown up surrounded by resisters and maybe that I’m resisting my own way that doesn’t amount to much, with theory on my right and theory on my left. Am I contributing? That’s my take on the radical viewer. I don’t know how much value I bring to the radical table.
Do you think they would question your credibility?
I don’t know if the radicals are talking about me or even care, or if it’s even part of what the radicals are doing.
I was just wondering if you maybe brought them out of the woodwork?
Well the performance itself in Sydney didn’t go very far. I really want to do something with the video imagery I had. It was of a bunch of radical actions that were happening throughout the nineties and early two-thousands my sister took video footage of, and they were all over B.C. and I think there was some footage from Nova Scotia. So a lot of radical actions were videotaped and then utilized in a video that was shown behind me, so the viewer had to consider all of the images that I was showing as I danced. It’s hard to describe the performance unless I’m describing it in its entirety, but the gist of it was that I wanted to make the radical into visual and to interlay that into the performance so they had to consider… so that not only do they have to consider a fat native women in a native getup or regalia, but they had to consider the history and current, present imagery of natives in balaclavas and natives on the front lines, natives making fires in the middle of the road, and all of this that would normally seem radical to the world on CNN. And so for some people it’s the first time they’ve ever seen Native Americans or people from Turtle Island (North America) doing things that way. I wanted to show the performance as a threat. What if? What if we were considered militant or terrorists? I think there are a lot of radical writers who totally oppose what I’m making people consider, ‘cause they already do consider it, and I think they do correlate. It’s wrongful. It’s not a good light to paint us in because there is no way that we could be that. There really is no way…
It’s totally unrealistic.
Which is why it’s more suiting to art than reality…
A form of absurdism?
It’s true. I think people who create policy to continue to keep us down are the only ones who are considering that seriously. I think that goes for artists who create resistance-type work. I mean that’s why they’re trying to continue to control every aspect of us as human beings and our expression. So, if I have a platform on the world stage, in Australia at a Biennale anywhere, what am I gonna say? And how am I going to redefine the container I am contained in, and that is my role in the comfort zone I can do. So in the Smithsonian Museum, I’m laying on a table with my legs spread and I’m wearing a nurse’s outfit and a friend has a pot of red paint between my legs and he’s painting the Pinto or something from Columbus’s fleet and he’s painting this bloody image of a beautiful ship on a blue board and I’m basically talking about paranoia, I’m stream-of-consciousness talking about what it’s like to be an indigenous woman right now. And people have to consider the image of seeing a health-nurse, some kind of a nurse’s aide, somebody in healing, who is saying these things and they have to consider that anyway the whole piece was called ‘Painting History with Native Blood’ like pretty much.
I read that one too and that’s where you said they were ‘weaksauce’ because they were grumpy about it. I remember ‘Indians on TV’ was what it was called?
And then one person did the ‘Seinfeld’ thing and then you were doing like a ‘Moesha’?
Yeah. There was a moment when Charlie Hill…
It was great ‘cause you turned it on its ear.
Charlie Hill. No I didn’t though… they asked us for a response to an episode that considers native people in context in whatever form, so I chose Moesha because we invited Charlie Hill, and he’s a comedian and I would consider myself a humourist, so that’s where it intersects.
And he created this one moment where he was supposed to be super funny with this one line, it was like (pitches voice) ‘So how come you guys don’t celebrate Thanksgiving? Well, it’s because, you know, would you celebrate that Carnival Line that tipped over?’ And it was supposed to be ‘ha-ha’ funny, but it was sooo new… it was too soon that everybody was quiet and considerate, but like not comfortable, but it was like, ‘Oh gawd, we have to fucking consider that?’ and that was what I wanted to create on stage… that was the response.
That’s what you wanted?
And I created that through all of that. I wanted them to be uncomfortable. I wanted it to be kinda funny but not really. I wanted there to be an expectation that there’s some humour here and we can laugh. We’ve gotten over it, but we haven’t.
You love Andy Kaufmann, don’t you?
Yeah. It was all in context. It was all great. But they didn’t get it because they expected something else. So don’t expect. Obviously, if you don’t know what the form of art is, obviously if an invitation that you make can have all of these different meanings, talk to them about their meaning, or even read their bio. It just seemed like they didn’t know me at all.
They didn’t know you?
I was like, ‘I did my job. And you were unhappy with it…’
Which was your aim. So you were successful you could say. In your performance, ‘Sacred Clown’ you spoke about strangers directing hateful stares and energy towards you on the bus, and when I watched that I felt this deluge of pain radiating from you. It seemed real. Is that from personal experience? Have you felt just strangers hate on you on the bus?
I feel like my character’s state of being is always in flux. So I would love to be out of my pain, and to be kind of over myself. I think it would be really great if I was over it and over myself, and not entrenched in this pain-way. Unfortunately I cannot disconnect from that yet, I’m not detached from that. And it would be really hard for me to reflect on that. The point is that I still have trouble with my ego. I still have trouble with self-acceptance. I still have residual post-traumatic stress… it’s just so hard to… But the fact is that where is it coming from, is it self-hatred or external. Am I responding to the fact that I don’t feel well in my physical body or is it this physical place? I don’t know. It’s all arbitrary.
It’s all arbitrary.
Have I felt hatred? Of course. I don’t see giant teepees with people working inside them with mandates of ‘how do you save the world?’ I see giant square boxes that are planning to destroy us.
Planning to destroy the world?
Yeah. I am totally surrounded by hatred. Hatred of life. Hatred of fluidity. It doesn’t have to be coming from a person, it could be in the moment of being aware of all the anti-growth.
Everything around you.
How do you turn it into humour? Because you do. How do you flip that pain? What’s the process inside?
How do you see it in a funny way?
Okay, this is an example, I was invited to the Vancouver Art Gallery in, I believe, 2007. I can’t remember. It was when my cousin died. Anyway, I was invited to perform at FUSE and that was a big deal for me.
I saw you. I was there.
Was that the year that you did the road-trip video upstairs?
Yeah but before that I was in the foyer.
I didn’t see that. I saw the road-trip video.
I was invited and they said… they tacked it on at the end… ‘would you like to do a welcoming?’ ‘Cause that’s what native people do in this town. If you’re a performer you clearly have some work in welcoming, so it’s a big role. ‘Heya ho heya ho, you’re totally welcome, fuck, let’s go. Party!’ So I was like, really? You really want me to do a welcoming? So with a smile and an understanding that that comes from a really colonial place, no matter how Métis you are, I was like let’s do a welcoming. How about if I dress up like an eighties chick and I sit and listen to eighties music and I hand out cards and the card says ‘welcome’ and on the other side is a native person staring at you? I did that and I also made these beautiful eighties-looking hair tassels with roach-clips on the end, from the carnivals. Very authentically native, from the eighties, and I also have traditional music from the eighties. But anyway, people walked by me and were uncomfortable, they did not want to look at me, some people thought it was funny, some people danced and completely ignored me and enjoyed the music, some people asked me ‘what are you doing?’, some people were anthropologists and they sat next to me in a respectful manner, eye to eye level and said ‘hi, what are you doing?’ in a really creepy manner. I was a scientist conducting a study of human relations. And I learned that white people are so fuckin’ shut down. And also that a lot of the native people that came in looked at me and looked away, and couldn’t handle seeing another native person that wasn’t in a respectful place. I didn’t have the kind of regalia that demands being a figurehead of a specific kind of authentic nation…anyway, these are all my ramblings, but one of the people who worked there said, ‘Oh my god, I thought you were a street person.’ And I thought that was a win, I was like ‘I win!’ because like basically they don’t value anything… the people who are here don’t value me, the people who were welcomed don’t value me, the people who were trying to value me devalued me and… okay, what was the question again, ‘cause I have a point?
We were talking about how you turn it into humour.
So how I turned it into humour was I told my mum about it. I said ‘Mum, I win!’ and she was like ‘what did you do?’ So after that I went upstairs… I went outside for a cigarette, I saw two native kids on the street and I said ‘do you wanna see a performance?’ and they said, ‘Sure,’ and I said, let’s go!’ And the security guards got on their security things and said, ‘She’s coming upstairs now to the official performance.’ And we were ushered all the way through the gallery, past the lines, past the buckles, past all the security checks, onto the special freight elevator, upstairs, straight onto the performative stage where everyone was waiting… for me. And I was thinking from a place of complete devaluation, because of the context, and fully on their own choice of how to treat or perceive this authentic and special place with this special place with a microphone and an introduction, the same people who walked by me, thinking, ‘Gross. What is she doing here? Why is she making me consider her?’ were going to my performance and I met them there. And I was like ‘Ha ha muthafukas! It was funny for me and that’s it. And I don’t feel like I need to tell everybody or I don’t feel like they all need to be in on the joke. And I try to expose them to things I think are funny so that they can enjoy it sometimes, but I don’t make it for them, I make it to be okay, and to prove a point to myself so that I don’t feel fucking crazy, I just want to make shit real, and to see where people are at, and to see where I’m at within it. And just sharing that with David Payne, who works there, he was the one who said, ‘I thought you were a street person.’ And he works there and was just like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know.’ And there was this kid there hiding around the corner taking notes and smiling to himself and at me and I could tell he was going to write something, but when he came up to me and said, (English accent)’ What’s the name of this piece?‘, everybody had an English accent, and I said, I think it was ‘Fuck this Shit’ or ‘This is Bullshit,’ or something with the word shit in it, and he was so upset I’ve never heard or seen from him again and I was thinking, ‘oh, he’s going to write something,’ and then he just like took it too seriously. And I was just like ‘whatever’.
Yeah, it doesn’t bear being taken too seriously. On the same note, which of your performance pieces are you most proud of?
Proud of? Received well? Went far? Moved people? Made people feel good? Proud of?
I’d say all of the above…
People learn from, maybe? Well, nobody can see it. It’s just a place of where I needed to come in life. And my art will be better from that. And it’s like a revelation, it’s a movement in me, it’s a portal a spiritual opening. It’s coming and it’s big. I think it’s coming, and it’s big.
I think it’s coming, and it’s big… I don’t think I’ve reached it.
It hasn’t happened yet?
I haven’t… there is nothing there yet, somewhere I haven’t been to.
Is there a single performance that you regret?
No. Absolutely not. I’m happy with everything that I did and everyone that I’ve hurt. Because that’s what performers do. That’s what’s going to push me further, make it better.
Who or what are you fighting for?
I know we talked about it earlier, that everybody’s a warrior, you said before that box buildings are destroying the world, are you basically fighting to hold that back?
I know you’re trying to help me to answer some of the questions… I don’t want to be arrogant. It’s just I don’t want to be a selfish human being in the way that I can contribute. And in the way I will learn from others. Like I said before I am in a state of wishing that I was an observer of this fucked up person, and I’m not, so I’m striving towards being balanced enough to be that observer and healthy contributor. So my goal is to be the best contributor to the world and that’s it. And right now I think that in my flailing, as a sacred clown, which is how I coin it, so basically a ‘flailer’, I would hope there would be something valuable even in my dysfunctional state that could be gleaned and learned from.
I’ve seen you sing online and you have an amazing set of pipes. I know you’ve put out a vocal album. Why have you pursued your work as a performance artist over a musical career?
I don’t think that I have. I think I feel more comfortable like in performance art right now. When people invite me to do music it really is a specific place and I haven’t given it as much thought as my performative career. So it’s kind of hard for me to… like I’m just learning how to ask for what I need to be enabled to do what they’re asking me to do. When somebody asked me to do music I used to bring a CD or a buddy with a guitar. And it was really like… it could have been great but it wasn’t, it was what it was. So now I need a band, I need a rider, I need a ride. (laughter) I need to have these specific things that I need. As I grow as a human to figure out what I need to be enabled, and feel okay with that, I think the creativity will be more, but for right now performance is easier. But I like singing and want to do more.
I could see you doing that. How did you get started as a performance artist? What was your first performance?
My first performance art piece, which I didn’t know what I was doing, I think I was about twenty-one and I wanted to make a… I wanted to be funny and to make music and I wanted to use props in one performance. So I gathered everything I could from the kitchen and wrote these spoken word-slash-music lyrics and then I invited a musician and I knew there were other musicians who were going to be there, so they set the bed or made the bed or I had maybe a CD, I can’t remember, and I did this spoken word-slash-musical number and I had like props and a singer and created something from there and it was crackling! It felt good and it felt right like it was going somewhere, but I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like that, and for some reason my mentor started leading me to these places and showing me these things and I was like ‘I’m doing performance art!’ Then I skipped it for a couple of years and went to school. Then I came back to it and went to school for it and then I quit school and did it, and then I decided to quit the day job. So it was just a natural progression.
When you presented the Marlon Brando mask to David Elliot in your talk ‘Archaeology of the Future’, you became very emotional. You said ‘the incredible weight of responsibility crushes me as an artist.’ Does that weight ever make it hard for you to create?
Does it block you?
Yup. Because there’s this doubt that I’m not healthy enough to make anything, that I’m not liked enough, that I’m not smart enough, or I’m not red enough, or I haven’t researched enough…
Yup. And that what I have to say is primitive. There’s all this colonial hatred and history of being devalued and there’s also a very physical devaluation that I went through as a child in my own history. And as much as I think my family tried to make me a healthy person, there was just so much there to make me not. Your question again? I had it…
It was about the weight of responsibility crushing you and does it make it hard for you to create?
And so I just feel incredibly put on the spot to be all these ideals of a good person that, ‘is what you’re making okay? Are you resolved in the way you’re healing? Are you resolved in the way you use images? Are you resolved? Do you know enough about what you’re doing to make it and then be okay?’ I think what helps me to create is to know that where I’m at is okay. And that I need to be even more honest about where I’m at. And for anybody that’s really scary because we have so much self-doubt I think, about our abilities and about where we come from. And so much fear and so much shame and so much guilt and even being human. So maybe for the entitled white girl who was ignored by her parents and just so happens to have been thrown into this school as storage, because we got her out of the way until she got married, and me… growing up with parents who were clearly trying but they fucked up and fell down, just like her parents did, we’re doing what we know to be alright, but we come from different places. Is it okay for her to make circles and squares and triangles in the three colors of the Earth and me to draw lines between things in my own colorful way? Is it safer for her? Is it safe for me? Who takes experience gleaned from their art? Who learns from it? And what was the question again? I’m almost done…
The weight of responsibility as an artist and does it block you?
She’s expected to make fluffy art. She’s expected to contribute until she feels used. I feel like I am a non-person. Who cares if I am making art? Who gives a shit? Am I contributing to the conversation? Is anybody taking me seriously? I’m sitting there in the museum yesterday, amongst curators and artists and museum people who are talking about making the museum a better place, more relevant, and I was like ‘Oh my god, there is so much expectation and there is so much disrespectful history will we ever get to a place where we’re going to make this okay. Are you guys gonna change? Can you? And… fuck… I always keep losing it when I’m almost there…
You’re there! You’re talking about getting blocked and the weight or responsibility and are you ever gonna change?
I think we need another… I don’t know what we need but it’s coming. I know this much. We’re all right there. I think we’re all waiting for everybody else. And we just need to stop feeling that we have any weight, that there’s anything that we have to wait for. We all just have to be really brave right now, quickly. I think that will help. I’m just hoping in the makings of my ramblings, and my flailing and my whatevers, it will make other people brave to do their thing, to do something or achieve something like that too and not feel like they have to be ready for or even make everyone impressed. I just want everybody to start making and start thinking.
What were responses to ‘Fuck the White Man’ like?
One was an email from the curator and she said, ‘By the way, somebody wrote the Vancouver Sun and is trying to get your work taken out of the show. And I immediately felt scared. I felt guilty and I felt like I hurt somebody. And then it took me a half-an-hour to go through that initial feeling until I said, ‘I think I’ve done what I was supposed to do.’ I think that was the purpose. And I was scared that the purpose was fulfilled. I didn’t realize it was going to happen. And then I went to see it, after word from that and it was scary. I think if there’s one person who was struck in that way, there’s a whole rainbow of other ways they were struck, and from the security guard… I talked to a security guard there and he said ‘you can’t take pictures of that.’ ‘But it’s mine!’
He said, ‘Is that you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ He goes, ‘Oh my god! It’s you.’ And he leaned in and said, ‘You know, a lot of people want to take a picture of your picture.’ He’s like, ‘I think you should sell it in the giftshop.’ He was really secretive when he said, ‘I like that picture.’ But there’re also the weirdoes, the people that are really ‘literal’. They’re like, ‘It’s inciting hate.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? If that’s inciting hate, what’s everything that’s happening to aboriginal women right now, what the fuck is that doing? Can’t we just take a moment for a native woman to make a piece of art that says, ‘Fuck the white man?’ Aren’t we old enough to do that? You with this history of inhumanity, can’t we just do simple shit? That is nothing! That is boring. Like I’m done, that’s done.’ That was so a thousand years ago…. Stupid shitty picture ‘Fuck the White Man’, who cares? But if that’s relevant to the dumbest guy, then we still have to do it. It’s just a stupid drunk hot tub full of hot people.
It looked like fun.
Who was the guy in the horse-head mask?
That was my cousin Horse.
Is that why he had the horse head?
No. He had the horse head because he was the hottie… the Horse Hottie.
Is that your cousin who passed?
You said earlier your cousin had passed, that’s why…