odaminowinan ozhitooyang, mazinitooyang
aanikenootawangwaa dewe’iganag gaye zhiishiigwanag
We accompany our survival
with games creating, arranging
translating for drums and rattles
to animate the sound of being good beings.
—Margaret Noodin, from the poem “Gimanaajitoomin Nibi/We Honor Water,” 2020
The opposite of dispossession is not possession. It is not accumulation. It is unforgetting. It is mattering.
—Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and the Super Futures Haunt Qollective, 2016
In this chapter, I am continuing my exploration of embodied artful explorations that foreground diverse frameworks in contact with one another, and I use somatic sensation as the core aesthetic drive. Now, however, the invitations come via digital media and no longer predominantly from the skin-to-skin or shared sun-and-air contacts that characterized the previous chapter. Work at the site of injury is central to this chapter, and so I focus on healing practices that emerge from collaborations between Indigenous frameworks, Western arts methods, and the land itself.
To position myself apropos colonial reckonings: my sensibilities emerged out of German environmental arts thinking with its lineages of poets and revolutionaries, Joseph Beuys’s mysticism, and Nazism’s engagement with land discourse. My sensibilities were honed during a decade living in Wales, collaborating with Welsh language activists and poets centered in anticolonial thought. This was followed by a formative experience working in Aotearoa/New Zealand, as the inaugural Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance. During that time I worked in a hospice, with predominately Pākehā (European settler) elders, some of whom had fought Germans, and a Māori group of artists/healers who used traditional methods to reintegrate people who had engaged in violent crimes. I also spent significant time in Australia, given how close my interests in community performance aligned with the concept of “community cultural development,” an Australian arts funding category. During a number of residencies I learned much from Aboriginal leaders as well as White community arts practitioners, including that there were limits to being a curious ethnographic traveler.1 I quickly learned not to write about Indigenous work per se. I was invited to listen.
Now I live in Michigan. I seek out and appreciate Anishinaabe contemporary creative forms. I took two semesters of Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language, at the University of Michigan with Anishinaabe elders Howard Kimewon and Alphonse Pitawanakwat. Anishinaabe poet and linguist Margaret Noodin, whose recent book is the bilingual Gijigijigaaneshi Gikendaan (2020), helped me understand something of the connections between language and land, grammar, and being-in-the-world. I learned, for instance, about the importance of verb forms over nouns—of being-with, being-in-process, being-alive-together. Noodin, and other writers like Kimberly Blaeser (Anishinaabe), show me ways to think about permeable selves and processes in the natural world.
My painful embodiment means that I engage in delicious tracking of earth and water; understanding the implications of this leads me to the traditional and current caretakers of the land. Many of my Indigenous collaborators are skilled in forms of pain and trauma management. I continue to try to listen actively for the ethical demands on me as I move and dance on land that has histories, and that demands acknowledgment of relation, reparation, and return. This is the unstable and unsettled position I write from.
In all the practices I discuss in this chapter, intercultural perceptions and evaluations of land are the connectors of the healing work, and I track how land and the concept of “love” emerge together. Let’s begin by placing ourselves. What are the histories of the land on which you are now reading these words? What people caretook and caretake this land?
I wrote most of this within the purview of the Three Fires Confederacy. Matthew Siegfried is a local historian who leads a number of walks along the streets of my hometown of Ypsilanti. These walks focus on the Black and Indigenous histories of our small Rust Belt town. He tells me that my home is on the land of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi) and was once a Wyandot village. He describes how historical records indicate that smallpox, a disease introduced by European colonizers, devastated local Potawatomi villages in 1752 and the Wyandot village in 1787. In that period, these nations were all aligned with the French against the English and participated in the French and Indian War. Later, the Potawatomi were central locally in Chief Pontiac’s War (1763), against the Detroit fort, a center of slaveholding Whites (at first mainly Indigenous and then later Black slaves were present in the fort; for this early history of Detroit, see Miles 2017). In a 2014 interview, Siegfried describes how some of the Potawatomi of the Huron River, forcibly removed in 1840–41, escaped and later returned to Michigan.
Using a different method of elucidating the region’s history, Margaret Noodin writes about a burial mound in Detroit along the river: “Potawatomi historian Michael Zimmerman has told us of the leader who lived in this place, Ininiwizh. It matters that he lived in the late 1700s as the settlers began shifting the earth to create walls and divide cultures, and that in 1771 he left this place, this river and these waters. It matters that his name means milkweed, the sole food of monarch caterpillars” (Noodin and Kuppers 2021).
Anishinaabemowin, the language of Margaret Noodin’s poem in the chapter epigraph, is one of the sounds familiar to this land. In order to write about my location, I consulted with Indigenous and White historians, as “maps” are complex things, and I try to listen to many stories of this land without getting too pinned down. Territory does not necessarily mean settling, and transit—mobility, making tracks—can be temporary tactics of alignment rather than land-grabbing strategies. In the epitaph, I cited “unforgetting” and “mattering,” the terms used by Angie Morrill (Klamath), Eve Tuck (Unangax̂), and the Super Futures Haunt Qollective as ways to hold against dispossession. They are both processes. Consulting, researching, and being aware of and learning over time what I don’t know are central to this chapter’s ecosomatic approach: like the opening Anishnaabemowin poem’s energy, it’s an “-ing” chapter, a doing. And for me, as a settler, that means “unsettling”: engaging postapocalyptic thinking by acknowledging Indigenous apocalypses, undermining my own stability, listening to beyond what I know, pulling the rug out from under myself, asking more questions about this ground, and opening my sensorium to more languages and voices.
Over the years, a lot of my own theoretical framework evolved from and with Deleuzoguattarian thought: the complex web of ideas and concepts that stem from the collaboration between French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and radical psychotherapist Félix Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari coauthored texts and used far-ranging and often challenging thought constructs and examples to map new connections and energetic relations: lines of flight and bodies without organs. Chapter 1 introduced rhizomatic structures and trees that organized things in ways that were too linear. I remember reading this duo in the 1980s, sitting in cafés after university lectures in Germany, slowly finding my way into the dense texts, and already being provoked by the specific and ever more elaborate examples they wove into their particular weft. Their writings mentioned non-White others as examples, as metaphors, in line of flights that did not end well. I had not met any nomads or actual Hopi yet, but I was fairly certain that their mention was a particular assemblage of exoticisms—lives viewed from afar. Anthropological ethics was, for better or worse, not the point of what I understood to be trickster texts.
Here are the two most important sentences in Deleuze and Guattari’s book for my argument on eco soma methods, on co-creation in somatic/ecological thickness: “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd” (Deleuze and Guattari 1972, 3).
I am a community performance artist, someone who identifies as and works with what Erving Goffman calls “stigmatized” people: those who often find themselves in a complex relationship with the values and words applied to them by others. These are disabled people, people deemed disposable and debilitated in neoliberal worlds, and people who have to be careful about how they present themselves. My artwork and theoretical labor are not about telling one’s story straight or about witnessing injury; my engagement with politics of recognition was and is complicated and involves the poetics of being recognized as a complex, interdependent participant in public life. It was and continues to be fun to weave the strands of identity and voice through the striated nets and tools of Deleuzoguattarian protocol.
In this chapter, I am interested in unrecognizable performance/writing/mark-making practices among arty, tricky crowds with different names: names for themselves, named by others, violent naming, and secret names. I am writing about cross-cultural artful collaborations between Indigenous people and settler people, working together “each . . . several, [so] there was already quite a crowd.” My use of the word “settler” is rhetorically marked: I use the word frame Indigenous/settler (and the continuum denoted by the frame) not to mark essential identities but to dislocate “art practice as usual” into a more defamiliarized terrain. The practices I write about are crowded by histories of colonial violence and encounter and by much longer durations of survivance and life. I am an outsider to Indigenous practice, and there are protocols of how to write about Indigenous work, and it would take careful consultation with artists and elders to ensure that lines of communication are sanctioned and appropriate, not appropriative.2 I do not write about Indigenous practices, instead I address here edge spaces, collaborations, encounters. Many of the practices I am writing about in this chapter come to me secondhand (and I mark that in the text), and hence I try to be careful not to speculate about Indigenous meanings. All these practices occur in contested places where traditions have woven specific protocols and forms of engagement and where contemporary artists are working with these living and revitalized archives.
One of the core nexuses of discussion in this area is the value of taxonomy,3 given the highly local and site-specific nature of most work. Gilbert and Lo (2002) provide an introduction to the ways that the cross-cultural performance moment has figured in multiple ways in settler-dominated performance criticism. I am not rehearsing these concepts here, as I am trying, insofar as it is possible at this moment in the settler-dominated archive, to entangle with Indigenous theorizing. I am interested in the theorization that happens in the sited moment of a particular performance’s life, with the traces that this sitedness leaves in its electronic circulation.
Within this kind of discussion framework on cross-cultural performance labor, different perspectives come to the fore: no longer taxonomy and abstraction but issues of protocol, responsibility, and the piercing of the settler heritage of art/life dichotomy.
The performances I write about in this chapter are also mainly distributed on the globe-spanning connective tissue of the internet—and much of my performance witnessing throughout this chapter is through mediation, cameras, voiceovers, publicity texts, audience remarks in reviews, or write-ups in annual reports. This is now an eco soma method with touch at a distance—but still in touch with imagination, with rhythm and song, and in the embodied deliciousness of writing, reading, and witnessing from afar.
In my field, community performance, one of the main problems used to be disconnect. Your group works on one side of the hill. My group works on the other. This arrangement makes it really hard to make connections, engage in professional development, and watch one another’s shows. Eventually, at professional meetings or conferences, other community artists and I would exchange CDs and later DVDs of our work, bartered and gifted like the precious jewels that they are: missives from elsewhere, evidence of art life in many different locations. These art witnesses travel outside the networks of most Western-oriented professional art practices with their ways of recognizing excellence and also outside traditionally framed land-based art practices with their own established values. Few critics operated within these community arts, and those who did often came out of (and sometimes imported value schemes from) high-art practices.
Over the last decades, some of this has changed: YouTube, Vimeo, TikTok, webpages, and endless reservoirs of data assembly have transformed the connectivity of people who work in locally engaged, site- or community-specific art practices.4 In this chapter, I am consciously engaging with witnessing and entangling from afar. My eco soma method here is a convivial style, a style of co-living, of openness, which includes gratefully taking up invitations by Indigenous friends to learn languages, and to see things differently from what I learned to see in European graduate school. This chapter meanders as a methodological intervention, and it locates me as an author in a living relationship to what I encounter. I hope that you, as an active reader, can bring your own situated knowledge to what is textually evidenced or archived here: witnessing from afar, each of us acknowledging our own perspective and its histories while engaging respectfully with the art evidence we find.
None of the three art practices described here are univocal, even if one has the name of a single artist attached. Place, space, and histories complicate locations. The short opening video from Three Fires Confederacy land, Ann Arbor, Michigan, hosts women from different Native lands in a performance workshop. The second art object stretches from Ojibwe lands to Venice, Italy—Ojibwe artist Rebecca Belmore’s video installation at the Venice Biennial’s Canada Pavilion. The third example speaks about the ongoing Ghost Nets Project, a large-scale and multiyear community arts/cultural development project from Australia, with practices that stretch across the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Torres Strait.
Making my way through this particular reference field, I quickly run up against the limits of my personal histories of take-up of Deleuzoguattarian “affect and states of enchantment” (Byrd 2011, 17)—most of my previous publications are deeply steeped in desire machines and rhizomes, and this book swims in this pool, too. As Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw) points out, “As a philosophical sign, the Indian is the transit, the field through which presignifying polyvocality is re/introduced into the signifying regime” (2011, 19), as one of so many becoming-Others—a charge that is also familiar from, for instance, feminist critiques of Deleuzoguattarian perspectives. Byrd writes that in these philosophical discussions “the Indian is a ghost in the system, an errant or virus that disrupts the virtual flows by stopping them, redirecting them, or revealing them to be what they are and will have been all along: colonialist” (2011, 19). In the writing of my chapter, I need to listen to the moments when free flows across territory align too neatly with imperialist grasping and deterritorialization of those to whom these lands are not abstract.5 My writing needs to be attentive to where thought apparatuses trying to escape linearity also echo of dispossession. Byrd offers (alter)native poststructuralities, such as “south-eastern cosmologies of the Chickasaw and Choctaw [who] imagine worlds with relational spirals and a center that does not so much hold as stretches” (2011, 20). These are moments when “the Indian” becomes something else than a trace or a mechanism in European thought structures—when Indigenous thought becomes the theorizing center.6
Thus, with these acts of attention, I enter unfamiliar, already occupied, cohabited terrain. As I do so, I can find many wayfarers for my journey as a disability studies and performance studies researcher in matters eco soma: many concepts like relationality, intersubjectivity, and ethical relations to unknowability, all with much currency in my home disciplines, also greet me as established ways of thinking about knowledge production in Indigenous-led research.
Before I get too comfortable, though, Byrd offers a challenge: “As Derrida and Deleuze are evoked within affect theories, the ‘Indian’ and ‘tattooed savages’ remain as traces. Any assemblage that arises from such horizons becomes a colonialist one” (2011, 21). I am a disability culture traveler and a settler, and my history is part of my life on the lands I travel on. Colonialism’s histories and futures are indeed part of the package, but I can, with Byrd and others, look to Indigenous theorizing and artifying to engage alter(native) speaking to move toward a writing that recognizes but does not attempt to contain (encircle, de-land, remove) “a crowd.” Therefore, my reference field here consciously pushes into Indigenous knowledge creation and uses a citational politics of centering Indigenous researchers. My intention here is not to territorialize me as a new authority who has the privilege to read widely, but to honor and elevate those that have given me new ways of thinking.
Rivering: Native Women Language Keepers
Anishinaabe poet and linguist Margaret Noodin wrote these sentences for a coauthored essay we wrote about our work together:
To begin, in order to locate ourselves, we remember—mikwendan, which in the Anishinaabe language (Anishinaabemowin) literally means “to find consciousness in our thoughts.” We are only two of the members of Miskwaasining Nagamojig (The Swamp Singers), a women’s drum group who sings all songs in the Anishinaabe language and centres an Anishinaabe space and ways of being and healing. We are thinking of healing people and places through the steady beat of songs on skins, moving from studio space to sacred mounds, from land to water and all the physical and intellectual spaces in between. (Noodin and Kuppers 2021)
To begin differently, let’s start with video jewels from our habitation in a studio, at a symposium Margaret Noodin and I co-organized in Michigan in 2012. This video, Native Women Language Keepers: Madweziibing—Music Rivering (dirs. Noodin and Kuppers, Ann Arbor: The Olimpias, 2013), can be found on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKHtaHYQ5CQ.
I invite you to watch the video,7 and to track what you are receiving: what you are focusing on, what sounds you hear, what is familiar, and what is not. Noodin wrote about what we are thinking—what are your thoughts as you see, hear, and feel the echo of the drum?
These are multivocal beginnings, knowing in difference.
Native Women Language Keepers was a weeklong exploration of Native women’s practices as language teachers, activists, and artists, with many stories of women as keepers of water and full of the sounds of multiple languages.
In the video documentation we created, the symposium fellows are introducing each other, respectfully citing Māori mihimihi (a formal introduction) to center global Indigeneity and Indigenous ways of knowing and doing in a community that did not share any one cultural form. The video features the symposium fellows who were engaged in Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe and Niimipuu/Nez Perce language revitalization through the arts. There are short dramatic scenes with material by Heid Erdrich, Howard Kimewon, Alanis King, and Margaret Noodin. There is drumming and singing by the Miskwaasining Nagamojig (Swamp singers), an Ann Arbor–based hand-drum group that Noodin founded and that I participated in. We shared honor songs in front of projected paintings by Daphne Odjig (see Plate 5). The performances in the Madweziibing video evoke sensory locatedness on edges, by rivers.
When we were working to find a title for our video, Noodin offered translations for Madweziibing (“music rivering”) as a verb, shifting the noun into action. The title holds echoes of Anishinaabemowin linguistic specificity, importing into English an active verb form of description layered over a noun-based static identity.
We are “rivering” in the video, knitting ourselves into childhood land and public history while acknowledging different forms of locatedness. Here are moments in the video where we all speak about our associations with water.
If you say “water place” I think first of lakes, I think of Chinimaging and those great lakes. But I also think of what we now call the Mississippi, the michi ziibing, that river that goes through the state for us from Minnesota, that is a big part of who we are.
And even our nation in the US what is east of that waterline and what is west of that water line is a big part of the history of where native people were, and how the United States defined the people and where they moved them to. (Margaret Noodin, transcript from video)
My river is the Rhine. So I come from a community where every waterway has a nixe, has a mermaid or a merman, every waterway has something living in it and something moving in it. And I remember growing up that each River and each little tiny Flüsschen, we would call them in German, each of those would be inhabited by dancing women. . . . [L]ots of my choreography comes out of living alongside rivers or alongside oceans. (Petra Kuppers, transcript from video)8
Other women, participants in the gathering, enter the watershed and dance into the space of remembering healing places. Ojibwe playwright Marcie Rendon9 recalls:
Before I knew language, the sounds that I knew was the sound of the Red River, for it was literally probably as far away from where we lived as those pillows, and then the cottonwoods. The leaves of the cottonwoods, there is a certain sound that they make, that is like home to me.
And then the other river would be the very beginning of the Mississippi. My grandfather was a logger up around in northern Itasca, up in the Jack Pines. For me it’s that water and those trees that I hear. One of the first things that I tried to do in theatre was to get a musician that could actually make the sound of the cottonwood trees. Because that’s the sound that is so important to me. (Marcie Rendon, transcript from video)
Water flows through our biographies and into our movement: in one sequence, women hold hands as they create alphabetic representations by tensing their bodies and arcing into form. There is muscular flow here, blood pumping as the arms swing wide overhead, poet and video artist Heid Erdrich’s (Ojibwe)10 and Margaret Noodin’s voices flowing over the movers.
Nd’ozhibii’iganankemi, enya, nd’enendamobiigemi.
(We make letters, yes, we write our thoughts,)
(We make words to say together.)
. . .
(We write AmerAnishinaabe)
(Heid Erdrich and Margaret Noodin, transcript from video)
The alphabet is not an Ojibwe invention, it is imposed but can be wielded; it can become a form to hold, and it can enter a flow on its own energetic trajectory. These forms flow out of the constraints of European form and into the rivers that bind all of us by the water, taking responsibility for moving into a future together.
Nimiipu language teacher Angel Sobbota11 describes what our sharing of space does for us as a group:
And so, right now we are speaking of place, the place of river and mountains. River is for us is píik’un and mountains is méexòsem. When I am listening to everybody speak about their river and their mountains, I have no idea where you are talking about. But what I do know, and this is going to be the same for me when I describe where I am from, . . . what I do know is that there’s wisdom that sits in these places, there’s wisdom in these places, there is power in these places. (Angel Sobbota, transcript from video)
We begin and end with the drum, singing together—and if you follow the footnote link, you can sing alongside, lend your breath and your heartbeat to revitalization.
Mother Earth we know her
G’gikenmaagonaan pii nagamoyaang
She knows us when we sing
(transcript from video)12
Presence emerges in the vibrations of sound that always go well beyond what is audible and that vibrate our human membranes in conjunction with the skin of other animals, the sinews of deer, and the wood of the frame. Vibrations travel.
In my ear is Avery Gordon’s formulation of ghosts as “dense sites,” and I remember the opening, layering, breathing action of drumming as I know it: density gets unpacked, opened out, and pain comes to consciousness. When you beat a drum, your bones are nourished; you can feel the beat running right down into your feet and up to the crown of your head. It is calming to drum. And it can also be too much sensation—different sensoria respond differently, and there are drums in many sizes and levels of loudness. Given my own location in disability culture, I think of forms of stimming: small drumbeats of fingers against a thigh, or on the back of one’s other hand: neurodiverse patterns that can help someone to stay grounded, define edges, and acknowledge one’s self. Drumming can create alternative rhythms that override our nervous sensoria and realign us anew: fluffed, aired, beaten, stretching density out into a field of sound.
Density, social life, a conviviality of not knowing but co-living: many people find connections in the heart and circle of the drum. In the Madweziibing video, Ojibwe painter Daphne Odjig’s famous painting of a woman/spirit/drum becomes animated, as our editor JaiJai Noire synchronizes the image with the rhythm of the drums. Odjig, born in 1919 and a member of the Woodland School, is recognized as being responsible for revitalizing legends and finding wisdom relevant to contemporary practices. Her voice becomes a part of the conversation as the swirling embodiment of people dancing bulges into the video space.
In our shared essay, Margaret Noodin writes about heart/drum/land/energy/life connections:
At the centre of so many of the activities of the Swamp Singers is a drum; small, hand-made, hand-held and warmed often by the friction of palms to ensure the tone is strong. The word for drum (dewegan), like the word for town (odena), connects to the notion of a heart (ode) an epicentre of water cycling through bodies. However, more than a physical system of chambers, veins and arteries, the concept of the drum and the heart centres on the beats, which are synonymous with energy. Just as the heart depends on a steady impulse to continue, so does a song. The impulse, when examined, is the same that drives all life; a biologic ability to transfer matter into energy. A heartbeat and a drumbeat both signify the continuity of connected systems, liquids and air, earth and fire, a river of time. (2021)
Noodin’s heart continuity aligns with performance theorist Diana Taylor, in her discussion of memory, archive, and the repertoire, who uses the image of the heart as a way of thinking about the inevitability and uncontrollable nature of memory emerging in life: “Memory, like a heart, beats beyond our capacity to control it” (2003, 82).
These organic connections between the blood pulse, the drumbeat, the heart, energy, and the memories embedded in territory push through me as I think about different art traditions in confluence. I witness them in liquid flow with one another, streaming the dense sites of ghosting, allowing for a mixing of air, a breath at the site of stifling memory. There’s a worrying like water around a rock, the rock of the inhumanities and the pain, injustices, and genocidal violence of colonialism. And there is a people’s drumming, singing survivance.13
Resonating with old songs and older waters seems a way to read this performance respectfully, to see the coming together of different people in ways that respect site, land, and language. But my theorizing must understand itself to be a syncope, a singularity, respecting and weaving back into the breath of the drum and respectful of the moments where there is no beat. Choctaw historian Devon Mihesuah writes the following:
While non-Indian historians and some Indians have made careers out of speaking for tribes and interpreting culture besides the one to which they belong, many Indians will not write about tribes other than their own, even if they have insights into those cultures. When it comes to speculating on Others’ motivation and world-views, many Indians are simply uncomfortable and won’t do it. (1998, 12)
I live in a global net that allows me to hear of exciting projects at conferences, find traces online, and joyously connect with fellow art practitioners who work to reshape the public sphere. Living collectively, practicing minobimaadizi (the good life) in an artful world is the horizon of my own desire as a practitioner and a teacher alongside my collaborators and friends.
But any documentation only witnesses some of the meanings the artists encode in their work. Living well within all that, connecting readers and viewers to new experiences without an illusion of grasped knowledge, offers its own particular cross-cultural jazz.
Before this chapter slides too far into a postidentitarian new age, it is important to hold on to the politics of recognition that I try to activate in these pages. I am responding here to Monica Mookherjee’s discussion of alternative approaches to recognition, an approach she terms “affective citizenship.”
[This] approach follows those who recognize that cultural identity can be conceived as a language or a framework in which the negotiation of meanings takes place. . . . Though the porous character of cultural languages means that they might be difficult to identify in practice, recognition should begin with their equal consideration. (2005, 36)
In the context of this particular performance piece, this means recognizing that the drumming, singing, different Indigenous and settler protocols like Māori mihimihi, or the conventions of a European-derived black-box theater are all languages at play. They are all cultural expressions, discourse fields that will be more or less recognizable to members of different communities and people with different affective citizenships. I asked you earlier to chart your own response to the video, its colors, the pulsing painting, energies, the sounds, the languages, and the stories. Tribal members will respond differently from people who predominantly identify as settlers, or from those who have the privilege to never think about how they identify on this continuum. And affective communication is at play within and beyond the more traditional discourses supported by academia: historic reclamation and truth seeking, the marking of atrocity, rights and treaties. As Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and the Super Futures Haunt Qollective write, “Settler colonial societies are haunted by the host of gone peoples—they pulse at the center” (2016, 7). How to translate that pulse, that beat, is part of the affective charge to performance scholars writing in the edge spaces.
I mark the site of eco soma affective encounters: something happened, and Noodin and I recorded it and made it available to a larger public than the one witnessing in the flesh. But without anthropological labor on audiences and their particular witnessing, it is hard to make claims about how different people experience the (mythopoetic) phenomenological encounter in the shared space of Native and settler aesthetics. The electronic media universe has its own audiencing procedure, and many of the practices I am focusing on seem particularly aligned with mediation and with secondary audiencing. As I continue, you will see particular rhetorics at play in the cultural producers’ display choices. Within Indigenous studies, some of these themes are addressed through the frame of transnational indigeneity. Jessica Horton, in her work on the piece I am moving to now, speaks about how contemporary videoed works by roving artists “provoked a debate about how to conceptualize Indigenous places—and the role of place more generally—amid global conditions of transit and flux” (Horton, 2012: 15).14 How can you/I/we experience work created in the compass of a particular land in a different site? What happens in electronic travels, in the absence of corporeal presence, and how can I use eco soma methods to track experiences that unsettle me?
Sheets of Water
After this display of evoked sitedness, I am moving to a very different practice: a veiled watery display of affective belonging to a specific earth and water. I am engaging Ojibwe artist Rebecca Belmore’s iconic Fountain, created and displayed for predominantly non-(Turtle Island) Indigenous audiences as part of the Venice Biennial, where she was the first First Nation artist to represent the colonial nation of Canada.15 Her presentation choices come from a particular decolonizing framework as she “seeks to envision Indigenous presence on a global scale by centering Anishinaabe culture as a decolonizing lens for her work” (McGlennen 2013).
This example will allow me to work through Monica Mookherjee’s argument on affective citizenship in a postcolonial world by focusing on the politics of recognition and the impact of different reference fields on one another. In the work I am surveying, different cultural categories clash—not just a monolithic settler and Indigenous discourse. There are many different perspectives on what each of these categories are, their historical complexities, their inner differences, how the term “citizen” functions in different sites and histories, and the continuum of fluid practices each of these categories document.
As Mookherjee makes clear, success in this context depends on being touched, and changed, on “reciprocal transformation” (2005, 39). If discourses remain static and within their historical bounds, there is little room to move forward. This is at stake in particular in art practices, with their long histories of the exploitations of Others, including Indigenous Others as machines to do interesting work with but without engaging in the critiques these imported Others offer to dominant White supremacist perceptions. In the past, the validity of others’ critiques was safely shuttled into categories such as “past history,” “vanishing,” and “pathology” to avoid “reciprocal transformation.”
The particular installation I focus on is a fountain: it is a video literally projected on water. I witness at a distance—I have never been to Venice, a place that didn’t seem open to wheelchair users. But I became fascinated with Belmore’s piece, observing the posthappening life of a major art piece that has gained critical reception throughout the world. Belmore had embedded the video of the installation on her own website, so I could access the visuals if not the particular living watery screen. With the demise of Adobe Flash Player, the video is no longer available on her site, but you can search for “Fountain” by Rebecca Belmore and find traces on the internet. I encourage you to watch it now: find the video and see how you, in your particular location, and in your particular constellation on the Indigenous/settler/other continuum, respond to the elemental images of water, fire, land, and a woman’s presence.
The installation has had many write-ups in the international press, and that is the main evidentiary field for my analysis here.
In the video, Rebecca Belmore performs, and her collaborator, settler Canadian Noam Gonick, is the video maker. On this living screen, we see a woman standing near and then wading into an ocean (off Iona Beach on the Musqueam First Nation land). The camera shows us a wide, storm cloud–drenched vista of a gray ocean—and one can barely make out a sewage pipe running down the beach. A jet flies overhead, disrupting the soothing monotone of the waves.
Belmore stands in the water, struggling with a heavy pail she’s dragging out to the beach. She throws the bucket at the camera/water screen/audience, and red liquid runs across the water screen.
For me, in these sequences, many different paradigms of old European images of “strangeness” coalesce: trauma and woundedness, earth discourse, and conceptions of Indigeneity, distraught femininity and water, foreignness (of an Ojibwe woman in Italy), transformation of water into something else, and alchemy (early in the video, logs on the beach burst into spontaneous flames). I can also easily see these images in the context of Anishinaabe/Ojibwe recovery from colonial land degradation and colonial violence. Lawrence Gross (Anishinaabe) speaks about “post-apocalypse stress syndrome:” “the Anishinaabe have seen the end of our world, which has created tremendous social stresses” (2002, 437).
My reading of the secondary literature on the installation has alerted me to Indigenous readings only slightly familiar to me (and often very intriguing) about creatures in the water—but I had to cut the rest of my sentence here to ensure I do not engage in inappropriate and appropriative speculative interpretative labor.16
In surveying how this work is received, and how the work itself manipulates these fraught discourses, I can trace something akin to impact. But, like Horton, I need to step carefully before “the signifiers in Belmore’s work threaten to float free of specific referents and enter a kind of postmodern landscape of interpretive play” (2012, 15). And yet, the work is in Venice, and postmodern landscapes of interpretive play are what sites like the Biennial are about. Questions of authenticities become currency for an art market eager for storied underwater panthers.17 Belmore’s oeuvre throughout shows her masterful awareness of navigation: the seduction of Native imagery in their violence, the grounding in Indigenous knowledges, which are themselves complex in a family history that is disrupted by colonial pressure on cultural continuity, the manipulation of an art market that easily can sell both authenticity and trauma.
Thus, in order to find my way through the assemblage of interpretive appropriations, I need grounding. My method traces its way through a number of the published discussions of Fountain, engaging in a discourse analysis informed by a leaning into Ojiwbe intellectual history, centering on an Indigenous perspective and its own (dis)engagement with settler thought.
In his writings on Native engagement with visual technologies, Anishinaabe theorist Gerald Vizenor writes about how “the native” is absented at the site of representation. He calls for less ethnography and more active creative acts of presence. Vizenor reaches for an active Native engagement with visual arts as a site of connection beyond objecthood and victim imagery:
Analogy is an active, aesthetic, creative connection in the visual arts, and in the sense of natives, analogy is a desire to achieve a human union in visual images, rather than a cultural separation in language. (2004, 182)
Vizenor’s push toward connection is complemented by Cree research methodologist Shawn Wilson, who asserts that Indigenous research methodologies are based on the
fundamental belief that knowledge is relational. Knowledge is shared with all of Creation. It is not just interpersonal relationships, just with the research subjects I may be working with, but it is in relationship with all of Creation. It is with the cosmos, it is with the animals, with the plants, with the earth that we share this knowledge. It goes beyond the idea of individual knowledge to the concept of relational knowledge. . . . hence you are answerable to all your relations when you are doing research. (2001, 176–77)
Questions about impact, connection, and reciprocal change can find evidence on many levels. In looking at Belmore’s work through a lens of aliveness and connection, as a complex engagement with trauma and apocalypse, I push for reciprocal change, opening my settler reading practices to Indigenous survivance in Indigenous images.
This might be nice for me but not necessarily helpful to Indigenous people and the land. But what might be helpful is that I can open avenues of somatic thought here, in my eco soma way, and honor Indigenous engagements with living in climate, genocide, and (language) extinction catastrophe. Eco Soma will read differently to people who use somatic exercise to ground themselves, or to people whose ancestors used trance methods to engage with land, lineage, or spirits. A reading for people’s survivance needs to be supplemented with recognition of an Indigenous right to land management that does not relent and does not see an industrial degraded land as dead, done, and gone. Embodied theorizing, like embodied art practice, stands in relation to the beach, to the trees and logs, and to the roar of the jet in the sky. How the weight of globalization rests on the land—the effect of the lines of traffic across the globe to get to Venice and other nodes like it—these are the connecting lines in Belmore’s Fountain that come into focus for me when I follow Vizenor and Wilson, and when, with Anishinaabe researcher Kathleen Absolon (Minogiizhigokwe), I am aware of the relational nature of our knowledge gathering:
Having conversations meant travelling over the land to meet people in spaces that we both agreed upon. Searching for Indigenous scholars to converse with led to the bluest of blue blueberry patches. (Absolon 2011, 33)
For everybody who wants to enjoy blueberries with others, it’s good to pay attention to many different perspectives and privilege voices in ethical relationships with what settler English calls “resources.” I/you/we must pay attention to the effects of extraction economies on the lands that host our meetings and consciously engage in ongoing, relational, and convivial ways of being.
This brings me back to the drumming discussion, of hearts and Noodin’s description of life energy. Diana Taylor’s heart/memory alliance echoes across Indigenous/First Nations art traditions and Western contemporary art contexts, as this review of Belmore’s piece makes clear:
Fountain deals with elementals of essences: fire + water = blood. The time is both now, in the industrialized landscapes of North America, and in another zone, a time of creation, myth and prophecy. . . . Water turns to blood. As befits our times we do not know whether this is a metaphor for creation or an apocalyptic vision. (Bailey and Watson 2005, 11)
In this review, undecidability becomes a motor: this is not a write-up of a shockingly horrific blood drenching, the kind of image complex around women’s blood that one might traditionally associate with White settler–style aesthetics. Undecided between creation and apocalypse, I could see other avenues, including ways of thinking that do not see the apocalypse as the end. In the first collection of Indigenous science fiction, editor Grace L. Dillon reads into the postapocalyptic:
All forms of Indigenous futurisms are narratives of biskaabiiyang, an Anishinaabemowin word connoting the process of “returning to ourselves,” which involves how personally one is affected by colonialization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact, and recovering ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world. (2012, 10)
There is an opening here, in these undecidabilities, in these agencyful actions by an Anishinaabe kwe in the water, and I choose to read it in terms of relations, connections, and reciprocal impact. As art practice, the emotional and tonal valency of installations like Fountain is open—otherwise, it would be an illustration, a tableau, a teaching. Instead, the piece retains mystery and depth as an Ojibwe story and rejects flat interpretation in the ongoing flow of the watery screen. In that undecidability, half-disclosed Ojibwe images and half-remembered (for Western reviewers) Old World narratives of alchemy can intertwine and shape forms of thinking about the future, adapting to change while grounded in respective ancestral traditions of land honoring.
I am intrigued by the differences and continuities between cultural archives of trauma and life. And I am also intrigued by how few references focus their particular discussion of Fountain on the actual substrate of the representations they analyze: the watery screen.
Water carrying, in Ojibwe cultural contexts, is often represented as a position of honor for women, and caring for the water as part of women’s work.18 In writing this, it is also important to note that in many Indigenous practices, Western limits around who might take a position as “woman” do not necessarily apply—gender fluidity and an openness beyond binary gender are part of much contemporary activism aimed at revitalizing traditions that preceded colonial missionary influence.19 In 2011 and 2013 Indigenous women led by Ojibwe elder Sharon Day carried a copper-lined pail of water all the way down the Mississippi (the Michi-ziibing).20 This practice started in 2002, initiated by Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe woman from Manitoulin Island, often referred to as nokomis, or “grandmother.” The Water Walkers write about their path in the following way:
The Water Walkers will draw attention to the peril the river faces due to pollution. The Mississippi River is the second most polluted river in the United States. Toxic chemicals from municipalities, farms and corporations are taking their toll on the river. By the time a drop of water reaches the “dead zones” near the mouth of the river, the water is nearly depleted of oxygen. We can stop this and the walkers intend to educate people along the way as to what they can do.
“We want the walk to be a prayer,” Day says. “Every step we take we will be praying for and thinking of the water. The water has given us life and now, we will support the water.” (from Facebook site description)
Memory at the site of water is an important theme in Fountain. The installation, on a falling sheet of water, has strong site-specific reverberations in Venice, a city struggling with its watery nature, pollution, drought, management, and vitality. In its watery, slippery substrate can be found the “foreignness” of a Canadian landscape and the strangeness of a Turtle Island artist who engages effectively with the (to Turtle Island/U.S./Canadian eyes, “foreignness” of) Venetian concerns. There is a meeting there, a meeting that highlights attunement to environmental issues as potential Indigenous values at the home site of a major colonial power, the old island state of Venice, a nation that fell from the height of its maritime power after protracted battles with the Ottoman Empire and the devastation of the Black Death. That is a lot going on and a lot for a sentence to carry: deep histories, all with multiple layers. Eco soma methods help me to feel echoes of all that, grounded in my own location, and also feel that I can’t know more than glimpses of some of these stories. I am improvising in the in-between.
A reviewer quoted on Belmore’s website writes:
Belmore seeks to shatter long-held myths embedded in our common history in order that her Fountain can become a symbolic oasis in the arid environment of colonial relations. Great fountains help to memorialize people and places, and memory is important to Belmore. (Martin 2005)
I am taking my cue from this review and its use of the word “oasis” to speak to a piece that is profoundly unsettling—where, as Belmore herself puts it, “In the video, the artist and the viewer stand on either side of a sheet of blood, and we see each other through it.” There is something grounding about the long shot of the water, sky, and ocean closely aligned, the horizontal line shimmering, shimmering on the water running in Venice, which is a city of water. The woman, dressed in somber dark tones, looks away from the viewer: she is a dark shape in the ever-moving small waves of the bay, light and shadow in liquid flow.
Later, the bucket empties towards the camera, swung by a woman’s muscular arm. Liquid washes toward the viewer in a great dark assault, roiling out of the round cavern like a living beast.
Pause, reader. Reread the last sentence. Track its discursive field. In this sentence, I clasped together “beast,” “dark assault,” and “woman.” This colonial image combination showed up unconsciously in my imagination. It wasn’t me who found this image combination in my sentence, it was a friend, a woman of color, friend enough to point it out to me. There is no woke purity, no short-circuiting of historical baggage, no erasure of my own background. Eco soma methods here mean listening, reading, collaborating, and redoing. In my eco soma investigation, I continue to hold myself accountable for my imagination, and I try to listen to all the associations . . . and so I leave this first sentence, and its learning curve, in this text. Here is a second sentence:
Liquid washes toward the viewer in a great living wave, an Indigenous woman’s power ushering it toward us.
The public archive of feeling surrounding historical and ongoing colonial assault—shame, accusation, despair and, for people predominately identifying as settlers, guilt and a different repertoire of shame—tenses and coils with the elemental power of place evocation, with the power of muscles and flow.
Margot Francis reads Fountain’s power through this archive of affect: she traces anthropologist Michael Taussig’s “public secret” of colonialism through the negative effect of defacement (1999), and she sees Belmore as “disfigured by the performance” (Francis 2012, 165). Remembering Vizenor’s play with ethnographic languages and survivance stories, and the tracing through hearts and energy, through postapocalypse life, I look for strength there, an anchoring in labor and water. The transformation of water into blood into red water into light on water seems too multivalent to be read wholly as defacement and abjection.
To me, the connection between Native Women Language Keepers and Fountain—one a week-long performance encounter, the other a high-art object at the Venice Biennial, site-specific and site dislocating—is the engagement with archives and places, with practices held in suspension like the blood in the bucket, striking us with their kinetic force when released in a complex shared public space. Emotions, both positive and stressful, release. Waters stream together, convivial, evoking different sources of aliveness. The two art practices productively upset stereotypes of where Indigenous people are supposed to reside and how European-derived settlers should think about their relation to occupying land. These complexly woven pieces enact a braiding of civics that can acknowledge flow, time, protocol, recovery, ways of engaging the apocalypse, and the fact that not all is known about the other.
Relations and Ghost Nets
Reciprocal change affecting land and water and our thoughts about this: this is a theme in another project of affective citizenship, an artwork created as part of the Ghost Nets Australia project. This one takes place in very different terrain, far away from the settler metropolis. Like Venice, this terrain is also linked with extraction economies as part of global flows, and these linkages with extraction—in this case, fishing practices—are exactly what sets these art practices in motion. I am taking you now via videos and photos to Aurukun, Far North Queensland; Mornington Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria; and Moa Island, one of the Torres Strait Islands.
I am interested in exploring further how different citizenship issues inform each other through aesthetics that come from different places. As a structure to think through, I am pointing toward “social flesh,” a particular formulation of cross-sensory mutuality I take from Christine Beasley and Carol Bacchi, researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia, a rich site for eco soma methods. They write against a place in which social policy assumes a neat division between bodies to be acted upon and bodies that act. And they position a
fleshly, social intersubjectivity as a new grounding for considering the meaning of citizen. We coin the term “social flesh” to capture a vision of interacting, material, embodied subjects. (2012, 330)
Theoretical “coining,” with all its economic undertones, makes me think back to Hortense Spillers’s theorization of flesh as a term that foregrounds violence against captured Black bodies, and the struggle against erasure (1987).
In keeping with my book’s politics of mingling discourses, this somatic, an embodied relation and fleshly intertwining within dis/avowed power relations, is at the heart of Aboriginal Australian conceptions of “caring for country.” Here is U.S.-born Australian-based anthropologist Deborah Rose’s much-cited definition of country:
Country is multi-dimensional—it consists of people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soils, minerals and waters, air . . . People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. (1996, 7)
A somatic relationship to land. Stay with me as I digress to talk about love, and land love, which are central themes in Western eco-poetic/eco-arts thought. There are complexities when evoking caring for country in a settler environment. In her discussion of “love” as a constituent feature of the multicultural nation-state, Sara Ahmed speaks about the stickiness of love and about the investment in the act of loving as a foundational commonality:
Love becomes crucial to the promise of cohesion within multiculturalism; it becomes the “shared characteristic” required to keep the nation together. . . . It is “love” that the multicultural nation idealises as its object: it loves love. (2003)
This formulation gains interesting traction when thought of alongside the “caring for country” Aboriginal framework of belonging. Affect offers a grounding for solidarity and community in the absence of identification (given the diversity of the state). Can nationhood also mean an investment of non-Aboriginal subjects in the care for country, entering into nonpersonal and reciprocal communion with one’s place of settlement, as a responsibility rather than a feeling? To parse, with respect, the different kinds of emotional investments into what settler philosophies might call the abstraction “love” but might not be felt as abstraction in an Indigenous framework: this is the labor required of intercultural labors of love within cultural studies.
White settlers tend to find the abstract idea of the “caring for country” part of Aboriginal life easy to get along with. Displaying love and caretaking are indeed familiar emotional complexes, if differently expressed, in settler thought. The caretaking might preclude extraction management of land (and flesh/bodies), and that creates tension with the acquisitive frame of settler national management and extraction economies. But somehow, “caring for country” feels right to many settlers. So right, in fact, that overidentification is often part of community arts frameworks: “going native” but only in a highly circumscribed and safe frame.
From Aboriginal perspectives, settlers’ abstraction of love for country (i.e., disrespect for the land itself while speaking to an abstract entity called “country”) often provides a space for ironically raised eyebrows and acts as a significant barrier to communication.
Levels of abstraction and framings of love are some of the issues at work in cross-cultural dialogues.21 Agreeing on what terms might mean is a significant part of coming into actual dialogue to ensure cohabitation in recognition.
But let’s get into material practice for a bit. Come and go braiding with me. One of the precious shimmery DVDs I received from Settler/Aboriginal community cultural development practices in Australia includes material from the Ghost Net project, which centers on traditional basketry skills. In the material I will introduce now, these traditional skills intermingle visually with White settler imagery on the northern Australian coast and the adjacent Torres Strait Islands.
Below is an image from the Ghost Net Art Project website, part of the visual evidence of the success of the project. This creature hangs above the Cairns exhibition space and above a young person in clothes and gear that echoes the mermaid’s colors—probably made of similar indestructible plastics. The mermaid is made of ghost nets found in the Aurukun community. Ghost nets are nondegradable fishing lines left to drift in the sea where they entangle sea creatures and pollute the fragile liminal space of the beach in many oceanic communities.
Is this mermaid an Aboriginal or a European form? She is very different from the sculptural baskets or other work I associate with displays of craft from communities in this region. What do you see? How would you describe this image? I am trying to find ways to loosen my method from a close textual analysis bound to my own Euro-/Anglocentric imagination, to reach yet again from my skin sack toward others.
I offered this image to a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous performance scholars at the In the Balance: Indigeneity, Globalization and Performance conference (London, October 2013). Instead of giving a paper representation of an authoritative view of the Ghost Net Art Project, I asked the conference attendees to describe the image I projected in one sentence, and we went around the crowded room. This method emerges from disability culture, my own cultural source, where audio description allows multisensory access to visual forms. It also emerges from my eco soma research: situated knowledges, living, breathing, and open to the imagination. What surfaced at the conference was a multivocal reception with many different ideas, ranging from Indigenous mermaids to tourist attractions. I did not record the conversation: it was its own performance, a secondary witnessing that spoke as much to the image as to who was in the room and their sense of what it meant to discuss Indigenous performance practices in London, England.
The image of the shark emerged in tandem with the mermaid comments in that London room: sharks, a common find in abandoned nets, turn and turn until their oxygen runs out. The fin, so dangerous in some contexts, is here a reminder of fragility, endangerment, and the fact that shark fins are a worldwide delicacy. “Finning” is the practice of cutting off the fins of sharks in which the de-finned, mutilated sharks are thrown back overboard to sink to the sea floor and die. Social flesh—think of nets cutting into human and nonhuman skins, trees growing around embedded objects, whales with hooks stuck in their skin. As I spin these stories, in eco soma fashion, I touch life/death, pain, and joy.
The shark, the Western ideal woman figure, the fragile liminal figure of the mermaid: many images collide in this multicolored reclamation. This is the remedial side of economic overfishing and ecological devastation: a multiagency, multisited project to find something “useful” to do with the detritus that strangles Native lands. Whose wounds are healed here?
In the Torres Strait Islander context, Aboriginal people are not curiosities. But to the international art tourist, the connections press on me: Indigenous people and fake mermaids have shared space in freakshow exhibits in the past. The Indigenous/mermaid has often been cast as the illusive other, with its titillating offer of free sexuality and its dangerous draw into the depths (of the jungle or the sea). My personal sense of social flesh here is one of different women’s positionalities in modernity, of animal and human skins cut for profit, food, and (in some Aboriginal contexts) for claiming someone as human.
The dangerous and deadly material threatening the island’s ecotope is reshaped by human intervention into something (some)one can live with. Imagine the trash gyre in the Pacific Ocean and remember the fascination it holds for many artists and thinkers. Edgar Allan Poe’s swirling abyss mingles with denatured colorful plastic bits, a cleanish watered mélange of color and material that was long associated with wealth and social abundance. Despite its proven deadliness to fish and other marine life, there is also something oddly attractive about the swirling plastic color. Think about the glass-pebble beaches all over California that are now endangered tourist haunts. Trash becomes treasure. Debris, as long as it is inorganic and “clean,” can become revalued, rewoven, and endlessly integrated into human-to-human exchange, like the stories of cargo cults and cola bottles falling from the sky.
There is a story of resilience here but also potentially a cautionary one of redirected energy—from land claims and fishing rights, treaties on water use—toward calming measures of domestication and accommodation. As Goenpul researcher Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes, “Beaches remain important places within Indigenous coastal peoples’ territories, although the silence about our ownership is deafening” (2011, 57). Let me not get too comfortable on someone else’s trash-strewn beach.
The backbone of the Ghost Net Art Project is to create financial support for Islander communities—to contribute to health by creating new income streams and saleable items to feed into tourist economies. Its dominant feature is not artmaking or community creation: it is economic development on the terms of settler society’s success. Sue Ryan, the cultural development worker who initiated the project, states that
in 2008 I was asked to do a scoping study to establish if there may be interest in communities to use ghost net material in creative ways. The idea of the scoping study was to see if it was viable for people to create craft, art or functional items from net which could be sold to help artists and communities financially. It was also hoped that this would create interest from the communities to gather the nets themselves to help reduce the number of ghost nets, thus cleaning up the coastline and creating sustainable small business enterprises in remote communities. (2010)
Mixed art, mixed use, mixed culture: all embody the creative principle at work in these artful expressions of strength and community arts, of caring for country, and of fitting in, all skirting the knife edges of neoliberalism.22
Sharks and Patience
I have been following the multiple media outputs of the Ghost Net Art Project for a few years now. It is a big project, with multiple funders and outputs, lots of artworks in exhibits, videos, songs, and performances.23 In my last collaborative art discussion, I focus on a part of the project that utilizes narrative, sound, and performance to inch closer to an enmeshment of the social flesh and to a sense of reciprocally changed narratives of different communities’ values and metaphors.24 Again, I encourage you to view it—and to see my discussion of it not as some kind of masterful reading of what is there to excavate or catalogue but as a conversation, an ecosomatically grounded, felt, and moved engagement that understands the real distance between me here at the screen and the reality there, on the island, within multiple layers of distance, mis/reading, and distant touch.
A 2010 community performance work on the island of Moa, part of the Torres Strait Islands archipelago, involved sixty-five musicians, singers, and puppeteers of all ages, sharing stories about one of the Torres Strait Islands, the nets left by trawlers (mainly from Southeast Asia), and settler-dominated environmental and community cultural development directives from Australia. It is an affecting story about a resourceful young man from the island community of Moa. He’s out fishing, finding a ghost net, returning the next day to gather it, saving a shark, acting responsibly toward his island ecology, and gifting the net as useful material to his father and uncles.
This story highlights the networks and engagements that subtend the island community and toward which the young man displays strong civic values of responsibility and respect. It is definitely a teachable story—but according to whose conventions?
The art forms used to tell that story are hybrid: shadow puppetry as a form is mainly associated with Southeast Asian forms, part of the neighboring cultures, and the basket weaving that is another part of the project has strong Indigenous roots but also recognition value in White settler societies, with their weavers guilds.
If the Belmore installation pushes against European-framed thoughts on blood and horror toward something more lifegiving, the story of the shark here has similar multiple meanings, echoing differently, it seems, in different communities. The island story shifts around these story nets surrounding sharks and asks its viewers, both in the village and in cyberspace, to step up to our responsibilities as readers, critics, and consumers.
The visuals accompanying the puppetry show also speak to this different value system: a papier-mâché shark draped in netting parades around the dark common grounds and is held up by participants.
This is an honored presence, a power of the sea, not (just) a creature to be feared. The village of St. Pauls celebrates the project, and there is no sense of “primitive villagers”: the kids parading past wave lustily at the camera and at us, the viewers, clearly aware of what is going on. Electric lights provide the illumination for the shadow show. Fishing boats have outboard motors. No one needs saving, but they save themselves and the lives of creatures they are involved with. Or maybe that is the story the video puts into global circulation.
Whatever the narrative, this is a performance in touch with the local world, responsive to place, woven into a social flesh: an eco soma that is both local and global. The boy who narrates the video makes clear that the performance’s hero knows that the trawler that abandoned its net in the storm is engaged in “catching fish to sell in cities in other countries.” The ghost nets are objects of circulation caught in the slipstream of global market traffic—and I can weave these ghosts right back into Aimee Bahng’s work on financial speculation and on hauntings that clog the spokes of rapacious progress and unsettle its totalizing narratives.
In the network of this chapter, the ghost nets work as connecting machines, undoing senses of separation between the Aboriginal and the settler, the local and the global, the consumer, and everybody suffering under an extraction-based economy. This “undoing” is uneven: it is unclear how “the Aboriginal” (as a category) gains from the extractive and circulatory logic of the market, with its trash production, surpluses, and assorted detritus. Weighed down by all kinds of nets, how much do people value this particular invitation to “clean up” detritus that is not of their making and that circulates in tourist galleries outside their immediate life worlds?
From watching the video, it is evident that a celebration could be gained here, a site of positive pooling energy, the circle around the fire, and a role model for young members of the island community who might otherwise leave home in these neoliberal settler-dominated times.
Or maybe what is gained is just a cup of tea, the somatics of sitting together: sipping, partaking, creating.
Let’s think about some more images from far away/close by, reflecting on where we sit. In Creative Livelihoods (Arts in Health Initiative 2011), a video created at a different Ghost Nets site (Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, part of Queensland), an Indigenous elder makes clear her perspective on what is gained by participating.25 She speaks about the value of the older women coming together, telling stories, and sitting with youngsters who are acquiring the language. To her, the language is of the utmost importance, and the environmental narrative is dealt with in terms of family issues: one of her sons is a warden who dredges the ghost nets away from the beaches. He gets paid to do so, having a secure job in this particular economical net.
There is no overt sentiment about the turtles or sharks caught in the nets but rather a strong sense of continuity in the engagement with young people—in some ways, the stitching of the baskets seems incidental (and one of the young men interviewed for this video even has to ask his friend what they are doing—“weaving baskets”—ah, yes).
Romanticism about handicraft and traditional skills needs to balance itself carefully: these are relatively quick projects (in the Creative Livelihood project video, some of the Aboriginal women speak about coming to this particular island for two weekends) that “teach them” caretaking, hopefully in tune with traditional values. But getting fed, hanging out, and finding company might be more immediate goals than mythical storifying or providing narrative closure for settler programs that measure outcomes.
Immediate and long-range goals and how to attain these might have different lengths of patience and persistence in Islander and settler thinking about time, as Torres Strait Islander academic Martin Nakata makes clear in his review of Frances Calvert’s Cracks in the Masks, a 1997 film about Torres Strait Islanders reclaiming objects lodged in settler museums:
Torres Strait Islanders are used to long and patient negotiations with others, and this film is part of a process that will go on until these objects are returned to the home of those who made them. The collective dignity of Torres Strait Islanders is expressed by Bani in the closing scene of the film. When at the British Museum of Mankind he touches an object of his ancestors and is reminded “please don’t touch,” he raises his hand and says “Sorry, sorry.” But this politeness belies the tenacity and patience of Islanders when they feel and know what is just and fair. (2001, 611)
Nakata’s example reminds me that I cannot assume that I know what is going on when I look at the filmic representations of the interactions between non-Indigenous and Aboriginal collaborators, as there might be very different ways of expressing satisfaction, annoyance, or disagreement.
The point here is not to (only) point to governmental paternalism or Indigenous resistance but to look at the works that emerge from these Ghost Net events and find traces of multivoicing. When I try to see different perspectives at the same time, taking time to sort through my felt sensations, I notice at least five anchor points: (1) settler fantasies and assuaging of guilt together with (2) material presence of Indigenous weaving, (3) instances of survivance in language preservation, (4) intergenerational contact, and (5) water/land reclamation. Remember the opening of this essay? Here, the video speaks with more than one voice, each being multivocal, offering convivial styles of encounter and comingling. In this multiplicity, I see an acknowledgment of self-determination in complexity.
Local engagement with the detritus of fishing for international sushi lunches might hold agential activity. “Caring for country,” then, operates as an oppositional act. That act, in turn, can be fed back into the machines of settler bureaucracy, “doing good” by providing creative outlets for economic activity (i.e., assimilating Aboriginality toward settler economies and objet d’art for a consumer market). But the circle continues: these activities can themselves, in turn, become important goals for the community elders who try to move toward microbusinesses.
In the context of kinship ties with water country, any collaboration of political value here emerges from the relational forces that work on the actants in this giant web of connections: humans and nonhumans, animated and (Western-style) inanimate, economic, and environmental circulations at local and global levels. Artful collaboration around caring for country needs to take into account the specifics of weaving but also the land and sea country management systems that have been in place for thousands of years. All systems are interconnected. Only a systemic view of integrating settler communities into much older management relations seems likely to win approval and buy-in. An Arnhem man submitted this statement in connection with another water management issue and, although unrelated to the Ghost Nets Art Project, its humor makes it stand well as the last word on this particular collaborative venture with its partial willingnesses:
Our management arrangements for the sea are at least as complex as yours; but at least most adult Yolngu understand how their own system works. And our system has worked for us for thousands of years. We think this is due to our relationship to the sea. In our law Manbuynga and Rulyapa, we are all related as kin to the sea. We thus use the sea and have access in accordance with our law which derives from these kinship ties (Manbuynga and Rulyapa are two main currents in the sea). (Ginytjirrang Mala 1994, quoted in Rose 1996, 13)
Multiple locations and projects distributed on global nets. Liminal sites on the edges of water, rivers and seas, projected through internet oceans. Given the specifics of these sites, my convivial eco soma style of openings looks to waves rather than rocks and to movement rather than certainty. With this, I am echoing Birripi descendant and theater teacher Lisa-Mare Syron, who writes about cross-cultural performance in Australian Aboriginal/settler contexts: “It is necessary to dissolve oppositional locations of engagement to allow for the possibility of multiple sites of contact that shift between experiences, in an approach that is in a constant process of motion and illumination” (2008, 81).
This chapter did not engage with cross-cultural performance meanings “on the ground,” for instance, in the Ghost Net workshops themselves. I did not share what happened in our week in the Native Women Language Keepers workshops. I also could not speak to what on-site audiences took away from the Venice actions. Instead of covering over what I do not know or do not feel I have permission to share, I am using the medium of video to keep difference in play. But I trust that I made some waves here, moved things about, showed how internationalized traces of these local actions refigure agency within the settler/Indigenous continuum. These works all try to live artfully in the post-apocalypse, in collaboration and in connection with Aboriginal self-determination claims. These art projects allow for the presence of voices in recognition as voices, even if the content is shrouded in artful behavior, with different bits hidden for different audiences.
My strategy does not require “the Indigenous” to become recognizable as a figure of death or to display her wounds for trauma-addicted others. Instead, I am pointing here to embodied reading strategies for collaborative projects that require response-ability,26 a shared sonorous and circulatory moment of relational living in the flow of history. This vision of history can unsettle the current moment, and allow all of us to understand current settler/Indigenous relations as just one point in time.
Recognition is complicated: the histories of who does what to what kind of knowledge make it hard to see these collaborations as occurring on an equal playing field, open to similar mechanisms of decoding. The different rhythms interact in different beat patterns. In the moments of eco soma expansions I tracked in this chapter, I was interested in moments of decentering, in the silences between the drumbeats, in unsettled readings of relation. Here is what I continue to learn in the collaborations I track and engage in, and which I hope to nourish as they nourish me in turn: there is animation and motion on the edges of water and land.