Interview with Michelle Wilson
Interview conducted by Kevin Andrew Heslop, transcribed by Aidan Clark,
and read by Damon Muma & Kristin Bennett
To communicate the density of interrelationality in the world, how fundamentally interdependent the All of Us is, your art involves a wide variety of mediums, some of which are themselves instances of interrelational density, like textile art, for instance; and I think about how Buddhism suggests that all reality is a single unified whole and how Hinduism suggests that reality is so densely interconnected that it might as well be.
You write of your MFA thesis: In Anima, I challenge the ‘truism’ of the distinct boundary between species, specifically between human-animals and non-human animals. An empathetic exchange with figures in this body of work makes apparent our fraught position in their world.
And given that fundamental interconnectivity, it is with great respect that I invoke Remnants, Outlaws, and Wallows: Practices for Understanding Bison, exhibited at MacIntosh Gallery from August 5th through to September 11th, 2021; Sowing Clay, with workshops taking place with the support of the Embassy Cultural House from October 20th to November 6th (and ongoing for the next three years); and your participation in the Gardenship and State exhibition at Museum London from October 7th of 2021 to January 23rd of 2022.
And I wonder whether we might begin with a few words about the centrality of interrelational density and how it informs the multi-media, “enmeshed tendrils” of your work’s material conception.
Hmm. I think the complexity of the relationships that go into producing a medium that then gets taken up representationally in an artwork is so productive and valuable in the way that it illustrates that we can never stand from an innocent place or from a place of pure moral authority.
This conversation’s being recorded on an iPhone.
You know what I mean? For instance, Modernists looked at painting as being about painterliness, about paint—but they always stopped short of saying, So then the work is actually about minerals and extractive processes and the communities around them. I have no truck with Modernists, but I do take that up as a challenge.
Painterliness is contingent on extractive mining processes.
Yeah. There’s a really great—this is an aside, but—there was an episode of Radiolab that was about colour; and they told this story about gamboge, this sap derived from a tree in Cambodia. That sap creates the pigment of saffron-coloured robes—it’s associated with a holiness; it’s a sacred colour—but we also use it in contemporary painting and there was this period in the nineties when the sap was taken from trees which encircled a clearing obviously used as a killing field because when they unpacked that sap after it had gone through all these global exchanges, bullets fell out.
Wow …. And so I think about avoiding an aesthetic contingent on extractive or violent processes and instead using recycled and regenerative materials, which seems to be central to your practice today; and I wonder whether you could trace your evolution through a variety of mediums, beginning, if I’m not mistaken, with photography and moving towards the mediums in which you’re creating work now.
Yeah. It is funny, this drive to be light-footed but also the drive to acknowledge your complicity when that fails, or when the use of a problematic material is essential to the meaning.
Bone-black ink seems to want to come up here.
Yeah, for sure. So, in my life I practice veganism and that has really become complicated over the years because of the simplistic worldview of, If I just make these choices then I can be comfortable with myself in a place of moral righteousness; and how actually, often, veganism is this perception of separation, of, If we just leave the non-human alone and don’t act in sticky, uncomfortable ways, then the world will be better off. And that is a specific, very Western, very anthropocentric worldview in some ways.
And meeting hunters and meeting ranchers—while it doesn’t make me comfortable eating meat—has definitely complicated things. So, those things were all in my mind when I came into my Ph.D: I was saying to myself, I don’t think that I can use animal bodies in my work; and my supervisor was like, Will that work be interesting if it’s always, first and foremost, seeking to be coming from a place of innocence? And that was such a good challenge, and I wonder if that comment—I should ask him—meant anything to him at the time: could he have envisioned what a huge impact it would have on how I perceived things and how I make work and just opened things up? And so I often avoid using traditional photographic processes because of the use of gelatin in them; but if I do use photography, it will specifically be referencing its materiality and its costs—and in a way, bone-black ink, ink made from fired and ground bison bones is the most explicit way of doing that. I made a white version of this ink to create the piece “bone rick” in the McIntosh exhibition.
So, as one wouldn’t want to disrespectfully waste any component part of a bison, there’s an affinity between your sense of respect for the integrity of the animal and your using its bones to communicate its story; and it’s on this point that I wanted to bring in how the digital tour of Remnants, Outlaws, and Wallows involved a recording of your artist’s statement interwoven with the intermittent snorting and huffing and grunting language of the bison as if to suggest you were speaking, if not on behalf of, then with the bison to discuss their governmentally planned obsolescence, a tactic—or, war crime, actually—to force Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island to cede ancestral homelands and accept reserves.
And as I imagine that this conversation will function as an extension of your work to educate uninvited guests of settler descent about the bison, I wonder whether you’d say a few words to give us the contours of the story.
I think the need to tell this story started with Parks Canada’s mandate being communicated to me as an inheritance to all Canadians for their enjoyment. I mean, that is bullet point one of the mission statement for Parks Canada and always has been; but then they do this dual job of conservation—and if that’s my inheritance, what am I going to do with that?
I think that was probably where the impetus for this started. So, I had this experience with bison in the field, at Riding Mountain [National Park]--
Yeah—2016, 2017—and then my research became almost a tracing backwards: how did this come to be my inheritance? In Canada, it’s really complicated: you have the expansion of the fur trade as it moved West, largely in the northern regions; food stuffs were less readily available for year-round trading posts; you have an increase in population along those trade routes; and so then, in the southern parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, there is a huge market for harvesting bison meat to then support this industry in the north that’s extracting beaver pelts for sale to Europe.
The government absolutely sees what is happening and does little-to-nothing to stop it. And you could say that by supporting the Hudson’s Bay Company, the government actively encourages that mass slaughter of bison for pemmican: you take bison meat, put it in a bison stomach, mix it with their own fat, and add berries and different herbs. And it’s sent north, a food staple for a certain amount of time.
And the Métis were exceptionally successful at this. And then in the United States—and this is the funny thing about national borders: they are meaningless to bison—you have explicit slaughter for the hide and robe market that’s encouraged by the military, policing Indigenous spaces that are supposed to be protected under treaties; and then those treaties are violated. And on top of this we see there, through anecdotal evidence, an absolute intention by military forces, in an act of war, to cut off supplies to their perceived enemy.
And how that fed into their aggression against Indigenous people and their forceful relocation to other lands. And at that point, they [the military commanders] had become smart enough not to put these orders on paper, but there are plenty of eyewitness reports of those things being explicitly stated, learning the lessons of the Civil War and applying those in the war against Indigenous Nations. So, it’s the same guys, the same military leaders.
Then, you have a species at the brink of extinction and Indigenous communities largely separated from their land and their relationship to those bison; and it's only then that these efforts towards saving this species come in. Often it takes the technique of slaughtering bison cows and taking their orphaned calves and forcefully adopting them onto domestic cattle and growing populations that way.
There was one person, Charles ‘Buffalo’ Jones—he was in Kansas at the time, and he wasn’t satisfied with that: he needed to have control over all the southern bison that were left; and he attempted to take fully-grown cows and that resulted in death for every single one of them—long and excruciating death. When you try to capture and control an adult wild animal they suffer a condition called capture myopathy, basically the extreme stress destroys the body from the inside out. And eventually, most of the captured plains bison end up in Canada’s control through the Parks system, which is how we are implicated in all of those things and how the bison becomes the icon of the RCMP, the icon of Parks Canada, the icon of Westward Rail expansion.
The EPA, too, I think.
Is that theirs?
It’s not their icon, which is a two-leaved flower, but I found that one of the former co-directors of the national museum dedicated to Buffalo Bill—who was, apparently, Buffalo Jones’ buddy—had said that the resurgence of the bison population was “one of the first real triumphs” of the EPA.
Yeah, they are trotted out all the time. And that image of the pile of bones is trotted out all the time when we’re talking about mass species extinction; and everyone says, Oh, isn’t that terrible, and then it ends there. The stories that I’m trying to tell try to hold those complicated truths, both of them, at the same time.
Speaking of stories, something [your Gardenship collaborator] Síle Englert mentioned that you do well is to convert facts and statistics into lived reality; and she offered a statement that I’d like to bring in here: “I’m thinking about the concept of the artist as an archeologist and wonder what Michelle might have to say about that. How working in multiple disciplines on a single project (research, writing, sound, visual art) forms a layered whole, metaphorically like layered rock, where each section holds an incomplete part of history.”
“Michelle’s bison stories and her artwork evoke that kind of experience for me. Also, the idea of digging and sifting through layers of historical accounts, articles and statistics, and putting these pieces together to form a three-dimensional story.
“As when the skeleton of some long extinct animal is found in pieces in the rock, it exists only as pieces, bones and measurements. It has to be put together, analyzed and interpreted before you understand what it was and how it lived. It often requires an artist’s interpretation and imagination before we can even see what it might have looked like. Michelle has one story in particular we worked on, where she talked about the difficulties of trying to understand something like the history of the bison only as a series of numbers and statistics.
Although the numbers are important and they’re horrifying, they’re abstract—just a measurement. There’s no real understanding without considering all the layers.”
Mhmm. And there have been interesting creative acts even within paleontology through speculative paleontology: practitioners ask, What if you try and forget all the representations that came before because they are themselves so speculative? You forget that because these speculations become so cemented in our perception. And I think that to do this circling, funneling down into the specificity of real lives, it takes an artist, because a bunch of that is purely speculative—but when it is responsible, it is because the funneling comes out of a place of deep research and observation.
Yeah, and empathy. And I know that as far as subjectivity, being a mother impacts so much of my reading of those stories and how I translate them. And, I mean, as much as there are moments of just deep frustration and anger and just the depression that comes with this research, there’s a lot of excitement and adrenaline that comes when you do find that node or footnote that gives you access.
You’ve mentioned how you see footnotes as a kind of puncture which allow for a-linearity in texts otherwise conceived as linear and coherent narratives; and I wonder how you think about a-linearity and its importance to your work.
I think this goes back to your first statement about the enmeshed reality that we carry within us at any given moment—all our interconnected pasts and all our interconnected futures and potentials. Something I’ve been thinking about with the bison is that the way we tell the stories implies their disappearance was inevitable—that the only way to save them was the way we enacted—and it closes all the potentials of different ways of knowing and how those could have manifested in different recoveries. Any other potential future is foreclosed because of the actions we took but that doesn’t mean the actions we took were the only potential.
So, I’m trying to enact those things in the structures that I use. I also look at the stories that I’m referencing—they’re often repeated in so-called academic texts that were peer-reviewed, that have footnotes and Works Cited—and how they were still able to reproduce all this abhorrent and false knowledge.
So, part of it is a refusal of the way that you’re supposed to use footnotes. To interject subjectivity.
Because if a state of ecological collapse is where the academy’s best thinking has gotten us—all of these accreted precedents and authority--
And siloed knowledges and the throwing out of knowledges that could have helped us potentially do things better. Now, I’m so excited by the inclusion of feminine voices and traditional knowledge in the sciences because the things that they are able to perceive are so different and can radically open things up.
On the topic of femme voices, appreciating that femme voices are not necessarily those of mothers or would-be mothers—
I would say encultured femininity and not biological femininity.
Good distinction. The epigraph of your MFA’s artist’s statement reads: “There is a strong emotional undercurrent to our ideas about animality … to subject these ideas to critical scrutiny is to expose highly sensitive and largely unexplored aspects of the understanding of our own humanity.” This from Tim Ingold’s What is an Animal?
And in your opening paragraph you elaborate on this subject: “Combining photography and sculpture with research in the field of animal studies, I am building a bridge to the animal I am, as a way of understanding the Other within and without. There is a literal animal self, intertwined with what we consider to be our humanity: our conscious, rational language based being. Recognition of this ‘animal’ aspect of our being, regardless of how opaque it may be, could facilitate a redefining of our ethical relationships to animals.”
I wonder whether you might offer a few words about a profound experience of animality, namely motherhood, and how motherhood informs your thinking of animality, your understanding of your own humanity, and your sense of responsibility to work as an artist towards a habitable planet for the next generation. In fifty words or fewer.
Man. I didn’t even—When I wrote those things, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But … I think about empathy and anthropomorphism and our biological bodies a lot—about the act of breastfeeding and milk and the bond that comes out of those chemical processes in the mind and body, and how they undergird this intense relational attachment that some people would try and tell you cheapens it, or lessens it, because it is a physiological response and I just reject that so much, knowing there is this connection between all mammals. Maybe that is why those bison stories speak to me so much because we’re talking about the reason that those men are able to take calves and make them their own is because of the bond of milk, and how that was able to cross species and make that salvation—quote-unquote—possible. I think my experience with my daughter, and as a mother, has crystallized a lot of what I was already thinking.
So, in a moment of nadir in the population, in an effort to encourage the species to regenerate, those who were in charge appealed to the fundamental interconnectivity of mammals.
Mhmm. And I mean, they charged themselves with it.
They charged themselves with it.
For some, from a very real place of concern; and for others, for their own self-aggrandizement. But it’s funny that they were able—The story of Buffalo Jones is interesting in what it exposes about what he wasn’t able to know, because he went out with condensed milk the first time and tried to do that with a bottle, and those calves suffered and died because of it.
Eventually, he did see that having an actual, physical mother there made the difference and mattered. But would he have been able to articulate that or position that as something that was profound? I don’t think so.
So, on this question of profundity, you’d mentioned something like the hormonal response during the process of breastfeeding being dismissed as just a physiological response as opposed to it being viewed as a sacred or profound act. And I’m thinking about how this relates to the materiality of your work and the radically disparate categories that we attempt to silo nature and knowledge into.
Umm. Do you think it’s about having an affective response to a work? And how we are often told that that’s manipulative or that’s cheap and that the truly worthy work is one that appeals to you rationally?
I heard author Marlon James on a podcast recently talking about how that idea of reading for pleasure versus reading critically is a separation that only white people were privileged to have, and that an uncomplicated reading was never afforded to marginalized people for whom so much of literature can provide pleasure, but also violence.
Mm. And then only when it’s accessible and available.
Right. Yeah. But also we are complex beings and we can experience things on levels of pleasure and discomfort. And that’s something that comes out of theorizing ‘Fandom’: it is possible to be deeply attached to and love something that you are also highly critical of. That affective response to the media is what brings you back again and again to have that critical relationship.
Could you expand on that a bit?
Yeah. It’s definitely not possible with all media, but for most of us, we need to be moved by the art in our lives to spend enough time with it to unpack it critically and to give it a reading—some people call it a sacred reading or a deep reading—that reveals things about authorship and about positionality and material culture.
I’m really interested in how those things come out of fandom, and also when we’re challenging other people to think differently about animals, where affect and empathy and anthropomorphizing, when done in very intentional and sophisticated and responsible ways, opens those things up in ways that animal-rights theorists, who were appealing only to rationality, never did. And why their approaches are so unsatisfying.
This speaks to your ability, as Síle said, to empathetically and imaginatively translate statistics into visually astonishing and arresting work that compels intrigue and curiosity about the stories the work tells: there has to be enough honey for the medicine to go down.
I wonder how much tapping into femme practices, in fibreworks especially—how we read them as labours of care that attach relational value—layers on our reading. Because we know that if there was an artist who invested this kind of attention and care, there must be something there.
A human being felt the need to expend hundreds of hours of meticulous labour in order for me to a see thing--
That could’ve been visualized in a digital data representation in two seconds.
Right. So, as an artist, when you’re doing that sort of meticulous, repetitive, but also guided work, what kind of brain state do you feel you inhabit?
Umm. I mean, because it takes so long, there are many, many brain states, and sometimes a material practice allows me to be attentive to others—and that’s I think when it’s best, because the bodily movement stills my mind enough to be open to others; and then sometimes the work that I do feels so heavy that I need like a brain-break. It also helps me be still enough to watch something stupid.
I’m wondering how many hours of television are woven into these images of bison population density.
Yeah. Downton Abbey: it’s just soothing; it’s like a soothing background thing. It’s also a time when I could have music on and have a much more reflective practice and be aware of what the material is doing. And then those are times when often my written work or my theoretical work will occur to me. So, they feed each other. You know what, it’s not often music: it’s often that I have some academic, non-narrative text playing on an audiobook, and it focuses me enough but then my brain wanders, and I’m like, That’s the thing! And then I go write it down.
Merlin Sheldrake had a book about fungi. With that one my mind can one-hundred-percent wander. And then there’s another one called The Company that’s about the Hudson Bay that I was listening to. I was listening to Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree and then I was also listening to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I don’t wander so much with that one, but--
It’s funny that you mention Kimmerer because I was thinking about that title just before you said it. And I’m also thinking about fungal fabrics and mycelia and how--
That’s another material manifestation of deep interconnection and communication and how you synthesize ostensibly disparate parts of your consciousness as an artist, as an academic, as—I don’t know if you think of yourself as an activist, but I feel like real-world awareness is very much at the core of the work.
The second you say activist I’m like, I’m not doing enough.
Well, activists need to take care of themselves too in order to be most effective in their work.
But for all of these ostensibly disparate parts of your identity to be narrated and brought together by mycelia or Braiding Sweetgrass—I just find fascinating the neuroplasticity and porousness of that.
Yeah, yeah. And it’s funny, porousness, stickiness: these are all words that get taken up in feminist new materialisms.
Those theories spoke to me so much; and when that works for me—when the theoretical does something—I need to manifest it either in the way that I write or in the way that I work, because I’m interested in—like you said, making theory three-dimensional, but—taking those ways of knowing up while enacting other stories.
Patrick Mahon said something to me on the weekend after the Gardenship and State panel about how the process of working on this show made him realize that often he thought that his job as an artist, as an academic, was communicating theory, and how much more effective and satisfying the actual indirect route of storytelling is.
Mm. Sure, as opposed to cold sentences that construct an abstract paradigm that maybe has some overlap with the real world.
Yeah, and that just gets fed into an echo-chamber.
So, on the topic of feminism, I must mention, in the interest of the transcript, that you’re wearing a button that says Feminist as Fuck on it.
*laughs* That one’s Jenna Rose’s. Which always feels weird when I go and pick my daughter up from preschool, but.
*laughter* If they’re going to encounter that word, that’s not a bad context in which to encounter it.
Yeah, and I’d be impressed if they could read cursive, so.
*laughs* So, you’d mentioned ‘stickiness’ and ‘porousness’ and I’m wondering, as you think about them regularly, what your associations with these words are.
Hmm. I’m thinking about things that came out of those readings: viscous, stickiness, porousness—how, when relationships rub up against and encounter one another, that’s when they become perceptible.
And I always think about my anxiety and discomfort with the work I’m doing as being really sticky; and how am I going to balance my anxiety about their perception with my drive to do the work because I think it’s what’s right? Because I need to be saying that right now.
Hmm. There’s a Tibetan Buddhist word, shenpa—are you familiar with that?
It’s sort of like ‘sticky’ or ‘hooked’, the itchy or uncomfortable closing-down type of feeling that involuntarily precipitates a need for a familiar habit or pattern.
Earlier, you mentioned the feeling of suspense before people receive the work, and I wonder whether we could frame that in the context of a position I’ve heard put in feminist terms as one’s responsibility not only for the intentions of one’s actions, but also for the consequences of one’s actions.
What do you think about that distinction, about focusing on the responsibility of the consequences of one’s actions rather than intentions?
Mhmm. Yup. All of the things. I wonder if too often we see intention as the agency of a single being, and that separates it from the listening that we’re doing to the others that we’re in community with, so that my intention is not just within myself but, hopefully, I’m hearing what other people are saying and asking of me and bringing that into the world through the choices that I make and my agency in it. But then there’s a deep responsibility for the consequences, and not to just disappear when things go wrong, or to retract, but to own it and move forward. And that’s definitely easier said than done. Because, I don’t know how much space there is for people to learn and make real restitution for their mistakes.
The ways things are right now.
We’re talking about cancel culture.
A little bit.
A little bit.
Some people won’t take the opportunities to hear the people that they’ve hurt and to make meaningful amends.
Totally. I mean, there’s so much ego involved in that: being publicly called out for bad behaviour puts people’s defences way up, I think, such that they’re not going to be able to hear very well, sometimes, when they’re feeling vulnerable and afraid. It’s not an optimal learning environment.
But I think this is a fascinating point that you make about how intention is not the result of one individual agent but is based on having listened to one’s environment (as we’re listening now to the wind blow through the trees) and how that brings forward the question of authorship.
So, this is a two-part question: (1) how do you think of authorship; and (2) I wonder whether you’d reiterate a word from our earlier conversation about how the nature of the work that you’ve done is possible for you to do—although there’s a lot of grief in it—as a result of your not having personally experienced the generational trauma that it articulates. So: authorship and positional authority or access?
Mhmm. I guess it’s very complicated because, for me, in creating—yes, I think this is what you were saying about intention and responsibility, too—in creating, my subjectivity is so important; so in some ways I’m saying, as an author, that my authorship—and taking responsibility for that, and owning it—is absolutely part of making responsible work. But once it goes beyond that, and then it’s in the world, my intention has very little to do with the impact of the reception; and so in that way, how it’s taken up and read in the world is more important than me as the author.
I’m sure that you could say that I mitigate that in ways by layering information into the work I do, by having a visual work and then manipulating didactic panels to talk about processes and labour and relationships—and then, also, the third layer of audio-texts. So, in some ways, I’m not relinquishing authorial control by layering on all of these meanings and all of these intentions; but at the end of the day, how they are taken up and how they are read is really what matters in the broader context of society, as opposed to me, personally.
And then there are some works where I’m trying to take the position of a facilitator, as with the Sowing Clay project: when I’m there in my role, speaking, I’m setting the stage; I’m putting the materials and the conditions in place to make this happen. But then we all have responsibilities as authors, as artists, in those workshops. There was a third part …
About your familial adjacence to the nature of the tragedy.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t experience it or feel it, but that, as you said earlier, you don’t necessarily have family members that were directly affected by the mass murder of bison.
Yeah. We are all implicated in the work, but what I was saying was that I’ve heard it said that settler academics get published and get positions because they are able to do the work because they don’t have to put down the books with shaking hands and tears. And so, in some ways, that calls us out for taking up space in those conversations; but, on the other hand, it calls us to do the work, because we can: we are implicated in it and colonialism is our inheritance. It’s not an Indigenous problem; it’s a colonial problem for which we are all responsible.
And so, the storytelling is so important to my work: the stories that I’m trying to tell are with the bison, are with the more-than-human world; and that comes out of empathy and observation but it’s never speaking to experiences or worldviews of the Indigenous people that are implicated in those stories: it’s much more about calling out the settler actors and settler state-actors.
The only exception is when I trace through the historical record of this story of Samuel Walking Coyote, which is very, very commonly passed around as an origin story for bison on the Flathead Reservation—tracing that back, back, back: where did that story actually come from? And I had a tip from Adrienne Stimson that that was not the right story—he’s done work around Samuel Walking Coyote—and what I actually found was that there is a completely different story that’s told within the Salish and Kootenai tribes by their own historians in their own language and that that’s been recorded: there are audio recordings of that which they have, beautifully, made public. Alternatively, in that tracing-back, you find ‘human interest’ stories written for newspapers and those get cited in academic archives.
And then I also sourced this other project—this is crazy—where—It was the Depression: they had all these white-collar people who are out of jobs; and so as a make-work thing, they were sent out as amateur historians to interview people about Montana history. And so some of them show up on the Flathead Reservation: do they get the true stories shared without relationships of trust or do they only press play and record the stories that fit the narrative they have already been told? But these transcripts are used to support the white version of events.
And it’s not until the eighties that Mose Chouteh, a Salish historian recorded his version, in his language, of the true story. And what that exposes is much more consideration by his ancestors about what it means to domesticate this animal that you have this profound spiritual and cultural relationship with as a way to save them—and how that was not entered into lightly. Under colonial systems, on the other hand, domestication was always seen as a good.
So that is the only place where I include worldviews that are not my own and I take up those stories. But I couldn’t not: I couldn’t not tell the story and I couldn’t give voice to those abhorrent histories again and not centre this story that—luckily, through technology, and through the Cultural Committee of the Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation—had been made public. And so, I tried to do that as responsibly as I could. It doesn’t mean I think that I arrived at the right way, it’s just—Yeah--
Still a little sticky.
It’s still sticky, but it was the only way I could see through at that moment.
So, I think about the phrase ‘human interest stories,’ and I think about the statement from Anima: “An empathetic exchange with the figures in this body of work makes apparent our fraught position in their world.” And you’ve used the phrase ‘the more-than-human world’ and that phrase reminds me of Braiding Sweetgrass: how Robin Wall-Kimmerer situates the human being—not as Aristotle would at the top of a pyramid but rather—as a very vulnerable mammal which can’t even contain its own body heat without help from its ancestors, and who has to be attentive to the kinds of wisdom and knowledge afforded it by observing and listening to those ancestors.
And I think of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s retelling of Anishinaabeg stories through The Gift Is In the Making in which one of the characters notices there’s a squirrel gnawing on the twig of a particular kind of tree and follows suit and thereby discovers this sweet sap, which then gives rise to the possibility of maple syrup, and how this fundamental openness and attentiveness to the possibility of learning from beings that are ancient in comparison to us as a species is a fundamentally different worldview from the one that hieracrchizes all species and then perches at the top of that triangle the human being.
What do you make of this sense of the utterly dependent, oblivious, infantile human being going about their experience here in need of much help and who only benefit from their ability to listen and to learn from others?
Well, our [Western] creation stories are all about domination, right?
And not to be too pan-Indigenous, but a lot of Indigenous stories are about being supported by the beings around you and life being possible that way because we hold each other up and are literally related; and these two ontologies give rise to relationships of domination on the one hand and relationships of reciprocity on the other. But the further separated we are from other creatures … That’s the funny thing about making art, is that, when you think about it in the way that I’ve been thinking about it, it makes evident the materiality and draws our attention to the way that, when we receive pre-prepared food, pre-slaughtered meat, all these things, it’s all these steps of separation from the beings that hold us up so that we can forget so easily what we owe them.
So, akin to pre-prepared food is pre-prepared ideology and its delivery system, the public education system: having read in one of your bio-notes that you had undertaken a process of unlearning, I wonder whether you would say a word or two about what that process of unlearning has been like for you.
Unlearning is a lot about humility, right? It has been this path of becoming aware of the impact of your actions--say through veganism, and then opening yourself up to that being insufficient. And for me that always comes out of conversation. I do read a lot but I do think that that opening up rarely comes from being convinced just by a book. And maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by communicating knowledge orally because it is very impactful to be in situ, in location, and speaking to someone and having that exchange: just hearing something directly from the person and the subjectivity of their voice and just knowing the embodiment of the things they’re saying. And when you’re putting something out in the world orally, you have to own it in a different way than when you write it. Which is weird because speech is more ephemeral.
But there is something about making proclamations or committing yourself to saying something. And that’s why we get away with a lot on the internet: we can type things with different accountability. But I think that the people and the animals and the places that I’ve been with have held me accountable to the structures I’ve inherited and couldn’t explain away or couldn’t sit comfortably with. Oh man, we used to not know so much. We used to not know that we didn’t know so much.
And so shall we say tomorrow *laughs*.
Yeah. But I was talking to my partner about this—and he’s in nursing—and we were talking about the difference of him being an undergraduate and my interactions with young people: you know, knowledge and media was just so much more controlled and less available for people growing up in the eighties that now you’re like, How are you not enraged and activated as a person in your teens or your early twenties? But I do think that—I moved to Taiwan when I was in my late twenties and then I moved to Manitoba; and I wonder how much that kind of life-experience is necessary to make you aware of things.
To make you care about things outside of yourself.
Totally. You were there for a few years, right?
Taiwan for three years, yeah. It can make you aware of your own ignorance.
I guess if you were an astronomer and your telescope was focussed on one star and then somebody was just like, Hey, you can just turn this knob and then you see the whole sky and you’re like, Ohhhhhhhhhh.
*laughs* And you were so sure of what you knew.
Right? You had that one star drawn on your lapel and you had maybe named it and were telling people that that was your star. So, identity is another recurring theme in your work, and I think stickiness might have something to do with it. Is the artist a conduit? Do you ever get in your own way?
Mmm. I dunno. I can’t think of a time when I’ve stopped myself doing something. I mean, it’s possible, but I can’t enact everything that comes into my head.
But I don’t think about times where I’ve stopped myself because, I have always thought my way around it or felt my way around it to do something differently; it’s more—and I think I talked to my therapist about this this summer: my anxiety is never in action; it’s in the moment of waiting for reception where I’m full of second guessing and self-doubt. But I think that so much, for me, the thing about subjectivity and authorship—maybe I’m too attached to earnestness and sincerity?
You should be more ironic?
I wonder if things would be easier if—I heard this term recently: hopepunk. And I think, when you first hear it, you roll your eyes; but then I read more about it and fundamentally it’s—instead of meeting the sorrow and the trauma and the despair in the world with either escapism or with irony—instead you face it and you respond with care and earnestness and generosity and sincerity. That’s recently just come to me but I want to take that up as kind of a guiding component of my practice.
That’s wonderful. Hopepunk. Last question: when this interview comes out, you will have spoken on November 17th as one of “twenty artists and writers who engage in decolonial critique, environmental activism, and twenty-first century artistic practices to address environmental catastrophes” as part of a Water is Life panel discussion.
And we’re sitting here near Deshkan Ziibi amongst the many splendid, munching geese who I’m pretty sure are refusing any national identity that we would attempt to impose upon them.
Mhmm. That’s the next project.
*laughs* Is it?
Geese. And I wonder whether, as we draw towards the end of our conversation, whether you might say a few words about water, your relationship with water, and about your intention to participate in that discussion, and why it feels necessary to you to do so now.
Mm. In a way, I’m going to approach that talk by speaking about unlearning that KC Adams provided me with last year: she spoke to a group that I was involved with about clay and ceramics and the relationship to water but also the relationship of firing ceramics in a system where your energy comes from hydroelectric projects that have displaced and poisoned Indigenous communities. And so, does the electricity you’re using to fire your ceramics piece infuse it with that systemic violence? And that was just such a huge call to really expand the view of the implications of every action, but especially in artistic actions because that’s all art is: a gesture.
And so what’s in the gesture? And when you really unpack that, what are the ripple effects? And so it made me think, Why do we have to fire things always? That is always the given end-point, for it to be fired. Why is that a default? I’m not sure that that was her point but that’s where I went with it. So that really opened things up for me and that’s why I think the unfired clay is such a powerful medium because it remains open to possibility because that clay can always be recycled and be regenerative: it draws our attention to the inseparability of land and water always in all life. And I think when I use unfired clay, it draws attention to process; so even though water may be absent in the final product, we are aware of this because it’s not in this vitrified state: it’s much more about process and action.
And then I also went to the Nibi (water) gathering that is usually in the White Shell but was online this year and it drew my attention to our responsibilities as women--and I have quotes around that word, but--as water-carriers and as the bringers of life and that all life begins for mammals within the womb, within the protective womb that is filled with water. And so that says something about our sacred duty and responsibility and I don’t think that we need to be Indigenous to feel that call; and it’s something that we can all take up because, even if you’re a male-bodied person at birth, you were still held in that water from conception.
It’s funny: I’ve moved from one city at the forks of profound and important rivers in Winnipeg and then to here in London, and how that water and that connection to water has made me aware of these larger environmental injustices.
As three Nations nearby which draw their water—
—from this river have been on boil-water advisories for years.
And they’re made worse every time it rains and the sewage of our city is dropped in that water. I used to live in Ottawa and I was on another river and that was a river running through a major city and which we could swim in and so then to come here and be like, You don’t eat from that river; you don’t swim in that river: it’s so just the status quo and so accepted.
And so taking my daughter to waterways, to be in creeks to harvest clay with me, has been a very important part of my practice. And so we didn’t even talk about the piece with KC that was in the show but--
May I ask you a question about that directly?
Because if it’s an ongoing workshop, then it might be better to invoke that at the end of a conversation rather than a panel that will have already taken place by the time this is published.
I don’t know where to start with the panel, the theme is so specific, I mean, the connection to water is always there because water is life but the content of the work is not always water-focussed; but the clay pieces are.
I mean, bison have wombs?
I mean, OK, don’t get me started--bison are so important to water because—
*laughs* What have I done?
Yeah, don’t go there.
No, no, please. Please.
So, bison are in this sort of triadic relationship of keystone species with beavers and wolves and bisons’ bodies wallow in the earth and they actually create these huge circles of disruption that collect water—especially in arid places like the plains, like the prairies sometimes are—and so our settler conception of a healthy ecosystem is one that trends towards harmony; but when we actually have a more real relationship with the more-than-human, we see that all systems trend towards disruption and then regeneration. And sometimes that regeneration is not what we deem optimal, but you can be in that system in a healthy, reciprocal way or in a very destructive way; but you’re always engaged in those systems. And the idea of return to harmony is just not—Because everything is always evolving.
So bison are these disruptive bodies in landscapes. Beavers are these disruptive bodies in landscapes. Which is why settlers hate them and moralize against them and destroy them and also because apparently they like to wear their bodies.
But that is because you’re not having resilient relationships; you want stasis.
Which ties again to the idea of firing ceramics and the presumption of some kind of individual immortality that supercedes the natural flux and flow of reality, which is constantly in a process of simultaneous destruction and creation.
And that transitions nicely to the Support Gallery Companion exhibition project constituted by a collaboration between you and Paul Chartrand--
And we’re funded by Embassy Cultural House and the Gardenship and State Project.
Which “brings together communities to create a memorial to land and water defenders killed protecting the more-than-human. When completed, this memorial will comprise a chain of over 700 open links formed from unfired, locally gathered clay. Each link in the chain will carry one etched name and native seeds mixed into the clay body. When joined together, the links resemble intertwined arms, harkening to non-violent resistance movements and protests.”
And while I appreciate that the bison is not a metaphor, that decolonization is not a metaphor, the semiotic density of locally gathered clay mixed with native seeds and shaped into an open chain etched with the names of land and water defenders is mind-blowingly profound; and I wonder whether you would say a few words about how you think as an artist about semiotics; about meaning-making; what it means to be human; the fundamentally regenerative capacity of the material through which we make these gestures of art; the refusal to admit the mistaken belief in immortality or any individual privileged to exist beyond this flux we find ourselves in the midst of despite our struggles against it.
Oh my god, my mind’s going in a million directions.
One or two.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I’m thinking about Robin Wall-Kimmerer and I’m thinking about her call to regenerate authentic ceremonies for yourself that are not appropriative because they have material power in the world, but they also have personal and cultural power in that a ceremony is a gesture that makes a declaration and commits you to one another, to the environment. And so I think that that is a tension of being an artist and being an activist … these gestures are the realm in which I function as an artist and I have to believe they matter, but that’s in tension with the question, What material good are you doing in the world and is it enough in this time of what feels like very impending doom?
Catastrophe. And so a project like Sowing Clay I think takes those things up because the links themselves matter in what they convey about who they memorialize but then they matter in their agency in the world; and then the workshops matter in the way that they, hopefully, open dialogues and activate people within their home communities to do and be differently and feel that call, right? A lot of what I was talking about was having those moments with people that made me feel called in a way that I couldn’t ignore. And then there is I guess the semiotics of memorializing and a name standing in for a person and a violent death and the things that they fought for and the land that they were trying to protect or the beings that they were trying to protect.
And it’s just a moment to try and open those things up for people. And the gesture can be small. It’s all just one small gesture of seeds and clay and talking to one another but could the ripple effects of that be so much more? Hopefully?