Provocations for a Culture Strategy

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For reasons opaque to me, I’ve been invited to a Scottish Government workshop on Culture Strategy next week. I’m not quite sure what will happen there, but it’s given me an occasion to write down some thoughts on how the arts are and could be funded. What follows are some poorly-thought-through provocations for arts funding policy. Some of them may very well be bad. I’d very much like yours. I’m conscious that I’ve probably been invited to this workshop as a representative of the bolshie grassroots, the messy fringe, and to that end I’d like to take to the room some of the voices that aren’t but should be there. If you’ve got suggestions for a Scottish culture strategy, tell me them and I’ll try to bring them up.

Some Major Problems for Arts Funding

1) Most artists I know cannot make a living wage from their work. The younger they are, the more likely they are to be indebted, precariously-employed, and private renters, unable to access the social and economic capital of previous generations. Whereas previous generations of artists were to some degree subsidised by unemployment and other benefits, these routes have been cut off to most. This has a knock-on effect on diversity, as racialised and other minoritised people are even less likely to access support for their work economically, and face other social barriers as well. The result is an arts scene dominated by middle- and upper-class white people, still, at all levels of production and management, but increasingly-so further up the hierarchy.

2) This means in turn that marginalised voices are tokenized and put into their own boxes: the queer artist is only able to get paid to make art about being queer, for example, or the organisation that does good accessibility work is shunted from the “Performance” panel to the “Diversity” panel (this happened to one of mine). Marginalised voices are more likely to have to rely on crowdfunding, self-exploitation, non-arts jobs and so on in order to make the work they want to make.

3) Publicly-funded arts do not command mass public support. We are luvvies. We are seen as an indulgence. Not enough people see the link between publicly-funded arts, community and education arts, and private sector arts (e.g. an actor in a West End musical may make most of their money in the public sector; a school poetry workshop is only possible thanks to a public support infrastructure). Some of the blame for this must lie in which arts are funded: arts enjoyed broadly by richer people, such as opera and ballet, get the most funding support, whereas arts enjoyed broadly by poorer people, such as hiphop and videogames, get the least public support and are expected to survive in the commercial sector alone. The result is that when public spending cuts come the arts are often the first to go and the worst punished.

4) Arts organisations are riven by multiple economic inequalities. The gap between the wage earned by the Artistic Director of a national theatre and that earned by an actor in that theatre is shameful. Those in administration and management have the most stable jobs and wages, while those actually making art have the least access to jobs and stability, with producers somewhere in the middle. That is, the arts model the inequalities of the wider employment sector, with executives consolidating their power, trickling up wages to the top, and exploiting the labour of those who actually make the commodity. This is also linked to and runs through the problems of points one and two, meaning that those marginalised by factors like disability and race are also hit by these inequalities.

5) There is no clear understanding of or approach to the gradients between “professional” and “amateur” arts. Far more people want to be involved in the arts than can currently find employment in the arts. Submitting your art to a wage-relation also destroys the pleasure of art for some. By necessity or choice, there is a large unpaid arts sector, from community drama groups to volunteer orchestras. This is a vital part of cultural life, but who has access to capital to support that culture is shaped by all the factors previously discussed: the more marginal your voice, the more likely your art will be seen as amateur and undeserving of support. It also creates a greyzone for all artists: as one moves from amateur to professional, because there is no formal apprenticeship (even arts qualifications usually do not lead to immediate employment), one takes on many free and underpaid gigs, and institutions are liable to exploit this to sell art and undercut wages. Support for “community” and “professional” arts is intertwined in fact but not in practice.

6) The ability to earn a living as an artist depends on a number of skills and capacities entirely unrelated to artistic ability, e.g. networking, application-writing, volunteering availability, interview technique, &c. These skills are also distributed along vectors of marginalisation, reinforcing social hierarchies. In particular, public funding is closed off to independent artists who cannot speak the language of funders and write a funding application; at present, support for them is mostly available through other freelance artists lending help. Meanwhile, full-time organisations often employ fundraising officers to help them access both public and private funds. The result, again, is that power and capital consolidate to themselves: it’s easier to get money if you have money, and the cycle continues.

7) In Scotland, and most of all in Edinburgh, the festival model dominates the arts. In this model, employment for artists and art for audiences is made available only seasonally in order to concentrate a marketing push. In some cases, festivals market themselves as an opportunity artists must pay to be part of. As a result, the precaritisation of the arts, and the ability of landlords and financiers to be parasitic on the labour of artists to the point of emptying it entirely of wages, is deepened, while the ability to create year-round arts institutions and community-embedded arts practice is weakened. Moreover, the arts become a special thing that happens in a specific place and time, rather than something threaded through life.

8) We don’t know what arts funding is for. Is it to support art that cannot survive in the commercial market?–To make the art that doesn’t sell? Is it to enure artists can make a living? Is it to diversify the cultural scene?–To enable anyone from any background to access any artform, as artist or audience? Is it to strengthen the sustainability and economic potential of the Creative Industries? –To invest for a greater return? Because these different and sometimes mutually-exclusive aims are muddled together, we have a muddled and directionless approach to arts funding.

Some Ideas Which Are Not Solutions But Might Help Find Some

1) Artists’ unions to negotiate pay rates with funding bodies, and funding bodies to refuse funding to any organisation which does not meet those rates at every level.

2) Arts executive pay for funded organisations to be capped at a 3:1 ratio to that of the lowest-paid worker (including maintenance staff).

3) For every administrator or producer employed by a funded organisation, an artist must also be given a full-time job making art. Alternatively, funded bodies must dedicate at least 50% of their annual budget directly to artists.

4) Professional and community arts to be managed by the same public agency, with a ratio of funding to be determined following research (but 50:50 seems like a good one to aim for to me). That is, for every £1 spend employing someone within a professional arts organisation (i.e. one that employs artists), £1 is given in to a community arts organisation (i.e. one that provides free/supercheap access to creative activities).

5) Funding bodies to have explicit policies to favour workers’ co-operatives, i.e. arts organisations which are owned and democratically-managed by their workers. At least, as an interim stage, funding bodies to support the development of workers’ co-operatives through training, starting with their own staff.

6) Artists’ unions to establish new closed shop venues and publishers, &c., or to negotiate with existing organisations to establish closed shops, where only union members can work and pay and benefits are fixed.

7) Funded organisations to meet robust diversity quotas for employees, artists and audiences or face defunding. Quotas should be in excess of demographic proportions..

8) Funding bodies to make at least a third of their funds small grants (£1-5k) directly available to artists, with ultra-low entry requirements and monitoring. The “failure” of many of these grants to be accepted and celebrated.

9) Governments to invest in rent-free housing available to artists on application with ultra-low entry requirements.

10) Government-backed arts apprenticeships established, whereby one works at subsidised wages for 1-3 years learning acting or marketing with a guaranteed job at the end of it.

11) Any funding officer in a publicly-funded organisation is seconded for 25% of their time to an organisation any freelance artist can access to help write their funding applications.

12) Arts organisations and non-governmental funders to have an explicit policy of campaigning for unemployment, disability and other social benefits, in recognitionn that these are a crucial form of arts subsidy.

13) No festivals.

 

Outriders: Changing Spaces

Outriders, Uncategorized

I’m writing this in airports. Owing to some tricky planning and scheduling, I’m travelling back home from Edmonton — built on Treaty 6 territory, and a traditional gathering place and home for many peoples including Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene Ojibwe, Inuit and others — in three hops over 36 hours of solid airport time. Or maybe it’s only 28 hours — I’m a bit confused about how time works now, and I’m pausing in 4 different timezones where it doesn’t matter what time it is because all time is airport time, airport light, airport space, that liminal zone that’s it’s own reality, legality and sovereignty. Half shopping mall, half security processing factory, all skin-dry and eye-sore. I’m ready to be home.

Actually, I’m not writing this in an airport. I wrote all the notes and sketches in an airport, and then I wrote it at home, and now I’m writing it on a train travelling to an airport for the next, completely different, work job. One of the great joys of working in the arts is that you get to travel a lot and see all sorts of fascinating places; one of the curses is that in order to stitch an income together you have to travel a lot, and if you’re not careful you can find yourself living in the non-space of travel: airport, hotel, chain cafe, train. The arts and the lives of artists are enmeshed in (or maybe parasitic on) these structures of globalised business and leisure.

Flying over the praries to Edmonton gives a very particular view of the land: you can see it spread out like a map, marked out and parcelled into different territories, uses, legal claims. You get a gods’-eye survey — or rather, a colonial mapping survey, and the land shows the marks of that approach to land. Over Alberta, I’m astonished at how square all the fields are, big square monoculture fields divided up by long straight roads, the product, I think, by land surveys where the land was cut up by literal chains. Over Manitoba, around the former Red River Settlement, I remember seeing the transition between two different forms of land division: the long strips of farmnland that were the legacy of the French surveys and also the clearances crofters’ imported runrig system, which had all the houses next to each other along the river with the field stretching out behind, giving way to the square grid of the later colonial survey, with houses separated into different corners.

On the ground, the land looks different. I remember this from the strange difference between how hills look from eye-level and how they look on Ordnance Survey maps (which are, for all their beauty, defined by their origins as a military technology). The maps help me name the hills, and plot out the main dynamics of a route, but once you’re off-path the best approach is to look around you and have a think about what the land looks like and where the good routes might be, just like looking at the clouds tells you more than a weather forecast. If you live off the land then it all looks very different from a map: it might be shaped by relations to rivers and migration routes, or how and when particular plants can be gathered, or walking distances (which are better measured in time, effort and danger than in miles). Land is time and sense as well as shape.

And on the ground, the city looks different too. I played SimCity a lot as a bairn, and I still enjoy flying over cities and thinking about commercial and residential districts, the distribution of parks, the transport infrastructure. But from street level, what matters more is pavement, shelter, crossings, comfort, risk. Edmonton is defined by urban sprawl — I’m told it has among the sparsest population density and largest urban sprawl in the world. It takes what I’ve come to learn about North American cities to extremes: every building has its own parking lot, and walking can thus be punishing if not impossible, because you’re expected to drive. Add to that the architecture of an oil-based economy, which here reminds me of a giant Aberdeen: booms and busts that inhibit long-term planning and encourage the rapid growth of megastructures. Edmonton had the largest mall in the world, but it’s been hammered down the rankings by (depending on how you count it) various efforts in China, Iran, UAE and the Philippines. All this — the North American approach to car-based cities in particular — is enabled by the perception of limitless space for expansion, by not recognising the inhabitation, rights, ecology and land use there originally.

In Edmonton I’m meeting Gavin Renwick, a Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta, and, like me, from Scotland. Starting from work in design and visual arts, Gavin has spent much of the last 20 years working with Dene communities in the Northwest Territories, particularly aiding in land claims and community projects through developing indigenised forms of mapping, design and knowledge communication. Land claims are an important part of decolonial politics (or survivance, or resurgence, or sur-thrivance, each of which terms, among others, carries different significances and inflections). Often contested by the colonising government for decades, to the cost of millions (and lives), these claims are made on the basis of continuous land use and occupation, failed treaty obligations, or both. They are won by indigenous organisations in the majority of cases, despite government opposition, with far-reaching (and often unfulfilled) obligations for how land and resources are used and care for.

As Gavin tells me, land claims involve contests and negotiations not only within the colonial legal system but between different legal systems and conceptions of rights and ownership, different understandings of how land should be treated, different mappings. Part of his role, in services to the communities he’s been engaged by, is to find ways of communicating through and across those differences. Gavin shows me beautiful designs and maps he’s worked on in the past, which indicate very different conceptions of inhabitation, land use and stewardship. These contests of understandings are played out on the land and on bodies: legal structures and design concepts have physical shapes. I’m reminded also of something Katherena told me when explaining land claim issues to me, that it seems that laws about indigenous issues — which have had multiple layers over the decades, with different degrees and shapes of oppressive coloniality — seem to be deliberately designed to be difficult to understand or negotiatiate.

When talking people back in Scotland, something I’ve struggled to explain often is that colonialism is not a past historical period of horrors-to-be-forgotten, but rather an ongoing process that continues to be enacted on land and people. Resettlement of indigenous groups — forced removal from land for economic, legal, military or other purposes — is still a reality. That’s in ongoing contested land claims, and also in ongoing resource use: the colonial conception of the land as a terra nullis to be exploited continues through the corporate extraction and exploitation of natural resources, whether that’s the Manitoba Hydro reshaping the waterways the entire province, the Alberta Tar Sands (in which the Royal Bank of Scotland was a significant investor) creating a Mordor-like landscape, or the Dakota Access Pipeline that’s been very present in the news. There are many other such examples not in the news. In each case, the resource use features ongoing theft and destruction of indigenous land, and ongoing extraction of economic resources by dominant groups, including overseas, including us, including me.

There are two concepts I’ve encountered when researching these contests and negotiations that I’ve found particularly vital. The first, which Gavin told me about, is Elizabeth Mackenzie’s dictum, “Strong Like Two People”, which has since become a motto for Tlicho edication. It speaks of living in and as both the colonial world and the indigenous world and being stronger for it. The second, which I learned about in the work of Dr Darcy Leigh, is James Tully’s concept that “Another World is Actual”, meaning that a different way of being exists not in an imagined future but now, in a time and space that exists alongside and in contest or negotiation with capitalist and colonial time and space. Not either/or but both/and, and always but.

Returning home, and thinking and writing about all this, what I know most now is that I know enough to know how little I know. I feel still as though I’m blundering into issues, trying to learn what I can and be respectful, but still learning and still (always) making mistakes. I feel too that I’ve picked up a lot of threads and only just begun to pull on them — this blog has covered a lot of ideas in a beginning sort of way. I’ll be producing particular pieces of writing for the #Outriders project — a condensed and tighter version of this blog, a longer piece of poetry — but they too will be a beginning. There’s a potential lifetime of work, of course.

The motivation for me, in this place and time, in doing this work, is how relevant it is to Scotland’s future. (That, and an angry-sorrowful sense of injustice and complicity that’s been in me since I was small and has never stopped simmering except to boil over.) As the UK goes through a long period of constitutional turmoil, and as Scotland seeks to define and redefine itself within that, I don’t think the conversation can continue in an honest way, let alone a liberatory way, without a confrontation with our past and ongoing participation in colonialism. This requires a solidarity with, respect for and centering of those in decolonial struggle — although I’m finding ideas and inspiration for my own home and politics in this journey, it’s those confrontations and people that must be centred. Scotland’s confrontation is political, personal, economic and more: it requires recognition and reparation for the way Scotland has profited materially from colonial violence, and it also requires a reshaping of our institutions, lives and minds away from colonial logic. There are other Scotlands existing alongside, in among and through the Scotland we usually assume to exist. I want to bring to mind just one the Scotlands we try to hard to forget, and through that to find more strength and life for the Scotland I choose to be part of. Those Scotlands are intertwined, and I can’t escape one for the other: I live in both, and others besides.

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Taking this journey (which is not over) and writing these blogs (which are a start) has meant a lot of support and help from a lot of people. Thanks to Cléo Sallis-Parchet and all at the British Council Canada, and to Nick Barley, Jenny Niven, Cat Tyre and Ioannis Kalkounos at EIBF for organising and supporting the projects all the way through, plus to Chris DiRaddio, Shelley Pomerance, and Tiphanie Flores at Blue Met / Metropolis Bleu for their hosting. In Montréal, thanks to Natasha Kanapé-Fontaine, Jonathan Lamy, Rachel McCrum and Kai Cheng Thom for brilliant conversations. In Winnipeg, thanks to Reuben for history, humour and driving. In Churchill, thanks to Karen Blackbourn (plus Lib Spry for the connection), Leonard Macpherson, Bill Calman and Mike Spence for a lot of education, connections and ideas, plus to all at the Churchill Community Bulletin Board for good chats. In Edmonton, thanks to Kalea Turner-Beckman and Gavin Renwick for fine hosting and encouragement. Thanks to all who’ve read, commented, shared stories and given me good links, and thanks to anyone whose name I’ve forgotten (please tell me and slap my wrist; it’s been a long month!) Most of all, thanks to Katherena Vermette for agreeing to be part of this project, and for being very generous with conversation and with time.

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A big ole pile of books, the titles of which are listed below. Left are the books I took to Canada; right the ones I brought back.

I brought back a lot of books from Canada. In fact, I had to buy another suitcase to be able to transport them. Whoops. Here’s my reading list, which is in no way complete but gives an indication of what I’m reading and thinking about and another place to start.

Outriders: In the Metropolis

Outriders, Uncategorized

I’m walking up the mont Royal, because I never saw a hill I didn’t want to walk up. Most of my international travelling is for work: if I want a holiday, a break, some rest, then I go somewhere in Scotland with hills and walk up them. A big part of me wants to learn how to walk up biggest and bigger hills, hills without trails and with risky ridges, that have names on lists that I can tick off, but mostly I’m satisfied just getting up somewhere where the air is clearer and I can see a long way. Anyway, I’m walking up [the mont Royal, which is wooded and has a few quiet trails and raccoons that come out at dusk, and I’m sweating a lot, because I’m Scottish and have a very fast metabolism and can’t stop buying books that I then have to carry around. I kid myself that I’m not trying to get to the summit, just following dirt paths through the woods, but of course they keep tending upwards and eventually I find myself on the pavement with the binoculars and the car parks and the big metal cross that, of course, is on top. The view is grand.

It feels good to be back in a big city. I’m from a tiny island (700 folk when I was growing up, 500 now), and big cities have always had mythical glamour for me: the places where everything happens. These days, Edinburgh is well big enough for me, but I still like being in the metropolis for a few days. Montréal, built on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory, has festivals, big museums, a European-style old town, a huge gay village with rainbow banners, a hipster quarter trying to take over a historic Hasidic neighbourhood, and lots of great vegan restaurants (and other kinds, but I like eating vegan here, because they do it so much better). It’s currently celebrating its 375th anniversary (i.e., 375 years since a beginning of genocide) alongside Canada’s 150th (i.e., 150 years since the major effort to legitimise land theft and genocide through the construction of a federal nation-state). Alongside the Outriders trip, I’m here for Metropolis Bleu / Blue Met, the city’s spring literary festival. I’ve performed poetry in an iconic gay strip bar (it was literally 5 minutes after the poetry until the boys started coming out), read literary smut alongside luminaries of Canadian literature (Ann-Marie MacDonald reading the censored bits of Anne Frank’s diary, George Elliott Clarke reading Judy Bloom), argued revolutionary theory with friends I met on the internet, watched brilliant people discuss important things about language and politics and life, struggled to reconcile the pleasure I’m having with the history that’s made it possible (hint: it’s unreconcilable), stayed up past my bedtime.

Le Village Gai, Montréal. There are igh street shops and a lot of condo construction; along the street, rainbow flags are visible. In the distance, things get pleasantly seedier.

Le Village Gai, Montréal. There are igh street shops and a lot of condo construction; along the street, rainbow flags are visible. In the distance, things get pleasantly seedier.

What I like best is being in a bilingual city again. It’s made me determined to learn or relearn a third language that’s more distant from English and Scots. I like sitting in public, and listening to people switch between languages, picking the language that can best express what they’re thinking. Often, especially on the busses, something else gets mixed in with the English and French. The longer I’m here, the more my brain tentatively switches over into my rusty French: by the time I leave, I can manage lurching functional conversations for a whole minute or two before resorting to “désolé, je parle seulement un peu français, parlez vous anglais?” What I most want British people to understand about language is that this, everywhere, is the global norm. The majority of the world’s people speak more than one language and switch between them with relative ease. Often there’s three or four; often, there’s a local language, a lingua franca for the region, and other stuff besides. It’s Britain (and to a lesser degree the US) that’s weird in being so hopelessly monoglot, a depriving situation that’s maintained by education and government policy.

A Montréal street scene with a mixture of new and old architecture, with graffiti and street art visible on the walls and a church far up the street. In the foreground a sign reads "Rue Coloniale".

A Montréal street scene with a mixture of new and old architecture, with graffiti and street art visible on the walls and a church far up the street. In the foreground a sign reads “Rue Coloniale”.

The main event I’m at Blue Met for is a collaboration with the British Sign Language poet Paul Scott and the Scottish-based English language poet Rachel Amey. As part of an EIBF exchange with Blue Met, we’ve put together a performance of poems across our three languages, each speaking to the other about language, identity, and community. (Three performers, both Deaf and hearing, came to Edinburgh last year.) Our performance has a lovely and welcoming audience, mixed Deaf and hearing, with many languages of their own; I’m struck by how relaxing it all feels. The room is full of exciting language, so it’s not so much the periods of (to my hearing ears) aural quiet in Paul’s poems, but rather the space we’re all giving each other, literal and metaphorical. We alternate between performers and languages, which means that between each poem we have to move around microphones, stands and positioning of interpreters: it might look a little awkward, but it gives each poem room to breathe and the audience room to think.

We’ve planned the performance in a particular way: Paul’s signed introductions to the poems are voiced by an English language interpreter, but his poems are not; my Scots poems and Rachel’s English poems are signed into ASL by two different interpreters, but my Scots is not given an English translation. This means that the only audience who gets the full “text” of the poems is the signing audience, but as no-one in the room, not even us, communicates in all of English, Scots, BSL and ASL, no-one has full “access” the entirety of each poem in all its effects. This set-up also privileges the marginalised languages in the space over the dominant languages, with the signed languages taking the strongest precedence. In all this, we’re both attempting to address some social power imbalances and also invite the audience into our language: translation, in some contexts, provides access, but it can also erase a less powerful language, and you always have to ask who is being given access to what. We especially wanted to hearing audience to work hard to perceive the power and precision of Paul’s BSL poetry, without being given the ease of an English gloss that would lose so much of the poetry-in-motion and subtle linguistic work.

These subjects come up in the post-performance discussion, along with many others, animated brilliantly by Daz Saunders. The previous performance took a different approach, integrating the three artists into one show rather than weaving back and forth between them. But each played with how their works could provide points of access: poet and sound artist Kaie Kellough placed a speaker facing the floor so that vibrations could be felt; one poet, Pamela E Witcher, voiced a scream for another, Tanya Evanson, along with many other effects. Kaie described this as “opening and closing different doors for different people”. I agreed, trying to express something I’d been feeling for a while, saying: “I think universal access is a bit of a myth. Not everyone can access everything. Different people have different abilities and rights of access. And what English is, what European nation-state languages are, are universalising attempts to enable everyone to communicate with everyone about everything, to make all knowledge and experience open to everyone. But what that actually does is flatten things out, erase many types of language and knowledge, and disguise the face that many people are still left out. When i talk about access, I don’t want that: I want an approach that recognises the vital differences between us, not trying to close those gaps, but just to bridge them.” (I didn’t put it that fluently but.)

Indigenous Women Defending Land by Melanie Cervantes of Dignidad Rebelde : "As individuals, as organizations, as communities or as a people, indigenous women continually prove their strength in the face of threat and adversity. Our responses show that we are not passive victims of oppression but fierce actors in the indigenous peoples’ struggles for survival. We have formed organizations and networks. They have initiated community-based projects to respond to basic needs of our people.We have been in the forefront of numerous actions of indigenous peoples to defend our land, our lives and our livelihood.We mixed in a piece by Lianne Charlie and Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde which reads Tiotia:ke the Mohawk name for "Montreal" which means where the currents meet. I am also repping Jesus Barraza's Tierra Indigena in this wheat paste mural. " https://www.facebook.com/decolonizingstreetart/

Indigenous Women Defending Land by Melanie Cervantes of Dignidad Rebelde : “As individuals, as organizations, as communities or as a people, indigenous women continually prove their strength in the face of threat and adversity. Our responses show that we are not passive victims of oppression but fierce actors in the indigenous peoples’ struggles for survival. We have formed organizations and networks. They have initiated community-based projects to respond to basic needs of our people.We have been in the forefront of numerous actions of indigenous peoples to defend our land, our lives and our livelihood.We mixed in a piece by Lianne Charlie and Lindsay Katsitsakatste Delaronde which reads Tiotia:ke the Mohawk name for “Montreal” which means where the currents meet. I am also repping Jesus Barraza’s Tierra Indigena in this wheat paste mural. ” https://www.facebook.com/decolonizingstreetart/

I was influenced in saying this by an event that I’d been to the previous day, the award ceremony for the First Peoples Literary Prize, won this year by the Ojibwe novelist David Treuer. He said several things in the discussion with Duncan McCue about his work that struck me powerfully. One was describing a previous novel in which he’d argued with an editor to keep vital sections of dialogue in Ojibwe without an English translation. “If Joyce can use Latin and Mann can use French, I can use Ojibwe,” he said. “If readers want to know the dialogue, there’s an easy answer: they can learn Ojibwe. It’s for my readers to come to where my novel is.” He also returned several times to his refusal to become what he described as a “Native Informant”, not wanting to be the white/colonising world’s window into indigenous cultural practices, not wanting to have to explain himself and his culture to that audience. “I don’t describe ceremony in my books,” he said. “That’s for us.” There are limits to what I have access to, to what I can know, to what I have a role in.

I carry these words while visiting museums in Montréal. The Musée de Beaux-Arts advertised recent work it had done with indigenous communities on the curation of both its Inuit and its early settler Canadian art collections. The Inuit art exhibition is very beautiful and diverse, interpreted with sensitivity, giving cultural and historical context to carving and print-work from the last century, both contemporary and traditional and blends of the two. In particular, the interpretation discusses the economic role of Inuit art, how it consciously negotiated between traditional practice and commercial demand, and how it has in part been shaped by the economic effects of colonialism, with art becoming an essential economic practice for many people. There are similar strains to be found in the beautiful Ashukan Cultural Space, an indigenous-run nonprofit space in the old town with excellent exhibitions. I find myself wishing that European and settler-American contemporary art were as conscious about its relationships with money: too often we don’t face up to the face that our practices are enabled, supported and shaped by concentrations of wealth. There’s a continuing false belief that art is supposed to be special and separate from commerce and business, which belief allows, essentially, rich philanthropists and central government policy to dictate what art gets made. By admitting your dependence on finance you can take a more conscious role in finding agency in your art, I think, and also know more clearly what it is you want and need to keep to yourself and your community, away from outside eyes and money.

The Inuit Art collection at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Stone sculptures in glass cases; most prominently in the foreground, two caribou on their hind legs, dancing, almost kissing. http://itineraires.musees.qc.ca/en/first-nations-inuit-cultures/museums/montreal-fine-arts

The Inuit Art collection at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. Stone sculptures in glass cases; most prominently in the foreground, two caribou on their hind legs, dancing, almost kissing. http://itineraires.musees.qc.ca/en/first-nations-inuit-cultures/museums/montreal-fine-arts

The approach taken in the “Founding Identities” exhibition of early settler-Canadian art is to juxtapose these pieces by contemporary art and commentary from indigenous artists. These given critical insight into the (often highly colonial) work in these displays. A similar approach is taken in the Musée McCord, a cultural history museum with a significant collection of indigenous life and artwork from across Canada: the displays have been developed in consultation with indigenous communities, and are given critical context by contemporary indigenous artists. This is in line with new approaches to museum curation, sometimes called decolonising. (See, e.g. Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums.) I appreciate the approach, but am not in a position to judge its effectiveness. At its best, it seems crucial to bringing vital historical understanding to the art, craft and life of the colonial period (which is ongoing), as well as cultural sensitivity in what is displayed; more cynically, though, it enables white people like me to enjoy consuming the art and artefacts and knowledge while feeling a bit less guilty. I’m not trying to say it’s one or the other; it may well be both. When thinking about such things from my own political perspective and identities, I don’t think these questions are ever settled: the move is part of a process, and how much good that process does depends on ongoing organisation. (This insight in particular is drawn from Dr Darcy Leigh’s work, Post-liberal agency: decolonizing politics and universities in the Canadian Arctic, which has also extensively informed my approach throughout this project.)

In the Never Apart Centre, an LGBT+ and social justice-focussed gallery in the north part of the city, I find another approach again. One of their current exhibitions is Two-Spirit Sur-Thrivance, featuring a range of work from indigenous Two-Spirit artists. The exhibition is full of sex, subversion, mourning, anger, trauma, self-care, recovery and beauty. I walk around and around it loving and thinking. In particular I’m drawn to Kent Monkman, a multimedia artist known for large-scale canvasses in a traditional style which feature deliciously and wickedly subversive details, and to Dayna Danger, whose sexually-confronting work also displays an extraordinary will to care. In a split-screen video featuring strap-on caribou horns, I’m most struck by extended and not-particularly-explicit scenes of neck massage. My neck hurts. Here, the artwork is restlessly contemporary, and connects directly to communities I’m part of, while also highlighting the differences and intersections of race and marginalisation.

Kent Monkman, sketch for "red man teach white man how to ride bareback". It's a pencil sketch, grey on white, with a cold frame. In the background, mountains, then a bare tree; in the foreground, two horses and two human figures, one with a feather headdress and one with a cowboy hat, both pantsless and on the same horse. Image from neverapart.com

Kent Monkman, sketch for “red man teach white man how to ride bareback”. It’s a pencil sketch, grey on white, with a cold frame. In the background, mountains, then a bare tree; in the foreground, two horses and two human figures, one with a feather headdress and one with a cowboy hat, both pantsless and on the same horse. Image from neverapart.com

Back at Blue Met, I’m thinking through these questions again during a panel discussion on queer pasts and presents with Ann-Marie MacDonald, Kai Cheng Thom and Nick Comila. They each discuss their own practice and history, but conversation regularly turns to the role of art and literature in resistant communities, and the complexities that involves. In particular, queer or LGBT+ art is now at an odd cultural moment where it is, at least superficially, welcomed and often celebrated, though many (particularly working class, radicalised and disabled LGBT+ people) are deliberately left out of that celebration. Ann-Marie said, “What are you supposed to do, when everyone now loves you, but you still hate yourself?” — a hate that has come in part because the world hated you. And, loving this insight, I asked “What are you supposed to do, when everyone supposedly loves you, but actually the world is still trying to kill you? When you still get the impression that everyone still wants your people dead? And what do you do when you’re given a little bit of cultural space, but you know that’s all you’re getting, and it might reinforce those structures that want you dead?” One of the many wise things she said was, “You take that land you’ve won, you dig in, you build your bulwark there, and then you start to expand your territory.” Kai Cheng agreed and added, “And if that’s not working, you can take out a grenade and put it on that land and blow it up.” Similarly, a bit of wisdom I’ll treasure is Ann-Marie saying, “We need good manners or else we’d all just be stabbing everyone in the eye with a fork. And one of the great things about manners is that they give you time to work out who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.” Again, Kai Cheng agreed and added, “And then if you need to you can stab them in the eye with a fork.” In relating this, I don’t want to set up a false binary between the two speakers: they both agreed with and complemented each other, sharing the needed learning.

I want to bring to the surface what’s probably already clear: I’m trying to find ways in or parallels to decolonial politics from my own experience. I’m also trying to reflect back on the situation I’ve chosen in this project: to be a white writer travelling in colonised land and trying to learn about decolonial politics, to try to do something decent with that. To be driven by a desire to know and to be unsure what or how I can know. This is perilous business and I fully expect to make bad mistakes. And what I’m not trying to do is to say that different political struggles are the same, because they’re not. I remember something that Katherena said in one of our many wide-ranging conversations, that people coming from different political struggles can draw on that as a place of empathy. Not a way of claiming someone else’s struggle as our own, but of recognising shared difference and the necessity of solidarity. This is an old insight that many have won in different ways: it’s worth reading more of John Donne’s meditation on solidarity beyond the famous epithets:

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.

(from Meditation 17)

When listening to Layli Long Soldier discuss her book WHEREAS, which among many other things talks about the role of apology in the world, and about good and bad apologies, she suggested that what she’s looking for first from the colonising world is “freedom from denial”. I find this useful and necessary, this conception of freedom, and for me it ties into an insight that comes up again and again in different political struggles: that no-one is free until we are all free, and that my freedom depends on yours. To see and to try to heal the parts of my life which take life away from you is to work for freedom for myself; to struggle for my freedom is to struggle for yours, when that struggle recognises shared difference and the different things we share. But this work doesn’t end, and the answers aren’t that easy, and there’s always mistakes to apologise for and new learning to do. And it’s not for any of us to know everything.

Your correspondent, on stage at the Stock Bar, with a crowd and glowing lights behind. I'm wearing a brightly-patterned strappy top, pink glasses, bouffant hair, and am leaning away from a metal pole.

Your correspondent, on stage at the Stock Bar, with a crowd and glowing lights behind. I’m wearing a brightly-patterned strappy top, pink glasses, bouffant hair, and am leaning away from a metal pole. Very blurry photo!