Humans & Soil
Body representation in Indigenous Contemporary Art
I would like to start off by thanking Mr. Masahiro Koizumi and Freedom School Sapporo for inviting me to have this lecture tonight, and also thank you Professor Hiroshi Maruyama for the guidance in my current research on Ainu and Sámi rights. I feel very honoured to be here.
The theme of my talk is about documentation of traditional dances, research and history of performance art within the indigenous community. It is a critique against indigenous body-performance being accused of lacking market value to a colonised society and therefore restricted into a representational form of art.
I would like to discuss the notion of the body becoming dematerialised, objectified and the problematics of it being exposed to exoticism in museum establishments across Japan and Sweden.
It is discussing the multicultural perspectives on my own performance works, in which I dance on the stage with Sámi and Kurdish descent and about my work as mediator between two cultural identities. The consequence being, the body identification of mixed indigenous peoples are forced to a constant declaration of rights to their own body as ubiquitous.
It is analysing the problematics of the indigenous body-in-perfomance becoming a representation of imposed cultural commodity, and disrupted by constructed metaphors.
I want to oppose the limits put onto the indigenous body, how it is being represented in promotion of ‘ethnicity’ and as a result becoming obedient to governmental power structures. As a contrast, I would like to encourage new working methods toward experimenting with choreography and retain corporeal agency in order to bypass systems of control over our communities.
The questions presented in this lecture are as follows;
Who has authorship to indigenous choreography and dance?
How do we present the body and performance in a neoliberalist and progressive geopolitical machine?
How can dance become visible in the materialised space of indigenous contemporary art?
Part 1 – Safeguarding
We had just passed through the gigantic student campus, seeing people chatting on their way to their classes, smiling, riding their bicycle through the greenery or perhaps sitting on a bench to enjoy their bento box.
As I am walking down the path through Hokkaido University I am taken across a parking lot surrounded by construction workers and tall buildings. The scenery changes. The vague beige filter and dusty air appears as a sudden vail, and there is a sensation of indifference and secrecy that feels like a helmet covering my head.
We stop by our final destination, our bodies collectively taking a decision to stop in front of a stone building. There are no windows, no signs except for one saying “Animal Experimental Building”.
It is a place invisible to the common public, and inside invisible bodies subjected to experimentation for the purpose of promotion, legal transmitting of identification and research for the benefit of cultural exploitation.
In the building there are 1000 bones kept in nameless boxes, white, dried and dismantled. Ainu people needs to go through a chamber of legal bodies, men in suits and DNA tests in order to have their ancestors back in soil.
This action of making humans invisible to the public is a result of the governments’ own wrong- doings, as decolonisation has disrupted the geopolitical machine and the body in labour is being devalued by the commanding structures, making an excellent example of contradicting itself in desperately trying to be an integrate part of globalisation.
With success, the living bodies perform rituals suddenly allowed to be visible to the public, in controlled settlements and with a steady hand directed toward the word indigenous.
The authoritarian body above them have agency to decide in which terms and conditions human rights may be applied – if this written word indigenous has been implemented in the globalised standard system and re-enacted through democratically chosen structures of control.
Part 2 – Location of Physical Existence
In 2020, the plans for building the “Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony” is in full bloom, where also the Olympic Games will act as the Godfather of promotional strategies for generations to come. The aim is to gather all the bones of the Ainu scattered through the country in one space where the sacred acts can be held, effectively controlled and where the body can be kept invisible. The symbol of a globalised society, with the pride of cultural diversity is indistinguishable from the history of colonisation and is being reproduced through the indigenous body. This grand performance is a manipulative and well thought through representational act controlled by the political machine, to promote what is invisible and never spoken of in terms of movement and progressive culture. The word progressive also producing a misconception of the indigenous way of live, and furthermore transforming it into a cultural commodity.
Now we can also consume indigenous culture through choreography and dance, and I chose the word consume because of the notion of that performance and representation can only become visible if it is performed in the materialised space and observed through the other.
The problematics of representation of culture emerges when the metaphors of the body is being applied in memory of living bodies. Those who where previously dismantled and silenced lost authorship to their dances, and had to leave the responsibility upon those who can only reproduce, when documentation was lost. Also having to re-appropriate identity by the re-enactment of performance and the by end result losing a sense of agency to creative freedom. Furthermore, having to showcase what once was an authentic performance practice, is now strictly conformed to modes of control.
Yet, what I think that Contemporary art can do, is to re-activate presence of people through performance, and act as an emancipatory transformation of how the indigenous body is documented and seen.
Here I would like to quote Peggy Phelan in her book “Unmarked Ontology of Performance”
“Performance in a strict ontological sense is non reproductive. It is this quality which makes performance the runt of the litter of contemporary art. Performance clogs the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital. Perhaps nowhere was the affinity between the ideology of capitalism and art made more manifest than in the debates about the funding policies for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).2 Targeting both photography and performance art, conservative politicians sought to prevent endorsing the “real” bodies implicated and made visible by these art forms.
Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies.
In performance-art-spectatorship there is an element of consumption:
there are no left-overs, the gazing spectator must try to take everything in. Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility – in a maniacally charged present – and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control. Performance resists the balanced circulations of finance. It saves nothing; while photography is vulnerable to charges of counterfeiting and copying, performance art is vulnerable to charges of valuelessness and emptiness:
Performance indicates the possibility of revaluing that emptiness; this potential revaluation gives performance art its distinctive oppositional edge”
Perhaps this is why Indigenous performing arts have a sense of urgency, knowing it is seen as an ephemeral event, the suffering and injustice toward the community is intensified when the body is restricted to material and memorial space. Therefore I believe that there is a possibility of new working methods as choreographers, dancers and activists to transform the imagery of the body.
Part 3 – Freedom
Through my art I am trying to transform the condition of production that I am inscribed in as a ‘professional dancer’. I believe that there is freedom present while I am dancing, the transition between one movement to another is executed spontaneously wether it is built upon a technique of improvisation or set movements. But as a choreographer and activist I need to deliberately consider the importance of planning, in order to derive from the representational choreographic apparatus. Being in-between cultural identities, I feel that the context I was born into, finding my indigenous roots later in life, has both benefited me in personal growth and at the same time restricted my capability of transforming my narcissistic view on belonging. When someone asks me “where are you from?” I never know what to answer.
Before I knew my heritage, I had a sense of agency and singularity over my mode of production and way of life. Now I find myself playing the role of a dancer in a system of regime and authoritarianism, becoming a representative of indigenous rights, the mediator of the invisible voices and I have to ask the question, how do we re-claim authorship to movement if it already belongs to us?
At the International Interdisciplinary symposium on choreography, violence, and Human Rights in Stockholm 2012, André Lepecki describes in his talk “From (choreo)policed circulation to (choreo)political intensification: dance as critique of freedom (or: the task of the dancer)”
He suggests choreography as a (quote:) ’thing’ that escapes manipulation and therefore escapes its subjugation to a subject. That it is seeing it as things rather than objects in relation to dance, and how is it that dance can initiate a kind of movement of freedom from objects from their instrumentality.” And that there is a renewed interest within contemporary art in the dancer as an agent in choreography.
This brings me to question the methods of preserving and maintaining traditional artforms that are conformed to an aesthetic system of control. And the problems produced by continued consent to choreographic exploitation – the consent to obey the controlling authoritarian structures that inhibit creative freedom.
How do we then re-enter as agents in indigenous performance art?
In my work “Humans & Soil” I am proposing to re-articulate what body-in-activism can be and to actively persist in showing the body as human, the body as the concrete truth and encourage experimenting with the representation of the indigenous body.
First and foremost human beings need to create a sense of solidarity in order to transform the right to ones living body as well as the acceptance of death, the exiting out of the body.
Then we have to derive from the body seen as a modern commodity and resist it being spoken through only songs and dance as they might become metaphors for multi-cultural entertainment.
There also has to be a material and immaterial space for the body to be allowed for experimentation. Making it ‘contemporary indigenous art’ for me, means that the creator of “Pattaki Uppo”, that we also can call “grasshopper dance” that you see here, have full authorship of changing and transforming choreographic material into a realm of creative freedom.
It should also be a right as a creator of indigenous art to persist in her making of international collaborations to expand strategies of representation and break down the conservative external view on the body. There also needs to be space for the activist-artist for persistence instead of resistance and allowing oneself to embrace the suffering, in order to gain artistic freedom.