By Margaryta Golovchenko
Né:’e tsi watyé:sen tsi waktsi’nonwatényes tsi kathonwíseres, wakhtheronkwén:nis tahnon wakenehrakwáhtha ne VR, né:’e tsi kakwényes akaká:raton’ nè:ne tyako’nikonhratihénhthoht; kakwényes ó:ni ayón:ni’ ónhka ok aontayakétahkwe’, nikarihwéhsha, tsi yakohténtyon tsi yonhwentsyá:te nè:ne yakonhwentsyayenté:ri. E’tho káti yah tewakateryèn:tarahkwe oh nahò:ten akáttoke’ shahatì:ren’ akenon’tsihstà:ke ne VR atkahránha tahnon onkwathón:te’ne’ ónhka’k yakóhthare ó:ya thikawennò:ten nè:ne yah tekahrónkha. Eh niyohtòn:ne tsi tontáhsawen’ ne Biidaaban: First Light (2018). Né:’e tsi kanatowá:nen tkená:kere skáhne é:so nihá:ti nè:ne ó:ya nihonnonhwentsyò:tens, wa’kate’nyén:ten’ akyén:tere’ne’ ne owén:na, e’tho sá:ne wakateryèn:tare tsi yah thaonkkwényon tahnon yah thaonke’nikonhrayentá:’on. Né:’e tsi ónhka’k á:yenhre’ aya’ì:ron’ tsi yah teyakoteryèn:tare, ahse’kén yah teyakote’nyentén:’on ayontahonhsí:yohste’, tahnon ónhka’k á:yenhre’ ok nahò:ten ahonwatirihwanón:tonhse’, yawehronhátye tókat ónhka ok aontayerihwa’será:ko’, eh na’kakarò:ten ne Biidaaban – rotihonkará:wis nè:ne ronteró:roks ahonnonhtonnyón:ko’, nè:ne yá:wet tóhsa ahonnonhtónnyon’ tsi ronteró:roks.
Created by filmmaker Lisa Jackson in collaboration with Mathew Borrett, Jam3, and the National Film Board of Canada, Biidaaban: First Light is a series of vignettes that gives viewers a glimpse into a possible dystopic future of Tkaronto, one in which Indigenous systems of knowledge are presented as a way forward, challenging the settler-colonial idea that Indigenous culture is a part of the past with little relevance in the present. Beginning on the ruined platform of Osgoode station, the entirety of Biidaaban takes place in the area around Toronto’s (former) City Hall, as the viewer moves from the familiar setting of Nathan Phillips Square to feeling as if they are floating among the stars in an endless sky. The work fits into Jackson’s existing oeuvre in an interesting way, growing out of her upcoming multi-media Indigenous Futurist installation Transmissions (2019). (1) Biidaaban also acts in conversation with other existing works, like Amanda Strong and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s animated short film of the same name, which shares Jackson’s interest in reclaiming and reviving First Nations rituals. (2) The decision to combine the futuristic medium of VR with a dystopian atmosphere to explore questions of Indigenous language and identity makes the work feel especially powerful. It is an approach that feels more urgent and genuine than some of the more forced and showy acts of Indigenous solidarity, such as the often robotic land acknowledgements that permeate the art world today.
Biidaaban is undeniably beautiful and moving, in part due to its hyper-realistic quality. But I was more enraptured by the work’s interest in “illuminat[ing] how the original languages of this land can provide a framework for understanding our place in a reconciled version of Canada’s largest urban environment,” (3) as it is language, in spoken and written form, rather than the visuals themselves that acts as the driving force in Biidaaban. Spoken language first greets the visitor when the work begins, with text acting as an additional layer of support that compliments the disembodied speaking voice, as if from a god somewhere above. More importantly, English is relegated to the background in Jackson’s work. Not a single English spoken word can be heard in Biidaaban, while the English translation of the script appears only at the very end, after the Indigenous transcription has appeared before the viewer.
The fact that I found the experience jarring says more about my own ignorance as an immigrant-settler, and about the continued Euro-centric condition of Canadian art and politics, than it does about the work itself. Thinking back to the disorientation I faced while viewing Biidaaban—for example, from the way the voices would begin speaking unexpectedly and seemingly out of nowhere, with only a barely visible trail of light to indicate where the viewer should turn to see the accompanying text appear—I can only describe the experience as humbling. Meanwhile, my emotional response can be described as falling somewhere on the spectrum where one would find Rachna Raj Kaur’s exhibition review-cum-question of reconciliation from the perspective of an immigrant (4) and Amy Fung’s recent debut book, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being. (5) Much like Scott Benesiinaabandan’s Animikiikaa 10-97 (2017), which “envelops [the viewer] in Indigenous ways of knowing, in cosmologies that transcend those expressed in the English language,” and Joi T. Arcand’s ᐁᑳᐃᐧᔭ ᐋᑲᔮᓰᒧ e¯ka¯wiya a¯kaya¯si¯mo “Don’t speak English” (2017), where “Cree speakers are now the ones chiding settlers for speaking out of turn, just as settlers used to punish our ancestors in residential schools,” (6) Jackson’s Biidaaban is a way of letting settler viewers down easily, of saying, this was not made for you, it does not exist solely for your visual and moral pleasure.
Knowing about the recent pattern of political and educational regressions in Ontario, like the cuts to the Indigenous Cultural Fund back in December, (7) my instinct was to peel back the layers and consider what connections Jackson was making between her piece and current events. To do so, however, felt like a continuation of the current colonial legacy, in which settlers, especially white settlers such as myself, continue to seek entry points into Indigenous works in order to make them relatable, trying to understand the pain by making it digestible, compartmentalizing it. Similarly, the dominance of English in the art world, which has been partially touched upon by Alix Rule and David Levine in their seminal piece International Art English, cannot be explained away with the argument of convenience, as much as some continue to champion this viewpoint. More importantly, there is a sense of entitlement on the part of a predominantly English-speaking viewership that they have a right to the information being presented. If the hope is, as Rule and Levine suggest in their hypothesis, the desire to “reach an international audience,” then the specificities of language and culture must be condensed in order to appeal to the masses and, more specifically, to the lowest common denominator: the English language.
Biidaaban works against these forces, which Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandilal identify as “(White)spatiality”, by flipping the current power dynamics and leaving very little room for “White Aesthetics”, “where critical language…is co-opted by an inane buzzword pastiche […and] [a]mbiguity is both a currency and a shield.” (8) She also works against what Rule and Levine call the “pornographic” quality of International Art English (IAE), in which “so many ordinary words take on nonspecific alien functions”; this is a “language [that] ask[s] more than to be understood, it demand[s] to be recognized.” (9) Instead, Biidaaban makes an English-speaking viewer always aware of their lack of understanding, even when the English translation of the text appears at the very end, only visible to those who have spun around in search of voices that seem rightly unconcerned with babying a settler like me. Jackson’s work is a reminder that we cannot consider ourselves allies if we continue to expect everything to be clear-cut and laid out before us for easy comprehension. Nor should the goal be to understand in a kind of gluttonous ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ approach. Rather, Biidaaban invites settler viewers to ask themselves whether our failure in current attempts at reconciliation is because we continue to listen with our eyes closed, having already prepared an answer for ourselves after dismissing what we do not understand as simply not worthy of consideration.
Biidaaban: First Light by Lisa Jackson showed from June 10 – July 7, 2019 at MOCA Toronto.
The introductory paragraph was translated to Mohawk by Owennatekha. Peripheral Review would like to also extend special thanks to Lisa Jackson and Zoe Hopkins for their help in obtaining the translation.
Feature Image: Still from Biidaaban: First Light, 2018 by Lisa Jackson. All photos are courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).
Learning to Listen: On the Role and Significance of Language in Lisa Jackson’s Biidaaban: First Light
As a person who easily gets motion-sick and dizzy, I find something terrifying yet amazing about VR’s ability to tell an immersive story—its ability to successfully make the viewer believe that for a short period of time, they have left the world as they know it. I therefore did not know what to expect when the headset was slipped over my eyes and a voice began speaking in a language I did not understand, marking the formal beginning of Biidaaban: First Light (2018). My first instinct, as I have found is often the case when living in a large and multicultural city, was to try and identify the language, even though I knew I would not be able to, nor would I understand it. It is this willingness to admit to not knowing, predominantly because one did not take the time to listen, as well as the willingness to ask questions without expecting the immediate satisfaction of receiving an answer, that characterizes Biidaaban, inviting viewers to engage in contemplation rather than conventional passive viewership.