An Interview with Tanya Lukin-Linklater

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Tanya Lukin-Linklater originates from the Native Villages of Afognak and Port Lions in southern Alaska and is based in northern Ontario, Canada. Performance collaborations, videos, photographs and installations have been exhibited nationally and internationally. She is compelled by the interstices of visual art and poetry, pedagogy (learning), Indigenous languages, portrayals of women and children in film, and the body. Her poetry and essays have been published in C Magazine, BlackFlash Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Taos International Journal of Poetry and Art, Drunken Boat, Ice Floe, and in publications by Access Gallery, Western Front, and McLaren Art Centre. Her work has been exhibited and performed at EFA Project Space + Performa, NYC, Museum of Contemporary Art Santiago, Chilé, SBC Gallery, Montreal, Western Front, Vancouver, Images Festival + Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, Toronto, Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, and elsewhere. In 2016 she will present work at La Biennale de Montréal, Le Grand Balcon, curated by Philippe Pirotte. Tanya studied at University of Alberta (M.Ed.) and Stanford University (A.B. Honours) where she received the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and the Louis Sudler Prize for Creative and Performing Arts. She is currently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. She was awarded the Chalmers Professional Development Grant in 2010 and the K.M. Hunter Artist Award in Literature in 2013.

Erin Wunker: I’ve been following your work for more than a decade now, and what always strikes me—brings me to a standstill, really—are the ways in which your work is not just in conversation but is a conversation—with land, with histories, with “disciplines,” with language. You’re often described as a multidisciplinary artist, but I wonder, would you be willing to describe your practice to our readers in your own words?

Tanya Lukin-Linklater: I’m an artist who experiments with material. Materials can be texts, histories, institutions, bodies.

The erasure of Indigenous peoples in the United States weighs heavily on my mind. I recently visited the Detroit Institute of the Arts and I viewed a number of collections there – the Diego Rivera murals, the Native American Art, Contemporary Art and African-American Art collections. The Native American Art collection was solidly positioned in antiquity and framed (in a familiar way) through an anthropological lens, with the exception of one painting by Kay Walkingstick and two works by Norval Morrisseau. The DIA was also showing 30 Americans, an exhibit of 30 contemporary African-American artists including Glenn Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Carie Mae Weems and other phenomenal artists. The DIA, like many institutions, doesn’t seem to know how to consider Native American art in contemporary ways because I believe America doesn’t seem to know how to reckon with Indigenous peoples as alive and simultaneously a part of our collective historical consciousness. I suppose for the first time during my visit to the DIA, I began to consider the significance of making work for major museums, to position Indigenous experiences and histories within these larger conversations.

I make art because I think critically about Indigenous peoples’ relationships to museums, Anthropology, collecting, and institutions. I make art because I engage with ideas.

Partly today I’m concerned with expanding the conceptual space for Indigenous women in different locations including, but not limited, to museums.

EW: When you say you’re concerned with expanding the conceptual space for Indigenous women I find myself thinking about the word conceptual as both “to be conceived of”—thinkable–and also in terms of conceptual artistic and poetic practices.

What I mean by “thinkable” is that when a culture and a people are under the forcible erasure tactics of colonial violence, one of the tools of the colonizer is, as we know, semiotic control—making the other unthinkable and unthought.

Can you tell me a bit more about what it means to expand conceptual space for Indigenous women?

TLL: I can’t determine a frame for the conceptual spaces of Indigenous women in relation to museums. Indigenous women—as thinkable, and in their conceptual artistic and poetic practices—will always exceed any structures I place. I am more concerned with the potentiality of this idea to expand conceptual space. It will be taken up by Indigenous women in different ways and should be self-determined.

EW: Collaboration seems an inherent facet of your practice as both a writer and an artist (if we can even separate the two practices—do you?) For example, the language, conversation, and textuality of “The Harvest Sturdies” seems to me to be in collaboration not only with memory and voice, but also, as you write, in collaboration with “Slow Scrape.” Your in process video work—I’m thinking here of your recent work with Daina Ashbee, Ceinwen Gobert, and Emily Law—brings women’s bodies into collaboration with one another in incredibly moving ways. Can you tell our readers some of your thoughts on collaborative practice, whether it be in your installation, performance, or writing?

TLL: Collaboration for me is about relationships simply and the way in which collaboration happens. I bring ideas, the structure for the work, and situated-ness to each project—in that I think about the location and the context. I configure these materials in relation to one another. I think about the ethics of the work as well as creating a climate for the women I work with (I work primarily but not entirely with women) to feel that they can trust me with what they generate—I want the process to be generative and generous for all involved. I’ve worked with poets, traditional artists, contemporary dancers, performance artists, experimental musicians, academics and curators in the last three years. I consider all of these people collaborators in the sense that the work would not exist in its form without their contributions.

Layli Long Soldier is a phenomenal poet and worked as my editor and mentor on “The Harvest Sturdies” and “the the.” A series of projects began with these two long poems and excerpts of both poems have been published, but I always intended for the poems to become something else—something visual, performative. At the time I was considering how to bring text forward in my practice. Pablo de Ocampo, curator at Western Front, mentioned in a studio visit that he sees text as a substrate of my work. I agree that text and writing have been hidden yet related to my choreographic and visual practice for years.

The catalyst for “The Harvest Sturdies” was Chief Theresa Spence’s 44-day hunger strike for treaty. She is from Attawapiskat First Nation. I see the poem in conversation with Chief Spence in some ways or in conversation with treaty or in conversation with the land. I interviewed Agnes Hunter, Lillian Mishi Trapper, and Marlene Kapashesit about their practices tanning hides, beading, and sewing for “The Harvest Sturdies” as I was interested in learning more about their relationships to land and to labour. I’ve been interested in Indigenous women “crafting” since I was a teenager, which often becomes this intimate and beautiful action that sometimes becomes performative perhaps partly because there is a history of Indigenous women in Alaska (where I’m from) performing for tourists in public places, like the Alaska Native Heritage Center. These women I interviewed are my relatives—my husband’s grandmother, auntie, and cousin, from James Bay. I was in conversation with them in the work—I see them as collaborators in the sense that I quote them directly in the text and I know that my relationship and learning from them will continue beyond this project, this poem.

I also make visual works with the texts. Not exactly concrete poetry, but during this time Layli and I were reading poetry together—bp nichols, Gertrude Stein, Orlando White, Joan Kane, as well as others. Sections of “The Harvest Sturdies”—as text, drawings and installation—have become movement scores for collaborative performances with dancers Daina Ashbee (Montreal) and Ziyian Kwan (Vancouver).

I use a similar methodology for another project, “the the,” which centres on memory, race, gender, and class and has become live performance with translation of the texts into French, Spanish, and Cree.

In my current “in process” video work, I’m building on a process I developed for the video installation and photographs in “the the.” In the first iteration I looked at three films, Ivan’s Childhood, Mouchette, and The 400 Blows—excavating the films for moments that were compositionally moving. I recreated select scenes in photographs and looped video. I’m interested, partly, in repetition. For the second iteration of the project, I’m looking at the films, Spirit of the Beehive, Blackboards, and Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame. Again, I’m recreating moments of bodies in relation to one another, but when I change the location and gender of the “actors,” it changes the meanings and the way we read the bodies. In these video projects I am directing the movements, making choices, and refining but drawing on the strength of the performativity of professional dancers who listen, translate, and integrate direction, transforming their bodies, or inhabiting the ideas I communicate to them.

EW: Can you talk a bit about why and how repetition is interesting and important to you in these in process works? I find myself wondering how and if repetition asks the viewer to pay attention differently, and if so, how? To what?

TLL: Repetition and a different sense of time inhabit my work. My work is body-based so I often feel the viewer responds kinaesthetically to the work. The repetition of a gesture or a movement located in different parts of the body is a kind of calling to the viewer to consider, re-consider the movement. Performance so often exists only as memory. Repetition allows better memory, although everyone remembers differently through selection and editing. Repetition in my work may reference orality—in both performance and Indigenous orality repetition functions as a way to remember, to anchor.

EW: So much of your work—from “Woman and Water” to “Mapping Resistances” to “The Harvest Sturdies” and “Slow Scrape”—position Indigenous women’s bodies in, on, and with landscapes (built, natural) as sites for encounter. More specifically, they seem to me to invite both participation and witnessing of the past and present inscribed on women’s bodies. Would you be willing to comment on the function of gender and place in your work?

TLL: An ambiguity of gesture and openness of meaning are important for these works. When I look back on my recent projects, in some cases, I’m dealing directly with histories or the memories of histories (“In Memoriam” and “Sight/Site”), but the histories are inhabited but not stated directly. I leave the work open. When I think about “The Harvest Sturdies,” I was responding to the context of Idle No More and Chief Spence’s hunger strike. “the the” engages with children in vulnerable situations in films and at the time; there was great momentum for reckoning with history and the experiences of Indian Residential Schools survivors. At the same time, there was momentum behind the call for an inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. This was the context for the work. This is still the context from which I make work as I am thinking about these histories and the ways people live with these histories every day—as a kind of residue or memory that is sometimes fleeting, invisible but present. But I leave meanings and readings of the work open; I leave space around the work. Contemporary dance is often difficult for people to read, but partly this is why I like it.

I am an Indigenous woman from Alaska living in Canada. I am constantly thinking about our responsibility as Indigenous people to this land and to the people, who are struggling through poverty, structural racism, and sexism, lack of infrastructure in their communities, and against further environmental degradation, for example. I also think about non-Indigenous peoples’ responsibility to reckon with our shared history and to consider deeply their generational privilege which resulted from, and continues because of, settler colonialism. We are all implicated in these histories and we all need to examine our privileges.

EW: Yes! Art and performance—especially your work which brings the Indigenous female body into the centre of these questions—seems like a crucial site from which these examinations of privilege can happen. We can all look, but we are not all looking at your work from the same perspective.

Can you comment on your choice of medium for certain works? I’m thinking, for example, of “Decommission,” which I would be inclined to read as a poetic meditation in collaboration or conversation with Duane Linklater’s “Decommission.” How and when does writing serve you as a medium of artistic creation?

TLL: “Decommission,” perhaps more than any other of my projects, lives as a work of writing. Duane asked cheyanne turions and I to write for the catalogue of this exhibition at the McLaren Art Centre. I thought about the writing for several weeks and spent a great deal of time considering my relationship to the object in the exhibition, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. I also lived with the idea of Duane tearing down the Jeep for several months, perhaps a year, prior to writing. So my memories of the Jeep, this everyday object that I’d lived with for years, and Duane’s transformation of the Jeep into a sculpture were very present for me. I wrote this piece in perhaps an hour but I’d gone over some of the lines in my mind for a while prior. I revised it and sent it to Layli Long Soldier for editing.

EW: I’d love to hear what you’ve got on the go in terms of up coming projects and even talks or places and people’s work you’re excited about.

TLL: I am contributing to Wood Land School: Critical Anthology, edited by Duane Linklater, to be published in fall of 2016 by Or Gallery and SFU Galleries. This text is a part of the Wood Land School project which has taken place across Canada as exhibitions, residencies, seminars, screenings, etc. I participated in a series of talks by the contributors in Vancouver in March 2016 co-hosted by Or Gallery and SFU Galleries.. The group of artists, writers and curators contributing are outstanding. I’m excited about their varied critical positions on contemporary Indigenous art. 

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