Reciprocity In the Wake of Goats and Grenades
“Surrounded by a possible serene beauty, grief and sadness, love and hate, what encounters do we inscribe into our psyches and into our beings, what can art do to fulfil a mandate of hope and agency. What can we contribute.” – thirstDays Project curator/artist-in-residence Jayce Salloum at VIVO Media Arts Centre
The subtitle of grunt gallery’s monthly series Spark: Fireside Artist Talks, points towards where the talks take place…
in the community and conversational site of the Native Education College Longhouse, over lunch in the afternoons. Last Thursday Cease Wyss, media artist and ethno-botanist, and Hans Winkler, a German artist and curator, sat down in the informal space to discuss their connection, observations, and work with Kaho‘olawe Island in Hawaii.
The conversation centred around the violent history of Kaho‘olawe, which was used to test bombs and explosives by the U.S. Army, who seized the island under martial law after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The bombing, combined with the island’s unique colonial plight of rampant goats (brought originally by Captain Vancouver in the late 18th century), has left the island with an uninhabitable desert like terrain, with much of its land still unsafe due to undetonated explosives. The land has been “given back” to Hawaii and the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) and Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) determines who has access to the island by invitation, usually only to volunteers and those with Hawaiian ancestry.
For the two artists Kaho’olawe was a site to explore a very valuable question in the project of healing: “what can we contribute?” The fulcrum for this work is, I think, a phrase Wyss during her talk that Thursday: the “cultural handshake.”
The handshake, or the site of human connection as a literal touch, is an interaction with Wyss that I feel privileged to have received one week prior to that edition of Spark. The program at thirstDays no. 02: Rematriation and other ruminations, at VIVO media arts centre, was closed by Wyss, who hosted a “reciproci-tea party,” in which she first instructed the room to get into a circle, an ideal shape for receiving, and gifted us tea that she had made from the plants native to the Squamish and Hawaiian lands of her ancestry. In this practice she grabbed each person’s hands individually and thanked them.
This followed a piece by Skeena Reece, Touch Me (2013), in which Reece bathes another woman. They share what Tara Hogue, the Aboriginal Curatorial Resident at grunt gallery, calls “the severing of cultural, linguistic and family ties through the residential school system, and signal the need for forgiveness – on a personal level – to move toward trust.” Generosity was on display as a powerful agent, with each individual sent home with tea and caribou stew warm in their bellies, to sleep on what it means to have just received a gift.
thirstDays is an ongoing project that VIVO is embarking on this year which centers around the expressions of “love, intimacy and (com)passion in a geopolitical context,” and each event is a diverse presentation of poetry, video, ceremony, and performance that explore that space.
This project, and the site of the Lower Mainland, are not unique as sites of struggle and occupation. thirstDays searches for a way for individuals to contribute to healing the divides and learning from the anger that has been created by the continued cultural genocides of Indigenous peoples. I came away with appreciation for the land I am a settler on and the culture I was invited to take part in, as thirstDays asks an important question of those who attend: what is each person’s place within this struggle?
This place is geographical, political, and historical. It searches to make connections with different times, places, and people, and it is not satisfied in narrowing its reach or restraining its energy. It’s the extension of Wyss’ “cultural handshake.”
So again, what is it we can contribute? In the case of Kaho’olawe, Wyss is using her practices as an ethno-botanist to help restore the plants indigenous to the island. She also has plans to start ephemeral art projects in collaborations with the Hawaiians who visit the island by using the shells and bombs found in the land.
For Winkler, he saw the nature of Kaho’olawe as a site of spiritual and cultural teachings as a very important part of preservation. This got him to seek out the aid of an ex-CIA hacker to help with the project of erasing Kaho‘olawe from official maps. It’s a project of sovereignty, to keep hidden one of the few places in Hawaii where access has not been granted to the general public.
Kaho’olawe exists as a refuge from commercial interests and tourism, and a simultaneous reminder of grief and destruction. It is interesting that the place that was stolen from its people is now one of the only places in Hawaii that Hawaiians can use to practise ceremony in peace. This and the history of the island have kept it as a deeply spiritual place for many despite its land having been visibly changed by colonialism. Wyss reflected the thorny idea that people go to learn their culture and language in “one of the heaviest places.”
-Sydney from The Media Democracy Project