Workshop Report | Aesthetics and the Canada-US Border

 

3rd Culture and the Canada-US Border Workshop | Calgary, 19th and 20th September 2014

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loft112Loft 112 sits in a liminal space in Calgary, on the edge of downtown, in the East Village, currently in the midst of gentrification. As a space dedicated to literary and artistic practice, it provided the perfect venue for the third workshop of the Leverhulme Trust-funded Culture and the Canada-US Border research network, focusing on aesthetics and the Canada-US border. Over two days, CCUSB network members and workshop participants were treated to four presentations of aesthetic sensitivity, constructive energy, and searing intellect.

Kicking off proceedings on a sunny Friday morning was Calgary’s own Aritha van Herk, with her insightful “Heading South: Succumbing to and Resisting Seduction.” The United States is Canada’s “conceptual sibling and our antithetical neighbour,” the place we go to to succumb to temptation. For van Herk, library reading rooms, particularly those of the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, hold the greatest temptation—and they are increasingly policed like nation-state borders. But if crossing the border from Canada to the United States allows Canadians to fantasize about “life lived in the third person,” in a country where everything seems (to a Canadian) to be “an endless film,” the ways in which borders have been imagined have deeply affected our own geographies and mythologies. As van Herk pointed out, our location in Calgary might have been in another province altogether, had Sir Frederick Haultain had his way: his imagined province of Buffalo, which would have encompassed Alberta and Saskatchewan, would have constructed a very different “here” north of the 49th parallel.

Our second speaker, art historian and artist Dylan Miner (Métis), bridged questions of Métis relations to the Canadian and US American nation-states and considerations of the prefigurative and the provisional, particularly with regards to ways of mapping the Great Lakes and the Canada-US borderlands, in “Jiimaanike miiniwaa manashkikiiwe (s/he builds a canoe and gathers medicine): Indigenous Movements Against Settler-Colonial Borders.” Miner’s own aesthetic remapping of the borderlands features lowriding, an “Indigenous ontology and border disruption” born of the interaction between Chicano culture and more northern Indigenous cultures in the Great Lakes (as Miner reminds us, border crossers from Windsor to Detroit are greeted by “Mexican Town” on the US side). Miner demonstrates that the aesthetic and practice of lowriding disrupts prevailing notions of space, temporality, and capitalism, while his construction of lowriding bicycles with Indigenous youth from either side of the Canada-US border disrupts the colonial logic of that settler-invader boundary.

Our final Friday speaker, Marcello di Cintio, drew on his experiences of visiting nation-state walls around the world in his presentation, “Shun thy Neighbour: Dispatches from America’s Other Border.” Primarily examining the Mexico-US border, famously described by Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa as an open wound, di Cintio demonstrates how the scarring of the landscape by a militarized border makes the attempt to cross “a capital offence” (with the US Border Patrol’s view that the risk of death should deter migrants). Objects considered to be trash by the border patrol, whether they be water stations positioned by No More Deaths or evidence of migrants’ passage through, in fact comprise “the jetsam of migration” and a “living archaeology of the artifacts of migrants as flesh and blood reality.” The border fortification itself has become an “irresistible canvas for art,” a recoding of border policing through its re-rendering as, among other things, “the world’s largest musical instrument” played and recorded by Glenn Weyant. Conceiving of the border as a musical instrument no doubt aestheticizes a location of state-sponsored brutality, but the “melancholy wailings of the wall” also testify to the border’s violence.

Lest we make the mistake of displacing state violence onto the US, anthropologist Audra Simpson (Mohawk) concluded the workshop on Saturday by analyzing settler colonial violence as an ongoing project in Canada in “The Chief’s Two Bodies: Theresa Spence and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty.” Simpson powerfully reframed the discussion of aesthetics and rearticulated questions of affect through the response (or failure to respond) of politicians and mainstream media who contended that Chief Spence’s body did not adequately offer up their version of a legitimate hunger strike. Canada, Simpson argues, “requires the death and disappearance of Indigenous women to secure its sovereignty,” as attested to by the legions of missing and murdered Indigenous women within Canada’s borders. At the same time, Canada enlists affect in the attempt to make itself over as a “sympathetic” or “caring” state, even a “sorrowful” state in its self-positioning via the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Challenging the mode of reconciliation and its role in settler governance, Simpson calls for “thoughtful contention” instead.

This magnificent workshop was organized and hosted with great warmth and generosity by Kelly Hewson of Mount Royal University. Innumerable thanks to Kelly for gathering us together in Calgary and prompting so much engaging and enriching conversation, and to her Mount Royal colleague and collaborator Lee Easton for chairing the discussions.

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Gillian Roberts

Co-Investigator, Culture and the Canada-US Border research network

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