A multi-pronged project curated by Liz Park, Invisible Violence includes a collection of 5 x 7″ cards with photographs by Rebecca Belmore, Ken Gonzales-Day, Francisco-Fernando Granados and Louise Noguchi; a series of “discursive events” where the publication is distributed for free; and a web hub that will be updated with blog responses to each of the events. This post is my own blog response to the project launch and artist talk with Liz Park and Dzawada’enuxw (Kwakwaka’wakw) artist Marianne Nicolson, which happened at SFU on February 15, 2013. I was not able to attend this talk in person but SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement has been kind enough to post it online here. If you would like a copy of the publication, you can contact Artspeak (who co-presented this event) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The project’s web hub is a good source of information, so I will try not to regurgitate too much of it here. I want to instead focus on Nicolson’s presentation, which doubled as an artist talk and personal reflection of the photographs in Invisible Violence. This format was true to Park’s discursive aims in that it fostered a related but novel discussion around violence and representation, Nicolson’s work being an experiential and virtual addition to the project’s collection. Including Nicolson in this way (rather than as a photographic card) was not only an entry point into the issues of context and framing that run throughout the project but was curatorially well suited to Nicolson’s own practice, which in my opinion, often draws on contexts (personal or more broadly cultural) that may not always be apparent to the first-time viewer.
In her introduction to the talk, Park drew upon Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? to discuss the epistemological (i.e. the ways in which we come to know something) framing of violence in photography. Butler defines an epistemological frame as being that through which we apprehend something (or someone) as having a life worth grieving for when it is lost. As epistemology is often connected to the concept of belief, it is evident how competing epistemological frames may result in violence, as it determines what can be recognized as life and what cannot (Butler refers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example). Park argues, following Israeli curator, filmmaker and theorist Ariella Azoulay, that we must take risks when viewing photographs of violence in order to extrapolate and scrutinize the broader context. This is no easy task, as photographs are necessarily delimiting in the first place, but in her talk Nicolson provides us with some of this context in order to reveal the violence in photographs of Canada’s indigenous peoples that by first appearances are not violent at all.
In my own research I have focused on issues of ontological conflict, ontology being the study of the nature of reality or existence. I cannot help but think that Butler’s use of epistemology here in some ways occludes the conflict that occurs when two differing ontological worldviews come into contact. Here, in the case of many indigenous cultures for example, the category of “life” is itself a contested issue, one which has borne the effects of colonialism. This is evidenced in Nicolson’s own discussion of the treatment of ceremonial masks by the Indian Agent William Halliday who confiscated these treasures from the community of Alert Bay in 1921 during the Potlatch Ban. A photograph taken by Halliday shows the masks displayed in a heap, one having fallen on the ground below the bench. To the Kwakwaka’wakw these masks were and are incredibly significant to the ongoing cultural life of the community and are sacred, ceremonial actors. Trading these along with their coppers to avoid a prison sentence constitutes a form of violence that moves beyond an epistemological assault on a competing belief system to an attack on vital components of the very world or ontology of these people. What was the Indian Residential School system if not a complete obliteration of the world of the children who were taken there? At issue is more than the representability of life, as discussed by Butler, but the livability of life itself. I digress, though taking ontology into consideration, to me, more accurately describes the consequences of such conflicts.
Nevertheless, Nicolson’s presentation fits well within the model of the epistemological frame in many areas. In her introduction, Park characterizes artists as often pointing to the frame itself in order to highlight the precariousness of life that we all share. Nicolson demonstrates this in her discussion of postcard images and anthropological photographs of First Nations people taken by Franz Boas and Edward Curtis. She recognized that both photographers were seen to have a social consciousness despite being caught up in their own anthropological frames: Boas criticized hierarchical representations of racial groups while maintaining a practice in physical anthropology – the measurement of physical characteristics that was undoubtedly objectifying. Similarly, though Curtis’ photographs are well documented as often being staged, he sometimes named his sitters, including one of Nicolson’s relatives: a warrior named “Big Bear” who was photographed with a wig on. Although these photographs are mundane seeming, if a little absurd at times, Nicolson rightly points us to the underlying forms of violence that lead to their creation and the ease through which the precariousness of life is exposed if one considers these images more seriously.
She also, however, describes the re-appropriation and breaking of these frames within her own practice and community. A photograph taken by Curtis of a big house on Gilford Island, the Sea Monster house, provides Nicolson with a record of her great uncle’s dwelling that she would otherwise not have. In this example, Nicolson alerts the viewer to their own agency, the ability to either look through the frame to how Curtis saw her people or to look at the frame as a record of how her people lived. She argues that such photographs can be used to reconstruct history but that we must be aware of their original intent.
The parallels between Nicolson’s and the Invisible Violence artists’ works thus begin to emerge. Each of the artists occupy a slightly different position in their framing of violence, some choose to represent it more blatantly while other choose to erase it in order to highlight the conditions of violence or the other subjects involved in relations of power. Belmore’s White Thread (2003) (below) shows a woman physically bound in an extreme position, body doubled over, feet crossed, arms immobilized. She stands on a pedestal against a white background, isolated and visually arresting – like an objet d’art, according to the project’s website.
The violence in Belmore’s image is blunt, while Nicolson’s Bakwina`tsi: the Container for Souls, (2006), is far from violent. The image pictured above includes a photograph of the artist’s aunt projected onto the wall from the container in the middle of the room, a young woman sitting alone in the beauty of nature. Unbeknownst to the viewer, the woman sits facing St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay, where she was taken from her family at the age of four. The violence in these images shift between physical and mental, the latter often being more difficult to recognize. Bakwina`tsi is Nicolson’s way of breaking that frame, if invisible to the viewer here, by placing the photograph into a new and wholly indigenous context, including crest imagery with familial significance. It is interesting that it is not necessary for the viewer to have this previous information about the artist’s aunt, as the work on its own conjures notions of honoring family history and the strength of indigenous women. A strong demonstration of the power of the frame in itself.
Both Gonzales-Day and Granados utilize the format of the postcard to disrupt our consumption of the image. Granados presents us with the back of a postcard of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and one of the youngest people to be held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Granados withholds the boy’s image from us while inserting his own response to the widely contested story. In Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series (2002-2011) (below left), images of lynchings that were (horrifyingly) sometimes mass-produced and circulated as private postcards (i.e. not posted) have been altered to remove the victim along with any rope or other signs of their presence. The presence of the photographer and the actions of the participants and onlookers, however, become painfully obvious here. The absence of violence serves as a visual reminder of a history that has not been properly addressed in the United States. The rest of the Erased Lynching series can be viewed here. I am also reminded of Jason Lazarus’s photograph, Standing at the Grave of Emmett Till, Day of Exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL) (2005) (below right), which art historian Darby English discusses as an important alternative to the gruesome image of Till that is typically circulated and that helped to catalyze the Civil Rights Movement. English argues that this photograph of an empty grave site allows us to remember Till and his experience in new ways.
Nicolson’s Wanx’id: to hide, to be hidden (2010) (below), takes a similar approach to Gonzales-Day in its interruption of the viewing process. Black walled glass boxes that resemble carved chests give nothing to the viewer’s eye upon approach, they cannot be visually consumed like a chest in an anthropology museum might be (this work was first installed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC). Like Bakwina`tsi, what is important is contained and protected inside these boxes, alerting the viewer to the fact that understanding requires both time and effort – an area that is often occluded (especially) when viewing photography. Once again the artist’s agency to mediate our consumption of images becomes an important tool in waylaying the violence of representing others, or at least offers another path.
Nicolson describes Noguchi’s Compilation Portraits (1995-1997) (below) in this way, wherein the artist weaves her own face into images of murderers and murder victims. The combination of images is subtle so as to only slightly distort the original but nevertheless implicating the artist in the history she presents. It is this kind of deconstruction and reconstruction that each of the artists in Invisible Violence participates in, alongside practices such as Nicolson’s, which challenges viewers to question their own role in interpreting images of violence (hidden or otherwise) and encourages new readings. Although this may be a risky endeavor, it is necessary to closing the many gaps in understanding that create the conditions for violence at the outset.