Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound

NOVEMBER 10, 2017 – JANUARY 6, 2019

Jon Corbett, Four Generations (video still), 2015. Single-channel video, 1:30 minutes. Collection of the artist.

Waves of light, sound, and electric current flow throughout Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound to demonstrate the vitality of Indigenous contemporary art in the digital age. Countering the misperception that Native art is opposed to the use of new media, or that the “traditional” is necessarily located in the past, Transformer dissolves binaries that would affix Native artists in opposition to the dynamic embrace of technology. But more than a new media exhibition, the curators of Transformer assert that what distinguishes this work is the legibility of its Indigenous content and the dynamic approach to contemporary Native identities.

The films and video projections in the exhibition embody a conception of motion as defined by co-curator Kathleen Ash-Milby—one that reflects the unsettled nature of traditions and customs transmitted across time and space. (2013) by Keli Mashburn (Osage) and Marcella Ernest (Ojibwe) is a dual-channel video titled after the Osage word for chaos and disorder. It rapidly cycles through images of black and brown prairie grass, winter landscapes, blue sky, and water in a mesmerizing loop that rotates horizons into abstract, vertical color fields. Twinkling wind chimes accompany the landscape as the filmmakers track the cycle of its rejuvenation following a prairie fire on Mashburn’s family land, the transformation of scorched grass into green spring growth demonstrating the dual nature of fire expressed by—as destructively chaotic yet also life-giving. The sounds of an elder giving thanks and prayer combine with rapid drumbeat-driven cuts to archival footage of black-and-white dancing figures, creating a metaphysical tornado that pulls the viewer into a relation to time and land, a ritual of renewal visually updated into this non-linear montage.

Likewise, the play of shifting shadows inside a tent in Stephen Foster’s (Haida and European) Raven Brings the Light (2011) gestures toward the transformative nature of storytelling through the important Northwest Coast story of the trickster figure Raven. The tent projection, a recording of flashlight shadow-puppets made while Foster told the story to his daughter, uses the shine of light to evoke the sun, which was released by Raven into the sky. The viewer is transported to the forests of the Pacific Northwest by the raven calls that sound when the viewer activates the piece. Yet the indecipherable protean shadows and inaudible whispers suggest Raven’s shapeshifting abilities while also abstracting the narrative and refusing to reveal it fully, maintaining the intimacy of the telling between father and daughter. Projections and videos thus recast old stories and customs intimately related to place as mutable in their present forms.

Media’s ability to transport the viewer to a new space is further seen in the installation Our future is in the land: if we listen to it (2017) by Julie Nagam (Anishnawbe, Métis, German, and Syrian), in which two walls, hand-painted with the outlines of a forest of birch trees, are filled with projected light and life. Sounds of nature, loons, waves, and fire captured with spatial microphones in southern Manitoba reveal the depth of information about the natural world that is available to a close listener, punctuated by the words of a local elder and knowledge-keeper who describes uses of and relations to local flora and fauna. Local animals appear in the installation as drawings that fade in and out between the birchbark. Nagam’s writing has hailed Indigenous artists who use digital and new media to break down binaries of civilized/contemporary and to refute colonial tropes of the romanticized other. Her work here attempts a new kind of space that operates outside of colonial binaries—one that is not static nor located in the closed borders of a colonially delineated territory, but rather is an ever-changing space, rooted in a specific place that expands beyond itself to make itself available for a viewer to experience. But while the affect is transportive, Nagam makes use of the digital imaging technology and platforms that bring her piece to life, without critically interrogating them.

While the stated goal of Transformer is the creation of new, non-binary solutions for being contemporary and Indigenous, there is little critical insight about the Indigenous relationship to digitality, which, in its base structure, is a system of binary data distinctions. Digital media is a discrete representation of information, which seems in opposition to many Indigenous conceptions of time and place, which emphasize interconnection, continuous ontologies, and relations between things. Can the digital thus accurately reflect the cultural beliefs and positions that underpin the works in Transformer if the means of their transmission is defined by the architectures of the media?

A stand-out work by Jon Corbett (Métis), however, investigates the possible Indigenization of digital technology. In his video Four Generations (2015) four portraits of the artist and his family are generated through a spiraling string of digital beads, each a point in the pixelated vignette. The beads slowly replace themselves along the spiral’s course, the portraits of previous generations flowing into one another, replacing the perspectival grid of the pixelated screen with a spiraling structure that co-curator David Garneau notes is “more in tune with a Native sense of time” visualized by the beads’ continuous and circular movement. Eventually, it returns to a point of origin where past and present coexist, rather than linear progression that overwrites the old with the new. Going further, Corbett also Indigenizes the base programming language by writing code in Cree to reflect his beading practice’s basis in Cree grammatical structures and ontologies, which include non-regulated syntax (antithetical to master-slave programming rules) and a gender system that differentiates between animate and inanimate rather than male and female. His work aims, in his words, to “culturally reprogram” the digital interface beyond aesthetics, and his acknowledgement of culture as an interface is a model for the decolonization of root structures, rather than superficial interventions that only appear at the most surface level of the screen.

While the curators of Transformer did not want to limit themselves to digital media, the lack of more diverse digital formats (absent are net art or VR works, video games, or any online component whatsoever, media that Native artists have long used for self-representation) is notable. Artists in this space receive increased support and attention in Canada yet little in the United States, as evidenced by the exhibition’s heavy reliance on artists based across the border. Is the emphasis on physical installations and sculptural works, rather than ephemeral online material a curatorial oversight or an extension of the expectation that “Indian” art be hand-crafted of traditional-seeming materials, subtly favoring a stereotypical real rather than a virtual presence? Works that are not as technologically driven as the rest of the show, despite their strength, thus feel like a missed opportunity to reflect on how Indigenous artists translate tradition and culture in the rapidly accelerating realm of virtual spaces and digital formats.

Marianne Nicolson’s (Kwakwaka’wakw) The Harbinger of Catastrophe (2017) is crafted in the style of a Northwest Coast bentwood box with formline designs etched into its ocean-green glass. The stylized imagery references flooding—of her own community in 2010, and also Hurricane Sandy—as well as Lenape-Dutch exchange specific to Manahattan. A motorized light inside the box projects shadows and flooding light that shifts up and down the gallery walls like rising and falling water. But Nicolson’s past work projecting Kwakwaka’wakw images and stories onto museum facades would be a much-needed intervention on the stultifying neoclassical façade of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House—a possibly transformative transmission of light into the heart of the Financial District that has not yet been realized for want of funding.

Transformer nonetheless largely succeeds in presenting contemporary Native art as dynamic and future-orientated, and demonstrates that electronic media are not incommensurate with tradition but rather fortify complex Indigenous identities today. A sci-fi approach to Indigenous futurism is seen in the ITWÉ Collective’s installation Manifestipi (2016, on view February 3 – March 25, 2018), a circular encampment of multicolored Plexiglass tipis arranged around a rapidly shifting video projection of historic photos and drawings. The images are shot through with neon rays that reflect the changing hues of the tipis, and the expansive Diker Pavilion is filled with a soundscape of waves, planes, and distantly sung national anthems. The pyramidal tipis read simultaneously as homes, minimalist monoliths, and lunar capsules, the mirrored floor lending them a slender spaceship visage that turns the pavilion into both encampment and launch pad. They present a new kind of space-faring mobility for the historically lightweight and collapsible tipi, though the plastic paneling also recalls prefab architecture employed in rapid construction homes and refugee camps. The “colonization” of outer space is a problematic frame for Indigenous futurisms, and Manifestipi leaves one to wonder how future traditions might lead such extraterrestrially mobile Indigenous travelers to build new relationships with place through the technology of tomorrow.


Christopher Green

CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.