The Land

Opening remarks at the presentation of the VIVA Awards, Vancouver Institute of Visual Arts, April 19, 2016, in the great hall of the Vancouver Law Courts. The award recipients were Kelly Lycan and Raymond Boisjoly.

I would like to speak to you today on a subject near to my heart, and one indeed dear to us all, and that is, the land. I begin by acknowledging what has already been stated this evening, that we are gathered today on the traditional and un-ceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

We are on Indigenous land.

What do we mean when we make this statement? It is a simple acknowledgement of historical fact. But there is something incomplete about it. Some unfinished business. Even some discomfort, conflicted feelings. Here we are, in the provincial court house–imagine the legacy. I’d like to dwell with this discomfort for a moment, this unfinished business.

It’s complicated, but the statement does recognize that going forward, when we talk about the land, we need to make sure that First Nations peoples are represented at the table and that everyone has a chance to bring their own brand of leadership to the process of deciding about the land, what uses we make of the land.
Land means different things to different people.

We each, as individuals, have to work out our own relationship to the land. Lying on the ground and watching the clouds go by . . . not a bad place to start. Painting the landscape, living like hermit in a cave, or as nomad following the seasons. You might be a farmer. In the words of Emilio Zapata, “Who tills the land owns the land.” Maybe you are a hunter, or a miner, or a builder, or maybe you work for Google earth. Maybe you have lost your land; you are a refugee. So many come to Canada, most recently from Syria, who have lost the land where their families have lived for thousands of years. Maybe you are an artist, looking for a place to live, a place to make your work. There are so many claims on the land; claims of ownership, exploitation, commodification of the land. It’s front page news every day. Would it be possible to imagine the land unencumbered by all these demands – Bare Land – land outside the law, outside the economy? It would be nice to think so, and of course nature will always prevail.

For Europeans, and settler culture, this idea of untouched nature held a lot of force. It used to be said that culture was contained by nature. Nature was outside civilization, beyond the city walls, a vast infinite other, inexhaustible, alien, sublime, “the dark wood,” fraught with danger and doubt. Today, nature is contained by culture, something to be managed, or enjoyed on the weekend. But the old nature/culture split is actually over. We are moving towards a more fully embodied experience of the land. What we hear from First Nations People is that land, culture, and language, are inextricably interconnected, and always have been. This is true. We belong to the land. We come from the land. The very word “human” comes from the soil. Humility means down to earth, that we are here to serve the land.

And what does it mean to make this statement about the land, here tonight, in the context of the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation, the Vancouver Institute for Visual Arts, the Michael Audain Foundation, the Vancouver Art Gallery? What is the connection between land and art? Land art.

When we think about best uses for the land of this city, what better use than art? Land for art for everyone. Let us be curators of the land. Right now in Vancouver, we have several reasons to be hopeful. Consider the list: In Whistler a couple of weeks ago, a great achievement was made for Canada in the opening of The Audain Museum. In North Vancouver, a new Presentation House Gallery is now under construction on the waterfront. The Vancouver Art Gallery is on its way to a new home – together we will make this this happen.

It’s not just the larger institutions. The artist-run centres are happening too. Artspeak recently paid off its mortgage. Grunt Gallery owns its own space and has an endowment. The Western Front has just bought it’s building (I was one of the sellers in that deal). VIVO Media Arts is having a party this weekend to celebrate their new space. And then there are the new private spaces, the Griffin Gallery, The Rennie Collection, and expanded commercial galleries, and a new Emily Carr University, and the list goes on. And that’s just in the visual arts. There are a number of new performance spaces and rehearsal halls underway. We have many reasons to believe that Vancouver is coming into its own as a city of art, with institutions to match the exceptional achievements of its artists, whom we celebrate tonight.

At the centre of this movement, not only in Vancouver but across Canada, is an extraordinary resurgence of Indigenous culture. Writers, performers, and visual artists are not only providing images and stories and real leadership for their own communities, but are showing Canada what kind of country it can be. Two recent symposia underlined the importance of this resurgence of Indigenous art practices. The first was Cutting Copper, hosted by the Grunt Gallery and Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC in the context of Beau Dick’s exhibition there. The second was the Wood Land School: Critical Anthology, convened by Dwayne Linklater and co-produced by the Or Gallery and SFU galleries. Both symposia were able to dwell for a moment with discomfort, to inhabit the uncomfortable but also productive spaces of our unresolved histories, understanding that there is still much to be done, that there is still much to be said, and much that cannot be said, that reconciliation is a process more than a goal and that the real issue at hand is deciding our collective relationship to the land. I was grateful to be present for some of these discussions. And happy that they were able to take place in the spaces we have secured for art. I am grateful to the donors and funders and artists who make these spaces possible.

I am grateful to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Thank you.