Disrupting Currents: Catch + Release

Disrupting Currents: Catch + Release
8 – 30 April, 2010, VIVO, Vancouver
11 May – 30 May, 2010, Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historical Site
and touring
review by Rita Wong

Catch + Release is an exhibition that gives us valuable glimpses into the communities that rely on salmon along the Pacific coast. Ruth Beer, in collaboration with Kit Grauer and Jim Budd, has created a space to contemplate the importance of salmon and the ocean in our everyday lives. Incorporating sculpture, video interviews and interactive sensor technology, the show creates an immersive experience that juxtaposes the history of Steveston, a fishing village on the West Coast, with contemporary data from NEPTUNE, Canada’s underwater ocean observatory. This juxtaposition creates a sense of the incommensurable, the way in which a much vaster and more ancient underwater ecology simultaneously coexists with human-built narratives and economies, whether or not humans pay this larger context much attention.

This is a particularly timely show in light of the collapse of sockeye salmon runs along the West Coast in 2009, when millions of expected fish did not appear. As the fish go, so eventually will we. As Haida Gwaii carver Jim Hart phrases it in one of the multi-channel video screens, “Bears, eagles, trees, and humans all rely on salmon. The BC Coast is here because of the salmon, and people forget that. Salmon have been saving our lives for thousands of years.” This show is worth considering within a larger cultural context that includes many First Nations’ concern for the salmon and Alexandra Morton’s walk for salmon, the Get Out Migration, that saw over 5000 people rally outside the BC legislature on 8 May 2010 in support of wild salmon and in protest of the salmon farms that are contributing to the destruction of wild salmon runs.

On May 3, Morton wrote on her blog as she walked the length of Vancouver Island in support of wild salmon:

— crying.  They are speaking about schools without children, independent livelihoods lost, communities dying. This is about much more than fish.  This is about the independent way of life that built these communities going extinct. As we walk I see a land of beautiful clear streams, fertile soil green with life, air sweet with flowers and then I enter towns so burdened by global corporate markets that they can no longer thrive on the richness of this land. There is something very wrong here, it is painful to witness and people are sad.

Somehow we have become blind to this public resource — millions of salmon flowing annually to our doorstep, feeding people and our economy province-wide. We have somehow been convinced that Atlantic salmon — dyed pink, vaccinated, fed Chilean fish, in pens where we cannot catch them, infesting our fish with lice — are better. We believe there are jobs even as the Norwegian companies are mechanizing as fast as they can to reduce the number of jobs.  When people see us they know we have been duped and they don’t know how to turn this around.  The Get Out Migration has been protected, blessed, gifted and honored by the First Nations who know best what has been lost. Everyday more people are joining our trek — weathering storms in tents, waving at a thousand honking motorists on the road to Victoria.  Our ranks swell as we enter the towns, white doves have been released, First Nation canoes parallel us, songs have been written, feasts laid out, flotillas surround us, people are awakening.

I quote Morton at length here because she compellingly conveys the sense of urgency that moves thousands of people, who hope to avoid the kind of collapse that happened with cod on the east coast in the 1990s.

There are loud awakenings, and quiet, humble awakenings going on all over the west coast.  It is in this environment that Catch + Release particularly resonates with me, now and here. In the show’s first incarnation at VIVO, the 9-channel video formed a discreet space in which to watch and listen to excerpts of footage that included perspectives from a former cannery line worker, a Haida Gwaii carver, a chef, a commercial fisherman and restaurant owner, an interpretive dancer, a professor of biology, a fishing boat worker, young tourists, and the head interpreter at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. Video footage of a hand massaging a woman’s feet and calves, juxtaposed with a chef massaging salmon, reiterated the fleshy connection between the eater and the eaten, through timed appearances and fades that suggest at once a complex, random system, as well as underlying structures that somehow link seemingly disparate elements of the food chain. On the other side of the wall of video screens was a dark, oceanic cave, occupied by five geological sculptures by Ruth Beer as well as a screen on which one’s movement into the space became subtly translated into shadows merging into the projection of real-time data from the Pacific Ocean, courtesy of NEPTUNE.

In its second, expanded incarnation, at the Gulf of Georgia Historic Site, the multi-channel video was placed on the left side of the cluster of five geological sculptures (with more footage added), and the projection from NEPTUNE on their right. Placed under twisting blue-green light, the sculptures took on a more uncanny presence as the centre from which to mull over the relationship between individual experiences of how salmon have changed people’s lives and the ceaseless flow of ocean currents, as they become interrupted by humans walking past sensors.  Children visiting the Gulf of Georgia Historic Site quickly found ways to play with the shapes they made on the screen; as I told one of them, “That’s your shadow in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!” Salmon cans also glittered, gold-like, on two posts, some emitting sounds for visitors willing to take the risk of putting their ears up to the cans, like seashells.

The bringing together of the tactile and the technologically mediated, the human and the nonhuman, makes for an evocative questioning of place and identity. Alongside the work of carvers like Jim Hart, photographers like Barbara Zeigler (who photographed salmon being killed by sea lice as well as the creatures in the Broughton Archipelago that are endangered by the loss of salmon), journalists like Alanna Mitchell (who points out that every second breath we take consists of oxygen produced by plankton from the world’s oceans), and activists like Alexandra Morton, Beer and her collaborators are part of a growing groundswell that creatively responds to the dangers that oceans, streams, and ecosystems are currently facing. In so doing, they invite us to imagine better possible futures, in defiance of the reductive corporate logic would kill off the wild salmon.

Catch + Release will continue to morph over the next couple of years, and there are plans to install the show in other coastal cities. It is my hope that in mapping stories of cultural and geographic transition, such work will remind us of how time might be circular, rather than linear, if we are wise in our actions.  I want both a past and a future that include clean water, abundant wild salmon, and cultural paradigms that value the knowledge of indigenous peoples who have lived on this coast for thousands of years in careful balance with natural cycles.

The enigmatic flows of NEPTUNE remind us that there is much we don’t know, and healthy respect for the ocean’s depths and complexities could well be the first step toward reconnecting with the ecosystems that sustain our lives. In both human and non-human experiences, the simple lesson of gratitude for what the ocean provides is there to be learned.

Rita Wong is the author of three books of poetry: monkeypuzzle, forage, and (with Larissa Lai) sybil unrest.  She works at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. Currently, she is researching the poetics of water.

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