Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization


Image credit: Rebecca Belmore, prior to closing panel discussion for “Contemporary Indigenous Performance Art: Where it’s Been, Where it’s At and Where it’s Going”at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (Lethbridge), 9 May 2012. Image courtesy of Mountain Standard Time Festival and the artist.

By David Garneau

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 36-4  (September 2013).  

For several years I have remained disturbed by three aesthetic actions: Rebecca Belmore’s yell as a prelude to a panel discussion; Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s threat to decapitate a woman during a work of performance art; and Terrance Houle’s presentation of his naked, fleshy belly in photographs and performances. Most days the images, sounds, thoughts, sensations and feelings engendered by these scenes course through my mind and body as a prickly trickle undisturbed by analysis. Other times I slow the flow and attempt to discover why they stick around, what they want. These sticky memories will not leave and I cannot assimilate them, so we negotiate a cohabitation agreement. Art’s power as a spur to personal and collective transformation is slight: a caressing seduction or a sliver working its way under the skin.

What follows is an exploration of the role of nonpedagogical artworks in cultural decolonization; in particular, aesthetic manifestations that go for the gut before the mind, the senses rather than the sensible. Works that are fuelled by an extra-rational aesthetic that endeavours through visceral and intuitive means to provoke change in other bodies — to alter moods, attitudes, dispositions and sensibilities first, in the hope that arguments, reason, judgment and minds will follow. Of particular interest is the special role of the artist not as teacher or perpetuator of customary culture, but as provocateur, an unreliable but necessary agent who plays between and among disciplines and cultures to create startling non-beautiful, needful disruptions, and to build hybrid possibilities that resist containment by either colonial designs or Indigenous traditionalism. Before getting to these works, the concept of “decolonial aesthetics” [1] needs some fine-tuning if it is to make sense in the Canadian context. And we should also consider the tyranny of the beautiful, how aesthetic excellence constrains the expression of dissent.

The goal of decolonization is to bring “about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.” [2] In Canada, this is a permanently unfinished project. Canadians believe that they live in a postcolonial country, more or less free from British rule since 1867. But First Nations, Inuit and Métis remain in a colonial state; most of our lands are occupied, and our lives governed by an invasive authority — Canada. And Canadians are not leaving any time soon. As a result, decolonial theory and practice developed in truly postcolonial countries needs to be adapted to suit the lived reality of this place. In the absence of self-determination, and the restoration of Native territories to Indigenous stewardship, artists, curators, educators and other cultural workers engaged in what they describe as decolonization, are usually doing something a little different. Particularly among the non-Indigenous, decoloni-zation is never imagined as the actual withdrawal of Canada from Indigenous territories. It is sometimes performed as activism promoting treaty rights, but it is usually expressed as a pedagogical enterprise, a cultural decolonization that consists of practices ranging from assimilation to adaptation to productive coexistence.

Cultural decolonization is the perpetual struggle to make both Indigenous and settler peoples aware of the complexity of our shared colonial condition, and how this legacy informs every person and institution in these territories. The soft hope is that education will lead to improvements in the lives of Aboriginal people — as Canadians. The more radical desire is that Canadians and their institutions will Indigenize. Due to its oxymoronic paradox, cultural decolonization in a still colonial Canada is not about working toward a classical postcolonial state, where the colonizers sail home, dragging their institutions behind them, but toward a noncolonial society in which Aboriginal nations and settlers share Indigenous territories. This sort of decolonization is about First Nations, Inuit and Métis restoring and strengthening our different ways of knowing and being, and requiring our guests to unlearn and disengage from their colonial habits. Cultural decolonization in the Canadian context is about at once unsettling settlers and, ironically, helping them to adapt, to better settle themselves as noncolonial persons within Indigenous spaces. More ambitiously, it is also about First Nations, Inuit and Métis people becoming themselves neither through forced assimilation into non- Indigenous modes, nor by retreating to a reconstructed, anachronistic Indigenous cultural purity, but by struggling to make new ways of being Indigenous within the complex of the contemporary negotiations of Aboriginal/settler/international Indigenous identities.

Most cultural decolonizing work in Canada is pedagogical. It seeks to educate people and to help them gain the tools to teach themselves. A popular way to decolonize minds is to introduce settlers to their hosts’ ways of knowing and being. This is usually done gently in a safe environment and in translation. This is a very reasonable approach. It is rational, polite and sound pedagogy. However, it is less transformative than immersion in difference. Immersion is a shock to the mind through the senses.

Art is a strange supplement. It is not essential to our survival but is integral to our humanity. It is the ornament, the flourish, the extra effort, the unpredictable addition, the unneces­sary necessity. Good art is not always good design. Unrestrained by craft, art can so embellish an ordinary function as to make it useless; render a vessel, for instance, so beautiful that we feel the need to protect it from its intended service. Art is the site of intolerable research, the laboratory of odd ideas, of sensual and intuitive study, and of production that exceeds the boundaries of conventional disciplines, protocols and imaginaries. Art is a display of surplus, of skill, ingenuity, knowledge, discipline, time, labour and wealth. It embroiders status, disguises corruption and cele-brates power. But art is also the stage where other surplus finds expression. It can be a way for the marginalized, refused and repressed to return.

Few are immune to what beauty stirs in us. Beautiful nature stimulates a pleasure that defies reason and seems to embody timeless being apart from ideology. In some it evokes the spiritual. Even materialists are arrested by nature. While they do not look for metaphysical authorship, they too are awed by the order, complexity and beauty of natural processes that exist independent of human hands and consciousness. Formal excel­lence in art is similarly inspiring. Many find in human-made things the expression of creative perfection, of a genius so wonderful, complete and novel that they feel compelled to ascribe its power to a source beyond the human. Others see in beautiful works of art evidence of a humanness freed from the grasp of the conventional­izing power of a momentary regime. In the making and appreciation of art there is a space of difference, even resistance, where people can find refuge from the ideas that otherwise rule them.

The feelings produced by the beautiful are extra-rational, noninstrumental and overwhelming. Beautiful art is nonproposi­tional. Such objects do not make logical claims that can be tested for truth value. They show, they embody; they simply are. People preoccupied by a utilitarian worldview, who are possessed by the attitude that sees real value only in an object or person’s use, can find beauty disturbing. Beauty is subversive insofar as it makes us aware that there is more to life than utility, reason and pragma­tism. Beautiful human-made things are passionate evidence that people desire and perform at least part of their lives in excess of the instrumental.

However, the weakness of beauty as a tool of decoloni­zation, or any other form of political use, is that it is a poor vehicle for conceptual content and critical engagement. Differences and dissent from the dominant order are tolerated, even celebrated, if they are attractively adorned and remain incomprehensible. What separates beautiful art from, for example, illustration or essay, is its availability to multiple and even contrary interpretations, and its resistance to didacticism. From a political point of view, beauty is unreliable. Beautiful works of art perform, display and embody worldviews but they do not explain them. The fact that it is possible to read anything politically is not the same as claiming that that thing is the best means to stimulate social action. If we want to design effective decolonizing tools from art, we ought to look beyond sensual allure alone. Beauty represses discordant human experi­ence. While it is right and good that most works of contemporary but customary First Nations art are beautiful, we have different expectations of art, for example, about residential schools made by survivors. Robert Houle’s recent paintings of his residential school experiences are rough, sketchy and unlovely, and bring the viewer a little closer to truth and empathy than visually pleasing images of the same events ever could. Beautiful works of art are utopic spaces that refuse the ugly, painful and unresolved. The discipline of the beautiful and the formally excellent is often used to repress unpleasant and dissenting truths (under the claim of quality), and is regularly employed to exclude those whose cultural practices are deemed outside of the dominant aesthetic regime.

As this issue of FUSE attests (and perhaps, indeed, much of the magazine’s oeuvre), there is a shift in contemporary art and cultural studies from a taste for objects to a preference for performance; from artworks to aesthetic practices; from criticism to reception; from private intellection and toward the sensual and socially engaged. And some artists, curators and others committed to social justice see potential tools for decolonizing practices in this turn. For example, the Transnational Decolonial Institute’s multiauthored manifesto, “Decolonial Aesthetics (I),” explains that “the goal of decolonial thinking and doing is to continue re-inscribing, embodying and dignifying those ways of living, thinking and sensing that were violently devalued or demonized by colonial, imperial and interventionist agendas as well as by postmodern and altermodern internal critiques.” [3]

This sounds like a thoughtful and just rebalancing. However, this phrasing and way of thinking might actually inspire practices that perpetuate the modernist and colonial traditions they seek to undermine. “Were” here assumes that we live in a post-colonial environment. It also sets the site of authenticity in the past tense and valorizes “ways of being” that are prior to contact. While cultural recovery projects are essential work for Indigenous people, they are only one aspect of cultural decolonization, and concentra-ting on these practices may re-inscribe colonial Romanticism.

The revival of customary Aboriginal practices, because of its adherence to an alternative to the dominant code, is seen as already and always a site of resistance. But this difference from the dominant code is a general and diffused one. In terms of resistance and survivance, [4] what is true of one object is more or less true of all members of that class. All these objects — from the point of view of the dominant gaze — embody difference, but few posit a critique. Specific resistance, pointed critical engagement with power, is rarely perceptible (to the colonial gaze) in traditional practices. Those objects are held within their community’s circuit of meaning and are designed to perpetuate the identity and struc­tures of the society they belong to, not deconstruct them. Reviving customary practices is noncolonial practice. Decolonial practice is a more direct challenge to colonial habits.

Emphasizing cultural revival is to claim the reproduction of a static, prior moment as the site of authenticity, rather than recognizing the complexity of Aboriginal adaptation during coloni­zation and the fact that both settlers and Indigenous peoples have been transformed by their entangled histories. Room needs to be made, especially due to the continuous nature of Canadian colonial­ism, to recognize our mutual adaptations, our métissage, and to make this the basis of a significant part of decolonial strategizing.

In addition to recovering and supporting traditional Indigenous cultural practices, the other “ways of being” that the Transnational Decolonial Institute, and others promoting decolonial aesthetics, wish to nurture are identified as the sensual, emotional and intuitive (aesthesis), [5] in opposition to intellection and the instrumentalist preference of Euro-American and other imperial­isms. While this may also signal a healthy reorientation, to the Indigenous ear it sounds like familiar modernist dichotomous logic: the West is logocentric, so the other must be passionate, sensual and nonrational. While the manifesto authors do call for a polyphony of difference, their preferred differences are those that seem other than European. There is a tendency in decolonial aesthetics to essentialize nondominant cultural contributions and to find value only in what they are thought to have possessed prior to contact/ colonization. And those attributes are constructed as the lacks of Western ideology and imperialism. If the Canadian branch of this movement is managed by “Eurocentric” Canadians (no matter how reformed), this looks less like a new turn than as just another cycle in a continuous revolution in Western art, thought and sentiment since the Romantics: disenchanted with the society of their fathers, Western artists seek personal and cultural renewal, re-enchantment from the work and lives of those supposedly uncontaminated by their patrimony, the Indigenous.

A preference for intellection, for thinking, for scepticism and experimentation is not the genetic inheritance of European peoples alone. There are Cree philosophers and Anishinabeg scientists, German mystics and Hungarian witches. Reason is not a cultural attribute of the West alone, and spirituality and other forms of extra-rationalism are found in every culture. These are human qualities. European colonialism was as much fuelled by a desire to save souls as it was motivated by material greed. Western cultures and individuals are replete with contradictions, especially founda­tionally conflicting beliefs about materialism and metaphysics. All this is to refresh the warning against essentializing colonized people and projecting upon them only the attributes that are contrary to the current dominants’ preference. By troubling both categories just a little, we can see that mainstream discourses are far from unified and that oppositional discourses are not merely the repressed supplements of the colonizer. If rationalism is flawed because it marginalizes feeling and sensation, aesthetic action based on feeling and sensation is equally flawed in the other direction if it marginalizes intellection. Gut feelings do not always lead to right action. Feeling is often just embodied culture. Racism is a feeling; so is sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and all deep values that guide us without thinking. We need internal and discursive dialogues between intellection, intuition, sensation and feeling if we are to reduce the imbalance that comes from both over-rationalization and affective error. The teaching that Western-identified persons and institutions should learn from Aboriginal cultures is our emphasis on holism, not the exchange of one partial worldview for another.

In respect to the holistic attitude, I will conclude by counterbalancing my intellection with an affective account of my experience of the three aesthetic actions alluded to in the introduc­tion. In May of 2012, at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (Lethbridge), [6] I moderated a discussion about contemporary Indigenous performance art. Once the formalities were out of the way but before the first question was asked of the panel — Adrian Stimson, Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle — Belmore stood before the crowd and let out an aural avalanche. It was a deep, sustained yell, a loud, long and unexpected monotone. Too low for a scream, too attenuated to be a shout, without an external stimulus to suggest it was a reaction, a response, a reply. The soulful exhalation seemed deliberate but perhaps without deliberation; an unconscious intention instantly manifesting itself as an act in advance of mind and meaning, a body responding to an unfamiliar environment, sounding the space, inhabiting it with breath and a vibrating presence before words. The muscular push forced chatter and thought from the crowded room, and cleared the space from anything other than immediate visceral attention and presence. It demanded a transition from a space of many to a moment of unified attention and communion.

The sound was outside of language. It was not an utterance, a request, an assertion, a claim, a communication in any ordinary sense. It broke with the protocols of such gatherings. It was shocking and yet because the issuing body seemed in control, it did not seem symptomatic of distress or a prelude to violence. Even so, the surprise of the sonic rip excited in me a primal response. Only an act of will prevented me from rushing either forward or away.

A year earlier, 17 March 2011, at Neutral Ground (Regina), [7] I attended Guillermo Gómez-Peña and James Luna’s La Nostalgia Remix, an assemblage of their performance pieces generated over fourteen years of collaboration. The night was chaotic, crowded and noisy, and engendered a tense participatory fun that at several points tipped toward shock. In one scene, while gripping the long hair of a young female audience member, a menacing Gómez-Peña, costumed as I remember it in an amalgam of Mayan and contemporary military gear, mimed to the audience whether he ought to decapitate her with his machete. The theatrical fourth wall disappeared much earlier in the night when audience members were dressed in stereotypical cowboy and Indian and other costumes and were invited to participate in various scenarios. This one began as more serious fun but soon edged toward horror. I felt like I was about to witness a murder. The possibility of violence felt actual, not acted, and it generated a complex series of feelings then and now. I was surprised that some people shouted for him to do it. I was surprised that I did not rush forward. I honestly felt that this stranger (to me) might not have been acting, that he was possessed by the character he was playing. I wanted to fight or flight in a non-thought response. I felt a visceral thrill and horror that in my gut linked this event with the history of human violence and bloody spectatorship that is barely suppressed by a veneer of contemporary “civilization.” But I also became aware of my own colonized state, my desire to correct and control this other. For me it was a profound physical revelation. While I knew these concepts as ideas prior to that night, this sight brought it home to and through my body in a much more convincing and unforgettable way. It was deeply frightening.

Terrance Houle’s thick belly is a feature of many of his photographs and performances. [8] It is not a pleasing sight. It is the sort of thing that in most settings within Western cultures is hidden away, because of the flesh’s association with sex and, in this case, because it is not attractive according to the conventions of ideal male beauty. Non-disciplined bellies are to be concealed. Houle’s exposed paunch — and his disinterest in shame — contrasts Aboriginal norms with the colonial normative that has had great anxiety about the naked body and sexuality, but especially with Native nakedness and sexuality. For Houle, his frequent near-nudity in performance is a form of purification — a being in the world as you came into the world, naked — that was modeled for him by men in the sweat lodge. [9] Houle’s exposure calls such colonial tastes and previous attempts to control Aboriginal flesh into question. I have been using the words “taste,” “preference” and “habit” when examining colonial cultural strategies, and in order to denaturalize these opinions-backed-by-force. But Houle’s visceral actions establish the point much more memorably.

Belmore’s shout, Gómez-Peña’s threat and Houle’s belly are aesthetic in that they trigger affective responses. They stimulate the senses. They are not lovely gestures, nor quite sublime or ugly. Their power comes from their not-quite participation in a Kantian aesthetic and their not-quite engagement in pedagogic theatre. They are intuitive disruptions of the repressed real into the aesthetic arena. These unexplained, extra-rational, undisciplined irruptions of not-quiteness intrigue the mental/sensual system more perplexingly than beauty or didacticism alone. They are mentally indigestible. Rather than teach, they encourage people to puzzle with them and learn what they need of them.

I think that what excites decolonial activists is less the radical possibilities of traditional Indigenous cultures than the radical possibilities of contemporary art. Few decolonial aesthetic activists advocate for the revival of traditional Indigenous cultural practices alone. Rather, they are enthusiastic about how Indigenous ways of knowing and being can reinvigorate and rebalance Western aesthetic practices, even to the point of de-Westernizing them. While noncolonial practices, such as perpetuating traditional Indigenous cultural activities, are Indigenous, decolonial aesthetic activism could not be similarly described. Especially in the Canadian/ Aboriginal context, decolonial activity is inscribed in relation to the mainstream. It seeks to change the orientation of the discourse but not eliminate it, reform individual members, not ship them off. It is a dialogue between Indigeneity and Canadianism in a field that belongs exclusively to neither. Traditional Indigenous cultures before contact were, of course, neither decolonial nor activist. Art as a form of decolonial activism is the result of contact; it emerges from cultures in collision. Decolonial aesthetics, then, is a hybrid; neither fully Indigenous nor Western. It is this new site of métissage that needs interrogation, not the fetishization of just one half of its roots. Indigenous artists like Rebecca Belmore and Terrance Houle, and a Chicano artist such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña, are bi-cultural, creating work in the space where Indigenous/colonial culture overlap. And what they produce there belongs to not-quite one space or the other, but to the third space of art.

[1] “Decolonial Aesthetics (I),” Transnational Decolonial Institute (22 May 2011; online).
[2] EveTuck and K.WayneYang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1 (2012; online). Quotation from the abstract.

David Garneau (Métis) is a visual artist, curator and critical writer teaching at the University of Regina. His work engages issues of nature, masculinity and contemporary Indigenous identities.


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