Performance art is a very special privilege that not many experience. It is the kind of art that can never be replicated nor experienced outside of the confines of an art atmosphere. The audience witnesses a one-of-a-kind event. Uniqueness is where the beauty lays. Even if the artist chooses to perform in multiple venues there will always be variation: whether it be in the artist or the audience. This past Friday (Oct. 29, 2010) I had the opportunity of experiencing a performance by Terrance J. Houle at G-101 called IINNIIWAHKIIMAH.
Terrance J. Houle is a performance artist who has used many mediums (photography, graffiti, music, painting, video/film) to explore issues on colonization, racism, identity, cultural difference and representation of the Aboriginal people in popular culture. Iinniiwahkiimah (not only the title of this piece but also his Blackfoot name translating to Buffalo Herder) explored contemporary and traditional identities of Aboriginal people. The performance was set within a room that had its walls stenciled-graffiti black with Buffalos. It began with Houle undressing in the middle of the G-101 as the audience crowded around him. He removed his contemporary clothing of jeans, shoes, socks and t-shirt to change into simple Native regalia, consisting of breach cloth, moccasins and a breast plate made out of wood and leather; while keeping his red boxer-briefs and stylish eye glasses on. As soon as he “transformed himself” he cued the music and “Run through the Hills” by Iron Maiden flooded the space.
As soon as the music started the performance/enactment of Buffalo herding started. Houle would run towards the Buffalo closes to him, stopping to peel off tape only to reveal white borders and enhance the esthetic of the stenciled-graffiti Buffalo. As he ran towards the Buffalo (and this is the magic of live performance art) two women had to remove themselves from where they were standing so as to not get trampled. This caused them to move closer to the crowd. Houle would take the whole duration of the song to peel/reveal more of the identity of the Buffalo. As soon as “Run through the Hills” finished playing the process was repeated again. He stationed himself in a corner and “Indians” by Anthrax hit our ears. This time as Houle ran through the room he shouted out “Move to the Buffalo” in Blackfoot. Running towards the Buffalo and further encircling the crowd together, he once again, spent the whole duration of that song peeling and revealing the Buffalo. The process, the two songs and the shouting, were repeated until the crowd had come closely together and the last of the Buffalo was removed of its surrounding tape. The performance lasted about 20 minutes and by the end of it everybody was very much in close quarters, some of us dancing along to the guitar licks that we recognized.
Integral to the performance was the aspect of the mixture of the contemporary Native identity. Houle had kept the Native regalia simple so the (mostly) white Audience would be able to identify it as so and as he says ” to draw away from the fantastical or spectacle of regalia in Powwow”. By undressing and re-dressing in front of the audience he confronts our fantastical notions of Native regalia and contextualizes it into an everyday act, making them more present. The regalia has been removed from its traditional atmosphere into a contemporary one; all the while keeping its artistic integrity. The regalia is no longer just a part of traditional identity but a part of a contemporary Native identity. As he removed his clothes, Houle, exposed the audience his body, which is clearly on display to be seen as it is. Even when barely dressed it still is composed in Western wear. His hair is cut in an urban fashion, his boxer-briefs, his trendy eyeglasses are all markings of a contemporary body. The mixture of traditional and contemporary where very much exposed as soon as he finished putting on his breast plate, the last item to be put on.
The performance will always stay with me as I’m sure it will with the rest of the audience. To a certain extent Houle places us in history. The subversion of being herded will always make me think of the history of our North American continent. It will make think of the significance that this animal has played in the lives of the Blackfoot. The Buffalos stenciled and graffiti evoke replications found on Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park but as they are done in a contemporary fashion it places them in our place and time, again combining the traditional with the contemporary. They remind us of an act that was very much part of the everyday life of the Blackfoot and of an act that contemporary farmers do when keeping Bison. Houle has a gift of mixing the contemporary with the traditional together. In a way the mixing lends itself to something that will never forgets the past but will become something new, something stronger. This is the kind of art that needs no begging to be loved.