by Sophie Mayer and Kim Solga, January 14, 2018
Sophie Mayer is a writer and activist, based in London, UK. The furthest north she has been is Stykkisholmur, Iceland, at 65 longitude.
Kim Solga is a writer and teacher based in Hamilton, ON. The furthest north she has been is Stockholm, Sweden, at 59 longitude.
Before the show begins, “Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools” director Erin Brubacher comes to the edge of the stage and says, “Hello everyone.” She announces that she will be audio-describing the performance by co-creators Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and Evalyn Parry, and musician Cris Derksen, and encourages us to return to talking amongst ourselves before they take the stage.
Brubacher offers a broad, inclusive welcome: an invitation to conversation, a reminder not to assume normative bodies in the audience or on stage, and an emphasis on the aural, performative, and embodied over the textual. Hers is an act of recognition, making us visible and audible to each other.
Before recognition, though, cognition: her announcement gives us, informally, a tool to understand that “Kiinalik,” devised and written by Williamson Bathory and Parry after they met aboard an Arctic exploration and education vessel, will be a work of listening.
First, to Laakkuluk and Evalyn, as they will call each other throughout (they are not quite themselves, not quite personae; this is not docudrama, or Verbatim theatre, or realism, but a collaborative genre devised across cultural difference, outside the black boxes of western theatre tradition).
Next, to performed sound: the guitars placed on stage (Parry’s) and the cello and pedals on the wide lip of the stage (Derksen’s) also call us to be ready for the auditory.
The set-up seems familiar at first: a black box stage extending into the seating space, two microphones, a backdrop of two video screens set at a slight angle to one another, the musician’s pit.
But attached to one microphone, stage left, is a striking half-moon blade; it is right that it is magnetised to the mike stand, because we will have to listen carefully indeed in order to understand what it is, what it does, who it belongs to, and who belongs to it.
So that’s where we, too, will start.
“You did this to me. I did this to myself.”
“You did this to me. I did this to myself.”
“YOU did this to me! I DID THIS to myself!”
“YOU! DID! THIS! TO! ME!… I! DID! THIS! TO! MYSELF!”
Laakkuluk grows – arms, torso, gesture, voice – with the words each time she repeats them. They seem at first to be eating her from inside; then she seems to command them, fight them, fight to hold and shape their power. The strength of the binary options before us seem suddenly overwhelming, dispiriting: it’s not her, it’s us. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s them. It’s me. It’s her.
The pain of the phrasing echoes through the contortions of her body. Then, it’s over.
Later, remembering this episode, we talk about the word “reckoning.” What does it mean to reckon? To come to terms with. To understand. To sum up: to do the sums, the math. X + Y = my fault, or your fault. An end, finally. The “point” of reconciliation.
How might we move beyond this binary, the firm expectation that we can testify, compensate, land on “reconciliation,” then move on? Reconciliation, we have after all been told, is a process; the “re” before “conciliation” means again, a return to, an ongoing practice of, not an end.
Not that the end is impossible; only that it’s not easy, maybe not the process we expect it to be. Maybe it will look, or sound, much different than we might think.
Maybe it will demand more of each one of us than we can even imagine.
Taking the violence of this impossible equation, this toxic binary formulation, into her arms, Laakkuluk shifts it with her voice. Her vocal training in katajjait (Inuit throat singing) lets her stretch it, play with it, pressurize it; her trained voice is a spectrum, so many voices, a genealogy of sound.
Behind and beside her Derksen and Parry support her voices with theirs, looped, tracked, pedaled, and recorded, until the intonations of past and present, “North” and “South,” human and technological weave and tangle, reveal so much more than “us” and “them.” More than a sum can simply represent, reconcile.
In conversation with the sky, perhaps with the ancestors in the aurora that she has been marking (on black microfilm stretched across a projector) with the fine point of her ulu, Laakkuluk throws her seal skin boots (designed by Nicole Camphaug of ENB Artisans, Nunavut), into the air, one after another.
First, she removes them.
“Remove” resounds with the story that Laakkuluk tells, of the Inuit community forcibly taken from Inukjuak to Resolute (from the 58th to the 74th parallel) by the Canadian government in the 1950s. It resounds with the story she tells of Inuit women shamed for their tattoos after enforced missionizing Christianisation.
When she removes her boots, one by one, to challenge the being or beings she talks with in the sky, she reclaims the act of removal.
Cris, the show’s composer and live musical performer, had removed her beaded moccasins when she sat down, working her effects and loop pedals with bare feet. Now Laakkuluk is barefoot as well.
The question of who gets to place their feet on this ground is first raised, earlier in the show, by Evalyn’s ironic yet impassioned cover of The Travellers’ Canadianisation of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Now, that question is felt not only in words, but in the body.
Removing her shoes, Laakkuluk also marks a change: until this point in Kiinalik, movements have been vernacular and everyday, although performed with great skill and stillness.
But when she removes her shoes, Laakkuluk removes herself – removes all of us – from Eurowestern norms of everyday comportment.
Feet to the stage – which is the ground of Iqaluit, her home town; which is the shared circumpolar land of the global Inuit community – Laakkuluk reclaims this place.
She removes us – an (assumed, predominantly) settler audience – from our comfort zone, our (assumed) place, to hers: a place which, for her, is both spirit world and solid ground.
The ground beneath our feet shifts.
In the establishing section of the show, where Evalyn and Laakkuluk describe the boat journey on which they met, Evalyn sings about this sensation of being shifted. She describes its discomfort, and she calls it “seasickness.” She sings of it as a disorder that occurs “when your eyes can’t see what your body is feeling.”
She sings of it in the context of a conversation that has flowed back and forth across the practices and impacts of colonization, industrialization, and climate change. Which, as Laakkuluk remarks, “are all the same things for Inuk.”
These are things white, settler eyes can’t often see, although our bodies are always feeling them, too. They are things that settlers are privileged not to hear. As Evalyn narrates, she was privileged for decades not to hear the reverberations of the word “savage” in Stan Rogers’ song “Northwest Passage,” which her father, David Parry, sang regularly with his band.
Passing song and speech back and forth between them, Laakkuluk and Evalyn create reverberations, underlined and highlighted by Cris’s cello and its reverb. In this opening part of the show, as they approach each other’s stories, they give us the “sharp tools,” as Evalyn describes the folk songs given to her, that will enable us to attend to what we ignore or fear.
The cure for seasickness, she sings, is to step on deck and find the horizon: to face the overwhelming vastness of the ocean.
To face: “ulu kiinalik,” says Laakkuluk, means “my ulu has a face.” It is a sharp tool with a biting edge. Without that sharpness, that awareness pointing into the world: starvation. She asks us to sharpen our faces as she sharpens hers.
Talking later, we find ourselves wondering how Laakkuluk and Evalyn first turned their faces to each other, risked each other’s edges. What was the sharp point where this work first began?
We go over the stories they tell us about their initial encounters. The show reveals bits and pieces about them, individually and together: they are both “laughers” and “criers,” both married, both with British fathers, both with dead fathers. They met on a boat, “touring” the Arctic. A boat that carried exponentially more scientists than it did Inuk.
But the origin of their story, we soon realize, remains missing; the bit that they keep to themselves is that loaded moment of “first contact.” The fetish moment of all settler-colonial narratives, the encounter usually rendered, frozen, in art: this is theirs alone, not for our consuming ears and eyes.
Instead, after sharing brief snapshots of their pasts, they sing together the “Skye Boat Song.” They tell us it was sung to them both as babies; it is a shared history. A birthright.
The “Skye Boat Song” comes from the Highland Clearances; it is a reminder that the British Isles are also a land alive with strong memories of settler colonialism. And, as it invokes the worlds of the Hebrides – closer to Norway than to London – the song is a reminder of a shared circumpolar culture, an alternate framework (round, not vertical; from above, not from the “West” or the “South”) for ordering our shared globe.
The “Skye Boat Song” is an offer to the audience as well, an invitation into a shared cultural practice most, if not all, spectators at this particular theatre will know. But it’s an offer with a twist: because rather than give us the origin stories we expect, Evalyn and Laakkuluk trace their collaboration across a blend of stories and spaces, some familiar and many very much not.
Eventually they open us up to one another as they ask us to turn to our neighbours and talk – maybe about the furthest north we’ve ever been, or the most northern places we are connected to.
No origin stories here, then: only shared histories. Unexpected moments of collision and connection that may allow us to reimagine settler-colonial space as a heterotopia, a zone “of alternate ordering” (the phrase is Kevin Hetherington’s).
“Everything is connected… everything is felt,” says Evalyn. She and Laakkuluk offer us a palpable way to feel in the zone: the vagus nerve, seen on the video projection and described by both performers, becomes a map of Canada, not by analogy but immediacy. Laakkuluk explains how everything is connected, felt by the land: the land is the people, the people are the land. Buddies expands to the size of the country, shrinks to the size of a torso. Opening and squeezing, inviting us in warmly but all the while pressurizing our shared stories, practices, and expectations: Kiinalik unfolds like the squeezebox Evalyn plays when she and Laakkuluk first take the stage.
Like the vagus nerve pulsing, aroused bodies pushing and pulling: this is hard work, hot work, urgent work. Pleasurable and painful, necessary work.
When Laakkuluk places her feet to the ground, a joyful, forceful, erotic Uaajeerneq (Greenlandic masked dance) follows. She follows it into the audience. It is ritual, it is participatory; it is not only live performance but lived, felt encounter.
See Laakkuluk performing Uaajeerneq in Tanya Tagaq’s video for “Retribution.”
Uaajeerneq is a process through which Laakkuluk invites us to become vulnerable with her, powerful with her, playful with her.
It is another of the show’s performative strategies for decolonisation, for which there are perhaps not yet good English terms. Laakkuluk reminds us that names are not just words, but souls. Some things we can’t just talk about, so easily. That does not mean that they are not present, not urgent, not real.
More listening is needed before we have the sharp tools that Laakkuluk wields so powerfully, the responsive listening that Evalyn wields so gently. Before those of us from settler backgrounds can fully understand how the aurora, and Laakkuluk’s tattoos, are not “symbols” for each other, but kin: relations.
Before we recognise “kiinalik:” each one has a face. One that we, as settler-colonisers, cannot merely watch, spectate, but one that we need to respect/ate: to acknowledge the accountability of these looking relations.
“Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools”
Buddies in Bad Times
Oct. 24 – Nov. 5, 2017
Kim Solga is a Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, where she teaches in the Theatre Studies major and minor program. Her books include: “A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age” (2017),”Theatre & Feminism”(2015), and “Performance and the Global City”(2013). She writes about teaching, performance, and activism at The Activist Classroom.
Sophie Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). She works with queer feminist film curation collective Club des Femmes and with Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the film industry. Her most recent writing project is Disturbing Words.