Decolonial Actions, a Study Room event – Documentation

As part of our Study Room Ambassador scheme, LADA was delighted to host a presentation and discussion with the international performance artists Christine Brault, Isil Sol Vil and Marina Barsy Janer on (post)modern colonialism on 13 Feb 2016.

The actions presented and discussed :

– (De) Colonial Reconquista, by Marina Barsy Janer, 2014, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

– Llast Colonial (Colonial Burden), by Isil Sol Vil, 2014, Barcelona, Spain.

– Quebec – Querétaro: Acá como allá, todas somos hijas del maíz (Quebec – Queretaro: from here to there, we are all corn daughters) by Christine Brault, 2015, Querétaro, Mexico. 

Joining the discussion and process: Laura Burns and Leo Kay

Video documentation of the event and a written response by the participants can be read below.

An Introduction to Decolonial Actions

Decoloniality understands the colonial to be not only part of our past but engrained in our modern psyches, bodies, lands, interrelations, and notions of time and space. Furthermore, it conceives the colonial to be intrinsic to modernity. The modern Self is however, a unique and limited perspective born out of a specific context. Cartesian outdated cogito ergo sum (‘I think; therefore, I am’) is not only problematic due to its mind-body divide, but also, we ask: Who is this thinking Self? This Self excludes women, blacks, Indigenous, Muslims, and so forth.The rise of modernity saw genocides of women (Europe’s witch hunts), Muslims and Jews (Spanish ‘Reconquista’), and Indigenous people (invention rather that ‘discovery’ of ‘America’). These killings of knowledge, also known as epistemicides, pretended to vanquish other ways of being in the World (thought, belief, sensibility, socio-political structure, etc.) to rigorously install a Universal modern way of being. The decolonial moves within the pluriversal (a world where many worlds fit). Although an initial inversion of positions may be needed, re-positioning the centres in the margins or othering the ‘same’ (‘reverse anthropology’), this is only a first opening of the wound and a coming out of invisibility. Furthermore, a true horizontality of epistemes is called upon where interlinked connections and border culture and thought can occur.

Triggering questions:

-Are there really two sides to colonialism? (colonised and coloniser) May we break this duality? Is breaking it part of the decolonial process or does it silence once again the oppressed?|

-How do we think about decolonial actions and their relation to the entanglements of global life of which we are all part?

-How does one speak from one’s position, sharing decolonial practices yet with an awareness to avoid repeated violent appropriations?

-How do we think outside of the associations of certain terms that carry the baggage of their colonial meanings with them? (e.g. ‘truth’ to a Western post-Enlightenment Self meant something different in the context of new medical science, than it did for earlier convergences of poets / philosophers / scientists…)

-What are the things we are engaged with, that are culturally specific to our own practices and to decolonial acts e.g. language reclamation, autonomous medical body processes, theories such as biosemiotics–practices that attend to the immaterial in the material, or the blurry line therein, facilitating body-mind knowledge, etc.?

Commentary on the Event 

(De) Colonial Reconquista, Marina Barsy Janer.

On the commemorated day of the ‘discovery’ of Puerto Rico by the Spaniards, 19 November, I invited a heterogeneous community of Puerto Rican women to mark the skin of my back with the word that defines it: COLONIA (Eng. COLONY). 7 women write the word on my back, one woman per letter, shaping this sing which is a reversal from invisibility… towards the visible… the sound of the skin that awakes my presence as an open wound. After this action of writing on the skin, a female tattooist perpetuates the ephemeral with the act of sealing the wound with the tattoo.

The 7 scribes (women participants) legally accept the authorship of the land of my skin correspondent to their writing. Through their signing of a copyright document they accept the ownership. A male lawyer singed and stamped their documents in-situ, while their letters were being tattooed on my back. In this moment the public could enter the performance space one by one and manipulate a camera which was connected to a television screen which faced the rest of public. In the legal action of accepting the copyrights over the letters in my back, a double narrative was created: a re-conquest of a titular jurisdiction taken away from our territories (Puerto Rico) / bodies (women’s), together with the uncanny positioning of a power relation and legal right over the body of another person.

Llast Colonial (Colonial Burden), Isil Sol Vil.

This piece began with the URGENT need to aim at colonialism (through my body and using performance) a colonialism that comes to us with the burden’s weight for those who, like me, are White and European. We are those who come from the earth of the bloodthirsty, the spurs, the outpouring of patriarchy’s impositions, exploitation, and all that barbarity committed in the name of grace. I set myself in this frame and demand through my voice and presence, putting myself above the attendees, imposing myself. There was no choice. They had to follow my instructions! The indication was simple, clear, and direct: ‘Raise your asses from your chairs and get down to the stage!’ At that time I raised a paper with a photocopied reproduction of my ass.

Once ALL the public came down to the stage (some angry with the way I had addressed them, others like obedient lambs) I went right to the top of the seats, hiding in the last row. When climbing up, you could see all the objects neglected, abandoned, scattered and left by the rushing public. At that time, I positioned myself above the public, and began to scream out loud each and every one of the names of the indigenous tribes of the Americas that the Spanish colonial Empire had put under its paws. I imposed the burden that all White and European (or of any colour or colonial country) should carry with them. It is part of our past; it forms part of who we are, part of our culture and daily life. We are ‘colonial selves’, we colonise and are colonised. Only by being conscious of this and by feeling its weight, may we begin to decolonise.

Quebec – Queretaro: from here to there, we are all corn daughters, Christine Brault 

“During a recent artist residency in Mexico, I realised how omnipresent the feminicide problem has been in that country. Investigating further, I observed that those atrocities are spread worldwide, that the killing of girls and women has been systematically going on for decades including in my own country, Canada, where over 4000 aboriginal women have either disappeared or been found assassinated. Of those 4000, only 1186 have been declared as such, many have not yet been identified. Reflecting upon all those bodies of women thrown, dumped in lakes, rivers, forests, roads, as mere garbage, insignificant human beings, then came the idea of working with corn leaves. From North to South, corn remains the fruit of our ancestral land, way long before being called an American land, with the arrival of the first colonisers, over 500 years ago. For me, our sisters, these girls, these women who disappear and those found murdered, are also corn daughters.

Therefore, in order to not forget them and as to denounce and condemn this serious problematic, I decided to use corn leaves to build herself a sort of a sack, in reference to the thrown bodies. In Queretaro, Mexico, I weaved the leaves together using white, red and green cotton thread, referring to the colours of both Canadian and Mexican flags. On my right arm, in my skin is inscribed / tattooed this sentence: ¿ dónde están où sont-elles onde eles estao where are they? First using the four languages of the Americas, this sentence will later be translated in as many indigenous languages as possible through encounters starting in Quebec, then wherever the project leads me through the Americas, without any order necessary for the same power of meaning.

Reflections triggered by the event

I felt that there was a positive statement to be made about us being on a journey of articulation, that the white artists within the presentation panel were expressing a need to recognise a colonial past, their questions about its current repercussions and their relationship to it as part of their process. This is not the end point but rather it is part of the activation of their bodies and minds. Action follows this point of recognition. It is not guilt. Instead, it may be more associated to the Buddhist stance on regret: only as part of the process in asking ‘how can I do it better next time’.

I was also deeply moved by the idea presented by Gabi from Goldsmiths that we begin to rebalance only by reinstating ritual as of equal importance to established hegemonies; that we live in a world too dominated by empirical truth, by scientific fact and by the assumption that the meaning of words is set in stone. It is through breaking the meaning, through recognising the importance in ritual acts; that we can move away from the complete imposition of the myth of material progress, of ownership and dominance as the only paradigm that can work for human society. This also allowed me to appreciate my focus on Ritual within all of my work and to reflect on its presence within performance and the work of the artists presenting. Giving Ritual importance is itself a radical act. By imbuing each moment of performed, ritualized, expression with a meaning that goes far beyond proof driven reason, you begin a process of detachment from imposed rationalism, opening the experience to the possibility of the unknown.” – Leo Kay

“Thinking-sensing us, thinking-sensing myself in this us… the somatic affectivity of who and how. To approach coloniality as a Puerto Rican (fe/male) colonial body- citizen in London, U.K. : a hub and central force of “First” World neoliberal individualism. Unifying in difference… conceiving this process as a communal need which is greatly bothering us all… although to different levels, with diverse nuances, and within multiple experiences. An experiment of ephemeral communities where the individual selves firstly looked at their gazes inside the mirror to finally look into another’s eyes… into an-other’s universe. What does it mean? Where does it lead to? We have created an embryo of (critical) discomfort that is able to develop inside a womb of respect, care and love.  This does not assume that questions were answered or that a process of deconstruction began. We must continuously engage in an ongoing river of epistemic vigilance to encounter together in the flow of this communal ocean. This is an ongoing (life) process where uniting to voice-embody the diverse and heterogeneous experiences is already a political step into decolonisation. Amor&Rabia: Love&Rage. To be continued…” – Marina Barsy Janer

“As a white female of mixed ancestries, I often feel I can embody different worlds, or I let myself be “Other” than who/what I am. Being this “white” woman, yes sometimes I find myself feeling guilty of coming from this First world, where indigenous people were living long before “we” came to install “ourselves”. In school, for centuries we were not thought the TRUE history of the TRUE inhabitants of the country I live in, Canada – Kanata (an Huron-Iroquois word for “village”). The indigenous people taught the white settlers how to live, how to survive on their harsh but beautiful land. 

For colonialists, collaboration was soon left out of the picture, claiming the Indian land as their own, they started the long-term rape. Among the people who attended, who shared this open space with all of us, I did not feel guilty, I realized more and more the reasons why I do what I do and how, and the importance of such work in today’s world and preoccupations.

But at the same time, we spoke about the will to reconcile in hope to “repair” all the damages that have been done out of no- respect of the people – First Nations – non respect of their identity, their languages, their culture, their traditions, their way of living, non-respect of the land with the pipelines running through the land, destroying lakes, rivers, oceans…I was left with that question haunting me: Can we truly repair any harm that has been done? What can be done to reclaim — regain territory as the Indian people’s primary rights in terms of decision-making as to bring better CARE — we cannot REPAIR — to stop the constant destruction. OUT: extractions … OUT: polluting industries… OUT: pesticides killing bees, other insects, animals, land, humans… I believe what happened during the discussion among all of us is a seed to reflect on RESPECT at the base of everything… can we just go (back) to living respectfully with the land, honour the land and the people.” – Christine Brault


“How to present oneself or take into praxis a decolonising act, if oneself is and makes colonising actions? Yes, I AM WHITE, MALE AND EUROPEAN and I come from the land of the despoilment, and the murder, the conquering to get rich at any price and in any way… that bleeding Christianity, of the repressor and inquisitor. I COME FROM THIS CULTURE, FROM THIS WAY OF DOING. By working this self-problematic perhaps one has the idea that you cannot participate in the decolonising process because you’re not indigenous, and they didn’t massacre your ancestors. Well, on the contrary, I have/we have the historical responsibility of assuming, confronting, and dealing with it; the responsibility of facing ourselves. 

We are, have been and will be colonial beings –we colonise and become colonised. To assume this parameter (if we can call it this way) is the beginning of a decolonising act, and into the destruction of (personal) borders. To speak of historical colonialism, from Europe… what a farce! A deception! Let's talk about today’s massacres, let’s talk about the current welfare state that we live in thanks to that permanent, non-historical colonialism. Colonialism it’s not a thing of the past, it’s still latent, permanent, it’s more alive than ever. It’s our foundation, our tap water, our light, our heat, our clothes, everything we own and everything surrounding us is part of this.” – Isil Sol Vil

“I feel as though I often relate to decolonisation debate in a very emotionally charged sense, where a lot of my drive for it comes from anger and urgency. I was reminded of how decolonisation in different contexts brings with it a whole different set of questions, and I felt a tension in myself at various times, with a concern to not ‘say the wrong thing’. I had to check this in myself because I think we should be able to speak and be questioned and corrected, and the stance of not speaking because of fear of one’s own position (privilege in certain contexts) is another form of silence. When a participant asked a question about whether the actions were really doing anything, or whether they were just a way of relieving colonial guilt, I really thought about this. I think it has something to do with language, amongst other things.

The way in which we might read an action like Christine’s at the end, can still fall under the colonial gaze – whereby we do ask this question: well what is it doing? But I wonder where that question comes from – if feels as though it seeks to avoid sitting with the discomfort of impotence; and I wonder what happens when we stay in that place a little while longer, then find the question underneath it. My experience of Christine’s action was that it shifts the space where language sits between material and immaterial – that the act of voicing re-membering women who have not been acknowledged or remembered, let alone found or given justice, is not only a symbolic act; I think it really shifts the energetic space where these geopolitical relationships also reside – that language and intention has the capacity to do this, is a perspective that itself shifts a colonial viewpoint.” – Laura Burns




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