A Conversation With Dylan Robinson

by Miranda Ramnares

 

Dylan Robinson: Ey swayel, Miranda! T’ilel tel skwí:x. Tel siselelh teli kw’e Sqwá. Thanks for asking me if I’d like to do this interview.

Miranda Ramnares: To start off, my first question is: what originally led you to pursue your line of research?

DR: Much of the research that I am doing now is related to Indigenous art in public spaces. I first became interested as an undergraduate student in a course on public art I took at Simon Fraser University in the late 90s taught by the artist Jin-Mee Yoon. The first thing the class did was take a walk around downtown Vancouver to look at public artworks, gentrification and “plop-art.” What I was struck by then was the lack of awareness the city had of its location on shared, unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

At that time there was very little contemporary Indigenous public art in the city, and nothing that pointed toward the histories of these nations, or describing the colonial history of forced removal of Coast Salish people in Vancouver. What you saw was a lot of modernist formal work, or figural work like the statue of George Vancouver in front of city hall that celebrated the history of colonization. Of course things have changed now in terms of an increasing number of Indigenous public artworks in Vancouver, although the histories of our Nations and colonization have continued to be left out of the picture.

MR: In regards to notions of claiming space, what role do you think art, public or other- wise, occupies in decolonizing histories?

DR: One of the ways that public art takes part in redressing the history of colonization (aka “decolonizing”) is through making such histories known to the public, but also hopefully providing a challenge for the public to consider what the very notion of public space means when such space is located within Indigenous territories. We have this sign “Welcome to Kingston!” followed by something like “where Innovation and History meet.” But it’s ironic that the signs (and public art) around the city that mark this “history” only go as far back as settlement—what about the history of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe before this? There is a great need to address the fact that history here is more than John A. MacDonald. There’s been some great work over the years here including Métis PhD student Erin Sutherland’s series of performance interventions Talkin’ Back to Johnny Mac, but there’s a significant need to address the Indigenous history of the place we now call Kingston with permanent public artworks.

MR: You recently participated in the creation of the Centre for Indigenous Research Creation, can you speak to the overall goals of this project and the motivation behind its development?

DR: So, just to be clear, the Centre for Indigenous Research Creation (CIRC) is currently still “in development.” There’s quite a bit of work to do before this title becomes official at Queen’s! This said, there are a number of initiatives that I’ve been able to undertake so far, such as the Conversations in Indigenous Arts series (that I organized with the help of two postdoctoral fellows, Kelsey Wrightson and Aaron Franks, and doctoral student Tanya Lukin Linklater). As well, I hosted the first exhibition in the space, a fantastic show of Brad Isaacs’ work curated by recently graduated MA student Carina Magazzeni. So things are starting to come together, slowly but with great interest and support from the academic community at Queen’s and artistic community of Kingston. One of the things I’d like to do once CIRC is fully up and running is to have a regular series of exhibitions, performances and film screenings of work by Indigenous artists. I also hope to initiate a number of artist residencies

 

MR: How do you think the emerging cultural workforce can equip themselves to address Indigenous issues? I know from personal experience that many people my age are not aware of the current and past injustices against Indigenous peoples, and do not explore the issue in depth until university, if even then. How do we make this both more accessible and accepted as a frame of reference, not just for students but overall?

DR: Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has concluded, there are a large number of easily accessible documents online about the history and impact of the Indian Residential schools on Indigenous peoples today. The TRC final report is available online.[1] Much of the work that happened at the TRC is available online, including survivors’ testimonies, through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.[2] The TRC’s “Calls to Action” document, which addresses 94 concrete changes that need to take place, is available online.[3] With all these documents available there shouldn’t be any excuse for people not to educate themselves about this history, and what steps need to be taken next.

We each hold a lot of power and privilege that we can re-direct toward Indigenous initiatives, toward volunteering, toward making change in everyday ways. This is actually uncharacteristically optimistic of me to say (I’m usually the most critical one in the room). But I think change should begin with people educating themselves about the history of the schools, about the Indian Act, about the forced relocation of Inuit peoples, and the amazing resurgence of Indigenous cultural practices and language taking place in all of our nations.

MR: On the topic of education and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I read your chapter in Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action in and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and you mention the risks of spectacularizing the trauma of survivors of residential schools. How do we engage people without glamorizing/ spectacularizing this past?

DR: In that essay (“Intergenerational Sense, Intergenerational Responsibility”) I really try to grapple with what it meant for me to attend Truth and Reconciliation Commission national events and hear survivors and intergenerational surveyors speak about.... well, whatever they chose to speak about! As I tried to outline in the essay, not all of the testimony was focused on trauma, or on reconciliation, or even on survivors’ experiences while attending residential schools and their lives afterward. What was said was whatever our elders, our parents and grandparents, and community members felt was important to say. A number of times I heard people talk about the current vibrancy of the culture, about pipeline development, about the ongoing lack of basic infrastructure in their communities. Many times I heard people say “I don’t know what this reconciliation thing means” or “I don’t care about reconciliation—I’m not here for that.” Many refused playing the “traumatized survivor” role, and many refused confession. So to answer your question, I think in part we spectacularize the process when we focus exclusively on the trauma that was so pervasive in Residential schools, and the ongoing legacies of that trauma.

There’s something the scholar Michael Seltzer calls “wound culture,” this drive for specta- tors/readers/audiences to consume trauma—just think about daytime talk shows! I’m not saying we should privilege the positive over traumatic experience—in fact emphasizing the positive as a kind of “moving on” is even more problematic—but it’s important to talk about the lives of those who survived residential schools in ways that are as complex as they spoke of when they gave their testimony at the TRC.

MR: As a final question, where do we go from here? There is a desire to be hopeful, to work toward an optimistic future, but how do we do this without falling prey to the also common desire to put this past behind us, to feel like the work is already done. Moving toward a hopeful future comes at the risk of putting the past behind us without fully addressing it, so how do we create a brighter future? Or is that even something that we should be working toward—as in, is it too early (and perhaps too ‘comfortable’)?

DR: We can understand the TRC as setting in motion a number of conversations (beginning conversations) about colonization and the ongoing colonial structures that do not serve the needs of Indigenous people, about the Canadian public understanding that we are sovereign Nations, about the changes needed in our educational systems and supporting Indigenous models of education that are different for each community and First Nation, the need for infrastructural change in our communities, the need for health support... I feel like the list is endless. Really, those 94 Calls to Action outlined by the TRC are a starting point. They are not enough in and of themselves, and other actions need to be taken. There is no “putting the past behind us,” but instead thinking about how the past informs the current decisions that need to be made (by institutions and individuals) to redress current injustices. There is so much work that has yet to be started. If you want to help, you can start by listening to what Indigenous people across Canada are saying and then asking—how can I give my time and my resources to make that happen?

 

ENDNOTES

1. http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=890
2. http://nctr.ca/map.php
3. http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/ Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

 

Miranda Ramnares is completing a BA at Queen’s University, with a focus on Art History and Film. She recently worked as the Gallery and Programming Assistant at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre and is currently a receptionist at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

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