jamilah malika abu-bakare, Adam Basanta, Marjie Crop Eared Wolf, Maskull Lasserre, Benny Nemer and Jessica Thompson
Curated by Tyler J Stewart
Exhibition design by Jane Edmundson
November 26, 2022 – May 7, 2023
The Galt Museum & Archives
By Migueltzinta Solís
You may have heard of something that unfolded recently here in so-called Lethbridge, Alberta at the University of Lethbridge. Philosophy professor Paul Viminitz, known for saying the n-word in class and for calling a Blackfoot student’s status card his “victim card,” invited residential school denier Frances Widdowson to deliver a lecture against teaching Indigenous Knowledge in secondary education. Thankfully, a mainly student-led grassroots response swiftly changed the University of Lethbridge’s tone from defending “free speech” to – somewhat – acknowledging the grievousness of allowing a bigoted and hateful provocateur to speak on campus. Colonial sound marks and speech acts are unmistakable in this prairie city, from the thundering of the train over the Highlevel Bridge to the gunshots that echo up and down the Old Man River valley from the police department’s shooting range. But these aren’t the only sounds, histories, and voices that make up the aural landscape of Treaty 7 territory.
The Galt Museum & Archives is one of several cultural institutions in Alberta welcoming art exhibitions into their programming, allowing creative work by contemporary artists to bring historical objects, sites, and stories into the present. The Politics of Sound, as exhibited at the Galt, is interpreted for a considerably broad audience, from K-12 school groups to senior citizens to post-secondary students. The didactics which accompany components of The Politics of Sound use accessible language to present thoughtful questions and critically engaged analysis of the works, drawing connections between the artworks and the historical objects on display.
Marjie Crop Eared Wolf’s Niitsi’powahsin Secwepemctsín is a combined video and drawing work that tells the story of her project to reclaim Siksikáí’powahsin and Secwepemctsín language knowledge. Three drawings are flanked by two screens paired with headphones, the videos framing the artist’s mouth, chin, and shoulders. In the video, Crop Eared Wolf wears headphones, repeating Blackfoot words in one video and Secwepemctsín in the other. Putting on the headphones, one hears Crop Eared Wolf speaking sporadically, repeating the words recited by the language tutorial (which is only sometimes audible) she is listening to. We are brought close to witness this act of language revival and survivance, an act which is as much about the embodiment of sounds that happens through listening, as it is about the embodiment that comes from speaking.
Marjie Crop Eared Wolf’s drawings pull you in—stepping close, one realizes that the delicate red curving forms are made of individual words in Siksikáí’powahsin and Secwepemctsín, respectively. The words flow, gather, and disperse across the paper like schools of red fish, and looking at them while listening to Crop Eared Wolf’s voice, language is alive, escaping the bind of the Latin alphabet. The images created are a visual expression of the reach for her mother tongue, for the richness of knowing that comes with understanding the untranslatable. Crop Eared Wolf does not speak for the benefit of the listener, rather she speaks for herself, for her cultures. As sonar has reached into the ground to find stolen Indigenous children at Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc (Kamloops), so does Marjie Crop Eared Wolf’s voice reach into herself and across time to reclaim stolen language-cultures which have survived that same genocidal system.
Adam Basanta’s exhibited works dodge the entrapments of high conceptual work in favour of sociable and accessible invitations to consider unexpected materializations of sound.In The loudest sound in the room experienced very quietly, a sound as loud as a car horn plays in 30-second intervals, rendered inaudible by the thick double casing in which it is displayed. While simple, the added context of this being shown within a history museum makes me think of the narrative agency of objects which continue to speak to us from within the museum’s vitrine. This work is just a few cases away from a large brass bell, which moves me to think about the colonial sound mark of the bell – church bell, school bell, train bell – as a sound whose ideological impact continues even as it sits deactivated in the archive.
Jessica Thompson’s Walking Machine invites the listener to turn the ear toward the self. The “machine” consists of two small microphones that are attached to the cuffs of one’s pants. Through a small, handheld amplifier, the sounds of one’s walking are enjoyed in real time by the walker. While I had expected to hear my own footsteps, I had not expected to hear the creak of my leather boots amplified as well, not to mention the tfff of a dragged left heel. I was instantly taken back to a moment in undergrad when I walked into a friend’s home – a fellow proto-trans man at the time – who called out from another room, “Ah! It’s you!” as soon as he heard my footsteps coming across his wooden floor. When I asked how he knew, he told me he recognized the distinct way I dragged the heels of my oversized Harley Davidson boots. At times feeling like a pocket call to oneself, Walking Machine is successful as a prosthetic for facilitating self-listening, perhaps making a case for distinguishing self-reflection from self-hearing. As a walker, I am given the space to ask, How is the sound of my walking coded? How are my footsteps gendered? Racialized? How do I sound walking on Blackfoot territory? What does it mean to walk on this land as an uninvited guest?
Benny Nemer’s The Last Song was of particular interest to me from my perspective as a trans man. A screen plays a video of a bald figure who sings – or seems to sing – Vivaldi’s La Verità in Cimento. The performer begins in a baritone and then undergoes a series of warbling breakages as the voice transitions into a soprano. The moment is prolonged and uncomfortable. I am reminded of that feeling of visceral in-betweenness when my voice suddenly changed as part of testosterone treatment. In the video, the performer’s face smooths into exaltation, triumphant in its passing as a different voice altogether. Is this the same singer producing these sounds or are these multiple voices seamlessly edited together? Is the figure the singer at all or are they lip-syncing? Is the singer trans?
Standing before the video, a sweet, musky scent envelopes the viewer/listener, compelling one to look for its source. In a vase on a plinth, a single purple lily gazes back, visually and olfactorily elegant, robust. A quote in French from trans queer theorist Paul B. Preciado is imprinted fancily on the wall alongside the ephemeral lily. In the quote, Preciado describes the experience of a transitioning voice as “a vibration which spreads in my throat as if it was a recording coming out of my mouth.” Though the didactics fall short of overtly saying so, transness importantly appears in this work not as a gender identity but as a sound, a song. The voice’s transition eludes binary linearity and becomes a composition of sensory information, a fleeting act one hears, smells, and feels. This auditory queerness becomes something not unique to trans experience, but an aural interpretation of transition that, if you think about it, can occur to anyone at any point in one’s life.
A trumpet that is also a bayonet, a clarinet with a sniper scope, a music box grenade that plays a song once when the pin is pulled: these are Maskull Lasserre’s Tools for A Second Eden. Fully functioning instruments that are also weapons, these sculptural objects are displayed at the ready, as if they might be deployed to the battlefield at a moment’s notice. Complete with their own custom-made hard-shell cases and mission directives – dossiers containing sheet music for various national anthems and documentation of musicians/soldiers performing with the instruments in situ – Lasserre’s instruments of war are beautiful and frightening. While impressive on their own, Lasserre’s works take on a second layer of importance through their shared staging with historical objects. A display of policing and firefighting equipment (a megaphone, a whistle, speed radars, a steam whistle, and a fire bell) from Lethbridge’s archive brings home the idea of sound as a tool for social ordering and control. One can’t help but ask the same questions of the historical objects as one did of Lasserre’s Tools for A Second Eden: What is it for? Who is it for? Is it dangerous? Interestingly, these are questions one does not always ask of art, but because of the context of a history museum, these questions seem inevitable.
Set apart from the rest of the exhibit, jamilah malika abu-bakare’s audio/photo installation listen to Black women (II) + offerings (III) is a striking space to walk into. An intricately woven mixscape of Black womens’ voices tumbles down from a directional speaker suspended overhead, including the voices of Keke Palmer, Rihanna, Angela Davis, Amara La Negra, Jully Black, and Azealia Banks. I sit on the bench and listen to them precisely speak about their lived realities of racism, sexism, injustice, and invisibility. It is uniquely important to listen to abu-bakare’s speechscape of Black women’s voices in Lethbridge, Alberta, at a time when white voices are actively co-opting the words “freedom” and “free speech” to advance racist agendas. On the walls surrounding the listening space for listen to Black women (II), offerings (III) is displayed as composites made of repeating posters with black and white macro images of jamilah malika abu-bakare’s skin, which visitors are invited to take. I turn one over to find the words of Jully Black:
“whatever you’re feeling
take it to the altar
cause i’m not the one
that’s responsible for
For us here on Treaty 7 Blackfoot Territory, these last few weeks have called into question the responsibilities of cultural and educational institutions as sites of speech and discourse production. To insist on making space for critical BIPOC and LGBTQS2+ voices speaking to issues of race, gender, Indigenous sovereignties, surveillance, and nationalism continues to be a necessary and radical act. Fostering and protecting such spaces is particularly important in cities like Lethbridge that serve as cultural hubs for rural communities and small towns. Tyler J Stewart’s polyvocal curatorial approach presents questions of sound, speech, power, and relation through creative works which operate in multiple accessible registers. Through the artists’ works, sound as a discourse commodity is queered, no longer a weapon, but rather a series of aural spaces that resist further colonization and co-optation. Sound can be experienced as an expression of question-asking and relation-seeking, and not as hate speech staged by speakers who refuse to take accountability for their own words.