By: Rachel Deiterding
In human timescales, stone signifies unwavering permanence. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen unearths the animacy of stone, he asks “if stone could speak, what would it say about us?” While seemingly speculative, his inquiry asks us to re-imagine our relationship to the earth and introduces us to rock bodies as agents. When I first encountered this question it was earth-shattering. It shifted the way that I understood the world and my position within it. I was no longer a scientific ecological observer, but a collaborative member of a vast network of ecosystems made up of complex relations. This was the first step in a continued journey of confronting and unlearning colonial understandings of land, ownership, and extraction.
My research has since been focused on bridging the gap between the human and the non-human, learning from Indigenous stewards of the lands on which I am a guest, and building relationships that are based in deep localized reciprocity. I have a new language to learn – we all do – and stone has much to teach us if we could only learn how to listen.
Groundwork, installation view, 2021 | Photo documentation by Toni Hafkenscheid. Source
Exploring extractivism as a physical process and a mindset, Groundwork is on view at Critical Distance Centre for Curators (from May to August 2021). The exhibition goes beyond merely drawing attention to extraction to think about how performance can be mobilized to challenge and reconfigure our relationships to land using methods of camouflage and infiltration.
Upon entering, an ambient soundtrack flows through the exhibition space. Its uncanny and alien resonances set the tone for the barren landscapes decimated by extraction and the uneven power relationships between human and non-human beings that underpin the work. Alana Bartol’s Orphan Well Adoption Agency (2017–ongoing) manifests an oil and gas company interested in the decommissioning and reclamation of abandoned oil wells that continue to pollute the landscape. In her video TOTAL FIELD (2017), she is dressed in blue, her vision is blocked with ping pong ball goggles, and she is carrying a mysterious forked branch. She is dowsing, a practice linked to her ancestry where a tool of divination is used to help locate water, oil, and minerals through the pull of the earth. Her performance has a dual function, she explores her own complicated familial relationship with extraction while also performing a close reading of the land to assess its levels of contamination. As an alternative mode of understanding the land, dowsing requires deep listening and a body attuned with the earth to identify and decipher the language of the land that circulates outside of human vocabularies. The work calls for new methods of listening rooted outside of colonial modes of understanding.
Alana Barol, OWAA Uniform and Tools, 2017 | Photo documentation by Toni Hafkenscheid. Source As caretakers and stewards, how can we better learn to listen to the earth and find the patience to undergo the process of translation? In English, a noun-based language, we classify the earth as a thing, something to possess and act upon rather than something that acts itself. We don’t have the language to understand the behaviour of the earth, its non-human inhabitants, and their animacy. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her experience learning Potawatomi, pointing out that 70% of the language is verbs. In this context, language shifts everything, bringing the world to life. Suddenly a rock is not simply a rock but is in the act of being a rock, illustrating the underlying animacy of all non-human things. If the earth is alive and speaking to us, do we not have the responsibility to listen? Tsēmā Igharas' to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization (2017) features armour constructed from moosehide and copper pennies. The discontinued Canadian currency, extracted from Igharas' home territory of Tahltan Nation where copper mines have wreaked environmental havoc, draws attention to violent histories of extraction and land use. Furthermore, it draws on the potential for constructing realms of safety and balance when natural materials are accessed consciously and with respect for the broader network of relations to which they belong.
Tsēmā Igharas, Photograph: Re Naturalize no. 7, 2015-2016, Sculpture: to protect the womb from x-rays and colonization, 2018 | Photo documentation by Toni Hafkenscheid. Source Returning to Cohen’s question of “if stone could speak, what would it say about us,” Ileana Hernandez Camacho's Corps roca (2018–ongoing) gives voice to stone, taking it on as a character and playfully interrogating the relationship between humans and the earth. Presenting rocks as living thinking beings, Hernandez Camacho constructs an alternative understanding of extraction, one where the earth has the agency to speak back, to voice its opinion, and to make its agency visible and naturalized.
Ileana Hernandez, Corps roca, 2018 | Photo documentation by Toni Hafkenscheid. Source
Throughout the exhibition, the artist's bodies are directly evoking and distilling alternative conceptions of land. The viewer is invited to participate by standing on Corps roca’s vibrating platform alongside one of the stone costumes. As the buzz of stone vibrated through my feet, I was reminded that I have much to do. The work not only challenges the way we think about land, but it also calls us to action.
Stone has been on earth far longer than any of us, and it is a teacher that holds a wealth of knowledge. How can we be better listeners and learners? Beyond listening, how might we speak back and be better participants in the relations that support and sustain us? All in all, how might the alternatives displayed together in this show assist in reframing the hierarchical language of extraction which dominates colonial societies? While the impact of listening alone has proven limited, Groundwork reminds us of our responsibility to the earth and asks us to take up deeper listening, a shift in language, and a change in mindset.