Features

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Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries

Just Being Beyond Boundaries

Living at the intersection of two different identities can cause one to question whether the two could ever exist in congruity. We like to think that people have ample communities related to their identities, but people that identify with two separate communities can feel disconnected to both. One way to validate those living in disconnect is to give space to share their experiences, and to show they are not alone.

Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries is a new media and video art festival within Queer Arts Festival that showcases work by two-spirit Indigenous people. It aims to increase the visibility of their experiences at the intersection of identity. The event is organized by the Vancouver Indigenous Media Arts Festival, with funding and promotional support from QAF.

Curators Lacie Burning and June Scudeler are uniquely qualified to organize this event. Lacie is a curator and artist of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) nation, working in multi-media, video, sculpture and installation. June is a Metis academic and scholar, holding a PhD in English from the University of British Columbia — her dissertation is on Cree Two Spirit and queer Indigenous narratives. In addition to co-curating Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries, June and Lace are both on the board of Vancouver Indigenous Media Arts Festival.

Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine
Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine

The term two-spirit is much like identifying as queer for Indigenous peoples. However, ‘queer’ (and pretty much the rest of the LGBTQA+ dictionary) is itself colonial in origin. “‘Two-spirit’ is a blanket term because it means something different to every tribe,” explains Lacie, “Not every tribe has a term that relates to being [LGBTQA+].” They add that their nation uses a term related to having a “pattern within you.”

“It doesn’t relate to gender,” Lacie continues, “but more your state of being.” Lacie explains that two-spirit, rather than having a definite meaning, is more about the LGBTQA+ Indigenous community it creates. “I just don’t identify with [two-spirit] because it’s not specific to my people that I know of. But, I think it is a good term for relating people, and gathering community,” says Lacie. June summarizes this sentiment stating, “It’s almost like a shorthand.”

Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine
Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine

Some nations traditionally believed that two-spirit members were spiritually awakened, and granted them roles of leadership. This is, of course, a generalization that can be detrimental to the broader understanding of two-spirit. Additionally, the heteronormativity of colonization has affected Indigenous communities. “There’s racism and homophobia within Indigenous communities,” June says. Despite the traditional reverence for two spirit people, Lacie explains, “We aren’t necessarily revered in the way people think we are.”

Lacie explains that they still feel internal unrest when they think about the communities they most identify with. “I still feel like I have to choose a side,” reflects Lacie. “I have to be more native, or I can’t be in a queer space because I have to negate my native identity. So I find myself more in the native community negating my queer and trans identity.”

“But then there’s also being in academia and not seeing many people like me,” Lacie adds. “They’re so few and far between that it’s kind of hard to wonder why they’re not there, but then just knowing the obstacles for queer native people, or just native people in general.” Despite, and maybe because of this reality, Lacie finds themselves curating for people like them: “That’s primarily who I think about when I do this work — the people that can’t be there.”

Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine
Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine

While Lacie and June have curated Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries to represent diverse perspectives from Indigenous points-of-view, they are aware they have no control over the audience or their experiences. Speaking to their role as curator, Lacie expands, “That’s why it’s hard to be in this position, because it’s inaccessible to a lot of two-spirit people.” To this, June adds, “The reality is it’s probably going to be non-Indigenous audience. It always brings up ideas of accessibility and who can afford to go. It’s a hard one.” Despite this, the curators see the benefits of providing an opportunity for contemporary queer Indigenous media artists to manifest and share their experiences in an artistic context that is usually dominated by non-Indigenous artists. “Hopefully this opens doors for more two-spirit media artists,” says Lacie.

Of the artists participating, there will be commissioned pieces by locally-based artist Chandra Melting Tallow (Siksika) and Toronto-based Thirza Cuthand (Cree). Chandra Melting Tallow is a performance and media artist, and also creates experimental pop under the name Mourning Coup. Thirza Cuthand makes videos, many of which are available to view on YouTube. One of Cuthand’s pieces that June described to me, “2 Spirit Introductory Special $19.99,” is filmed like a low budget commercial for Two-Spirit Support, a fictitious support group. It is intended to make the viewer consider the realities two-spirit people face through a dose of comedic relief. The video features testimonials of the ambiguous service and hotline, one of which is Thirza in a fake moustache explaining coming out to their family at a reunion: “I came out to them just before dessert was served. They may not have understood, but they really appreciated the Saskatoon berry pie recipe Two-Spirit Support gave me.”

Another featured artist is Kent Monkman, a well-known artist of Swampy Cree descent. “We’re showing a less known piece,” claims June, who has included his art in her academic research. “He’s done a lot of strong paintings around residential schools and genocide,” explains June. Another featured artist with strong political content is Raven Davies (Anishinaabek), who will be screening their stop-motion video “I Still Believe.”

Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine
Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries || Photography by Andi Icaza for Discorder Magazine

Through Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries, Lacie and June also want to challenge the idea that being Indigenous now is the same experience as being Indigenous before colonial contact. “I always find that Indigenous people are never seen as contemporary,” explains June. “[Some say] ‘Indigenous people don’t use technology or make media art.’ We’re trying to upset that stereotype.”

The accessibility of new media allows for the immediate sharing of stories and experiences. Despite colonization and the active oppression it continues to inflict in the lives of Indigenous peoples, it’s certainly not all that Indigenous people have to address. “Indigenous art doesn’t always have to be a reaction to colonization, it can be a way of going back to our ways of knowing,” says June. Lacie adds that Indigenous art can be about “just being.”

That’s what Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries is truly about — sharing the experiences of two-spirit Indigenous peoples “just being.”

 

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Unsettling Colonial Gender Boundaries is presented as part of the Queer Arts Festival June 23 at the Roundhouse Performance Centre. It will be a screening and performance of original commissioned works by Chandra Melting Tallow and Thirza Cuthand, and other works, followed by an artist panel discussion. Tickets are $15 in advance via queerartsfestival.com.

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The Shilohs

Disjointed, Disillusioned And Back For More

“Anytime you take three years off to make a record seems like too long to me.”

Johnny Payne isn’t one to mince words, even if it’s at the expense of his band’s work ethic. Joined by fellow Shilohs member Ben Frey in the dimly lit Guys & Dolls pool hall, he’s quick to shrug off Frey’s point that a lot of bands take big gaps in between albums: “Yeah, but they all suck.”

Fortunately for Payne, The Shilohs don’t suck, despite their disappearance after the release of their self-titled LP back in the summer of 2014. While it’s hard to pin down exactly why the band wound up taking such an extended hiatus, Payne points to an underwhelming tour in support of the album as an initial destabilizer.

“We put out the record and we went on tour with The Fresh & Onlys that summer. It was a really long tour, all over the States, and I don’t know — it was fine, but it was a bit demoralizing,” he says. “A lot of the shows were fun, and a lot were just dead. We were tired at the end, and when we came back no one really wanted to play or practice.”

The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine

“We were on high momentum for about two years,” Frey adds, citing the release of their previous record (So Wild) in 2013, their subsequent tour with Real Estate, and putting out The Shilohs in quick succession. Frey continues, “The next step should have just been there for us, instead of kind of starting from square one again.”

Although The Shilohs did get back into the studio shortly after their initial post-tour slump, the push to put out new material wasn’t enough to overcome the pull of other pursuits.

The Shilohs || Illustration by Emily Valente for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Illustration by Emily Valente for Discorder Magazine

The band’s bass player, Dan Colussi, moved out East to attend graduate school, and Payne left to Valencia, Spain for the better part of a year with his partner.

“I just needed to get the hell out of here,” Payne explains. While some of his time in Spain was spent writing new songs and analysing the mixes The Shilohs had finished before he left, it was also an opportunity to get away from the routines of life in Vancouver, and enjoy simpler pleasures.

The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine

The Shilohs’ next full-length album won’t be out for some months still, and while Frey and Payne are careful about revealing too many details, they do explain that the upcoming record reflects a lot of the recent experiences and changes they’ve undergone. Payne talks about their disillusionment with the music industry and show business, as well as ruminations about the band itself, as focal points of the new album.

“It’s a long time,” Payne says of the band’s eight year history. “It’s a big part of your life, basically your entire twenties, to spend with four guys making music. It seemed worth addressing in songs.”

The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine

At the moment, the duo are excited about their new single, “Sleep City,” a song Payne and Frey collaborated closely on with local artist and producer Malcolm Jack. Compared to the ‘60s-style pop songs that The Shilohs are best known for, “Sleep City” stands out in its psychedelic embrace. While conga drums beat in the background and guitars duel over open chords, Payne’s voice takes on an uncharacteristic mysteriousness as he sings a forgotten history of Victoria, B.C.. It’s an infectious tune, and one that came about through an interesting writing and recording process.

The Shilohs || Illustration by Emily Valente for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Illustration by Emily Valente for Discorder Magazine

“Before I went to Spain, I spent a bunch of time in Victoria, and it was really hot that year,” Payne says. “I had a bunch of weird lyrics and imagery based on things I remembered from Victoria that were gone.”

He lists the monolithic wooly mammoth in the Royal B.C. Museum, the figures from the former Royal London Wax Museum, and the Princess Marguerite (a luxury cruiseliner that sailed from Victoria to Seattle from the 1960s to the 1990s) as inspirations for “Sleep City,” all of which come up in the song’s lyrics.

The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine

“It was so hot one day that I started laughing thinking about the wax museum and if it could get hot enough that all the figures would melt, and just how funny that is, to think about all these celebrities and historical figures just melting like that Vincent Price movie,” Payne continues, “It sort of tied everything together, as far as something that was once great, like fame or a beautiful landmark that you think is timeless, but everything eventually disintegrates.”

The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine
The Shilohs || Photography by Duncan Cairns-Brenner for Discorder Magazine

Upon returning from the island, Payne took the ideas he had to Jack and Frey, and the three of them began experimenting and developing “Sleep City” in a shed behind The Lido. The collaborative effort saw them bringing in patrons from the bar to listen to the song, or even try singing parts. Accompanied by “All the Best,” a new b-side written and recorded before “Sleep City” came to fruition, The Shilohs’ single will be released as a flexi disc, 100 of which will be included in select issues of Discorder, with more available in record stores across the city. Through the flexis, Frey and Payne hope to represent the idea of tangible decay that underpins the lyrical content of “Sleep City” itself.

In the meantime there is still a lot to figure out, as The Shilohs prepare for an upcoming album and potential tour without a full band at the ready. But, with the new single and a renewed sense of focus, here’s hoping The Shilohs can pick up some of that momentum they’ve worked hard to accrue.

 

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Were you one of the lucky 100 to get a copy of “Sleep City” in your mag? If not, pick up the single at your nearest record store, and keep your eyes peeled for The Shilohs’ upcoming album scheduled for release on Light Organ this fall.