Peter Morin's 12 Making Objects: 12 Indigenous Interventions a.k.a First Nations DADA
Peter Morin’s 12 Making Objects: 12 indigenous interventions a.k.a. First Nations DADA
During the summer of 2009, I worked at Open Space Arts Society as program assistant to artist Peter Morin for 12 Making Objects: 12 indigenous interventions a.k.a. First Nations DADA. This essay is about my perspective on Peter Morin’s project, a series of performances acknowledging the pain caused by residential schools. Morin’s art is based in Tahltan culture and contemporary art. His performances took place at Open Space, Camosun College and SJ Willis Alternative School.
The first performance, Making Bannock, took place at Open Space on Saturday, May 16, at 2 p.m. The public was invited to come and eat bannock and to purchase Morin’s book, Bannockology, to help raise funds for Watson Lake YT Library and Surrounded by Cedar Child and Family Services. Bannockology is a collection of stories, poetry, and recipes about bannock, created by a variety of individuals and assembled and edited by Morin. Anyone who is reading this and has tasted bannock will know that it was not difficult to create interest in this performance. Personally, it was my first time trying bannock, and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted.
Bannock cooks during Peter Morin’s special fundraiser and launch of book Bannockology.
A Circle and the Ceremony
Morin’s second performance was A Circle and the Ceremony and took place at Open Space on Monday, May 18, at 4 p.m. Something I was not quite ready for was the audience involvement and the amount of one’s self that can be put into a performance when attending. This performance was quite involved. Morin asked participants to sit in a sacred circle and share something about themselves. First, he laid down the ground rules, which were that everyone must share something while passing a stone around to speak, and that nothing that is said must leave the circle. So here, I cannot give any details as to what was said during the performance, but I can tell you that it was a significant experience to be a part of. This circle was about sharing and trust and being able to say things that would not be judged by anyone taking part. After everyone had spoken, we were asked to perform a ritual involving water bowls, rocks, and a drum. Then we washed our faces with water from decorated bowls that were set aside for the performance and dumped the water outside in the street, which seemed to be a form of cleansing and letting go.
Peter Morin speaks to a participant before A Circle and the Ceremony.
Twelve Phone Calls to Joseph Beuys
Morin’s performance Twelve Phone Calls to Joseph Beuys was next at Open Space on Friday, May 22, at 7 p.m. To understand this performance, it is important to know a little background information about Joseph Beuys. He was a German performance artist (among other things) who died in 1986. He claimed to have been saved by indigenous people when his plane crashed in an area of south Russia. His story was that these people wrapped him in fat and felt to save his life—and these materials appeared frequently in his subsequent works. Probably his most famous performance was I Like America and America Likes Me, which took place in New York, where he shared a room with a wild coyote for three days, eight hours a day.
In Twelve Phone Calls to Joseph Beuys, Morin stood hidden behind blankets that were hung near the wall opposing the audience and spoke to an absent Beuys about the suffering caused by residential schools while writing on chalkboards unseen by the audience. Materials present included fat and felt, the same materials that Beuys was famous for using. As with the previous performance, Morin’s actions produced a strong emotional response both for the artist and the audience. Several audience members were asked to stand up and help Morin, who first smeared lard (fat) on the wall and then asked participants to hold teacups to the wall with sticks, connecting this wall to drums suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room.
During Twelve Phone Calls to Joseph Beuys, audience members are asked to participate in the actions.
Peter Morin performs Land One on May 25, at Camosun College. During this performance, he and participants made forms out of salt on the pavement.
Morin’s performance Land Won (which took place on Tuesday, June 2, 2 p.m., at Open Space) was one that I personally found to be very powerful, even more so than the previous ones. Morin’s actions were meant to test how much of a hold the Tahltan language had on his body, because although Morin’s heritage is Tahltan, he was not taught to speak the language growing up.
The performance started with Morin cutting his own hair with a pair of ordinary scissors. Right away, things became intense. As Morin cut away at his own hair, pieces falling on his shoulders and the floor around him, the room was completely silent, other than some anguished vocalizations coming from the artist. Watching this was awkward, and being asked to watch something containing so much truth and sadness caused an emotional reaction for the audience.
After having cut his hair, Morin stepped up to the podium, the spotlight on him and drums hanging from the ceiling behind him. A book of Tahltan writings before him, he read the words to the audience. Although it was clear that he was struggling to pronounce the words, he would sometimes smile as he spoke them. As he kept speaking the words, you could feel that he became less inhibited and more relaxed.
Then, the audience was invited to participate as Morin asked each person, one by one, to pin up a braid of hair onto some suspended blankets. Most of us took off our shoes and walked up barefoot. This process took some time, as each person had to wait their turn. At this point, emotions were running high within the audience. The braids were taken from the floor, and many were still left when we were done.
At the final part of the performance, Morin stepped toward pages that were attached to a blanket at the far end. They were the pages of the Indian Act. Morin cut these pages into forms that resembled bird wings.
Proof of the amount of audience engagement in this performance was the end. One audience member asked Morin what he would do with the rest of the braids that had not been pinned up. Morin decided then, why not pin the rest up? So a few audience members, myself included, went to pin them up.
Peter Morin cuts his hair during his performance Land Won.
Residential School Feathers
Morin’s next performance, Residential School Feathers, took place at “the Loft” in the Visual Arts Annex at Camosun College on Tuesday, June 9, at 4 p.m. For this performance, the artist created a stream of fish, made of salt, on the floor. On the wall behind them were names written in Morin’s own writing.
Morin began the performance by asking audience members to take turns shaking a rattle while he performed. He then tied a red blindfold around his eyes. He had a mug of tea, from which he took a drink. Beside him were small bundles wrapped in red and white fabrics. Morin then began to make his way around the room, feeling his way with his hands and holding the bundles. He would take a few bundles in his hands, then pat the floor to find a salt fish. He would then open a bundle and spread the contents—one feather made of fabric and some tobacco—onto the fish. While he was doing this, each audience member took a turn with the rattle, so that each time it was passed to a different person, the rhythm changed. This was a long process, and it was impressive to see Morin manage to manoeuvre around the different fish without disturbing all the salt on the floor. He moved toward us, and the fish appeared to be swimming toward the wall behind him. As one audience member later pointed out, he did all that, even while “going against the fish!” After this was over, Morin went back to his starting point at the far wall. He untied the blindfold and rubbed his eyes.
The final part of the performance was when the artist took out some small tobacco bundles and handed one to each participant. Morin explained to us that when you take something—for example, from the earth when you pick a vegetable out of the ground—you need to put something back. He encouraged us to take these tobacco bundles and spread the contents on the grounds of St. Ann’s Academy, a former residential school.
After Residential School Feathers, many of the salt fish are covered with feathers and tobacco.
These Are Our Books
The next performance I attended, on Tuesday, June 16, at 4 p.m., was These Are Our Books, which also took place at Camosun College. Morin had a dome-shaped structure set up, made of sparse tree branches with red and white strips of fabric hanging from the tops. Words were written on the wall behind it.
Before the performance started, three children came in to meet Morin. The artist asked one to write a sentence on the wall, reading, “She says with these stories of ours we can escape almost anything.” The children then asked Morin what the performance would be and Morin said he would be telling stories. He then picked up a fringed jacket, closed his eyes and felt the seams with his hands. He told the children that he would be telling the story this way. “Is that weird?” he asked them.
Watching this performance was much like being a child again. We all sat on the floor with our shoes off and listened to Morin as he told his stories. During the first story, Morin did as he had shown the children. He picked up the jacket and, with a blindfold over his eyes, “read between the lines.” The first two stories he told were fantastical, just like the stories we hear as children—the stories that most spark our imaginations. My personal favourite was the second one, for which he took off the blindfold. He began by reading from a book he had brought along but quickly set it down. The gestures were important. The story he told was about a crow who lost his beak when a fisherman mistook it for a fish. As Morin explained, the crow needed to get his beak back because all he was left with was “a flat face.”
The third story Morin told was about his grandmother. He first showed us an old black-and-white photograph and pointed her out. The story was lighthearted, about how his mother tried to set up his grandmother—who had been a widow for decades—with a new man.
The children had left shortly after they had come and were not there for the first stories. When they came back, Morin was just finishing the third story. But he had one more to tell. “This is a sad story. Is that okay?” he asked the children, to which the youngest of the three, a girl, responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
The final story was about when First Nations people were forced by the Canadian government to give up their most prized possessions—masks and regalia, important parts of their culture. He told us about a village where, instead of giving up these belongings, the villagers put them all together and burnt them because they would rather destroy them than give them up against their will. “It’s like asking you to give up all of your favourite toys and all of your favourite belongings,” Morin explained to the children.
After the performance, Morin invited the audience to ask questions. The eldest of the three children asked the question of why the Canadian government acted the way it did toward the First Nations people. Of course, this was a difficult question to answer, but it was interesting to see the children’s reactions. “I wish there were way more of the First Nations so that they could fight off the settlers,” one of them said.
The artist feels the fabric from a jacket to “read between the lines” as he tells a story.
Speaking in Landscape Tongues/Lost Moccasin Tongues
Peter Morin performs Speaking in Landscape Tongues/Lost Moccasin Tongues on June 12, at Open Space. Audience members were asked to participate in this performance about language and its ties to the landscape.
National Aboriginal Day, A Blanket for the Earth
On June 19, Morin had two performances. The first one was National Aboriginal Day, A Blanket for the Earth, which took place at noon at SJ Willis Alternative School. The second performance was called Reclaiming Space and took place at 7 p.m. at Open Space.
At National Aboriginal Day, A Blanket for the Earth, people gathered in SJ Willis for a catered lunch and afterward went outside on the grass. We were asked to stand in a circle. Morin had worked with youth from Vic High to make button blankets, which they spread out on the grass one by one. The red and black blankets with white buttons looked beautiful against the green grass. After the blankets were laid out, Morin instructed the youth to give these blankets to important people in their lives, as an act of honouring them.
After the button blankets ceremony was over, a couple things happened: there was a ceremony for a teenage boy who received his aboriginal name, passed down by his father; then, some younger kids, about seven to ten years old and dressed up in animal skins and costumes, engaged in a performance where they acted out the nature of their animals, accompanied by a drum. This performance I found particularly striking; the children seemed free of all inhibitions and lost in their actions. Their cries were loud and unrestrained, and I couldn’t help but think about how much fun it must be for the participating children.
Participants of National Aboriginal Day, A Blanket for the Earth cover the ground with button blankets made by aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth from Vic High.
In the evening was Reclaiming Space. Morin, with dancer and choreographer Michael Kong, gave a performance to help us remember a landscape that existed before the gallery was built. Morin began the performance seated at a wooden writing desk with Kong at his side. He then proceeded to blindfold himself, an act repeated from previous performances. He was wearing a white button-up shirt with red painted feathers, and he removed it only to reveal a similar shirt underneath. He ended up removing four shirts, each with the same painted feathers on it, and was left with a plain white T-shirt. Meanwhile, Kong performed his choreography next to Morin like a ghostly presence, unacknowledged.
On the gallery floor, Morin had placed several objects, including many more red blindfolds, boots, a vest, and a drum. Carefully, Morin felt his way across the floor, with Kong helping him with the movements of his dance, thumping the floor with his heel to direct Morin to the objects and occasionally turning him in the right direction. As Morin made his way to the other side of the gallery, Kong’s direction became more and more involved. His movements were graceful and reminiscent of ballet, and it was intriguing to see this in contrast with Morin, who blindly felt the floor with his hands and sometimes hopped about as he searched for the objects. When Morin put his last blindfold on, Kong stood with his back to him and mimicked his movements.
After this, Morin removed the blindfolds and put on a white blanket spread out on the floor near the wall. Morin and Kong stood near the wall opposing the audience, holding hands, and just stood there, silent.
At this point, the performance seemed very serious as the audience watched Morin and Kong, who were fixed on the spot, but all of a sudden—much to the audience’s surprise—Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” started playing on the audio system and the seriousness disappeared in an instant. With plenty of humour and gestures, Morin and Kong sang the words of the song, inviting us to sing along. It was a great ending to an otherwise solemn performance. I have found that although Morin’s performances involve very serious subjects, he manages to add humour and bring the audience back to the present, reminding us that we are all here together sharing in the actions.
David Kong uses dance to help a blindfolded Peter Morin find objects on the floor during Reclaiming Space.
Sound Making/A Circle about the Closing
Peter Morin’s last performance was entitled Sound Making/A Circle about the Closing and took place on Thursday, June 25, 2 p.m., at Open Space. For this performance, Morin invited martial artist David Kong (brother of previous performer Michael Kong) to assist him in his actions.
The performance began with Kong inside a large circle made of salt that Morin had prepared on the gallery floor, doing martial arts movements while Morin walked slowly around the edge of the circle, holding a burning bundle of sweetgrass and waving billows of smoke into the air around him. Kong’s movements were strong, vigorous, and assertive, and his yells were loud, while Morin’s silent walking at the edge of the circle with the burning sweetgrass created a fog of smoke that slightly mellowed the actions. Furthermore, as strong as Kong’s actions were, he was limited by the line that formed the circle on the floor—his steps could reach no further.
Then, Morin put out the smoking bundle and sat on the outskirts of the circle, watching the rest of Kong’s actions. Eventually, Kong became silent and stood still as Morin got up and walked toward the wall that had been painted during a previous performance, Speaking in Landscape Tongues/Lost Moccasin Tongues. For this performance, the wall had been covered with the imprints of moccasin tongues in different shades of red and brown.
Now, Morin walked toward decorated basins of water that he had placed in front of the wall. Beside the basins were white cloths. He picked one up and proceeded to dip it into the water, soaking it thoroughly. He then began washing the wall. The paint from the moccasin tongue imprints quickly dissolved and, as Morin rubbed the wall, became a red smear against white background. Morin continued this with each of several cloths that had been laid out for this purpose. As one cloth became drenched in red paint, Morin placed it on the floor—creating a line perpendicular to the wall—and picked up a fresh cloth until they were all red and the wall was smeared and dripping with paint.
Morin then turned back to face the audience. He pointed toward a pile of rocks on the floor and asked us to each take a rock and place it somewhere on the gallery floor. This was the final action of his performance, as well as the series. Morin thanked the audience for their support, ending his performances and impressive May–June residency at Open Space.
Peter Morin walks along the edge of a salt circle as martial artist David Kong performs in the centre during Sound Making/A Circle about the Closing.