digShift: A Queer Reclamation of the Imagined West – Roewan Crowe

Image Credit: Roewan Crowe

She’s been watching Unforgiven for days now, replaying the violence of this western over and over again. She tries to stretch out her body, tough and tight, legs and ankles twisted, her black boots welded together, but her body will not respond. She’s been seized tight by the story, held captive by the heroic Western tale. How is it that she finds herself riding through mud and blood and tales of revenge?

The wide horizon has captured her imagination, this line where land meets sky. It flickers open endless possibilities. There in the distance is the legendary rise of John Ford’s Monument Valley looming before her. The unyielding masculinity of a towering John Wayne also shadows the land. A stagecoach ride through the infamous canyons and you will surely discover a small community living in fear. A train pulls into town at high noon, hauling in danger down the steel tracks of progress. The expansionist westward movement of empire covers the prairies. Soon guns are the law of the land. Revenge, murder and vigilante justice become facts of life.

In this western imaginary, the landscape has been emptied out of its Indigenous first residents, replaced by cowboys and farmers, settlers and Indians. New stories of patriarchal familial succession take the stage. Captivity narratives fill the land with burning wagons, screaming white women and the cavalry rushing in. Manifest destiny writ large.

This is how the classic Hollywood Western story goes—an enduring myth, some even say history (Walker 2001). The collision of North American colonial history and Hollywood Western narratives created this space. The “classic Western” (Wright 1975) produced this powerful colonial myth that has layered itself upon the land, our bodies, and our collective imaginary. Violence is at the core of these narratives.

digShift is firmly located in my “western phase,” in which I explore the imaginary, geographical and cultural landscape that we call the WEST. I am interested in the tactical deployment of self-reflexivity and transformational artistic practices. Living and working in Canada necessitates artistic production and creation that acknowledges the context of colonization in North America. I situate myself within the frame of the traumatic Western narrative as a queer feminist settler who is invested in wrestling with this history. I recognize that the legacy of the West is still replicating itself. I enter into this fatal wounded environment—a violent and xenophobic narrative—to explore the possibilities that open up when I inhabit both the story and the form of the Western. I work to subvert, play and reckon with these tales of trauma. This is my artistic resistance.

digShift (2007) is a multi-channel video installation. It consists of four large projections: three individual video poems, “Landscape,” “Window,” and “Dig”; and a fourth video projection entitled “digShift,” which contains three split-screen poems, entitled “digShift,” “Shadow,” and “Inside.” A wall-sized queer equation accompanies the four video poem projections. The video poems are orchestrated to draw the viewer across the darkened space of the gallery, from one video poem to another, to move the viewer emotionally and physically. The videos come on one after another—a slow building until the words, music and image layer each other. The piece takes 20 minutes to view in its entirety. I conceptualize it as “slow art” where you wait for something to happen, not unlike time spent in any rural location on the side of the highway. Second dig, an artist chapbook published by As We Try and Sleep Press, accompanied the exhibit.

Here are three video poems that were projected as part of the installation:

“Landscape”



“Window”



“Dig”



This video split screen poem is excerpted from a collection called digShift, from which the title of the show was taken.

“Shadow”


The work of digShift is drawn from a site-specific artistic exploration and performance where I dig into the shifting layers of meaning at an abandoned gas station in Elstow, Saskatchewan, just 20 minutes southwest of Saskatoon on the Yellowhead Highway (Highway 16). In digShift, I work with video, poetry, and a queer equation to fathom the uncanny process that unfolded here. Literally and metaphorically, I dig deep into the personal, historical and environmental layers of the land, to perform a reclamation in collaboration with this wounded terrain. I explore this abandoned landscape to reclaim a personal history, to explore the history of colonization, to map the industrial expansion and the rural decline following it—from railroads to factory farms to oil fields—and to imagine and perform an artistic, land-based reclamation.

Canadian highways are profoundly marked by abandoned industrial landscapes. I was particularly drawn to this station just outside of Saskatoon. For over 15 years, I have reluctantly yet faithfully returned to this site from my past to take photographs, perform, write, theorize, dig and shoot video in an attempt to imagine some sort of meaningful reclamation for this compelling and toxic landscape. Through various media, I engaged with the site to try to understand why this land/memory site has so strongly attached itself to me. As a child, my family lived briefly out back of the gas station in a trailer. It was a typical Saskatchewan story of the poor and working class in the 1960s. My father worked in the potash mine, and my mother worked at the restaurant in the gas station. While this place holds a personal connection for me, it took on a more vivid significance over the years. The gas station came to symbolize the excesses of the West—both the prairie West and the “first world” West—and the processes of colonization, industrialization and environmental destruction.

During my artistic engagement over the years, I tried unsuccessfully to refuse and sever my connection to this place. But as I made art about it I came to understand and accept my responsibility as steward to this site. Over time, with sustained artistic engagement and “digging,” my final artistic task became clear: I imagined removing the rusting tanks that lay beneath the earth, leaking contaminants into the soil and ground water. After preliminary research and planning, I returned to the gas station in May 2006 to gather more information about who owned the site so I could begin to write grants in order to get the gas tanks removed. When I returned to the site in August 2006 with a plan to present to the small village, I learned that in the 3 months since my last trip, the tanks had actually been removed and the land sold.

The removal of the tanks from this wounded site left me feeling released from my attachment and responsibility. I also felt profoundly hopeful and I had many questions. How shall I understand the process of this project, namely the potential of the imagination to effect real-life transformations? Arjun Appadurai writes, “The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order” (1996). How do we imagine change? How do we make material that which we imagine? How do we think and make hope? Here I turn to Gayatri Spivak, who claims that “an appeal to the imagination is a material practice” (Spivak 2004: 616). Where might I go with my artistic practice if I claimed that it was through artistic imagination and a commitment to sustained artistic process that the tanks were actually removed from the ground? How did my work with the abandoned gas station over the many years, and the art that I created from the site, intervene to transform an abandoned gas station it into a landscape of hope and possibility?

The artist thanks Manitoba Art Council, Winnipeg Arts Council, MAWA, Video Pool Media Arts Centre, Plug In ICA, Rebecca Belmore, Nicole Brossard, Jarvis Brownlie, Leah Decter, Nadin Gilroy, Ken Gregory (mixing sound), Garth Hardy (original composition), Faye HeavyShield, and Zab (Equation Design).

Image Credit: Roewan Crowe

Read an aceart inc. critical distance essay, “Excavation as Transmutation: Roewan Crowe’s digShift” by Heather Milne: http://www.aceart.org/wordpress/criticaldistance.php?p=652

Read a review in Uptown Magazine by Stacey Abramson: http://www.uptownmag.com/2007-07-19/page519.aspx

References:

Appadurai, A. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Sharpe J., & Spivak, 2002. “A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28 (2): 609-624.

Walker, J. (2001) ‘Captive images in the traumatic western: the searchers, pursued, once upon a time in the west, and lone star’, in Walker, J. (ed) (2001) Westerns: Films Through History, New York: Routledge.

Wright, W. (1975) Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Transdisciplinary artist Roewan Crowe is energized by acts of disruption and discovery. Her conceptually driven practice explores the multilayered relationships among words, images and experiences of trauma. She has a particular passion for feminist art, creating community and facilitating initiatives in cultural democracy. In 2007 she launched her solo show digShift. This multichannel installation of video poems delve into shifting layers of meaning at an abandoned gas station, in an attempt to imagine some sort of reclamation – personal, historical, and environmental – for this compelling and toxic landscape. In May of 2008, in collaboration with Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, she curated the Art Building Community Project, which launched 10 new works and a weekend symposium. Currently she is working on an arts-based research project entitled, Feminist Imagination As A Space of Resistance: Artistic Practices Contesting Violence, which explores the ways in which art creates space for forbidden narratives. She is also working to complete an experimental novel entitled, “Quivering Landscape.” She is an Assistant Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Winnipeg and Co-Director of The Institute for Women’s & Gender Studies. Contact Roewan Crowe at roewancrowe@gmail.com