Nuji’tlateket (One Who Does It): An Interview with Ursula Johnson – M.E. Luka

Ursula Johnson and M.E. Luka both attended NSCAD University in Halifax, NS, although they graduated several years apart. They have known each other for a decade, including through Ursula’s involvement as an artist featured on CBC ArtSpots, a television and internet program that M.E. founded and ran for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for ten years. Ursula’s ArtSpots videos can be found here. In December 2013, they sat down over Skype and picked up on an ongoing conversation about Ursula’s work, this time, in relation to the theme of “Perform” for this issue of No More Potlucks.

Elmiet - Ursula Johnson

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Elmiet
Venue: Prismatic & Nocturne Festivals, Halifax NS
Date: 2010
Photo Credit: Shahin Sayadi

Artist: Ursula Johnson in collaboration with Jordan Bennett Title: L'nuk

Artist: Ursula Johnson in collaboration with Jordan Bennett
Title: L’nuk
Venue: Anna Leonowens Art Gallery & Nocturne Festival, Halifax NS
Date: 2012
Photo Credit: Angella Parsons

M.E. Luka: Why does the theme “perform” interest you?

Ursula Johnson: I like “perform.” I’m one of those children that was the clown, looking for attention. I think it came naturally to me as I grew up. And then, through high school, I was introduced to theatre, and the tools that provoke so many different types of emotion. As I continued to investigate theatre, I became more interested in the logistics that contribute to the creation of the spectacle. So I became more involved in the lighting, the blocking and directing, and set design, eventually moving into musical scores, then dramaturgy, and playwriting. And then when I was studying at the university,[1] I was studying theatre, but also doing communications, philosophy and psychology with a little film and English. So it was quite a mix of things [laughs]. It was interesting – the various mixes. It helped to shape the various milieus I would branch off into once I made it to art school. And then that was a whole different can of worms. Art school was when I really learned about the canon of performance art, and how it came out of this place of trying to break away from the “institution” that art had become. All these really great individuals were trying to evoke emotion through the interaction. That was something I was really interested in.

I recently took part at a consultation session at Canada Council [for the Arts]. One of the facilitator-led questions was: what is your first memory or your first interaction with art? Mine was seeing a production of Annie at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay at eight years of age. Woah. Culture shock.

More on the early influence of theatre

More on the early influence of theatre (audio excerpt)


MEL: That’s amazing. That’s one of those moments – where it’s so new, you just have no way of evaluating it. It just is. Is that the kind of thing you sort of strive for in your own performances? To see if you can prompt that kind of a moment for people?

UJ: Yes, I always think of the people who will see it. It always starts with having an emotional response to something. And then I think – ok what was that emotional response? What happened? And I start psychologizing that emotional response. Then I look at all these different signifiers that were involved in that emotional response and how communication activated the response. I think about how I’m going to engage the audience so that the audience can feel what I felt initially when I thought about this certain thing.

I think about it from a theatrical perspective. I refer to it as a scene instead of an art installation, and think about all the elements – or props – that are brought into the scene. I think about choreography and audio components. I think about all these different senses –what is somebody going to smell when they come to this space? I always feel like smell and sound are key because in psychology and communications, smell is the trigger for nostalgia, but then there’s also sound. So I try to incorporate sound and smell as well as the visual. The visual always strikes us, but I’m also aware that in a lot of audiences, not everyone is sighted. So I want to see how somebody who is not sighted is going to interact with my art. They’re going to hear it, smell it, feel the energy around it. I aim to make sure all these different senses are considered. But since I’m still at very early stages of developing my career, I’m only starting to discover the aesthetic that is my own.

MEL: I’m interested that you think so deeply about the logistics. It’s similar to processes coming out of film and television. Breaking it down to put it back together and put it up in front of an audience. In whatever form, for whichever project. That’s how it works. How do you anticipate what you will need to do in order to create an environment – or scene as you suggest – where the audience can become really engaged?

I’m kind of curious too about that combination of the senses, of that visceral experience. I think a lot of your work is really visceral – even the documentation feels visceral. Coming out of the art college environment, the visual element is already conceptual, it’s already abstract, and so the instinct to use other senses to round it out is a really intriguing one.

UJ: When I was at NSCAD, there were two instructors in particular that really helped me to shape my understanding in how I developed my art conceptually, but also when it comes to the audience, and who I’m trying to communicate to and what it is I’m trying to communicate. Michael Fernandes helped me to develop those key conceptual elements:  what are you trying to say, how are you going to get there? And then Rita McKeough as well. Rita really helped with trying to figure out the editing processes involved in preparing  performance. I told her that I always see a scene, and a set and different things coming in. She said – that’s good, but be mindful with this set or this scene; every time you introduce a prop, it’s very loaded. It carries an entire history with it, even if you’re not aware.

Working with Rita McKeough

Working with Rita McKeough (audio excerpt)

 

Ursula Johnson: Graduation show interview from CBC ArtSpots.

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Graduation show interview from CBC ArtSpots
Date: 2006
Video Credit: Courtesy of CBC ArtSpots and the artist

MEL: How long does it take you to conceive and “rehearse” projects, if you use that term in relation to your work?

UJ: I definitely don’t rehearse. But it does take me a long time to conceive of the projects. Sometimes it’s something I thought about four years ago, and then I’ll mull it over. Or I’ll think of something and jot it down, or maybe I’ll sketch something. And then I forget about it: park it and bring it back. Or sometimes it’s things that just happen – just like that [snaps her fingers]. And I just envision it. Like the 2013 Nocturne performance, for instance, for “Hot Looking.” I was walking down Barrington Street [in Halifax] and saw the high-end shop window space on Barrington Street, and I thought – oh! I know what I want to do in there. I’d just heard the song on the radio two days before walking down the street. And I could see it all in my head. But then we didn’t end up doing it in that particular space, we did it in another that ended up working even better, because it fed into a whole bunch of other things. It was such a quick turnaround time: I’d say it was less than two months.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Hot Looking

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Hot Looking

Venue: Nocturne Festival, Halifax NS
Date: 2013
Photo Credit: Angella Parsons

MEL: Wow. Because there were quite a few props and things involved in that experience. So that’s a lot to think through. Did you find that that particular project grew out of other experiences?

UJ: Yes, things always kind of carry over. The nature of performance is – because it is so visceral and so intense, it permeates your entire cellular structure. That memory is always in those cells. It’s kind of like trying to hold a fire – it’s impossible. But you keep trying to do it.

It’s like holding fire in your hands

It’s like holding fire in your hands (audio excerpt)

 

Ursula Johnson: Ikatk excerpt from performance, 2014.

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Ikatk (She Protects)
Venue: Ideal Law Conference, Schulich School of Law, Halifax NS
Date: 2014
Video Credit: M.E. Luka

MEL: You do quite extensive, multi-hour performances. How do you maintain a level of concentration and focus over those stretches of time?

UJ: I think that’s the part of performance art that I’m really addicted to: that physical endurance. But there’s also psychological endurance. Putting your body through a trauma when you’re doing performance art that uses your body in that way. You go through different levels of: can I do this? Can I reach this point? I set out to finish at sunset and I started at sunrise. You reach 3pm and you start doubting yourself. Your questions are: can I continue on? Should I continue on? What is the purpose of continuing on? I’m really interested in that kind of “battle” between the mind and the body and that trauma that’s self-inflicted through endurance or durational performance art.

The mind-body connection in performance art

The mind-body connection in performance art (audio excerpt) 

 

MEL: For anybody else – they can kind of see that whatever’s going on in your head, because you’re there, performing. And when you take it to that level of very personal level of interaction, namely between the artist and the audience member, it becomes evident that endurance is a big piece of this. Right? That sustaining the work over time is crucial. And at the personal level, anybody who’s coming by will think, oh my god, how can she do that? Do you get a lot of people asking you – why are you doing that?

UJ: Yes, I do, especially if it’s in the public festival circuit. Some of the performances that I’ve done require that I interact with the audience or the participants, as I call them, in order for the art to occur. There are other ones where it’s solely me – my mind and my body, kind of battling with each other. It’s all these different types of performance art that I’m engaging in, but when I’m doing the ones where I’m engaging with the public, if it’s durational, then I definitely get a lot of questions. Like, “why are you doing this?” “why are you putting your body through this?” It’s those times, when I’m seven hours into standing, and someone asks “why are you doing this?” I think “great question!” because my legs are very sore right now, but I have four hours to go.

It’s risky work but I’m cautious

It’s risky work but I’m cautious (audio excerpt)

 

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)
Venue: Six Foot Festival, Manitoulin Island ON
Date: 2011
Photo Credit: Ron Berti

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)
Venue: Six Foot Festival, Manitoulin Island ON
Date: 2011
Photo Credit: Reit Mellink

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)
Venue: Six Foot Festival, Manitoulin Island ON
Date: 2011
Photo Credit: Josh Peltier

MEL: So you’ve got these bounded physical limits: you push it from a physical point of view, but only to the limit that you can or you need to. You’ve got that level of caution in there, which is practical. But you do some work that is risky from the point of view of challenging cultural norms and positions and beliefs. The subject matter of your work is very intense. Do you feel like that piece of it is less cautious?

UJ: I think that’s where the editing comes in. The subject matter that I deal with involves indigeneity and cultural reappropriation: a lot of identity and ancestry issues and heavy, political things. I recently realized that I’m not really afraid to bring those topics of conversation to the public realm. For a period of time – when I was at art school – I was a little bit hesitant about bringing those conversations to the public realm.

Regular critiques with my partner really help

Regular critiques with my partner really help (audio excerpt)

 

Looking back now, in retrospect, maybe I thought those conversations weren’t necessary or didn’t need to be had, but then as I moved through life, I realized that this is the stuff that is happening in my body that I’m acknowledging in my life – I’m responding to my surroundings. That’s what contemporary art is. I’m going to make something about what’s going on right here that I’m living and experiencing and respond to it. I truly believe because I grew up half my life on the reserve and half my life in an urban centre, that I have a foot in both worlds. This western, urbanized, aboriginal, queer woman, and then the reserved, living under this government-imposed apartheid, social assistance recipient, kind of down-and-out Indian on the reserve: having these two different components – an almost kind of internal battle – of my own identities happening with each other. I think about what has created those two identities, and why those two identities are conflicting, or working together. And then I look at the surroundings around me, and think about how I’m going to invite someone into this dialogue. And I have these really intense emotional reactions to stuff I’m learning about – different treaties, or different legislation. But I want to open it up so that people can talk. Because I find – or I have been finding a lot – that artists or curators or art critics, if they’re not already engaged with that discourse of indigeneity and how it relates to contemporary art, then sometimes people are hesitant to engage in that dialogue because they don’t know how to talk about it.

Some people are uneasy discussing Aboriginal art

Some people are uneasy discussing Aboriginal art (audio excerpt)

 

MEL: I’ve been listening to some of the language you’ve been using around conflict within yourself and identities battling things out. What is my position in relation to other people around me? This is one of the things that I think is so interesting about your work. Some of it is work that pulls you in, like the basket weaving work. People are so fascinated by it, because the craft part of it gives it that feel of domesticity or “this is my everyday world.” But some of your other performances involving earth, natural pigments, or something that is kind of more raw or fundamental is work that pushes you away a little bit.

UJ: I think it has a lot to do with those battling identities. But I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a two-spirited person as well. I acknowledge, and I’ve always acknowledged that I’m a two-spirited person. Call me queer if you will, but definitely don’t call me lesbian because I’m not lesbian. I’ve had relationships with men and women and I’m in a monogamous female-to-female relationship right now, and we’re married. But I’ve always identified, in regards to my identity, as two-spirited. They co-exist pretty well, because they have their own relationship in me. I know that I have these two things that help determine what it is that I’m going to do.

Considering my two-spirited nature

Considering my two-spirited nature (audio excerpt) 

 

Photo Credits: Ursula Johnson

Photo Credits: Ursula Johnson

Investigating clear cuts in Lumsden, Scotland UK
Date: 2013
Photo Credits: Ursula Johnson

MEL: So how you live your life, and how you construct your work has a lot to do with your belief system, and your heritage.

UJ: Yes. For example, I just came back from the UK for the Naked Craft Network Symposium Residency with the Scottish sculpture workshops in Lumsden. When I arrived, I looked around, and there’s a foundry, there’s a forge, there’s a ceramics studio, there’s a metal workshop and a wood workshop. I have never touched anything that has to do with fire or gases. Because I was terrified of it. And all I wanted was to find a patch of forest. To get away from all the dangerous fire, and the gas. And to go to the forest, because I’m most comfortable in the forest. But I couldn’t find any forest; it was all pastures. I was having such a mental-psychological-emotional experience as I walked through the countryside of what I thought was going to be the beautiful rolling hills of Scotland, not realizing at first that all these rolling hills are all pastures for this industry of consumption. And it all came down to consumption and needing to consume.

The trauma to the land

The trauma to the land (audio excerpt)

 

Photo Credit: Jessamy Kelly

Grinding Steel for Crooked Knife Blade
Venue: Scottish Sculpture Workshops, Lumsden, Scotland
Date: 2013
Photo Credit: Jessamy Kelly

Photo Credit: Mathieu Léger

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L’nuwelti’k
Venue: Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben-Cohen, Moncton NB
Date: 2013
Photo Credit: Mathieu Léger
Courtesy of Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben-Cohen

I realized that I didn’t want to just consume the idea of molding an object in order to create a bronze artifact to memorialize it forever, when it’s already made of steel and plastic. Here I am, working in such an ephemeral way of working – there’s no permanence in performance and installation. The materials that I decide to make sculptural objects with are all natural materials that are going to be absorbed back into the earth. And then I realized that I wanted to learn how to forge steel, so that I can learn how to make my own crooked knife. So that I can use it for basketry – you know, a functional object that I’m going to use. It was an intense – potentially life-changing – experience of working with fire to make something that I’m going to use, not just something that will become yet another archeological artifact a thousand years from now. Those two weeks I had in Scotland blew open this idea of all different types of traditional sculptural elements. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with them. It’s probably going to take at least five to ten years, or maybe even longer, to sort through what it was. But being able to experience those traditional elements, when I was always more conceptual, means I’ve been able to open myself to thinking, maybe someday, I may be able to make more permanent artifacts. Even though for myself, emotionally, I will always need to justify the reason for making that artifact.

Thinking about who else are a colonized people

Thinking about who else are a colonized people (audio excerpt)

 

MEL: Do you want to talk a little bit about terms like identity, cultural practices, collaboration, and what place these have in your work?

UJ: I think culture – in general – is one of those main components but it’s also capital “C” culture that plays a huge role in how I think about my art, relate to my art, how I engage in it, topics that I want to discuss. But lowercase “c” culture, in general, I think it’s the nature of being an artist.

MEL: When you think about capital “C” culture, are there experiences in developing pieces or how you developed as an artist that you would point to?

UJ: I think so. One of those pieces that has really helped me, is to acknowledge my own cultural history. In order for me to engage in something, or to have the right to discuss it, then I need to research and acknowledge the history and the heritage of that topic. Because I don’t want to talk about something that I’m ignorant [about]; that’s not how I was raised. My great-grandparents – they were the type of people that had a revolving door. It was always researchers, anthropologists, archeologists, all these different “ologists” walking through their door, wanting to ask these two individuals what they thought about something. They were both very well spoken, but it was always also very matter of fact. It’s like:

I’m going to tell you something that nobody else is going to tell you, because you need to hear it. These are the topics you’re trying to engage with and discuss in your dissertation. So let’s talk about it. And let’s talk about it to the point but let’s make sure we do it in the right way. But before we get there, you need to do four or five visits with me with a cup of tea, so that I can acquaint you with the history of what you’re trying to get at.

Because, by acknowledging that history, and putting in the time and dedication, it helps us to come from a less ignorant point of view. I don’t want to say non-ignorant, because we can never do that. But we can be less ignorant. In regard to any type of cultural discussion or cultural discourse, I try to make sure that I have at least a little bit of a backdrop before I jump in, full-on, to a dialogue.

Artists: Ursula Johnson and Caroline Gould Photo Credit: CBC ArtSpots and M.E. Luka (screen grab)

Artists: Ursula Johnson and Caroline Gould
Photo Credit: CBC ArtSpots and M.E. Luka (screen grab)
Courtesy of CBC and the artists.

MEL: Are there a couple of pieces that you can think of where that was particularly helpful?

UJ: For me, it was the basket weaving piece. The first time I did it was in 2003. In the sculpture court at the Dalhousie Arts Centre. It was for an aboriginal arts showcase. I was still a student at the time. I also had a Mohawk: kind of a punk – probably like a wannabe artstar NSCAD student. I might have been finishing my second year, going into my third year. And I had decided that I was going to weave a basket around myself. And I was like – wow, isn’t that amazing! [fierce expression] I’m going to weave a basket around myself. And my great-grandmother, I remember going to her and saying – I think I’m going to weave a basket around myself. What do you think about this? And she said: you’re going to be inside the basket? You’re weaving around yourself from inside the basket? And I said yes, and she said: that’s a really big basket. And I said, I know – isn’t that going to be cool! So I’m going to be in there, and just totally cover myself in the basket. And then she said:

Ok. Sure. I’m fine with that. If you’re looking for my permission, I’m ok with that. I’m just happy you’re weaving. I don’t care what you’re doing. I’m just happy you’re doing it.

And I didn’t really think very much about why she was happy that I was doing it. But I know that it was for a lot of reasons: because it meant that I was trying to engage with the materials, and trying to understand them from a completely different, radical perspective. But she was happy that I was trying to engage with the materiality. And she knew before I knew that I would need this stage for the dialogue to happen before I could engage in the dialogue.

Ursula Johnson: Basketry interview from CBC ArtSpots.

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Basketry interview from CBC ArtSpots
Date: 2006
Video Credit: Courtesy of CBC ArtSpots and the artist

UJ: After day two of the three-day festival, I realized: oh my god, this is going to be a total fail – I’m not going to be able to get this done. And all these aboriginal women had their craft booths up on the top. And then I looked up at these women, they’re looking at me, and I went up to them and I said, listen, I know you guys probably think I’m crazy, but I really need to do this, but I can’t do it by myself. I need you to help me; can you please help me to try to figure out how to do this? Then they kind of talked to one another, and a consensus was made that they were going to try to help this crazy art student, and then they came down and helped me. It’s at that point that I realize – wow, that I need them. To help me to understand who I am, I need to go to my elders, I need to go to my community, I need to ask for assistance.

I need my elders, I need my community

I need my elders, I need my community (audio excerpt)

 

It was at that point – it was 2003, when I realized that it wasn’t all about me. And then something shifted in my understanding of myself. I think even physiologically, something happened in my cells that changed me forever that day. And then on the third day, as it’s coming up all around me, people are saying: how are you going to get out? At first, I said: I’m going to bust out! I’m going to tear out! And as the basket is growing higher and higher, people kept coming up to me. And I had all these answers. And then I entered into a period of solace, when it got to about here [she points to her throat], and I remember this one guy – he said – how are you going to get out? And I said – I’m not so sure that I want to get out. At that point, I realized that I was just starting to accept who I was. And that the action of encasing myself in this thing, and reaching out to my community to help me, shifted something.

So I revisited that same piece in 2010. Where I pushed the envelope even further, of purposely having to reach out. The performance was off the festival site grounds. People had to actually come and physically find me in order to interact with me. But the materials were actually submerged in the Georgian Bay, off the bank, so people had to go down to the bank and get them for me. People would already have come 20 minutes down the road to come find me, and I would say, “I’m so glad you’re here, because I need your help. Would you mind going down to the Georgian Bay and retrieving some of these materials for me?” So it was pushing it even further – how far can I go to ask someone to help me accomplish what I’m trying to do? And then I did it again in 2012 in Toronto. I think it was really that piece that happened in regard to a cultural understanding: the big “C” culture but also the small “c” culture, through that performance.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)
Venue: Planet IndigenUS Festival, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto ON
Date: 2012
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Festival Volunteers

MEL: So the repetition of the performance, and the growing of it worked well for you: do you see that potential with any of your other work?

UJ: Yes. I think that’s also happening with L’nuk, which developed with Jordan Bennett, a Mi’kmaq artist from Stephenville Crossing in Newfoundland. We developed it in Banff in 2010 and then we did it again at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax in 2012, when it was programmed to fit into the 2012 Nocturne festival. We want to have it make its way back across the country and end up back at Banff, though we’re still researching the venues. It’s an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about appropriation, reappropriation and stereotypes, and breaking down stereotypes. We want it to be in a university campus setting so that the students have an opportunity to experience the work, and also have the opportunity to sit down and engage in what we’ve been referring to as a debrief. After the experience, we sit down and say ok what happened? What went on? What did you go through? This is what happened for us, and this is what happened for you. Let’s try and talk through it. And talk about some of the topics. But within a safe space.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Basket Weaving (Cultural Cocoon)

Artist: Ursula Johnson in collaboration with Jordan Bennett
Title: L’nuk
Venue: Anna Leonowens Art Gallery & Nocturne Festival, Halifax NS
Date: 2012
Photo Credit: Angella Parsons

Artist: Ursula Johnson in collaboration with Jordan Bennett Title: L'nuk

Artist: Ursula Johnson in collaboration with Jordan Bennett
Title: L’nuk
Venue: Anna Leonowens Art Gallery & Nocturne Festival, Halifax NS
Date: 2012
Photo Credit: Anfia Lin
Courtesy of Anna Leonowens Art Gallery

ME: Is this the first time you’ve done this kind of thing? The debrief?

UJ: No. I come from a social community support background with the [Aboriginal] friendship centres. I tend to do a debrief anytime that I do any kind of a collaborative project with anyone. Jordan and I did it in Banff when we developed that piece. Because I had done durational performance pieces, and Jordan had never done it, so I asked him: do you realize what you’re stepping into here? And he said, well, it’s going to be intense. So afterwards, I suggested: let’s do a debrief, and figure out what happened here. Same with these busts that I’ve been working on over the past couple of years: L’nuwelti’k, where I’m encasing volunteers that have self-identified their membership codes, into these basket forms. I really like where that’s going, and I’m continuing to work with that. There’s anywhere from two to three hundred membership codes that I’m going to attempt to capture.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L'nuwelti'k

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L'nuwelti'k

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L’nuwelti’k

Venue: Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben-Cohen, Moncton NB
Date: 2013
Photo Credit: Mathieu Léger
Courtesy of Galerie d’art Louise et Rueben-Cohen

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: L'nuwelti'k and Migration Installation View for Aboriginal Voices

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: L’nuwelti’k and Migration Installation View for Aboriginal Voices
Venue: Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben-Cohen, Moncton NB
Date: 2013
Photo Credit: Mathieu Léger
Courtesy of Galerie d’art Louise et Rueben-Cohen

I’ve done eight of them so far. They volunteer for something but they don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be, then I already know that they’re willing to take a risk and say – I self-identify, I’m willing to do whatever it is you want me to do for the next four hours. I tell people – we’re going to do a debrief when we’re done. And they’re like, yup, sure, whatever. And I’m talking to them throughout, but there are also periods of quiet, and then I’m talking to people who come to ask questions. But the person that’s in behind that form, they’re never addressed by the public, which I find interesting. The public will come and they’ll talk to me; they’ll say – oh why is he in there? Instead of coming up and saying to him, why are you in there? Kind of dismissing them. They don’t address them, because they’ve been closed off. And I know how isolating it can be. Because I’ve closed myself off, and heard people come up and talk about me, when I’m right in front of them.

Participating as a volunteer is a very personal experience

Participating as a volunteer is a very personal experience (audio excerpt)

 

So after each of those performances, I say – are you ready to come out? And sometimes they are ready, and sometimes they clearly say, “Not Yet.” With the Not Yet, I know there’s something going on, and I’m mindful of that. So I stay with them, and I might have my hand on their back, because I’ve been with them, and we’ve been in such close proximity for an hour or sometimes even four hours, that I don’t want to leave them. Because my responsibility is to make sure they’re safe while they’re in that space, and I want to make sure they remain safe. And then when they say, ok, I’m ready now. I say, just to let you know, there’s about 20 people here, some people with cameras, some people are filming. So when you come out of there, they’re going to capture an image of your face, I just need to give you a heads-up. And if they’re still ready, then we take it off, and they look around, and it’s always eyes down, in a kind of: I don’t want to deal with this [gestures with both arms and hands in the space around her head] because I’ve been in here [covers her face with her hands]. People are applauding and I say, let’s go, we’re going to step into this private room for as long as you need. And we’re gone, until everything comes out. And I’ve told all those people that when we have that debrief, it’s always there. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because it’s a safe space for them to say stuff, but then it also contributes to helping me to understand what has happened there. To make sure that I uphold my responsibilities.

ME: It’s interesting that you talk about responsibility. I mean implicitly, or explicitly, in terms of cultural engagement.

UJ: I think that’s a responsibility in general as artists. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility to make something to evoke and invoke. And that when we do that, if we don’t own up to what we’ve just done, then why the hell do we do it? It’s disrespectful to the participants, or the viewers, or whatever you want to call them. I’ve really enjoyed, the past couple of times that I’ve done performance-based relations, when I’ve had other people being the subject of the performance, and I’m the onlooker or the orchestrator. That’s when I’ve really appreciated watching how the participants engage with the art. I’m thinking specifically about Hot Looking, for 2013’s Nocturne, and also Ketapekiaq Maqamikew (“The Land Sings”) which was in Antigonish’s art festival, Antigonight. 

Ketapekiaq Maqamikew (The Land Sings) for Antigonight Festival 2013

Ketapekiaq Maqamikew (The Land Sings) for Antigonight Festival 2013 (audio excerpt)

 

Seeing how people want to consume, or they consume just a little bit, and then go on. Or they want more, and seeing that need for consumption. Especially because I’m dealing with these stereotypes.

Ursula Johnson: Hot Looking excerpt from performance, 2013.

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Hot Looking
Venue: Nocturne Festival, Halifax NS
Date: 2013
Video Credit: Angella Parsons

In Hot Looking, this beautiful Indian man in the window is begging to be consumed, in this beautiful, really posh makeup store in the south end of Halifax. People say, oohh – he’s so gorgeous, and he’s in the makeup store, so of course he wants to be consumed. And then they hear the music, and the music says – over and over – go ahead and look at me because that’s what I want. And people get confused and ask: is that what he wants? Are we here to consume him, or is he consuming us?! Then they wonder, wait a second, are we consuming each other? Woaahh. To see people that come and look, and then react, and then they start to think, and then they start to think some more, and then they decide to contemplate and see what’s going on. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Prototype of Vitrine for Mi'kwite'tmn

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Prototype of Vitrine for Mi’kwite’tmn

Venue: Upcoming exhibition at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, NS with subsequent touring venues across Canada
Date: 2010
Photo Credit: Krista Comeau

ME: Where do you want to go from here? What are you working on now?

UJ: E.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. The biggest thing I’m working on right now is – I have a solo exhibition, called Mi’kwitetmn: Do You Remember, with Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery that will open in the spring of 2014, and then tour across the country for three years. There are three components to it. One is a kind of classical sculpture gallery. In the sculpture gallery, there’s going to be several plexiglass display cases; the kind that usually house artifacts in a museum. But the cases are actually empty, and there are sandblasted images on them that are a western, kind of scientific diagrammatic image of my great-grandmother’s baskets, and it’s dissected with text. But the text is all in Mi’kmaq. It’s a long process, but it’s essentially trying to reference the museological indexing of cultural artifacts and cultural history, regarding language, and the ideas of conservation and preservation. The language is Mi’kmaq but it relates directly to the way that the materials have been manipulated in the basket.

Caroline Gould: Basketry interview from CBC ArtSpots.

Artist: Caroline Gould
Title: Basketry interview from CBC ArtSpots
Date: 2006
Video Credit: Courtesy of CBC ArtSpots and the artist

The project came out of an interview that I did with my great-grandmother, Caroline Gould, in 2008 for a Canada Council for the Arts grant, when I was researching the concept of Neti’kulimk which is self-sustainability, in Mi’kmaq basketry. She talks about when the art dies, then the language is going to die with it, because the language is so specific to the manipulation of those materials. The language is preserved if the art is sustained. Never mind the people trying to sustain their livelihood through the art, the art itself is in danger and needs to be sustained.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Migration with O'pltek Form

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Migration with O’pltek Form
Venue: Upcoming exhibition at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Halifax, NS with subsequent touring venues across Canada
Date: 2010-2012
Photo Credit: Wendy McElmon

There’s a room off the main gallery that is going to be the archive room and have a number of what I’ve been calling the O’pltek form, the twenty-first century Mi’kmaq basket, all dusty and destined for the archive. So they are going to be tagged and catalogued in the archive room. There’s going to be an interactive component, where you can get a tablet with a barcode scanner software, and you can scan each one of the artifacts, and it will shoot information to you on the tablet that will give you its speculated history, its speculated functions, the materiality, who would have made it, what type of society. Finally, there’s going to be a performative space, where I’m going to engage with neo-artifacts. These are artifacts from my family’s tools for basketry which have been resanded, stained and varnished and made to look pretty and brand new. Then on opening night I will enter into the Performative Space and activate the neo-artifacts by processing a log from start to finish.

There are a couple of other things. I am currently Artist in Residence at Unama’ki College of Cape Breton University, delivering talks on how the various departments relate to my own research and work, as well as opening my studio for the public and the academic community to have a glimpse into the artist’s studio. I’m working on a commission for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. They’re building a new structure, and in the aboriginal gallery, they’re making a multimedia theatre. But on the outside there will be all these maple hardwood panels, that will create this kind of conical structure inside. And they have taken on a project, through the National Association of Friendship Centres and Aboriginal Youth Council to create an artistic response to what human rights mean to urban aboriginal youth. So there are 13 artists that have been selected from across the country to work with youth from 13 communities, with all the provinces and territories. Then we each collaboratively create a panel that’s going to be a part of the architectural structure.

Artist: Ursula Johnson Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L'nuwelti'k

Artist: Ursula Johnson
Title: Male Status 6.1a Qualipu Landless Band Member, L’nuwelti’k

Venue: Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben-Cohen, Moncton NB
Date: 2013
Photo credit: Ursula Johnson

There is also a group exhibition, Making Otherwise, at the Carleton University Art Gallery with curator Heather Anderson. She’s putting on a group show that’s exploring traditional materiality in a contemporary context, and she’s taking three or four of the bust portraits from L’nuwelti’k for that exhibition. We’re going to create two on site, on the steps of the Supreme Court of Canada. All of the other busts have been done in front of law schools, to engage law students in the discourse around membership codes in the Indian Act, because it’s directly related to legislation.

That’s why I’m so excited to have no other commitments for the winter.


[1] University College of Cape Breton at the time, which is Cape Breton University (CBU) now.

Ursula Johnson’s approach to basketry is typical of her transformational practice. Rather than simply imitating traditional Mi’kmaw basket forms, she uses traditional techniques to build subtly non-functional forms – objects that are clearly traditionally based yet raised to a metaphorical level of signification, as works of art. Johnson is an alumna of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where she studied photography, drawing and textiles. She also studied theatre at Cape Breton University. People who attend Johnson’s performances are often surprised to find themselves no longer spectators, but actors in a social situation. Instead of the private, contemplative response we usually expect from the encounter with a work of art, we become participants in collective interpretations and collaborative actions. Ursula comes from a long line of Mi’kmaw Artists, including her late Great-Grandmother, Caroline Gould, for whom she curated Klokowej: A 30-Year Retrospective (2010) commemorating Gould’s contribution to the evolution of Mi’kmaw basketry. Johnson as been a full time practicing studio artist for the past two years, and has made a promising leap into the contemporary Canadian art scene as an emerging artist. You can see Johnson in her TEDx talk at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HHvaZKFgRA.

Ursula’s website is: http://ursulajohnson.wordpress.com/

M.E. Luka is an award-winning documentary producer-director for television and digital media including as founder of CBC ArtSpots. As a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar and doctoral candidate (ABD) wrapping up her doctoral work in Communication and Media at Concordia University, she probes the work of artists in relation to broadcasting and digital media. Deeply involved with the culture and education sectors as a strategic planning consultant including Canadian Public Arts Funders and Women in Film and Television-Atlantic, she is also a leadership volunteer with Arts Nova Scotia (founding Vice-Chair), Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council and the NSCAD University Board of Governors. M.E.’s website is: http://moreartculturemediaplease.com/

 

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