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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Extractive Implication and Potlatch as Method: in conversation with Tsēmā Igharas
Thursday, May 26, 2022 | Gabrielle Willms

Tsēmā Igharas, Tailings Pool, 2021. Photo by Karen Asher for Plug In ICA, STAGES biennial.

 

 

Last summer, I biked to Point Douglas, an eclectic, old Winnipeg neighbourhood dotted with stately historical buildings and defunct industrial sites, to find Tsēmā Igharas’ installation, Tailings Pool. Housed on an empty lot, the piece seemed, from a distance, to be a large, nondescript pile of gravel, not unlike the rubble of a construction site. But as I approached, the smooth, angled sides of the mound came into focus, and a jaunty neon yellow swimming ladder revealed itself, straddling the edge. Climbing up to look in, I found a bean-shaped pool of tantalizing blue, glinting in the dry heat, noxious yet seductive. 

Playfully blurring the boundary between suburban backyard pool and toxic soup, Tailings Pool is one of Tsēmā’s many works to explore the impacts of mining and resource extraction. By drawing connections between materials embedded innocuously in everyday life and the mines that produce them, she aims to unveil the realities of unsustainable consumption and probe our complicity in extractive practices that take place on Indigenous territories.

An interdisciplinary artist and member of the Tahltan nation in northern B.C., Tsēmā makes use of Potlatch Methodology to ground her conceptual work and locates her practice in strategies of Indigenous resistance. Over the past few years, she’s looked at copper, bitumen and uranium mining as well as traditional obsidian mining, employing performance, sculpture and installation to render these investigations tangible. More recently, she’s landed on water as a central undercurrent in her work, to explore how capitalist and colonial systems distort notions of value and obscure connections between bodies and the land. Beyond her conceptual practice, Tsēmā also works closely with Tahltan community members on cultural revitalization and developing traditional curriculum. 

Tsēmā and I met over zoom to chat about her work, process and evolution as an artist. She was a warm and generous interlocutor, as we covered everything from her brief stint in the mining industry and the politics of representing bodies (and hiring pool boys), to the importance of letting materials speak for themselves.

 

 

I had to make an argument that [my work about Tahltan territory] mattered to every-body connected to those places, not just through material cycles and consumption, but also through waterways and the effects of climate change.

 

 

GW: Thematically, your work tends to focus on extractive processes and the resource industry in Canada more broadly. Where did this interest stem from initially?

TI: Ok, that’s a super good question. It's a bit of a niche. But it has its roots in a really practical experience. I was working for a company that hired Tahltan scientist field assistants during my degree at Emily Carr, and we would travel all over to different mining operations and do preliminary studies for environmental permits. It didn’t have anything to do with my degree, but it was just such good money and they were taking people who didn’t have a science background. It was one of the most amazing experiences to be on this job. I was in a helicopter a few times a day. Most of my territory that I’ve seen so far has been from working for the mines. Part of me thought, ethically, that I was in a better field of this extractive and colonial mining industry. I figured that because I was doing environmental work I was helping, but in the end, I was helping the mines open. In general, my Indigenous territory is a very attractive place for the mining industry. They call it the Golden Triangle because of the gold, silver and copper anomalies. 

GW: So you would go to these mining camps and then come back to Emily Carr, and your work eventually became more focused around these issues.

TI: Eventually! I think I'm kind of embarrassed by how long it took me to connect those things. It started off with this painting series that I did at Emily Carr in my final year. I wanted to talk about the way that man measures the earth in a rational/irrational way, but I look back on it now and I was trying so hard to be hyper conceptual, versus actually just drawing on my own experience. And there's just such a huge conceptual foundation already there from my experience working in the mines, and working for and against. In the end, my concept developed into something else. I kind of boiled it down to look at the material connection we have with resources mined in Indigenous territories, and this consumption cycle that we're all a part of. It connects us back to the land, it also connects us back to those mines and the issues that go along with them. 

GW: Is that sort of one of the main purposes of your work, to draw attention to how we’re implicated in these environments that we think of as distant or remote, or maybe outside our scope of responsibility? 

TI: Yeah, for sure. I applied to OCAD to do my Masters on this subject and flesh it out a little bit, but one of the conversations I always had with my colleagues there was about why my work about Tahltan territory mattered in Toronto. And I think that was probably for the best because, in the end, I had to make an argument that it mattered to every-body connected to those places, not just through material cycles and consumption, but also through waterways and the effects of climate change.

GW: In relation to that, I’m interested in how you try to tie bodies to the land, and at times, blur the distinction between the two. This is especially evident in works such as Teleportation Suit and Real Camo, where your body becomes part of the surrounding environment. How do you think about the body in relation to the land, and how do you attempt to convey this through your work?

TI: Well, I think the use of performance is a big part of it. For me, it’s a medium. It calls for it. It continues to make the subject real. A lot of my work is also performative. If it’s not being performed by me, it’s performative because I do want people to feel that their body is part of that land and part of that issue. The physical is really important in my work because it makes it more tangible, more relatable. It’s something that people can kind of hold onto. If they can see their body reflected in their work, the issues kind of creep in.

GW: You also often make use of your own body in your work, and your name means Mother of Rocks in Tahltan. I’m wondering if and how gender and feminism figure into your work and this use of bodies and performance. 

TI: I’m pretty conscious about it. I mean, there’s this issue with putting other people’s bodies into my work. Most of the time, I put my body in the work because I don’t want to exploit other bodies.

Something that I’m also conscious of, that I have explored, is matrilineal culture in Tahltan society. There’s this kind of thought process with women’s bodies in my culture and philosophy, and how we identify with our mothers’ line (versus patrilineal and the Patriarchy). 

But I am interested in exploring this topic more. I was trying to do this performance piece with Tailings Pool, where I hire a pool boy to hype up the crowd, and then intentionally exploit their (male-presenting) body. Because it was last minute I thought about hiring a male stripper or drag king in Winnipeg, but again, these come with their own considerations, and we decided to kind of rest these ideas and realize them later when there’s more planning. I remember Jeneen Frei Njootli, who I’ve collaborated with on Sinuosity, did this performance at Emily Carr with this white-presenting guy lifting caribou antlers for too long of a time. Until he couldn’t hold them up anymore, and I was like, I love this. But I think you have to all be in on it for it to be successful, which the audience was. That will be what I go for with the Pool Boy performance, eventually.

 

 


Sinuosity, collaborative performance with Jeneen Frei Injootli from the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics Encuentro in Mexico City, photo by Jonathan Igharas.

 

 

GW: Right, it can be complicated if you’re disseminating your work and mobilizing others’ bodies for an idea. Do you have concerns about this with your own image or performances?

TI: Yea, it’s a good point. I’ve also struggled with certain collaborations where you have to negotiate these issues of consent. Sometimes, it’s just easier to do it yourself, because you have to be so careful, especially with people of colour. There’s already such an exploitative history. But in relation to your earlier question, I really don’t want to continue a narrative that women’s bodies are natural – closer to animals, closer to land – as a stereotype, and then a justification for exploiting the land and women’s bodies. At the same time, I think there’s an interesting parallel to explore, which you see in Real Camo. As Native women’s bodies are exploited, I do want to talk about that relationship or similarity to the land being exploited. It’s fuzzy, but interesting! It seems like there’s lots to talk about. And the more I talk about it, the better I’ll work it out. In fact, I’ll need to because the politics could be misconstrued.

GW: Beyond physical performance, you also work a lot with sculpture and installation, right, which are spatial and physical. 

TI: I mean, I have been working a lot more in digital media in the last little while. I think it’s the Covid curse. But those works are augmented reality sculptures, so they still kind of represent the physical. In Tahltan society, the physical was really important because it was connected to the spiritual. In ceremony, we had these physical objects to help us remember what to do. Your memory would be triggered by the artwork, and the regalia would represent your family identity. Giving away physical objects is also a symbol of wealth. 

I also just like making physical objects. Especially when making work about climate issues, I think there’s always this need to justify making physical objects. Like with Tailings Pool, we worked for a week to put up a temporary sculpture and the energy cost of that is so high. And we’re doing it again for Nuit Blanche just for one night. But I think it’s funny. If people think that’s wasteful, it’s really good to put it into perspective compared to the issues I’m talking about. 

Also, I did it because I could do it. I just don’t feel like there are enough women, let alone Indigenous women doing large scale land art about critical issues. I thought that if I had a budget, I was going to do it, and Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art supported that.

 

 

I just don’t feel like there are enough women, let alone Indigneous women doing large scale land art about critical issues.

 

 

GW: And you have to reckon with art of that scale in a different way, I think. Like it has a kind of presence that makes those issues more real. 

TI: Yeah totally, well the tailings pond where my brother works as a mining engineer, takes 20 minutes to drive past. It’s massive! And we actually had a leak in Tailings Pool. There were a couple small tears in the tarp and I fixed it with a bicycle patch. And then we overfilled it, so we had a tailings breach. And I was talking to my brother about it and he said that’s exactly what happened at Mt. Polley, which was a major mining accident in B.C. We saw it on a small scale. 

GW: It’s funny that it accidentally leaked. I do feel like, in lots of your work, you reveal how seemingly inanimate materials have their own agency or kind of escape our attempts at colonial or exploitative control. Even with your Great Bear Money Rock piece, the radioactivity from the rocks, which were taken from a uranium mine site in the Northwest Territories, are still oozing out into the gallery. You’ve contained the radiation to some degree, but the viewer still has to confront it. How do you think about materials and our relationship to the non-human in your work?

TI: Yeah! Well, I went through these Burtynsky-esque material eras in my work, starting with material that could have been mined in Tahltan territory, then moving on to speak about bitumen, and then what I thought was going to be talking about uranium. But it really wasn't. That project made me shift, and now most of my work has to do with our relationship to water and how those industries affect it. Like, what is the value of the freshwater that you're contaminating for thousands of years to come versus, you know, the value of what's being mined? Trying to kind of reconcile that. Tailings Pool is a direct result of that shift because I needed to talk about water. So yeah, the materials that I use have a certain agency, but I'm trying to push forward the concepts that are already contained in the medium. So for instance, with copper and working with pennies, there's already a conceptual framework in the object itself that says everything that I need to say – to talk about fleeting value, to talk about colonial value. There's this kind of post-apocalyptic feel to the work as well, which is where I started. I thought, if these objects were melted down to their core material, what could we use it for? What could be left after a human engagement with these resources? 

Then with bitumen, it was like, how many ideas are already found within the material that I could conjure? And a lot of that came from working with youth and passing around this raw material, which is actually super abstract, but then had so much potential. It could be used in so many ways, and it could become so many things. There's all these ideas already embedded into bitumen. 

With uranium, I just felt like it was something so untouchable, which is why I worked with Erin Siddall, who’s done a lot of work around atomic histories and sites. Going to Great Bear Lake was an incredible experience, but it still haunts me. You feel like you're disintegrating when you're somewhere that's been contaminated by radioactivity. And just so present. The only other time that I've felt this is with COVID. There’s this kind of invisible danger. I felt so alive by being close to death. That’s a really powerful experience. And again, their tailings were dumped directly into the lake, which is the eighth largest freshwater reserve in the world.

GW: It’s interesting to hear you outline your trajectory between materials. You’ve kind of moved from things tied more to your Tahltan territory to working with other people in other territories.

TI: It’s still super related. Several headwaters originate in Tahltan territory. It’s really impressive how many rivers start there, and then are connected to these surrounding territories and provinces and people. It’s always been a kind of background idea, the affect of water.  

GW: In terms of how you work, you’ve kind of said you want the materials to speak for themselves or create a certain kind of space for them. But I’ve also heard you say that you’re kind of conceptually driven and then the medium and materials kind of follow.

TI: Usually, I have a subject or project and then it’s like – how do I use it? How does it speak? Like I had a bitumen core sample in my studio several years before I dealt with it. But I noticed that I spoke about bitumen in the same way I spoke about copper, that through the use, touch and consumption of a material, we could be connected back to those issues. It’s like a formula, not that that necessarily makes it any easier. 

 

 


Great Bear Money Rock, commission with Erin Siddall, for 2021 Momenta and the 2022 Toronto Biennale, photos by Toni Hafkenscheid. 

 

 

GW: You mentioned working with Erin Siddall. I also know you’ve done work with Jeneen Frei Njootli, as well as communities affected by extraction. Why is collaboration important for you? What does it contribute to your work and thinking? 

TI: I’m just open for it. With Sinuosity, it was a very natural collaboration. Jeneen and I make work that resembles each other’s, and a lot of people would confuse us for each other [laughs]. So that was another reason to collaborate. With Erin, she didn’t want to do this project without an Indigenous person who was working in mining. This is why she invited me to collaborate. And I wouldn’t have done a project like this one without her. Her experience with atomic histories and the knowledge of uranium she already had was crucial. 

GW: Earlier in your career, you also worked with Northwest Coast Formline Design and the ReMatriate Collective. How have these experiences shaped your evolution as an artist? 

TI: I went travelling right after high school and saw some similarities within Maori culture and art to the Northwest Coast art that I grew up around. So I took a couple of years of schooling, learning how to carve and do Formline design. But a lot of how Talhtans use formline design was influenced by Tlingit people, so I took a pivot to focus on unique Tahltan artwork. What I absorbed from that experience was the value of mentorship and teaching in an Indigenous way, as well as the appreciation for Indigenous design, which is incredibly advanced and sophisticated. Right now, I’m developing a curriculum and programming with a team of people for Tahltan schools. And before that, I started what I called the Potlatch School. I try to model mentorship and reciprocal relationships, part of which I learned at Native art school. I also use what I learned to design regalia. 

Right now, I’m also working on a project that tries to respond to a couple years of Potlatch research. The work still has to do with extraction, but I’m working in a way that respects Tahltan ceremony and tries to use it as a set of methods to make artwork.

 

 

Seeing Potlatch as fundamental to our society and how my ancestors valued relationships over capital, or as capital, this is the way that I’m trying to make art. Seeing and exposing relationships, making physical connections and using the principles of ceremony.

 

 

GW: Can you say more about how you understand Potlatch Methodology?

TI: It’s taking from a start that our society was run through Potlatch rather than capitalism. It’s somewhat of a false dichotomy, because there aren't two opposing ways. There’s definitely some moments of crossover. But seeing Potlatch as fundamental to our society and how my ancestors valued relationships over capital, or as capital, this is the way that I’m trying to make art. Seeing and exposing relationships, making physical connections and using the principles of ceremony. In a way, I’m seeking the physical affirmation of the spiritual or conceptual, and what I’m trying to say is very similar to how we would communicate through objects, regalia and performance in ceremony.

GW: Right, so that ties back to your interest in the physical and tangible in your work. You’ve also spoken about decolonial design. Is that related? Can you say more about what that means for you, and how it manifests in your work?

TI: Well, it’s kind of a side interest. It’s connected to my work around cultural revitalization, which I put into a larger category of decolonial design. Potlatch School I mentioned is contributing to a culturally appropriate classroom, starting in Tahltan territory and expanding from there. We hope to become a bit of a model, because we think we have an example for a generational and mentorship approach to teaching. We’re trying to make it so that we’re not the only ones who can teach the program and concepts, and support teachers there who are often of settler descent. I’m interested in bringing the concepts of Potlatch and Tahltan society into the classroom without being appropriative. 

I’ve also been thinking about the false dichotomy of an Indigenous way of looking at the world and a settler way of looking at the world since art school. They’re very much intertwined, and it’s also impossible to have a solely Indigenous way of looking at this point since being colonized. So the idea was to create these kinds of lenses to look at the world. And as I try to create this program around cultural revitalization and shifting the way our youth are brought up, I need strategies of decolonization. Designing tools that untangle the matrix of power or that challenge colonial systems is decolonial design. The thing that trips me up is that I don’t consider myself a designer, and I struggle with design [laughs]. But my partner is [a designer] and it’s something we can discuss and make work about together as a kind of shared interest.

 


Tailings Pool, 2021. Photo taken by Karen Asher

 


Tailings Pool, 2021. Photo taken by Karen Asher

 

 

GW: Coming back to your more conceptual art practice, at times, I’ve noticed you have a real sense of playfulness in your work. Tailings Pool, for example, explores the hidden effects of mining and makes us confront our consumptive desire for resources, but uses humour to do it. 

TI: I’m glad you think it’s funny.

GW: I mean, it’s not always funny!

TI: No, I really do want it to be funny. Like, it’s another point of entry. With Tailings Pool, one of my original visions was to have a cocktail party with the pool boy performance I mentioned. Once again, it’s trying to be relatable, but also make fun of the situation, like the decadent, opulent way that we consume natural resources – the “Party like there is no tomorrow!” mentality of living in the moment without preparation or leaving anything for future generations.

GW: To me, this kind of relates back to your interest in allowing a multiplicity of meanings around a given object or piece. You often use materials, like copper or even flagging tape (which is used to mark traditional trails as well as sites of future extraction), that have an important place in Tahltan histories and ongoing practices, but are also tied to contemporary industry. How does your work attempt to shift meanings, or explore this ambivalence? 

TI: Most of the time I try to choose a material that will speak for me. But there is some danger in using ancient/traditional materials or concepts. I’m struggling with that with this upcoming show because it can become more about Indigenous identity than about a different way of living or consuming. It really is a slippery slope to bring in those ancient concepts or materials.

GW: Do you find that there can be limitations put on your work because of that? Like people associate you more with your identity than say a critique of these industries for example?

TI: Totally. As soon as I entered Emily Carr, I couldn’t escape it. And then I felt like I moved past it, but when I did my degree in Ontario, it resurfaced all of a sudden and I became tokenized again. I wrote an entire chapter of my thesis on identity, and then at my defense, Wanda Nanibush, who’s the Indigenous curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was just like, drop that. It distracts from the work. She’s also Indigenous, so I think that made a difference.

Like, I definitely don’t want to reject identity politics altogether. But a lot of viewers want to project this other intention onto the work being about my Tahltan identity, but rather it is the platform that gives me the agency to speak; it’s not what my work is about. On the other hand, my identity has brought some interesting angles to be able to speak about mining, for example, my ancestors mined obsidian since time immemorial. But yea, it’s just something that I have to dance with.

 

 

What is the guidebook to consuming differently and more intentionally, to survive not only this environmental but also social crisis? How do you have this relationship to the land?

 

 

GW: I also want to touch on the politics of art-making around environmental destruction and extraction. You often perform interventions at industrial sites, not as direct political action perhaps, but to draw attention to what happens in these spaces. Your work is also based in Indigenous resistance. How would you describe the role of politics in your work? 

TI: It’s tricky. Tahltans are very political. Our government is very muddy. We’re funded by industry but we talk about being an independent body. But if a mining company funds a government and then that government funds that industry, it’s corrupt. I could respond to that, but I am so over it. A bunch of us Tahltans who are working with youth created a non-governmental organization and, in many ways, we are political, but I don’t want to sacrifice my integrity by being involved in the politics of the north. Folks in the industry will ask what side I’m on, and I think I occupy this provocative little in-between space, not necessarily being for or against industry, but speaking about the reality of our consumption. The fact that we are all feeding the industry, we all support the corruption in government and extraction because we all prop up these industries through our consumption. Do I support how things are run or extracted? Absolutely not. It’s just really hard for me to condemn something wholly without speaking about our part in it.

GW: Your work has been described as both “apocalyptic and optimistic.” How does your art engage or try to bring about a liveable future? How do you see this future?

TI: I really explored this topic in my future generations show. It was kind of my introduction to Indigenous Futurism. I wanted to play with these tropes of apocalyptic fantasies, which I find super interesting. Like, what would it be like if our consumption ended our world? I love dystopian futures, and thinking that I would be able to survive the apocalypse with all of these land-based survival skills. But then I also just have this kind of looming fear, which I think is super common, about the actual end of the world because of climate change. For that show, I looked at what is Indigenous Futurism, from a Tahltan perspective? What do we see as the future? That’s also what I’m tackling in my current work on Potlatch Methodology. Like, what is the guidebook to consuming differently and more intentionally, to survive not only this environmental but also social crisis? How do you have this relationship to the land? I think for me, there’s hope in changing our mindset and raising a new generation that’s a bit more awareness of their impact on the world. 


The above conversation was conducted by Gabrielle Willms who lives and works in Winnipeg, MB. Editorial support by Luther Konadu

A special thank you to Tsēmā Igharas for her time and generosity in this conversation.