– Spring/Summer 2018

Picking Up a Long Line

cheyanne turions

Rebecca Belmore, Vigil, 2002, performance documentation. ‘Talking Stick Aboriginal Art Festival’, Firehall Theatre, Vancouver, 2002. Courtesy the artist

On 23 June 2002, Rebecca Belmore arrived at the corner of Gore Avenue and East Cordova Street in downtown Vancouver, to tend to something that wasn’t there. Concerned communities had raised alarm for many years over the fact that women were being disappeared from these streets. Disproportionately Indigenous, many of them sex workers that may or may not have used drugs or struggled with their mental wellbeing, it was assumed that these women – over sixty of them – had been murdered.1 Belmore arrived at the intersection with their names scrawled in thick black marker all over her arms. Over the course of her performance, titled Vigil (2002), Belmore worked against the ignorance, neglect and indifference that had allowed local legal systems to turn a blind eye to the plague of the disappearing women. Belmore got down on her hands and knees to scrub the streets with soapy water, being in an act of care to the women’s last known location. Belmore cried out each name recorded on her flesh, conjuring the missing with her breath; she tore roses from between her clenched teeth, stripping them of their green leaves, sharp thorns and red petals, a symbol of love reconfigured as a trace of destruction. She lit candles, carrying forward

  1. I say ‘assumed’ because it took a very, very long time for local police to acknowledge that a serial killer, Robert Pickton, was at work in the area, despite years of grassroots activism to draw attention to the plight of the disappeared women. In 2002, at the time of this performance, Pickton had just recently been arrested. Pickton was eventually convicted on six counts of murder (although he confessed to 49), his killing spree extending over three decades. A formal commission of inquiry was established after his sentencing to address why the pattern took so long to be acknowledged and addressed by law enforcement. These murders are part of a larger history of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, and should be understood as part of an even larger phenomenon of femicide around the globe.

  2. Marcia Crosby, ‘Humble Materials and Powerful Signs: Remembering the Suffering of Others’, in Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion (ed. Daina Augaitis and Kathleen Ritter), Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2008, p.78. Crosby is talking about Freeze (2006), a work produced by Belmore in collab- oration with Osvaldo Yero, which addresses the death of seventeen-year-old Neil Stonechild, whom Canadian police officers left to freeze to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1990.

  3. The exhibition, ‘Rising to the Occasion’ was on view 7 June–5 October 2008. See D. Augaitis and K. Ritter, ‘Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion’, in ibid., p.9.

  4. Eight years after the performance, the edited video began circulating as an artwork in its own right, Vigil 5.4 (2010). Most recently, the work was shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the exhibition ‘Pictures from Here’, 19 May–4 September 2017. Author and art critic Michael Turner commented on that presentation: ‘I know there is nothing wrong with an artist making work from the work of other artists, but there is something troubling about what Paul has made of Rebecca’s performance documentation. While I have no doubt that Paul is supportive of Rebecca and her intentions, the means by which he expresses his support does not critique/transcend the gaze that contributes to the conditions that allow women to “go” missing or “get murdered”.’ M. Turner, ‘Pictures from Her(e)’, Websit [blog], 25 May 2017, available at http://mtwebsit.blogspot.ca/2017/05/ picture-from-here.html (last accessed on 28 January 2018).

  5. See Lara Evans, ‘Rebecca Belmore: Vigil and The Named and the Unnamed’, Not Artomatic [blog], 8 May 2010, available at https://notartomatic.wordpress.com/2010/05/08/rebecca-belmore-vigil-and- the-named-and-the-unnamed/ (last accessed on 28 January 2018).

  6. This works resonates with the contemporary moment in another disturbing way. Belmore’s interrogation of the way truth can be turned mirrors the insidious deploy of ‘alternative’ facts to
    reorientate public opinion to accept provable falsehoods as somehow legitimate and actionable.

  7. Macdonald was one of the central architects of the residential school system, a state-sponsored and church-supported multi-generational project designed with the goal of assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-Christian ways of life. This involved the forced removal of children from their families in service of a settler-colonial imperative. Please see the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports for fulsome documentation of the consequences of the Canadian residential school system, available at http://nctr.ca/reports.php (last accessed on 28 January 2018).

  8. At this point, it has been noted by many that there’s a certain pallor to the women whose stories tend to lead to consequences for those who stand accused. The actress Gabrielle Union, long known for speaking out about sexual assault, recognises that: ‘the floodgates have opened for white women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.’ See Hayley Krischer, ‘We’re Going to Need More Gabrielle Union’, New York Times, 5 December 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/style/ gabrielle-union-memoir.html (last accessed 28 on January 2018). This, despite endless statistics that show people of colour are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. And it is almost too easy to point out how Tarana Burke’s name remains largely unspoken as these waves of #MeToo stories pour forth, despite her first articulating the rallying cry more than ten years ago.

  9. See David Garneau, ‘Migration at Territory’, VOZ À VOZ, n.d., available at http://www.vozavoz.ca/feature/david-garneau (last accessed 28 January 2018).

  10. K. Ritter, ‘The Reclining Figure and Other Provocations’, in Rebecca Belmore: Rising to the Occasion, op. cit., p.65.