- Not Your Typical Prairie Carnival: Disputing Claybank Brick Plant National Historic Site
With a dearth of publications related to original site-specific performance in Canada, Sighting/Citing/Siting: Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan (2009) is a welcome contribution to the field. Edited by Kathleen Irwin and Rory MacDonald, this publication is an extensive overview of the daylong site-specific interdisciplinary art event that took place 2 September 2006 at the Claybank Brick Plant National Historic Site in Southwestern Saskatchewan. Acutely aware of the contentious nature of the site, Knowhere Productions and Sâkêwêwak First Nation's Artist Collective co-produced Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan with the express purpose of representing the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal marriage to the Dirt Hills, a site which has for thousands of years provided an abundance of clay for both communities—one for utilitarian purposes, the other for commercial enterprise (brick making and now tourism). Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan solicited fifty artists, an Aboriginal Elder, a geographer, a biologist, an ecologist, and an historian to create over thirty different site-specific projects that considered both the concrete and envisaged communities that have historically laid claim to the site. By grounding the project in the land and its actual and imagined material evidence, Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan created a discursive, counter-hegemonic, heteroglossic, and heterogeneous space—what Mikhail Bakhtin would describe as the carnivalesque or Michel Foucault, heterotopia—wherein multiple histories were considered, contested, and celebrated. Through the intervention of site-specific performative gestures, the ideological staging of Claybank Brick Plant National Historic Site by the Heritage Industry was revealed to be pregnant with contradiction as is evidenced by Sighting/Citing/Siting: Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan.
Dividing the work into three primary sections—Theorizing Practice, a collection of fourteen short essays; a catalogue, Practicing Theory; and an archival DVD—the editors of Sighting/Citing/Siting have not only brought together the aesthetic content of the event, but the multiplicity of voices that were, at once, the very core of the project. In this regard, the publication itself is a Foucauldian heterotopic space. The book (as site) is home to both celebratory and critical interpretations (sightings/citings) of the event. The emphasis upon heterogeneity and the broad range of theoretical approaches and cross-cultural practices (Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal; academic, non-academic) that constituted Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan are carried forward into the essays that make up Theorizing Practice.
The strongest and most interesting essays in Theorizing Practice are those that directly struggle with 1) the socio-political, economic, and historical narratives of the curated historical site and 2) how performative gestures sought to expose the multiplicity of narratives buried within this place. The essay by Kim Morgan, "Activating Memory, Pre-serving Place," (95–98) employs a popular motif in site-specific discourse, that "places" are social constructions composed of layers of conflicting histories and interpretations. But Morgan's question—how do temporary public art projects like Crossfiring/Mama Wetotan differ from the codified simulacrum of the static museum—positions the conversation in exciting territory: how can the homogenous narrative of "authenticity" developed by the curatorial strategies of the Historic Society be troubled? This issue is taken up directly by Kathleen Irwin in "Double-crossing/Vying Representations" (43–54). Here, Irwin speculates that as a metonymic devise for "remembered [End Page 93] communities" (45)—the historical and contemporary First Nations people and twentieth-century laborers—the narrative of Claybank can be contested by returning both of these cultural groups to the site. Irwin argues that the representation of "authenticity" and the site's stable "meaning" can be subverted and past multiple meanings reconstituted through performance. Although Irwin's position is strong, I find Morgan's answer to the question far more compelling. Morgan suggests that by animating the site with ephemeral and embodied gestures, the contested strata of history are revealed. In many respects what Morgan has articulated is the theoretical underpinning of the carnivalesque—the body and the site, "unfinished and open" begin to shed demarcation and "clearly defined boundaries" (Bakhtin 26, 27). Witnesses become aware of their relationship...