Infrastructural Sovereignty: IsumaTV at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale

Malini Guha discusses how IsumaTV's exhibition at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale manifests notions of infrastructural media sovereignty.

Each column hosted on Mediapolis is written by a Contributing Editor member of our board, appears two to three times a year, and engages a topic, methodology, or medium in which the author is expert. In each “Screening Canada” column, Malini discusses an aspect of Canada’s mediated place-making, particularly in relation to recent issues of its global role and domestic negotiation of racial and ethnic difference. 

I’m born here, it’s perfect.1Noah Piugattuk, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk

“The Biennale is not a cinema.”2Laura Cumming, “Venice Biennale 2019 review- preaching to the converted,” The Guardian, May 12 2019. Accessed September 30 2019 This is the phrase used by Laura Cumming in her assessment of the failings of the Canadian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, though she assure readers that the exhibition’s center piece, the feature length film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, remains compelling.3It should be noted that Isuma refers to this film as a video installation but the work also circulates as a film, shown at film festivals and available on iTunes But ‘cinema’ is not the only term that can be drawn upon to describe the transformation of the pavilion at the hands of Isuma Arts Collective, currently helmed by the legendary filmmaking duo, director Zacharias Kunuk and producer/scriptwriter Norman Cohn.4The Collective was originally founded by Kunuk, Cohn, Paul Apak Angilirq and Pauloosie Quitalik This is the first Inuit-lead exhibition to represent Canada in the 120-year history of the Art Biennale. Isuma chose their own curatorial team made up entirely of women to present their work.5The team includes Asinnajaq (artist, filmmaker and curator), Catherine Crowston (executive director and chief curator of the Art Gallery of Alberta), Barbara Fischer (executive director and chief curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto), Candice Hopkins (senior curator of the Toronto Biennial of Art), and Josée Drouin-Brisebois (senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery

The Canadian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Upon entering the space, I was immediately struck by the presence of a series of large-scale monitors, fitted with ‘back to back’ screens, that are spread out across the entirety of the pavilion. Given that Isuma is a media arts collective, known primarily for their film and televisual work, their decision to populate the exhibition space with moving images is fitting. But what was perhaps unexpected were the large numbers of mesmerized viewers I observed seated in front of these monitors, despite having to view Isuma’s work while surrounded by Venetian light. Unlike most pavilions, which present moving image installations in darkened areas cordoned off by curtains, Isuma resists turning the space into a quasi cinema; if the ‘Biennale is not a cinema,’ as Cumming claims, we can argue that neither is the Canadian pavilion. If we consider the light as a distraction, the viewing experience, as Aruna D’Souza observes, falls on the side of the contemplative as the abundance of monitors turns the pavilion into a site of gathering.6Aruna D’Souza, “Venice Biennale 2019” 4Columns August 2 2019; Accessed September 14 2019 The experience is decidedly more televisual than it is cinematic. Watching a feature film in this setting serves as a gentle reminder of the ways in which video culture and streaming culture after it has shifted our experience of cinema today, which has long ceased to depend upon darkness.

Spectators inhabit a televisual space within the pavilion.

Cumming does not touch upon Isuma’s methods of presentation in her rather slight critique of the exhibition. Her concerns center entirely upon length, as the hour and a half running time of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is deemed out of place for a Biennale. Cumming advances this argument without actually accounting for the full range of moving image work on display. When I arrived at the pavilion in late July, in addition to six monitors which were screening One Day in the Life in English, French and Italian subtitles, a screen mounted in a corner near the back of the pavilion was screening the close to three hour documentary My Father’s Land (2012), next to a map with the same title. During preview week, a documentary series, Silakut Live From the Floe Edge, was broadcast live from Nunavut (Inuit Nation in the Arctic region of Canada or Turtle Island) to Venice, with broadcasts continuing periodically until late August. Certainly, it is close to impossible to consume so much moving image material during a single visit (or multiple visits) to the Canadian pavilion. If Isuma’s presentation style already complicates a reading of the exhibition as ‘cinematic,’ the dispersed nature of the exhibition suggests that Isuma’s aims extend far beyond providing an atypical experience of a moving image installation.

All of the moving image works featured in the exhibition lead a double life on the internet, where I encountered them more closely both before and after my visit to the pavilion.7An extension of this exhibition, titled ‘Qaggiq: Gathering Place,’ is currently showing at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, in partnership with the Toronto Biennial of Art. It is curated by two members of their Venice team, asinnajaq and Barbara Fischer. The Art Gallery of Alberta is also presenting Isuma’s exhibition concurrently with Venice and Toronto. While the exhibition is spread out across arts institutions, the digital version assumes the most relevance for this essay One Day in the Life is available on iTunes while Silakut and My Father’s Land can be watched on Isuma.TV. Isuma.TV was launched in 2008 and has the status of being the very first website to host Indigenous media art.8See: Isuma.TV not only houses the complete archive of Isuma productions, but also functions as a platform for a variety of Indigenous media in 84 languages. The online version of the Venice pavilion titled ‘The Isuma Book,’ which is available to view on Isuma’s website, is comprised of essays, photographs of the exhibition, scripts, podcasts and forthcoming articles by members of the curatorial team. The exhibition has a complete existence outside of the walls of the Canadian pavilion, which, as noted on Isuma’s website, caters to the interests of “media democracy.”9See:

One can ostensibly bypass Venice altogether while still being privy to a slice of preview week on Isuma’s website. A number of live broadcasts of Venice can be viewed on Isuma.TV, some of which contain footage of Kunuk addressing audiences from Nunavut. Venice meets Nunavut in this scenario, as one live broadcast films another. Rather than treating the pavilion as a makeshift cinema, Isuma positions it as a flexible space, one that can operate as a viewing site or function as a conduit to extend one’s viewing beyond the pavilion and into the digital realm. As Leah Sandals remarks, the live broadcasts featured in Isuma’s exhibition center Nunavut in place of Venice, reinforced by Kunuk’s decision to remain in Nunavut and not visit Venice for the opening.10Leah Sandals, “Zacharias Kunuk Speaks on Isuma’s Biennale Project,” Canadian Art, May 8 2019. Accessed September 30 2019 Additionally, Isuma’s principle of making all of their works digitally accessible also displaces the centrality of Venice. But even more significantly, this gesture decenters Canada, a move that is echoed by the content of the moving image works in the exhibition. Though Isuma is technically representing ‘Canada,’ the exhibit constitutes a powerful illustration of what David Garneau refers to as a “decolonial practice,” which offer direct challenges to “colonial habits” and worldviews.11David Garneau, “Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization,” Fuse 36-4 (Fall 2013) :17 These challenges are evinced in Isuma’s work through assertions of narrational and linguistic sovereignty, which are further complimented by gestures towards what I refer to as infrastructural sovereignty. These assertions address questions of translation and communication, both on and off-screen.

As noted by the curators of the exhibit and by critics, the complexities of translation constitutes the core of One Day in the Life.12For example, see: IAQ, “First Look: Isuma at the Venice Biennale,” Inuit Art Quarterly, May 8 2019. Accessed September 3 2019 Isuma also emphasizes this aspect of the work, as they cite the UN Year of Indigenous languages (2019) as the primary impetus for their exhibition, a time during which the Collective has chosen to revisit the history of the forced relocation of Inuit communities in the 1950s and 60s and its enduring consequences.13See: One Day in the Life commits most of its running time to a three-way conversation between Noah Piugattuk, Evaluarjuk, who translates Inuktitut into English for a third character, ‘Boss,’ a Canadian government official who is relentless in his efforts to convince Noah to leave his home in Kapuivik and relocate to the settlement in Igloolik. As noted by Candice Hopkins, a member of Isuma’s curatorial team, this extended conversation references the displacement of Inuit communities as part of Cold War maneuvering initiated by the Canadian state in an effort to assert greater claims of sovereignty over the Arctic region.14IAQ, “First Look: Isuma at the Venice Biennale,” Inuit Art Quarterly, May 8 2019. Accessed September 3 2019 In his review of the film, Russell J.A. Kilbourn characterizes this event as constituting an “Inuit High Noon.15Russell J.A. Kilbourn, “The Inuit Elegiac: One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk” (June 2019):1. Accessed October 1 2019 There is certainly something ‘show down-esque’ about this encounter as Noah continually resists Boss’ strategies of persuasion. But in keeping with Isuma’s penchant for slowness, this event is elongated by an attention to the laborious rhythms of translation, including its imperfections, awkwardness and mistranslations. As Kilbourn argues, while Noah wins this battle against Boss, an elegiac sensibility descends over the film when Noah and his family return home; as history has already shown us, Inuit communities had no choice but to comply with government demands, which included forcing their children into Residential School.16Kilbourn, “Inuit High Noon,” 5

The film ‘One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk’ recreates the forced relocation of one Inuit family

The labor of translation in One Day in the Life is contrasted with the ease of simultaneous translation featured in the second film My Father’s Land. This film partly centers upon public hearings by the Nunavut Impact Review Board concerning what was then a proposal for The Mary River Project in Baffinland to build the world’s largest open pit iron mine on Inuit territory. In this film, nearly seamless modes of translation do not make communication any less fraught. The hearings make clear that major agencies in Nunavut have not been properly consulted during the development of this project nor has much attention been paid to the existing marine ecologies of these areas, which stand to be negatively affected by these developments. Silakut Live from the Floe Edge demonstrates ongoing problems resulting from The Mary River Project as Isuma investigates the impact of its second phase, which involves building a railroad and supertanker shipping along the mine route. A cursory view of the broadcasts reveal a more selective use of translation; some of the meetings with Elders remain untranslated while other interviews feature slower and more imprecise forms of simultaneous translation. The point is clear; translation is not a priority in a context where it is vital to disseminate Inuit perspectives on an issue affecting their land, for an Inuit audience. And perhaps not all conversations should be translated for settler audiences. All three works in the pavilion delve into the politics of translation and the corresponding difficulties of communication. In each case, the question of sovereignty and more precisely, the question of who wields control over the land, reside at their core.

In My Father’s Land, George Quvak Qulaut asks two questions during the public hearings concerning the impact of the Mary River Proposal; where is Canada now and what is a Canadian, questions posed by his father before him. He observes that when Elders talk about Canada, they are often referring to the land found on the other side of the channel – “as they say, you can see Canada from here.” The notion of Canada as elsewhere is a sentiment that is similarly espoused in One Day in the Life. During a tense moment of conversation between Noah and Boss, Noah reminds Boss that he is from Canada and Canada will bear responsibility for his care. Noah, on the other hand, is from Kapuivik, which is his home and his land. The declaration of Nunavut as a land that stands apart from Canada is a potent assertion of Inuit sovereignty, manifested in these examples in narrative as well as linguistic terms, as these proclamations are made in Inuktitut. As Ojibwe film programmer and director of The Indigenous Screen Office Jesse Wente has articulated in numerous interviews and publications, narrative sovereignty comes into being when Indigenous peoples are given access to resources necessary to the telling of their own stories.17For example, see: Jesse Wente, “Doing All Things Differently,” Film Quarterly 72.3 (Spring 2019): 42-43 In her review of the Biennale, D’Souza notes that national categories are losing their relevance in this present period of mass statelessness that is transpiring on a global scale.18D’Souza, “Venice Biennale 2019″ But Isuma performs an altogether different critique of nationhood, directed at Canada, which is indicted in its role as settler colonial nation.

Rather than viewing Isuma’s exhibition in cinematic terms, it is perhaps more productive to consider their infrastructural nature and more precisely, to consider the ways in which the digital life of this exhibition gives rise to the notion of an infrastructural sovereignty, thus constituting a second component of Isuma’s decolonial practice. Problems of an infrastructural nature plague Nunavut more broadly, as is the case across Indigenous territories in Canada. These issues are severe and they extend from water shortages to astronomical food prices to a concern that is perhaps most relevant to the Biennale, which is low bandwidth. During Kunuk’s testimony at the Nunavut Impact Review Board in My Father’s Land, he explains that low speed internet across the region makes communication very difficult. He notes that Nunavut, in comparison to the rest of the world, always seems to be lagging behind from a technological standpoint.

A large portion of Isuma’s practice is dedicated to mitigating the effects of poor communication infrastructures while also drawing attention to infrastructural concerns affecting the region through a number of their works. Isuma.TV launched the Digital Indigenous Democracy project (DID) in 2012, which uses social media, television and local radio to initiate Inuktitut- based dialogue about land-based concerns, beginning with the Mary River Project. Isuma essentially constructs its own digitally based communication and media infrastructures through DID and Isuma.TV, alongside its steady production of film, television and digital media. Both DID and Isuma.TV are platforms intended to facilitate various assertions of sovereignty. While the former has been heavily involved in enabling Inuit consultation regarding the Mary River Project, IsumaTV has facilitated the dissemination of Indigenous film and media content in Indigenous languages.

In Venice, Isuma constructs a number of digitally based infrastructural pathways into the exhibition that do not require a viewer to be physically present in the space. As noted previously, these practices, when viewed alongside the content of these works, center Nunvut in place of Venice and ultimately, Canada. These gestures of infrastructural sovereignty, as executed within the terrain of moving image production, are extensions of similar projects undertaken by Isuma as part of their practice. For scholar Brian Larkin, infrastructure isn’t simply a matter of pipes and cables but is also riven by a poetics, where desire and possibility are embodied in these material forms.19Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013) :329 As Deborah Cowen proclaims, infrastructure “…is assembled in the service of worlds to come” 20Deborah Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25 2017. Accessed October 1 2019. Isuma’s infrastructural pursuits are oriented towards the promise of a completely sovereign future, in line with a series of aims geared towards reasserting claims over the Arctic region. If, as Wente states, one possible future for the Canadian nation involves forging egalitarian relations with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, where “Indigenous people don’t have to worry about drinking water or suicide rates,” he believes that this future hinges upon cultural change. In his words, “How does the political become a thing? Through storytelling.”21Kate Taylor, “Jesse Wente on Indigenous stories through a different lens,”The Globe and Mail, November 4 2018. Accessed September 5 2019 Isuma Arts Collective has assumed a pioneering role in the articulation of such aims, where their films, televisual and multi-media works address infrastructural matters of great urgency and often through infrastructural means. Narrative and linguistic sovereignty meet infrastructural sovereignty in the work of Isuma.

‘One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk’ by Isuma Arts Collective

In my earlier Mediapolis essay on a different Indigenous-lead exhibition, I acknowledged my own identity as a settler of color who needed to understand how her worldview has been partly shaped by the assimilation of settler-colonial norms.22See: This involves learning about the innumerable ways that the Canadian state has wrested sovereignty away from Indigenous nations and communities while simultaneously considering how similar phenomenon have been imposed upon Indigenous peoples across the globe. Engaging with Isuma’s exhibition has taught me much that I did not know. As writer and curator Amy Fung makes clear her book Before I Was A Critic I Was A Human Being, settlers of this nation must leave the ‘innocence paradigm’ behind so that the real work of decolonization can begin. In a powerful section of her book, Fung rehearses all of the lines that settlers such as myself tell ourselves and each other: we didn’t know about the horrors of Residential School, or about intergenerational trauma faced by Indigenous communities, or in the case of Isuma’s exhibition, about the forced relocated of Inuit communities. She ends this section by writing “We All Know We Knew.”23Amy Fung, Before I Was A Critic I Was A Human Being (Toronto: Book *hug Press 2019), pg. 113

Acknowledging complicity is one step toward understanding what it means to be a settler on land that is still under colonial rule; as a Canadian citizen, who partakes of the benefits such a position affords, one is always already complicit. Further, in place of proclaiming innocence, perhaps we should shift our attention to the question of care. This thought has remained with me long after reading Tanya Talaga’s collection of her 2018 Massey Lectures titled All Our Relations. In a section of the book, she describes an all too common scenario, where an Indigenous man named Brian Sinclair died of a treatable bladder infection after waiting for 34 hours in a Winnipeg emergency room. He was presumed drunk. Talaga quotes Dr. Mike Kirlew, who has borne witness to the failings of health care administration in Northern Ontario, who says “maybe the question Canadians need to ask themselves is deeper…Why don’t we care? Maybe that is the issue. Not just ‘What can we do.’”24Tanya Talaga, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward (Canada: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2018), pg. 168 The question of care cuts deep, often involving matters of life and of death that directly results from a host of infrastructural crises faced by Indigenous peoples in this country, as a matter of everyday life under settler colonial rule. However, care is also a matter of culture and of pedagogy, as Wente usefully reminds us. Isuma’s exhibition in Venice redresses this profound lack of care through the production of Indigenous media infrastructures that facilitate the transmission of knowledge while also siring participation in affairs that directly affect Inuit people and their land. Assertions of narrative, linguistic and infrastructural sovereignty, as is the case with Isuma Arts Collective, makes events and histories available to a broader public, including a settler public, so that we continue to ‘know what we always knew.’ The question that I am pursuing at present is what does a pedagogy of care look like, one where educators such as myself abandon the practice of ‘speaking for’ in order to learn how to listen, to speak with and remain silent when it’s not your voice that needs to be heard? What kinds of media infrastructures might facilitate this pedagogy of care?


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